Last week, I returned to Piccadilly to finish off a different part of my life. This time it wasn't quite so significant. But it was a lot happier.
I descended into the undercroft of the station to finally collect the tram stop. It's the only tram stop on Metrolink that feels bigger than the network. Down there, beneath the trains, you can almost imagine you're on an underground, the underground a city the size of Manchester should have.
I wasn't alone this time. While I'd finished off the Northern map by myself, and brooded, this time I'd brought along Robert and Paul to make it more of a celebration. Together we were going to visit the last few stops on Metrolink that remained uncollected - all within the City Zone. I'd started the Metrolink odyssey with Victoria, and New Islington was crossed off last August, so that left seven more: Piccadilly, Piccadilly Gardens, Market Street, Shudehill, Exchange Square, St Peter's Square, and Deansgate-Castlefield. One down.
An all too brief tram ride later and we were at the next stop. We braced ourselves for Piccadilly Gardens. In recent months it's got a reputation as a sort of post-apocalyptic hell hole. Listen to the news and the city's central square is only ever talked about as a location from The Walking Dead, with spice-addicted zombies crashing through the fountains and assaulting families.
Perhaps we arrived on a particularly good day, but all we saw was a sunny open space, filled with people hanging out and eating sandwiches. It was warm and open and there wasn't a single drug addicted homeless person trying to eat a pigeon in sight.
We headed for the pub. It was clear that just collecting the stations would be a quick job. This has, I'm afraid, been the barrier to me really enjoying crossing off the stations on the Metrolink map. There's no effort involved. The longest walk between stops is about half an hour; miss a tram and there'll be another in a matter of minutes. It's not really been a challenge. When you've dragged yourself to Chathill on its single northbound train in the morning, then walked twenty miles, it's hard to get excited about places where you can see the next platform down the line.
So, we decided to break up the day with visits to pubs. This has coincided with one of my rare moments of abstention though, so while Robert and Paul drank pints of Strongbow, I had a glass of Coke. This would be my first of many.
We then walked the southern edge of Piccadilly Gardens to Market Street stop.
Paul filled me in on the history of the stop while we waited for our tram. Originally it had been one way only, with a second stop, High Street, handling southbound trams. This was because it had been squeezed in alongside the traffic on Market Street. Eventually the road was pedestrianised, and the stop became bidirectional, with High Street getting demolished. (Interestingly, on the other side of Piccadilly Gardens is the site of another former stop, Mosley Street, which was demolished in 2009 to alleviate congestion. Ok, I'm using "interesting" in its broadest possible sense there).
We boarded one of those trams that's been wrapped in advertising livery: great for the company, bad for the passengers, who ride a shady vehicle and peer out the window through a million dots. It skirted the edge of the Arndale - and thank you, Manchester, for keeping the name "Arndale"; Luton's abandoned it, and it is much the poorer as a result - past the is-it-run-down-or-is-it-just-fashionable? buildings of the Northern Quarter until it finally came in at the Shudehill interchange.
The autumn sunlight was overwhelming here, so I finally conceded the selfie camera and got Robert to take a picture of me with the sign. Look upon my hair, ye mighty, and despair.
Shudehill is a later addition to the network, opened in 2003 to connect with the new bus station at the site. It's dominated by the glittering car park, still looking remarkably decent after fifteen years.
We headed down the hill, past the complex of Victorian buildings left empty by the Co-op since they moved to their big shiny testicle behind Victoria station, and emerged at Exchange Square. This whole area is now a monument to commerce, with a Selfridges and a Marks and Spencer and a Harvey Nicks alongside the restaurants of the Corn Exchange and the cinema at the Printworks. It's a regeneration project with a murky background, though; this is where the IRA detonated a bomb in 1996, leveling the area. It's a bit like the Barbican in London - a scene of appalling destruction transformed into something much better.
The tram didn't arrive after the bomb, though. The many new arms to the Metrolink network were all funneled into a single route across the city centre from Deansgate-Castlefield to Victoria; it was a terrible strain on services and meant that a single incident could paralyse the whole system. The Second City Crossing laid down new tracks that provided a bypass and a way to spread the trams out - though it's only used by one line, the East Didsbury route, and Exchange Square was the only new stop opened, in 2015.
Budding Rachel Rileys among you will have spotted that Exchange Square was the fifth of the seven tram stops we needed to collect, and it was still lunch time. Boarding a tram we came up with another delaying tactic. Paul suggested a brief side visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, so instead of getting off at St Peter's Square, we headed to Deansgate-Castlefield.
Once known as G-Mex, this is a great tram stop to look out over the resurgent city. Skyscrapers were springing up in every direction. Cranes scraped at clouds. The stop itself still shone, the lustre of its recent rebuild to accommodate the new tracks still clinging to it. (A rebuild, incidentally, partly paid for by European money, as we were told by a plaque on the platform).
We got into a bit of a debate about the station selfie. There is a huge Deansgate-Castlefield sign along the viaduct wall; Robert thought that would be a better shot than the usual platform snap. But after dozens of boring, same sign shots, I decided I wanted more of the same. Metrolink couldn't win me over with a sudden bit of extravagant branding right at the end. I would carry on with the dull, minimal sign shot. That'd teach them to put up proper signs every where.
From there it was a brief walk to the collection of buildings that form MoSI. I'd been here before, of course, a couple of times, but this time we were here to see a special guest star.
Stephenson's Rocket is normally housed in the Science Museum but it had been allowed to head back up north to the spot where it first blew people's minds in 1829. The world's first steam engine won the Rainhill trials and formed the engine for the initial public rail service between Liverpool and Manchester, heading across Chat Moss (and William Huskisson's leg) on the 15th September 1830.
This was the engine that changed the planet. Up until its invention, human beings hadn't travelled faster than a horse could carry them; now there was a regular speedy service between two major cities. It was a little overwhelming, being stood so close to a piece of technology that so impacted the world. From that one train came a billion advances. Even the noisy children on a school trip hushed as they passed.
The back end of MoSI was also the Rocket's final destination in 1830. The world's first intercity railway station is preserved as part of the museum (adopted Scouser pride forces me to acknowledge that even though the trains set off from Edge Hill in Liverpool, that station was radically reconstructed afterwards). It's a plain building, more like an office block than anything else. Railway architecture hadn't been established - there wasn't an aesthetic.
It used to be possible for the museum to run trains onto the mainline, but the construction of the Ordsall Chord connecting Victoria and Piccadilly sliced it off, leaving just a stub of track. None the less, you can still look down to where trains once rode in from Liverpool, to an elevated platform abutting the station building.
Follow the stairs down and you reach the ticket hall. It was a little disappointing, preserved but not really utilised, hardly speaking to you. You should be thrilled by this travel back in time, not just admiring the woodworking skills.
We headed back up top and out of the museum to a nearby pub for lunch. I had another fizzy soft drink. It was as thrilling as the first.
That left just one tram stop to collect, but it was early, and warm, and the company was good. We decided to head to the Village for a few more drinks. Paul was more of an expert on Manchester than us, and he took us away from the roads and down onto the towpath to get there: we would take the canal to Canal Street.
Despite a year of travelling all over it, Manchester remains a mystery to me. It's a shifting, elusive city. Its geography eludes me - the relationship of one station to the next, the branches of the trams running into one another. It's formless and packed. There's no central point for me to grab hold of - no river, no cathedral, no high landmark to say there, that's it. Going down onto the towpath added a new dimension of confusion. We were on the real backways now.
The city whirled above us, around us, noisy and unknown. Sometimes I'd catch a glimpse of something familiar - the back of the Hacienda, a hint of the Palace Theatre - but mostly it was dark and barren and hidden. It was a new complex layer of Manchester's existence, one laced with death; the Pusher still hadn't been apprehended. Signs warned you about the perils of wandering the towpaths while drunk. I imagined wandering here after dark, cruising, taking a short cut, filled with beery bravado, and then the hands and the plummet and the silence. It was a relief to finally spot the Princess Street bridge, covered in builders from the nearby apartments, and to rise up the lock and back into familiar territory.
We drank... a lot. All soft drinks for me, my teeth quietly rotting in the corner, but cider and beer and gin for Paul and Robert. We chatted and laughed and told filthy stories, then talked about trains for a bit, then usually ended up being filthy again. And finally it was dark and we headed out to collect that last tram stop.
St Peter's Square twinkled. The new tram lines had forced the whole district to be rebuilt. New office blocks with ground floor restaurants took up one side, and the Cenotaph was moved to a different spot out the way. The library acquired an awful new glass entrance that detracted from its fine circular form. The Town Hall frowned down at us. Manchester is a modern city, probably Britain's second, and it rushes forward all the time.
There was something strangely magical about it, that black-blue sky with the yellow tram slicing beneath. The whole Metrolink journey has been a chore at times, never quite grabbing my attention, never quite getting me excited. Now and then though the whirr of the city with its fast, efficient public transport network snakes into my soul. Trams are great, trams are wonderful, and the Metrolink is the best tram network in Britain. I've seen it all now. I love it.
Which leaves one important question. What do I do now?
The first steam loco, a grubby canalside undercroft and numerous celebratory beverages seems an appropriate way to finish off another top challenge!
I hope it doesn't take too long to come up with another...
It's a bit vague in the memory, but when I was in the science and industry museum mumblety years ago the railway ticketing hall and other parts were full of both terrifying and laughable tableaux featuring badly-posed mannequins in Victorian costume half falling over, and further underground, a sewer museum where you could walk through an actual sewer pipe with piped-in flushing noises. Are they still there? I enjoyed it.
Manchester is indeed a soul-less, centre-less, formless mess with one or two fine buildings (the John Rylands Library, the Town Hall, the Cathedral and a couple more) and a great deal of baseless attitude.
Well done on finishing the quest: I followed your Northern Rail odyssey avidly, but haven't followed this at all, I'm afraid. Not sure why I dropped by: the first time in many many months. Maybe I sensed you'd finished! What next indeed?
Wales. That'll keep you busy
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