Do you remember when I would sometimes post a couple of entries a week? What a world that was.
Anyway, yes, I'm back. I've been busy lately which has meant I didn't have time to fanny about on trams, but here I am, as round and tedious as ever. Last week I finally got a bit of time to spare so I headed out to Manchester for a little light carousing on the Metrolink. As a bonus I was accompanied by Robert, freshly splattered with suncream as protection from the unseasonally scorching weather.
The stretch getting the attention this time was perhaps Manchester's most glamorous line, the orange 7 stretching up through Salford Quays to the showbiz world of MediaCityUK. After a delayed train to Victoria - it was the first day of the new timetables, and everything was predictably to cock - we got on a tram to Cornbrook.
If we'd been visiting this stop only a few years ago, there would have only been the opportunity for a platform sign and nothing else. Though it opened in 1999, for the first sixteen years of its life there was no way to leave the stop - no stairs to the street, no lift. It was purely for interchange between the Eccles and Altrincham lines. As the local residential population grew, so did demand for a way up to the trams, so in 2005 the emergency exit was opened up to the public - allowing me to capture this sign shot at street level:
I know that Robert's presence meant I could get far more elegant, posed photographs, but if I stick to the selfie you can't see my beer gut.
Cornbrook is wedged on a viaduct between the river and a dual carriageway; it's easy to see why Metrolink didn't consider it a prime spot. We edged our way down a back road beside railway arches and overgrowth on our way to the next stop, Pomona.
Google Maps quite clearly showed a road swinging across the canal towards the Quays. What it didn't show was the complete lack of a pavement. Can we stop doing this, please? If there's a route for roads, there should be a route for pedestrians. Maybe put it off to one side if there are safety concerns, behind a barrier, but always provide a way for people to walk. It's so alienating to see cars speed by to a destination with no way for you to follow.
Instead we turned backwards, towards the city centre, through the canyons of apartments being built on Ellesmere Street. Construction sites were everywhere, with parades of hi-vis workers crossing from one set of hoardings to the next. Some of the balconies were filled, and I felt sorry for the owners trying to relax on a warm day like this, surrounded by brick dust and the clanging of machinery.
We ducked down a cobbled side street - not anywhere near as common in Greater Manchester as you would believe - which took us to the back of the St George's Island development. A few years ago, a series of glass apartment blocks sprung up on this narrow strip of land between the railway and the Bridgewater Canal, and I've always been fascinated by them as I've passed on the train. Part of it is the instinctive draw of an island home, part of it is me never being entirely sure where they are. That confusing Manchester geography came into play - a spot that seemed to be part of the city, yet also very separate from it. Finally visiting it at least allowed me to put a marker on it in my head, but I'm still not positive I could find it again.
We passed under one of the arches, which lead to a small, badly-signposted footbridge over the river.
From there we got a great view of the rapidly shifting world around the Irwell. Look at this spot on Google Maps and you see expanses of deserted, abandoned docks. Grass and scrub and patches of bare concrete. Now those waterside views were being exploited to the full, towers of flats springing up on either side.
A cut down the back of another building site and we emerged on Ordsall Lane, where old and new Manchester were clashing. The south side of the road, paralleling the water, was being turned into a 21st century city. The odd old-world units that remained - a car wash, an industrial estate with a sandwich van - looked threatened. They had an invisible £ sign hovering over their rooftops, ready to be exploited.
The north side, however, wasn't moneyed luxury apartments. They were small terraced houses, semis with concreted fronts, cul-de-sacs. Slum clearances in the sixties and seventies had left a warren of pocket-sized council houses full of people who would never be able to afford a balcony. It was a weird, uneasy collision of classes; men in suit and tie sharing the pavement with noisy teenage mums.
I steered Robert into the back streets because I wanted to take a look at St Clement's Church or, more specifically, what used to be in front of St Clement's Church. When they were planning Coronation Street, creator Tony Warren and designer Denis Parkin toured Salford looking for visual inspiration. They found it in Archie Street, a little row of terraced houses capped by a corner shop at one end and a church at the other. Archie Street appeared in the very first title sequence, before they had a proper outdoor set, and a photo of it was used for the end credits. It was demolished in 1971, but the church remained (in fact Jerry Booth got married there). We were basically stood on the real Coronation Street.
Dodging round the back of the church, where a man was quietly painting the railings, and down the back of the park. A block of flats - these were flats, not apartments, because they were full of working-class people - had been surrounded by a perimeter wall for security. Great for the residents; probably not so great for the newsagent at the foot of the block, who suddenly found himself open only to people with a pass to get through the gate.
We ended up back on Ordsall Lane by a curiosity: Ordsall Hall. You don't expect to stumble on a Tudor mansion in the middle of Salford.
Now owned by the city council and run as a museum, there's been a house on this site for nearly 800 years. It seemed incongruous to us, but must've been even more so in the early part of the century; hemmed in by tight terraces, the air thick with grime from the factories, the boom of the docks echoing across the polite knot gardens.
"Do you know where you're going?" Robert asked, perhaps knocked sideways by the constant shifts in architecture. It was a little disorienting. "Yes," I said, with about 80% confidence; as always, I knew there was a tram stop over there, it was just getting to it that was the problem.
As I took us down a seeming dead end, he asked the question again. "There's an alleyway there," I said, with false confidence; I'd seen people walking down it, so I assumed it didn't just lead to the bins. I was half-relieved, half-smug when we turned the corner and almost fell on top of Exchange Quay tram stop, just as a tram was pulling up.
We went backwards again, trekking back down the line to reach Pomona.
Yes, that is a grey-and-teal Way Out sign still in place at Pomona. Someone get the corporate identity bods out here, quick.
At the moment, Pomona is an incredibly quiet stop on the Eccles Line. Like Cornbrook, it's surrounded by water and abandoned docks, but unlike Cornbrook, the developers haven't found it yet. It will become a lot more important in 2020 though, when the Trafford Park line opens. Pomona is the point where the new route branches off, and the stop was constructed ready for it. For twenty years there's been a tiny little spur pointing out the front of the viaduct. Only now is it finding any use.
I stood under the platform sign and took my usual selfie. Pomona is so isolated - we'd already gone all round the houses to reach it - it didn't seem feasible to walk from here to another stop. Instead we got a northbound tram back out of there.
Onboard, Robert asked, "Does that count?" We hadn't left the platform. We'd not gone down to street level. We'd reached the platform and moved on. "It's fine," I said, and immediately felt a pang of guilt. Because I realised - no, it doesn't count. Get the train or the tram there, leave the station, that's always been the rules. Just popping onto the platform is cheating. If you head down that slippery slope you may as well say that simply passing through the station counts - not even stopping, not even stepping off the train. It's cheating.
It gnawed at me. I realised I'd have to go back to Pomona.
But not that day. We'd reached Salford Quays stop. Of course, Salford Quays (the area) was the whole reason the Metrolink came this way in the first place. The Docks at the end of the Manchester Ship Canal in the 1980s were devastated and desolate and therefore, prime real estate. A little bit of building work had been done by the mid-90s, but it really needed the fillip only a good public transport route can bring. So, just as the DLR brought the money to Canary Wharf, so the Metrolink brought prosperity to this region of the city. A plaque at Salford Quays marks the opening.
You can tell you're in the earlier part of the Quays development as you wander around. The architecture is solid but uninspired. It was built when no-one was entirely sure if this area was going to take off, so they re-used plans from suburban business parks and plonked them down on the quayside. There was space for cars, because nobody wanted to actually live here back then, and it was unambitious. Even the leisure options were a little more basic: a Holiday Inn Express, a Frankie & Benny's, a Beefeater (Robert confessed he'd never been to a Beefeater; as someone who grew up considering the branch at the Warden Tavern was the height of dining sophistication, I was floored).
It still looked good, though, because everything looked good that day. Stick a blue sky above a calm dock and any building caught in the middle looks fantastic.
We'd taken the long route to Anchorage stop, crossing bridges and the watersports centre, because why wouldn't you? Finally we ducked down behind a multi-storey car park, just where the bins were - obviously they smelt delightful on a warm day - and clambered up to the platform.
I'd collected Harbour City stop a long time ago so we headed straight into the glamorous showbiz capital of the north: MediaCityUK. You've got the BBC on one side, the Corrie studios on the other, and the Lowry Theatre complex forming the third point of the triangle. Surely I'd finally see someone famous?
Nope. Not a one. I don't know if all the proper celebs are ferried in and out, Ubered direct from the studio to Piccadilly so they don't have to fraternise with the northerners, but I didn't see a single well-known face. And I looked quite hard. It was lunchtime so Robert and I took up a spot outside a pub on the quay for burger and a beer. I saw a lot of people with official looking lanyards wandering past, and the nearby tables were crammed full of media types, but none of them were even slightly well known. Where was Naga Munchetty? Whither Audrey Roberts? Although now that I think about it I could've been surrounded by CBeebies presenters and not known about it, because apart from that Radzi boy with the hair who presents Blue Peter, I have no idea what's going on with kid's telly these days.
With no legendary figures to distract me, I had to settle for talking to Robert, which went about as well as you'd expect.
Full of meat and booze, we tottered back towards the tram stop. We took a slight detour to follow the Blue Peter Gold Badge Walk, created to celebrate the show's 60th anniversary and commemorating those talented individuals who'd received a Gold Badge. There were the names you'd expect:
There were also names that frankly devalued the entire Gold Badge procedure:
There was just one more task, besides taking the tram back into town for a load more booze in the Village: the sign shot. Unfortunately, just as I was taking it, some bloke shoved his face in shot and ruined it.
It's amazing what you can find down the docks.