Friday, 18 September 2015
Todmorden station is loved. It's a long time since I saw a station that was clearly so valued by its local community.
It wasn't just the artwork on the platform walls, or the noticeboard with the activities of the Friends. It was the pots of herbs, with signs encouraging passengers to help themselves. It was the waiting room turned into a library. It was the throng of young mums hiding from the rain and laughing together. There was a joyous, happy atmosphere around the station, despite the morning drizzle.
Although I have to confess a little bit of vandalism amused me far too much: someone had removed the "c" from the sign saying "alight here for the Rochdale Canal".
Todmorden was, for a long time, a symbol of British Rail's shortsightedness. For years, a short stretch of traffic allowed trains to travel from Burnley to Manchester via Todmorden. In 1972, BR lifted this bit of track, forcing passengers to change and splitting one line in two. Now you had to change at Hebden Bridge to get into Manchester, getting on a train that would go back over the track you'd just used.
About five minutes after the track was lifted everyone realised it was a bad idea, but it wasn't until 2011 that funding was secured to reinstate the half a kilometre stretch. Even then, problems with the signalling and procuring rolling stock meant Northern couldn't run trains from Blackburn to Manchester until 2015. It's a sterling example of how just the tiniest change on the network can improve life for everyone: it doesn't have to be giant viaducts or lengthy tunnels or HS2. It could just be a little stretch of line suddenly making things better.
Outside the station was an almost vertical road down to the town centre. The previous week, while walking from Middlewood to Hazel Grove, I'd gone over on my ankle at the side of the road. (A BMW driver slowed when he saw me stumble; I thought he was about to offer assistance, but he was actually making sure I didn't fall into the path of his car, and sped off as soon as I righted myself). My left foot has had a vague ache to it ever since, a nice reminder that I'm fast approaching 40. It's normally fine, unless I'm going up stairs or - as in this case - trying to avoid slipping to my death down a ski slope of a road. I waddled down it, splay legged, wincing, and basically making a show of myself to the people going into the sorting office for their parcels.
I'd not known what to expect from Todmorden; the one fact I had in my head was that "Tod" is the German for "death", which is utterly irrelevant. I found a town as loved as its station.
There were pretty shops and coffee houses crammed along narrow pedestrian streets. A delicatessen with an ornate Victorian shopfront; an antique shop with a tin plate sign for the Daily Mirror: "Best all along the line".
I crossed the canal, and passed the saucily named Honey Hole Road, to follow the road out of town. In the distance the Pennines rose up, wet and green, luscious despite the grey skies.
I could have followed the main road all the way to Walsden, but instead I took a side road, one which rose up above the valley and gave me a great birds' eye view as I walked. Homes were strung out in patches, wherever they could find a spot flat enough.
Up and up it went, seemingly not keen to reach a summit, while my dodgy ankle throbbed. I began to look wistfully at the level A road through the valley floor.
Finally it crested, and from there I was heading downwards until I hit the little village of Walsden. It wasn't as polished as Todmorden. There was a Post Office - home and business for sale - a garage, a library housed in what looked like a Portakabin with opening hours designed to fox all but the most attentive. It was open Monday afternoons, 2 till 5, and Friday afternoons, 1 till 5, and closed the rest of the week. I wonder if there will soon be a report to Caldervale Council saying that no-one uses the library, and it should be closed?
Past a mill converted into a business centre, with a soft play area staffed by two blokes stood outside having a fag. The station was opposite Grandma Pollards' Famous Chippy, and I was surprised to see it was open for business. It was 10:30 on a Monday morning! Who needs a meat and potato pie and a portion of fried potato at that time of the day?
Walsden railway station was another one reopened by West Yorkshire Metro, this time in 1990. Say what you like about that particular PTE - they really are keen on getting people to use the railways, with good value day passes and stations reopening all over the place. Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge are opening later this year; ground broke on Low Moor station in August. Frankly it's all very inconsiderate - won't somebody think of my spreadsheets?
Pausing only to wipe dog muck off my boot on the bottom rung - clean up after your pets, people of Walsden - I crossed over the footbridge and took up a seat on the bench to await my train. There was a fine mist of rain, but I didn't mind; after the walk, it was refreshing.
Sowerby Bridge was a shadow of its former self. It was nicely put together, don't get me wrong; long platforms and informative signs on the walls telling you about local history.
The problem came when you looked a bit closer. There had clearly been a couple more tracks at Sowerby Bridge at one point, and they'd been inelegantly removed. A former island still had a canopy for a long gone platform; a car park wedged into the space left behind.
It left the nicely preserved station building out on its own, detached from the rest of the buildings. It was doubly sad as the building housed a tea room, the Jubilee Refreshment Rooms. Without the trains on its doorstep, it lost a little of its charm.
I resisted the idea of a scone and a cup of tea and instead pressed on, pausing only for a sign pic.
The railway sweeps over the town on a viaduct, and after a steep descent I was crossing the titular bridge. Weirs and mills with distant hills; could there be a more Yorkshire aspect?
The town centre was busy with shoppers, heading for the market cafe and B&M, though sadly the Rock & Goth Clothing shop was closed, so I couldn't replenish my black nail polish supplies and get that Fields of the Nephilim t-shirt I've been coveting. In fact, despite its country town veneer, Sowerby Bridge seemed to be something of a racy hotspot. There were more bars than you'd expect, while a tarpaulin promoted the "Street Angels", a bunch of volunteers who looked after revellers. Apparently they carry bottles of water, wet wipes and rubber gloves, leading to all kind of speculation about what the locals get up, and some frankly unpleasant mental images.
I pushed on up the hill towards Halifax, past a converted cinema turned into a bistro and another open chip shop. I like chips, don't get me wrong, but just the smell of grease at that time of the morning turned my stomach. I'd have settled for a nice sandwich.
Sweating, wheezing, shambling, I reached what I thought was the top of the hill, only to find it carried on even further. Flowers still stood outside the burnt out remains of the Wellington pub, where a man had been caught up in a fire a couple of months before. Beyond that the Halifax ring road intervened: heavy lanes of traffic ahead of me, and behind me, the pineapple-shaped peak of the Wainhouse Tower, a Victorian folly whose galleries give you views across the whole valley.
The footpath directed me off the dual carriageway and into an estate of modern houses built out of triangles of concrete and grey brick. Alleyways ran between homes and there was no sign of a car, just a series of communal gardens and blind exits. I crossed over the road by a Tesco and entered a far more historic area, though one that was still in need of some regeneration money.
A special shout out to that boy on the right who waved wildly when he saw me taking a photo.
Tree lined roads carried me into town. It was further than I'd expected; the inner ring road is more like a triangle than a circle, and I'd just crossed the tip. Someone at the council must have realised that people would start to doubt where they were going, and had helpfully stenciled on the pavement:
Halifax's wealth came from wool, and everywhere you walk you're reminded of its prestige and magnificence. The buildings are luxuriously built from yellow stone, not the urine-coloured type that blights so many housing estates across this part of the world, but rich and dark. They were decorated with gargoyles and parapets and intricate stone carvings.
I'd reached the town centre through its boozy quarter, the place where the local youths drank fishbowls for a fiver and vomited into gutters. At street level there were cabbies and kebab shops, but above was stout Victorian architecture. Crossing Broad Street, past a pub called the Bow Legged With Brass, a name I'm struggling to find a meaning for that isn't absolutely filthy, I entered the main commercial district. In George Street, I spotted a wonderfully dated grill; if I'd have had more time I'd have gone in for a piece of gammon with a pineapple ring on it.
A turn round the corner, and there were more rich 19th century buildings, but hovering at the end of the street was a behemoth: a Brutalist space ship crashed into the town that had somehow been assimilated into the landscape.
The disappearance of the Halifax Building Society is a sad story on many levels, but the downgrading of its headquarters in the town is one of the saddest. The giant diamond offices were opened in 1974 by the Queen, and was one of the most important financial buildings in the country. In 2015, we're talking about shipping businesses and government departments out of London, but back then, the Halifax was actually achieving it, giving a region a strong financial base. Their headquarters was a reflection of its dominance.
The Halifax became a bank first, then merged with the Bank of Scotland to form HBOS, then were swallowed up by Lloyds; now they're just a brand name, and the important decisions are all made in London. The building is totally out of place, in a fantastic way, and luckily is now Grade II listed. If it hadn't been I suspect it would have been sold off for demolition and the employees shipped to London or Edinburgh. As it is it gives a little extra to the town (do you see what I did there?).
I headed towards the station, passing the town market and the currently under reconstruction Piece Hall. Originally the Cloth Market, and dating from the 18th century, it'll reopen next year as a creative centre with craft shops, a performance space, and a visitor's centre. It was an encouraging reason to come back, better than the ordinary pedestrian zone of the Woolshops Centre. I crossed over by the Burger King and spotted the giant neon letters of Eureka!, the national children's museum. It was one of the first of the new breed of museums, ones that are almost embarrassed to have the "M" word in their title; instead they try to sneak a bit of education in without you noticing.
Fine, I thought. A bit patronising - I loved going to museums as a child, and I didn't need them to have an exclamation point in their title for me to enjoy them - but if it gets kids learning, all the better. Then I realised where it was sited, and I immediately turned against it.
Eureka has a new, purpose built part, but it's also housed in a 19th century building: the old railway station. I stood at the top of some steps and looked down at what used to be the gateway to the town, and what should have been my destination.
Instead I was heading to this building next door.
I've been to a lot of towns where some grand railway mania terminus has been replaced by a tin shed, but they usually have the good grace to demolish the original first. Halifax forces you to look enviously over to grandeur and beauty as you stagger in through the automated doors to a bland glass and steel box. It's the railway equivalent of losing the final round on Bullseye and then having the speedboat waved under your nose anyway.
There's still a fair amount of heritage features on the island platform, unnecessarily augmented by a load of blue glass, but the damage has been done. I was glad I hadn't arrived by train on this old-fashioned level and then been forced to leave through that low-budget exit.
I found a seat and ate my sandwich, staring across the valley into the Nestle factory across the way. I had two more stations to get that day, and things were about to get a lot gayer. Yes, even more than usual.