I like to get to train stations early enough to have time to meander round the shops, read some trash in WH Smiths, buy a sandwich and get on the train before the latecomers, so we're at Kings Cross twenty minutes before the train goes. Unfortunately, I need the loo and the queue takes 16 minutes so we're rushing through the station with four minutes to spare and much heavy breathing. I'm not a fan of fast moving.
Because Virgin has decided not to run any trains this weekend (going somewhere? In the summer?! Unthinkable!), we have to change trains in Yorkshire. But First TransPennine are still running tiny three carriage rolling stock, lined with people standing in the aisles for over an hour This is what happens when you don't have a unified rail system, just a load of money grubbing friends of Cameron running the railways. FTP has also managed to lose my reservation - they make look First Great Western look competent (perhaps the clue is in "First").
By the Pennies are beautiful, the dirty golden stone villages, the green and purple hills with the occasional divine burst of light as the sun deigns to come out. We pass Totley and Dore with its cricket ground where the lovely Joe Root used to play.
Into Manchester and then down to Castlefield.
We walk along Peter Street, scene of the Peterloo
massacre. Indeed, looking up at the plaque
, we notice that it took place 195 years ago today. There are wreaths
on the ground to commemorate the anniversary. Hopefully the Guardian is preparing its bicentennial pull out souvenir for 2019. Also in Castlefield is the (in)famous Free Trade Hall, and St Johns' Gardens, an ex-graveyard where William Marsden, originator of the Saturday half day holiday was interned.
I like this area, I like the redbrick Victorian buildings contrasting with the modern steel and glass, the old station now a shopping centre, the old indoor railway market, now part of the Science Museum.
But we are here to do the Coronation Street tour. The old set is, much like the show itself, on a back street. There is very little fanfare. There's almost a make do and mend approach as newer frontages, such as Nick's Bistro
and the "Weatherfield quays" flats, are just tagged onto the front and back of the studio building. The green room looks like a sixth form common room. The dressing rooms are a little more glam but minuscule. I would be a giant if I worked here.
First of all we see the indoor sets: Carla's old flat, the Duckworths, Gail's living room. The sets are tiny
, everything is built at 7/10ths of normal size. The only permanent sets are the factory and the pub, where we sit in the snug and then go pull a pint
. The optics contain water or apple juice but the peanuts on the wall are real. It's very odd to be sitting there. Everything is pretty threadbare. There is also a props room: Deirdre's specs, Becky's cowgirl hat, Carla's wedding dress, Hayley's coffin, the Roy and Hayley snowmen. Finally, with a flourish, we are allowed onto "the famous cobbles", aka the outdoor set, which is almost like a model village. We wander the guinnels
, peering into the scruffy yard
s, noting that the trees and flowers are real. To my amusement, Gail's front door has the same patterned glass design as in our bathroom at home. "She should clean them nets," says one woman, looking up at the bedroom window disapprovingly. Some houses aren't "owned" by the main characters, presumably this is where the extras live.
Eventually, we walk back into town, into the High Gothic town hall, over Piccadilly Gardens, which has been tarted up since I was last here with the wheel and those mid-market eateries that cities so love (GBK Burgers, Cafe Rouge, Wagamama, Caffe Nero) but it still doesn't feel like a place to hang out in, too windswept, too desolate.
In the evening, we eat at the cordon vert Bistro 1847
, choosing the six course tasting menu (fave courses: battered halloumi with smoked lemon curd and shallots pickled in gin; panna cotta with smoked fudge and mead).
We wander through the bright neon and loudly frying smells of Chinatown. I do like Manchester: gay-friendly, multicultural without the tensions of nearby Oldham or Burnley, artistic without being fey, independent without being inward, proud of its heritage whilst not being stuck there. The transport is great, trams go out as far as Altrincham or Ackrington, there are free
inner city buses, whilst other buses are £1, all to convince you not to bring your car into the city centre. Mind you, I'm glad our hotel room faces an ugly building opposite rather than onto the street so we don't hear the 2 a.m. crowd. It's nice to listen to silence.
We eschew the hotel breakfast to go to Annie'
s, owned by Fiz from Coronation St. Exiting the hotel into the middle of the city in search of breakfast feels like we're in Europe somewhere. Annie's is a lovely place - all armchairs, chandeliers, low lighting, show tunes on the CD player, but the food (cold baked beans! £5.75 for a scone!) doesn't really live up to the prices.
We set off over down the River Irwell in the hope of getting to Salford. We can hear signs of life, cars, helicopters, but it's absolutely empty, no people, dog walkers, cyclists, joggers or doggers. The blackberry bushes are plump with fruit. I push buddleia out of my path. Further on, we find out why - the canal is closed off, so we're onto a dreary A-road only enlivened by an out of town shopping centre that we can't take a shortcut through as there are no paths. But eventually we get to the other Coronation Street: rows and rows of back to back red terraces, looking, satellite dishes aside, pretty much as Tony Warren would have seen it when he created Corrie back in the '60s. We pause for photos outside the now iconic Salford Lads' Club. There's a notice in the window about saving the club, with a £250K target. Surely Morissey could put his hand in his designer jeans and pull out some loose change for them? Or a donation box on the wall for everyone who's made this pilgrimage.
Salford definitely seems a city apart, no two Jä
gerbombs for a fiver or Cafe Rouge here. It's also a far cry from Salford Quays Media City and the Lowry. There's no-one about, the streets are empty, apart from a man who pops out from his house to pick up a can from the shop opposite, ignoring us. We're just the current in a long line of cultural appropriators.
We wander back down guinnels and gitties and the A road to the Science Museum where we discover that Manchester invented: planes, cycling, cotton, printing, newspapers, sanitation, computing, suffrage campaigns and railways.
Back into town for lunch in the Northern Quarter and ice-cream
in Affleck's Palace (flavours: Chorlton crack (salted caramel and peanut butter), fennel pollen (aniseed) and pear & espresso (pear & espresso)). Afflecks is like Camden Market - in 20 years little has changed, although the shop where I bought a lava lamp in 1993 is now a bead shop.
It's 4 p.m. and we have two hours to kill. We try sitting in the hotel bar, but it's full of men here to attend the Fan Boy Three convention, which seems to be a magicks dungeons and dragons type thing. I have nothing against people embracing nonsense (hey, I was a goth for two years, four years after goth was over), but I do object to shrieking, snorting, shouting and slamming of the table by people who don't get out much, so we end up wandering the upper echelons of Piccadilly station like lost souls until the train.
Because, as mentioned, Branson is having a weekend off running trains to collects his publicly funded subsidies, and because the official route was via Sheffield cost £72 per single ticket, I've booked separate tickets, Manchester to Doncaster, Doncaster to London. Worried that the crappy TransPennine service wouldn't get us to Doncaster in time to do a ten minute change and because train companies take no responsibility for their passengers - East Coast conductors are known as the least forgiving on the network, presumably because they get commission on tickets sold onboard
- I started panicking about missing the train, or at the very least my knuckles would be white every time the train slowed down, I ended up buying another set of tickets for half an hour later, figuring it'd be cheaper than paying walk-on prices. As it happened, there was no need for them, but this
is privatised train travel under your government, Mr McLoughlin. I remember the blessed freedom of the Supersaver, now just a distant memory of no travel before 10 a.m., on bank holidays, or on Saturday in July and August. Of these sweet memories, my youth was made.