Thursday 24 August 2017

Talking Shop

Regular readers (hello you!) will have spotted that Manchester City's stadium has shown up on this blog before, back in 2014, when I collected Ashburys station.  I'd walked from the stadium to Gorton then, along the Ashton New Road, past the Velopark and Clayton Hall tram stops.  I needed to get these two stops obviously, but I thought repeating the same journey would be a bit dull.  So I did it backwards.  I boarded the tram at Etihad Campus and took it to Clayton Hall, meaning I'd have to double back on myself to get to Velopark.

Look, I'm trying to make walking down a dual carriageway just a little bit interesting, work with me.

Clayton Hall is swung off to the side of the Ashton road, in a small layby on its own.  I headed back the way I came, past a lonely pub and a car yard, its signs proclaiming that it was a specialist in ex-police cars.  Is that an advantage?  Having an old panda car?  I suppose you know it's had one very careful owner, but I should imagine the mileage was atrocious, and who knows what bodily fluids have been spilled all over the back seat.  You can shampoo and scrape all you like, but I bet on a hot day the waft of drunk urine comes rising back out of the plush.

A swing of the road and there was a patch of commerce, the usual shops you get in down at heel neighbourhoods: bookies, chicken shops, convenience stores that sold everything you needed and stuff you didn't know you did.  And beauty salons, because you may be poor, but it doesn't mean you have to look bad.  The bank on Bank Street, though, was long gone, a single NatWest sign the only remnant.

The tram lines swung back across the road and I found myself approaching the gleaming steel of the Manchester City Academy: a carefully crafted machine devoted to destroying the dreams of teenage boys.  Everything about it screamed slick professionalism; efficiently cool styling and manicured lawns.

I have to admit, I have a bit of a problem with Manchester City.  It's not that I have anything against them, I just don't feel anything.  Other big clubs - Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea - I can at least scrounge up some kind of opinion.  I know of them.  Manchester City is big but not interesting.

I suppose this is a by-product of it effectively buying its way into the big leagues, only becoming huge once it got new owners with deep pockets.  Its recent league wins were the first top flight victories since the 1960s, a period when no-one had any money so it was all pretty equal.  Manchester City was in the second division (or the first division, or the Championship, or whatever it's called this week) as recently as 2002.  It's not worked its way to the top, it's won the lottery, and so a lot of the narrative that makes an icon has been lost.  I haven't grown up with it because for the longest amount of time it wasn't worth talking about.  It didn't even build its own stadium, but rather had it handed to it when the Commonwealth Games finished.

City's Women's team, on the other hand, are actually properly good, and have worked their way up.  They play in the Academy stadium to decent attendances; it must be refreshing for women's teams to play in a new facility with good support.  (I should point out that Manchester United don't even have a women's team, never mind a league-winning one that uses facilities adjacent to their male equivalents).

Goodness, that was a lot of sporting talk wasn't it?  Don't tell the BF; he might think I'm interested in football and talk about it even more.

I followed the building round the corner, past a video monitor that was showing the Blue Screen of Death and under the swoop of Nike, and tried to work out how to cross the road to the Asda.  That impressive footbridge connecting the two halves of the campus was great, but it overshadowed the junction, and meant that if you wanted to cross anywhere else you were scrabbling from traffic island to traffic island between lengthy red man-dictated waits.  I ended up hurtling across the carriageway because I was afraid if I stood on the island any longer I'd be considered a legal resident and charged Council Tax.

I nipped into the Luxembourg-sized Asda to use the loo and buy a water, then re-emerged to head for the Velopark stop.  There was a tram just coming in as I arrived, so I made a dash for it, and paused to snap the sign selfie without paying attention.  This is the unfortunate result:

Grumpy, sweaty and disheveled?  Just hand me those modelling contracts now.

The tram toot-tooted its way down the Ashton New Road, using on-the street running for the first time.  It meant a certain amount of pootling along, trapped in with the traffic, and was a reminder that great as trams are they do suffer from not having their own segregated routes.  At this point I may as well have been on a bus.

Edge Lane was my first island stop, out in the middle of the carriageway.  It's hard to say anything interesting about it.  It was clean, it was new, it was bright.  It could've done with a decent sign, but I've made peace with the fact that Metrolink don't consider that a priority.

It wasn't the Ashton Road now, it was the Manchester Road; we'd tipped over that dividing line of where it was going.  Red brick terraces lined the route either side, with power lines strung from reinforced lamp posts.  Parking bays had been carved out between the pavement and the carriageway where the tram ran; signs warned against double parking every few yards.  After a while though, the houses got bigger, turning into semis with driveways.  Back in the twenties and thirties, when they were built, having access to the big main road must have seemed like a boon.  Now it knocked a few grand off the value.

Cemetery Road stop was soon appearing on the right hand side of the road, so I dashed across.  I love down to earth names like Cemetery Road - it's the road to the cemetery; what more information do you need - and I especially love that Metrolink decided to use it as the name of the stop.  I'm sure all the stop names were decided after consultations with extensive committees and resident groups; I'm sure they all wanted something that was both geographically accurate and also a little bit sexy.  At this spot, though, they just went "yup, Cemetery Road; let's mentally associate this stop with corpses" and went off for tea.

There had been some kind of incident in the city centre - the announcements on the tannoy were impossible to make out, as they so often are - and all the trams were delayed.  It meant I had a while to sit and wait and wonder where I was going.

The truth is, Metrolink wasn't satisfying my wanderlust.  It didn't help that I'd already been down this bit of the route, of course, but it was more than that.  It was all so... easy.  Each tram stop was at most a fifteen minute walk from the next, and that was along well-maintained, paved roads.  There was no timetable for me to stick to; if I missed a tram, there'd be another one along a few minutes later.  I'd not done any planning before I'd left because I knew roughly where I was going and what I'd be seeing.  It was all just a bit small.

It was a sticking plaster, a temporary cover for my fix.  I wanted more.  Trolling around the suburbs wasn't getting me excited.  I was halfway down the Ashton line, and I should've turned round and gone home so that I could save the rest for another day, but I didn't want to.  I wanted to get rid of the whole thing so I didn't have to come back.  I jumped on board the next tram.

I have decided that no-one in Droylsden has ever had an orgasm.  It's not their fault; it's the fault of the town.  No-one can ever achieve climax in a place called Droylsden.  It's the greyest, drabbest name, redolent of overcooked cabbage and grey thermals.  It's misery and despair.

I was being judgmental, of course, but I still walked into the town centre with hope.  It wasn't their fault they had an awful name; underneath that post-war rationing moniker could be a throbbing hub of charm and sexuality.  I went in wanting to be wrong.

I wasn't wrong.

Behind a grey concrete precinct, a new development brought the blank commerce driven boxes of a retail park to a town centre.  Those buildings have huge silver clad frontages in out of town developments so you can see which shop is which when you've parked forty miles away at the edge of the car park.  In a pedestrian area, it should be more human scaled, but Droylsden had rejected that.  To compound the horror, the shops weren't even top level.  They weren't the retail park stalwarts, the Currys and the Next and the Dunelm, but instead they were filled with Poundstretcher and Wilkinson's and even a charity shop.

Across the car park, a moment of sadness dominated the view.  Neil "Tony" Downes was in the Grenadier Guards, and was killed by a remote bomb in Afghanistan in 2007.  His parents own the King's Head pub in Droylsden.  They've turned the side of the building into a tribute, with a plaque and a banner the height of the pub.  It's sobering to see his 20 year old face staring out over the town, knowing that was as far as he got.  That age and no further.

I doubled back to the tram stop.  There was nothing more to see - tattoo shops and a couple of bakeries and a lot of roadworks.

There was a nice little surprise at Audenshaw: F&S Scale Models.  The window was filled with model cars and planes and tanks.  It's the kind of hobby I admire and wish I had the patience for.  I have a scale model of Deep Space Nine in the cupboard, bought from the Las Vegas Star Trek Experience in 2001, and I still haven't even taken it out of its box to start construction.  It's an ambition, but it just hasn't happened.  And it seems it's a feeling shared by the population at large, because F&S Scale Models is up for sale.  Another bit of character gone.

The reason for Droylsden's haunted air became clear a few metres further down the road as the Snipe Retail Park loomed up on my right.  (Isn't a snipe that thing you catch in quidditch?)  Huge boxes of commercial activity surrounded acres of free parking, with Pizza Huts and McDonalds to fill you up at lunchtime.  You could spend a day there, driving from shop to shop.

Far more pleasing was my first glimpse of the Pennines in the distance.  I'd finally reached the fringes of Manchester, where it butts up against the untamed moors and peaks.  Even now, in the middle of summer, they looked barren and unforgiving.

I swung onto the dual carriageway that drags the traffic into Ashton, a strip of unforgiving tarmac with a footpath grudgingly shoved in at the side.  The tram tracks ran off road here too.  I passed a newly built "family" pub, with a glassed off smokers section overlooking the tracks, and a grim faced Travelodge.  It was a blank block of cube rooms, almost institutional in its blandness, there to accommodate sales reps and businessmen on a budget.

The tram overtook me as I reached Ashton Moss so I again had to snatch a fast emergency selfie.  Please enjoy my many chins.

The next stop was Ashton West, and beyond that was Ashton-under-Lyme itself; three Ashton stops in a row.  That's not very imaginative (and if you include Audenshaw, that's four stops beginning with the letter A).  Lazy.  The planners had come back from their Cemetery Road tea break, all energised, but then they'd realised if they polished off the end of the line quick they could be in the pub by four.  "Ashton Moss, Ashton West, Ashton - job done, mine's a pint of Bacardi."

The dual carriageway continued, past a Sainsbury's and a Marks and Spencer, and down to Ashton-under-Lyme's biggest claim to retail fame: Ikea.  The Swedish furniture giant had finally noticed that building one store halfway between Liverpool and Manchester was insane, leading to huge traffic jams and a general atmosphere of chaos akin to drunken teenagers escaping a nightclub fire.  The Ashton Ikea was intended to drag some of those shoppers over to the other side of Manchester.

Incidentally, I admire that their adverts persist with the Swedish pronunciation (with a short a - "ikkea") but good luck trying to get the British to adapt to it after thirty years.  I suspect it'll be embraced by the kind of people who pronounce "chorizo" with a "th" sound i.e. twats.

I nipped into the store, because I needed the loo, and it's handily located on the ground floor so I didn't need to go through the rat's maze of the showrooms.  It is, however, located next to the Swedish food shop.  I don't particularly care for the food store - and the meatballs and hot dogs are deeply overrated - because I find the blank packaging off putting; it's all a bit "food rations after a nuclear catastrophe".  However, the Swedes really do know how to use ginger and cinnamon, which is very much within my wheelhouse.  Hence:

The teacakes were for the BF.  I feel I must report that they are called Skumtopp.

I crossed the road and finally reached Ashton-Under-Lyme, the terminus of the line.  Again, I'd been here before, collecting the station years ago with Ian; it's a bit further into the town centre.  I didn't feel the need to see the town again.

I settled into my seat and opened my oat drink - yes, really - and got ready for the ride back into the city centre.  That was a whole arm of the Metrolink gone now.  I'm powering through.

Friday 18 August 2017


Undercroft.  It's such a wonderfully evocative, exciting word.  The space beneath the station; the netherworld beneath the tracks.  I'd negotiated my way down through Manchester Piccadilly.  Down from the overcrowded platforms 13 and 14 that aren't going to get any relief now because the government are incompetent self-centred arseholes; down the travelators behind two loud women who'd decided to spread their cases across the width of the belt and clog everyone else's progress; across the concourse, where a bearded Vic Reeves was wearing a denim jacket and looking ever so slightly lost; down two flights of escalators to the base of the station.  Beneath the platforms, amidst cast iron columns, a taxi rank and a bus exchange have been carved out, and of course the Metrolink stops here too.

Behind it though are passages, brick lined roads cutting under the tracks that are dark and cold.  August never penetrated here; it was always dank and chilled.  Time didn't either.  It could've been populated by bustle-clad whores and pickpockets and urchins begging for a farthing.  The undercroft.

Step outside of course, and suddenly it was 2017 again, and a little dull.  The railway arches had been filled with tiny businesses, a garage, a "live escape game", a bakery with a couple of benches where two Asian women with tote bags were buying still-warm loaves.  There was a car park, and then beyond, the back of the mail depot and an industrial estate.

As I closed in on the ring road, I thought about how fragile regeneration is in the north, how patchy.  There were gleaming new buildings up ahead, but getting to them meant passing old, decrepit units, brick offices with their windows covered with mesh, open land with broken "for sale" signs.  In London, this would all have been colonised and rebuilt and renewed decades ago, maybe a couple of times over.  In Manchester and Liverpool and Leeds you step from old to new to shiny to shitty within the space of a street.  I waited at the pelican on the dual carriageway outside the blank face of a self-storage depot, then crossed to the foot of a hotel and an apartment building.  Gentrification was slow.

I was heading for New Islington tram stop, the first one out of the city centre on the Ashton line.  Although according to the Metrolink map, it's still in the centre, hiding inside the grey city zone.  To my mind, if you're beyond a ring road, you're outside the city.  No amount of fare jiggling can change that.

The reason New Islington is in the City Zone is that R-word again, regeneration.  The tram stop is part of the efforts to create a new desirable community, and the grey splodge is a powerful tool to convince estate agents and buyers that being north of the ring road doesn't really mean you're far from the city centre.  (It totally does).  You could absolutely walk to Selfridges from here, honest, but if you didn't here's a nice tram to save you the walk.

I followed the road alongside the tram tracks.  They bore under the streets to reach Piccadilly, and the tunnel mouth has been surrounded by a grassed area, not quite a park.  I'm sure if someone offered to build on it, the city council would snatch their hands off, but until then it was a bit of green where people could eat their sandwiches.  Up above me, attached to a lamp post, was a sign for construction traffic for "Manchester Metrolink Phase 3a" i.e. the very tram line I was about to use, the tram line that's been open for the best part of four years.  I don't know if Manchester's council is very lazy about signage in the city, figuring they'll get round to updating them eventually, or if they just don't care.  Or maybe they do it to annoy me.

I'd just missed my tram to Holt Town, so instead I crossed the tracks and then the canal to head into New Islington itself.  The Chips Building, a Will Alsop creation using his trademark architectural style of "pile some stuff on top on each other then paint it a funny colour", is the flagship development here, and from a distance it looks great.  Up close it was less impressive.  The units on the ground floor, which were probably filled with sunny cafes in the renders, were mostly empty; a playgroup at the end, a beauty salon halfway along.

I crossed Old Mill Street, a boulevard, which is what they call a dual carriageway when there's arty lamp posts in the middle, and headed onto the towpath by the marina.  Pretty houseboats provided a welcome splash of colour in amongst the building sites and glass.  There was even a heron.

It's another space under threat; the council plans on evicting all the boats while they drain the canal basin to "fix some leaks".  The boat owners are claiming they weren't offered alternative berths, and instead are being sent off to cruise the waterways forever.  I couldn't help but wonder if all the new apartments being constructed had something to do with it.  Canal boats are charming and beautiful to look at; everyone loves them.

Trouble is, houseboats are also noisy and, well, human.  People live on them, have to top up the diesel engines with fuel, have to empty the sewage tank.  They've not got much room, so the roofs acquire TV aerials and bikes and boxes of stuff that the boatowners will get around to, someday.  They're a bit real, not just a postcard.  Reality is grimy and not so picturesque and drives down house prices.

Although as developments go, New Islington isn't that bad.  The council have been a bit more relaxed on planning rules for the district, and have encouraged experimentation in the designs.  The result is some interesting homes; a terrace with balconies and shiny black cladding, a row of homes with curled ornamentation and coloured patches.  It's livelier and different and the kind of thing that should be happening everywhere, not just in the expensive parts of town.

I circled round New Islington, passing a sign inviting me to a development called house™ - I wasn't sure if they'd trademarked the word "house" or the entire concept - and out the other side.  Into another world as it turned out.  I hadn't realised, but New Islington itself is a marketeer's project; this bit of town was called New Islington for a while, back in the nineteenth century, but it quickly fell out of use.  It was picked up again only when they started building apartment blocks, probably to hoodwink BBC types driven to MediaCity into believing this was a colony of North London.  The new part was being carved out of Ancoats, a district you probably have heard of.

Ancoats is proper Manchester, a real inner city district; formerly industrial, formerly slums.  A street away from the modern homes of New Islington I found long strips of council houses.  Two cars were parallel parked on one corner, their drivers leaning out of the window to chat, a heavy fog of weed hanging over them.  A dog crapped on the grass verge, then wandered back into his house through the open front door, no sign of the owner.  Gardens had been paved over forming a length of grey concrete behind redbrick walls.  It was working class Manchester, and I wondered how long they had before they'd be pushed out as well.

I was back on Old Mill Street, though it wasn't a boulevard up here, just a busy road into town.  I headed back to the tram stop for my first ride of the day.

The tram was practically empty.  It had started at Altrincham, and only went a couple of stops outside the city centre to reverse at Etihad Campus.  My only fellow passengers were a Middle Eastern man, busy in his book, and a couple of loud drunks (it was barely half-ten in the morning).  They rolled off the tram alongside me at Holt Town, so I lingered a little to let them get away before I took my sign selfie.

From the stop, I could see a vacant workshop, and, in the distance, a boarded up pub.  The drunks rolled up the hill, but I turned back, crossed the tracks, and wandered into a patch of open ground.  Nature had filled the space between the tram tracks and the river Medlock with trees and what you could generously call a meadow; rough grass interspersed with wildflowers.

I was following the tracks on a wide tarmac path.  This was the pedestrian route from Sportcity into Manchester, and it had been built to accommodate huge jostling crowds.  On a quiet Thursday morning, I had it entirely to myself.

I passed under the Ardwick Branch Line, handily labelled on the underside of the viaduct, then the path rose upwards to Sportcity itself (I feel like that C in Sportcity should be capitalised, like MediaCity; that's a missed opportunity for the marketeers).  I emerged on the plaza that surrounds the Etihad Stadium, Manchester City's home ground.

Football stadia are extremely exciting, lively places... for two or three times a week.  For ten months a year.  On a Thursday morning in August, not so much.  Giant expanses of concrete stretched off into the distance, ready to swallow up sixty thousand people on a Saturday afternoon, but right now it was echoey and blank.  The cafes and bars were shuttered up.  The Club Shop was open, and I only knew that because I got close and peered at it.  I didn't see anyone actually go in or anything.

I had a bit of a stroll round, then doubled back to the tram stop.  There are a couple of entrance arches for the usual passengers - just a gap in the fence - but there's also a complex of ticket barriers for match days.

This is presumably more about crowd management than ticket checks.

At track level, the platforms are staggered, either side of the footbridge, to spread out the passengers even more.  It's all very cleverly done, and completely redundant on a silent weekday.  I shared the platform with a tiny old lady.

And I hate that name.  If a private organisation like a sports team wants to pimp out its stadium to the highest bidder, well, that's their decision.  Public transport is public transport though; it belongs to us (yes, I know Metrolink is technically a private company, but you know what a mean).  It shouldn't have a corporate identity muscling its way onto the map, not least because if the sponsorship deal changes, it'll be poor Metrolink who've got to come up with the money to change all the signs and the posters and the dot matrix signs on the trams.  I could just about accept Manchester City as an alternative name, but I'd much prefer something more geographically accurate - it was called Sportcity-Stadium in planning.

Oh dear, this really has been a whiny post, hasn't it?  Basically I'm deeply unhappy with everything new in Manchester.  I'm sorry.  I'll try to be a bit chirpier in the next one.