Regular readers (hello you!) may be able to reach right back into their memory banks and remember that when I started collecting Metrolink tram stops, I began with the Bury line. I was still filled with enthusiasm and joie de vivre then. Collecting tram stops is enormous fun! I'd thought. Why, I almost did this whole line in one session!
The truth is, the stops are so close together, and the trams are so frequent, it's not really a challenge. If you timed it right you could probably do the whole network in a day. Back then, I didn't realise this; I thought I was just so keen I'd overstepped the mark. I concluded with this:
I decided that the next tram stop, Whitefield, would be my last of the day. That left two at the end of the Bury line flailing around uncollected, which is annoying, but gives me a reason to come back. I always like a reason to come back.Which is true. But two stops is annoyingly tiny. It's a long way to go for not much reward. So it's not much of a surprise that it took me a whole year to get round to finally visiting Radcliffe stop.
I went out the back exit, with the ramps for the disabled, because there was a gentleman in not quite the right frame of mind stood by the exit stairs and talking loudly to himself. As with most of the stops on the Bury line, Radcliffe used to be a railway station, and its big ugly building spoke of British Rail economies and Three Day Week cutbacks.
I was curious about the grey patch above the entrance. It looked like a sign that had been covered up - perhaps the remnant of a previous corporate identity. A little googling revealed a far sadder truth. It was a piece of artwork, From The Tower Falls the Shadow, by the Brass Art group and installed in 2008. There should've been bright blue neon shining out over the car park but it wasn't turned on. Maybe it's because it was daytime, and they were saving the drama for the night, but it was a shame I couldn't see it.
I headed for the Bury Road, avoiding Radcliffe itself. I don't think I missed much. Certainly the bits of town I saw lacked appeal. I don't think it's a sign of an area on the up when the gates to the East Lancashire Paper Mill don't form the entrance to a large place of employment, but are instead a bit of dressing for a patch of parkland.
There were open stretches of bare land, and small dark houses with peeling wooden window frames. The school seemed to be mainly for Bury's problem children. The Kwik Fit's sign was at least one, maybe two, corporate logos ago, and had almost faded to nothing in the sunshine. An end of terrace house with weeds growing up through the paving slabs and overflowing wheelie bins outside had been converted into a "health club". The windows were covered up and a sign on the side advertised "24 hour health and massage". It did not look wholesome. I wouldn't go asking for the employees' BSc Sports Therapy certificates, put it that way.
The further away from Radcliffe proper I got, the more things started to pick up. The homes became a bit more cared for, the gardens tidier. Garages and industrial units, including one belonging to Cocklestorm Fencing, which (a) is a great name and (b) has a really groovy logo; it's like Cocklestorm: The Fencing Firm Who Shagged Me.
There were semis now, and the odd new development of boxy houses. One home had set up a bowl of water on the front, with Doggy Pit Stop scratched into a paving slab beside it. Then a garden centre, the true sign of middle class infiltration, and I was looking across to Bealey's Weir in the River Irwell.
It becomes a little less picturesque when you realise it was built to serve a bleach works.
The Bury Road turned into the Radcliffe Road as I crossed the border between the towns. There was a row of shops, the sandwich shop already attracting lorry drivers, the chip shop next door advertising English Fish and Chips. Ahead of me was a tiny little pensioner in slacks and an orange baseball cap. She paused for a moment, reached into her shopping trolley, and tipped a handful of Minstrels into her hand to keep her going for the rest of the walk.
It was a fair old walk from one tram stop to the next. There's been vague talk about putting another one inbetween, to act as a park and ride, but there's not really the population to support it. It's one of those bits of Metrolink where its railway origins are really clear.
I'd reached the edge of the town centre now, the district of Fishpool. There were tight straight streets of houses. On the front step of one of them was a small girl, perhaps about five, wearing a flowery pink dress and a furry backpack. She reached inside it and pulled out a huge book, seemingly twice the size of her, laid it on her lap and began to read. It was delightful. I was ready to say hello to her as I passed, grinning, but she was utterly engrossed in her book and didn't pay me any attention at all. Which is all the better.
I don't get that. "It's Buzz, not Bus". What is? The radio station? It's got a buzz about it? Or is it some sort of local in-joke - is that how they pronounce Bus in Bury? I spent a good few minutes mulling it and I couldn't come to any conclusions. If you've got a clue, please leave a comment below.
I'd arrived close to the famous Bury Market, one of those places you hear about when you live in the north. Apparently it's a very good one? I'm not a market fan. I was put off by trips to them as a child, the indoor market in the Luton Arndale with its persistent stench of fish, or the one at the Purley on a Thursday where my mum would take us to buy white sport socks. Birkenhead Market, too, has a reputation for being a real draw, but I still don't get it. Can you not just go to a shop?
In fairness to Bury, I'd not arrived on a proper market day, and so there was only the indoor hall to look round. And I had to admit some of it looked appealing. Katsouris Delicatessen, for example, offered up a properly tempting array of meats and cheeses and pastries; in fact, most of the food stalls looked appealing. There was an array of black pudding sellers too, Bury being legendary for its blood sausage (there's a story that the locals have abnormally high iron levels because of their black pudding consumption). But the rest of it was just a market - card shops, phone unlockers, stalls selling dirt cheap clothes fresh from the Far East, tiny cafes selling tea and bacon. Bigger, perhaps, than you'd expect for a town this size, but still nothing special as far as I could see.
I passed from there into the Mill Gate Shopping Centre, mainly because I needed the loo. It had been decorated with quotes from local famous names. Danny Boyle, who was from Radcliffe, had "it's a good place when all you have is hope and no expectations," outside the disabled toilet, while above the hand dryers in the men's loo was "Stop pouting. Stop shouting. You know I pulled a muscle when I did that grouting," which is from The Ballad of Barry and Freda by my spiritual leader, Victoria Wood. I wonder if she'd mind being commemorated in the gents' toilets? Bury actually has plans for a far more appropriate tribute to its famous daughter, in the form of a statue; the design of it is... not to my taste. It's not so much "much-loved comedy genius", more "background character in a Wallace & Gromit." But it's nice that people care enough to memorialise her. I shall probably come back when it's put up to pay homage to the woman who shaped my sense of humour more than any other.
The shopping centre itself was a standard small town arcade - a little bit scruffy round the edges, pound shops in amongst the standard high street fare. There was a curious Japanese store, Kenji, selling the kind of tiny trinket I could fill every drawer of my house with. Sticky notes shaped like cartoon cats, tiny pencil sets, notebook after notebook after notebook; I had to flee before I spent a fortune on pointless tchotckes just because they were adorable. They have two other stores in the north west, but fortunately nothing yet on Merseyside.
I left the arcade by a coffee shop, which styled itself as a glamorous hang out with hand made sandwiches, but also went by the gloriously Northern name of Bap, and walked into Bury's more historic district. That's Sir Robert Peel up there, another famous son, who is commemorated with a statue and, perhaps more significantly, in the name of the local Wetherspoon's. I was actually headed for a bit of railway heritage. The current terminus for the Bury Metrolink line isn't the town's original railway station. That was on Bolton Street, away from the town centre. In a rare moment of investment, British Rail laid a new branch line to send the trains to an integrated bus/rail station, which opened in 1980. The old station was taken over by the East Lancashire Railway, who now use it as the terminus for their heritage line.
I wonder how the heritage nuts feel about the station building. The original burned down after the war, so this new brick building was built in 1952. I love it, the simplicity and the practicality, and especially the clock tower. I can imagine it annoying the kind of person who wants a day trip on a steam train though. They want a honeysuckle-covered cottage building, with a waiting room with a fireplace and room for a parcel office and a porter. Not Festival of Britain chic. Perhaps Victoria Wood was on my mind, or perhaps there's a quote of hers that's suitable for every occasion, but I thought back to her peerless Great Railway Journey where the passengers are forced to use a genuine 1930s buffet car. "It's not very popular with the nostalgia buffs, because it doesn't conform to the red plush, gas light, pea souper idea of the steam era."
It was closed on a Monday, of course, because apparently nothing happens in Bury on a Monday. So was the accompanying transport museum. I wasn't too sad. I've talked at length on this blog about my steam train ambivalence; they're just like normal trains, except slower, dirtier, more expensive, more uncomfortable, and rarely going anywhere you actually want to go. The East Lancashire Railway goes from Bury to Heywood, a very minor industrial town whose main claim to fame seems to be that it's the birthplace of both Julie Goodyear and Lisa Stansfield. There are plans to extend it further so it reaches Castleton, on the edge of Rochdale; looking back over the blog I discover that when I reached Castleton I was mainly shocked by how many dog turds were on the pavement. Book your tickets now!
There's also the slight discomfort with steam railways that the people who like them are harking back to the good old days a bit too much, and that if you prodded them they'd tell you how the Mallard took them back to when you could say queer and buy golliwogs and there was none of this politically correct Common Market forcing you to eat tapas instead of Yorkshire pudding and when we're free of it all we'll bring back the farthing. I don't really want to hang out in that kind of environment.
I headed back into town for my tram. I'm not too happy with the fact that Bury is only accessible via a relatively slow tram from Manchester or a heritage railway that only runs a few days a week. I feel like it deserves more. Being entirely cut off from the Network Rail map feels wrong for a town with this history and local importance. (Although full disclosure, I continually confuse Bury and Bolton and Blackburn). The tram should be in addition to a proper railway line into town, as at Rochdale or Ashton or Eccles.
You know how I said the new rail/bus interchange opened in 1980?
It would've been quicker to just show you this picture. Note that it's called Bury Interchange on the signs, but Metrolink calls it simply Bury everywhere else. This is the kind of inconsistency that really irritates me.
Inside it still feels like a railway station, and a surprisingly urban one at that. There's a ticket hall with another piece of neon artwork, though this one, From Northern Soul (Bury Neon) was actually turned on.
I took the steps down to the platform; its position in a cutting gave it an almost subway feel.
Collecting Radcliffe and Bury finishes off the last of Metrolink's branches. I've now visited every tram stop with the exception of those in the City Zone and, obviously, the stops on the under construction Trafford Park line. I should've waited until 2020 for those, but I had a different idea...