Thursday, 10 January 2019

It's Just Like Starting Over

Starting a new map feels like a big moment.  It's significant.  So it raises the question of: where to begin?  You want it to be interesting, but not too interesting.  Not a big hitter of a town, but equally, you want something to say.  A gentle re-entry into the world of station collecting.

I picked Dorridge.

It was a spot I knew nothing about.  I'd never been there before.  Never even heard of it.  It was right on the edge of the West Midlands conurbation, so I could use a day ticket to get there.  It'd do.

It turned out to be a bit of a star.

Originally opened in 1852 by the Great Western Railway, Dorridge had a fine, attractive stone and brick station building.  One end was devoted to a busy looking coffee shop.  In the centre was a staffed ticket office.  And at the end was a lovingly restored waiting room, with a fireplace and seating and nostalgic posters.  Even a hearth rug.

It was a proper little gem, and I am still coveting that GWR mirror over the mantlepiece.

I wandered out into Dorridge itself and was immediately struck by how rich it was.  This was a proper enclave of affluence.  The railway no doubt helped; not only were there frequent services into Birmingham, there were also regular trains to Marylebone from there.  It was commuter nirvana.

I walked down Station Road and into the heart of the village.  There were wine bars and restaurants intermixed with beauty salons and dry cleaners.  A fine 1930s parade of shops stood opposite a well-appointed Sainsbury's.

I nipped into the supermarket to use the loo.  The toilet was on the 1st floor so I had to endure a trip upstairs behind a woman and her two daughters who didn't seem to realise you're meant to walk on a travelator.  You don't just stand still, admiring the passing scene, and blocking the whole way for middle aged men who need to pee.  When they got to the top they realised they'd taken a wrong turn and took the travelator back down again, so it was a delightful waste of everybody's time, really.  Meanwhile I was horrified to discover that the gent's toilets was a single cubicle that doubled as the disabled loo.  Can we not do this?  Those of us with social anxieties find it hard enough to use public conveniences without worrying that when we open the door there's going to be an enraged paraplegic outside and we'll have to fake a limp so we don't look like a complete arsehole.

I crossed over by the traditional butcher's and made my way up the hill and out of the centre.  Station Road was a long straight succession of impressive 1930s homes with high hedges and curved driveways.  They were neat and well-maintained.  The cars outside were subtly expensive - not flashy convertibles, practical cars, but stuffed with gizmos and excessive horsepower.  Now and then I dodged a builder's van, parked on the pavement, fixing a roof or extending the loft.

I turned left at the cricket club.  According to the sign I'd left Dorridge, but I was pretty sure the houses here still put it on their address labels.  They weren't as posh here.  Smaller homes, still detached, but 1950s and 1960s, trim and tidy rather than expansive.  They had names, but the numbers were posted underneath, as though Duncote and Crofter's Lodge hadn't caught on with the postman.

It was bin day, the first since the New Year, and it gave me a good opportunity to have a nose at how their Christmases went.  The glass boxes overflowed with wine and beer bottles; some residents had optimistically left a second full box next to it, and I hoped they'd tipped the binmen in December.  There were huge empty boxes leaning up against the wheelies that had once contained scooters and Playstations and toys, while plastic wrapping seemed to burst out from under every lid.  It was 2019 now and everyone was back at work.  The good times were over.

Past another butcher's - I was impressed they could support two with that massive Sainsbury's - and a recreation ground, and soon the houses thinned out and I was into a brief stretch of sad countryside.  It looked how I felt - cold, run down, shaggy round the edges.  The fields were green but unenthusiastically, just a covering of grass rather than an abundance of nature bursting forth.  I shadowed the bare hedgerows and passed under twiggy trees while cars burned past me on their way to the motorway.

I turned away from the cemetery gates and walked downhill.  I was intrigued to see a sign for Saint Columban's, a home for Catholic missionaries.  I'm always surprised to hear that missionaries are still a thing.  It feels like they're something we should have left in the 19th century, along with sending children up chimneys and annexing entire continents.  The last I heard of missionaries was that American man who went to a remote Indian island and was promptly murdered, and I thought then, "serves him right."  (Full disclosure: I'm a little crabby about religious conversions because a man came to the door this morning and caught me in my dressing gown and tried to find out why I was an atheist while a cold wind whipped up and around my privates.  Leave me alone so I can have a shower, man).

I crossed the M42, experiencing that dizzying confusion as you pass over a stream of traffic at a high level; you want to run away from the edge on one hand, but another part of you wants to jump.  Instead I walked into Widney Manor, with signs for a golf course and a Mercedes trying to back out of her drive onto the busy road, and found the railway station.

The station building here wasn't anywhere near as nice as its neighbour at Dorridge.  Instead it was a 1980s hut with a waiting room smacked on the back.

I didn't sit in the waiting room, but instead took up a seat inamongst the tidy platform gardens while I waited for my train.  The stationmaster - I expect he's actually called a Ticket Supply Actualiser or something, but he was the only member of staff on the station, so I'm calling him the stationmaster - came out of his little hut and performed a bit of maintenance on the ticket machine.  There was still an orange Permit to Travel machine on the platform.  Can I be honest?  I've never really understood what a Permit to Travel machine is for.  It seems to be a ticket that you buy so you can buy a ticket later, or something?  There was one on the station at Leagrave when I was growing up and I always looked at it with a vague sense of unease - was I meant to buy one of those?  How much did they cost?  I've since looked at the Wikipedia page for it and to be honest I'm still none the wiser.  Presumably this should be decommissioned now there's a whizzy LED ticket machine on the platform, but it still hangs on as a remnant of British Rail past.

At platform level, Solihull station wasn't anything great.  It had been modernised at some point in the past but that modernisation hadn't been maintained and now it looked a bit tatty.  They'd also slimmed down the number of platforms four to two, meaning there were expanses of grassed over trackbed where there used to be station buildings.  Below, however, you descended into a charmingly tiled subway, blue and white like a Delftware underpass.  It lead to a small, similarly decorated ticket hall which had sadly been interrupted by all the detritus of the modern world.

I loitered for a little bit, pretending to play with my mobile, rather than getting the sign picture.  There were three teenage girls bouncing around outside and they were clearly in "a mood".  They were hopped up and giggly, peering at passers by from behind their hands, squeezed into tiny jeans and furry hooded jackets.  They finally gave up on finding everything hilarious and headed into town so I could take my picture.

Totally worth it, I'm sure you'll agree.

I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Solihull.  Before I visited I knew absolutely nothing about this town.  It was just another dot on the map.  I pre-judged it entirely based on its not very attractive name.  Solihull.  Something about that just says industrial misery to me, grime and deprivation, people shuffling about under rainy skies.

It's not like that at all.  Solihull is posh.  I mean, properly posh.  It has its own John Lewis.  I wandered in to have another pee (I'd consumed a bottle of water on the walk, I don't just go round checking out the facilities in shops) and emerged into a sea of women in cashmere turtlenecks.  The Touchwood shopping centre next door, meanwhile, was filled with luxurious stores like Neal's Yard and L'Occitane, there to sell you expensive balms to tighten and moisturise.  I'd expected a Brummie version of Birkenhead's Pyramids and I'd stumbled on Bond Street.

Outside the street was thronged with shoppers.  The High Street didn't seem to be in trouble here; the stores were all occupied and packed out.  There were a string of chain restaurants too to tempt you when you'd finished with all that spending.  Solihull was in rude health.

I swerved out of town, past a clock tower and a tidy set of gardens presented to the town by a former councillor.  The town's hospital, some neat retirement flats, and then I was at the pleasingly named Seven Star Road.  At the junction there was something you don't see very often: a cathedral under construction.

The Coptic Orthodox church had bought the site of a former United Reformed Church and were busy turning it into a new centre for the diocese.  It was certainly impressive, though a little bit "Homebase chic".  It didn't have the grandeur you'd expect, but I guess that's the way of 21st Century religious bases; ostentatious displays of wealth and power are not classy.

The Seven Star Road also doubles as the A41, which pleased me.  That road terminates at Woodside in Birkenhead; I could've theoretically walked home from here.  I didn't of course.  Instead I crossed over to the other side and followed it west.

This was true middle-class heaven.  Well-appointed homes set back from the road behind grass verges and trees and lawns.  When they were built, they'd have all been the same, but forty years of DIY and home improvement had altered each one subtly.  A side extension.  A double garage.  A long glass porch.  The windows of an attic conversion.  

In some areas, the front garden is a dumping ground, and people abandon heavy immovable objects there.  A rusting car, or the hulk of a washer-dryer.  I saw two items abandoned in the front gardens of homes on Seven Star Road.  An office chair and a golf bag.  I think that's the first time I've seen a golf bag in the flesh in my entire life, and it was lying there, unwanted.  I'm guessing that the council would have been round soon to collect them, and if they were still there at the end of the day, the homeowners would stow them in their garage with the electric door mechanism and compose a sternly worded e-mail to the Waste Department.

I chomped on my Tesco Chicken Caesar wrap as I walked, cheerfully common.  There was no-one to see me - everyone round here drove - though I may have caused some curtains to twitch.  At one point I burped loudly and the house prices took a temporary 1% dip until I left the area.

I turned right onto the Warwick Road, avoiding the man with the Irish Wolfhound.  You can only have a dog like that if you have plenty of room and cash for food; it's not really a pet, more a barely tamed wolf.  

It was a long, busy, uninspiring road... until I got a sudden shock.  In the middle of the pavement, for some reason, was a spoon.  I looked closer and realised it still had something on it - Weetabix perhaps.

Around it, smashed into pieces in the gutter and on the road, were bits of crockery.  The remnants of a bowl.

"Oh my God!" I thought.  "There's a cereal killer on the loose!"


A pleasing row of mock-Tudor shops and then I was soon approaching the railway at Olton.  I was starting to flag.  Anxiety about my first day out on the trains for a long time had woken me up at four a.m.  It was daft, I knew; this sort of thing should be meat and drink to me by now.  But there were still palpitations and shakes, a nervous energy that didn't fully vanish until I got off the train at Dorridge.  Now it was hours later and I'd walked for miles and I just wanted a bit of a sit down and a rest.

Olton was a bit more down market, which I liked.  There was a petrol station with a Best-Way and a fireplace store and a store whose window revealed it was completely empty except for a single toilet sitting in the middle of the shop floor.  I hope it used to be a bathroom showroom otherwise that raises all sorts of questions about the former occupiers' working practices.

I hadn't meant my first trip out to be so nice.  I've nothing against middle-class elegance, it's just a bit safe and dull.  It was a complete coincidence - don't think I just picked an easy one to start off with.

Olton station came with an unexpected surprise: a big silver knight.  I couldn't find any info on what the knight was meant to commemorate, unfortunatelyThere didn't seem to be a plaque, and the only thing I could find online is a Wiki page saying it's called Saxon King on Horse and it's by John McKenna.  I'm sure it's extremely relevant to the local area, but in the absence of a better explanation, I'm choosing to believe that the residents of Olton are just big fans of Sale of the Century.

The station was another well-tiled delight, except this time there were pictures depicting sailing and fishing on the nearby reservoir.

Again, it wasn't anything like what I'd expected of the West Midlands.  I'd been delighted by it so far.  I hope the rest of the map is just as good.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Guess Who's Back. Back Again. Shady's Back. Tell A Friend.

Of course, when I use the phrase "shady", I'm not really talking about my drug-fuelled violent rapper alter-ego.  I'm more talking about this sort of thing.

Anyway: hello.  It's me again.  That bloke who went round Merseyrail.  Then Northern Rail.  Then the Metrolink.  I'm back again.

And why?  Well, obviously, it's because of railways.  It's because of trains and maps.  It's because I'm a little bit bored and purposeless.  I'm drifting along, not really going anywhere, and I need to find some purpose.  I need to get out the house more. 

I cast my eye about the railway networks of Britain, looking for somewhere to go, somewhere to map.  Metrolink was alright but it was all way too much wandering around similar looking backstreets in Manchester; the stops were too close together for me to really feel any variety, and they were so frequent there wasn't much of a challenge.  I need something a bit more difficult this time.

Not too difficult though.  Scotrail, for example, would be very interesting, if it didn't take three hours just to reach the border.  Heading for somewhere in the far north would take the best part of a day and would need an overnight stay.  I'm not made of money, sadly.  That's without mentioning the stations on the side of a mountain, served by the sleeper train once a day, where I'd dismount the train and have to hang around on a rail blasted platform for twelve hours before heading back the way I came. 

Wales, meanwhile, has been sort of done.  I've been all over the north and middle, so we're just talking the south of the country really, and again, that's a long way away.  What I really needed was a midpoint.  Somewhere that's not too far away, but it sufficiently challenge.  A midland, if you will.


West Midlands Trains took over the franchise covering Birmingham and its environs at the end of 2017.  It's actually divided into two separate companies.  The London Northwestern Railway covers the long distance services; the trains from Liverpool to New Street are LNWR, as are the stopping services to London.  I won't be concerning myself with that one, so there'll be no need to visit the likes of Tring.

Instead I'll be covering the commuter services, known as the West Midlands Railway. and collecting the stations on the map you see above. (A map that needs updating - Kenilworth is shown as "opening 2018".  Sigh.  You can see the PDF here).  That's Shrewsbury to Hereford, Stratford to Lichfield, plus the likes of Worcester and Leamington Spa.  Plus lots of small commuter stations within Birmingham itself, places with intriguing names like Jewellery Quarter and Acocks Green and Rowley Regis

I've touched on this area before, of course.  I visited Moor Street, Snow Hill and New Street with Robert and Ian back in 2013, but since then New Street's been comprehensively rebuilt and I've not really seen it so I'm declaring them "uncollected".  Same for Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury, which I've barely touched.  I am going to count this part as collected already, though:

Again, I went here with Robert and Ian (in 2012 this time) but these stations don't receive a railway service and are basically waiting to be closed (in fact, there's nothing left of Norton Bridge).  I'm not keen on riding the bus again, so that'll stay.

That still leaves me with 130 stations to cross off the list.  Plus the trams, maybe.  If I feel like it.  Shall we see what happens?

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Go Like A Rocket

Nearly two years ago, I headed to Manchester Piccadilly to close off the Northern map.  It was a sad, significant day for me.  It finished off a big important part of my life.

Last week, I returned to Piccadilly to finish off a different part of my life.  This time it wasn't quite so significant.  But it was a lot happier.

I descended into the undercroft of the station to finally collect the tram stop.  It's the only tram stop on Metrolink that feels bigger than the network.  Down there, beneath the trains, you can almost imagine you're on an underground, the underground a city the size of Manchester should have. 

I wasn't alone this time.  While I'd finished off the Northern map by myself, and brooded, this time I'd brought along Robert and Paul to make it more of a celebration.  Together we were going to visit the last few stops on Metrolink that remained uncollected - all within the City Zone.  I'd started the Metrolink odyssey with Victoria, and New Islington was crossed off last August, so that left seven more: Piccadilly, Piccadilly Gardens, Market Street, Shudehill, Exchange Square, St Peter's Square, and Deansgate-Castlefield.  One down.

An all too brief tram ride later and we were at the next stop.  We braced ourselves for Piccadilly Gardens.  In recent months it's got a reputation as a sort of post-apocalyptic hell hole.  Listen to the news and the city's central square is only ever talked about as a location from The Walking Dead, with spice-addicted zombies crashing through the fountains and assaulting families.

Perhaps we arrived on a particularly good day, but all we saw was a sunny open space, filled with people hanging out and eating sandwiches.  It was warm and open and there wasn't a single drug addicted homeless person trying to eat a pigeon in sight.

We headed for the pub.  It was clear that just collecting the stations would be a quick job.  This has, I'm afraid, been the barrier to me really enjoying crossing off the stations on the Metrolink map.  There's no effort involved.  The longest walk between stops is about half an hour; miss a tram and there'll be another in a matter of minutes.  It's not really been a challenge.  When you've dragged yourself to Chathill on its single northbound train in the morning, then walked twenty miles, it's hard to get excited about places where you can see the next platform down the line. 

So, we decided to break up the day with visits to pubs.  This has coincided with one of my rare moments of abstention though, so while Robert and Paul drank pints of Strongbow, I had a glass of Coke.  This would be my first of many.

We then walked the southern edge of Piccadilly Gardens to Market Street stop. 

Paul filled me in on the history of the stop while we waited for our tram.  Originally it had been one way only, with a second stop, High Street, handling southbound trams.  This was because it had been squeezed in alongside the traffic on Market Street.  Eventually the road was pedestrianised, and the stop became bidirectional, with High Street getting demolished.  (Interestingly, on the other side of Piccadilly Gardens is the site of another former stop, Mosley Street, which was demolished in 2009 to alleviate congestion.  Ok, I'm using "interesting" in its broadest possible sense there). 

We boarded one of those trams that's been wrapped in advertising livery: great for the company, bad for the passengers, who ride a shady vehicle and peer out the window through a million dots.  It skirted the edge of the Arndale - and thank you, Manchester, for keeping the name "Arndale"; Luton's abandoned it, and it is much the poorer as a result - past the is-it-run-down-or-is-it-just-fashionable? buildings of the Northern Quarter until it finally came in at the Shudehill interchange.

The autumn sunlight was overwhelming here, so I finally conceded the selfie camera and got Robert to take a picture of me with the sign.  Look upon my hair, ye mighty, and despair.

Shudehill is a later addition to the network, opened in 2003 to connect with the new bus station at the site.  It's dominated by the glittering car park, still looking remarkably decent after fifteen years.

We headed down the hill, past the complex of Victorian buildings left empty by the Co-op since they moved to their big shiny testicle behind Victoria station, and emerged at Exchange Square.  This whole area is now a monument to commerce, with a Selfridges and a Marks and Spencer and a Harvey Nicks alongside the restaurants of the Corn Exchange and the cinema at the Printworks.  It's a regeneration project with a murky background, though; this is where the IRA detonated a bomb in 1996, leveling the area.  It's a bit like the Barbican in London - a scene of appalling destruction transformed into something much better.

The tram didn't arrive after the bomb, though.  The many new arms to the Metrolink network were all funneled into a single route across the city centre from Deansgate-Castlefield to Victoria; it was a terrible strain on services and meant that a single incident could paralyse the whole system.  The Second City Crossing laid down new tracks that provided a bypass and a way to spread the trams out - though it's only used by one line, the East Didsbury route, and Exchange Square was the only new stop opened, in 2015. 

Budding Rachel Rileys among you will have spotted that Exchange Square was the fifth of the seven tram stops we needed to collect, and it was still lunch time.  Boarding a tram we came up with another delaying tactic.  Paul suggested a brief side visit to the Museum of Science and Industry, so instead of getting off at St Peter's Square, we headed to Deansgate-Castlefield.

Once known as G-Mex, this is a great tram stop to look out over the resurgent city.  Skyscrapers were springing up in every direction.  Cranes scraped at clouds.  The stop itself still shone, the lustre of its recent rebuild to accommodate the new tracks still clinging to it.  (A rebuild, incidentally, partly paid for by European money, as we were told by a plaque on the platform).

We got into a bit of a debate about the station selfie.  There is a huge Deansgate-Castlefield sign along the viaduct wall; Robert thought that would be a better shot than the usual platform snap.  But after dozens of boring, same sign shots, I decided I wanted more of the same.  Metrolink couldn't win me over with a sudden bit of extravagant branding right at the end.  I would carry on with the dull, minimal sign shot.  That'd teach them to put up proper signs every where.

From there it was a brief walk to the collection of buildings that form MoSI.  I'd been here before, of course, a couple of times, but this time we were here to see a special guest star.

Stephenson's Rocket is normally housed in the Science Museum but it had been allowed to head back up north to the spot where it first blew people's minds in 1829.  The world's first steam engine won the Rainhill trials and formed the engine for the initial public rail service between Liverpool and Manchester, heading across Chat Moss (and William Huskisson's leg) on the 15th September 1830.

This was the engine that changed the planet.  Up until its invention, human beings hadn't travelled faster than a horse could carry them; now there was a regular speedy service between two major cities.  It was a little overwhelming, being stood so close to a piece of technology that so impacted the world.  From that one train came a billion advances.  Even the noisy children on a school trip hushed as they passed.

The back end of MoSI was also the Rocket's final destination in 1830.  The world's first intercity railway station is preserved as part of the museum (adopted Scouser pride forces me to acknowledge that even though the trains set off from Edge Hill in Liverpool, that station was radically reconstructed afterwards).  It's a plain building, more like an office block than anything else.  Railway architecture hadn't been established - there wasn't an aesthetic.

It used to be possible for the museum to run trains onto the mainline, but the construction of the Ordsall Chord connecting Victoria and Piccadilly sliced it off, leaving just a stub of track.  None the less, you can still look down to where trains once rode in from Liverpool, to an elevated platform abutting the station building.

Follow the stairs down and you reach the ticket hall.  It was a little disappointing, preserved but not really utilised, hardly speaking to you.  You should be thrilled by this travel back in time, not just admiring the woodworking skills.

We headed back up top and out of the museum to a nearby pub for lunch.  I had another fizzy soft drink.  It was as thrilling as the first.

That left just one tram stop to collect, but it was early, and warm, and the company was good.  We decided to head to the Village for a few more drinks.  Paul was more of an expert on Manchester than us, and he took us away from the roads and down onto the towpath to get there: we would take the canal to Canal Street.

Despite a year of travelling all over it, Manchester remains a mystery to me.  It's a shifting, elusive city.  Its geography eludes me - the relationship of one station to the next, the branches of the trams running into one another.  It's formless and packed.  There's no central point for me to grab hold of - no river, no cathedral, no high landmark to say there, that's it.  Going down onto the towpath added a new dimension of confusion.  We were on the real backways now.

The city whirled above us, around us, noisy and unknown.  Sometimes I'd catch a glimpse of something familiar - the back of the Hacienda, a hint of the Palace Theatre - but mostly it was dark and barren and hidden.  It was a new complex layer of Manchester's existence, one laced with death; the Pusher still hadn't been apprehended.  Signs warned you about the perils of wandering the towpaths while drunk.  I imagined wandering here after dark, cruising, taking a short cut, filled with beery bravado, and then the hands and the plummet and the silence.  It was a relief to finally spot the Princess Street bridge, covered in builders from the nearby apartments, and to rise up the lock and back into familiar territory.

We drank... a lot.  All soft drinks for me, my teeth quietly rotting in the corner, but cider and beer and gin for Paul and Robert.  We chatted and laughed and told filthy stories, then talked about trains for a bit, then usually ended up being filthy again.  And finally it was dark and we headed out to collect that last tram stop.

St Peter's Square twinkled.  The new tram lines had forced the whole district to be rebuilt.  New office blocks with ground floor restaurants took up one side, and the Cenotaph was moved to a different spot out the way.  The library acquired an awful new glass entrance that detracted from its fine circular form.  The Town Hall frowned down at us.  Manchester is a modern city, probably Britain's second, and it rushes forward all the time. 

There was something strangely magical about it, that black-blue sky with the yellow tram slicing beneath.  The whole Metrolink journey has been a chore at times, never quite grabbing my attention, never quite getting me excited.  Now and then though the whirr of the city with its fast, efficient public transport network snakes into my soul.  Trams are great, trams are wonderful, and the Metrolink is the best tram network in Britain.  I've seen it all now.  I love it.

Which leaves one important question.  What do I do now?