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.