Friday, 4 June 2010

Across the North West


This was always going to be one of the most unremittingly urban sections of the whole trip, so I was prepared for a lack of countryside. Instead, I had a museum to look forward to and another ride on a tram to take me into my other favourite city, Manchester.

The day started rather badly, however. I'd visited the new and rather swish Liverpool One Bus Station the evening before and it appeared that my bus to St Helens – the Arriva No. 10a - left from there. Not so, however. When I got there this morning and checked on the departure screens there was no mention of it, and when I checked at the Information Desk I was told that it left from the other bus station is James Street.

But then I had the first of a whole series of pieces of good luck. As I arrived at James Street, my bus was just rounding the corner and pulling in, and a short spell of jogging brought me to the door of the bus just before it left. Result! I was even able to get a day ticket explorer thingy which would take me onward to Warrington and save me money. Double result!

We ground through Liverpool's suburbs, making our way through the city's dense web of terraced streets. Liverpool seems entirely ringed with densely-packed streets of red brick terraces, but things are slowly changing; many of those terraced streets are now making way for new, brighter and more varied housing. The days of having a choice between three up and two down or nothing at all seem to be passing at last, though not everyone is happy with the changes.

This is a very different Liverpool to the one seen from the Mersey Ferry yesterday. Here there are no shining glass apartments, no broad stone-paved streets, no fountains playing or carefully-nurtured trees casting their dappled shade on well-groomed passers-by. This is an altogether grittier Liverpool, and you wonder – and worry - whether anything of this brave new world has so far benefited the people who live out here, just a mile or two out from the city's increasingly fabulous city centre.

We soon run into Knowsley and you immediately sense a distinct 'village' feel. There's the Knowsley Museum with is proud sign, there's a rather nice church, and a registry officer. There is also a Family Martial Arts Centre... a what?. I mean, Family Martial Arts?

Perhaps it's just me, but I thought the whole idea of being a parent was to intimidate your kids to keep them from annoying you and everyone else. Training them to be 3rd Dan Karate black belts seems rather counter-productive – I mean, how can a parent be expected to discipline their kids if, at any minute, little 10 year old Darren could have you in a headlock?

I spotted another sign on the road out of Knowsley all across the front of a pub, which proudly (and in letters at least half a metre high) boasted that their kitchen had received a hygiene rating of four stars out of five.

Now, excuse me if I appear a tad picky here, but only four out of five? Think about it - if you order a burger and fries somewhere, do you want to find out that the kitchens preparing your meal are fairly clean but they're not brilliant? Well, do you? I mean, you can't help but wonder why they didn't they get that all-important fifth star - what exactly was it that the Environmental Health Officer saw on their inspection which led them to say, "Well, it's generally quite good but...,

'But' what? But for that fungus growing on the ceiling? But for the open drain in the middle of the floor? But for the army of mice which, although they always carefully wipe their feet before entering, really shouldn't be running around the food store like that? Does four out of five mean 'hardly any cockroaches'?

In football parlance, and it's practically a second language around here, I think that's what they call an own goal.

My next stop was St Helens and the North West Transport Museum (my fourth transport museum, no less), which is conveniently just around the corner from the bus station. It was closed, but in today's third piece of good luck (I hope you're keeping count), one of the museum's knowledgeable volunteers was in the museum building and spotted me with my nose pressed glumly against the window and agreed to let me in for a look around.

It's an impressive place. You can see that it used to be a bus depot, but it was a tram depot before that, and a horse tram depot before that, so this place has certainly got context. It also has a superb glass roof which absolutely floods the main exhibition area with light. It's vast and airy interior has dozens of buses and numerous other vehicles. There's also a lecture theatre and a mini museum all about tickets and ticketing. And it also has a huge workshop area which the public don't normally see but which gives you a fascinating insight into the huge amount of work that goes into the conservation of large commercial vehicles like buses (C'mon, guys, there must be a way of letting visitors peer through the door like I did?)

In short, it's well worth a visit and it's really easy to get to by bus (obviously). It doesn't look like its run by unpaid volunteers at all, it all looks pretty professional. However, because it is run solely by volunteers, the museum can only open at week-ends and bank holidays because that's when they can always guarantee to have people available to supervise the place. Which is a shame. It needs more volunteers – spread the word!

Onwards, then, to Warrington past more rows of terraced housing, many of them trying desperately not to look like their next door neighbour– some are stone-clad, others rendered, still more painted, and all of them trying to look a little smarter and a little less humble than they are. We pass a semi-reclaimed colliery spoil heap hinting at a long-gone mining industry – and perhaps explaining the large numbers of brick-built terraced homes nearby.

It's a strange mix, this area. It is densely populated but there's the occasional farm, too. Refinery chimneys poke over the rooftops one minute, then just down the road there is a roadside sign advertising fresh new Cheshire Cheeses for sale. Cereal crops, motorways, parks, spoil heaps – it' all here but little of it is pretty in the conventional sense.

We swing into Warrington, which probably doesn't look its best in...well, in any weather. There's nothing really wrong with it, it's just a bit of a jumble. And it seems like there are roads everywhere. Not a bad bus station, though...

Out of Warrington, then, on the 100 First bus service to Manchester. Overall it's a fairly unexceptional journey through an unexceptional landscape, except we keep ducking and diving under and over motorways, first the M6 then later the M56, and we even cross the Manchester Ship canal a couple of times over what seemed to be rather dilapidated swing bridges – don't suppose there's much demand for shipping this far inland these days. I think we also passed over the West Coast Mainline, which I hadn't seen since Coventry.

I tried to keep my eyes closed when we got to Trafford Park, the humongous out-of-town shopping city on the edge of Manchester. I don't react well to such places. I absolutely don't subscribe to the 'retail as a leisure activity' philosophy and if I did I think I'd exercise my retail proclivities in proper towns and cities, not on pointless wind-blown film sets such as this.

In its favour (just), it does have a cutesy little bus station which shares some of the architectural features of the centre it serves, but ultimately it just looks faintly ridiculous.

Sorry. I don't do retail.

Anyway, after my fit of the vapours at Trafford Park we duly arrived at Eccles Interchange. I was struck, and not a little disappointed, by the clear lack of Eccles cake sellers loitering around the bus stands and the apparent shortage of cakes stalls. I thought about popping into the nearby supermarket to buy a couple of the local delicacies, but of course there is no certainty that supermarket Eccles cakes were made anywhere near Eccles. After all, earlier in my journey I passed what looked like the biggest Carlsberg brewery in the world – and that wasn't Denmark, it was Northampton.

I therefore high-tailed it over to the tram platform so I could complete my journey into Manchester by Metrolink. Those of you who have read my previous ramblings will be aware of my growing fondness for trams. They are smooth, swift, comfortable, cosmopolitan in a small way, and entertainingly scary (will we crash into that refuse truck? Will that taxi get out of the way in time? Will that guy in the suit suddenly realise there's a tram breathing down his neck? Ooh, lovely!)

I therefore arrived at my hotel in Manchester refreshed and stimulated and ready for dinner.

And would you believe it? Manchester has a Curry Mile!

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