Thursday, 11 July 2019

Beer Goggles

Beer is awful.  At least, it is at first.  Beer is this orange mess you have to force yourself to like because everyone else is drinking it.  That first pint you get as a teenager, that wondrous moment when you get to drink what everyone else drinks... and then you taste it and it's bitter and flat and gross. 

Of course, you have to train yourself.  You have to force yourself to have more and eventually you get used to it.  After a while you sort of like it.  Then you really like it.  Then you end up an alcoholic like me.


I bring all this up because I was visiting Burton-upon-Trent.  Or Burton-on-Trent.  I can't quite get to the bottom of which is the correct version.  I can't even get to the bottom of whether it has hyphens in it or not.  The council website lists its address as Burton upon Trent and that feels like the most incorrect version of all. 

Anyway, I was visiting that place and, despite what the sign up there says, it's a name synonymous with beer rather than the National Forest.  Burton is the home of beer.  They've been brewing here for centuries and it's still the main industry in town.  Walk from the station to the town centre and you pass by the huge main brewery, straddling Station Street and dominating every view.


This was, originally, the Bass brewery, a famous name in British beer.  However, after mergers and buyouts and sales, it's now the MolsonCoors brewery, which is of course rubbish.  Even the logo is terrible. 


It was lunchtime on a baking hot Thursday and the streets were filled with brewery workers nipping to the Sainsbury's for their lunch.  I crossed over at a busy junction and ended up in a pedestrian zone where enthusiastic men in shirt and tie were trying to flog electricity to disinterested passers by.


From there it was a brief little wander down to a market square, with a church and cafe tables and an assortment of stalls.  It was pretty, a nice little centre to a small town.


Can you tell I'm struggling to say anything about Burton(-)(up)on(-)Trent?  Because while it was perfectly pleasant, there really wasn't anything to catch me.  The town centre was a mix of old and new buildings.  There were plenty of shops.  There was a college, still marked as the Technical College on a fingerpost, with demob happy teens lazing around outside. 


There was absolutely nothing wrong with Burton, but there was absolutely nothing special about it either.  I ducked behind the church and wandered around some riverside meadows, where there were ducks and a Victorian footbridge, and people sat on benches taking in the sun.  A pair of teens were trying to get an Instagram worthy shot, with one girl stood in the reeds and the other on the footpath.  I hesitated so she could snap her photo but she waved me on.  "We'll be ages," she admitted.


Before long I'd done a circuit so I walked back into town.  Most of the shops are tucked away in a pair of malls so I headed into them, if only to get a bit of aircon.  In the centre of Cooper's Square was a monument to brewing because, as I say, they're really keen on the beer.


The sofas aren't part of the monument.  There seemed to be some kind of furniture sale, with a bored looking man slumped in one of the armchairs playing with his phone.  There was another monument to brewing outside the shopping centre as well, though this one was a bit more avant garde.


There were no monuments to Marmite, Burton's other contribution to the national cuisine, which was a shame.  Marmite came about when someone realised they could turn all the leftover brewer's yeast into a food, giving hope to all manufacturers that they can turn their waste products into a handy sideline.  One day we'll all be spreading bits of plastic regurgitated from the Dyson factory on our toast, you watch.  I had a bit of a wander round the Waterstones, as is the law whenever I spot a bookshop, then took a turn and realised I was back on the market square again.  So that was that.


It was no good.  I'd resisted it long enough.  I was going to have to go to the pub.  But which one?  The day before I'd put out a request on Twitter for recommendations, and I'd got half a dozen back.  Unfortunately, Burton's commitment to beer hadn't yet translated into all-day drinking.  Looking at the websites I found that most of the decent pubs closed at 2:30 and then reopened in the evening, which severely limited my choice.  Either that or I would have to go for one of the lesser pubs or, heaven forbid, a Wetherspoons.


What I really wanted to do was drink some Burton beer but, to be frank, I don't particularly like Bass beers.  Carling?  Are you mad?  Carling is the drink of thugs and idiots.  Perhaps a Doom Bar, if I could find one, but that MolsonCoors had put me off the whole idea to be honest.  I didn't particularly want to give my money to a North American brewery because it will only encourage them to make more, and Americans and Canadians cannot make beer.  It is the most tasteless piss of all tasteless piss.  It makes Carling taste sophisticated and complex.


I walked round the back streets, past a couple of pubs converted into houses that still hung their signs outside; that's somehow sadder than them not being pubs at all, a remnant of the good old days slapped onto modern practicality.  I had decided to head for the Coopers Tavern based on three facts.  First, it was the only one of the recommended pubs that seemed to be open all day.  Second, it was originally the tap house for the Bass brewery, so while I wasn't actually going to drink local beer, I was in a pub that was of genuine importance to the local brewing industry.  Third, the Our Story section of the Joule's Brewery website is so delightfully bitter and pissy I had to encourage that level of pettiness.


Inside, the pub was dark and low-ceilinged, a series of small rooms with the barrels at the back.  There wasn't a bar, more a space to be served, with a friendly looking barman and the beers chalked up on the wall.  I picked the IPA and tried to ignore the cluster of pub bores who were loudly discussing how good it would be if they brought back National Service though naturally, "my lad wouldn't be able to handle it.  Too soft."  Would it surprise you to learn that not one of these moaners was old enough to have done National Service themselves?  Of course it won't.


I went back to the front with my pint so I wouldn't have to listen to them any more and took a sip.  It was... okay?  A bit too dark for me.  There was a strong aftertaste that didn't really agree with me.  Beer tastes change and evolve as you get older.  When you're young you stick with the blandest lager you can find because then you're getting the alcohol without the taste.  As you grow, you get bored of that, so somewhere around your early thirties you move onto bitter, because that's got a bit of a flavour to it - start with the simple ones, like Boddingtons.  Then you begin delving into the craft section until, when you're in your forties like me, you realise you have a whole ladder of preferred brands in your head, a Choose Your Own Adventure of IF they don't have this beer THEN go to this beer UNLESS they have this one.  The next step, beyond that one, is joining CAMRA and doing that thing where you get a little shot glass of beer before you'll bring yourself to commit to a full pint.


I think the Joule's IPA was built for that stage of life.  It was a bit too complex for me.  It was for people who have used the phrase "barkeep".  It took me a fair while to finish it but, because I am brave and strong, and also cheap, I was determined to polish off the whole pint. 


I headed back to the station.  It won't win any prizes.  It's a 1960s construction, mounted on a bridge over the tracks and surrounded by parking and taxi ranks.  Like the rest of the town, it's ok.  Just ok.  Maybe the key to really appreciating Burton is to be drunk.  It would explain a lot.


Thursday, 27 June 2019

Map! - Bucking The Trend

I went out last night, going to the Fact to see a documentary about Deep Space Nine with Robert because I am the coolest.  On the train home I took the small sideways seat that's tucked in the back of the carriage because it's a good spot to take when you're a lone traveler only going a couple of stops.  It left me staring at the Merseyrail map - sorry, the Local Rail Network Map as it is now called.

I became fixated on one particular quadrant of the map, over on the right, for the simple reason that it's awful.  It's the spot on the West Coast Main Line where the branch via Buckshaw Parkway branches off to head towards Bolton, and it looks like this.


For one thing, it's so random, you could quite easily do without it.  That drop away from beneath Leyland is the entire extent of the line - there's not even a station on it before it vanishes off the edge of the map.  Secondly, it's at a weird angle.  For some reason, the designers have put it at sixty degrees from the vertical.  The traditional rule of transit maps is forty-five degree diagonals and it's a rule the Merseytravel map follows, with a single exception: the line from Wigan to Huyton.  You can see the top of it there.

I'm not sure why the designers went with sixty degrees here.  There's no need for geographical accuracy, because it's a barely existent spur.  It never even used to be shown on the map.  (Besides, the line pulls away from the main line in a gentle curve).  The other problem is its closest diagonal is a forty-five degree angle.  The Wigan-Southport line is a straight diagonal and it would be so much more pleasing if the Buckshaw line followed it.  Instead, it drifts.  I've marked it up with a series of arrows to show you what I mean.  Each of these lines is the same length.


Do you see what I mean?  It sort of wanders away.  Instead of paralleling the Wigan line (and the Manchester line below it) it goes off. 

It's a tiny detail but I couldn't stop staring at it.  It's attention grabbing in the worst way.  One tiny fix and I wouldn't have noticed it.  Instead it's unnecessary ugliness.

Unless of course I'm overthinking things again and nobody else cares.  This is also possible.

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Absent Friends

Regular readers (hello you!) might have noticed that things have gone a bit quiet round here.  Since March there have only been three new posts, and only one of those actually involved me going and visiting some stations in the West Midlands.

It's not good enough.  I know that.  And I can only apologise if you're paying attention to this blog.  Though now I've written that, can I just say that I hate bloggers who say "sorry I've not posted!".  Nine times out of ten I didn't notice.  You're not that important.  Are you diamond geezer, posting something every single day, where an absence would be noticeable?  No.  Shut up.  But I am nothing if not a massive hypocrite.

I am aware that after announcing a big! new! project! back in January I've hardly touched it since.  There are two reasons for this.  The first, as a sort of background noise, is there's something big and complicated happening in my family life, which involves a lot of consultation and reading and so on.  It's a good thing - it's a happy thing - but it's also a sort of underlying hiss of stress on everything.  Also I had a holiday (Spain, villa in the mountains, lovely thanks) so that interfered with timings.

The second problem is my anxiety levels have been slowly ramping up lately.  I'm not sure why.  It means I don't really like going out much.  Leaving the house has become a bit of a trial.  I had a trip to the Midlands booked last week and that morning I woke up at 4am, tense, stressed, and certainly not able to get on a London Northwestern to New Street.  So there's that.  I'm not sure what is causing it and hopefully it'll go away.  I forced myself to go out on Monday and had a very nice day wandering round the front at Hoylake so it's basically crossing my front step that is the barrier. 

So there you go.  Since I added the KoFi link I feel a bit more obligation to explain myself.  Instead of being you'll get stuff when I give it to you I'm a bit more I have a debt to pay back so I hope this makes things clear.  I do have another trip booked so hopefully that'll all go ahead and we can get back on schedule and there will be regular updates.  Or I might just crawl into the space under the stairs and lie there until I die.  One of the two anyway.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

Moving Out


There seems to be an unofficial rule that the first station out of any major terminus should be a bit of a dump.  Edge Hill, one stop on from Lime Street, is historic but desolate: acres of rails and tarmac, unused, bare.  Ardwick, one stop on from Piccadilly, is a rusting staircase to a single platform, wedged between junkyards.


Adderley Park, one stop outside New Street, is low in a cutting between factories.  A brick staircase takes you up to the street, where the ticket office is a low Eighties structure built for security rather than passenger comfort.  Across the way, the Station Hotel pub rots slowly, abandoned, flaking.  It was a mean station.


I wandered off in search of the next halt through long straight streets of Victorian terraces.  They were tightly packed with tiny yards out front - wheelie bin storage areas now - and bow windows covered in PVC.  On one street, a distinctive front door caught my eye.  It was black, with a curve of windows set in it, like a crescent; it stood out because it belonged on a modern apartment block rather than a hundred year old house.  What's more, the salesman must've cleared out his van on the street, because three other houses all had exactly the same door.  Hard to be unique when everyone copies you.


Soon I was on Alum Rock Road, a busy shopping street now entirely filled with Asian businesses.  I always like wandering into areas that have been occupied by a different culture.  I've seen so many British high streets that are basically the same, a pharmacy, a bakery, a newsagent, a hairdresser, a chippie.  The names change, the signs are different, but they're all of a type.


Here there were hijab and sari stores, swathes of exotic fabric shrouding shop dummies.  There were Asian confectioners, filled with unusual looking bricks of sweet stuff, still with the signs on the door saying "only three schoolchildren at any time" because some problems cross cultures.  The stores spilled out onto the pavement with boxes of fresh fruit and veg, and even the names for the most standard shops carried a tinge of exoticism - the Zam Zam Superstore is so much more exciting sounding than Morrison's. 


It was lunchtime during Ramadan, and I was impressed by the levels of activity around me.  My stomach was rumbling and I'd had toast and a yoghurt a few hours before; I'd been absent-mindedly popping mints into my mouth to try and hold down the hunger until I could stop for a rest.  There were men and women lugging boxes, shopping baskets, dealing with rowdy kids, and none of them could eat until sundown.  This is yet another reason why I am an atheist.  If I want a sandwich, I will get a sandwich, and I will let no religion get in my way. 


Of course the downside of an area filled with teetotal residents was the grand old pub at the head of the road was shuttered and converted into flats.  I climbed the hill, sweating in my overcoat - it had rained, slightly, earlier, so I'd slipped it on, but now it was dry again and it was too much hassle to push it back into my backpack - and turned off into an area of curved avenues and council houses beyond grass verges.  There was a ceramic toilet, dumped (no pun intended) behind a green BT box, and a banner hanging on some fences advertising the definitely not contravening any copyright laws "Burger Hut" with its "Double Flamey" burger (100% Halal!).


An ambulance sped by - the third I'd seen that morning; part of me vaguely wondered if there was some horrific accident somewhere I was completely missing - and I passed another entry in the canon of Incredible West Midlands Street Names:


I had reached a mess of roadworks and chaos at the bottom of Cotterills Lane.  All I had to do was turn right to reach the station, but the whole junction was in disarray.  A busy main road narrowed to a single lane to cross the River Cole, and so the council were turning it into a dual carriageway.  It meant that pedestrians were sent on a lengthy diversion, that simple right taken away and replaced with a series of staggered pelican crossings.  By the fourth one I was thoroughly bored, and a little tense about the time for my next train.  The diversions were not friendly.


On the plus side it meant I encountered another Linkspot, the pieces of public art put up by Centro at public transport hubs.  This one was called Star Gazer, by Juginder Lamba, and was a carved piece of cedar atop a column for the "Washwood Heath Interchange" (a couple of bus stops either side of the road, but anyway).  The wet English weather had slicked it with moss and mould, and the trees overshadowed it slightly, but it was still good to see.  Another one to tick off.


I crossed the river, where a woman politely lowered her brolly for me as she passed so that I didn't get poked in the eye - if only every other umbrella user was so considerate - and reached the roundabout on the other side.  It was another scene of chaos, and I was sent through more pelican crossings to a retail park I didn't really want to visit, especially since the McDonalds was pumping out the scent of fried food and grease and making me even hungrier.  I edged round it to Station Road and hurled myself across the traffic at a spot marked with an out of order crossing.


Another climb, past railway cottages, took me to the bridge over the tracks and Stetchford station.  I'd not needed to panic about missing my connection - it turned out to be closer than I thought - so I took my time.


In a bid to make the building look a little less bunker-like, the outside wall had been decorated with an art project, "Faces of Stechford".  Photographer Ian Davies had worked with a scout group and taken pictures of locals to adorn the exterior.


Admirable stuff, sadly marred by overenthusiastic employees of West Midlands Railway erasing any sign that the previous franchise holders ever existed.  Black rectangles obscured any mention of London Midland, like a Stalin-era re-education project, marring the friendly look of the posters and coming off as petty.  Instead of me seeing the people, I saw the black bars, and that's not the message they were trying to convey.


Stechford station was undergoing work to become step-free - handy when the only way to the platforms was via lengths of concrete stairs.  I crossed over to the island and waited for the train between a girl loudly discussing her Netflix viewing - "I mean there's so much of it that's just shit, but there's some good stuff, and I just, like, watch it all in one go, like" - and a group of boys hanging around the single bench.  It was a three-seater, and the ones sitting down were either black or Asian; the boy left standing was white but talked louder and more excitedly than any of them.  When they got up to board the train, he went to a different door, and they called after him: "Milky!  Over here!"  Which made me giggle all the way to Lea Hall.


I was immediately taken with it.  The station opened in 1939 and was built in a striking Streamline Moderne style, with white concrete and elegant lines.  I was less keen on the platform shelter interiors.


The station had been refurbished and while I understand wanting to stick some colour in there, that's just garish.  I climbed the orange tiled stairs to street level where, disappointingly, there wasn't an understated 1930s ticket office straight out of Poirot, but instead there was a load of 1980s red brick.  The sole concession to its age was an old iron clock tucked in the corner and which, of course, was showing the wrong time.


I left the station through an over-elaborate entrance.  Designed by Tim Tolkien, a grand-nephew of JRR, it seems to be symbolic of the universe, with stars and planets and orbits.  To me it looked like a bit of playground equipment that had got lost.


I wedged myself in against the boundary fence to take the sign pic, ignoring the bemused stare of a taxi driver opposite.


I passed the sad bulk of the Meadway Social Club, still encouraging you to watch the Carnival of Football of the 2014 World Cup, and another McDonalds (begone foul temptress!) and onto a long wide dual avenue.  Stout corporation houses were placed off to the side, separated from the traffic in a considerate manner you'd never get away with these days. 


I followed the road to a hefty junction overseen by a reassuringly solid factory building.  On closer inspection I realised the factory was gone, the office block was now subdivided, and it was now the home of BJ's Bingo Hall


There was more council housing but this was far more modern, built with its back to the road and accessed via walkways.  It was done with the best of intentions - a way to segregate pedestrians from traffic - but it instead creates what my mum always used to call a "mugger's paradise"; dead ends, dark corners, empty spaces with nobody overlooking.  Above me I saw the bellies of 737s cruising low, leaving the runway of the airport and roaring over the houses.  There was a tear of engines and then a strange, almost funereal silence until the next one.


At the bottom of the hill a wide new development of shops marked the shift in social standing again.  I'd travelled from the inner city to the council hinterlands and now I was entering suburbia.  The houses were larger, semis, set back from the road and with trees outside.  Bits of countryside broke through, revealing green fields and scenic walks along brooks.


The border from Birmingham to Solihull was marked by a sign and a house with four cars on the drive.  I don't think it was a taxi firm.  Soon I'd found Marston Green station, and I nipped into the corner shop there to get a bottle of water and - finally - a sandwich.  I waited politely in the queue while the two women behind the counter tried to give directions to a delivery man in some of the thickest Brummie accents I have ever heard.  It was like being beaten over the head by the Bull Ring.  They finally noticed me, waiting, fuming, and served me, but it was too late: my train was already approaching the far platform.


I negotiated the many ramps to take me across (only noticing on my way back down that there was a version with steps that would've been much quicker) and took a seat in the shelter.


I'd thought about going on - to Birmingham International, the next stop on the line - but that seemed like a big job.  Birmingham International has an airport, and the NEC, and a cable hauled railway built on top of a maglev system; that was a stop that deserved thorough investigation, and I wasn't in the mood.  Instead I broke open my sandwich and tucked in.


Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Bristol Channelling

The second part of my Severn Beach Line misadventures.  The first part is here.


My preference for station collecting is to get them in order.  Start at one end of the line, hop on, hop off, cross them off the map one by one.  Sometimes the timetables get in the way.

St Andrews Road railway station doesn’t get much of a service.  After a couple of peak time trains, it only gets a service every four hours.  I realised that I’d have to get there first, cross that station off before any others, otherwise I could have ended up in a timetable hole.

It was immediately obvious, on arriving, why the trains were so infrequent.  It wasn’t a station, just a platform beside a vast complex of sidings.  Long freight trains stretched away in both directions, diesel engines idling.  As I climbed the footbridge over the tracks, all I saw were hulks of industry.  Silo towers and conveyor belts and oil tanks.  Wide expanse of open concrete.  Heaps of gravel and coal.  There was a smell of fuel mixed with refuse, as a nearby recycling plant smashed another lorry load of unwanted glass.

When St Andrews Road opened, in 1917, this would have been a vital link to bring workers to the docks.  Ports don’t work like that anymore.  Automation and containerisation mean that though there are still huge quantities of goods passing through Bristol, there isn’t the need for the men.  St Andrews Road clings on, because it’s easier to leave a station with a minimal service than it is to close it.



There was a brand new road junction outside, practically gleaming, to give access to an Asda distribution centre the size of Lincolnshire.  I headed south, down the main dock road, in the shadow of trucks and tankers.  The pavement was incredibly wide, three metres at least, but I was the only pedestrian, a tiny human overshadowed by the fume-belching vehicles.  Past the Avonmouth Space Program – disappointingly, just a self-storage facility – and the bus garage.  As the road curved, a bike lane suddenly appeared out of nowhere, leading to a toucan crossing.  It almost immediately vanished again, no doubt put in thanks to some kind of grant and never actually used by a cyclist.

The road became a dual carriageway, then a roundabout for access to the M5; I felt puny and insignificant.  Squatting to one side was the incredibly American bulk of Costco, a piece of Texas that had somehow crash landed into south-west England.  Everything about it – the logo, the size, the tyre workshop – screamed USA, making the tiny Corsas and Fiestas in the car park look ridiculously inadequate.  There should have been trucks and pickups instead of the odd Peugeot.


I knew that I wanted to get over there, to the other side of the roundabout, but I couldn’t actually see a way of doing it.  Then I spotted a footbridge, and the blood drained from my face.  It was vertigo time.

It wasn’t bad at first.  The steps were fine.   It was only as I turned onto the main bridge structure that the terror kicked in.  I reached out with one hand to grab the railing, only for it to wobble under my touch.  End of that. Instead I crashed down the middle, treading a straight path along the centre, trying not to see the cars and buses sweeping below me, trying not to think about the way the bridge seemed to be swaying, trying to ignore the sweat that was pooling in my clenched fists.  Only when I reached the other side did I realise I’d been moaning the whole time, a long, low groan of agony and tension.


I reassembled myself on the pavement, pulled fingernails out of the palm of my hand, and headed into Shirehampton Village.  It’s signposted as such, but it’s not a village as you’d recognise it.  Just a long Council estate, curving around the road into Bristol, a place for the dock workers to make their home.  Brick houses, some pebbledashed, some painted; last year’s Christmas decorations still on a few, the odd plastic butterfly under an upstairs window.  Silent streets interrupted only by the whine of a man giving his Peugeot a going over with a pressure wash.

On the horizon, the concrete viaduct of the M5 bridge over the Avon.  There were no ornamental sphinxes here, either, no decoration of any kind.  A slab of grey stone on columns.  The only colour was the blue of the motorway signs, bluer than the morning skies, and the occasional flash of an Eddie Stobart.  The Clifton Suspension Bridge inspired and captivated.  This bridge carried people away.  Living beneath that I could see how you’d start to think that the best way to live involved getting away.  It gets in your head after a while, the fast traffic, the speed of trucks and cars going somewhere, while you sit below.  Not moving.

Some old people bungalows were built next to a school, a little hub of civic responsibility, and then on the end, Guide and Scout huts.  I remembered back when I was a Scout, until teenage hormones made me too embarrassed to dress in khaki every Friday night and tie reef knots.  The Guides who shared a hut with us were demeaned and insulted at every opportunity.  If they’d been over a fence, it would’ve just been worse; the girls next door, rivals, inferiors, someone to patronise.  Until, somewhere around fourteen, that fence started to look a bit too high, and the Scouts started to want to peek over the top…

Mentally writing a CBBC sitcom in my head, I walked into the older part of Shirehampton.  The curve of the avenues straightened into terraces.  At its edges, the tarmac peeled back to reveal cobbles.  There was a surprising blue plaque, commemorating the childhood home of Sir Robert Stephens, an actor I only know now through his marriage to Maggie Smith, his actual acting work disappearing into grey.


Back across the Portway, and into a stretch of field called the Daisy Field.  There wasn’t a single daisy to be seen, sadly; plenty of daffodils and dandelions though.  Perhaps it was too early in the year for daisies.  At the exit, a deep bin was provided for dog mess, and I added “emptying that bin” to my list of jobs I never want to have to do.

The station was across the street, but I was too early for the train, and a bit peckish.  Instead I turned right, heading under the railway bridge into a smuggler’s cove of a village.  The street wound its way down to the river past confectionary coloured Georgian homes.  At the end of the road was the Lamplighter Inn, the kind of pub that Long John Silver used to go to in search of new cabin boys.  It overlooked the wide Avon, with the local chapter of the Sea Cadets.  Across the river, the sailboats were moored in the harbour at Pill.


I’d have liked nothing more than to have sat in the garden of the Lamplighter, watching the river for a while with a pint of beer.  Unfortunately, despite the sign promising they’d be open at eleven, it was locked tight.  Instead I took a seat in a nearby park, while two dog walkers chatted loudly.  A collie bounded around, barking constantly, excited but ignored; his owner hissed the occasional “shush” but otherwise she let him get on with polluting the air.

The more I listened to their conversation – an antisocial but extremely gratifying hobby of mine – the more I realised that the dog walkers weren’t a couple of friends chatting, but were instead a kidnapper and their hostage.  The stout lady dog owner had effectively imprisoned the man with chat, and every time he attempted a way out she blocked it.  Every “well, I must dash” or “anyway” was met with an impeccably placed parry as she kept him trapped.  New topics were seamlessly introduced without a pause for breath.  At one point she was asking him what his favourite meat was, like a demented Buzzfeed quiz, interrogating him on chicken v beef.  He looked more and more desperate.  Another couple of minutes and I think he would have thrown himself into the river.

As it was, the lady herself ended the conversation, suddenly and without warning, with a “RIGHT.”  She bellowed at the collie and marched away, tossing a “see you tomorrow I expect!” over her shoulder.  I am certain that the man changed his dog walking regime to avoid her.  In fact, he may have given the dog away that afternoon.


Outside the station I was stopped by a man.  “Is there a coffee shop or something round here?”
“No,” I said gloomily, thinking of the still shuttered Lamplighters Inn.  “Nothing.”


I was starting to get a bit peckish.  It was lunchtime, and I’d done a fair amount of fast-paced walking.  Enough to burn off the enormous Wetherspoon’s breakfast I’d consumed that morning, anyway.  I can’t quite work out how they make any money – the breakfast was only a fiver, but it was the size of a banquet plate, a smorgasbord of meat and beans and toast.  I expect the regular parade of alcoholics who start their day with a pint of the cheap lager and a shot are funding the low prices.

And no, before you ask, I didn’t have a beer with my breakfast.  I had a tea.  I’m not that bad.


I hopped off the train at Avonmouth in search of a café or a coffee shop or somewhere I could get a sandwich.  The station was at the very edge of the dock estate, opposite what was probably once a row of busy shops, but was now a parade of blocked off fronts and flats.  There was a big pub on one end, and a paint shop, and a café that was just too rough for me.  Somewhere along the line I’ve drifted away from my working class roots and become – not middle class, because I’ve never eaten quinoa, but somewhere in between, drifting in a kind of no-man’s land.  The monied glamour of Montpelier’s coffee shops made me feel out of place, and now the down and dirty workman’s café made me equally uncomfortable.  Perhaps I should just accept that I don’t feel comfortable anywhere.

I was, however, tempted by an old-fashioned caff a little further on.  Splayed round a corner, it didn’t seem to have been refurbished since about 1963.  I peeked through the lace curtains in the window and spotted plastic chairs at formica tables and a tiny pepperpot old lady doling out a cup of tea to a hi-vis wearing builder.  There was a Luncheon Voucher sticker in the window and neon stars with the prices of the specials written on them.  It was great.

What stopped me going in to sample their pasties and home made cakes was the name stencilled over the door – In The Mouth.


In.  The.  Mouth.

That’s just too on the nose for me.  It’s a bit too direct, and has a weirdly sexual connotation to it.  It didn’t sit right.  In The Mouth would be a great name for an adult film, or a particularly blunt dentist, but it doesn’t make me want to guzzle a panini.  I turned away sadly, crossing the road by the closed-up public toilets and wandering out of the village.

I walked out onto the same dock road I’d been on earlier, only this time I was walking north.  If you want to know what it was like, go back a few paragraphs; it hadn’t changed since the morning.  There was a distinct lack of eating places, unless you count a Subway in a petrol station, which I don’t.  I realise this makes me a food snob of the highest order but I’m just not comfortable with eating a sandwich freshly prepared next to the axle grease and air fresheners.  I fished around in my pocket and found a half-eaten pack of Softmints from the day before to keep me going.


On and on the road went, lined with grey buildings peddling dirty, grimy businesses.  Tyres and engineering companies and signwriters.  A workshop with its doors open sent the smell of spraypaint wafting into the road, and suddenly I was three again.  My dad was a paint sprayer when I was very young, and he’d come home from work smelling like that, his overalls splattered with random moments of technicolour.   Sitting beside him while he talked, breathing in a chemical scent that in retrospect probably did me no good at all.  He’d tell stories of his day that used to terrify me.  I was such a wimpy, introverted child, and his tales of male bonding, what we’d call “banter” now, used to scare the hell out of me.  I lived in fear of ever being an apprentice somewhere and, as happened to someone at his work, getting stripped naked and sprayed all over, like Jill Masterson in Goldfinger.  Every time I started a new job for the rest of my life, a tiny part of me was waiting for the scary initiation ceremony.  Fortunately I ended up a weak-limbed pseudo-intellectual and only ever taking jobs in feminised offices and shops where that sort of behaviour was frowned upon.  If I was dropped into one of these industrial units I’d have been torn limb from limb within minutes.

A curve in the road brought a makeshift shrine, set back from the pavement.  Memorial plaques and footballs and cuddly toys, and a large photo of a boy in his late teens.  Flowers only starting to wilt by a birthday card – Happy Birthday Jordan.  I’d assumed that the accident that had killed Jordan had been recent, but a Google search when I got back to the hotel revealed it was four years before.  This memorial had become as permanent a reminder of him as his grave.


Sobered, I pushed on, past a blank space of concrete where a factory used to be, two wind turbines turning lazily in the barely-there wind.  Huge over elaborate signs welcomed me to a business park but I headed off to one side, up the steep incline of a railway bridge.  The raise in elevation meant that, for the first time, I got a glimpse of the Severn Bridges, both of them, distant but still impressive.  They soon vanished as I left the road on a sign posted public footpath.

It’s unfortunate, but there’s often a disconnect between the Ordnance Survey and the reality.  It’s deeply upsetting because the OS is the finest set of maps in the world; it has a detail and accuracy that cannot be beaten.  But while your Landranger proudly notes that there’s a bike/footpath along along the Severn and you’re more than welcome to follow it, on the ground, sometimes all you find is a load of long grass and trees and nowhere to go.


I was wandering around a load of scrubland behind a factory and there didn’t seem to be any kind of footpath at all.  There was a rusted railway siding, presided over by a cat licking its paws, and a distinctly unpleasant smelling stream, but nothing that said “gentle perambulation”.  Soon I was stamping down ankle high wild grasses, looking for a sign of some sort, hoping that I wouldn’t have to head back to that tedious dock road for the third time.

Finally I spotted a barely-there gap between the trees, and I dived into it.  It looked like a footpath, a muddy, messy one, but at least it was pointing in the right direction and meant I didn’t have to wander onto the railway tracks.  I thought back to the OS map labelling this twisting, narrow route between trees a “cycle path”, and made up my mind to write them an e-mail demanding a correction.  There was no way you could cycle along here – the trees hadn’t been cut back in years, and brushed my head and clothes.  The further along I went the more I became convinced that I was the first person to come this way in a long time.


I was sandwiched between the river and the backs of industrial units, the hum of machinery a constant tone underneath.  Pipes poked up from beneath the soil in places, pointing towards the water in a vaguely sinister manner.  I had to clamber over one, up and down a rusting metal ladder that felt incredibly unsafe.  The path kissed the road, meeting it at a layby filled with litter – mattresses, a fridge, polystyrene.  From then on the path paralleled the tarmac, separated only by brambles.  To the passing vehicles I’d have just been a floating head.  It was ugly and uninspired.

Miles after mile it went on, the green sign posts optimistically pointing the way, the reality being a scramble through another pile of thorns and a stinging nettle hand.  The grey curves of the Seabank Power station, gas fired, humming, then, a little further on, a building site beside the railway.  New roads intruding.  I crossed the railway line and was finally on the river side, though my hopes of seeing Wales across the estuary were dashed.  Rough trees blocked the view.  Horses chewed seagrass, lazily watching me as I passed, disinterested.


Grass turned to gravel turned to tarmac.  Now I was on an access road for another of those mysterious pipelines, ejecting who knows what into the Severn.  It curved back under the railway but I turned away, scrambling up an embankment and onto a high sea wall.  There were the bridges and, further along, the little village of Severn Beach, end of the line.  New homes had been built beneath the flood defences, optimistically, but in the village centre the homes were older and tighter.


I was incredibly hungry by now, hoping for a pub where I could get a pint and a hearty lunch, but there wasn’t one.  The shopping parade had only two shops in it now.  The storefronts in the others had been clumsily blocked up to make flats, big walls of brick with holes punched in them.  There was a newsagent and a bakery, and the bakery had a couple of plastic tables in it, so I wandered in and dropped my bag and looked at the handwritten menu on the wall.

The woman behind the counter was too quick; she was asking me what I wanted before I was halfway down the first column, so I blurted out a request for a sausage sandwich.  Her face dropped.  “Oooh, I’m not sure we’ve got any sausages on, love.”  She turned, and called to her friend in the back: “are there sausages?”

“That’s fine,” I stammered, “I’ll have something else…”  But they were debating now.  They’d just cleaned the grill, but they could put on another lot.

“No, honestly, it’s no problem…”  She dismissed me, chatting to the girl behind.  “Are you sure?  ‘Cos you did just clean it.”

“No, really, it doesn’t matter,” I blurted out.  I pointed desperately at a bap under the counter, wrapped in plastic.  “I’ll have that.”

The woman behind the counter finally turned back to me.  She had a confused look on her face, a sort of “why did he ask for a sausage sandwich if he doesn’t want one?” look, a resigned face of disappointment.  Another annoying customer.  I took the sandwich and my tea and sat in the corner and tried to could make myself as small as possible.

Because it became increasingly clear that these women were ready to close up.  It was early afternoon, and they wanted to go home now the lunchtime rush was done.  They cackled to one another in the back, sharing their plans for the afternoon, shopping, tidying, dealing with big useless retired husbands.  As one of them brushed the floor around me, she called out a joke her son had told her – “what does one avocado say to another avocado?  Let’s ‘ave a cuddle!” – but the older woman in the back didn’t get it, so the wordplay had to be explained.  I blew on my tea and willed it to cool down.  I used to work in a shop, and I know the resentment that courses through every fibre of your being when someone turns up moments before closing.  I scoffed the sandwich, gargled with the too-hot tea, then left my crockery on the counter and fled.



On the bend in the road was a bus shelter and the husk of an amusement arcade.  Little more than a shed, the sign showing sunlight through gaps, bits of wood and metal scattered across the forecourt.  The estate agent board had been there so long it was falling to pieces too.  Severn Beach was as close as Bristol had to a seaside resort for a while, but now it was bungalows and retirees.  Long straight avenues of low homes, the gardens overdecorated with tchotchkes, a dozen windmills and fifty wheelbarrows of posies and a thousand gnomes.  That pub was still absent.

Without realising, I’d reached the edge of the village.  The M49 – a junctionless connector road between the M4 and the M5 – slices behind Severn Beach, while the mainline railway to Wales disappears into the tunnel beneath the river here too.  So much transport, all ignoring the little village.  I crossed the M49 by a high bridge, practically walking in the road so I didn’t have to look down at the speeding cars and trucks below, then again over the M4, and down into New Passage.


In the 18th century this tiny hamlet was a ferry head, a spot for passengers to cross the river.  The Severn Tunnel killed it off and it became what it is today – a bypassed spot, a road abandoned.  Farm houses and a former chapel lined the quiet street; it would have been pleasant if you ignored the constant roar of traffic barrelling down the motorway.  I reached the river and found that I was between the two bridges – the old Severn crossing to my right, the new one to my left.

I took them in.  The older bridge, opened in 1966, is more graceful; a white suspension bridge with cables strung across the water.  The newer one, opened thirty years later, is meatier and more practical.  It’s a viaduct with, suddenly in the centre, two tall towers reaching over the shipping lane.  Walking beneath it I marvelled at the thick concrete, the heaviness, the brilliance of its design.  The Clifton Suspension Bridge the day before had been elegant artistry, as much there to be admired as used.  This was designed by engineers, stripped of pretension, admirable but a little sad.


Back into Severn Beach, past a holiday park of lonely caravans, and then on to the station.  During its seaside heyday, this had been a much grander terminus, with a bay platform for excursion trains and a building across the tracks.  Now, like the rest of the town, it had been abandoned and isolated.  There are trains only every couple of hours, and they pull into a single platform.  No ticket office or friendly stationmaster; barely even a sign.  I boarded a small diesel train and rode back into the city, desperate to finally get that pint.