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.