I have visited every single Northern station... once. Obviously, some of them I've been to multiple times; I feel like I could make my way round Leeds station blindfolded. But most of the time, it's been a brief hello, a photo in front of the sign, and then I'm gone.
It means I miss out on big changes. Altrincham station was being rebuilt the last time I came here, in 2013, so I was sad to see it in a less than perfect state, but I wasn't too bothered. It had a huge white ticket office; that was about it. Now, in a rare moment of good luck, I was able to return and see what had happened.
A new glass and steel footbridge leads to a bright, airy bus terminal. Altrincham Interchange, to use its full TfGM title, is now a shiny modern glass box, and it's great.
Even better is the way they've incorporated the old station building; the new building frames it and makes its brick facade into a piece of art. Like a mural but real.
I left the Interchange and headed out for the station sign. That had received a makeover too, being rebranded in TfGM's colours, and as a result it looked... drab. Black and white? How is that meant to attract attention? And I don't like the British Rail double arrows being reduced to a tiny afterthought. There should be a bright totem combining all the logos, really spelling it out for you. Something like this totem at Canning Town. Once again, Transport for Greater Manchester demonstrate their inability to produce a decent piece of signage.
It was 2013 when I was last here, and more than just the bus station had changed. I'd been here then to see my late friend Jim's artwork on display in a local gallery, and had attended with the BF and Jim's partner Norman and our friend John. Four years later, John has also passed away. It meant Altrincham was slightly overshadowed, a black veil draped over it in my memories. I deliberately took a different route to the next tram stop, Navigation Road, so I didn't repeat it all.
This time I disappeared into the well-to-do back streets. Brick villas hidden behind closely-trimmed hedges; blocks of well-appointed flats with discreet signage. Builders doing loft conversions and laying down new block paved drives, and the occasional car belonging to the domestic. It was affluent, middle class, polite. As I passed Navigation Primary School, the leaden parp of a brass band started up, labouring through scales with tinny echoes.
As I turned into Navigation Road itself, I spotted that the level crossing was down. Navigation Road stop is the point where the railway and the Metrolink diverge, with one platform for trams and one for trains, so the safety features are more significant. I made a dash to catch the tram - at that point I didn't realise that they're every six minutes on this stretch of track - and snatched a very hasty sign photo that misses off the end. You get the gist. If you're a purist for this sort of thing, I'll point out again that I had already been here once before, so really, I didn't need to take a photo at all.
We passed through Deansgate Junction and waved goodbye to the proper trains. From here on it was light rail on heavy rail infrastructure; an old fashioned train line converted to trams. Alighting at Timperley felt like a return to the days of my Northern trips. The sad, unwanted bits around Levenshulme, admittedly.
I pushed past a gaggle of Sixth Formers out on a jolly to get to the top of the stairs and - yes! - a Metrolink Arch. I need to come up with a proper name for them.
I was curious to see what had happened to the station building since it went over to tram usage. You can tell a lot about an area by what they do with their old railway infrastructure once it's surplus to requirements. Swanky coffee bar, grimy cab office, or worst of all, demolished. At Timperley, it was a cafe, with seating and railway-themed signage; it promised sausage barms from 7 am, and I was definitely tempted.
I crossed the road to a set of stairs that lead down to the waterside. The tram shadowed the Bridgewater Canal from here to Brooklands, and I thought a quiet morning stroll down the towpath would be a pleasing way to continue the journey.
About three minutes after I'd begun my perambulation, the dark recesses of my mind twisted and turned and summoned up a memory: the Manchester Pusher. In the last decade, dozens of bodies have been pulled from the city's canals - the bodies of late night revelers, of cruising gays, of dog walkers - and a rumour has sprung up that this is all the work of a serial killer.
As I walked, I dwelled on this, at unnecessary and ghoulish length. One push, that was all it would take. There were no barriers to stop me falling in. One push, and I'd be in that cold dark water. Canal banks are hard verticals, lined with stone or concrete or steel, with no handholds to grab. It's still water too, with no eddies and currents to move you around. I'd plunge in, a splash, a thrash around, and then the black water would close in around me. Fill my pockets and my backpack. Pull me down and under until I felt nothing any more.
It was so easy. And so easy to do, as well. That was the twist as I began to walk, the secret urge to push someone just to see what would happen, like that nasty instinct you have to kick the cane out from under someone or knock the sweets out a child's hand. That malevolent streak inside that proves we're all just cruel animals in our soul. That cyclist? That pensioner with her dog? That jogger? They wouldn't expect it at all. Just one sudden swing to the right and I could knock them in.
The police say it's just a coincidence. There's a lot of canals in Manchester, and they're surrounded by bars and clubs; that's a lot of drunks. And accidents happen all the time. It's all just a coincidence, and there's not a single person murdering people all over the waterways. I did wonder, maybe that's because there's lots of us. I mean, them.
I packed away my murderous side for another day and went back to enjoying the peace of the walk. The trees, now peppered with autumn colours, so much more interesting than the uniform green of summer. The ducks that made a beeline for me as I passed, hoping I had a pocket full of breadcrumbs. The glimpse of a miniature railway track in Walton Park. Then I was passing Sale Cemetery, and the ghoulishness came back again, so I dashed up to the road and the relative safety of Brooklands tram stop.
I was initially saddened to see the former station ticket hall boarded up, until I got closer. The door was open, allowing me to see the workman inside laying elegant black and white tiles, while a staff wanted sign appealed for baristas. Another coffee shop on its way.
There were a gaggle of Metrolink ticket inspectors on the opposite platform, waiting for the next tram. I was pleased to see that the official uniform includes a woolly hat; definitely necessary when you're ticket checking on a cold January in Greater Manchester.
A quick ride and I was at Sale. This was where the pleasure at seeing railway infrastructure repurposed tipped into sadness. Unlike the previous stops, Sale was a destination, with a station right by the Town Hall. It was built to reflect this, with large brick buildings ready to provide all the services a railway needs.
Metrolink doesn't need all that. It's largely human-free, with machines and apps to buy your ticket. Cheap and easy to run, yes; charming, maybe not. Bricked up windows backed onto the platform; former doorways were covered with plywood and a sign - Danger: No Floor Inside. The canopies were tired and brutally efficient, glass replaced by perspex, anti-pigeon netting everywhere. One side was now a cycle hub, but even that reduced a bay-windowed waiting room to little more than a storage area.
Is it better than demolition? Perhaps. Transport needs life though; it needs to be animated. Dead space kills it.
I climbed the stairs to street level. The ticket office was now Metro News, selling fags and sweets and papers. Half of it, anyway; the other door was bricked up.
Sale made a good first impression. The canal was still with us, now overlooked by an arts centre, and a cluster of bars and restaurants had formed to take advantage of the leisure traffic. There was also the glorious pomp of the Town Hall, reassuringly grand and proud.
I headed into the pedestrianised precinct, just starting to get busy with lunchtime trade. There were all the usual retail suspects, but it felt friendly and local. I paused in Greggs to get a nourishing lump of gristle wrapped in pastry, meaning I missed out on the delights of the intriguingly named "Womble Inn" and its barbecued chicken:
What does that mean - "Womble Inn"? It's not a pub or a hotel, it's a butcher's with extras. It's not in Wimbledon. Is it a pun on "Wombling"? If so, why? I have so many questions that I fear will never be answered. I did do a bit of googling, and found their Facebook page, but (a) they don't have any explanation for the name, and (b) their latest entry says "feeling hungry cum and see us at the womble inn" and I can't support that sort of language.
I headed onto the unlovely strip of industry and decay that was the A56. The road was traffic choked, the pavement cracked; it was a primary route that had been annexed by the car and people were a secondary consideration. All the main businesses had a strip of parking out front, leaving the ones with nowhere for cars to flouder; they were abandoned or occupied by transient tenants.
At the final crossroads before the M60, there had been a glimpse of regeneration. A slab of an office block had been reclad, and its ground floor showrooms housed a Majestic Wine Warehouse and a Ducati motorbike dealership. They didn't fit in with the miscellany of Indian takeaways and Wags' dog grooming parlour, and they seemed to know it: every other window in the Ducati showroom warned of its security features (these premises will fill with a smoke that impairs vision within 30 seconds), like a nervous middle-class matron who gets on the wrong bus and spends the whole journey clutching her anti-mugging alarm.
I turned onto the far less busy Dane Road, a strip of stout redbrick worker's homes and old people's flats that somehow climaxed in the Bridge Inn. As its name implied, the Bridge Inn was next to the canal, and the owners had for some reason decided that made it a country pub, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
Please note the artificial grass and the industrial estate across the way. Scenic!
Dane Road tram stop reflected the grimier end of the scale too. It was a worker's station, not a place for soft handed commuters, and looked empty and disconsolate. I was glad when a tram arrived to take me away.
Stretford is one of those bits of Manchester you've heard of, but never seen. I only knew of it as a place that was a bit grim, knowledge entirely based on veiled references in dramas and comedies. Not somewhere I had any personal experience of.
I held back as I got off the tram, as I always do so I can take pictures without blocking anyone's way. There used to be more tracks here, and it felt open and a little abandoned. The extra space had simply been concreted over. There was too much of it, too much grey everywhere. I paused and took a bad photo that looked perfectly ok on the tiny camera screen; clearly it was my day for dodgy pics.
I left through the car park and wandered up to the road bridge. The old ticket office here was in the worst condition yet. Plants grew out of the gutters, and the grey paint applied to the bricks was flaked and chipped. The building had been divided into a newsagent on once side, and an office for a taxi firm on the other. The taxi company was called "New Moon & Robin Hood", a clunky name that was clearly the result of a merger at some point in the past. Couldn't they have compromised and gone half and half? New Hood? Robin Moon?
There was a parade of shops, only half filled, then a strange but delightful doorway.
The Longford Cinema opened in the 1930s and was an instant hit for the residents of Stretford. For thirty years it was a shining beacon of Art Deco glamour, until changing tastes saw it converted to a bingo hall. That carried on for another thirty years, until in the 1990s it was closed and sold again. And it's been empty ever since. Its exterior is kept in excellent nick - the paint work was impeccable, as befits a listed building - but it's not been used for a very long time. Various proposals have come and gone, but the owner has simply sat on it.
I rounded the corner to take a better look, but I was thwarted. In the 1970s the council expanded the A56, taking away the land in front of the Longford. They put in huge, scary looking underpasses to give access to the Stretford Arndale (or the Mall as it is today) that further sliced up the path. It meant that the only real look I could get without running across six lanes of traffic was from the side. You can't really appreciate it from that angle:
I was about to write Stretford off as a waste of time when I spotted a tiny terrace, off to the side of the screaming traffic. I took a chance and wandered towards it and found an absolute delight.
Trafford Grove was a strip of worker's cottages overlooking a narrow pedestrian alleyway. It was wonderful. Quiet, pleasingly designed, and well maintained. The front yards faced one another and many of them featured benches to let you sit and chat to your neighbours. It was utterly charming. On the wall of one house, a further piece of history:
A Roll of Honour for the war dead from the terrace. A shockingly long roll of honour, at that; a reminder that the working classes of the big cities were the ones pushed out onto the front line as cannon fodder.
Trafford Grove turfed me out in the shadow of St Anne's Catholic Church, another listed building whose frontage was now practically on the roadway. Over the road, a chicken shop called Get Clucked took me back to the grubby 21st century.
The white steelwork of Manchester United poked out over the rooftops as I got closer to the city. I was now in Old Trafford, though while the football ground is in amongst industrial parks and factories, this was an altogether more pleasing part of the district. There were actual trees, for a start. A Chinese takeaway filled the air with spices, thick and pungent, while outside two workmen sat in their van and ate chips out of the paper.
I was heading for Old Trafford's other sporting venue, the cricket ground. As I've said before on this blog, I find most sports boring, but cricket especially so. No sport should have its playing time counted in days. That's just insane. The BF has occasionally floated the idea of going to a Twenty Twenty game at Old Trafford (yes, I had to clarify with him what it was actually called). His position seems to be that it's a shorter form of the game, and will therefore be more enjoyable, overlooking the essential fact that it is still a cricket match. After that, he goes down the route that it's "a day out!" and "all you have to do is sit and have a beer!" and all sorts of other vague arguments that nonetheless ignore that it is still a cricket match. I nearly fell asleep at Anfield; at a cricket match, I'd probably slip into a coma.
Still, sport stadia are always a little bit interesting to me, so I was excited to see what Old Trafford looked like. I was disappointed.
It is now apparently the "Emirates Old Trafford" as another piece of the country is bought up by the Middle East. I suppose it's one way of differentiating yourself from the more famous football ground, but it's still bloody depressing. And while the Emirates logo was twenty feet high on the front of the stadium, the only red rose of Lancashire I could find was on the gates to the car park.
Far more pleasing was Trafford Town Hall over the road, another stout bit of local government architecture which will no doubt be turned into a Premier Inn before the decade is out.
I turned down the side of the stadium, past the UK headquarters of Kellogg's, and walked down to my final tram stop of the day, Old Trafford. There used to be a station here, of course, except for most of its life it wasn't called Old Trafford; it was Warwick Road, a piece of unnecessary opacity that I find delightful. Even better, it was previously named after the cricket and football grounds and they changed the name to something more obscure. Brilliant.
Much like its cousin at the Etihad, Old Trafford has been built for the crowds, with segregated entrances and staggered platforms ready to swallow thousands of probably drunk people with ease. On a quiet weekday it was a lot less exciting.
A tram from Manchester had just dropped its load as I arrived, and I passed two Asian men getting brought down to earth by a local. "Don't get excited," she scolded as they started snapping pictures of the huge Old Trafford sign. "That's the cricket ground."
I walked across to the southbound platform, ready for a tram back to Altrincham. Back when I first visited the station in 2013 I wrote:
It was a reminder that being a MetrolinkTart wouldn't be much fun; between the frequent services and the closely spaced stops I could probably polish off the entire network in a couple of days. Not that I'm necessarily ruling it out.
It turns out it takes a little bit more than a couple of days. But I'm getting there. I've passed the halfway point now, so every stop from now on is a little tick towards the end...