For reasons far too dull to go into here, I found myself in Manchester with a couple of hours to kill. I decided to visit some stations, because what the hell else are you meant to do in Manchester? They haven't even opened the Airport tram line yet.
I headed to Brinnington, on the edge of Stockport. It's on a line that forms part of a triangle of railways in the east of Manchester, with the Guide Bridge line forming the top and the Hyde section forming the side. I'd already briefly touched this part with a visit to Bredbury, so this way I could visit the last four stations and cross off a big section of map.
Brinnington was built in the same style as Bredbury, with a warm-coloured ticket hall in brick and wood. Unlike Bredbury, however, there was no car park and station inn. Instead the roof was lined with sharp spikes to prevent climbing.
This was a far more down at heel area. The houses were in corporation brick, and there was a chippy and a general store in a squat building that looked reinforced with steel. Shutters covered half the windows. Soon the houses were replaced by open patches of concrete with tower blocks at their centre.
My eye was caught by a motorhome with one of those strips over the windscreen - the type that says "Tracy and Brian". This one said Free n Ezy. Leaving aside the criminal spelling, I wondered if the owner realised he was calling whoever was in the passenger seat "easy"? Unless that was part of the appeal. Perhaps the motor home was a kind of mobile whore house. On the opposite side of the road, beneath one of the towers, a man hovered in a way that looked suspicious despite his best efforts.
It used to be that you could tell who'd bought their Council house because they had a different coloured front door. Your first action on getting a mortgage was to chuck out the corporation sanctioned door and get something with a bit of glass and style. Now you can tell who owns their own home on an estate because they're the ones without solar panels. I like to imagine the tenants "accidentally" wafting their new lower heating bills under the noses of the homeowners, then going inside and running all the hot taps at once just because they could.
I descended down a side road into a mass of trees. There was a van there, with some council workers sat in the cabin eating their sandwiches. I assumed my best "I am just out for a perambulation, my good man" air, so they wouldn't think I was cruising the woods for illicit purposes; this was fatally undermined when a few moments later I had to turn round and walk past them again because I'd taken a wrong turn.
I was entering the Reddish Vale Country Park, a long strip of green either side of the River Tame. A nature reserve, fishing ponds and grazing space have been allowed to flourish around the water. Horses grazed in fields while birds whirled overhead; it was hard to believe that only a few moments before I'd been on a rough estate.
I love spaces like this. Unexpected swathes of green that slip unnoticed between houses and cars. They're often there for the most unromantic of reasons - to provide a buffer for a motorway, as reclaimed landfill, or they're the site of old mine workings - but they're always a joy. The cities burst with noise and panic around them and then you take a few steps and it all falls silent again.
It's also under threat. As a way of "regenerating" Brinnington, Stockport Council has suggested selling off some of the country park for new housing. Their logic escapes me. Firstly, how will more houses improve people's lives? Secondly, when has building on a country park ever been a good idea? I'd been thinking how lucky the residents of Brinnington were. Despite their slightly grim environs, they had all this greenery within walking distance. How would taking away the - no doubts magnificent - views from those tower blocks and replacing them with 200 identikit roofs improve the minds of the residents? How would it make them feel, other than even more isolated and unwanted?
I crossed over the river, past a sign from the Environment Agency warning of a chemical spill in the river making it hazardous for dogs to go in. The city wasn't as far away as I'd thought. I walked between low ponds with wooden jetties for fishermen, through a cluster of ducks being fed by excitable toddlers.
In the distance were the brick arches of the Hope Valley line, carrying the railway over the Tame. I made a slight detour out of my way so that I could have a look at the underside. It's a fantastic piece of railway architecture and completely uncelebrated; its position on a commuter line in Manchester means we take it for granted. It's easy to forget what an impressive piece of engineering it is.
It's certainly more impressive than the low bridge that carries the Stockport to Stalybridge line through Reddish. Robert and I visited this sad, unloved little branch a few years ago; it's baffling that a piece of perfectly adequate railway in one of the largest cities in Britain is so ignored.
I came out of the country park into the Stockport you'd expect. Red streets of terraces at right angles to one another. A cat eyed me from the grass outside a closed primary school. There was a row of pound shops, and a garage, and then I saw Reddish North station, half hidden by trees on a side road.
It's retained its original station building and, more impressively, it's still in use. Northern have refurbished it so there's a decent little ticket office and waiting area inside.
What lets it down is the sign. GMPTE have sprung for a sign at the roadside, but it's just a generic one, with the BR logo and their symbol on it. The actual station name is stuck on the side of the building; an afterthought.
Sidebar: that Northern Rail poster is a classic example of marketing speak doing nothing apart from pissing off the customers. If you can't read it, the poster says:
"I want better value."
"We are installing more ticket machines at busy stations across our network. We know your time is precious, so want to reduce your queueing time as much as possible."
Cue a hundred thousand commuters saying, "that's not actually what I meant by 'better value'." It's someone taking a poll result and desperately manhandling it to try and get a positive. I'm sure the people who said "I want better value" actually meant "I'd like my rather expensive train ticket to buy me more than standing space on a rickety pacer as it chugs between Liverpool and Manchester at four miles an hour."
Speaking of rickety pacers, one soon appeared on the platform to take me to Belle Vue. We were back to the two platforms and a bus shelter model of railway station here.
I didn't mind that so much, because I assumed Belle Vue was built for crowds. For a century this was the home of a large entertainment complex, intended to amuse and delight the city's middle classes. Belle Vue had a zoo, pleasure gardens, amusement arcades, lakes and ballrooms. There were firework displays, circuses, boxing matches and exhibitions; hotels and tea rooms catered for the crowds of visitors. It was a sort of inner-city Alton Towers.
I knew there wouldn't be much to see now. The park's admittances declined with each passing decade. Growing public discomfort over zoos meant that Chester, with its large open spaces, became the way forward, and Belle Vue couldn't compete. The amusement park rides were offered for sale, one by one, and when there weren't any takers, they were demolished. The Speedway stadium was sold to a car auction firm. Houses were built over the sports ground. All that remains of its pleasure ground past is a multiplex, built on the site of the main entrance, a snooker hall, and the greyhound racing track.
I knew the greyhound stadium wouldn't rival Wembley, but I was shocked to see it across the road from the station.
Concrete walls and rickety sheds; it wasn't exactly saying "a fun night out for all". Greyhound racing outside London always seems odd anyway. It's a sport that needs an audience of bulky Cockneys with sheepskin jackets and photochromic glasses. Mike Reid, yes; Liam Gallagher, no. It reflected how quickly the whole Belle Vue site fell from grace. By the time it finally closed in the early Eighties it was unmourned by most of the city, regarded as a dated blot that needed to be dealt with.
I turned left from the station, crossing the site of the former Midland Hotel (now demolished and replaced with advertising hoardings; one, incongruously, was advertising Heathrow expansion - a vital issue to this area, of course). There was a certain amount of irony in the name Belle Vue, an irony compounded by streets named after royal palaces - Sandringham, Windsor, Balmoral. This was a poor, underprivileged area. It was struggling.
It was little things. The litter on the street. The occasional boarded up, burnt out home. The shops selling brands you'd never heard of. The adults strolling down the road at 2 in the afternoon, jobless. Tiny signs that added up to an area that needed help.
I turned into a tight street of social housing. When they'd been built, cars hadn't been a consideration, and so the roadways were hopelessly narrow, with cul-de-sacs only big enough for a single vehicle to drive down at a time. Road humps and chicanes had been introduced to try and stop joy riders. It deterred two lads on a dirt bike, who swung into a side road at the last possible moment to try and avoid the barrier.
I passed the Estate Office - a lovely hangover from its Council days - and turned left by a row of shops; an off licence, a Chinese takeaway, and a chip shop called, somewhat bizarrely, "Fantasy". Who has fantasies about chips? No, wait, I know; Rule 34. Best not to ask.
I'd reached my final station, Ryder Brow.
The GMPTE signage lingers on out here. Transport for Greater Manchester's been in existence for three years but they can't be bothered updating the corporate look where no-one important can see it; in fact, there was a poster on the platform heralding TfGM's arrival. The plastic case had been smashed.
Also on the platform was this slightly patronising sign. Some trains skip the odd station along the line, and so there was a warning for drivers. I can't help thinking it could have been phrased better.
And that was that. Another bit of Greater Manchester tucked away. There's still loads to go, of course, because Manchester has more railway stations than it knows what to do with. The rest will have to wait for the next time I'm in the city with nothing to do.