Tuesday 31 October 2023

Giving Headbolt

The novelty of the new trains hasn't worn off yet.  Admittedly, part of that is because there's still a very good chance that you'll end up on one of the old ones; the rollout hasn't exactly been speedy.  But still, it's cheering to be stood on a platform and see people's faces literally light up when that white M bursts out of the tunnel.  

I was finally heading out to Merseyrail's newest station, Headbolt Lane.  This was actually my second try at getting to it.  The first, with Robert, had been foiled by a broken down train on the Ormskirk line which caused ripples of uselessness throughout the network.  Our first train was cancelled, then our second vanished from the board, and we were told to simply get on the next train and change at Sandhills.  This was more of a measure to get us off the busy platform at Central as once we got to Sandhills there was no sign of a train and there was a vague muttering about bus replacements.  We managed to get a train back into town where we were forced to console ourselves.

Real suffering, I'm sure you'll agree.

I was in town with a little time to spare before I met someone so I decided it was an opportune time to go out to the new end of the line.  I hopped on board and found my new favourite seat.  One thing I was sad to lose with the retirement of the 507/508s was the little sideways seat, tucked behind the banks of four; as a frequent sole traveller I liked sitting somewhere I wouldn't be forced to be sociable or close to other human beings.  Fortunately the new 777s have a similar seat which I nipped straight into.

(Before someone pops up in the comments, no, this wasn't 777 007, as pictured above; I have no idea what number it was.  I was just pleased to see the 007 train, which Merseyrail are welcome to name after me any time).

The journey was smooth and unproblematic.  The wifi worked, which is the first time that's ever happened for me on one of the new trains.  We passed through Sandhills and Kirkdale, and then took the branch to Rice Lane.  One curiosity is that the automated announcement says "the next station stop" - "The next station stop is Rice Lane.  The next station stop is Fazakerley."  The scrolling displays, meanwhile, only say "stop".  I'd have gone with station, myself, what with them being actual stations.  

Kirkby was just another station now, though still with one platform.  Perhaps to keep costs down, perhaps because of the bridge over the M57, the extension hasn't also involved a doubling of the line.  The new track is double, but the old third rail remains as a single.  I listened out for any noises as we switched from electric to battery power, similar to when the pantograph is lowered and raised at City Thameslink, but there wasn't anything.  Instead we simply slid out of the station and on the last few hundred yards to the terminus.

Headbolt Lane was built for the future.  It's got plenty of space to circulate.  Its two platforms are carefully aligned with the Northern service to Wigan so that it can be extended if necessary, perhaps even to Skelmersdale now there's all that money swimming around after the cancellation of HS2 (lol not really).  If the battery trains are a success, perhaps they can go all the way to the end of the line, or at least as far as poor Rainford, which is technically under Merseytravel's jurisdiction but gets none of the advantages.  In the meantime, a fence has been put up between the Merseyrail and Northern sections of the station.

Note, by the way, the Metro rather than Merseyrail branding.  This has been slowly creeping out across the network but nobody seems to have acknowledged it.  I first spotted it outside Rice Lane station back in March, and the new trains also have the same logo.  I assume this is like when the Elizabeth Line wasn't finished, so the lines taken over by Crossrail were branded "TfL Rail" so they didn't tarnish the brand.  Presumably once it's all 777s, all the time, there will be a big comprehensive relaunch and Merseyrail will be retired.

Outside the station, it's still chaotic.  The main contractor went bust during the build (also jeopardising Anfield's new stand) so the car park is a mess of no tarmac and diggers.  The bus exchange is sort of finished, but I didn't see any buses actually using it.  

There's also a new station building.  Maghull North, the previous newest station, was a pretty dull affair, little more than a conservatory with a ticket office in it.  On the other hand Ainsdale, which got a comprehensive rebuild five years ago, is a triumph.  

Headbolt Lane is a compromise between the two.  It's a beast of a building.  It's open and welcoming, and it has plenty of space and light.

Inside there's seating and toilets and a ticket office with actual people in it, plus a machine for socially awkward losers like me who don't like talking to humans.  It's all very efficient, although it's not exactly inspiring.  The design is perfunctory but - elephant in the room - in this part of Merseyside, it's bound to be constructed for security above all else.  No point in building an elaborate glass chandelier if the local scallies are going to use it for target practice.

I hope they won't.  A big part of building this station out here on the fringe of the network is bringing opportunity to an area that didn't have so much before.  Headbolt Lane to Liverpool Central is now a twenty minute direct journey; the number 20 bus, which goes from County Road nearby, takes roughly fifty minutes to reach Whitechapel in the city centre.  That'll help the residents of an area where car ownership is incredibly low get new job prospects and travel options.  

I think I'll have to come back again when the station is properly finished.  See it in its glory; find that totem sign out front.  In the meantime, I've once again completed the Merseyrail map.  Now crack on with Baltic, will you?

Thursday 12 October 2023

How To Name A Railway Station

For reasons far too boring to go into here, I am currently sat in a Starbucks trying to find a way to kill a few hours.  I have a chai latte, a laptop, and nothing else to do.  So why not write a blog post based on a WhatsApp message?  Everything is #content.  

A few days ago, one of my group chats was ablaze with the opening of Headbolt Lane.  This is a small chat for homosexual train fans, and one of its members queried the name "Headbolt Lane".  "Why not, for example, Kirkby East?" he asked.  It's a valid point.  Headbolt Lane, after all, doesn't mean anything outside of its very specific location.  

That's not the point though, and this is why I launched into my Official Ranking Of Station Name Categories.  This is a list that all planners should work their way down to ensure that their brand new station is named interestingly and well.  As always, it is my opinion and mine alone, and is therefore absolutely correct and should be a law.  

Here's the hierarchy, anyway, starting with the best and working your way down:

1.  Named after the town/district/area

This is the ideal, of course.  Formby.  Meols.  West Kirby.  This is the station serving a particular area and so the name of the town is front and centre.  This might seem like the most obvious option but you'd be surprised how many times people swerve it.  This also applies to sub-areas of larger towns - so Birkdale, even though it's just a suburb of Southport, or Aughton Park as a part of Ormskirk, and it's why Baltic is an excellent name for the proposed station in Liverpool city centre.

2.  Named after the street it's on

This is where Headbolt Lane comes in and it's useful for stations that are not quite central enough.  Headbolt Lane, for example, is located at the crossover point between the Tower Hill and Northwood areas of Kirkby; the railway line is the division point.  Naming it after one or the other would ignore the other so, there you go, Headbolt Lane.  Neutral, yet descriptive.  Similarly, Manor Road is a simpler descriptor than That Weird No Man's Land Between Meols And Hoylake Which Is Technically Hoylake But Is Similarly A Little Bit Too Common To Be Hoylake.  

3.  A compass point.

It's a town, but it's not necessarily the middle of the town, so it gets a geographic descriptor to let you know it's not where the shops and the town hall are.  Birkenhead Central is right opposite the Pyramids shopping centre; Birkenhead North is an estate a couple of miles away where you probably don't want to alight unless you're not particularly attached to your handbag.  Maghull North is a park and ride on the edge of town, while Maghull - well, actually, neither station is very convenient for Maghull's centre, but the older station has history on its side at least.  A compass point is a bit of a boring option to be honest, unimaginative, a photocopy of what's already there.  

4. _____ Parkway

Parkways are tedious in the extreme.  You are announcing "Here is where you can park your car! (Also there's a railway station)".  It makes the public transport part subservient to the car part, and that should never happen.  Does Maghull North suffer from not having "Parkway" in its name to let everyone know they can park there?  The lack of available spaces on an average weekday would seem to indicate not.  This does mean that Liverpool South Parkway, by combining both points 3 and 4, actually comes out as a 7 and therefore has one of the dullest names you can possibly have.  I stand by that.

5.  After a person, battle, or historic event

This one doesn't come up much in the UK - Waterloo besides - but it often happens abroad so I'm putting it in here.  The Paris Metro, in particular, are mad for it, with stations named after people rather than the districts they're like Marx Dormoy or Jaures, though sadly Blanche isn't a tribute to Deirdre's mum in Coronation Street.  Kings and Queens aside, us Brits don't tend to bother with this, though the recent renaming of the Pier Head as Liverpool Gerry Marsden Ferry Terminal makes me slightly afraid that any future expansions of the Merseyrail network could go to Cilla Black, Paul McCartney, or Aveline Boswell.

6.  After a nearby property development

This is the actual worst one because it's incredibly artificial.  During its planning stages, there was going to be a station called Birkenhead Market on the Wirral Line; presumably someone noticed that having four stations with Birkenhead in the name was a bit much so it was renamed Conway Park after the new development in the area.  This is a name that means absolutely nothing to anyone beyond that one strip of offices and even now, twenty odd years after it opened, still nobody calls the area Conway Park.  Similarly, Wavertree Technology Park does a real disservice to the historic district of Wavertree.  That's the real attraction here, not a load of sheds wedged in the gap between the railway line and a retail park.  It's a horrible name that already feels very dated.  Even if the developer is slipping you a massive wodge of money you should resist this - look at the mess of three Canary Wharf stations in London to see why you should politely say "no thank you" and name your station after something relevant and nice.

So there you go: an answer to a question you never thought to ask.  I hope this list will be printed out and pinned up in Network Rail HQ for future reference.  Feel free to tell me I'm wrong in the comments, but know this - I'm not.

Tuesday 3 October 2023

Dumb Witness

I miss Poirot on the telly.  Proper Poirot, I mean, with David Suchet, and an hour long, and that incredible title sequence on a Sunday night.  Not Kenneth Branagh or John Malkovich or even the later Suchet movies based on one of Agatha Christie's more bonkers novels even though it is basically unfilmable (seriously, full marks to Mark Gatiss for even trying to adapt The Big Four).  It was a luxurious slip into a charming universe where people in very posh frocks indulged in a little light bludgeoning.  It didn't take itself to seriously, it wasn't trying to say something deep about the human psyche, there was nobody stepping on someone's back in a pair of high heels.  It was good clean murdery fun.

Part of Poirot's charm was that it was forever set in a nebulous "Jazz Age".  The actual Christie novels spanned a period of nearly fifty years, but the TV show relocated them all to an era of flappers and cigarette holders, rightly recognising that nobody really wanted to see Miss Lemon doing the frug or Inspector Japp tripping on LSD.  It submerged itself in a world of clean lines, elegant white facades, and stainless steel lamps.  It embodied Art Deco.  

Leamington Spa station was rebuilt in the late thirties to an Art Deco design and for a while I could pretend I was in a Poirot.  I wouldn't be a murderer, of course, being a working class oik; I'd be one of the porters at the station carrying the bags of some pencil thin heiress, or, if I was lucky, a red herring victim, one of those uppity plebs who tries to blackmail a few shillings out of the killer and ends up stabbed in the throat.  It's a station that's been beautifully preserved and restored.  The refreshment rooms might offer lattes and Diet Cokes, but they embody an era of tea urns and chippy women behind the counter.  The larger of the two has been turned into a full bar, which I wholeheartedly support.

The only thing that let the whole affair down was the 21st century.  The people on the platforms absolutely refused to wear suit and ties and listened to music on their smartphones through Bluetooth headphones.  The trains chugged in with diesel engines rattling the light fixtures.  The staff waited by automated ticket gates and not one of them doffed their cap to me as I passed.  How dare they fail to indulge me.

Outside, I immediately fell for the white symmetrical station frontage, even if cars have come along and ruined the forecourt.  A humped crossing for pedestrians was regarded as somewhere convenient to stop for an Uber driver, while another roared away at a speed entirely unsuitable for the narrow car park.  Fortunately the station sign was away from the main run.  It is there, honest, behind that tree.

There was a small underpass to one side and I ducked down it for a look.  Leamington Spa had two stations for a long time, literally backing onto one another: the current station was the Great Western one, while across the tracks was Avenue, run by the London and North Western.

This was a ridiculous arrangement after nationalisation, of course, doubling up services for no good reason, so Avenue was closed in 1965 and is now blocks of flats - though the street name, Station Approach, lingers on.  

The underpass, meanwhile, has been decorated with an artwork, The Royal Leamington Spa Colour Palette, by Stacey Barnfield.  It's part of a series of schemes where local features are represented by colours, and though there are similar works for Birmingham, Brighton, even Liverpool, it feels right somehow that Royal Leamington Spa has one.  It feels very Laura Ashley, very middle class, very aspirational.  Much like the town.

I went from the station into the Old Town.  Before the spas were built in the 18th century, this was simply another small Warwickshire settlement.  The discovery of the springs, however, as part of the trend of taking "medicinal" waters, meant it was suddenly a top tourist spot.  The population ramped up considerably and to accommodate them and the visitors a new town was built across the river.

This side of the river was still where the smaller, less well-regarded businesses hung out.  There were Polish shops and kebab houses, vape stores and an Iceland, while a decent looking pub had its entrance blocked by three men having a very intense and possibly violent conversation.  Leamington Spa is popular with students from Warwick University and this really felt like the part of town they rolled through, drunk.

I crossed the river Leam and reached the elegant, Regency side of the town.  Immediately on my left was the town's pump rooms, now repurposed as the museum and art gallery.  Disappointingly, there doesn't seem to be an opportunity to actually take the waters any more.  I'd have thought Gwyneth Paltrow would've been all over that.  It apparently had a sulphurous tang, and was a mild laxative, but Goop could soon package that as a positive.  A natural cleanse to restore your auras and chakras or something.  You could bathe in it - suitably warmed for modern sensibilities - and then spend the afternoon emptying out your interiors to give you a pallid glow.

"But wait!" locals are shouting at their screen.  "You can taste the water in Leamington!  There's a fountain outside!"  And yes, there is a stone column, inscribed with artistic fonts, and with a tap wedged in the front, constructed for the Millennium.  

It is, however, dry.  I was there with my empty bottle, hoping to fill it with this medicinal goodness, and I got nothing.  Like so much in this country, it promises a lot and delivers very little.  I'm sure the Council would love to get it working again but budgets and cuts and prioritisation of services and so on - the constant drumbeat of neglect and sadness you get wherever you go in the country now.

Still, the Parade - or rather Parade, as it's technically called, much like Carpenters - is very impressive.  It's a long straight avenue lined with white fronted Georgian shops and restaurants and it was gleaming in the sunshine.  It was broken up by the terracotta Town Hall, fronted by a statue of Queen Victoria looking her usual happy self, but mostly it was a stretch of extreme elegance.

The people of Royal Leamington Spa came in two flavours.  There were the young, lairy types, bouncing around noisily, making too much noise.  Then there were the ladies in wax jackets and neckerchiefs, wafting along the pavement, neat tote bags tucked under their arm.  The two did not interact or crossover.  The shops, meanwhile, had been coerced by the town council into having only the classiest of signs - no neon or internally lit or, heaven forbid, laser printed gaucheness here, just neat lettering spaced along the frontage of the building.  It made everything look so much better.

I mean, imagine if Planet Bong hadn't got this classy font.  It would totally lower the tone.  Still, I'd rather go to Planet Bong than the frigging Edinburgh Woollen Mills, which had a store opposite.  Boo!

Parade - it feels very odd writing that - ends in Christchurch Gardens, a large expanse of grass and trees.  I turned right and disappeared into the smaller streets behind.  I fancied a pint, but I was still too close to the town centre; the pubs here were very much gastro, boasting of their fine grass fed steaks or Wing Wednesdays (40p a wing!) and then in tiny letters underneath or you could just have a drink I guess, we're ok with that, you take up a table with a single glass of wine when we could have a family of four filling their faces in that spot, no, it's totally fine, we don't mind at all.

Where there's Regency architecture, there's bound to be a crescent, and Royal Leamington's example is Lansdowne Crescent.  It's not the biggest curve of houses, and the doorbells indicated all the mansions had long since been sliced up into flats, but it was still aesthetically pleasing.  If this was a Poirot it would house the London home of some absolute cad who was poodlefaking with the gorgeous young wife of the victim.  He'd be completely unrepentant about it, of course, until Hercule pointed out that the Colonel Sir Henry Twissel had been found drowned in his ornamental pond, at which point the man would visibly pale and guiltily confess that he was at the cricket the whole time and couldn't possibly have pushed him in.  Or did he?

I turned onto a long avenue, tall trees accompanying the pavement, with a swathe of green down the centre.  I decided to walk that way, with the road either side as though I were a dandy on a perambulation, but I was in the minority.  Everyone else in the town stuck to the roadside.  The only person on the grassy part was a man talking to himself, clearly very agitated, and possibly associated with the hideous brutalist Job Centre over the road.  

I was a little anxious at passing him, but he took the decision out of my hands, lurching into the traffic without looking either way and marching across the road.  Meanwhile, I followed a sign for the Royal Spa Centre.  I thought there must be at least one spa in the town I could poke my nose into.  By now I was feeling a little hot from all the walking, and I quite fancied the idea of relaxing in an elegant pool.  I didn't have any swimming trunks of course, and also I can't actually swim, but the fantasy was there.  I was basically picturing that bit in GoldenEye before Xenia turns up.

The Royal Spa Centre turned out to be the town's theatre.  At one side, a truck was unloading the equipment for That'll Be The Day, "the number one rock 'n' roll show in the UK", and the rest of the bill was very much along that line - stand ups, tribute shows, An Evening With Anton du Beke And Friends.  I turned onto a road alongside a park, where I could see in to families enjoying the last gasp of summer, and passed the town's large new Justice Centre, a combination courthouse/police station that demonstrated being "in keeping" doesn't have to mean boring.

I realised that I'd managed to walk in a complete loop without even noticing and was now back at the Pump Rooms.  I took that as a sign that Leamington Spa had shown me everything it had to offer and returned to the station.  The customer information board had its own hashtag and (dormant) Instagram account but fortunately it was being used to share dad jokes rather than the nauseatingly inspirational quotes you seem to get on the viral Tube boards.  I went up to the platform and sat by the station's garden - yes, it has its own garden, that's how middle class it is - and ate a sandwich while I waited for my train.

For more than fifty years, there was no station in Kenilworth.  There had been one, since 1844 in fact, but Beeching (shakes fist) came along and closed the line for passenger traffic.  This was a marvellous decision that everyone agreed was brilliant for about eight minutes, when the campaign to reopen it started.  The town finally returned to the railway map in 2018 although, as is sadly the norm when you travel across the country, all traces of the old station had been demolished so they had to build a new one.

It's... not great.  I mean, it's perfectly ok, don't get me wrong.  It's got a ticket office that doubles as a cafe.  It's got a waiting area.  There's a bus exchange outside.  It's perfectly adequate.  I just feel like it could be a bit more.  I also hate that a building constructed in the 21st century doesn't look like it; that they've gone for a pastiche rather than building something for today.

The feeling of "adequate" runs to the rail side, too.  The line here was singled decades ago, so there's only one platform.  However, they've planned ahead and built the station with bridges and lifts so, if the line is ever doubled, they can slot in a second platform without any bother.

So the question is: why didn't they just build the second track and platform?  Maybe not all the way from Leamington to Coventry - let's not shoot for the moon - but there used to be a passing loop at Kenilworth.  You could put that back and then there could be increased capacity on the line, plus, you could build that second platform while you're building the station and not have to come back at a later date with all the hassle and expense involved.  Oh, I forgot, this is England, nothing gets built here, ever.  (Yes I am writing this as the news of HS2's cancellation breaks and yes I am fucking furious and also depressed).

We used to be able to build nice bits of infrastructure, and there's a great example of this further along Station Road.  When they demolished Kenilworth's first station to build a larger, improved one in 1884, the frontage was preserved and used for a pub.  It's now a swanky wine bar but still, isn't that a much nicer building than that little brick shed?

Kenilworth's High Street was busy and well stocked with shops.  You could tell that we were in the neutral zone between The South and The Midlands because there was a Robert Dyas.  For some reason, these stores are all over the bottom of England, but the furthest North they get is Solihull.  I went in for a poke around because I'd never been in one, and was a little befuddled.  It was basically a Rightway, or perhaps a slightly posher Wilko (RIP) - practical housewares, a bit of garden furniture, electrical and decorating supplies.  I'm not sure why they think us poor Northerners would be unable to cope with access to reasonably priced drills and pergolas.  

If I'm honest, I wasn't really in the mood for Kenilworth.  I'd taken four trains to get here, leaving Birkenhead at half eight that morning, and unless I was presented with the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or a twenty foot high statue of Paul Rudd it would've been hard to capture my imagination.  It has a castle of course, but that's a mile out of town and I couldn't be bothered.  Perhaps I should've gone to Kenilworth before Leamington Spa because it all seemed a bit inadequate by comparison.  I certainly couldn't see David Suchet utilising his little grey cells here.  Really, there was only one thing to do.

Five pound seventy five that cost me.  It's very expensive being an alcoholic these days.  I might switch to meths.  Send me back to the Twenties, when I could get roaring drunk on gin and it would cost thruppence ha'penny.  It's almost worth getting stabbed for.

Saturday 23 September 2023



I could steal that bag.

The thought popped into my head, entirely unbidden, even surprising me.  I was stood in the doorway of a train as it slid into the station at Penkridge.  Two women, early fifties, probably on their way back from a very drunken holiday somewhere hot, had got on at Crewe and left their suitcases in the vestibule while they crashed into their seats.  They were pink, plastic, shell suitcases, the MAN luggage tag dangling from the handle, and not too big.  

I realised that they couldn't see their bags.  They could only see the top half of me because of the seat backs.  I could grab one of the suitcases and simply step onto the platform.  The doors would close behind me, the train would take off, and if they were lucky, they'd spot me with the big neon suitcase on their way past.  If they were unlucky, they wouldn't notice until they got to Birmingham and tried to gather their bits together at the terminus.

I could steal that bag.

I didn't, of course.  I'm not a thief.  I don't get any thrill from danger or risk; in fact it fills me with anxiety and makes me shiver.  Also, there was nothing to be gained from stealing a load of dirty underwear and half-empty toiletries.  Maybe a bit of duty free if I was lucky but I didn't particularly fancy rooting through some soiled bras to find it.  Still: I could steal that bag.  A single, clear thought registering in my brain.

I realised I was in an odd mood.

Penkridge was always going to be a one off trip.  It's a small market town in Staffordshire, a strange stop for the Liverpool-Birmingham service; if there were any other trains passing through I'm certain London North Western would scrub it from its calling list.  It's neither a commuter town nor a destination in its own right; it's simply somewhere that had the good fortune to get its railway station on a route between two of the biggest cities in the country.

It has some very fancy LED next train indicators.  I've not seen ones like this before, with actual colours and different fonts; I was impressed, which shows you what a low bar you need to cross to impress me.  I am not Shania Twain.  I got off the train behind a tired looking mum and her two kids.  She looked like she was absolutely desperate for them to go back to school; halfway down the ramp to the car park she suddenly yelled "well why don't you ASK HIM?" in response to their incessant chatter.  She was not having a fun day out.

I headed down to the car park from the viaduct, past the boarded up station building.  You can stick as many fancy shutters on it as you like folks, it won't make this into a Swiss cottage.  As usual I sighed that the building wasn't being used for anything at all.  If you really don't want to put a ticket office in it, rent it out as a pub, or a community centre, or turn it into a house.  A boarded up shell benefits nobody.  I took my spot under the sign, next to a Slimming World a-board (Yes you can!), and did the selfie.

My hair is reaching "background artist on the planet Vulcan" levels now.  I need to get it cut.

September was being September.  We'd come out of the heatwave, that unbearable week of sweaty sheets and still air, and the rain had finally come, but it was in fits and starts.  It struggled to be anything longer than a shower.  And it was still sticky; the rain wasn't enough to take the edge off.  People were wearing shorts with anoraks, light summer dresses under umbrellas, t-shirts and jeans.  Nobody knew how to dress.  

I'd risked it and come out in shorts and a shirt.  There was a jacket in my bag, a little light one, but I really didn't want to wear it.  I could feel the heat sliding over me and I wanted as much cool breeze and moisture there to offset it.

I crossed the main road through the town, the A449, past the farming supply store with straightforward low prices.  There's something about that straightforward I don't like, something a bit Brexity, a bit common sense and silent majority, but that may just be me the uncultured townie not knowing the country ways.  I also gritted my teeth at a run of tweeness - Golden Oldies antique furniture next to Dickens of A Tea Shoppe next to Trudie's Sweet Shop - and hoped that Penkridge wasn't a market town theme park, built for tourists and not real people.

In fairness, it was a real, proper town with a narrow high street adorned with pubs and grocers.  A butcher on the corner was "Celebrating 40 Years - 2015", while a beauty salon was "Celebrating 10 Years - 2014" and really guys, I think it's time to take the signs down now.  The Co-op had closed, to relocate to a larger store out of the town centre, but beyond that it seemed in pretty good shape, with a nice mix and few empty spots.  I crossed over to the church hall so I could have a good look at the noticeboard, something I always do in a strange town.  It gives you a little glimpse of the community.

Slimmer's World were here too, plus Zumba and social mornings.  There was a whist drive every Saturday and a brass band performance and Senior Boogie-Fit With Claire on Wednesday mornings.  And there was... oh dear.

If you're not terminally online, you might be thinking, "oh, Matt le Tissier, that nice footballer for Southampton.  How lovely."  If you've dipped into the cesspit of human depravity that is Twitter, however, you'll know that Matt is a Covid sceptic, anti-vaxxer, CBD hawker, and general GB News favourite.  The other day he retweeted Laurence Fox protesting Russell Brand's video rants being demonetised so... that's a lot.  And here he was in Penkridge - guests of the Round Table no less.  I did wonder if they knew what they were booking.  They were hoping for nice anecdotes about the FA Cup and instead they got a Powerpoint presentation on why the 15 Minute City is one step away from the Government locking you in a box and throwing you in a river.

At the end of the road was the Market Place, bounded by a primary school, a pub, and some delightful cottages and houses.  The actual markets relocated to a purpose built space by the river, so they naturally turned the square into a car park.  You could've had a nice open plaza here, bit of cobbling, some outdoor seating for the pub, but then where would people put their Mondeos when they wanted to pick up a Chinese?  You don't need nice open spaces really, they don't turn a profit.

I passed the community library - "community" because it's run by volunteers, rather than trained professionals demanding a living wage to provide a service, and I'm sorry, these last few paragraphs are making me quite depressed - and got caught up in a knot of sixth form boys noisily heading into town.  They had new haircuts and all wore suits and I thanked the lord that I hadn't had to do my A-levels while strapped into a collar and tie.  I went to a Sixth Form College, and so we were treated like mini adults and allowed to wear whatever we wanted; this being the early nineties, I wore nothing but flannel over band t-shirts, jeans, and Dr Martens boots.  So did everyone else, in fact.  We'd created our own uniform.

I turned off the road at The Boat pub and descended to the canalside.  There wasn't really much to retain me in Penkridge - the pubs weren't even open - and I didn't fancy getting on the next train home.  Instead I decided to walk north to Stafford along the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal.  It was a fair old walk, about six miles, but I figured this would be my last opportunity for a proper stroll before the really bad weather set in.  I wasn't going to be able to mince down a towpath in driving October storms.  

The homes along the canal addressed it in two ways.  Across the river, where there wasn't a path, a mobile home park embraced the waterside living.  Every caravan had a terrace, or a patio, or a wooden seating area, as close as it could get to the canal.

On the side I was walking, however, the homeowners hid behind high fences and walls.  They guarded their privacy and their yards from prying eyes.  You caught a snatch of grass, a hint of tree between the slats of the fence, then there was a locked gate.  I can imagine it feels less than secure, having a publicly accessible path running at the rear of your home, but it was a shame that the only way they could take in the watery view was to go into an upstairs bedroom.  One house bucked the trend.  They had put out a bench by the towpath, with a sign inviting you to take a rest, a lovely little touch of humanity.  It was too early in the walk for me to sit down but I gave it an approving tap as I passed.

For a while, there were moored barges, their owners starting the day lazily.  A woman sat on the open back with a cigarette and a cup of tea.  A man mopping the roof from the path.  Another jumping down with his dog, ready for the first walk.  A lock closed off the section of canal and separated it from the next.  Now I was on my own.

I'll admit it now: I wanted to be alone.  Sometimes I get the urge.  The need to be away from everyone.  It's hard to do, in this tiny packed island we live in, but sometimes I need to escape.  To walk without any thoughts.  To stroll without a deadline or an obligation.  To escape.

I was soon passing under the M6.  It's remarkable how many times I've walked under motorways since I started collecting this map.  The Midlands are a knot of highways and we're all forced to submit to them.  I feel like eighty per cent of my blog posts have involved the phrase "viaduct" or "underpass" or "concrete".  The strangest part is that I'm following public transport the whole time, and yet I keep encountering huge road projects.  Beneath the motorway everything went dark.  There weren't any lights to help guide the pedestrians or the boat users.  It was a slash of black, a walk through a void, with distant sunlight burning at either end in pockets of hope.

I kicked a wayward stone into the canal and delighted in the satisfying "plop" as it entered the water.  The grass tickled my ankles, made them wet; the sun hadn't dried off the morning's dew.  It began to rain.  Slow, lazy rain, half-arsed, soaking into my shirt, but it was still too warm for a coat and I didn't feel like stopping.  It only looked like a shower anyway.

A boatyard promised canal tours and boat building; they'd buy your boat for cash.  A man emerged from one moored alongside the towpath.  He was rough and dirty, his hair a mess, a scraggly beard and a thick grey jumper with a hole in the stomach.  He was carrying a shower tray and looked surprised to see someone walking here.  Then it was another lock, with the towpath descending alongside, its cobbles slick with the rain.  I walked gingerly, to try and avoid a fall, but no, of course there was a skid.  The one time there was a person to see me and I slipped.

For a while, the path was shadowed by the road, separated from the carriageway by a low fence.  They split apart again and the traffic returned to being a sound.  Trees curled down over me, some of them bright with berries.  Autumn was coming in and they were offering up their seeds for next year.  I squashed them under my boots.

Acton Trussel - which sounds like a 1930s gentlemen's outfitters - appeared across the canal.  There were a few houses on my side, mostly farm house looking buildings, but across the way there were 1970s detached houses.  I could see the odd BMW on the drive and conservatories giving an all-weather view of the water. 

I paused under a bridge to wipe down my glasses and the lens of the camera.  The rain had become a fine mist.  The air was wet, a general clinging moisture, so that I seemed to be getting drenched from every side.  It wasn't worth wearing my jacket now.  All it would do was be another wet layer.  I stood on the bank and took a few breaths.  It was an hour since I'd left Penkridge and my mind was starting to turn in on itself.  The canal views weren't captivating enough to distract me; it was a single path without deviation.  My brain whispered to me.

Fortunately, I found a way to concentrate my mind shortly afterwards.  A grey boat pulled away from the bank about ten yards ahead of me and I realised, to my horror, that he was going the same way as me.  We were going to accompany one another - him never going fast enough to leave me behind, me never slow enough to fall back.

I burned with hatred for that boat.  It was ruining my day.  I couldn't relax or enjoy the scenery because of that boat.  I couldn't be alone with my thoughts because they were soundtracked by a ugga-ugga-ugga of a diesel engine.  A few minutes before, my thoughts had been going to some wildly dangerous places, so in a way the noise was doing me a favour by drowning them out.  That wasn't the point.  I raged inside, absolutely livid with the boat and its pilot.

After a good mile of me muttering insults at the oblivious boater, we reached Deptmore Lock, and I realised I'd be free of him.  I strode past as he moored up to wait his turn, my nose high in the air, revelling in the victory in this competition he'd had no idea he was in.  On the other side of the lock though: dammit.  A boat was again pulling away, this one crewed by a pair of retiree couples, noisy and boisterous and having a whale of a time.  Absolute bastards.  I couldn't face being accompanied again so I broke into a record breaking stride.  I pushed myself as far as I could to get away from them.  I concentrated so hard on burning away, I didn't notice I'd left them behind a long time ago.  I paused for breath after a while and realised I was quite alone again.

I was on a part of the canal where few walkers ever came.  The path was overgrown and my bare legs were stroked and stung by nettles.  I tried to remember; is it better to walk forcefully through them or to try and edge round them?  There's that phrase, grabbing the nettle; does that mean if I go quickly the stings won't work?  Whatever I did, it didn't matter.  Soon my shins were numbed from the onslaught.  

Once again, my side of the canal was wild and unkempt while across the way it had been civilised.  Stafford Boat Club, a marina of barges and a discreet clubhouse behind tended hedges, was followed by a public park.  I could see dog walkers through the trees and empty playgrounds.  On my side, an information board informed me that I was by the Radford Meadows, a wetland where the River Penk flooded and provided breeding grounds for birds and wildlife.  I'd noticed the gap in Stafford on the map, a pause separating the town into two dumbbells of population, and it was interesting to see the reason developers hadn't swept in and colonised the land.

Humans were making themself known in other ways.  There was a neat pile of beer cans and a pair of boxer shorts tucked into the long grass, writing a story I'm not sure I wanted to read, and then the muddy track became concrete.  It felt unsafe after the rough walk of the last miles; slick with rain and slightly angled towards the water.  I pictured myself tipping into it and vanishing under the brown surface, and the dark thoughts swelled up again.  I was glad to spot a car showroom and then, beyond that, steps to take me up to the road.

I appeared on the A34 beside a large pub and I was suddenly acutely aware of what a mess I looked.  Soaking wet, covered in filth below the knees, my hair slicked against my head.  I looked like I'd actually been in the canal and had pulled myself out.  I paused in a bus shelter, trying to see if there was a way to make myself look half decent but no: I was a lost cause.  I pressed on into town.

The main road was lined with 1930s houses, interspersed with newer developments.  I had to take a major detour around a roundabout because it had been built to access a retail park and the developers weren't really interested in pedestrians coming in.  The number of spaces on the sign that were unoccupied by shop names made me think they shouldn't be quite so fussy.

Beyond the railway was a building site.  This had been the home of General Electric for many years, a large factory just off the Lichfield Road.  However, in 2019, GE's parent entity the Sheinhardt Wig Company consolidated its manufacturing to one site in Rugby, and now this is going to be 350 new homes in a development called "Victoria Gate".  I'm not sure why it's going to be called Victoria Gate, but if you want to live between an A road and a mainline railway this is the spot for you.  I don't know where you'll work, though.  

Perhaps you could work in a shop, as I passed a second out of town retail park, and wondered if Stafford Council actually wanted its town centre to survive.  There was a run of small hotels and B&Bs and then a convent nursing home.  I'm not sure if this means it's a nursing home for elderly nuns, or if the nuns do the caring; I hope it's the former, because from what I know about nuns (i.e. I have seen The Blues Brothers) they're not the most empathetic sorts. 

I crossed over a gyratory - sorry, island - and marvelled at the distinctive spire of the Stafford Baptist Church.  Rather than being a simple tower, it was made of exposed beams, as though the tiles had been stripped away.  It was very distinctive and modern, so I was surprised to learn that it's original to the building, and dates from 1896.  The architect was from Birmingham, Ewan Harper, and I was impressed by his style.

I'd reached the town centre proper now.  A 1930s cinema stood empty.  The posters on the outside - Jungle Cruise and Candyman - showed it had been open relatively recently, but I guessed that Covid destroyed its business.  I must admit, I've only seen three films at the cinema since lockdown: Barbie (once), See How They Run (once, because my mum wanted to see it) and No Time To Die (seven times).  Admittedly this is partly because as I've got older I've developed an intense dislike for other human beings and being crammed in a room full of them as they laugh and talk and eat and breathe is intolerable to me now.  I passed Stafford's Civic Centre - I love a Civic Centre - but I skirted the town proper.

I was in a bad mood.  I was wet and miserable and I wanted to go home.  I passed the town's old mill wheel and entered Victoria Park which was, I will admit, lovely.  On a summer's day it must be absolutely wonderful, with its lawns falling down to the river, and its bowling greens, and even an aviary full of cockatoos and budgies.  On that miserable day, however, the shelters were mainly occupied with students from the nearby college eating their lunch, and the paths were empty.

The last time I was in Stafford, with Ian and Robert a whole eleven years ago, I was extremely uncharitable about the station.  In fact I called it a shithole.  That was too harsh.  Admittedly, it's no St Pancras - but what is?  It has some nice lines and shapes.  The porte-cochere has that pleasing upward curve - even if it's now inaccessible to vehicles, therefore losing its entire purpose - and who doesn't love a massive Double Arrow on a tower?

It is, effectively, Coventry on a budget.  The interior isn't great - it's been "modernised", so a Starbucks has been wedged in one side, and there are signs and screens cluttering up the space.  On one side was a "customer information" desk - a small standee like they have in supermarkets to give out free samples, staffed by two women in uniform.  The refurb was done when Virgin Trains ran the station so of course that means there's red and grey everywhere, completely inappropriately.  Richard Branson should be punished for many reasons - he unleashed Tubular Bells on the world, let's not forget - but his insistence on splashing that brash red all over stations where it absolutely didn't work is pretty high up the list.  

It distracted from some of the parts of the station that were pleasing - the dark wood ceilings, the broad staircases with their concrete walls, the sheer efficiency of the place.  You could easily get around from one spot to the next. 

I really, really hate children's artwork in public places.  Save that shit for your mum's fridge.  

I paused in the toilets to swap my soaking wet shirt for a dry t-shirt I'd thought to pack.  Instantly my mood lightened.  Never underestimate the power of the weather to affect your mood.  Well, the weather, and a generally gloomy disposition that doesn't need much provoking to go down a dark alley.  

I think my hair might actually look better there than it did in the first photo.