Thursday 26 February 2015

Something In The Air

I'd managed to cross off quite a lot of South Manchester's extensive rail network.  The Stockport line, the Airport line, Rose Hill and Marple.  Yet somehow, and I'm not quite sure how, Levenshulme and Heaton Chapel sat in the middle, uncollected.  Isolated dots in a sea of red.

This was really quite irritating.  It's a bit of a faff to go all the way to Manchester just to collect two stations.  There weren't any others close by that I could combine them with.  What I needed was to have an actual reason to be in Manchester, and an hour or two to spare.

One train to Stockport from Lime Street and a slinky electric Northern later I was in Heaton Chapel.  The reward for my efforts was a great Victorian station.  Red brick and covered staircases.

Better still, it's loved.  The Friends of Heaton Chapel Station are clearly a dedicated, passionate crew, and they've made this little halt in the suburbs a bit of a treat.  There's a mural featuring the history of the station, a book exchange in the (still functioning) ticket office, historic posters lining the staircase from the platform.

Up top there's a tiny newsagent built into the side of the building, as all good railway stations should have.

There's also a brown plaque, just below the station sign, commemorating the time the Queen boarded the Royal Train here in 2013.  I hope they checked her ticket.  You know what pensioners are like, swanning around like they own the place.

I headed for the Stockport Road for the mile or so walk to Levenshulme.  I had to be in the city centre by eleven, so I absolutely had to be on a certain train to get there, and so my normal casual stroll was backdropped by the incessant beat of a tense drum.  The A6 was strung with shops and businesses, including a bakery called "Cake That".  I'm sure that was a lot more amusing when Take That actually paid their taxes.  On the other side were stout red brick homes, their gardens paved over for driveways, and a constant stream of double deckers poured past me.

Further up the houses gave way to a large factory.  Newer, steel and tin blocks had been welded onto the stout Victorian brick building.  It was McVities.

I kept an eye out for Oompa-Loompas, but there was no sign.  As I walked by though - it's a very large complex - I noticed something.  I could smell chocolate digestives.  The factory was pumping the smell of chocolate digestives into the atmosphere.  It was so strong, when I licked my lips, I could taste chocolate digestives.  How do the people of Heaton Chapel manage to get through the day?  I'm not a big biscuit eater, but right there and then I wanted a big mug of tea and packet of choccy digestives to tear through.

Sadly, as I crossed over the border into Levenshulme, the smell faded away to be replaced by the more usual scents of the city - petrol, Subway sandwich shops, an overriding sense of despair.  Terraces appeared on the road, still a cut above your two up two down - little gardens out front, bay windows - but showing a definite slide in wealth.

Levenshulme has a high mix of ethnic minorities, and the shops began to reflect it.  One row of takeaways offered a series of cuisines from across the globe - the Afro Mixed Grill, Biryani and Qabli Pilau, Peshwari Chapli Kabab.  There were electronic shops offering supercharged satellite set ups to enable you to watch the tv from back home.  And there was an old railway station.

That was the original Levenshulme station, renamed Levenshulme South in the early 1950s.  There used to be a loop line running around the south of Manchester, from Central station to Gorton, but its relatively indirect route into town meant it wasn't well used.  British Rail closed the station in 1958, pre-empting Beeching, and now it's mainly a cycle path, though parts of it have been given over to Metrolink trams.  The remarkably grand station building remains though, complete with its very cute onion dome.

I passed a man selling fish from the back of a van; he was wearing a white coat and it looked legit, but personally I'd walk right past him to the Tesco.  Yes, yes, I'm sure he was selling fish so fresh a firm whack could resuscitate the haddock, but I like to at least pretend to myself that there's some kind of hygiene inspection going on.

I'd reached Levenshulme station now, anyway, just in time for my train.  It's located on what's known as "The Street With No Name"; someone realised in the early 2000s that the road alongside the station building had never been adopted by the Council and had never actually been named.  Manchester City Council are now considering taking it over, but personally I hope it remains a bizarre little quirk.  A sign has been put up on the station building to commemorate this oddity; does that mean The Street With No Name now actually has a name, i.e. The Street With No Name?  It's one for the philosophers I feel.

The actual station sign, meanwhile, still had Network North West branding on it, despite that whole experiment ending twenty odd years ago.  Perhaps they're hoping if they leave it long enough it'll become historic, like LNWR signs on preserved railways?

Up a staircase to the stark platforms, where four lines threaded their way through the station.  The centre two were fast ones, so every few minutes a noisy Pendolino or Cross-Country service from Piccadilly would burn by, leaving us on the slow lines feeling inadequate.

There's been a token effort to gussy the station up; signs have been erected in the languages of the locals.  In some places this works:

In other places, it doesn't:

I'm not sure what language that is, but the grey writing on the white makes it look like someone's just scribbled on a random board.  The signs aren't the same size or format as the Northern ones so they end up looking like afterthoughts.

I stood on the platform and took a deep breath.  I had an appointment to go to, an appointment with the real Manchester.

Before you start going, "so you went on the Coronation Street tour?  So what?", look upstairs at the Rovers.  There are two windows.  Do you know what that means?  I wasn't on the common or garden, open to any old Tom Dick or Harry, tourist attraction.  That is the real Rovers, the one at ITV Studios in MediaCity, and I was getting a special poke around as a reward for writing bitchy things about Maddy the Tramp on the Coronation Street Blog.

I shan't bore you with the details, but here are 10 highlights of my trip to Weatherfield:

1)  Gail Potter-Tilsley-Platt-Hillman-McIntyre's porch:

2)  The Blessed Sally Webster's legendary conservatory:

3) A Bond/Corrie crossover:

4)  That creepy picture from inside the Barlow's:

5) The Imperial War Museum poking its head over the top of the tram viaduct:

6) The Rovers Return, where sadly they don't serve real booze:

7) Roy Cropper's railway themed place mats:

8) The slightly underwhelming back view of the warehouse:

9) Joe McIntyre's grave, abandoned at the side of the set - clearly Gail can't be bothered maintaining it now she's marrying Les Dennis:

10) and my little potato head just visible behind Kevin Webster.  I can report that he is very short but has a very nice arse for a man pushing 50.

Many thanks to Glenda and all at ITV for letting us poke about.  The only way they could have made it better would have been to pump in the smell of chocolate digestives.

Thursday 19 February 2015

Nice and Easy

Harrogate's nice, don't get me wrong.  It's very nice.  It's cuddly Auntie nice; it's Sunday afternoon nice.  It's just not very sexy.  It's a regular on the "best places to live in Britain" lists, but I have a feeling I'd be bored by the end of the week.

I walked up into the town centre, past the Turkish Baths.  It was a bit early for me to get a rub down from a burly Anatolian, and besides, it seemed to be rebranded as a "health spa" with a distinctly feminine vibe.  When it was built, it was probably full of grim faced industrialists doing power deals during massages.  They'd have continued sucking on their thick cigars even in the sauna.  Now it offered "alternative therapies", and I could imagine them spitting out big lumps of tobacco in disgust.

Alongside an impressive war memorial, I found one of Harrogate's icons: Betty's Cafe Tea Room.  Opened in 1919, the tea room has resolutely refused to move out of the Jazz Age.  The waitresses still wear black frocks and mop caps and the display in the window contained enough sugar to rot the teeth of a thousand children.  There was no concession to the current trend for talking about sugar as if it is worse than Hitler; if you went in and asked for a gluten-free sandwich you'd probably get turfed out on the street.

I didn't go in.  I was wearing jeans, for goodness' sake.  I may as well have waved the Red Flag.  Even a group of sprightly looking pensioners who'd met outside looked nervous about going in; they debated whether they should lunch somewhere else, and I like to think it's because even they didn't feel grand enough for it.

Beyond Betty's was a grand avenue with parkland sliding down the hill.  If you want to know just how posh Harrogate is, the local council had marked out a space in the parkland and hung up a banner headed "sport for all!".  Underneath was written, "Play Petanque here!".  Because of all sports, petanque is the most inclusive; how many young boys have scrabbled to get out of the ghetto via the big petanque leagues, with only a boule and a dream to sustain them?

There wasn't a single football pitch in that park.  Just saying.

I crossed back over the avenue and headed into the shopping streets via Victoria Avenue.  The offices here were for legal and professional services; financial advisers, solicitors.  Outside the magistrate's court, two youths bowed their heads and vaped furiously.

The pretty Art Deco frontage of Hoopers Department Store drew my eye, and carried me into the pedestrianised area.  I stopped at a little card shop to buy two Valentine's cards; I need two because I'm just that much of a stud.  Not really.  The BF and I met on the 12th February 1997, and so we use that as our "anniversary".  It's handy because it means there are loads of cards expressing nauseating emotions in the shops, so we don't have to bother coming up with our own; a second will do for Valentine's Day itself.  I'm always disappointed that the shop assistant doesn't comment on me buying two.  I want to boast that I have two lovers on the go at once, though I know they'll take one look at me and find it hard to believe I have one.

I was back on Station Parade, where it seemed Harrogate had decided to store all of its bad 1960s planning decisions, like the spare room you have full of papers and old CRT monitors and bits of wood that might come in handy for something, someday.  The buildings here were concrete slabs mixed in with car parks, though a Waitrose signalled that things were going to get better very quickly.  I crossed York Place alongside a middle-aged man and what was clearly his second wife and child and walked into The Stray, an expanse of open greenery surrounded by majestic villas.

The Stray is bisected by the railway line.  It runs in a cutting just below the surface of the park, fenced off for safety.  I walked in parallel to it, pausing only to look at the Tewit Well, the earliest of Harrogate's springs, now covered with a fake Grecian temple.

Beyond the park were more modern 20th century avenues.  They were wide and discreet, lined with semi-detached homes that housed the Yorkshire equivalent of Terry and June Medford.  I could imagine the soirees, the games evenings, the barbecues, the awkward silences when one husband has too much to drink and misinterprets the pretty single mum's harmless flirtation as an invitation.  It was a place where you'd still have to drive slowly in case a ten year old barreled out of a side street on his bike.

The main road was noisier and busier, and a little further down the social scale - there was a Fultons Foods - but a large M&S Simply Food indicated we weren't quite in Aldi-land.  I turned left, past a bickering couple (he'd arrived too late and made her hover by the side of the road for ages) and along Hookstone Road.  The local college had broken up for lunch, and a group of boys kicked a football among themselves as they walked down the street and into the recreation ground.

Hornbeam Park station sits either side of the road bridge, with separate entrances to each platform.  The northbound one was wet and in shadow from the trees, while the southbound got the car park and the ticket machine.  Easy to see where most of the travelers were headed.

The platform slowly filled up, and a train arrived to take us in the direction of Leeds.  The girl across the aisle from me went to buy a ticket from the guard, starting with "the machine was broken".  I wondered why she even bothered with the lie - she'd just walked right past it, and the other passengers who boarded at Hornbeam Park had tickets.  To his credit, the guard didn't say, "Oh, reeeeeallly?" as I would have done, and sold her the return to Leeds with a nod.

Pannal has a lovely station building.  It overlooks the tracks, prettily painted, impressively sized.  Of course, it's not actually used for railway purposes any more - it's a Co-op.

Part of me would like it if they'd demolished the whole thing and built a brand new supermarket on the site.  Leaving it there seems cruel somehow.

I scrambled up to the main road, the uninspiring Princess Royal Way - I'd have loved to have seen Anne's face when they told her they were naming a bypass after her - and trekked out of the village.  Errant tree branches slapped me in the face and thorns snagged at my coat.  HGVs crashed past leaving a swirl of diesel smoke in their wake.

In between vehicles there was a sudden silence, and I could take in the view.  Hills and fields poked over the horizon; birds swung above my head.  Patches of snow still shone on the higher ground.  All beneath a brilliant winter sun.

The railway rejoined me, and followed alongside for the rest of my walk.  There would be the occasional swoosh of a train burning through, somewhere off to the side where I couldn't see it.  I was having to walk on the verge now, the pavement disappearing somewhere around a kennel and cattery.  They advertised grooming and day boarding, and there was a constant, never ending soundtrack of barks and yaps.

Walking on the grass was fine for the most part, until I misjudged the firmness of a patch and sank up to my ankles in thick wet mud.  My boots were instantly covered with a film of drying mud to give it that "nature hike" look; the new laces I'd threaded in that morning were soaking wet.

I felt healthy and happy.  I breathed in the country air and smiled at the sight of snowdrops poking through the earth.  It was early February but nature was ready for spring already.

Weeton was a series of large, fairly ugly houses set off the main road.  There was an inelegance to them, built without class, and not nearly as charming as the tiny workers cottages.  The station was almost hidden behind the houses, though the old building had been converted into a couple of pleasant homes.  There was a man in the garden of one of them, mowing his lawn, which seemed far too early to me.  It wasn't spring yet.

I climbed the steps onto the platform and took a seat.  Weeton meant that I had finished off the sections of the York-Leeds line that were outside West Yorkshire.  These were some of the hardest to get; they weren't covered by any Day Rangers, so I'd had to buy individual tickets for them.  It was a fiddly, expensive business.

In truth, I was a little disappointed.  Four hours to cross England, and I'd collected all six stations in the same period of time.  It didn't feel enough.  I'd not been annoyed or outraged by anything, but I hadn't been filled with ecstasies either.  It had just been there.  It had all been so nice.

Saturday 14 February 2015

Wilkommen, Bienvenue and Welcome

I got off the train at Knaresborough and immediately felt a pang of regret.  It was nothing to do with the station, which was utterly charming.  The Victorian buildings had been preserved and maintained, the ironwork was freshly painted and clean.  Reproduction posters lined one of the walls.

The regret was mainly based on the fact that I wouldn't be able to spend very long here.  My Excel spreadsheet with all the times and travel methods - always a valuable and entertaining part of the trip planning - gave me an hour to get from here to the next station, Starbeck.  Which was a shame, because Knaresborough looked like a gem.

The only thing I'd known about the town before arrival was its involvement in the English Civil War, when the Roundheads captured it after the Battle of Marston Moor.  Beyond that - nothing.  Now I could see pretty stone buildings, Georgian town houses, a peek of river down old worn steps.  I took the sign picture while gnashing my teeth.

There was an underpass beneath the tracks, stained with rust from the ironwork, and I came out on the other side in the delightfully named Water Bag Bank.  Our forefathers may have been many things but they weren't necessarily poets.  Still, they knew how to build a pretty house.

I walked past the parish church then turned to head downhill, past a couple of pubs.  I paused on the bridge over the river Nidd and once again cursed my foolish planning.  I'll have to come back.

Over the other side was a true curiosity: Mother Shipton's Cave.  Known as England's "first tourist attraction", it's the home of the "Petrifying Well" - a waterfall whose high mineral content means that it can turn items "to stone".  There's an awful lot of inverted commas in that last sentence, which just about sums it up.  It's based on a load of superstition - Mother Shipton herself was a "prophetess" - though the science behind the petrification is perfectly valid: it's just stalactites and stalagmites, only quicker.  It sounded amusing, but I was surprised to see that there was a gate barring entry, and even if you wanted to go in you had to pay.

Instead I pushed on, up and over the hill, towards Harrogate.  Two disgustingly healthy women jogged past me, one of them wearing a vest with MARATHON 2015 written on it.  That's just showing off.  Woop-de-do, you can run 26 miles without dying.  I could do that if I wanted - I just choose not to.

I passed the Harrogate Golf Course ("Unlimited Golf for £88 a month") and descended into Starbeck,  It's a small suburb on the edge of Harrogate, and was currently under siege from a chain of parked cars.  There's a level crossing right through the centre of the main street, and it was letting a York train through.  The road is far too busy for this sort of interruption, but there's no way to get round it other than an expensive bridge, so you're left with a traffic jam every half an hour.

Starbeck just underlined my regrets about having to leave Knaresborough so quickly.  It wasn't that it was bad, it was just ordinary.  There were shops and pubs and bus stops like anywhere else in Britain.  It didn't have that special glow like Knaresborough had.  There was a KFC, for goodness' sake.

Some of the shops were quirkier than normal, I'll give you that.  Harrogate Angling Supplies advertised that it supplied "pet food, air guns (18+ only)" and a pint of maggots for £1.40.  Everything you could ever wish for.  I tried not to think about the maggots being stored right next door to Elite Butchers.  Actually I tried not to think about Elite Butchers at all, because of their crimes against the English language.  A sandwich board outside promoted their "Chicken Gordon Bleu", which I thought might be a gag until I spotted a sign in the window informing me that their "potato's" are sold in oven proof trays.  One spelling mistake, I can forgive; two is abominable.

More interesting was the factory for Farrah's of Harrogate, makers of toffee for over a hundred years.  You might not recognise the name, but you'll recognise the blue and white tins the toffee comes in - they're a standard product in artsy craftsy gift shops across the nation.  Doctor Who even used one of the tins to store some crystals in Planet of Evil.  I actually bought the BF some Farrah's toffee a couple of years ago for his birthday; he is a big toffee fan.  He had one or two and then the tin sat under the coffee table for six months before being thrown away.  Farrah's Harrogate Toffee is odd.  It was originally invented as something to take the taste away from drinking the town's mineral waters, but frankly, I'd prefer the sulphurous aftertaste.

Starbeck station is blessed with the weeniest station sign I have ever seen.  It's about a foot square.

The station itself is nothing special.  Just a couple of platforms and waiting shelters.  While I was there, two workmen arrived and began inspecting the Harrington Hump.  I'm not sure what they were looking at, but they fenced off one particular section and spent at least two minutes staring at it.

The train arrived, fortunately not squishing the squirrel who'd leapt onto the tracks a few seconds before (he nimbly leapt up onto the platform with only moments to spare; he was clearly the Bruce Willis of the squirrel world), and carried us off to Harrogate.

I was ready for Harrogate.  Knaresborough's charm had been a surprise to me, but I'd heard about Harrogate.  Its reputation preceded it.  I stepped off the train and all but shouted, "Come on Harrogate!  Charm the fuck out of me!"

Then I looked up.

I didn't expect that.  I thought Harrogate was going to be a sort of Northern Bath, but here was a big slab of Brutalism staring down at me.  It was compounded by the footbridge that had been installed over the tracks from a nearby shopping centre to the car park.  The doubling up made it look clumsy and inelegant.

I'd assumed that Harrogate would have a fine old Victorian station, but that was demolished in the Sixties after Beeching cut three of the four railway services that passed through the town.  It was replaced by a solid grey box which Northern had done its best to make look festive, but was a real disappointment.

It was stark and unfriendly, and three sets of doors made it cold.  A draught whipped through and caused the waiting passengers to huddle in their coats.

The normal place to go on arriving in Harrogate would be its scenic spa facilities.  The waters in the town were famous in the 17th century, and the wealthy people visiting in search of rejuvenation made the residents very rich very quickly.  I wasn't really interested in that - I wanted A Little Peace.

The Harrogate International Centre was the venue for the 1982 Eurovision Song Contest, and as a fan of the pan-continental kitsch fest, I had to go and see it.  Royaume Uni won the right to host the contest after Bucks Fizz's skirt ripping triumph in Dublin the year before and for some reason, Harrogate was chosen as the host city.  This is in the days when Eurovision was a relatively modest affair you could tuck away in a conference centre in a small Yorkshire town.  Last year, the Danes converted an entire abandoned shipyard into "Eurovision Island", so things have grown slightly.

Some kind soul (/madman) has put the entire 1982 Eurovision on YouTube, and bless him for it.  I watched it before I headed to the town and if you've got a couple of hours to spare, I'd highly recommend you watch it too.  It's delightfully ramshackle and naff, a real throwback to when Eurovision was kind of awful and therefore, kind of wonderful.  Nowadays the show is slick and professional, and the really dreadful songs get weeded out in the Semi-Finals where most of the continent will miss it.  I think I preferred the Bad Old Days.

If you haven't got time to watch the whole thing, do watch the start where the BBC pretty much admit that Harrogate is a bizarre choice to host it and say "Where is Harrogate?" in a dozen languages.  You can see the Harrogate International Centre in all its glory, filled with dinner jacketed dignitaries instead of the 8000 gays who attend the show these days.

In case you were wondering, no, we didn't win that year.  Our entry was Bardo, a perky twosome who pranced their way around the stage singing "One Step Further".  They were doing it in real life, you know.

The orchestra was, naturally, under the direction of Ronnie Hazlehurst.  Anyway, we came seventh, behind this weirdo from Israel (who came 2nd!):

but thankfully ahead of the Austrian entry, which is so bad it makes me want to clap and run round the room giggling:

I miss the postcards between songs.

In the meantime, Finland managed to get nil points with this rancid turd from hell:

They reckoned they were taking the mickey, but they were from Finland, so who could tell?  (Sorry: Eurovision always turns me into a mini-Farage),

Anyway, come the end, host Jan Leeming (wearing a sparkly headband, because EIGHTIES) announced that the winner was Nicole from (West) Germany.  It was the first time Germany had ever won the contest (and they've only won it once more since, with Lena's superb Satellite in 2010).  Ein Bißchen Frieden was a heartfelt plea for tolerance and peace; like a lot of German songs it sounds great in its native tongue and hopelessly trite in English.

I scoured the convention centre for a plaque commemorating this significant event in European culture.  Harrogate seemed to stick a plaque on everything else in town; why not this?  I couldn't find anything though, not a bronze square, not a blue circle, not a single statue of Nicole having a quick strum.  It was terribly disappointing.  Also disappointing were the more modern extensions to the HIC - dull glass boxes that couldn't compare with the swirly glory of that main rotunda building.

I wandered off, singing "Ein Bißchen Frieden" to myself as I went.  I always thought I was a Eurovision nut, but then I met some other fans at a North West meet up and realised that I really wasn't in the same league.  I buy the competition CD every year, and I can just about list the winners, if you give me a while; I've never even watched Melodifestivalen.  I'm certainly not in the same league as Jamie, who makes videos about the contest on his Sight & Song vlog.  I bow down to his superior knowledge.

Behind the HIC the town reverted to type.  There were fine homes and mansion blocks.  Harrogate is regularly voted one of the best places to live in Britain and I could certainly see why.  The sunlight sparkled off clean tree-lined streets and between attractive rooftops.  On a hill, the Majestic Hotel surveyed its people, imperious and proud, and definitely ignoring the Premier Inn that had been built at its feet.

The town was starting to work its magic.  I headed back into the centre, keen to see more.