For reasons far to dull to go into here, I found myself in Manchester with a few hours to kill. The last time this happened to me I ended up wandering round a couple of building sites masquerading as railway stations. This time I decided to go somewhere where there were actually trains.
The Hadfield Line seemed like an easy win. It goes from Piccadilly out to Derbyshire, it's got a mix of stations, and a regular on the half hour service. I figured I could just keep going until I ran out of time then turn round and head back into the city.
My first stop was Ashburys, just where the line to Sheffield breaks off. There's no actual place called Ashburys; it was built by a rolling stock manufacturer whose factory was next door, so they got the honour of naming it too. They moved to Birmingham around the turn of the century, leaving a railway station name that means nothing.
However, in recent years, it's been given a new importance. The 2002 Commonwealth Games were held just down the road, and after they left, the land was given over to a massive regeneration project. Former quarries and factories have been levelled and now there are new roads, sports facilities and shops, plus loads of homes. Its most recent arrival has been Network Rail.
It looks impressive but really it's just a posh signal box. A really big signal box, admittedly; one day this will control all the railways in the North West. I like to imagine that inside it looks like Ops in Deep Space Nine - lots of blinking lights and touch screens and serious people staring intently at their consoles. Perhaps a couple of Bajorans too. I bet it doesn't; I bet it's just four floors of open plan offices that could be anywhere. Health and safety posters and people complaining about Sarah in Finance refusing their expenses claim and collections for Luke who's doing a triathlon that you don't really want to contribute to but you don't want to look tight.
I crossed over the rusting footbridge and headed down to street level. It seemed baffling to me that such a rickety station was allowed to continue. On match days the station must be heaving with Manchester City fans, but there weren't any crowd control methods; none of the elaborate ramps you can see at Aintree, for example. And the way from the street to the trains is via a single vertiginous concrete staircase.
Now that Network Rail are right next door I hope they look into improving things. At the very least, its passenger numbers are going to shoot up, as all those rail workers use their free travel passes to get to work. No, I'm not jealous that I don't have a free rail travel pass, NOT. ONE. BIT.
Pottery Lane became Alan Turing Way (I muttered a quiet benediction for the Enigma Martyr) and I got a good look at the new world springing up in this part of the city. There was a new Sixth Form College, ready to open in September, a new health centre, and a new leisure centre, complete with elaborate boastful hoardings to entice you inside. Behind them, almost unnoticed, groups of 1960s social housing carried on doing what they had done for fifty years, not even slightly upwardly mobile.
The buildings got even bigger as I hit the centre of SportCity, the legacy of the Commonwealth Games. Although now it has a new name: the Etihad Campus. Manchester City took over the stadium once the Games were over and, after a few years of calling it the "City of Manchester Stadium", they flogged the naming rights to a Middle Eastern airline. I find corporate renaming of sports venues tacky anyway, but taking something that is actually built for and named after your city and slapping an airline's logo on it is positively offensive. I guess when you have money you can do anything. I hope the City Council were given one hell of a pay off as compensation, given that they built the damn thing in the first place.
I crossed over the road to have a look at the stadium. Though I don't like sport, I do like sport venues. Big, confident stadia that bellow out pride for their team. The Etihad (urgh) was curved and organic, with a crown of trusses carrying delicate cables to hold up the roof. It was showing its age a little - the concrete on the access ramps was stained in places - but it was still impressive.
As I wandered around it a father was showing his son the stadium, pointing out bits of it and running through Man City's footballing glories. When I mentioned this to the BF later, he snorted. "I bet that didn't take long." Twenty four hours later they were comprehensively hammered by Arsenal in the Community Shield, so perhaps he had a point.
I walked back up Commonwealth Way. It's now been interrupted by a long white footbridge, which arcs over the road junction and into the plot opposite. At one point that was going to be the site of Britain's Super Casino, the first Las Vegas style gambling establishment that was bafflingly handed to Manchester over Blackpool or the O2. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister he promptly cancelled the entire scheme, leaving the site derelict for a few more years until Manchester City decided to build its Academy and training facilities there. The footbridge is presumably so that the cosseted players won't have to actually use a pelican crossing, the poor dears; I give it three months before they're demanding to be driven over the bridge because the walking hurts their feet.
I crossed over to the vast Asda superstore to buy a bottle of water and then exited near the tram stop. Metrolink came to the east of the city in 2013, and the sight of the yellow trams whizzing past the white steelwork and wide boulevard gave the crossing a futuristic air.
I had a "rail only" ticket, otherwise I'd have leapt on the first available tram to carry me along the Ashton New Road. Instead I walked, making only a slight detour to catch a photo of the National Cycling Centre across the canal. This is the venue we largely have to thank for the British dominance of the sport over the past decade, so I bowed my head in thanks for Sir Chris Hoy and, more particularly, this picture of Sir Chris Hoy.
The regeneration area stopped almost immediately after that. Presumably the council realised that people heading for the Commonwealth Games would get there from the city centre, so anything beyond the site was unimportant. A row of small shops ended in a restaurant, which promised "orgasmic Italian flavours"; I hope there was a mistranslation there. The tram reappeared for Clayton Hall stop, which was currently being used as a climbing frame by two lads. They leapt from the top of the ticket machine across to the back of the shelter, then climbed on its angled roof and spread themselves out to take in the afternoon sun.
A Conservative Club was a surprise; do they even have Tories in this part of the world? Then there were rows of brick houses, numbered in the hundreds, and mixed in with car washes and garages. Outside one home, a boy of about four was selling loom band bracelets from a trestle table with his mum. I found this terribly upsetting. I have a weak spot when it comes to children selling things; I want to gather them up and take them to the nearest theme park to have fun instead of getting involved in horrible commercial activities. He looked enthusiastic, and his mum had a look of benign indulgence on her face, but I still hurried past and tried not to think about it.
More cheery was Alan Bradley Funeral Services; for Coronation Street viewers that name immediately brings up memories of Rita Fairclough's abusive boyfriend who ended up getting run over by a Blackpool tram. Even more amusingly, the Metrolink line went right outside - I hope the proprietor looks both ways before crossing.
I'd just about entered Tameside when I turned right, onto Edge Lane. A man came out of a side road with four excitable boys in football shirts. He was striding purposely but the boys were dallying, talking to one another, finding fun in kicking an empty bottle about, staring into the windows of houses as they passed. They were very definitely not paying attention to the grown up. He barked instructions - "Kai! Will you tell your brother!" - but it wasn't having much effect.
I followed two ladies and their four yapping dogs through an industrial estate, where a factory hummed mechanical noises, and emerged by sports centre. There was yet more corporate intervention on offer here; it wasn't just a leisure centre, it was Barclays Sporting Edge Community Sports Centre. I shook my fist impotently at the sporting equivalent of a hooker on all fours in an Amsterdam window.
The doorway to the pub across the way was filled with fag smoking middle aged men, unwilling to actually go outside and miss some of the chat. I carried on into Gorton. A park with an empty playground provided a welcome breath of air. I tried not to peek into the gardens as I walked by - not least because the sun had brought out the residents - but I couldn't help but notice the house with MOORES BAR (sic) in the back; a shed painted blue for your outdoor alcohol needs.
Past Electo Road - which sounds like it was named after a particularly democratic superhero - I reached a triangular space with a war memorial. It might have once been a village green, but the trees and concrete seating didn't make it a great spot for a picnic.
I'd drunk my Asda water so I nipped into the corner shop across from the Little Chippy (which sold English Fish and Chips, as opposed to the unpleasant Japanese Fish and Chips) to replenish my supply. A teenage lad was stood behind the counter; he greeted the woman in front of me by name, and tapped at the till with barely a glance. Above him, some portly Asian gentlemen were doing some furious overacting on a small flatscreen tv. I thought about enquiring about the shop's sole sandwich, as advertised in the window: what flavour was it? What size? How much? Was that photo the actual sandwich in question, or just an artist's impression?
I doubled back to Gorton station, just as a train came in and unleashed a horde of shoppers with carrier bags. The station actually has a ticket office, which is a rarity in Greater Manchester and a handy way to gauge the social make up of the surrounding area. Generally speaking, the poorer and rougher the area, the more likely it is that there will be a ticket office at the entrance. It seems that the well off residents of the city can be trusted to buy a ticket on the train, but the lower orders need to be apprehended before they board.
Please note the narrow passageway that funnels you past the ticket window, meaning you have no excuse.
I settled down to wait for my train. I was glad of the rest. The afternoon was deceptively warm, and I was sweaty and weary. It was good to have a seat and sip my Volvic.
I was barely on the train before it was time to get off again, at Fairfield. As I paused to take my usual picture, a train came in at the opposite platform. I can therefore present to you a glorious picture of two sterling examples of Northern's rolling stock in one shot.
HOT. TRACTION. ACTION.
Unsurprisingly snapping pics of trains on the platform was a solitary role, and I was the only person left. Almost the only person: two women were trying to carry a baby buggy up the steps to the street. Well, one was fine with it, the redoubtable looking grandmother of about fifty. Her twenty something daughter was a different story. She was wailing about how heavy it was, about how hard it was, about how difficult it was walking backwards up the stairs. Goodness knows what she was like when she actually gave birth. I'm guessing the nurses wanted to belt her after the first labour pang caused her to have a screaming hissy fit.
Being a gentleman, I obviously offered to help. "Thanks," said gran. "Take over from t'young un." A tiny moment of doubt dinged in the back of my head - what if it was too heavy for me, too? That would be embarrassing - but it wasn't, and we deposited the still sleeping baby at the top of the stairs. Both women were grateful to me, but as soon as they walked away granny started lecturing mum for making such a fuss.
That's a slight aura of smugness you can detect around me for performing a good deed.
The road of semis that backed onto the railway line crested a slight hill, and I was able to get a view into the Peak District. Again I marvelled at how lucky cities in the North are to have magnificent nature just a mile or two from their borders, accessible to anyone with a rail or bus ticket.
The railway line and the M60 both pass through a low valley, and the road I was following passed over them both. In a narrow gap between them builders were constructing a new development of homes and apartments named "Kings Grange". Such a fanciful name for a bunch of rabbit hutches that would be entertained with the sound of passing cars 24 hours a day and the rattle of a Pacer every half an hour. There was a sort of decent view, if you ignored the HGV's, but you'd be looking at it through closed, triple glazed windows.
I'd looked at the map before I set out, and I'd looked forward to a scenic walk after the M60. The road skirted the north of the Audenshaw Reservoirs, three vast lakes constructed by the Manchester Corporation in the 19th century, and I'd hoped for a waterside stroll. Unfortunately, when I got close, I was greeted by this:
It turns out the whole facility is fenced off and barred from access: no strolling, no swimming, no fishing. While I can understand banning swimming - reservoirs are notorious death holes - I can't see the harm in allowing the locals to parade around the edge. Other reservoirs make quite a tidy living as marinas, sailing clubs and nature reserves.
Dejected, with only a tiny glimpse of water to fulfil me, I carried on along the road. There was a prettily tiled bus stop, but it wasn't enough. I paused at a marker stone in the wall:
For a moment I indulged myself in the romance of imagining the submerged village; the church steeple scraping the surface from beneath, the houses now filled with weeds, fish swimming through broken glass. It was a tantalising image. The Red Hall Chapel was replaced by Trinity Church in 2008, a tedious brick building that contributed nothing to the road.
As I walked along the road I became aware that there were, in fact, people by the reservoir, on the other side of the fence. A dog walker, a BMX biker, a man with a flat cap. Then the couple up ahead of me, strolling hand in hand with a Sainsbury's bag full of picnic, vanished from sight. They'd ducked into a narrow breach in the wall, and were following the fence looking for what must be a locally known hole. It pleased me that people had still found a way to enjoy the reservoirs.
Through Audenshaw, then the theatre/industrial unit welcomed me to Guide Bridge (next production: Abigail's Party). It was a tight little community, exactly the kind of place you'd imagine would have a thriving Am Dram scene. It wasn't all Margo Leadbetter and smoked salmon sandwiches though; by the motorway was a dark heavy industrial building, the kind that would make a guest appearance in Channel 4's hilarious sitcom The Mill.
I was delighted to turn the corner and find a great, old fashioned brick station building. Guide Bridge station was actually on a bridge, which pleased me no end.
As I got closer, I realised there was something wrong. The windows were boarded up and the door was shuttered. It looked a lot more than just a closed ticket room here. It turns out that Guide Bridge was destroyed by fire in 2006; arson was blamed, but no one was ever caught. The waiting room, ticket office and footbridge were obliterated and so the building was abandoned. Since then a new ticket office has been built on the Manchester platform, next to the car park; it's perfectly fine, but it's not a beautiful tiled relic of Victorian architecture.
I headed down to the eastbound platform. Guide Bridge is also home to a depot, and the new way to the trains is along the road that accesses it. It doesn't feel right; it feels like you're trespassing. I was waiting for someone to turn me away.
The staircase to the old building is still there, locked and gated. I wonder what will happen to it all now? The new ticket hall has removed any need for it to be restored. It's in an inconvenient spot for a commercial property - maybe a cafe or a newsagent, but there's no parking and you're outside the centre of Guide Bridge. I'm guessing it will be allowed to slowly decay until someone sets fire to it again, and it's demolished.
It was a sad fate for the station. I was glad I'd taken the sign picture in front of the old building, while it was still there.