“How much do you want it to be?”
My bus driver was a comedian. Marvellous. I eventually negotiated a fare of £2 and sat down for an enjoyable 20-minute ride through country lanes and small villages.
The number 48 is an infrequent rural bus service, making just five return trips a day between Frodsham and Northwich. It looked like the sort of bus which has “regulars”, who get on the same bus every day and probably sit in the same seat. I took a seat near the back, probably occupying someone else’s usual spot. I’m sure I got scowled at by at least one other person who got on.
I arrived in Northwich with plenty of time to get the next train, which was fortunate as, unknown to me, the railway and bus stations are some distance apart. A brisk walk across town ensued, but in the end I arrived in plenty of time for my train. The plan was to take a train from Northwich to Manchester Piccadilly, then onward to my next destination, Styal.
I was not happy with my itinerary, which included a ten minute connection at Piccadilly. Normally I would not be bothered by this, but missing this train would cause problems. On weekdays Styal receives just three trains a day in each direction – if the 1246 train left without me, I had a five hour wait for the next one.
I was relieved to see my train arrive at Northwich almost exactly on time. I was very displeased, however, when we ground to a halt just outside Plumley and stayed there for an extended time. The guard wandered through the train in an orange high-visibility jacket and joined the driver in his cab. Whatever they did, we eventually got moving again, after what seemed like an eternity. In fact the wait was only about 15 minutes, but that was long enough to leave my planned connection in tatters.
At first I was despondent — would I have a Station Master FAIL on my hands? However, I resolved to make the best of things and pulled out my iPhone (RIP Steve Jobs), calling up National Rail Mobile to find an alternative route. It transpired that there was another way: if I alighted at Stockport, I could take a train to Wilmslow, then another to Manchester Airport in time to meet the Styal train en route from Piccadilly.
It worked – a couple of nimble platform changes later, and I found myself at Manchester Airport, where the Styal train glided in at 1307. A few minutes later I was at Styal, my plans literally back on track.
Poor old Styal. Until 1993 it enjoyed a frequent service to Manchester and Crewe. Then, however, British Rail decided to build a branch line to Manchester Airport. This would have been excellent, were it not for the minor detail that most of the trains which served the Styal line were diverted away to run to and from the Airport station instead, leaving Styal as yet another station with a token handful of trains per day.
And yet, it’s a station crying out for a better service. Not only is there a decent population in the village itself who would surely appreciate better links to Manchester, there are footpaths leading off from the station into the surrounding countryside, ideal for ramblers. The station is also well placed to serve Quarry Bank Mill and HMP Styal (do they do two-for-one admission?).
The only activity in the vicinity was some small industrial operation which appeared to have occupied part of the station yard. The passenger car park was empty, and this generous provision for cyclists was, sadly, going unused:-
And really, that was all there was to see of Styal station, so I trekked up to the road to get my ugly mug under the BR logo.
I have a new found respect for The Mersey Tart, who has been doing this for years and has got the up-the-nostril station sign shot down to a fine art. I, on the other hand, am still learning. It took ten goes to get an acceptable picture and the results can be seen to the left. I didn’t realise until I got home that there is a telegraph pole sticking out of my head, but it’ll do.
As I walked from the station to the bus stop, I met a chap carrying a fishing rod, who asked me for directions to the river. I was clueless of course, but rather than shrug apologetically and move on, I pulled out my iPhone (RIP again Steve Jobs) and used the map function to point him in vaguely the right direction. Google Maps showed a road and a river, but did not include any detail on what fences, gates or famers with shotguns the chap might encounter, so my advice may have been less than helpful. I’m not entirely sure why I tried to help at all. Maybe I wanted to avoid the incident on my previous trip to Clifton, where I was called a “useless twat” by the local wildlife.
On the off-chance that fisherman bloke is reading this: I’m sorry if I accidentally directed you into a military firing range, or something.
Styal itself is lovely, but like many villages is sadly rather lacking in amenities, apart from the aforementioned National Trust property and prison. There is a war memorial, which was nice. I saw a sign pointing to a café, but decided not to risk any further disruption to my itinerary for a drink.
So that was Styal. The railway situation seems bleak, but there is hope for the future. There is an active campaign for improved services over at the Styal Railway Station Web Site, and they have already achieved some small victories. The station now has a two-hourly Sunday service, and from December 2011 there will be an extra two southbound trains on weekdays. It doesn’t seem like much, but any improvement will surely be appreciated by the good citizens of Styal.
However, I couldn’t wait until December 2011 for an improved service, so I settled down at the bus stop to wait for my onward transportation. My third and final Station Master destination was unusual. In fact, strictly speaking it wasn’t a station at all.