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.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Memory Lapse

For the last few days, my mum has ventured up north for her annual visit.  We went to Southport, and wandered round Liverpool, and in the evening we sat down to watch Emmerdale.  She's a fan, sort of.  As she said herself, "at the end of every episode, I think, 'what a load of old rubbish'.  I don't know why I watch it."

I am, of course, a Coronation Street man, and I've never taken to its stablemate across the Pennines; I still call it Emmerdale Farm because I am just that hilarious.  Anyway, we were watching the programme, and Colonel Feyador from The Living Daylights had a row with his boyfriend, Billy Corkhill from Brookside.  Billy stormed off in a huff, and I went from my only half-interested state to full rapt attention.  Because where did Billy go?

Only a bloomin' Northern station, that's where!  I was immediately searching for clues to where the fictional "Connelton" station was being filmed.  The signs had been replaced by those very non-corporate fake ones - close, ITV prop department, but that's the wrong font - so I had to hunt for clues, like Anneka Rice with a bigger arse.

Emmerdale is filmed in Leeds, so my first thought was that it was somewhere nearby, but the benches were purple.  In West Yorkshire, the platform furniture tends to be red, to match the WYM corporate look.  This was Purple Gang all the way.

As I wracked my brain, I tweeted in a panic:

I have a terrible memory for names, but a bang-on memory for places.  People will often, when hearing about the blog, ask me questions about their local station, or their favourites, and I often respond with a blank look.  "What did you think of Castleford?" they'll ask, smiling.

Me, vaguely: "It was...a station.  I think."

What you need to say is, "what did you think of that station near a quite shitty Wilko's?"  That works.  I'll give you a monologue then.  The names vanish into the background but I can trace entire journeys in my head, even at a few years remove.

The scene continued.  Billy Corkhill threw his mobile phone onto the platform, smashing it - an act of littering I cannot in any way condone, because I was brought up right - and then he got on the train.  In almost the last shot of the episode, we got the view I wanted:

That big white building on the platform; that was the familiar part, the curiosity that made the station different.  It was the old station building and it was converted into something else.  I ran through my mental rolodex, flicking past memories, picking them up and rejecting them.  For a while, I thought it was the station where the building was devoted to an IT firm, and I'd gone down into the village past a churchyard with a plaque to the local MP, and there was a gents' toilet that was kept going through public donations; I came to the blog and did a search and found that was Gargrave.  Wrong bit of the country.

I went back to the picture on the screen, now frozen, and rammed my face up against it.  My mum watched, half-bemused, half-concerned.  The signage on that building looked green - it was a Co-op!  It was that one where the road went over the track at an angle, and I'd had to dance around a bit waiting to take the sign pic because the supermarket meant there were always people about, and then I'd gone out on the Princess Royal bypass - I remembered the Princess Royal part distinctly.  It had been cold, and crisp; wet legs because there wasn't any pavement, freezing ears.  Barking dogs in a kennel as I walked past.

I searched the blog again and there it was: Pannal.  Pannal station.  North of Leeds, on the line to Harrogate.  February 2015.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

Then I checked my mentions and found that Twitter user @MissEllis15 had already answered the question for me and I hadn't noticed:

This is why you should pay attention to your mentions, people.  It can save you a lot of hassle.

(Incidentally, and I hate to be that person, but in getting the screengrabs for this post I noticed that train number 150270 arrived at the platform, but when it took Billy Corkhill away, it had turned into train number 150228.  I am both very sorry and also very anxious because I'm pretty sure the comments are now going to be full of people telling me that trains can be both 150270 AND 150228 and I should stop trying to talk about trains and get back to listening to people's conversations in cafes and making smutty remarks).