Wednesday 28 February 2018


They were sat across the aisle from me, together.  You'd mistake them for an old married couple at first glance but if you watched them for a little while you could tell they were just friends - there was a slight distancing, a lack of intimacy.  He nodded as she hooted at the automated tram voice. 

"East Didsbury!" she exclaimed, the tram's ultimate destination.  In a voice thick with barm cake, she told him, "It's a right nice place is Didsbury, so they say.  That woman told me."  (Frustratingly, she didn't elaborate on who 'that woman' was).  "The woman said don't go to East Didsbury, get off at the one before."

I smiled a little at her lack of adventure.  Poor old dear, I thought.  She's lived here in Rochdale all her life and she's never thought to ride to the other end of the tram line - never even heard of it.  Such a small life.  I imagined her in a tiny terraced house somewhere, a little Hilda Ogden, barely changed since the war.

Then she continued, "So anyway we Googled it and yes, it looks quite nice.  So we're going there for a coffee next week."  She got up with her companion to disembark from the tram, unfolding an expensive leather handbag as she did so, and I reminded myself to stop being a judgemental twat.

We were in Milnrow, a small town just about in Rochdale, still on the right side of the M62.

Station Road was flanked by a pair of giant factories that had arrived straight from a black and white film.  Sonoco Industrial Products and Renold Gears were the kind of concern I didn't think we still had in this country, gigantic brick and concrete complexes with an accompanying metal soundtrack.  I expected to see a couple of boiler suit-clad workmen stealing a cheeky fag by the back gate.  Renold, in particular, won style points for its modern-for-1956 logo, in a font that would have looked great on the Dome of Discovery; I hope they never get in a marketing consultant to tell them they should rebrand in a friendly Helvetica.

I crossed the River Beal, which disappeared in a culvert under Renold's brick walls, and reached the main road through Milnrow.  A Co-op had been squeezed in here, on what had clearly once been factory land, but I turned to the right and walked through the middle of the village.

It was approaching lunchtime and the chippies and sandwich shops were starting to fill.  White vans pulled up on the double yellows, hazards blinking, their driver returning with a white paper bag full of butties.  There was a Sayers, which surprised me; I didn't realise the Scouse bakery reached this far east.  Fortunately for my waistline it was in a row of 1960s shops, separated from the footpath by a small car park.  I've never eaten a bad sausage roll, but Sayers' variety were a treat when I was a poor student, and I still can't resist them.

In thrifty Victorian style, the Board of Health building also came with a built in fire station and Carnegie Library; perhaps Rochdale's library-cum-office block wasn't so innovative after all.  These days it's a block of flats, the clock tower no longer in use, but the library clings on at the side. 

I'm always pleased to see a Carnegie Library.  The steel magnate Andrew Carnegie spent decades giving grants for the construction of libraries across North America and Europe, with more than six hundred being built across the UK.  Many have now been demolished, or are used for other purposes, but it's always good to see one still part of the community.  Although, in these austerity riddled times, it's just good to see a library full stop.

I passed under the M62, into the border territory between Milnrow and the next town along, Newhey.  The Free Trade Tavern sat opposite a newly built "Table Table" pub/restaurant and Premier Inn; banners advertising its beer garden and meal deals flapped weakly against the fence, a desperate attempt to sway you from the Whitbread scampi. 

This was one of the longest walks between tram stops I'd ever taken, for the simple reason that this wasn't meant to be a tram route at all.  The Metrolink line between Rochdale and Victoria via Oldham used to be a heavy rail loop.  In the towns, the former stations have received infill stops to make it more of a metro network - there used to be nine stops between Rochdale station and Failsworth, but post-tram, there are fifteen (plus Rochdale Town Centre beyond).  Out here, though, there wasn't the population for new stops, so it keeps the rural railway air, with lengthy gaps. 

In fact, they still list Newhey as a station on the road signs.  I've given up ranting about TfGM's shoddy attitude to signage (note the GMPTE logo there too); let's just acknowledge it, sigh, and move on with our lives.

There was a dense network of shops at the village core, with some surprising additions; I can't remember seeing a smokeless fuel shop before (winter opening hours, Friday and Saturday only, which seems odd because isn't winter when you need more kiln dried logs?).  There was also a tanning shop uninspiringly called Tan-a-Reef and a Sweeney Todd's Barber Shop.  Do barbers actually know the story of Sweeney Todd, or has Johnny Depp put them off investigating too hard?  I wandered into one shop to see if they had any sandwiches, but (a) the selection wasn't great and (b) a member of staff followed me to the chiller cabinet and hovered about a foot behind me, ostentatiously peering over a clipboard in case I tried to pilfer a pork pie, so I turned round and left without buying anything.

Instead I crossed over the railway bridge, past two young mums gossiping over pushchairs, and headed down to the platform.  It still felt like a railway station, albeit one that had lost all its buildings.  A large portion of landscaped bank to the side seemed like the place where the ticket office used to be; I wondered if it was Metrolink or British Rail that got rid of that.  Across the way, a carpet depot still proudly declared its railway allegiances, nearly a hundred years after the company ceased to exist.

I'd apparently just missed a tram so I took up a seat for the ten minute wait for the next one.  Regular readers (hello you!) will remember I queried whether Rochdale had got a better service, as what used to be two lines on the old Metrolink map had become one.  The answer is no.  It's still a 12 minute service beyond Shaw & Crompton, and six minutes below it, so it seems the map is just inaccurate. 

I boarded the tram for the relatively long ride to the next stop.  I took a seat in front of an old lady, who was chatting over the seat back to a man in his fifties about the buses ("if you want to get one on a Sunday, you've no chance") and mutual friends ("You know Jean?" he asked.  "She gets on't bus at Bull's Head?" "I'd know 'er if I saw 'er.").  It was only as we approached Shaw and Crompton that he dropped a conversational bomb, a non-sequitur which apparently referred back to an earlier topic of discussion, but which my filthy mind cannot process in any way that would be appropriate to a public forum.

"Anyway," he pronounced with a contended sigh.  "It's great.  You just let it get in before you get your clothes on.  It's the best one I've had in fifty years."

I have no idea what that refers to - the best I can think of, or rather, the best I can think of that I can put in a blog my mother reads, is an artificial leg - and since we were pulling into the platform at that moment, I'll never know.  The comments are at the bottom if you have any suggestions.

As a turnback station, Shaw and Crompton has three platforms, and there was a Manchester-bound tram already waiting in the third one.  The driver sauntered from one end to the other, swinging his bag, emperor of his vehicle while there were no irritating passengers.

When I'd looked at Google Maps prior to heading out on this trip, my attention had been drawn to a weird landmark near the tram stop: Shaw Pie and Mash Shop.  I've never been to a pie and mash shop - despite what most Northerners have been telling me for twenty years, I am not a Cockney - so I thought it would be an interesting place to have lunch.  Unfortunately, in line with my usual luck, it doesn't open on a Monday, so I turned away and headed into Shaw proper without a belly full of warm pie to keep me going.  On the way I passed Carnegie House: another Carnegie Library, only this one hadn't survived, and had been converted into bedsits. 

The high street, meanwhile, was a strip of lower-tier chain stores and charity shops.  It was a bit grubby and down at heel.  I nearly embarrassed myself by going to check if an elderly woman was ok; it was lightly raining, but she was slumped in a chair outside a cafe.  It was only when I got closer that I spotted her gripping a ciggie and covering her coffee with her other hand, and I swerved away fast. 

It was easy to see why things had taken a downturn.  Visible behind the shops, looming through gaps in the buildings, was a gigantic white Asda, a skulking villain who'd sucked all the customers away and left only scraps for the town.  I walked by the bookies and the tanning salons and the vape shops, one of which had this board outside:

That's just a thread of words with no meaning for me.  I assume they're different brands but "Nasty Juice"?  "Chubby"?  "Dinner Lady"?  I admit, I know nothing of the world of vaping, other than it's really bloody annoying, but I'm trying to imagine someone going into a shop and asking for a Dinner Lady and somehow keeping a straight face.  Perhaps it's one of those mistranslations from Mandarin to English, where they meant to evoke a woman who was good enough to eat, and not a chubby harridan who serves up stale jam roly poly.

I turned out of town, and onto a B-road heading south.  The houses, mainly low terraces, thinned out, running in strips along the main road with the occasional cul-de-sac.  A bus stop sat by the foundations of a now demolished shop; I guessed a former chippy, from the patch of yellowing tiles at the centre of the concrete. 

Now I could see across scabby fields to the hills again.  In February, it was all painted with brown and greys; it looked threadbare and ugly.  Mud was everywhere.  A dog barked from the back of a yard somewhere, a signposted public footpath blocked up by heavy metal fencing.  Tyre tracks scarring the grass.

Heyside would have been an ideal spot for one of those in-fill tram stops; it was a fairly large area of population, it was a distance from the other stops, it had shops and homes and businesses.  Unfortunately, at this point, the railway swung away from the main road, and the homes had never spread over the fields to reach them.  It meant that I was, at least, getting a decent walk.  I've long grumbled about the Metrolink's stops being too close for me to work up a sweat.  Now I was getting a proper hike, my shirt moist under my jumper, as the road rose and fell on the hills.

The industry crept back now; builder's merchants, warehouses, garages.  A row of more modern units with a Topps Tiles at one end and a soft play centre at the other.  I'd crossed over into Oldham at some point and I was seeing its dirty side, the stuff it put out of the way, on the edges.  Abandoned pubs, because you can't drink on your lunch hour any more, coach firms, "logistics". 

I was hungry now - I'd bought a terrible wrap from a Tesco Express in Shaw, the type that makes you regret all your life choices, and I couldn't finish it - and I hoped that the next tram stop would be close.  I crowned a hill, and realised I was closing in on the line; across the way was a mean looking estate even the mist couldn't make pretty.

A turn at the Sea Cadet Hall and I saw the yellow Metrolink totem.  Incidentally, I have only recently learned these light up.  The BF was driving us through Ashton-under-Lyne a few weeks ago - long story - and I saw them glowing in the dark.  It made me like them a lot more, and wonder why Merseyrail can't do the same with their big yellow Ms.

This was Derker, my penultimate stop.  Yes, Derker.  Is it just me or does that sound like a playground insult you can't say any more? 

I got on the tram and rode north, trying not to look at the lad in my eyeline who was rooting around in his nose hungrily.  I put in earphones and watched the countryside slide by.  There may be the yellow and grey of Metrolink everywhere, but the Rochdale line still hasn't shaken off its railway roots.  Up until Oldham, I could have believed it was an entirely new line; only Failsworth, still on a viaduct, hinted that it was old enough to remember steam.  Out here though, it was like being back on the Northern beat.  I regretted not travelling over it when it was part of the Purple Gang; it stopped taking proper trains in 2009, when I was still larking around on Merseyrail and thinking collecting all the Wirral Line was an achievement.  I miss the trains.

Rochdale Railway Station: where I started the morning, and now my final stop.  A pleasingly neat end to a pleasing day.

Monday 26 February 2018

He's Dead But He Won't Lie Down

I like ticket gates.  I think they're a great idea.  They instantly make a station feel more secure and they help to ensure everyone's paid for their journey.  Marvellous.

At Rochdale, they've put in ticket gates just behind the entrance, on the ground floor.  The problem is, the ticket office is at platform level.  So if you haven't got a ticket, you have to ask the person on the gates to let you through so you can buy one.  And then you go upstairs without any further checks, so you don't actually have to buy a ticket at all; you can get away with it very easily.  This seems to be a significant design flaw.

Still: I wasn't in Rochdale for the trains, I was here for the trams.  (Old habits die hard).  Rochdale is the terminus of one of Metrolink's arms, on the edge of the Pennines at the very limit of old Lancashire.  There's a tram stop right outside the station, as you'd expect, but I turned away from that to walk into the town centre. 

I took Milkstone Road into town.  At its corner was a large open-fronted food store, its forecourt dominated by an array of fruit and vegetables.  Two women in hijab picked through the oranges, expertly examining each fruit before dropping it into their bag with a flourish.  They didn't take their eyes away from their shopping but managed to carry on a constant, excitable chatter throughout.

Rochdale has a huge Asian minority, and Milkstone Road seemed to be a local centre for them.  There were takeaways and restaurants, travel agents, a boutique selling intricate abayas.  The window of Kamran's Sweet Centre had rack after rack of mysterious cubes of brightly coloured treats that I knew would be concentrated tooth rot.  I don't have a sweet tooth at all - give me a pasty over a pastille - and I suspected that I'd melt if I just walked through the door. 

It was a bit of a surprise to find the road terminate at a church, instead of a mosque, but that's Rochdale; England clashing with Asia over and over, mixing and reproducing.  The mix made me think back to Luton, growing up in another town with a large ethnic minority.  Milkstone Road there was Bury Park, just outside the town centre, with the same mix of chicken shops and grocers and the Mosque poking out from behind terraced houses. 

I cut through the churchyard and descended a terrifying set of steps.  Hundreds of years of feet had worn them smooth, and they were slick with rain.  I was wearing trainers, as I'm between walking boots, and I was absolutely convinced I was going to slip down them to my death.  I pulled myself together when a much larger pensioner passed me, taking the steps almost two at a time.

The comparisons with Luton ended at the foot of the steps, since Rochdale Town Hall is finer than any building back home.  Built with cotton wealth it positively gleamed, even on a miserable February morning. 

It's a Gothic confection, elaborate and beautiful, with a clock tower that rightly dominates the town around it.  I loved it.  And the town has been respectful in return, with its neighbouring buildings dignified and elegant and not seeking to outshine it. 

There was also a statue to Rochdale's most famous daughter.  Sadly not The Artist Formerly Known As Beth Jordache, Anna Friel; Gracie Fields.

Gracie is one of those artists whose appeal, in 2018, I have problems fathoming.  I had a look at a few of her performances on YouTube and she doesn't click.  People are absolutely howling at her gags, and swooning at her singing, and it all seems a bit (whisper it) dreadful.  I suppose in the 1930s they were just pleased to have anything entertaining, what with the Depression and the looming threat of war and the fact that the Xbox hadn't been invented yet.  It's one of those things you have to just file under "it was a different time".  I imagine youngsters are having a similar reaction to the Top of the Pops repeats on BBC Four, turning to their parents and asking "but why did people buy Russ Abbot's Atmosphere week after week?"  (The correct answer is "because it's awesome", though I suspect I'm in the minority on this.) 

I climbed the steep hill into the town centre.  Most of the shops seemed to have been hived off into precincts I had no interest in visiting - a shopping centre is a shopping centre, and they all look the same - so I walked among the pound shops and cafes and Greggs that circled them.  The Beales department store had closed, but it didn't seem to be in bad shape, all told. 

I descended some more steps (the disadvantage of being so close to the hills) and ended up on a bare patch of land surrounding the tram stop.  This had once been the location of the town's municpal buildings, but a programme of comprehensive demolition saw this quarter of town rebuilt.  The council services were relocated to a new office building across the way, No. 1 Riverside, a large bus station was built, and this patch of open parking was due to be turned into a new cinema and shopping complex.  A banner flapped in the wind, notifying me that the the car park would close on the 26th to allow construction to begin; this is despite the anchor tenant, Marks and Spencer's, pulling out last autumn

Everyone else seemed to be walking into No 1 Riverside, so I decided to have a look for myself.  It's an odd hybrid building.  The ground floor was the library, but unlike any library I'd ever been in before; it was more like a very large foyer with bookshelves in it.  There was no demarcation between different council services.  You could pick up a Margaret Drabble and queue for your licensing application without moving more than a couple of metres.  Members of staff stood around next too single computer terminals, looking helpful and friendly, but I couldn't quite work out what they did - were they receptionists?  Were they librarians?  Could they help me apply for Council Tax Benefit?  Nothing was signposted either.  Open government is all very well, but sometimes you want someone to just hold your hand and guide you where you need to go. 

I eventually found a toilet, so at least I was able to have a pee, and then I stumbled my way back out again.  It's a very good building, and there was a case of awards in the entrance, but I'm old fashioned.  I like a nice sturdy Central Library building where you're shushed for having squeaky shoes, not some happy friendly building with a coffee shop and "breakout spaces".

The tram stop and the bus station sit alongside one another as all proper transport interchanges should.  The bus station was an elaborate confection of overlaid shields; it was absolutely enormous, a confident shout from TfGM. 

Next to it, the tram stop looked positively weedy and inconsequential, and yet that was where I was headed, because trams are sexy and buses aren't.  Sorry.

The tram trundled back out of town, climbing the steep hill towards the railway station.  I'd decided to collect that stop at the end, as the climax to this thrilling journey, so I stayed on board.  It climbed up from the street to the railway viaduct and then the driver put his foot down.  You could feel his glee at being on segregated, fast running tracks; we were almost thrown back in our seats by the g-force.  There was a palpable sigh as we slowed down to the stop at Newbold. 

Now I have a pretty good head for geography.  Drop me somewhere unknown, and I'll soon be able to get my bearings and work out where I'm going.  I'm therefore embarrassed to inform you that immediately after taking this photo I got lost in Morrison's car park.

The platform had been filled with old dears intent on chatting rather than moving, so I'd slightly grumpily threaded my way through them and out the exit.  In my rush to leave, I hadn't noticed there was a side path that avoided the supermarket and headed straight for the road.  Instead I was dumped on the outskirts of the car park without much clue how to get out.  Understandably, Morrison's had designed it to funnel you to the store entrance, and I ended up there first; when I took what I thought was the footpath out, though, I ended up by the loading bay.  So I went back to the store and tried a different path, and there it was, hidden behind the bushes, dropping down away from the level of the car park and finally sending me out onto the road.  I guess they don't get many pedestrians doing their shopping there.  Or maybe I'm just a bit thick.

I nipped across the busy Kingsway and into a cul-de-sac, heading for the Rochdale Canal behind.  A dog walker called to his golden retriever as I crossed the silent water.

More cul-de-sacs, though these ones were far more modern, red-brick "executive" homes wedged tightly against each other.  At first glance, they looked like a nice place to live - everyone wants that canalside lifestyle, don't they? - but as I rounded the corner I saw they weren't as well-situated as they first appeared.

You could, at a pinch, find drainage ponds a charming local attraction.  At least you know they won't be built on, and they're bound to attract a lot of birds and wildlife.  But right next door is a giant grey wall of warehouses.

Distribution centres for Asda and JD Sports; cubes of storage that exist purely to be serviced, 24 hours a day, by a flotilla of trucks.  Your charming waterside home is basically a sound barrier between the Kingsway Business Park and the canal users.  Michael Faraday Avenue, the long sweep of tarmac I was stood on, had been laid out ready to accommodate more development at a later date.  I wasn't sure what would follow - more houses?  Or more trucks?

For the time being, it was relatively quiet.  I could see the Pennines across the way.  The earthworks across the road meant there was no traffic.  I followed the curve round, then cut down a path to reach the Kingsway Business Park tram stop.  It was splayed either side of the foot crossing, the designers taking advantage of all that spare land to space it out, and didn't look like it would ever need crowd control measures. 

There was already a lad on the platform waiting for the tram, so I took up a spot a suitable distance away to take the selfie.  He watched me with clear bemusement.  Yup, just a tram stop collector, perfectly normal.  Nothing to see here.