At Manchester Airport we climb aboard. Tired travellers struggle down the narrow aisle in search of empty seats, lifting wheeled cases and plastic bags of fags onto the overhead shelves before sitting down heavily with hungover smiles. An announcement warns of travelling on the wrong ticket, inducing slight beats of panic in even those passengers whose paperwork is in order. And then, with a jolt and a lurch, we are off.
Northern England passes by outside the window. We are travelling across the Pennines from Manchester to Leeds, a journey I used to take from home in Lancashire to university in Yorkshire. Crossing the great divide. Lotte asks me what has changed. Not much, I say, as we look down on suburban back gardens and their trampolines, the overgrown edgelands between the tracks and the back fence a tangle of bushes, brambles and fly-tipped waste. Across the rooftops we spy a cricket pitch and a primary school. 20th century blocks of flats and more modern, sandstone-coloured new-build estates. Shipping containers and a mechanic’s yard. An ice cream van under an overcast sky. Pink and white blossom adding colour to the scene.
Some things have changed. The line-up of different coloured bins at the end of the footpath. That’s different. And the skyline of the city. As Manchester approaches I wonder at when it began to ape its cousins across the Atlantic. I don’t remember skyscrapers – perhaps the odd, poorly built office block – but not these thrusting protrusions of glass and steel reaching for the sky. It will be the same later, as we approach Leeds, and I try to point out landmarks I recognise to Lotte through gaps in the urban forest.
In the outskirts of Manchester, as we begin to climb towards the boundary with Yorkshire, there are more reminders of the past that built the city than its modern incarnation. The elegant sweep of the railway viaduct, bending enough that we can count the arches. Chimneys and mill ponds. Old factories. Some are still working, building something (if not what they used to). Others have been transformed. Balconies attached to old stone. Canal views and more, across the towns and villages that seem to be built in the hollow, up to the greens, browns and beige-y yellows of the moorland above.
The railway continues to climb. Canal locks lift the water up alongside us. More mills. More chimneys. More new-build estates. A cutting at once hides the view and exposes the stone from which all those houses, factories and municipal buildings were built. At some point the sun comes out. Perhaps as we enter Yorkshire. As a Lancastrian (still) it feels like the weather gods are mocking me. The train stops for the first time since Manchester at Huddersfield, and the train doors open to allow in that peculiar smell of paint and diesel that clings to railway stations and that I thought I had forgotten. It is a smell that tells me I have come “home” (whatever that means), to catch the train.
And then: Leeds. Our fellow passengers begin to gather their things. The couple opposite us are discussing the travails of being a buy-to-let landlord. “Eight grand!” one exclaims, about the costs incurred because of a careless tenant. “That can’t be right,” her companion replies. “Nothing should cost eight grand.” It sounds more like something to say – an attempt at solidarity with the predicament – than anything with a sound basis in fact. “I don’t know,” comes the reply from across the table. “It seems to be costing more than it is making.” I suspect sympathy in the rest of the carriage is in short supply, as the train pulls in at Leeds station; our trans-Pennine journey at its end.
Words & Picture: Paul Scraton