Sunday, 13 September 2015
Out Of My Head
Before I started out on this journey, Manchester was something of a mystery to me. My perceptions of it were mainly shaped by television - Coronation Street and Queer as Folk - and the occasional visit to the city centre. Even then, it was a fragmented image - the city centre exists as separate spaces, not one whole, and I frequently lose my bearings there. The suburbs? I assumed they were all Weatherfield-style terraces.
What I have learned over the last few years of travelling is that Manchester is far, far more attractive than Corrie suggests. I've encountered hardly any streets of back to back terraces. They were mostly done away with in slum clearances and replaced by jagged modernist homes made out of concrete and grey brick. Instead I've found large suburbs of fine Victorian homes that would be sold for silly money in London.
Now admittedly Davenport is in the "leafy Cheshire" part of Greater Manchester, not far out from Stockport and valuing its SK postcode. It's Alderley Edge rather than Moss Side. It's still under TfGM, though, and its station was a neat little suburban halt, with a tiny ticket office on the road bridge.
Opposite was a row of shops: an optician, a barber, a Chinese takeaway that proclaimed in large letters Food Safety Award for Hygiene. It was the kind of notice that immediately made me uncomfortable, drawing attention to the fact that it's clean and hygienic as though that's something to boast about and not an absolute minimum.
Beyond was a tree lined main road, its original houses now mainly nursing homes, speckled with blocks of square flats. A 1960s Mormon church with a steel spire; a pub called the Jolly Sailor. The smaller houses had paved over their front yards so they could accommodate tiny city cars, including one genuine VW Beetle with FAB in its black-and-silver number plate.
A turn and I was on a quieter road, full of semi-detached homes and grass verges. A pensioner gave his lawn its last cut before winter; a mother slowly walked a tiny toddler in a floral cardigan and neon pink wellingtons. The homes were turn of the century villas, built for clerks commuting into the city, and I couldn't help but admire the care and detailing that was put into each one. Different coloured bricks around windows, terracotta tile work, wooden roofs over the front doors with intricate supports. Tiny details that just made it so much better and more desirable. Where there was a more modern infill, it looked even more out of place with plain faces and steel garage doors.
I was at Woodsmoor station before I knew it. It was tucked under the railway bridge, only opened in 1990 to provide access to the nearby hospital, and it came with the most basic of ticket offices. It was a Manchester cousin of the one at Kirkby.
The office is only open between 07:10 and 10:10, the kind of perfunctory service that makes me wonder if it's worth providing at all. Nature has taken over the ticket hall from behind. If it was built now, this would be proclaimed as an eco-friendly "green roof"; since it was built in the late 80s, we'll just call it Revenge of the Triffids.
I'd not realised how close Woodsmoor was to Davenport, so I was left with plenty of time to kill in the little shelter (after the obligatory sign picture, of course).
I opened the BBC iPlayer Radio app, a piece of genius which more than justifies the licence fee all on its own. Almost every radio programme the Beeb puts out, ready to be downloaded and kept for up to a month: it is absolutely wonderful. My phone is now stuffed with comedies for me to enjoy at any time, and I'd saved the last two episodes of In and Out of the Kitchen for this trip. Miles Jupp is utterly adorable as Damien Trench, and the episodes detailed his stag do and his wedding to the lumpish Anthony, played by Justin Edwards. I am hopelessly in love with Damien, and frankly, Anthony doesn't deserve him.
A little emotional at their eventual nuptials, I got on the train and went two stops to Middlewood station. It must be the most accurately named station on the map. I stepped onto a silent platform surrounded by whispering trees.
Middlewood is, quite literally, in the middle of a wood. There's no road access at all. The only way to reach it is through thickly forested paths.
The station owes its existence to the fact that it's the spot where two lines crossed. The Manchester-Buxton line was the lower station; up top, on the Macclesfield, Bollington and Marple Railway, was Middlewood Higher Station. That's long gone. The line closed in 1970, and when I climbed up the steps to the top level, I found a wide empty trackway and an inadequate station sign.
The trackway continued either side of me, its generous size meaning there was a separate lane for horses. I turned south, crossing back over the still-running railway line and plunging deep into the woods.
Almost immediately, a bug flew into my mouth. I retched and tried to get rid of it, but one of my many charming defects is my inability to spit. I've just never managed it. The ability to bring up a big ball of spittle or phlegm and project it across a distance - I can't do it. All I can do is sort of flob, pathetically, letting a big wad of gob fall out of my mouth. I did it now, drooling all over the grass, and eventually managing to cough up the by now drowned corpse of the insect. In the process I'd lost about four pints of water from my body, but at least it was gone. (I also can't whistle or catch and I have a tendency to trip over my own feet; it's a miracle I've lived as long as I have without being put in some kind of home).
I left the Middlewood Way and walked behind a stable to the main road. It was at least fifteen minutes to the street; I wondered why they even bothered keeping it open. It was clearly far more hassle and expense to close it. It wasn't like you could get a decent park and ride going.
The road double backed towards the railway line, taking me into the wood. I was shrouded in cool green. The leaves were starting to turn Autumnal at their tips, but for now, I had the last gasps of summer. The pavement gave out, and I walked in the gutter of the road, wedged up against the fence every time a car came round the corner. Below me a stream trickled and danced.
After being almost mown down by another truck, I was happy to see some steps rising up on the opposite bank. Ah good, I thought: a public footpath. Turned out it wasn't a public footpath though, but was instead a sort of compromise footpath: a deal brokered between the council and the landowners.
It was good to be away from the cars, anyway. The path went further up the hill, in amongst the trees; I had to brush thorns and ferns away to get through. It was as if they were trying to reclaim the route, now that the prime walking season was over. Little arrows ensured I stuck to the correct route, each one marked Permissive Footpath. A permissive footpath has very different connotations - it sounded like the kind of walk where you should be naked and smoking a joint. "It's a permissive footpath, man! Anything goes!"
I was finally deposited back on the road at a stone bridge. Crossing it brought me to an exposed section of cobbled road, and then, a little further on, one of the loveliest level crossings I've ever seen.
That elegant styling! The green and white colour scheme! It was adorable, and even more so when I crossed over for a closer look. Norbury Hollow (a lost Harry Potter location) is a manually operated level crossing, and inside the cabin I could see the guard. He was leaning back in his chair and reading a book, and I was astonishingly jealous of him. Such a peaceful, tranquil job, just nipping out now and then to close the gates; the rest of the time just you and your thoughts and a library of books to keep you entertained. I might have had to get wi-fi installed, though.
A couple more corners, and I left the serenity of the woods to arrive at the busy A6. The change was stark and shocking. Trucks and cars peeled past, noisy, their engines suddenly unbearable after the peace of the last hour. It was ugly and relentless.
Just south of Hazel Grove a worksite had been set up for construction of the south east Manchester relief road, a brand new dual carriageway designed to take traffic for the airport away from the streets. It was at its earliest possible stage - a quick glance at the website reveals that they're mainly catching Great Crested Newts right now to relocate them - but there were still diggers and trucks and men in hard helmets.
The residential fringes of Hazel Grove turned into busy commerce. A police station, a garage with a Subway and a queue out the door, a hairdresser's with the charmless name Short n Curly. Yeah, make people think of pubic hair whenever they walk by; that sounds like a great idea. A wide expanse of tarmac had been given over to a park and ride facility - the city's first privately funded one, in fact, paid for and built by Stagecoach for the benefit of their buses (25 minutes into Stockport, 65 minutes into Manchester). Nice idea, but it was pretty much deserted; I can't help thinking building it near the railway station (10 minutes into Stockport, 23 minutes into Manchester) might have been a better way to get cars off the road.
Hazel Grove itself was a stream of takeaways, cafes and grey-faced solicitor's offices. Perhaps it was the sudden change from Middlewood, but it was starting to get to me. My head was fuzzy and starting to ache. I felt overwhelmed, like the town was starting to pile onto me. I stopped at a McDonalds for lunch, the best, cleanest option I could see, and had an "Italian Classic". Why is it that, no matter what your order in McDonalds, it tastes like a Big Mac? The Italian Classic supposedly contained pepperoni, but I couldn't taste it: all I got was the stodgy beef. And Coke Zero from concentrate is weedy and underflavoured. Nice fries though.
The back streets, away from the main road, were a little better: small workers' cottages and terraces. Sixth formers with their ID badges on lanyards round their neck walked round in clusters, idling, killing their lunch hour by wandering round and round. The station was sited opposite a huge, ugly church, surrounded by a car park and a bus exchange.
The station building was red brick, with the usual GMPTE gate left open to save the station staff the hassle of checking the tickets. The man in the ticket office was chatting loudly to a man from Securicor, apparently about some fight he'd been in. I was glad I already had a ticket because no-one seemed to be in any rush to do any work.
There are trains every half hour to Hazel Grove, but only every other train continues on to Buxton, so I took a seat in the tiny terracotta tiled waiting room. I felt tired and achey; my head was now pounding. I should have hunted out a pharmacy and got some aspirin, but I just wanted to be quiet and not move for a while.
The train came and took me away over deep valleys to Disley.
The station building wasn't much, just a shelter really, but it was neat and well-kept, and a Scout hut right behind it was a charming addition. Anywhere with a Scout hut can't be bad.
On the overbridge, a fingerpost guided new arrivals to the National Trust's stately home at Lyme Park, but I went in the opposite direction, towards the village centre.
I should have been charmed by Disley; on another day I probably would have been. There were pretty limestone buildings in the centre, a war memorial, a fountain erected for the benefit of public health by a distinguished Victorian. Scenic pubs and trees and floral displays.
I was just in a bad mood, and Disley's perfection was too much. Instead of capturing my attention, I found it cloying and excessive. It was like a village from The Avengers, set up by Soviet spies to train them at fitting into English society; a stage set instead of a place for people to live. Not even the presence of a pub called the Dandy Cock could cheer me.
Leaving the village, things became a little less perfect, and a bit more suited to my foggy brain: a building site, a closed shop (bafflingly, Design a Sausage couldn't make it work), a closed pub. Sadly, instead of the entreaties from the brewery to make your dreams come true by running your own pub, The Crescent Inn had been sold as "land". I assumed the building was destined to be demolished, and the idea of the etched glass windows being smashed in some skip made me downhearted.
The sight of a gold post box cheered me immensely. It commemorated the cyclist Sarah Storey, and I was surprised by how happy it made me. Must be that spirit of 2012 still running through my veins. I seem to have developed something of a post box fascination without realising; only the other day I went hunting for a rare Edward VIII post box in Birkenhead's North End. Perhaps I should start collecting post boxes when I'm done collecting train stations? That sounds like the kind of hobby that would make me even more fascinating at parties.
I left the main road and headed down a steep hill to the canal, past a noisy development of "luxury homes" (just once I'd like the sign outside to say "we're building a load of shitty boxes that are too close together, but you'll buy them because it's in a nice village"). Through a kissing gate, and I was waterside.
The transformation was fast and wonderful. Suddenly I couldn't hear traffic; all I could hear was birdsong and the occasional quack. My feet crunched on gravel instead of hard tarmac. My shoulders relaxed, and even my headache seemed to slip down a notch.
The Peak Forest Canal is one of the highest in Britain, and now and then I'd get glimpses through the trees into soft valleys. I was almost floating above them, peaceful, serene.
Occasionally I'd encounter another human being. A pair of sprightly dog owners. An old lady with shockingly red hair, clearly from the Cilla Black Memorial Collection by L'Oreal. A professional stroller in shorts and hiking boots and floppy hat, a carbon fibre walking stick grasped firmly in his gnarled hand. But most of the time I was alone, and it was lovely. I strongly suspect that if there was an I Am Legend-type extinction event that wiped out humanity, I'd be perfectly ok with being the last man on earth. Other people are overrated.
Something changed in the air. Not the weather, but an actual, physical change. I could taste it. It tasted of... liquorice, which was a shame, because I don't actually like liquorice. But then that taste became overwhelmed by another, the strong, sweet tang of fizzy confectionery. I realised it was coming from the building at the side of the canal, and I made a connection.
The slightly ramshackle collection of buildings was the factory for Swizzels-Matlow, and what I could taste in the atmosphere was a mash up of Love Hearts, Refreshers and Drumsticks. Needless to say, my mouth was watering. I eagerly clambered up onto the road, hoping to find a factory shop selling rejects. Big bags of cracked Swizzels for a fiver. In a terrible commercial decision, however, there wasn't anything like that; the factory was strictly business only. I trudged away sadly, my craving for a mouthful of One Direction Love Hearts unsatisfied.
I'd reached New Mills Newtown far too early for my train, so I had a bit of a wander round in search of some entertainment. Oh, alright: I was looking for a pub. Sadly it looked like this end of town didn't any provision for semi-alcoholics. The one opposite the station had been converted into flats, and The Swan's sign promised much and delivered little.
If I'd been there a few days later, I could have seen Toyah, who playing the local theatre. She got a better poster than Eddi Reader; I'd spotted a bit of A4 wrapped around a lamp post promoting her July appearance. Eddi Reader, for the benefit of younger readers, was the lead singer of Fairground Attraction in the 80s, and she once won a Brit Award as Best Female Artist in what we can safely assume was a very bad year for the ladies. She's no Toyah, put it that way.
My options for entertainment in New Mills seemingly exhausted, I circled back to the station. It's got a fine British Rail logo sign:
...but the actual station name is a bit rubbish.
I crossed the car park, then clambered over the rusting footbridge to take a seat in the shelter. It was cool and dark in there. Once again I was isolated and away from the rest of the world. It was great.