Saturday 12 December 2015

Suburban Sprawl

The platform at Chassen Road was busy, excitable, full of people heading into Manchester for the Christmas markets and shopping.  They all got on the train, leaving me alone, fiddling with my camera.  When I finally looked up though, a grin split open my face.

There was some kind of track in the park next door to the station.  I had no idea what it was - it looked like a monorail, weirdly - so I wandered round to have a look.  It's a miniature railway run by the "Urmston & District Model Engineering Society", a wonderfully sensible name for what is, let's face it, a load of grown men playing at trains.  I stood on the bridge over the track and wished there was a train running.

It was small, but interesting, a bit like Chassen Road's station building.  Yes, it had the kind of odd opening hours that can only be properly divined by using a ouija board, but the simple square with the occasional flourish of brickwork was charming.  One of those buildings where they didn't really have to try, but an architect had put a little extra effort into it, and bless him for it.

The station sign, however, is rubbish.

From there it was a walk along gently curving avenues to my next station, Flixton.  There were tall, bare trees, and semis with one car parked in the drive and a second on the verge, and a Balmoral Road; you can pretty much guess the social class of a district if there's a street named after a royal residence.  I was in Margo Leadbetter territory again.

This little corner of Trafford had been fields and hamlets until the railway came and turned it into prime commuterland.  Developers had built rows of neat homes with gardens, plus a row of shops and a huge pub, the Roebuck.  When this district came into being, somewhere between the wars, I expect the shops were useful amenities - a grocer, a fishmonger, a butcher.  Now it was a Chinese medicine centre and a craft shop that offered lessons in "decopatch" (no idea).  The Peter Pan kebab shop featured a copyright baiting image from the Disney film; whoever had painted it couldn't do mouths, however, and the jaw looked like it had been pummeled by an East End gangster.

Further along, I encountered another indicator of 1920s middle class wealth, the golf course.  Two of them, in fact, one on each side of the road.  My dislike for golf and, more particularly, people who enjoy golf, is a theme I return to over and over on this blog, so it should come as no surprise that the flooded fairways made me smile.  I'm not a nice person.

Parked in a layby just outside Flixton village was a tiny burger van, its sandwich board promising cooked breakfasts.  I imagined the builders and kitchen fitters and roofers working on the suburban homes calling here first for a bacon sarnie and a tea.  I was almost tempted myself, but one of the cooks emerged from behind the hut wiping his hands down his apron, and I immediately assumed he'd nipped round the back for a pee and hadn't washed his hands.  Once you get that idea in your head you don't fancy sampling his sausage bap.

Flixton was doing its very best to pretend it was a rural enclave.  There was a charming church, and a pub, and cottages with coats and wellingtons in the porch.  It was very pretty, but Greater Manchester was all around it, inescapable; the Village Inn was now a Thai restaurant, and Corporation houses had been built beside the green.

I was early for my train, so I crossed over the railway bridge for a wander about.  More suburban development greeted me; a row of shops with Art Deco stylings, then the wonderful curve of Reade House on the corner.

I loved the shape of it, those wide aluminium windows, the chipped away paint on the "glamorous" font over the entrance.  That front door isn't in keeping, but the rest of it - wonderful.  One of the flats is for sale - £125,000; can one of you buy it so I can come round and have a good nose at the interior?

I took enough pictures to mark myself out as a weirdo to passers by then headed back to the station.  Transport for Greater Manchester had stolen a corner of the park next door to build a park and ride facility; it included a space for charging electric cars, and I am willing to bet a considerable amount of money that it has never been used.

Yes, I am wearing a Christmas jumper, because I am, at heart, quite tacky.

The original station building was converted into a pub, only to be burnt to the ground in the nineties; its replacement isn't bad, just generic.  At least the ticket office was open.  But there was nowhere to sit down, no waiting room, and it was a problem exacerbated when I got down to the platform.  There was the most minimal shelter I've ever seen - literally just a roof on columns.  No seats underneath it, not even one of those bars to lean on.

The slightly damp bench, meanwhile, had been given over to an art exhibit, which I am calling Ennui on a Winter's Day.

My next station, Humphrey Park, was added to the network in the 1980s, and it still feels like an experiment they've forgotten to end.  The wooden platform, the lack of facilities, the way it's hemmed in on all sides by back gardens - it has a temporary air to it, as if the Council's going to turn up one day and take it all away.

I got off the train with a man who was doing his very best to make pushing a baby around look masculine.  He shoved the pushchair with one hand, barely touching it, trying to look very casual about the fact that he had a child with him.  At the roadside, he stopped to make a phone call, and he stepped away from the baby by about a foot, so the person on the other end of the line wouldn't catch on that he was being paternal.  It made me wonder how the child was even conceived; he was so afraid of femininity, I'm surprised he allowed himself to touch a woman in case he caught ovaries off her.

From Humphrey Park, there's two ways to get to Urmston -

- and I chose the most direct one.  The area around the station was a huge council estate, and I walked past stout homes.  They're always saying on Homes Under The Hammer how local authority homes are a good investment because they're so well-built, and I could see it in these houses.  They were generously sized, peppered with intriguing details and set back from straight roads with parks and playgrounds.  It was a district built by people who wanted the best for the residents.

Pleasingly, even with the privatisation of the stock, the local housing authority still seemed to be trying to build well.  A new row of shops looked friendly and open and had attractive flats above, while a curve of townhouses squeezed some good sized homes onto an awkward site.

The M60 roared ahead of me, carrying shoppers to the nearby Trafford Centre.  I still haven't been there; I only ever remember it exists when the adverts appear at Christmas, and there is absolutely no way I am going to a giant out of town shopping centre in the run up to Christmas.  Perhaps I'll go when they build the tram extension.

If I have a complaint, it's that it was all a bit samey.  After a while I started to wish for a change in style, or a curve in the road, or anything different.  It was just the same buildings, over and over.

It was only as I reached Urmston proper that the homes changed, back to the suburban, Metro-land style.  Big ugly detached homes running along the roadside, a lot of them with big ugly extensions to make them even bigger and uglier.  On the main road into town, they got older, proper Victorian villas built for bewhiskered management and now converted into nursing homes and flats.

It meant that the giant white and grey hulk of a Sainsburys came as a bit of a shock, an iceberg of a supermarket crashing into the town centre.

It was another example of the council being so desperate for someone, anyone, to invest in their town, that they basically let the supermarket do whatever it wanted to them.  Wedged into one corner of that behemoth was the local Conservative club, no doubt relocated after their old building was obliterated by a loading bay, while Urmston library was in the other corner.  It wasn't on the ground level - that's valuable selling space - but was instead accessed by a couple of escalators, putting it out of the way, where no-one could see it.  The branding for the cash machines on the supermarket was more prominent.

Please note that books are only the third symbol on that library sign.

Behind Sainsburys was Eden Square, a precinct built in a similar style, but without any heart.  The buildings were shiny, all glass and smooth fronts, but they housed charity shops and pound stores, plus a Costa, of course.  Why do councils keep letting this happen?  Why do they let supermarkets fuck their town centres over and over?  Sainsburys and Tesco and Asda have long ceased to be places that sell just food, and if you let them build a superstore right in your shopping district, then people will go there for everything.  They'll buy their books and their deodorant and their clothes along with their groceries, and the money the council got for a refurbished district will all be wasted because they'll have nothing but empty stores.

Of course it's hard to say no when your budget has been cut, cut, cut.  But I've been all over the north and time and again I've seen towns with no heart or life, just a colossal superstore eating away at the fringes, and I've just about had enough.

I stomped away from the town centre and over to the station.  On the Manchester platform, there's a modern station building, a bit rough round the edges - there were reeds growing out of the gutters, actual reeds! - but serviceable.

I was headed for the other platform, where the old nineteenth century station building still sits.  It's been converted into a pub, the Steamhouse, and I wasn't going to pass up the opportunity to combine a station visit with booze.

I was the only customer, and the staff all seemed a bit distracted; I spotted tables laid out for a party at the far end of the bar, and I guessed that there was a Christmas party on its way in at any moment.  I had some disappointing nachos - who knew that such a thing existed? - and my pint, then headed out to the platform.  The seating area there had been decorated with "funny" signs - Happy Birthday (one person in 365 finds this sign SPOOKY!) and  Jokes about German sausage are the WURST - and I regretted not seeing them before I went in, because I wouldn't have given them my patronage on principle.

This just in: apparently there's three ways to get to Urmston.  Just you wait.


Neil said...

Cheers for that!

When I, for an ill-fated semester due to the terrible lack of punctuality and overcrowding, commuted from Aughton Park to Manchester for uni, I was always a bit intrigued about the west Manchester suburban stations. Seriously underserved with a train an hour (with some 2 hour gaps) they surely had potential if they got a more Merseyrail-esque service. Perhaps potential there now the TPEs are being moved to Chat Moss?

Scott Willison said...

I have to admit I was surprised, when planning for these stations, to discover how irregular their service was. As you say, they have so much more potential, and the platforms were busy with people boarding each train. I'm guessing the problem with giving them a better service is all those fast trains trying to whizz through - when I left Humphrey Park, an East Midlands train was burbling on the embankment, held up by the slow Northern stopper.

Anonymous said...

just by googling you can get inside Reade House. It looks better from the outside!

Neil said...

Having a bit of a nose at the present level of service, which seems to be decent in the peaks (better than it was) but still only 0.5tph off-peak (there *has* to be room for hourly), I stumbled on this:

I'd rather pull my fingernails off.

Scott Willison said...

A rail replacement bus? After the pubs have closed? What a treat!

Anonymous said...

Late to the party, but I'm thinking that 'decopatch' = decoupage. Cant do the acute accent on the first letter 'e', sorry. Now I'm wondering what decoupage really is, but I know it is some kind of crafty house decoratey thing.

Mark said...

Just read this - always interesting to see objective comments about your area. Fair comments about Urmston town centre but the soul-less new development you visited replaced a much more depressing late 1960's precinct so the desperation of town councils goes a lot further back. We used to have a Gateway/Somerfield as the main store so you can see how far Urmston has come! Oh, and the rail service is OK at Urmston but Flixton (quite a busy station) has no service on a Sunday. The Merseyrail stations beyond Warrington Central seem to fair a bit better so TfGM need to do some lobbying for a better service.