Miss me? Actually don't answer that.
Yes, like a certain other bearded traveller, I'm back from the dead this Easter. I've been out on the trains again, for one simple reason: Low Moor. Northern's newest station (sort of) opened on April 2nd, so I considered it my duty to head on over. A TransPennine service to Leeds, a change, and there I was, out on the edge of Bradford.
There was a station at Low Moor for decades, until the good Doctor Beeching closed it down in 1965. Weirdly, getting rid of the station didn't get rid of the locals' desire for a fast, efficient train service into the city, so fifty-odd years later the whole thing was rebuilt and reopened. We could have saved an awful lot of time and money by just not bothering to close it in the first place, but there you go.
It's not beautiful, Low Moor. Tarmac platforms and utilitarian lift shafts; lots of grey metal, some of it still being painted by workers in hi-vis boiler suits. There's no ticket office, no staff of any kind, though there is a car park. It's functional and unglamorous, but it's there. That's the most important thing. It's there. And being used, too; there were passengers waiting on the platform, and a railfan on the overbridge snapping a picture.
Most important of all, it has a station sign.
It's like I never went away.
The question was, what to do now? Normally I'd go onto the next uncollected station of course, but I've done them all. The nearest station, geographically, was Bradford Interchange, but I was there only last summer - practically yesterday. I didn't feel like I had anything new to say. I looked at the map, traced a few routes, and thought to myself: Leeds isn't that far away, is it?
SPOILERS: actually it is.
I headed down the hill into Oakheaton, a far better name for a railway station if you ask me. Plenty of stone-covered terraces, placed perpendicular to the pavement so you saw a parade of washing lines in the back yards, and a big old Victorian park. The Working Mens Club noticeboard had a reminder about paying your subs, and previewed an upcoming appearance from Sonya - no, not the Scouse Eurovision chanteuse, but instead a woman with bleached blonde hair and thick black glasses. Like Jenny Eclair. There was a small row of shops, with a closed butcher advertising meats from Lower Woodlands Farm. I entered Kirklees borough close to a miserable flooring company; rolls of carpet propped up against the wall outside, their bases damp and mouldly looking - and reached the centre of the village.
I was heading east though, so I took a side road under the M606, one of those half-finished spur motorways you find all over the north. They were started enthusiastically in the 1970s, sent in the direction of somewhere useful, but ran out of money and political support before they reached anywhere you'd actually want to go. Instead of heading into Bradford, the M606 peters out at the edge of the city, a mere two junctions after it started.
The M606 also seems to be a geographic border, because I'd barely emerged out the other side before a sign welcomed me back to the City of Bradford. There was an incredibly forlorn looking recreation ground, just a couple of swings in the middle of a field, but I didn't mind because I'd needed the toilet since New Pudsey. If it had been a nice park I might have felt guilty about nipping behind the bushes and peeing.
From there, the road began its slow, steep climb up the hill. This is something I always forget to check when I plan my routes. On Google Maps the road is just a straight line, but in reality, it's a series of climbs and descents. Soon I was huffing and sweating, ducking to avoid brambles poking out of the hedge, trying not to catch my hand on the stinging nettles - except for when I didn't, ow. A horse stuck its head over the fence at me in the hope I had a treat. When I just stroked his nose, he got bored and wandered off.
There wasn't even a decent view as reward for my hike into the heavens. All I could see were big grey boxes, the bulky units of the Euroway Industrial Estates. Distribution hubs and factories, parts centres and engineering firms, belching out white smoke across the valley.
Boy Lane - yes, really - took me back into the suburbs. I left the main road and disappeared into the long curved streets and impeccable symmetry of a council estate. It should have been a pleasure - I love a good estate, laid out by a post-war town planner in the municipal buildings using set squares and curves. Some of it was like that, with good, large homes for heroes, but it had been ruined by "regeneration". New houses had been speckled in amongst the old ones. Next to the large semis built by the council they looked mean and undersized. Worse, they didn't follow the street lines; they curved into cul-de-sacs, or were set back from the pavement haphazardly. The planned vistas were broken up.
Three women bounded out of a house, the third pushing a child in a chair with one hand and holding a mobile to her ear with the other. She was bellowing. At first I thought she was talking to her mates, who were slightly ahead, but then I realised, no, she was shouting into the phone. It wasn't an angry shout - she was just yelling to make herself heard. Twenty odd years of mobiles becoming commonplace and we still haven't quite worked out how to use them. Although, having said that, I almost never use my phone for actually calling people; when it rings I look at it as if it was an alien creature come to life.
A cut down the side of the Hallmark factory - not the puppy dog and daffodil scented haven of loveliness you'd have guessed from their treacly output, but instead a big ugly box - and I was on the main street of the brilliantly named district of Tong.
You can forgive all sorts of grimness if a place is called Tong. Half empty shops? Newspapers shouting the arrest of a paedophile? Druggies loitering on a street corner suspiciously? Tong had all of these, but it was called TONG, so I was too busy smirking to care. It was a rough, hardened place, the kind of district where it always feels like it's about to rain. A banner on a fence advertised a tanning place called Hotter than Hell - 38p a minute - and even the Conservative Club looked like it needed a few quid's investment.
I ducked under a sign for places too Northern sounding to actually exist - Drighlington, Gomersal, Heckmondwike - and passed the vast modern campus of Tong High School, all glass bricks and white walls. Soon I was out in the countryside again, albeit on a busy road filled with trucks heading for the M62. At one point, on a hillside, I suddenly got a glimpse of Leeds.
Not exactly the shining city on a hill, but it was good to see anyway. It just looked quite a long way away. I'd already been walking for an hour and a half, but those skyscrapers at the centre of Leeds looked really distant.
It didn't matter though, because I was enjoying this. I missed this. Since I stopped the blog, I've barely left the house. I've become a semi-shut in. The BF's elderly mother has reached the stage where she needs to be woken in the morning, dressed, fed. Our lives now rotate around that schedule and it means you can't go anywhere for more than a couple of hours. The BF is fine about me going out on my own - positively encourages it - but it's not the same, and any time I do go away it's tinged with the guilt that he's at home chopping up a Cornish pasty for his mum's lunch while I'm enjoying myself.
Plus, there's the whole question of where would I go? Collecting the Northern map gave me a reason to go out and explore. I discovered places I would never otherwise have visited, just because they were on the map. It gave me a structure for my exploration. I love going to new places, and the map showed me where to go.
I almost started again a couple of months ago. Coming back from visiting my mum at Christmas, my train was diverted through the edge of Birmingham. I saw a chain of small, entirely unknown to me stations pass by and thought: I wonder? I got home and pulled up the London Midland map, worked out what kind of ranger tickets I could use and thought, should I? Should I go and collect another rail map?
I was all ready to start. I'd sorted a day with the BF. I'd planned where I was heading - Telford, and thereabouts. And then... I didn't go. Because I realised I didn't care. I didn't have the curiosity and the enthusiasm that I had for the Northern map. I was just going to the Midlands because it had a map. I didn't see places that sparked curiosity in me: I just saw a list to be crossed off. This is an expensive, tiring hobby to have; I have to at least enjoy it. And I know me: I know that if I'd started on that map, I wouldn't stop until it was finished, even if I hated every moment of it. I couldn't leave it uncollected.
Which still leaves me with the fact that I was enjoying walking from one railway station to another and missing the days when I did it all the time. And a need to find something to fill this hole I have in my life. A purpose. I'm not sure I have one any more.
The Manor Golf Club signaled a return to civilisation - or as civilised as a golf course can be. They were publicising a dinner and dance evening with "Miss Francis, Lady of Motown". Now I don't want to get all judgmental here, but I couldn't help but notice that Miss Francis was more than a little bit - well, white. Somehow calling yourself a "Lady of Motown" when you're paler than pasteurised milk seems a bit off.
It was bin day in Drighlington, and I shadowed the lorry all the way into the village centre. When did we stop calling bin lorries "dustcarts", by the way? That was the only word we used for them when I was growing up, and now it never gets used. I blame the invention of the wheely bin. (Sorry, I turned forty since my last blog post, and so I'm now required to grumble impotently about the modern world on a regular basis. Such is the lot of the middle-aged man).
There was a delightful surprise in the centre of the village: a gigantic painted sign for "Larkspur Soft Drinks". It was a gleaming beacon of colour and frivolity.
Larkspur was a short-lived soft drink in the Seventies, and they'd painted an advert on the side of a building here. It lingered for decades after the brand had gone the same way as Quatro and Tab Clear, until, in 2014, the Parish Council paid for it to be restored. It's quite wonderful. Strange how joyous this hand painted advert for a product that doesn't exist any more seems, compared with the studiously posed photo billboards your eye slides past a thousand times a day. It's like your brain realises that this is art, and needs to be appreciated as such. I'm not sure if "a billion bubbles a bottle" is a verifiable claim, though; might want to check with the Advertising Standards Authority on that.
Drighlington had become a dormitory village, the school now apartments, new developments squeezed onto the outskirts of town. Two women in neon pink and green outfits power walked across the road, their backsides spinning circles, before disappearing down a public footpath. I pulled my loose shirt over my expansive beer gut and kept my head down.
The road was climbing again, and this time my body protested even louder. My right knee registered its protest, and my feet were dotted with the sharp pains that hinted at blisters to come. Maybe not doing any exercise for months and then suddenly deciding to walk ten miles wasn't the best plan of action. I need to remind myself of how old and unfit I am now.
Cockersdale - steady now - was grimier and messier than Drighlington, its buildings vaguely disheveled. Behind the abandoned Co-op store was a compound for fairground travellers. Caravans and mobile homes mixed in with tarpaulin-covered wurlitzers and shuttered candy floss stalls. A couple of days later, and they'd probably be gone, off to catch the Easter holiday crowds.
Further on, an abandoned garden centre welcomed me to New Farnley. The glasshouses were still there, but the entrance had been blocked with heavy stones. A big pile of railway sleepers was too heavy to move and stayed behind, while above the frame for the centre's sign was empty. I considered stopping for a pint at the Woodcock pub, maybe a bit of lunch, but I knew that if I did stop I'd never start again. I'd have to get a bus or a taxi the rest of the way because I'd have lost the momentum. Instead I pushed on, past 728 Whitehall Road, past the back of the cemetary, and onwards into town.
At this point, I gained a companion on the road. A boy of about nine or ten came out of a side alley and walked along the road a few metres ahead of me. He was wearing shorts and a t-shirt and had a backpack slung over his shoulders. In his arms was a football. And this is where the anxiety kicked in.
He bounced the ball as he walked. Not the odd one or two, but constantly, over and over, dribbling the ball like a basketball player as he walked. The plasticky beat of the ball hitting the pavement. Thlop. Thlop. Thlop.
Now this was a busy A-road. The pavement wasn't too wide. And this boy was bouncing the ball next to a stream of cars and trucks and bikes. Thlop. Thlop. Thlop.
I was tense. I was waiting for that ball to end up in the road. I knew it would at some point. Even the Harlem Globetrotters drop the ball now and then. Thlop. Thlop. Thlop. I knew that ball would end up in the road, and the question was: what would happen after that? Would a car swerve to avoid it? Would it burst beneath a tyre? Would the boy run out to get it? Scenarios ran through my head, all of them ending with me having to describe what I witnessed to a policeman. I began to pay close attention to my surroundings so I could give a proper description. Thlop. Thlop. Thlop.
Then it happened. The ball caught his foot, and shot out sideways, straight into the road. It was, luckily, at a point where there were no cars on our side, and it passed easily under a Vauxhall in the other carriageway to rest in the gutter. The boy, to his credit, followed the Green Cross Code to the letter: looked both ways before crossing, didn't run. Then he came back over... and started again. Thlop. Thlop. Thlop. Except now, thanks to that little break, he was only a couple of metres in front of me.
I couldn't stand it any more. The road had progressed into more countryside, with no side streets. I realised he was probably heading into Leeds too, and I couldn't bear to follow that for another couple of miles, grinding my teeth and waiting for him to fall under a truck. I put a rush of speed on so that I could overtake him.
Suddenly I wasn't the most anxious one any more. Suddenly this young boy, who had been minding his own business, was on a country road with a large middle aged man with a sweaty, bearded face swooping towards him. I only realised as he glanced over his shoulder for the third time just how dodgy this looked. By that point, I couldn't stop, because that would have looked even dodgier. Instead I barged past as he fumbled in his pocket for his mobile phone. I kept the pace up for a while longer, despite my feet and knees both yelling at me to slow things down, until I was sure there was a fair distance between me and the terrified lad. Then I went back to my normal pace, and hoped that I could explain all this to a police officer without sounding too odd.
On the plus side, the fear stopped him from bouncing his ball, so I didn't have to hear that thlop thlop thlop receding into the distance behind me.
A tinny version of the Match of the Day theme drifted up from a nearby industrial estate; an ice-cream van was chancing his arm with the offices there, seeing if he could tempt a couple of secretaries into a ninety-nine. He didn't seem to be having much luck if the bored smokers on the front step of a low office block were any indication.
By now the solid bulk of Bridgewater Place was directly in my path, something to aim for. All regional cities these days want to have a big, iconic skyscraper on their skyline to show off how modern and thrusting they are. Manchester got the Beetham Tower, with its lopsided profile and its whistling fin. Liverpool - which already had an iconic skyline to begin with - added the graceful West Tower, a glinting glass crystal on the waterfront. Leeds, sadly, settled for Bridgewater Place. There's nothing charming or glamorous or sexy about Bridgewater Place. It's a big chunky block of a building. It looks like it was built out of a kit, one of those model skyscrapers in the back of a future city in an early Next Generation episode, constructed out of bits they had lying round the workshop. It's not pretty, it's just big, as though Leeds thought just having a tall building was enough. And it's actually a hazard: it caused so much downwind in the surrounding streets, literally knocking people off their feet, that they have to close some roads on windy days. Its only asset is that it acts as a giant "Leeds city centre is HERE" sign for the surrounding area. They could've just put a large helium balloon on a piece of string and tied it to the top of the Town Hall and achieved the same effect.
I crossed the Ring Road and entered a world of inner city industry. Garages and decorators; architectural salvage firms with giant rescued numbers stacked outside. Whitehall Road brushed up against the railway then, at the Dragon Bridge, crossed over it, dropping any pretence of charm and becoming a rat run for lorries. There was a bright spot in the none-more 1960s HQ of William G Search Ltd:
Never mind the architecture, look at that font! Wonderful.
It was as a trudged along this tedious back road towards the city centre that I realised, to my horror, that my flies were undone. This would be bad enough on any normal day but, if you cast your mind back to the early stages of this blog, you'll realise I last urinated about three hours and eight miles before. I'd walked on ever since with my groin open to the elements. No wonder that boy had been scared. (I should point out that my pants had kept anything obscene firmly tucked away).
Now I was on the fringes of the city centre, where the big office superstores and the car showrooms and the self-storage solutions live, pressed up against the dual carriageways. The path narrowed and directed me to... oh no.
There was no way over the road other than by a pedestrian bridge. Regular readers (hello you!) will remember I suffer from vertigo, a condition exacerbated by being a vulnerable little human on a tiny footbridge over speeding vehicles. I took a deep breath. I was so close to Leeds and, more importantly, a nice sit down, so I absolutely had to get past this. I took my glasses off - I'm always scared they'll get whipped off my face by an errant gust - gripped the handrail, and started up the ramp. I managed to make it to the other side without screaming or crying or having a panic attack, so I count that as a victory. The filth on my hand is testament to just how closely I clung to that rail:
I allowed myself a grin as I passed the new office block at 26 Whitehall Road - remembering 728, all those hours before - and staggered further and further into the city centre in search of somewhere to rest. I wanted somewhere cheap, somewhere that sold food - I hadn't eaten since a pastry on the train that morning - and somewhere that wouldn't judge my disheveled appearance. I ended up in the Pret a Manger at Leeds station. Perhaps because I like Pret. More probably because part of my brain realised, this journey had to finish at a station. They always do. That's how I always end things.
(Except Ilkeston station's open now as well. So it's not really the end. There's still more to come).