Sunday, 15 June 2014
Under the Surface
What did I do wrong?
Was I unnecessarily cruel about Poynton? Was I not suitably deferential? Is their Wetherspoons a place of pilgrimage?
I ask this because, by the time I got off the train at Bramhall, the Gods were simply livid. What had been spotty drops throughout the day had turned into a churning, driving torrent of water falling vertically from the sky. Entire sheets of rain splattered onto the passengers as they ran, giggling, towards the exit.
I've got a little scale for judging how bad the rain is, based entirely on moist teenagers. No, not like that. If the rain is light drizzle, school kids will bow their head and push on through it. If it's heavy rain, they'll run, as though they can dodge the drops. If it's monsoon weather, though, they'll go mad.
As I took the picture in front of Bramhall's frankly rubbish station sign, a gang of kids just out of school went by. They were hyperactive. The rain had driven them into a kind of frenzy. The boys leapt around, running into the road, jumping in the air, shouting. The girls screamed and giggled and laughed just that bit too loudly. They were all feeling CRAZY.
I was just feeling wet and bedraggled. I hadn't properly dried out from my last stint in the precipitation, and this one was much worse. I hunched forward, hoping that my useless hood wasn't acting as a giant collector behind my neck and making me lug around a small keg attached to my coat. Drainpipes spewed their contents all over the street. Cars put their foot down. Pedestrians under umbrellas tried not to look smug.
Thankfully, that hour I gained on my schedule back at Kidsgrove gave me an "out". Instead of having to push on through the rain I was able to duck into a Costa and warm myself with a large chai latte.
By the time I'd managed to guzzle the half a gallon of hot beverage the rain had let up slightly. Only a bit, but enough that I wouldn't have to swim to my next station, Cheadle Hulme.
The roads were still slick with water, the overworked drains struggling with the sheer quantity of rain thrown at them in such a short period of time, but at least it had emptied the streets. Bramhall seemed like a nice little suburb, a decent urban village with a bit of heart to it. I was walking along Ack Lane, which isn't a place name; it's what the aliens in Mars Attacks! shouted at each other before they killed a platoon of boy scouts.
The houses on Ack Lane were rich and splendid. This was luxurious Manchester, and each home exuded wealth and influence. These were the homes of doctors and financiers and headmasters and other pillars of the community.
Every other house had a little sandwich board outside. This driveway laid with care by PEREGRINE DRIVEWAYS. Conservatories by LUCAS ESTATES. Building work delivered by EVERHOLT CONSTRUCTION. They were extending, improving, getting bigger or wider or longer, which probably means they didn't have as much money as they liked to pretend they had. If they actually were well off, they'd just move to a bigger house, but here in Bramhall and Cheadle Hulme, you made the best of what you got. While still maintaining the Mercedes or the Discovery or the BMW (with a little convertible Mini for the wife).
They were good houses, though, proper, decent sized homes. They spanned the decades but none of them were garish, ugly modern redbrick boxes. They all exuded a certain level of class.
I took a slight wrong turn on my way into Cheadle Hulme. Instead of stumbling on its affluent heart, I ended up in a lesser retail area, near the high school. As I wandered past the Brookdale Club (coming soon: entertainment by "Sisters in Song", in aid of the Samaritans) and a fencing company, I was confused. Surely this wasn't the Cheadle Hulme of legend? A quick glance at Google Maps told me it wasn't the glamorous suburb I was expecting, so I ducked down a couple of back streets to get there.
I say "back streets"; we're still talking wide open avenues lined by gorgeous 1930s villas with shutters on the windows and aged ivy crawling up the walls. Cheadle Hulme is hemmed in by parks and golf courses, and it all reeks of privilege and class.
I took a surprisingly shitty back alley into the heart of the village. I've often found this about places with reputations; they're usually hiding some truly awful holes that people just gloss over. Humans can't make everything nice. They still need somewhere to put their bins and somewhere for the local teens to drink K Cider and the dogs to do their business, and even if they're Hampstead or Maida Vale or Formby, you can usually find a turd-filled underbelly without having to look too hard.
The Seventies had crashed into Cheadle Hulme with a couple of large glass and concrete office blocks, but the 21st century had come along and softened their edges. A restaurant had been inserted into the ground floor of the one above, and across the street a chichi gift emporium lurked at the foot of Metropolitan House. The road dipped down then, under a pair of rail bridges that brought in the lines from Crewe and Stoke, with the ticket office installed between them.
The station itself is pretty disappointing. Splayed over four tracks, it's disjointed. Each platform has its own access from the street; there's then a new footbridge connecting the lot of them. However, there are also little steps between platform 2 and 3, and different levels.
There are two Manchester lines but, unhelpfully, there's nothing to tell you where the next one will go from; I found myself waiting on the wrong platform until I realised the one across the way seemed to be far more popular than mine. I went up and over the footbridge ("for your safety, lifts are only available when there are staff working in the station") and back down to platform 1.
The train finally turned up and I squeezed myself on board with all the tired commuters heading back to Piccadilly. I was across the aisle from a young lad talking to his mate about his recent blacksmith course; it was strangely pleasing to hear a pimply youth with a thick Manchester accent discussing ironwork. He'd failed his three month course when his final exam piece was found to be "just 10 mill out". I thought, yes, but that's a whole centimetre; whack that on some poor horse's foot and it would have been limping its way round the Canal Turn.
I got out at Stockport. It's a major hub station, sitting on the West Coast Main Line and with a variety of local routes pouring into it to provide connections. I'd passed through many times but never actually got out for a wander round.
I headed into town first. It was gone five, and I was a bit peckish; I thought I might find a McDonalds or something and treat myself to a big lump of grease in a bun. There wasn't an immediately appealing vista outside the station; a lot of empty gravel car parks. The Council has this planned as the site for Stockport Exchange, a new office development. The architect's impressions on the poster showed lots of glass blocks, al fresco dining, and women in short skirts wandering around with cups of coffee, laughing. The only sign of the regeneration project at street level was an admittedly quite nice multi-storey car park on the edge of the railway lines.
That's not the car park, by the way; that's Stockport Town Hall. It's a nice car park, but it's not that nice.
The A6 slices through Stockport on its way to Manchester city centre. It's a busy, unlovely thoroughfare. Tall blank office blocks have been threaded along it, interspersed with low takeaway fronts and cheap phone stores. There was a McDonalds, but the entrance was blocked by a bunch of arguing teenagers; a milkshake had been hurled against the glass, leaving a long vanilla streak. I decided I wasn't that hungry after all.
I crossed the road by an abandoned rail sorting office and passed down the side of the Garrick Theatre, a grimy looking building. It looked like the kind of theatre that would prop itself up with farces and am dram, but it was advertising a piece by Jean-Paul Satre; not an easy sell. Above me was a mill chimney advertising Britain's only Hat Museum. I didn't realise that Stockport had once been a centre for hat manufacture; the industry lasted for couple of hundred years until cheaper works in - ahem - Luton began to undercut them. I dipped my metaphorical cap at the museum as I passed, one Hatter to another.
I wasn't buying Stockport. It was ugly, dirty, uninspired. I thought I'd do one more loop then go back to the station to wait for my train. It's lucky I did.
The Stockport Viaduct is one of the largest brick structures on the planet; when it was opened in 1840 it was the longest viaduct in the world. Its arches were necessary to take the lines across the wide Mersey valley and it still seems colossal. The double decker buses in the exchange at its feet seemed ridiculously tiny, Matchbox toys alongside a piece of grown up engineering. It even has a motorway threading through it these days, the M60 circular road just creeping underneath its feet.
I dropped down the steps into the bus exchange, then back into the pedestrianised area. This was also being renewed; a brass plaque commemorating the opening of the Mersey Square Improvements in 1935 now overlooked a pile of bricks and a fenced off digger. There was a grim looking shopping centre, with the letters on the Debenhams sign trailing black tears down the concrete. But off to one side...
The Plaza was finished in 1932, and has been beautifully restored as a cinema and theatre. It was a fantastic piece of Art Deco towering over a road junction, bolshy and defiant. I was entranced. It helped that the rapid swirling of threatening thunderclouds just made its neon all the more impressive.
A set of white stone steps lifted me up to a pleasing civic square, laid out alongside the parish church. It was almost completely deserted. I found myself frustrated with Stockport. It seemed to have poured all its efforts into making the A6 corridor the focal point for everyone's attention; that had been the busiest part of the town that I'd seen. Yet just behind it were some fantastic spaces that were being ignored.
I'd gone round in a circle by now, so I headed for the station through a dull leisure development, the Grand Central. A multiplex and a leisure centre stared at one another across a blank brick footpath. I thought back to the Stockport Exchange; I bet those girls in short skirts were wandering around in the drawings for here too. It reminded me of that bit in Gremlins 2 where the boss tells Billy his rendering of a proposed building looks cold - "put some trees in."
"Are they going to plant any trees?"
"No. But you're going to draw them."
What should have been a busy happy thoroughfare leading to the station was instead a cold empty corridor. It was not nice. The best thing about it was its logo, which I'm guessing they didn't get permission from TfL to use.
Soon I was back at the station. It'd been redeveloped, with a large glass entrance grafted on one side. It was bland and uninteresting; this is another Virgin-managed station. Perhaps it'll look better when it's surrounded by a set of matching glass boxes.
Inside there's a double height foyer and a wall of ticket desks and vending machines and car park machines, and it's all very boring. There's a staircase that sweeps up to the mysteriously titled Platform 0, but hardly any services use it so all that drama is for nothing. I walked down the subway to one of the island platforms. Northern Rail were doing a ticket check; someone was trying to old "oh, I have to buy a ticket, but I've only got a twenty pound note" trick. Bad luck for him - they'd been at it all day, and as such they had loads of change swilling around in their cash box.
Much like the town itself, Stockport station looked like it was quite an interesting place until about 1950, and since then it's just been repeatedly crapped on. Away from the Starbucks kiosks and the over warm, formica panelled waiting rooms there were bits of an attractive railway building. I couldn't bring myself to totally dislike a place that had GVR postboxes on the staircases for passengers to use.
I went in WH Smith's to buy a bottle of water, and came out with a bottle of orange juice. They were running that promotion where the water is free if you buy a Daily Telegraph, and I refuse to buy a Torygraph (it all adds to their sales figures, you know). I equally didn't want to have to explain to the girl behind the counter why I'd prefer to pay more for a bottle of Evian and not take the newspaper. I tried it once at Lime Street and the girl looked at me vacantly before scanning the paper and handing it to me anyway.
Collecting Stockport station meant I could cross off an entire outflung arm of the Northern Rail map. It had been a long day, but I'd managed to get through ten whole stations; an extremely satisfying feeling. I sat on the platform and sipped my juice, just as the heavens opened again.