It's a new year, but some things never change. I'm still arsing around on trains. In this case, it was a real repeat run, as I returned to East Didsbury. I first visited here in - blimey - 2013, and it was all very familiar. Still a blank empty station, made even more maudlin with a sheen of January rain. There was a slight excitement on exiting in the form of a new ticket machine, a sleek slab of glass touch screen tech:
Otherwise it was another drab Manchester railway station. I was here to collect a stream of tram stops: the Didsbury line, stretching down into the posh south of the city. Five years ago I'd got the tram out and then taken the train; this time I'd done it the other way round, as part of my commitment to supplying new and innovative content at all times.
I knew the Metrolink stop was vaguely north of the station, but there weren't any signs pointing it out. I mean, why would you? TfGM really, really hate signs. Information is for losers. I set off across the busy stream of traffic, or rather, around the traffic. Getting across meant a series of staggered pelican crossings, which first deposited me on the centre of the roundabout. As roundabouts go, it was very nice, but it wasn't actually where I wanted to go. Across the way, the Parrs Wood Entertainment Complex loomed threateningly, a big slab of cinema and chain restaurants, a Death Star of fun.
Another set of traffic lights and I was on the side of the road by the Tesco. I could now see the yellow flag of the Metrolink in the distance, a tiny bit of colour amidst the grey, but I still had to use another pedestrian crossing to get there. I couldn't help but wonder if there was a better way of doing all this. There's also a bus station outside the cinema; it's as though the transport planners understood the value of a tram, train and bus interchange, but thought people would really enjoy a nice walk in between changing modes.
At least I was finally here, at the East Didsbury tram stop. Its tracks still pointed hopefully towards Stockport. There's not much chance of it happening now - Metrolink has its fasr more exciting Trafford Centre extension to play with - but East Didsbury dangles, gently hinting every day that it'd really prefer not to be a terminus, if you get its drift.
A gentle electric shimmy down the tracks and I was in Didsbury Village.
I apologise in advance for the quality of the sign selfies, and not just because my big red face is in them. The low winter sun meant that every other photo I took was splattered with light, and a lot of the time I couldn't see the screen so I was just mashing at the shutter button and hoping for the best.
Didsbury is desirable. It's invested with the sheen of middle-class respectability, the discreet glamour of restaurants and wine bars and an M&S Simply Food. BMWs and Audis purred past, while mums with pushchairs moved from artisan shop to coffee shop. It's got money; not the flashy, brash cash of a Wilmslow, the more money than sense strip of designer clothes and kitchen shops. This is the cushioned money, not rich but well off, the privileged glow of a nice house and meals out and wine without thinking about the bills. It has a musical instruments shop, for goodness' sake, violins and cellos proudly on display in the window.
It also contains the new middle-class mecca: Aldi. I'm not sure when Aldi and Lidl became the new go-to places. Suddenly people were banging on about "the middle aisle" over chardonnay at dinner parties the way they used to eulogise for Waitrose. Perhaps people have realised that paying £2.50 for a slice of cauliflower when you can get a whole one for pennies is daft; perhaps there isn't quite as much money swilling about as they'd like you to believe. I did notice that this branch had been updated with the new logo, introduced last year. They've not got round to refreshing the one in the North End of Birkenhead, for some reason.
I crossed the tracks just as a tram clattered underneath the bridge; on the side a plaque told me this was a 1989 replacement for an 1875 bridge. I wonder how the people of Didsbury felt about the trams. This was a railway line for the best part of a century, until Beeching closed it in 1967. The only thing that remains of the old Didsbury station is the clock tower outside Tesco.
That was forty years of quiet isolation. There were buses, yes, but not the rattle of trains and trams. That link to central Manchester probably added something to the house prices, but the big houses that backed onto the line? Probably not so keen. And it's hard to be exclusive if you're really easy to reach.
Lapwing Lane was a pleasing row of Victorian villas and well-built housing association flats, ending in a row of shops outside West Didsbury tram stop that were a little further down the economic scale from the village centre. There was still a deli and a hair salon, but there was also a chemist and a newsagent, and the restaurant on the end was a Pizza Express. I love a Sloppy Giuseppi as much as the next man but now they're everywhere; they're Nandos with a crispy crust. I was more intrigued by the pub over the way, the Greenfinch, which had an outsized leather armchair in the garden and an appealing looking sturdiness. Is it too early for a pint? I wondered, then remembered it was barely eleven a.m. and felt ashamed. (Dry January is not a movement I subscribe to, because my birthday is slap in the middle of it and I refuse to be sober on that day, but I did wonder if I should re-examine my drinking habits).
There was still a Christmas tree outside the tram stop. A few days after Twelfth Night, fine, but this was three weeks into the New Year; take it down, it's just depressing now. A persistent Christmas tree is a reminder that the good times are gone. The tram was pulling in below me, so I dashed down and snatched a hurried picture.
Burton Road came with a warning from the future. That vague fancy for a pint of bitter had registered with the gods, and they put on a bit of street theatre to knock me back on the path of righteousness. Two drunks fell out of the tram with me, rolling over each other, cans of lager in hand. They staggered towards the exit, taking in their surroundings with an unsteady stare of suppressed anger. I hung back and let them get way ahead, and considered switching to alcohol free beer. (I didn't of course, because no-one drinks beer for the taste, but I did at least consider it).
At street level, West Didsbury's Pizza Express had been replaced by a Pizza Hut Delivery outlet, and that seemed about right. There were still restaurants and pubs, but they were homier and less polished. They were also more ethnic; Didsbury's restaurant scene had seemed resolutely European, but here there were Indian and Chinese options.
I walked past a boutique called Bond, which obviously caught my attention, and turned right into Cavendish Road. Opposite, a good old-fashioned hardware store clung on, the kind of place I love to see as I whizz by on my way to B&Q.
There was the noise of children in the playground fizzing in the air as I walked past tight little terraced houses. They all had curtains or blinds or screens covering their front windows to shield the contents from passers by. I would find that horribly depressing; never being able to look out at the street because you don't want people looking in. Never any sunlight. There was a pocket park, where two women in hijabs gossiped over pushchairs. A man walked past with a shaggy Golden Retriever; the bottom half of the dog, from the belly down, was black with mud from some ill-advised jump in a pond.
I ended up on Princess Road, the huge dual carriageway which goes from the city centre out to the M56. Manchester is blessed with these wide, straight roads to whip traffic in and out of the suburbs. When originally built they had tram tracks running down the centre; now the trams go beneath it on the old railway line, and it's just a strip of scabby grass.
Withington is a slightly misnamed tram stop. The actual district of Withington is a mile away; in fact, Burton Road is closer. It was in a bit of a desolate spot though - the tram stop is mainly there as a park and ride - and the nearest landmark was the Southern Cemetary next door, a distinctly cheerless name for a transport hub. So Withington it was.
I got off the tram at St Werburgh's Road with two teenage girls. They were wearing their pyjamas and had their hair pulled into tight buns; no fucks were being given, and I was scared of them. They yammered on and I tried to work out how to take a sign pic without incurring their scorn. I hovered a bit, so they could leave, but it seemed they were waiting for the Airport tram. Then, blessedly, I spotted St Werburgh's Road has an arch, and I dashed off before they noticed I was fat and old and decided to tell me.
I'd been here before as well, in 2011, but that was before the line had even opened. Back then I'd never ridden a Metrolink tram. What a different time it was. Again, I took a different route; I hate to repeat myself. I vanished into a road of semis, heralded by the noisiest cat I have ever heard. From the first moment I turned into the street I heard its mewling, but I couldn't see it anywhere. I assumed it was close. A few minutes walk and I finally spotted it, sat calmly on the pavement opposite, miaowing repeatedly for no apparent reason. It fixed me with a cold stare and I carried on, still hearing its bellow.
A quick kink, a glimpse of a distant office tower, and I arrived in Chorlton Cum Hardy, which is a filthy name. It sounds like a Tumblr slashfic about Chorlton and the Wheelies; I can see why Metrolink went for the far tamer "Chorlton" for the name of its stop. The shops here were rough and unkempt, a Chicken Cottage, a Star News, the brilliantly named Booze Corner. It did feature something I'd never seen before: a Metrolink inspired cafe. In London, you often see Tube-related business, skirting the copyright law to hang off the back of the famous brand, but this was my first tram-based one.
They've got the font and the white circles and everything. Sadly, that seemed to be it for the theme; I don't think there were booths in the shape of trams or anything.
I took three pictures at Chorlton and that was the most flattering. IMAGINE.
A busy tram arrived and took me to Firswood. And hurray, another arch! I really can't work out why some stops have arches and some don't. Stops with access from an overbridge seem to have them more often, but Chorlton didn't, and I've been to stops with level exits that have them too. It's not a particular branch, or an era of opening; they've been applied to older routes as well as the new ones. It's a shame, because they're about the only piece of distinctive station furniture the Metrolink has. The rest of it's just a posh bus stop.
Firwood is on the fringe of Old Trafford, as I realised when I saw signs advising Permit Holders Parking on "event days". What a monumental pain in the arse it must be to have two major sports stadia on your doorstep; just as the football season finishes, the cricket starts, and you spend your Saturday picking chip papers out of your hedge.
I walked along the straight-as-a-die Seymour Grove towards Trafford, which was a mistake. The lack of landmarks or even curves meant my mind wandered, or rather, turned inwards. I slipped into darker thoughts, thoughts of death and decay. I've turned 41, a frighteningly adult age and one which means I'm probably in the second half of my life; on top of that, my mum's finally retired and the BF's mum is in a nursing home. Everything seems to be winding down, and it's been weighing on my mind a lot. I became distracted and downcast.
It didn't help that my surroundings were resolutely unlovely, a strip of tarmac with mean looking semis crouching against the traffic. The office towers, from a distance, looked mildly impressive, until you got close and realised they'd been turned into dark apartments. The only joy was a house with a beautifully crafted pair of front doors, made out of wood and easily the best bit of the entire building.
While Didsbury's Aldi had received a makeover, this one hadn't even survived; the building was shuttered and up for lease, the Iceland next door hanging up a faintly desperate Open as Usual banner. Then a strip of takeaways with pictures of food in the window, none of which looked even vaguely appealing, just lumps of brown with lettuce. The subtle menus and outdoor terraces of South Manchester were a long way away.
Trafford Bar had a delightful surprise; a proper station building.
This had been Old Trafford railway station until 1991; remember that Old Trafford tram stop, which is next to the cricket ground, was called Warwick Road when it was served by trains, and the station next to the soccer stadium is called Manchester United Football Ground. Frankly I'm surprised anyone ever got to any events by public transport, as they all seemed to be deliberately named to confuse outsiders.
It was a nice little building, with interesting features, but sadly missing a purpose now. Metrolink doesn't need ticket halls, and there are roads either side for access, so the building sits empty and unloved. I went down to the platform and discovered the grimmest tram stop yet.
It had, just barely, been converted from its railway days, but the facilities were terrible; an actual bus stop on the southbound platform, while the northbound shelter was just a bit of corrugated tin supported by struts. There was a turnstile at the side, a practical measure to accommodate football crowds on the one hand, a harsh-looking barrier on the other. The only plus was that this was the end of my trip; not a high, by any means, but at least I could head home. That always makes me smile.