Ending the blog on Manchester Piccadilly wasn't planned. I mean, it was sort of planned - I don't just chuck these things out you know - but it mainly came about because I realised I'd forgotten about it. I collected Oxford Road back when this blog was Round The Merseyrail We Go and the name "Merseytart" actually made sense. I visited Victoria then too, although as I didn't actually take a sign pic, it took a few years for me to collect it properly; pleasingly, I collected it with Ian and Robert, two friends I actually made because of this blog. And I collected Deansgate on a very special day trip to Coronation Street - the old, Quay Street set that's now been knocked down. I saw Audrey Roberts and everything.
Manchester's other three stations covered different aspects of the blog, over the years, so it seemed appropriate to finish up at Piccadilly. It helps that Piccadilly is a fine station. A fantastic Victorian trainshed over busy platforms, always moving, always thronged. It could be argued that Piccadilly is the centre of the North's rail network, perhaps only rivaled by Leeds. Suburban and national trains pour in and out, minute after minute. Lime Street's great of course, but as a terminus, people tend to stream straight out into the city. People change trains at Piccadilly, so there's always life.
The station got a hefty makeover in time for the 2002 Commonwealth Games, with a new, glistening concourse and more shops. Shops everywhere. If you need a sandwich, or a birthday card, or even a new outfit, Piccadilly's got you covered. And yet it doesn't feel cluttered. A mezzanine's been strung along the back, with a curving shopping street, but there's still plenty of space for you to mill about and watch the departure screens. They'd prefer it if you bought a crab and rocket baguette, of course, but if you just want to hang out, that's ok too. (You might not get a seat).
I was feeling low, this being the last ever blog trip, so I headed out of the station for a bit of air. Curving away from the entrance is Gateway House, a great 1960s office block that sidles down from the station entrance in a lazy S-shape. For years it's been neglected, but a change of ownership has meant it's now being converted into an aparthotel. The new windows are modern but still in keeping; the architects haven't destroyed what made Gateway House special.
Actually that's not entirely true. For years, the parade at the base of Gateway House played host to an Ian Allen shop. Ian Allen prints pretty much every railway book worth reading, and a lot of ones that aren't. Their shop was a lovely place to browse, with an upstairs filled with model railway supplies. I'd hoped to have a browse, maybe treat myself to a gazetteer, but it's gone. Closed forever. There's a Waitrose and a Subway, but that lovely railway bookstore has vanished.
Even more dejected, I wandered round the back of the station, past the former car park which might, one day, host the HS2 platforms. That'll not be until at least 2032, when I'll be in my fifties. I wonder if I'll still care? I've realised lately how many big, elaborate projects, big national schemes, aren't going to come to fruition until I'm a pensioner. My excitement for them now is tempered by the knowledge I'll be too old to enjoy them. (Presuming President Trump hasn't annihilated us all by then).
I also took the time to wave at Manchester's other station, the abandoned hulk of Mayfield across the way. Opened as a relief station for Piccadilly, it stopped taking passengers in 1960, and closed altogether in the 80s. Now it rots, looking for purpose, always on the verge of being demolished. Of course, I love it.
Back round the side of Piccadilly, under the viaduct for through trains. Platforms 13 and 14 have always been hopelessly overstuffed, and they're about to get even busier once the Ordsall Chord is built and more trains can go through Piccadilly without having to reverse in the main trainshed. Network Rail has plans to build a second viaduct, with two more platforms; you would think they'd build this first, ready for all the new trains when they come, but things never work out that way. Instead, 13 and 14 will get much busier for a few years until 15 and 16 arrive.
I ducked into the Metrolink platforms, for a look. I still adore the trams, and putting them in Piccadilly's undercroft makes them even better. I just like the word "undercroft". There's too much space for them, if anything, with a big empty concourse that never fills, but it's clean and modern and charming. They're another part of Manchester's glistening network that's about to get bigger, with works approved for an extension to the Trafford Centre (about 20 years after it should have been built, but anyway).
And that was it. I'd pretty much "done" Manchester Piccadilly, which is good in a way, because I can never remember how to spell it (two c's? two d's?). I wandered round to the front and took the final sign selfie.
End of the line. In the run up to this day, I'd always fancied getting a meal in one of Piccadilly's restaurants to celebrate. A kind of final hurrah. However, even though it's overloaded with catering outfits, none of them took my fancy. Yo Sushi terrifies me, all those domed concoctions rolling by on a conveyor belt; what if you got the wrong one? What if you picked all the expensive ones and ended up with a huge bill? I've only been to a Carluccio's once, and it was rubbish. And eating in a TGI Fridays at 11:30 on a Tuesday morning, alone, would drive even the most happy and well-adjusted ray of sunshine to loop a length of cable round their throat and end it all. I ended up, appropriately enough, in The Mayfield, Piccadilly's pub, where I ordered a Newky Brown and took a seat on the mezzanine.
Station collecting came along and helped me. They were a refuge. Crossing each one off the map became a real triumph. As it grew, as I went more and more places, it became more important in my life. I took days off to go to places at the edge of the Merseyrail map.
Then my mind collapsed. Depression swamped me. I spent days in bed, not wanting to move. And yet, this blog was still there for me. It was a reason to get going. It was a reason to leave the house. As I shifted to the much larger Northern map, the pleasure of it increased. Planning, mapping, plotting. Excel spreadsheets full of train times. Ordnance Survey maps covered with routes. It became my hobby and also, in a way, my saviour. Railway stations made me smile in a way the rest of the world didn't.
It brought other benefits, too. I've met some fantastic people thanks to this blog, made actual, real friends. I got invited to places, nominated for awards. I appeared in The Guardian. I actually know what Diamond Geezer looks like. I got some free flip flops off Merseyrail.
It's also given me some incredible memories. I've been all over the north of England to places I never thought I'd visit - never had a reason to go to - and it's never failed to wow me. This is a wonderful, beautiful country we live in. It's filled with astonishing beauty and fascinating places and great people. Cities and towns and railway stations that we should all go to, even if it's just once, just to see.
All the memories. Getting caught up in an apocalyptic rainstorm on the way to Squires Gate. Hiking over the clifftops below Chathill. Falling in a ditch somewhere around Goxhill. A night illuminated by starlight at Kirkby Stephen. Hot, sticky walks to Langley Mill and Chinley and Heysham Port. Pints of beer in Selby and Ribblehead and Snaith. Leeds and Newcastle and Bradford and Carlisle and Manchester and Liverpool and Skipton and Entwistle and Ravenglass and Mytholmroyd and Glasshoughton and Hexham and Urmston and Sandbach and Whiston and every single other spot. Every single station has a moment associated with it. The Northern Rail map isn't a map of places any more, it's a map of my brain.
I don't know what I'll do now. I thought about going somewhere else. A different railway map, a different network. It just wouldn't be as much fun. I'd be doing it out of duty rather than enthusiasm. I might pop back here now and then, a little odd moment, a little hello, this is what I've been doing. There are a couple of railway-related things I always meant to do and never did; I might do them. I had an idea of a book, but I'm finding it hard to get it down on paper; the pressure to make it good (instead of this old guff) gets to me. Maybe. I just don't know. I'm nearly 40, and this seems like a good way to bookend my thirties. Close it off.
I finished my beer and headed down to platform 14. I waited. Then I took a familiar purple train home.