I had to get out.
Part of it was stir-craziness. I've been in the middle of a pretty huge home project for the last few months and it's meant I've been virtually housebound. Every day a parade of workmen has trooped through the door, smearing dirt all over the carpets, and I've been left hanging about shoving PG Tips in their face.
The other motivation for getting out and about was Lime Street. It was closing at the start of October for six weeks so the tracks could be torn up and realigned, and I had to get out there while it was still about. Just the thought of getting a train via Chester, or queuing up with disgruntled amateur passengers at South Parkway, was enough to have me reaching for the smelling salts. So while the station was still in one piece I hopped on board a direct train and headed for Manchester Airport.
Obviously, I've been to the station before, back in the Northern Rail days. Five years ago in fact, which is a bit sobering. Back then it didn't even have a Metrolink route, though it was slowly creeping its way out there. Now it's the terminus for a line from the city centre.
The trams are mainly here for the workers. If you want to get to the city centre, all those trains lined up on the other platforms will get you there a lot faster - usually non-stop. The tram will take a hesitant, stilted, roundabout route through South Manchester's suburbs, and it's not even a lot cheaper. That didn't stop me from regularly encountering foreign tourists with huge suitcases on the trams throughout the day - a Chinese couple looking thoroughly confused by Wythenshawe, two French boys being very laissez faire, a Polish man who hunched over his baggage with something resembling despair.
The tram tooted its horn and rolled out of the airport, shadowed by high security fencing at first until it rose up to street level around the airport business park. It seemed strange that we scooted past all this prime employment real estate, surrounded by car parks; surely these were ideal for a stop? Instead we rolled past the Ringway and into the relative quiet of a housing estate for our next halt.
Shadowmoss is an incredibly dramatic name for what's just a little tram stop. It sounds more like a mid-90s role playing game, something set in a dark cyberpunk future where everyone wears trench coats and has microchips in their foreheads. I should've been hacking into the mainframe, man, not climbing off a tinkling tram near the end of the airport runway.
I turned and walked up Shadowmoss Road. It was flanked by sturdy Corporation homes, brick built with gardens and grass verges and plenty of space. Once again I wondered why we can't still build houses like this. Family homes instead of piddling little boxes where the car gets more space than the people.
You wouldn't get that built today. Too much valuable real estate devoted to nothing more than a bit of grass, and too much landscape for the council to have to maintain. It'd all be parking spaces, and there'd be nowhere for the ropeswing.
An Aegean Airlines plane peeled off overhead and reminded me that we were still in the airport buffer zone. Across the other side of the tram tracks were industrial estates with vaguely air related names, car hire places, "logistics". Further along was the Concord Business Park - carefully missing that final 'e' so British Airways lawyers don't get on the phone - advertising that it was 'business class'.
I turned the corner and stumbled across the next stop, Peel Hall.
The rain was trying to break through as I took a place in the shelter alongside an agitated elderly man. He paced, up and down the platform, impatient; when the tram came in he practically ran for the doors. He looked long past the age of someone who had places to be.
Another quick trip and I was disembarking at Robinswood Road.
I crossed the busy road, then made my way through a series of car parks to the back of Wythenshawe town centre. I cut past the Job Centre and the bingo hall and headed into the main precinct.
Wythenshawe was tired. I don't mean that it was in need of a lick of paint - though that wouldn't have done any harm. I mean that it had the exhausted, wiped out feel of a place that was just sick of having to try. It was a town centre that had been built with optimism but was now filled with bottom rung shops - B&M, Wilko, Home and Bargain. An Asda hoovered up most of the purchases.
The people looked tired too. Girls pushed babies in pushchairs with the grim determination that Things. Needed. To. Get. Done. Men hunched in too-heavy coats. Pensioners huddled to chat, not loudly and boisterously and gossipy, but coldly, sharing woes.
Wythenshawe was tired of the daily, unending grind of life. It was longing for a little happiness somewhere. I didn't enjoy it. I fled through to the other side, to Wythenshawe Interchange. TfGM have put up a huge glass and steel building for buses and trams. It is, by some way, the most impressive building in the town centre. And it really doesn't belong.
The tram stop was full of shoppers heading home, using their concessionary passes as soon as they could and getting back before lunch. I skulked round the back for the sign selfie. When I started doing this blog, taking the sign pictures was awkward; I felt like people were staring. Today, I'm pretty sure no-one cares, because everyone is taking selfies all the time, but I still feel self-conscious. Mind you I feel self-conscious about pretty much anything I ever do.
The tram was full, so I stood and got off at the next stop. Now that I do feel self-conscious about. The distances between each halt are so small I feel like I'm being judged for riding such a short distance. I've considered feigning a limp as I disembark, to give an air of oh-no-I-really-couldn't-walk-that-far.
It was especially lucky in this case, because I could see Benchill stop from the platforms at Crossacres. If I'd taken the tram between those two spots I suspect my fellow passengers would have laughed in my face.
As I walked the few hundred metres to Benchill, I became aware of another pedestrian coming towards me. She caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, she was stunningly beautiful. She had the perfect face of a model, coupled with incredibly dark black skin that seemed to glow. Her hair was tight cropped and dyed yellow, making a stark and attention-grabbing contrast. She was wearing a snug leather jacket and a short skirt over dark tights.
The second reason she caught my attention was that she had the mouth of a loudhailer that had been dropped in a sewer. I could hear her bellowing the foulest obscenities into her phone from an incredible distance. As we got closer, she just got louder and filthier. Every other word was a curse, and not the mild ones. I don't know who she was on the phone with but she was furious at them. Judging by her tone it was a Nazi who'd slept with her boyfriend, murdered her cat and eaten the last slice of cake in the fridge.
As we crossed on the pavement, I looked down at my shoes, not wanting to catch her eye. All that fury had to go somewhere and I didn't want her to mark me down as a punching bag. She walked off behind me, her voice disappearing long after her body.
Benchill stop was right outside a college, and I shared the platform with two students. One was white and one was black, and they chattered away to one another in the kind of casual slang that is deliberately incomprehensible to an old fart like me. I tried to listen in but it may as well have been Croatian; all I could work out was that they were generally a couple of happy youths. When they said goodbye, the black lad boarding the tram, they did a semi-hand shake, sliding their palms over one another.
I have never felt more decrepit.
I got a seat on the next tram, which was fortunate, as it was going a fair old way. It's a mile from Benchill to Martinscroft tram stop, about three times the distance between Benchill and Crossacres. We passed plenty of houses and shops on the way, so it wasn't like there wasn't demand for a stop. It felt like Metrolink knew there had to be a stop between Crossacres and Martinscroft but couldn't find space for one so just slapped it down where they could, making the route oddly lopsided.
There were three terrifyingly noisy and confident teen girls buying tickets at Martinscroft stop. Their mouths were almost as loud as their clothes as they chattered relentlessly, ignoring the tram to hammer away at the touchscreen. I skulked off, veering away from the main road and disappearing into the estate at the back. It was more attractive council houses. The whole route had seemed dotted with them; big cheap homes connected by long straight avenues. They seemed friendly and happy to me.
My feet skidded on the damp leaves - autumn was definitely here - as I marched down the quiet back roads. A mother passed me, carrying her baby with one hand and pushing the pushchair with her other; he stared at me as they went by so I shot him a smile. He smiled back, instantly improving my mood by a thousand per cent.
After a while I returned to the main road, slightly scared I'd miss the turn for the next stop, and I crossed the tracks via a barrow crossing. "That's not a very good place to put a crossing, on the bend," I thought as I darted across, only to spot the proper footpath a few metres further on. I skulked up to the platform and hoped no-one had seen me.
There was a man on the platform at Roundthorn getting very agitated with the machine. Not in an angry way, but out of frustration. He was trying to buy a ticket, but the machine was rejecting his old pound coin; it clattered in and out without a pause. I'd gone cashless again, using e-tickets for the train and the tram, so I couldn't offer any help, and the coin offered by another passenger didn't help either. For some reason the machine had just taken against him, and he simply turned and watched the rest of us board the tram and take off without him. It was sad and more than a little embarrassing.
Roundthorn would've been the point where the Wythenshawe loop split. When the Airport line was in its planning stages, the idea was that there would be two separate ways to get there. Some trams would head for Wythenshawe town centre, while the others would take a more direct route to Manchester Airport via the famous Wythenshawe Hospital. You can see it at the bottom of the map below.
Inevitably, budget crunches meant that something had to go, and the Hospital side of the loop was abandoned so that TfGM could get something built. They still have aspirations to finish the loop off, but given that they've found funding for the Trafford Park extension first I wouldn't hold your breath.
Baguley was a mess of old factories turned small business units and large blocks of flats. There was something Soviet about it; I hugged my jacket close like I was wandering across a Siberian tundra. I mean, look at this:
If that was in black and white it could easily pass for Stalingrad.
I crossed the bridge over the freight line and negotiated the huge junction behind a Tesco Extra. Across the way, the Manchester Health Academy - what used to be called 'a high school' - was undergoing building work, apparently to incorporate the public library. Another money saving plan; put the library in the school, then the pupils can use it and the council can avoid having to pay for a second building. I thought back to Sundon Park Library, where I spent many hours as a kid, and which was levelled a few years ago. I suppose a shared building is better than no library at all, but it still made me sad.
The Manchester bound platform was empty, but there were two people waiting on the Airport route. I was surprised to see one of them was wearing a pilot's uniform. Moor Road was a nice enough district, don't get me wrong, but you imagine pilots to be living in swinging accommodation; city centre penthouse flats or Cheshire mansions with long drives. You don't really imagine them sat on a tram platform, it's all black cabs and champagne. Between this and the Ryanair pilots' dispute I'm starting to realise flying a plane isn't anywhere near as glamorous as I thought.
Of course it could be like Coronation Street, and he's actually a conman who wears the uniform to trap the ladies. If a pilot sidles up to you in a bar and offers to show you his Jumbo, ask for some proof first; you don't want to be another Deirdre Barlow.
At Wythenshaw Park, the tram finally goes off road. For most of its route the Airport Line uses grass verges and avenues, with a little bit of street running, but here it peels off to run behind the houses on a section of dedicated track. I took the sign pic then did my best to follow it.
For a while, I could still see the wires, popping up between houses, but then it was hidden behind trees and I had to guess my way. I wandered along empty streets, the only noise the sound of kids in a distant primary school, just pointing myself in the right direction.
I wasn't really surprised that I missed my tram. I didn't actually have a plan to catch that specific one, but the distances between stops are so short I'd been effectively boarding the next tram along every time. It meant a certain amount of awkwardness for me when I saw people from previous stops; the Martinscroft girls had given me a funny look when I boarded at Roundthorn, and the man with the dodgy pound coin had finally worked out the ticket machine to be there when I got on at Moor Road. This time I saw the tram taking off from Northern Moor stop just as I arrived. I picked up empty can of Strongbow, discarded on the platform, dropped it into the bin and took a seat and waited for the next one.
That's a very unfortunate facial expression I know but it's the only shot where the sun doesn't obscure the name on the sign.
Twelve minutes - give or take - later, I was on another tram headed for Sale Water Park. The tram ducked and dived en route, rising up to cross the M60 on a bridge then shadowing it for a while before dropping me at a Park and Ride stop. I was the only person to leave or board the tram, which suggests it's maybe not doing too well.
Sale Water Park stop does have one thing going for it: an arch! Since my first proper jaunt on the trams I'd not seen any of these distinctive station entrances, which was a shame. They're far more interesting ways to mark your territory than the tiny flag signs Metrolink favour, and they also make a much better sign shot:
It was lunchtime by now, and I began to mull a stop at the pub by the river. A quiet pint overlooking the Mersey sounded good, but I wasn't hungry enough for pub grub. I just fancied a sandwich or something, and the rigmarole of ordering food just sounded like too much hassle, so I walked on. Yes, that's right; I passed up the opportunity for a pint. I'm as shocked as you are.
I crossed the River Mersey by a footbridge - it's so much easier at this end of the river! - and headed into the park itself. It is, to be perfectly honest, less a park and more undeveloped land. There used to be a gravel pit here, which was flooded to form a lake, and the soil seemed wet and boggy. Add in the busy motorway close by and it seemed to be a recreation area just because no-one wanted to live here.
I walked round the back of the football pitches and was pleasantly surprised by a development of blocky houses at the entrance to the park. They were starkly modern and pleasingly unromantic; there was no attempt to blend in with the greenery or heritage frills.
Hardy Lane was originally projected to head straight across the park and over to the motorway, and it was obviously built to accommodate a lot more traffic. It was a wide, straight avenue, with the houses set back, but it just petered out at the end; the trams had stolen its route over the river. It's nice to see public transport get preferential treatment over cars for once.
The skies were darkening as I got closer to Barlow Moor Road. I could sense the beginnings of a thunderstorm. I nipped into the Co-op on the corner to buy that sandwich and when I emerged, it was hammering down with rain, a catastrophe of water suddenly crashing down onto the road. I hid under the canopy and took my final sign picture of the day.
Time to head back to the Airport. Time to head home.