Wednesday, 24 November 2021

The Dark End Of The Street

 

One question I've often had to field since I dragged this blog back to life is "why?".  Not "why are you trying to visit all the stations on a map?", because most people I know have long given up on trying to get a justification for that out of me.  No, what they want to know is "why on earth would you willingly spend your free time travelling round the Midlands?" 

The Midlands - particularly the Birmingham-related parts of it - have a reputation as one of Britain's least lovely spots.  You can find people who'll defend London's grimiest inner cities or Middlesbrough's industrial wastelands or Liverpool's abandoned docks, finding true beauty in their desolation.  But it's rare you'll get someone sticking up for Birmingham.  It's a sulky, unloved part of the world.

One of the reasons why I'm doing this blog is to explore this massive, highly-populated part of the country that I know very little about, and to find good spots wherever I can.  You might find this hard to believe but I don't go to the grimiest hellholes with glee on my face, looking forward to tearing it to pieces in a barely-read blog a few days later.  I want to find goodness.  I want to find charm.  I want to be dazzled.

Unfortunately I was at Tame Bridge Parkway.


No-one has ever been inspired by a "Parkway".  Michael Portillo hasn't rhapsodised about Didcot Parkway; nobody's rushing to make Port Talbot Parkway Grade II listed.  Tame Bridge Parkway squats beneath a dual carriageway, the M6 roaring close by, a pair of platforms with a redbrick ticket hall and acres and acres of car park.  


Above, four lanes of traffic streamed past.  There were no buildings or homes.  Tame Bridge Parkway was built for drivers.  There wasn't a community for it.


I crossed a smelly canal, its weed-choked banks adorned with a burnt-out car lying on its roof, then entered the cavernous undercroft of the motorway.  The M5 and M6 meet at this point, their slip roads pouring into one another, and below you get to look at acres and acres of dead space.  Plants won't grow here.  People won't live here.  They serve no useful purpose other than as compounds for more cars - as above, so below.  Unless you're a concrete fetishist like me in which case you get to stand around and look at them, but even that gets boring after a while.


A little bit of humanity started to creep in now.  Bus stops and grass verges; houses and industrial units.  An enterprising company had set up one advertising board for its granite worktops alongside a completely separate one for granite headstones, really hoping you wouldn't link the two in your head and spend the rest of your time staring at your new kitchen island and imagining the words RIP GRANDMA etched in it.  A sign in the centre of the dual carriageway welcomed me to "The Delves In The Borough Of Walsall".


A less friendly sign had been erected by the police further along.  "Warning: No car cruising in Black Country area - HIGH COURT INJUNCTION IN FORCE".  I had no idea what "car cruising" actually meant.  At first I thought it was about kerb crawling and I was confused - isn't that illegal anyway?  A bit of googling and I discovered it was actually the practice of boy racers screaming down Birmingham's dual carriageways and into its car parks to perform tricks and show off in their souped-up cars.  This is the problem with building your city around cars.  You've built the perfect environment for people to speed and have fun in them and, as a consequence, cause a massive danger.  


I turned into a residential side street by a block of old people's flats, its bus stop filled with ladies off to the shops with their trolleys, and walked past the lawns and the neatly parked cars.  My mum always used to say that you could tell who bought their council houses because the first thing they did was rip off the standardised front door and replace it with one of their own.  Now you can tell which ones are owner occupied by the lack of insulation and solar panels, housing associations taking every opportunity and government grant to minimise the bills.  In the north end of Birkenhead, almost all the houses have been covered with cream exterior insulation, except for the ones that have been sold, which break up the run of energy efficiency with their mean brick exteriors and, yes, their fancy front doors.


There was a sharp break as the homes became industry, suddenly, as though a switch had been flicked.  I was taken by the FH Tompkins Buckle building; a standard factory with 1950s peaked roofs had received a wonderfully 70s/80s extension at the front.  The red porthole windows wedged in the grey plasticky exterior made it look like a polytechnic science block.  I've done a bit of searching and I think the company is still there, making buckles, but I'm not really sure, as its website is delightfully ancient.  

I rounded a corner and let out a gasp.  I was in the presence of an icon.  If you travel from north to south on the M6 with any regularity, you become used to certain roadside buildings as markers on the way.  One big one for me, as it was roughly the halfway point, was the RAC headquarters that thrusts out towards the motorway.  It was a large glass building, seemingly hanging over the road, and giving the impression that inside was a huge team of headset-wearing operatives monitoring the nation for breakdowns.  You could picture them leaning in over green radar screens, whispering urgently, fielding calls and dispatching operatives - "Susan Melgrove is reporting a flat battery in Harrogate and needs us.  Good luck and God speed."


Now, it seemed, I was right behind it, on the other side.  I'd not even spotted it on the map so it was a proper thrill and brought a huge beaming smile to my face.  Admittedly, from the rear it's not as impressive.  The building's been designed to wow motorway users and at the back there's a vehicle compound and a boring flat block of offices.  None the less, it brought back happy memories of travelling up and down the M6 to Ormskirk at the beginning and end of term.


Another turn, and the road started to get those ostentatious lamppost flags councils put up to try and impress visitors.  I was approaching the home of Walsall FC, the football club Bescot Stadium station served, and as usual I wanted a quick look at the home ground.  I love a sports ground for the same reason I love a bridge or a museum; it's big, flashy, public architecture.  As I approached, I tried to work out where it was, thinking it had to be behind that drab University of Wolverhampton factory unit.  Then I realised.  It was the drab University of Wolverhampton factory unit.


Look, Walsall are in the bottom league, they're hardly likely to have a huge Emirates style bowl.  Still, it was a bit disappointing to see something that could've passed for a closed down Carpetright as a town's main sporting venue.

Directly opposite the ground was Bescot Stadium station.  I think it says a lot about the visitor numbers to Walsall's games that the car park suggested that rail users should park at one end on match days to leave room.  If there was a car park directly opposite Anfield it would be full from about 7am on a Saturday morning.  


Bescot Stadium opened as Bescot station, then was renamed Bescot Junction, then finally became Bescot Stadium in 1990, and it must have one of the grimmest approaches on the British railway network.  To reach the platforms, you have to cross the car park, then follow a dark fenced off route under the M6.  They've stuck some poetry on the floor here, and the fence has a fancy top to it, but it's still a pretty ominous walk.  


Once you're past the motorway, there's a bridge over the canal, where I counted an impressive four shopping trolleys in the water, one with a plastic seat for toddlers.  Then there's another bridge to take you up and over the tracks, this one in pebbledashed concrete and speckled with mould.  Normally at out of the way stations there are a lot of signs from the Samaritans, pleading with you to call them rather than jump on the tracks.  The signs here were a lot more confrontational, warning about the penalties for jumping, telling you to grass up mates who vandalise the railways, informing you just how many people actually survive being hit by a train but have to lose a limb.  This wasn't pretty or scenic; Jenny Agutter wasn't waving her knickers around anywhere near Bescot Stadium.


The footbridge did at least give you a view of Bescot depot, a mass of tracks speckled with freight trains.  As I have often said, I'm a station nerd, not a train nerd, so this view didn't really do much for me, but I'm sure my readers will love it so here's a picture.


There was at least a station building on platform 1 - it was closed, but never mind - and there were LED screens to tell you when the next train was.  I've been to stations in Manchester that have had a lot less in the way of facilities.  I took a seat and ate my sandwich - a Sainsbury's Christmas one, pigs in blankets; disappointing, 4/10 - and then the train arrived to take me to Walsall, my final stop.


Walsall station emptied out directly onto a pedestrianised street tucked behind the heart of the town centre, which was handy.  I followed the rest of my passengers up to Park Street, Walsall's main shopping drag, but I didn't hang about.  I was headed for the town's jewel.


The New Art Gallery Walsall opened in 2000, another of those Millennial icons that now seem like a universe away, and was built primarily to house the Garman Ryan Collection.  Kathleen Garman was a socialite and artist who became the mistress of Jacob Epstein in the 1920s.  His wife shot Kathleen in the shoulder with a pearl-handled pistol - as I said, it was the 1920s - but Epstein still lived with her until her death, before marrying Kathleen in 1955.  Their daughter Kitty went on to marry Lucien Freud; sadly, their two other children committed suicide.  

Kathleen was a devout art collector and along with her friend Sally Ryan she donated all her pieces to the borough of Walsall.  The New Art Gallery was conceived as a place to give it the setting it deserved and also, to act as a focus for regeneration for the town.


On the first count, it succeeds brilliantly.  The gallery is beautiful to walk round, all calming wood and soft lighting, and each piece is given the prominence it deserves.  There's a lot of Jacob Epsteins, as you'd expect, but there's also stuff by Picasso, Rembrandt, Degas, plus historic pieces from Ancient Egypt.  It was laid out by theme - a room about Trees, a room about Children - and it meant you could look at the different way artists had interpreted a similar subject.  I wandered around for a while, enjoying myself, picking out which one's I'd have for my living room.  I didn't take many pictures - go to the gallery and enjoy it yourself - but I must point out that this is the installation in the second floor lift vestibule.


ART.

There were two disappointments.  The first was that, though it was a four floors of galleries, only two were open.  The third floor was being prepared for a new exhibition and the fourth - which hosts a roof terrace - seemed to be a victim of the pandemic.  The second disappointment was when you passed one of the beautifully crafted rectangular windows, carefully placed within the gallery for light and effect, you got a glimpse of Walsall.


Because, and I'm sorry to say this, I did not like Walsall.  It's not all their fault; it's clearly suffering in the same way a lot of satellite towns in the 21st century are suffering.  The big stores were closing up and Park Street was left as the home of vape stores, pound shops, and To Let boards.  Corporate signage had covered up any interesting architecture while big ugly shopping centres had swallowed up a lot of the real estate.  


It was one of those towns where, for no reason at all, it seemed to have decided to be as ugly as possible at all times.  And after the endless beauty in the art gallery it seemed even more hideous.  I walked down to the market square, where permanent stalls sold catalogue rejects, and doubled back in search of the bus station.


This did, at least, look like a big impressive piece of architecture.  It's a statement, and it's a landmark, and it works.  And when you get inside you get to look up at the roof and imagine you've been captured by a pop art alien and this is their flying saucer.


But it is, when all is said and done, just a bus station.  I turned away from it, past the closed National Express ticket office - the glass walls giving me a great look into the bare interior - and through a small arcade back to Park Street.  Outside a convenience store, the owner was arguing with some bolshie college girls who couldn't definitely prove they were 18; across the way, a man stood in the doorway of a vape shop, dancing to the pounding techno music they played or possibly, to the tune only he could hear.  The burger stall that was wedged halfway up pumped out the smell of grease.  I decided to leave.

Because I like to wallow in misery, instead of going back the way I came where it was at least airy and pleasing, I headed into the Saddlers Shopping Centre.  Walsall station had once opened up directly onto Park Street, but the lure of a new Marks and Spencer proved too much for the town, and the station building was demolished to provide the residents with all the under cover shopping pleasures they could handle.  (The Marks closed in 2018, less than 30 years after it became part of the Saddlers Centre; the station concourse was more than 50 years old when it was knocked down).  The station ticket hall was shoved at the back of the mall.


In fairness to Walsall Council, they've realised this was a grave error.  A few years ago they purchased the Saddlers Centre to help regenerate the town, and their masterplan includes a new station entrance, once again opening up onto Park Street and reclaiming its importance.


I hope it goes ahead.  It's a lot cheaper to produce masterplans than to actually construct anything, but Walsall needs something to get it back.  I walked through dark corridors down to the platform.  Because of the shopping centre overhead, trackside is dark and miserable; most of the passengers had congregated in the open air section, and I joined them.


I'm often asked "why on earth would you willingly spend your free time travelling round the Midlands?".  After visiting Walsall and its environs, part of me was inclined to wonder the same thing.  My next trip out would have to be a lot more cheering.

Thursday, 18 November 2021

Hopeless

The worst part of today's big rail announcement - the big announcement being "we're not building anything, really" - is that we were disappointed.  That we actually, for a while there, believed that something good might happen.  That when the axe came we were let down.

Britain doesn't do ambition.  It used to.  It did in the Victorian era, when there were railways thrown across the country.  It did in the Sixties, when there was hope for the future, with Concorde and motorways and big red double arrows.  But now?  Now we're muddling through.  It's make do and mend.  It's mustn't grumble.  The idea that you spend money and time building something that won't produce instant results but that will, in a decade or so, transform the lives of the population - that's far too long-term.  That's far too ambitious.  Can we offer you a union jack on the new national rail logo instead?

HS2 and the Northern Powerhouse rail could've genuinely changed the transport landscape in this country.  Fast, new, efficient, clean railways whisking between the biggest cities in the UK, leaving smaller routes for better commuter services, increasing capacity, increasing speed.  It could've made travelling across huge swathes of the country simple and quick.  For a while there, they dangled it in front of us, tentatively close.  They're actually building the London-Birmingham bit of HS2 right now.  Euston has a massive construction site next to it for the extra platforms.  There are spades in the soil.  Carrying on to the North seemed tantalisingly possible.

Instead we've got a fudge, a load of nothing.  Electrification schemes re-announced, electrification schemes that should've been finished years ago.  Passing loops presented as a major innovation in transport technology.  Bodges that make what's already being built unsatisfactory to everyone (welcome to East Midlands Parkway, just an hour from London, but ten miles from anywhere you'd actually want to be!).  And of course, in a few years time, the railways will still be struggling, and they'll have to spend money building everything they meant to build, only it'll be more expensive and inconvenient and time consuming.  They'll have to start from scratch when they could have it all done.

This is a backward, stick in the mud country, counting pennies like a crooked fingered miser, resenting any investment as though every pound spent on HS2 has snatched from the mouth of unborn children.  There was an MP on the radio celebrating that the cancellation of HS2's eastern leg means the line won't pass through his constituency; his constituency is in South Yorkshire, but as far as he was concerned only a small number of people in Leeds would benefit from it, entirely overlooking Sheffield.  Nimbys are in charge; nimbys have the loudest voices.  We're a horrible, nostalgia-addled country run by fools who only value the cash that falls into their pockets and can't think about anything that doesn't benefit them or their friends and applauded by nasty idiots who want everything for themselves and nothing for anyone else.  I'm despondent at today's big rail announcement, and I can only encourage you to vote out this gang of crooked narcissists at the first opportunity you get.  It won't get us a railway but with any luck it might make them take a moment to reflect on what they've done.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Bland, Etc

Here's an interesting ("interesting") fact for you: Telford got its first stretch of motorway in 1975.  It got its second stretch, which took it to the M6, in 1983.  That's a brand new, six lanes of tarmac, seventy mile an hour road bulldozed across the countryside to connect the New Town with the motorway network.  Meanwhile it got its railway station, Telford Central, in...1986.  Even though the Shrewsbury-Wolverhampton line had been there since 1849, so all they had to do was whack a couple of platforms down and they were done.


The fact is, Telford isn't really interested in trains.  It was part of the third wave of New Towns, conceived in the sixties then largely built in the seventies, and the prevailing thought at that time was that everyone would have a car.  Everyone.  There was no need to build a railway station because you had that handy motorway.  

Even when they did build it, the emphasis was very much on "get here by car and go somewhere else" rather than "welcoming gateway to the town".  Telford Central is built within a triangle formed by three major roads - the M54, the A5, and the A442, a dual carriageway spine that runs north-south through Telford.  It's a small ticket office and waiting room, combined with a big car park.  There are no facilities, unless you count a Beefeater and Premier Inn off to one side, and there's no feeling of arrival.


I wandered over from the westbound platform to the station building in the hope of seeing something inspirational.  There were some transport policemen having a chat, an empty bus shelter, a woman waiting impatiently.  The transport policemen wandered off to their van parked to the side.  The woman was picked up by a cab.  Then the station was silent again.  It didn't feel right.


Christ almighty that's a bad photo.

In fairness, the town council seems to have realised that this isn't the greatest introduction to the town, and have constructed a large elaborate footbridge to carry you across into Telford proper.  Called the Silver Swallow Bridge - a name, you will be unsurprised to learn, that was invented by a schoolchild - it's a behemoth, crossing first the railway tracks and then the dual carriageway to deposit you in the town.


I walked across it as the rain began to hammer down.  It had been threatening all morning but that was while I was safe and dry on various trains.  The minute I started walking out in the open, the skies turned dark and the rain fell.  I crossed the bridge and ended up on what felt like a service road round the back of some offices.


The route into town was convoluted; I followed a woman who seemed to know where she was headed.  I crossed a wide pedestrian area that the office buildings seemed to turn their back on.  The council had laid on trees and benches but it didn't feel like a boulevard or a place to linger.  The mood wasn't helped by two young lads, huddled under a tree and clearly negotiating something furtive.  I hurried on and up to another footbridge to take me over another main road.


Now, at last, I could see the Telford Centre, the central shopping mall.  While the earlier New Towns looked to Europe for their inspiration, with open, multi-level shopping precincts, the later ones - Milton Keynes and Warrington and Telford - cast their eyes across the Atlantic.  That meant a mall, a huge enclosed area that contained all your shopping needs, surrounded by roads and plenty of car parking space.  The mall was the future; it was warm, and weatherproof, and you could separate shoppers from services with ease.  


I have nothing against shopping malls.  I spent a great deal of my childhood loitering in the Luton Arndale.  They are, however, pretty generic.  Milton Keynes spent an astronomical amount on its central shopping centre, with huge windows allowing natural light, marble floors, and tropical planting.  They made their retail destination a destination.


It was clear that Telford had not had the budget of Milton Keynes and the result was pretty much the same as every other indoor shopping centre in the United Kingdom.  That's fine when you're, say, Leeds, and you've covered over a few streets to make a mall that compliments the rest of your town centre.  In Telford, though, it was a problem.


The effect was that this town could be anywhere.  It should be the big attraction; it should be the heart.  Instead it was just another shopping centre, and I got no feeling about what Telford actually was.  The other problem with having a covered shopping centre as your town's hub is: all it has are shops.  A town is more than retail, and you can't really have a thriving centre if it's all closed and sealed off at 6pm.


The council finally realised this and a few years ago they built the Southwater development.  A pedestrian bridge - obviously - extended the Mall so that it could drop you in a new section of town, with pubs, restaurants, a cinema and hotels.  Suddenly, there was a space for the night-time economy!  And yet, it is just as generic as the shopping centre, only in a 21st century way.  Grey boxes house a Hungry Horse, a Zizzi, a Pizza Express, a Bella Italia; in short, the exact same national chains you get at any retail park.  


I walked through the development to find the lake that justified the "water" part of the name, and found a shallow pond that looked like one of those drainage pools you get on new housing estates.  Turning round, I was confronted with the blankness of the architecture, the big empty plaza without any life to it, the way the buildings didn't recede into the distance but instead just stopped: the town centre was done, thank you very much, nothing more to see.


Even though the rain was pelting down now, I wanted to walk to my next station without going through the shopping centre again, so I took a narrow side route past the requisite TGI Friday's and ended up in a huge open-air car park with an Asda looming on the horizon.  It gave me my first glimpse of public transport after the trains, a bus station with its signage half as big as NEW LOOK or H&M.


Skirting the centre was easy.  It exists as an island, surrounded by four roads to form a square, each of them carefully planned to be converted to dual carriageways if the need arose.  This was a Motorcity, the other part of American towns that was shipped across the Atlantic.  There was a token and, by the looks of it, relatively recent attempt to calm the traffic by the Asda - flat paving leading into road hump crossings, posh streetlamps, a bit of greenery - but it still wasn't a friendly atmosphere.  Turning the corner under the House of Fraser felt like rounding the edge of a fortress.  A bluff, square castle and I was cowering in the moat.


I was the only person on the pavement.  Yes, the weather was bad, but you expect to see one or two people out and about.  There was nobody.  Everyone heading into town had driven here and walked inside the shopping centre, or had gone straight from the bus station under cover to the shops.  Out here on the streets it was empty. It wasn't even especially busy with cars.  Telford's road layout is so meticulously designed that you only head into the town centre if you want to go to the town centre; there are so many bypasses and diversionary routes to keep you away from these four central ways that you have to work to get here.


Towns need people.  They need to move around freely, walk on the streets, wander.  Good towns - good places - invite you to stroll.  There are interesting sights, shops for you to call into, cafes, museums.  There's a mix of humans that makes a community.  On the streets of Telford, there was none of that.  There wasn't even a view.  When I looked to the right I saw the top of the shopping centre; a flat mess of air conditioners and service pipes and utilities.  The pinnacles were the tops of internal features - the roofs of domes, the upper parts of glass pyramids - and they were uninterested in putting on a show for outsiders.


I had, in my head, already planned a route to Oakengates station, and it meant that I had to pass through a retail park to get there.  I followed the footpath sign past the Odeon cinema.  The only movie posters were for No Time To Die, because (a) that was the only film getting released that week and (b) that was the only film worth talking about.  (Yes I have seen it, and yes I enjoyed it, with reservations, and if you really want to read a rough rundown of my thoughts on it, you can read them here).  But the other side of the Odeon didn't look like a retail park, it looked like the car park for an office building - there were no shops in sight.  I thought I must've taken a wrong turn, so I walked back to the road.  Perhaps I had to go behind the Odeon rather than across it.


There was a roundabout - of course there was, I was in a new town - and a couple of low hotels that looked like student accommodation.  But further on from that was another, bigger roundabout, and I pulled out Google Maps in the driving rain so that I could try and deduce where I was meant to be headed.  There was a blue sign pointing to Oakengates, so I followed that.


It was only when I saw the same blue glass, stubby Dallas office building I'd seen leaving the station that I realised I'd walked in a complete circle and the footbridge I was heading for was the Silver Swallow Bridge.  I sighed and pushed on.  Normally I'd turn back, find the right path, but I was sick of Telford.  It was dispiriting and dull and I wanted to go somewhere else.


The bridge deposited me next to the station building and I followed a foot and cycle path that shadowed the A442.  It was noisy and isolated, hemmed in by traffic and trees.  It only got worse as, once I passed under the M54, the path became overgrown on one side.  I could still hear the traffic but now I was on a segregated, lonely route.


This is another part of Telford's loyalty to the car.  Pedestrian routes are segregated and sent places people don't want to walk.  I wondered what it was like to be a housewife, a student, a pensioner, to know that the town centre with its shops was just over there, but without access to a car you were left to follow meandering and dangerous looking paths.  I'm a hefty 44 year old man, and I was apprehensive about turning a corner on that path and finding a gang of youths waiting for me in the undergrowth.  How would it be if you're a 16 year old girl who works in McDonalds and has to get there for the breakfast shift before the buses start?  


The path split and splintered into side routes but I stuck to what seemed like the main way and took a bridge over the railway.  It was stone and brick, and obviously predated the town around it; a remnant of when this was countryside.  It emptied me out at the back of an office park.  I wondered what the workers stood by the photocopiers thought when they looked down and saw me roll out of the undergrowth next to their parked up BMWs.


The hill rose steeply and then I encountered something I'd not seen elsewhere in the town: a bus in motion.  I'd seen them parked up in the station, but how they got there was a mystery, because I'd not seen any of them driving about.  There was nobody at the bus stop, but still, it was nice to know they got around, and weren't for show.  


Snedshill was, it turned out, actually historic, but in the same way that a Civil War battlefield is historic: there's nothing to see.  As the name Furnace Way hints, this was once the site of one of the earliest ironworks in an area that produced Ironbridge, but it's now long gone.  Instead, there are retirement bungalows, a park wedged behind the dual carriageway, and, as you approach Oakengates, a few old cottages threaded along the road.


I wasn't enjoying Telford, which made me sad.  I'd long harboured a plan to visit here, but it was disappointing me.  The problem with that third wave of New Towns is they have a vague sense of hopelessness about them.  They weren't built in thrusting 1960s Britain, with the Beatles and Bond and Concorde, but in the 1970s, with the Bay City Rollers and Love Thy Neighbour The Movie and Concorde not selling because fuel prices were astronomical.  Instead of aiming high, trying to make the lives of its residents better, Telford felt insular and uncaring.  It felt less like a town, more like a load of disparate settlements grouped together arbitrarily.


Which is, of course, partly because that's what Telford is.  No New Town in the UK is entirely new - we're far too small and compressed an island to manage that.  Instead Telford filled in the gaps between existing Shropshire communities with new housing and built a town centre for them to aim for.  It's why Oakengates has had a railway station since 1849 - it was there long before the New Town Commission came calling.


I was immediately cheered by an old Co-operative sign, embedded into the wall, a beautiful piece of tiling.  Admittedly, the building it was in was now a pizza parlour, but still, it was the first bit of history I'd seen since I'd got off the train.  Beyond that was Oakengates town centre, a couple of narrow streets snaking up the hill and lined with a variety of pubs and shops.


Oakengates will never be mistaken for Hampstead or Chiswick.  Half its shops were shut; there were members of staff dangling out the front doors of Ladbrokes and the Eastern European supermarket smoking fags.  One of the pubs was still urging us to support England in the Euros.  It was grubby and down at heel.


But here's the difference between Oakengates and Telford town centre - it felt alive.  There were cars and taxis.  There were pedestrians.  People were having pints under the awnings outside the pubs.  A woman in an Afro-Caribbean shop was talking so loudly and excitedly I could hear her out on the street.  I felt like I was in a Place, somewhere people lived rather than existed.  I crested the top of the high street and turned back towards the station feeling a lot jollier.  I'd finally found some personality.


Oakengates station is at the bottom of Station Road, across from Station Mews and backing onto Station Fields; they're not very imaginative round here.  I headed back down Station Road, past a sign on an industrial unit advertising its Meat Trade Counter which sounded unpleasant for about fourteen reasons, and towards the station.  It was absolutely barrelling it down with rain now, so I didn't bother taking a look at the station house that was now a dental practice - or the pair of slippers that had been discarded on a grass verge and which would haunt me for the rest of the day - and headed for the platform.


Christ almighty that's a bad photo.

I was followed into the shelter by a tall man with a paperback.  He stood at the far end and read his book then, five minutes before the train arrived, tucked it into his pocket and walked away.  He didn't get the train.  I'm now left wondering if this means that Oakengates station doubles as a lending library and I hadn't noticed, or if this was some sort of gay sex pick up that I completely missed the signals for.


My final stop for the day was Wellington, and this is where I owe them an apology.  Wellington is a fine old market town, listed in the Domesday Book and with a charter going back centuries.  It has hundreds of years of history and personality and it deserves a full evaluation.


However, when I arrived, it wasn't just raining, it was engulfed.  Wellington was drowning.  It was heavy, consistent, vertical sheets of water crashing down and flooding the town.  I walked from the station to the pedestrianised area and my coat was clinging to me and my glasses were in desperate need of windscreen wipers.


Out of a sense of duty I endured the rain to do a circuit of the shopping district.  I feel like when people talk about the death of the High Street they are referring, quite specifically, to Wellington.  It was more than a little sad.  Lovely historic buildings that no doubt once housed charming shops were now filled with charity shops.  That's the ones that were filled at all; too many were vacant.  Someone had strung Wellington Boot bunting over the streets to try and induce a cheery atmosphere but in this downpour it looked sarcastic.  I called it a day.


If I was Michael Portillo, I'd have an entire team helping me out with umbrellas and cars and replacement bright pink suits for when the first one got soaked.  I'm not though, I'm just me, and after a miserable afternoon I wanted to find somewhere warm and dry that served beer.


Look at that damp face.  Are you going to deny it one joy?  You beast.

With the beer inside me I felt brave enough to head back out to the station.  Wellington is tucked below street level, in a cutting, meaning it's a somewhat inauspicious welcome to the town.  There are a few steps up to a bus exchange and the back of the shops, or a slowly rising road to the bridge over the tracks.  It feels a bit buried.


On the plus side, being an original station on the line means it gets a proper Victorian station, with fine platform awnings and footbridges.  This wasn't anything special - it wasn't a grand termini - but it still had more dignity and presence than Telford Central's grey box.  It was solid and proud.


I'm not against New Towns at all.  I admire them and support them and some of them are fantastic.  Telford seemed to do it all wrong, somehow.  I wanted better for it.  I really wanted to like it.  But it let me down.


Christ almighty that's a bad photo.