Tuesday 27 June 2017

Only A Northern Song

This post is very late.  I started it two weeks ago, and then the BF said, "shall we book a last minute holiday?" and, long story short, I've been in Croatia for a week.  So it's not the triumphant return that I'd intended after that whole "I'M BACK!" post.  More a slightly embarrassed shuffle onto the scene.

It seemed right to start collecting the Metrolink stops at Manchester Victoria.  After the bombing at the Arena, right above the tracks, a few weeks ago, using it as the starting point for something new seemed appropriate.  A fresh start.  I don't have anything to say about the tragedy that hasn't been said better by cleverer people than me, but I will say that the station seemed back to its old self.  It was busy and efficient.  The only signs that something had happened here were the closed off entrances to the footbridge and the Arena, and the adverts taken away in favour of upbeat messages of positivity.

Victoria Metrolink stop was one of the earliest to be built, and it's not long been upgraded.  This is the point where the line splits to cross the city centre, so there are four - count 'em - four platforms for the trams.  Admittedly, two of them are used for terminating services and don't get much of service, but it's impressive none the less. 

I crouched under the platform signs to try and fit my fat head and the stop name in the same shot.  They don't do the totem signs like proper railway stations - and anyway, I'd got Victoria station's totem when I collected it in the Northern phase of the blog - so this would have to do.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The tram soon arrived and whisked me out past the giant testicle of the Co-op building.  I'd picked the Bury line almost at random; it went from Victoria, and it was more interesting than crossing the city centre, where I'd been a hundred times.  The Bury line was one of the original branches of the Metrolink network, a heavy rail line converted to light rail, but my first stop was one of the newest stops on the map: Queens Road.  (No, there isn't an apostrophe.  Yes, it is annoying).

Queens Road backs onto the Metrolink depot, and for many years there was a simple staff-only halt here to allow a change of staff.  They finally bit the bullet in 2013 and turned it into a full blown stop, though it's still used by the staff.  As I got off, a gang of enforcement officers climbed on, shouting "Tickets please!"  I headed up to the main road to get a sign picture but, even after a decade, I still can't quite my face to look anything less than smug when I'm taking these selfies.  Maybe I just have a smug face naturally?  Oh.

From there I disappeared into the scrawny suburbia behind the tram line.  The houses on Woodlands Road were big but ugly, built when there was a noisy steam line running behind them, not smooth electric trams, and so they were unloved and grimy.  Two or three bells fought for space on the door jambs.  

It began to rain.  I don't mind it raining in Manchester; it's part of the experience.  It's what you want to happen.  It's like going to New York and getting mugged - authenticity!  Besides, it was a cooling summer rain, breaking off the warmth with a splash of refreshment.  I ducked my head down and barreled down the road, circling a man who dawdled with the sadness of someone with nowhere to go, and dodging by the wheelie bins set out for the day.  Trees had been planted along this part of the road but they were too big for their sites.  Now their roots burst up through the pavement, badly tarmacked over and creating humps in the footpath with ominous looking cracks.

The tram scythed across the road on a bridge, and I got my bearings.  I'd been here before, back in 2012, with Ian.  We'd been heading to the Manchester Museum of Transport and had got off at Woodlands Road stop.  There was no sign of it now.

Early Metrolink relied on re-using the rail infrastructure that already existed wherever possible, to save money.  That's why the trams are so high above the ground, for example, built to accommodate British Rail platforms rather than the much lower ones more common on tram networks.  Stops were, in the main, simply opened where there used to be a station, so Woodlands Road station became Woodlands Road tram stop.

It was never well used.  Sited in an inconvenient spot, in a quiet residential area, it slowly became more obvious that it needed to go.  The solution was to replace this one stop with two new ones: Queens Road to the south, and Abraham Moss to the north.  The last tram visited the site on 16th December 2013 and the platforms were torn up.  In TfGM's typically lackadaisical style, they still haven't taken down the bus flags nearby, even though the tram's been gone for four years and no buses come this way any more:

The new Abraham Moss stop is a further up the same road, accessed via an alleyway between houses on this side of the line.  There's a yellow archway to greet you, which I definitely approve of.  More of these please.

The stop was carved out of land at the back of Abraham Moss school, a fact immediately obvious from the clientele.  Bored teenagers loitered on the platforms, huddling against the rain, watching a man from Metrolink fill the ticket machine with lazy eyes.  They sullenly slumped towards the tram when it arrived, too cool to be enthusiastic about it.  

Crumpsall was the first tram stop to still feel like a station.  There were canopies over the platform, and a footbridge over the tracks.  Steps lead up to the road and to a square patch of empty land that had clearly once been a ticket office.  Squint and you could have been in Heaton Chapel, or Rose Hill, or any other slightly forlorn Manchester railway station.

Crumpsall is also a gloriously Northern name; say it out loud and you find yourself curling your lip up into Alan Bennett disdain.  It's ugly and yet also fabulous.  I turned off Station Road, past the Canny Scot convenience store, and along a road mixed with hefty villas and small more modern homes.  A handwritten sign in the window of one of them said: This house will be up for sale in 6-8 weeks.  Text me for price and then a phone number.  I was almost tempted, which shows the power of advertising.  

There were a couple of care homes, their nurses taking a brief ciggy break outside, then a row of shops with an ironwork canopy.  It was an area of fading wealth, a drop off in standing somewhere along the line.  The Johnsons Paint building on the corner had tiles that hinted at a much more illustrious past.

The uninspiring bulk of Heaton Park Synagogue took me by surprise.  It was large but not attractive; it looked like the back of a school hall, the spot where the bins were.  I'm sure it's delightful inside but here it was just a block.

It, and the boys' school across the road, reminded me that I was in one of Britain's largest Jewish communities.  More than that: I was inside the Manchester Eruv.  According to Orthodox Jewish beliefs, you cannot carry any object on Shabbos, unless you're within an Eruv: a specially delineated and marked area of town.  This area has to be maintained and clearly defined.  It was strangely thrilling, to be in a special zone, though I didn't see any actual evidence of it.  The people I passed were the usual mix of Mancunian faces, all colours and sexes.  It's a very British form of religious enforcement; it exists, but if you don't subscribe to that belief or don't even know about it, no-one is bothered.

I wandered down the hill, past a Working Men's Club turned polling station (it was June the 8th; I wanted to get out of the house on election day because I anticipated bad news), and just missed the tram at Bowker Vale.  

It was another stop that felt like a station.  It's going to be really hard for me to get used to typing "stop", by the way.  It doesn't feel right.  A stop is minimal - a bus has a stop.  These hefty structures, with lifts and stairs and ticket machines - they don't feel like stops.  I've been to quiet rural halts in the countryside with far fewer provisions that glory under the title of "station".  

I got off the tram at Heaton Park to a lot of announcements.  The following weekend was the Parklife festival nearby, and the automated voice was carefully pointing out that there wouldn't be any trams from this stop to alleviate crowding.  As it turned out, there weren't any trams; someone was sadly pushed onto the tracks in the city centre, and the whole line closed.  The festival goers had to walk.  I headed up to the top for the selfie... and there wasn't a sign.

I mean, come on.  All that space, all that quite notable construction, and there's not one single bit of board with "Heaton Park" written on it?  This is TfGM being utterly lazy with their signage again, and it's infuriating.  If you didn't know Manchester how would you know that was the right stop from the road?  It's a simple and incredibly useful fix.  Get on it.

I stomped back down the stairs, infuriated, and squatted on the platform.  Classy as ever.

I turned away from Heaton Park itself and instead headed into the back streets - always my preferred route.  A strip of shops were heralded by, surprisingly, Phillip Schofield Upholstery.  I'm pretty sure it's got nothing to do with the grey haired TV legend, though I have in the past encountered Bill Beaumont Textiles, which was owned by the Question of Sport captain, so who knows?  Maybe Pip spends his weekends stuffing scatter cushions, always afraid that the telly work will dry up and he'll have to fall back on a trade.  I dodged round a truck filling potholes and another polling station and ended up on Rectory Lane.  

Look at that sign.  Not only does it say Prestwich Station, not Prestwich Metrolink, but if you look closely you can still see the outline of a British Rail double arrow symbol.  Reminder: heavy rail services stopped at Prestwich in 1991.  Twenty six years and Transport for Greater Manchester still haven't got round to updating the sign.  It's just lazy.

I walked past the just-begging-to-be-graffiti'd Pados Studio Theatre (next production: Hobson's Choice) and along a trim suburban back street into Prestwich.  One house had replaced its front lawn with astroturf, a great idea if you want to be maintenance free, though perhaps don't pick a shocking lime green if you want it to look like real grass.  It was the colour of a highlighter pen and probably glows in the dark.

There are shopping centres, and there are precincts.  Prestwich was the latter.  It was concrete and decay, faded, the shops indifferent.  A new block of flats had injected some cash into it more recently, but the shops at its base were prosaic.  Greggs.  Costa.  BetFred.  A Home and Bargain with a sign in the window: Due to recent issues, Children in school uniform are no longer welcome in the store, unless accompanied by an adult.

I was starving hungry, so I bought a cheese and onion pastie from Greggs and ate it in the drizzle.  It was hotter than Mercury, immediately incinerating the skin on the roof of my mouth and making me cough.  Crumbs fell to the floor and burst into flames.  Looking down did mean that I got to see the work of AlShepMcr: stencilled lyrics that slipped into the double yellow lines.

Apparently these are from Love Will Tear Us Apart by Joy Division.  I didn't know that; I had to look it up.  I'm not very good with lyrics, or music in general.  Music has never been important in my life.  It's something I enjoy, but it goes on in the background; I don't analyse it or really pay much attention to it.  I have my favourites of course - Blur, REM, Madonna - but they're wrapped inside memories and places too.  It's not just the music, it's what the music makes me think of.

I know Love Will Tear Us Apart of course; I am a human being living in Britain in the 21st century.  It's just one of those "oh, that's good" songs.  I can't get excited by it.  Apparently AlShepMcr also does the same with The Smiths, and I really can't get on board with The Smiths.

For reasons of full disclosure, I should also point out that I read it as Resentment, Emotions, Rides High, Won't Grow, so don't bother looking for me as Paul Gambaccini's replacement on Pick of the Pops any time soon.

I shuffled over to the tram stop, another of those clearly-a-heavy-rail-in-a-past-life halts.  It had subways under the track and ran on a bridge over the road; the bricks were yellowed and old, and the concessions to the modern world - ramps for disabled access and cycle racks - were inelegantly clamped on the side.  I followed two Scottish drunks up to the platform, listening to them loudly shout obscenities about their landlord, and took the tram to what is undoubtedly one of Metrolink's crown jewels.

It's not the station that's the glory here, it's the name.  Besses o' th' Barn.  Incredible.  Just the apostrophes would make it great, but the sheer tripe infested whippet driving flat cap wearing pint of mild drinking ey up our kid wonder of its Northerness takes it to the next level.  No-one knows why this district of the city is called Besses o' th' Barn; there's a story regarding Dick Turpin's horse Black Bess, but that sounds like the kind of thing the tourism office would come up with.  There's also a theory that there was a pub that looked like a barn that was run by a woman named Bess; that one's just dull.  I hope we never find out.

Look at the glee on my face!  It's Hall I' Th' Wood all over again.

As I walked down the path to the main road, I glanced at my watch and realised, with a shock, that it was barely an hour and a half since I'd left Victoria station.  An hour and a half and I'd visited eight stops already; I nearly had the entire Bury branch polished off.

This clearly wouldn't do.  Tram stops are closer together of course, and the frequent service meant I'd rarely had to wait more than a few minutes for my next ride.  But just whistling through an entire line in a morning?  Where's the fun in that?  Where's the achievement?  I realise that sitting on a train and waving at the platforms as they go by is apparently the new way to collect stations, but I'm old school.  I reckon you should actually visit the stations.  Otherwise I could have literally finished off the whole Metrolink map in a day.

I decided that the next tram stop, Whitefield, would be my last of the day.  That left two at the end of the Bury line flailing around uncollected, which is annoying, but gives me a reason to come back.  I always like a reason to come back.  I turned away from the roar of the M60 and wandered towards Whitefield.  It seemed to be a low-key foodie district of the town - there was a huge patisserie, Slattery's, three floors of cakes and desserts.  I don't have a sweet tooth in the slightest, so I passed.  There were Indian restaurants, and pubs that did food, and places that had ambitiously set up terraces on the pavement so you could enjoy your meal next to the A56.  (There was also a beauty salon that offered something called a "vampire facelift" - frankly, I don't want to know).  The run of restaurants was crowned by a one two punch of charm.  An old bank building had been subtly converted into a Chinese restaurant, changing little and letting the good architecture shine through:

And the cafe by the station - a place for tea and toast and maybe a bacon buttie - had given itself a name that scrabbled for glamour and higher status:

Whitfield had a low slung 1960s frontage that, in a regular station, would have been filled with ticket facilities and a waiting room.  Instead it was just empty.  My feet echoed on concrete as I headed for the platform.  I got trapped on the stairs behind a woman and her grandson.  He was only tiny, taking each step at a slow pace.  At the bottom he stopped dead in his tracks and pointed excitedly across the tracks.  "Tram!" he shouted.

He had a point.  Trams are exciting.


Andrew Bowden said...


When I lived in London I lived near the Croydon Tramlink. There was a playground nearby, that the tram line ran along the back of, with a football pitch standing between the line and the swings. And whenever my son heard a tram as he sat on the swings, he would shout "TRAM!"

Yes. Trams are exciting!

Oh and "It's like going to New York and getting mugged - authenticity!" made me laugh.

Ben B said...

Never mind Philip Schofield upholstery....it shares the same street with the most famous shop in Prestwich: the Sooty & Co Shop!

PlatformCat said...

I was expecting a Croatian train! I managed to find the outside of Zadar station last year, but couldn't find the entrance to the platform, as it appeared to be hidden somewhere behind a Drive-Thru McDonalds loading bay...

Scott Willison said...

I'm afraid Sooty & Co is after my time - it was the Sooty Show in my day. Also Sooty is rubbish.

There WILL be a Croatian blog post when I get round to it...

Anonymous said...

Welcome back.

I think the Bury line used to be electrified in a southern 3rd rail way. So no pacers!

Perhaps a local expert could confirm?

Andrew Bowden said...

Who needs an expert when you've got Wikipedia? The Bury line had a unique third rail system, that being (and I quote) "1200 V DC third rail with side-contact current collection"

Gawain said...

Mourn, with me, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irlams_o%27_th%27_Height_railway_station