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.
Wednesday, 26 June 2019
Tuesday, 28 May 2019
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
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.
Monday, 22 April 2019
About three years ago, with my mission to collect every Northern station coming to an end, I needed something else to do. "Hey!" I thought. "Why don't I write a book? Just do the blog again, but with different railway lines. Easy, and this way people will pay me!" I looked around the country and picked a half-dozen railway lines that looked interesting. I did my usual trick - took a train, got off, walked to the next station, got another train. I took loads and loads of notes and photos.
And then I just had to write the book. And it was hard. Like, really, really hard. Writing here, I can chuck out any old nonsense. I can divert onto a weird tangent. I can have a pointless nostalgia trip. I can fill it with innuendo. Writing a book, though, all I could think was "people have paid for this. People have put down their money. It can't be your usual rubbish. It has to be good."
I never got the right tone. I never enjoyed writing it up. A year later, frustrated, angry, upset, driven to tears on more than one occasion, I abandoned the book. The drafts have sat on my laptop ever since, a reminder of a thwarted ambition.
I've decided to get something useful out it, and so here is some of "the book". In April 2016 I went down to Bristol and visited the Severn Beach Line. Over two days I collected the stations on what's sometimes called Britain's most scenic commuter line. I've not edited it for the blog, so the style is a little different to usual, but I've not done any other blogging this month so this'll stop April from being a gap in the history. The photos have also been shoved in a little inelegantly; obviously I didn't plan on them being in the book, but I did take the usual sign pics because I'm a nerd like that. Hope you at least find it interesting.
Lawrence Hill railway station was thick with drab. Along the platform were a load of students, late for their first lecture, not particularly caring. I was the only person leaving the train. I wandered out of the station, through the Lidl car park, past the two bald men in bomber jackets manhandling a trolley full of shopping to the bus stop. I wondered if they were going to try getting the trolley on board as well, or if they were just going to leave it on the pavement and sacrifice the quid. The tiny Asian woman in a headscarf already waiting looked down at the floor as they wedged themselves onto the bench next to her.
It was already a different world to Bristol Temple Meads, where I’d started that day’s journey, one stop down the line. Temple Meads is a grand, mock-Tudor cathedral to the railways, all soaring arches and stone floors and booming announcements. It’s InterCity 125s and café bars. The district round the station is a sort of mini-Canary Wharf, the same glass and steel boxes and empty piazzas only just a little bit shorter. A queue of grey-suited white faces wound its way out of the Starbucks.
There wasn’t a Starbucks in Lawrence Hill. There was a Halal butcher, and a kebab shop, and café with the brilliant name of Waamo, but they lined a noisy road and were covered in scaffolding. As I turned a corner, I nearly ran into a woman bellowing Polish into her mobile. I followed a road that paralleled the railway, the tracks screened off by thick brambles dotted with litter, the vague smell of dog mess wafting up from little bagged packages dangling off branches. A hefty Academy occupied a square block of a building, like a B&Q that had come adrift from its moorings and had been co-opted into use by the locals; it made the original turn of the century school building cower in its shadows.
I was in Bristol to follow the Severn Beach Line. Eleven stations, curling their way through the city, then branching off to the docks and the estuary beyond. I bounced along enthusiastically, happy to be exploring, happy to be somewhere new. I’d never been to Bristol before, not known much about it really, and it was already intriguing me.
There was a road closed for sewage works, a stack of pipes piled up on the churned up grass of a nearby park, so I took a diversionary route past Bristol Central Mosque. It looked like an old factory from the outside, red brick, sloped roof, a gravelled car park to the side and a green and white sign over the fire exit. Only a pair of intricate mosaics on either side of the main entrance told you this was something other than an engineering firm on hard times.
Beyond were terraces of tight bay windowed houses. Bristol was in the middle of its mayoral elections, and I saw a few Labour posters in the window, plus a board for the Green candidate wedged behind the wheelie bins. The stores dotted amongst them were aimed at the local Asian population; you could tell because they laid out the fruit and vegetable on the street for you to touch and smell. British people don’t trust produce unless it’s been shrinkwrapped.
I crossed the street to read a community noticeboard. It’s one of my hobbies, catching up on the local news, who’s standing for Parish Councillor (usually just one name, unopposed), what the latest police bulletin is. This one hinted at the area’s troubles – a cocaine support group in the Methodist Church, advice to get out of debt – and its diversity, with an English Conversation Group to help locals with the language. There was also a poster asking for test subjects for the University - Are you 30-60? Want to support research using your nose? You could make £70 for participating - so I gave serious thought to taking part, because I really am that easily bought.
On St Marks Road, I wandered past more takeaways, Indian and Pakistani restaurants, barbers specialising in “ethnic” hairstyles. Easton Mosque was expanding, and the boards outside urged you to e-mail or call to find out what their plans were. Gulzar’s Fancy Goods intrigued me; I wondered what counted as “fancy”. Doilies? I couldn’t see much call for doilies. A board in the window said they stocked Islamic Books and DIY and paint, which is an admirably diverse stock policy, but not that fancy. Unless the paint came in a jam jar with a bit of red and white checked cloth on the top. I stopped for a cup of tea in an Indian café. The walls were painted purple, with faded family portraits of neat Asian families posing stiffly at weddings and parties.
The strange part was, there were no actual Asian people inside. It was fairly busy for ten in the morning, but every face was white. There were a couple of mums with pushchairs, a man in a suit bashing at his phone, a couple of earnest volunteer types having a breakfast meeting over a stack of binders, but not one brown face. Even the waitress was a skinny blonde.
I wondered if the area was being, and I use this word deliberately, colonised. In the Sixties and Seventies, the working class whites fled the inner cities, leaving it for the new arrivals from the Commonwealth. They thrived in these districts, made them their own, and now the whites were coming back. I imagined speculators looking at these well-built, sturdy homes, close to the city centre, in the middle of excitingly exotic districts, and thinking “I’ll have some of that.” I’d already seen a whitewashed deli on a side street, one that dripped with middle class privilege.
I was still early for my train, so I wandered the long way round, past what can only be described as a bong shop. It sold all sorts of, let’s just say, “paraphernalia”, with signs saying “this is for decorative use only”. You could perhaps persuade yourself that they were just very fancy vases, if you ignored the five foot tall fibreglass Rastafarian in the window with a spliff hanging out of his mouth. It reminded me of those adverts you used to get in the back of music magazines, selling cannabis seeds but being careful to tell you that you aren't allowed to let them grow. Smiling – there was something in the air – I climbed the steps to Stapleton Road station. An arch bridge rusted away, a legacy of when there were four tracks through here. On the walls, a mural commemorated notable locals – Sukhsagar Dattar, Indian independence activist; Mary Carpenter, child welfare reformer; Rajah Rammohun Roy, Bengali reformer. They carried suitcases and met on the platform.
A quick trip on the train later and I was in Montpelier. If the area around Stapleton Road was hinting at middle-class gentrification, Montpelier was embracing it. The road from the station was a parade of small, hip shops; boutiques, hairdressers, pastel coloured fronts with hand crafted artisan nick nacks inside. Bars that advertised their “teapot cocktails and local gin”. A junk shop, in the centre of the row, achieved the messy casual look by actually being messy and casual. There were empty crates and, as is mandated by law for all junk shops, a half-naked mannequin. I picked through the CDs on the table outside – a lot of Britpop, a lot of acoustic guitar, some late 90s House. That was the locals – late 30s, early 40s, good job, young kids, not quite ready to go the full suburban life yet so pitch up here in a tastefully restored villa with hardwood floors and original mouldings. Have to make room in the house, and there's Spotify now, yeah?
I stopped for another cup of tea – if my tannin levels aren’t stocked up regularly I go into a dead faint. The café occupied a corner plot, with benches outside. On one of them, a group of six chatted while a man took photos on an enormous Canon. I wasn’t sure what their deal was – some kind of publicity shots I suppose – but they paid no attention to the photographer, even when he rammed his long lens right in their face. Inside, the soup of the day was Persian lentil, and there were three flavours of crisp – salted, salt & vinegar, and, of course, chorizo.
I felt quite out of place. These people were slim and pretty and tapping at iPads. I was fat and sweaty and middle aged and scrawling in a notebook. I was an invader from the planet Boring. I smoothed down my hair and pretended to appreciate the atonal beats of the mellow ambient music. I have a CD collection that’s full of Britpop and acoustic guitar and 90s House too, but somewhere along the line I took a different path to these people. I still have all my CDs, for a start. I like nice stuff, of course, but here it seemed fetishized, adored. I couldn’t quite bring myself to care.
I got up and left, wondering if I’d be photoshopped out of the backdrop of those publicity stills. At a bus stop, there was a man eating Cheerios out of the plastic bag, dipping into them as though they were crisps. I was pretty sure he didn’t belong in Montpelier either.
As I descended the hill, the mood shifted. Shabby chic became just plain shabby. The carefully curated, pretty world started to fall apart. Anger crept in.
The graffiti added to the air of degradation. Banksy is a Bristolian, and made his mark on the streets of the city. He’d opened the floodgates. Every wall, every vacant shop, was smothered in paint. I’m used to only seeing graffiti as the beginning of the end, the sign that somewhere has given up; here it was intended as a celebration in itself. Most of it, of course; there were still the same crude expletives and genital drawings in amongst the anti-capitalist protests and murals of Bob Marley. I took a few photos, and an elderly woman stopped me.
“Are you taking photos of interesting things? Because there’s a black man asleep in a chair further down the road. He looks so peaceful. I wish I had a camera myself.”
I took her advice and went and looked and, yes, there was indeed a man asleep in an armchair in the middle of a patch of waste ground. I’m not sure he'd gently drifted off into slumbers – there were three homeless men across the way necking Tennants Super, and he looked like he went to the same costumiers – but it was certainly a sight.
I ducked down a back street, encountering blocks of concrete social housing linked by walkways, and the headquarters of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft: a collective trying to improve the district through direct action and art. They were responsible for curating much of the graffiti I’d seen, and their gallery sold quirky pottery. Its orange walls seemed to glow amidst the grime.
I turned into the residential district behind the main road, finding a colourful square of terraced houses. I’d seen this over and over in Bristol: homes painted soft blues and pinks and yellows, standing apart from their neighbours. Coming from the north, where there is street after street of red Coronation Streets, it was surprising, but I liked it. It broke up the view.
I followed the tree-lined avenues back, puffing a little as the roads headed upwards. This was where the teapot cocktail drinkers lived, not the citizens of the People’s Collective. There was no urban artwork here. It broke open to the greenery of Cotham Gardens, dominated by the kind of playground I would have killed to play on as a child, then I was crossing the bridge to Redland station.
On the train, there was a mild disagreement between an Eastern European boy and the guard. He’d boarded with a bike, and the guard was trying to tell him that he should put it in the space reserved for cycles instead of blocking the gangway. He looked at her with dead eyes, staring her down, while she simplified her language. “Bike! Front of train! Hazard!” After a third try, it dawned on her that this wasn’t a matter of miscommunication – he genuinely didn’t give a shit. Defeated, she shook her head and opened the doors for Clifton Downs.
All through the day I’d been slowly climbing the social scale, but at Clifton Downs I’d finally reached the money. It dripped with it. Shiny houses that had been buffed gleamed in the sunshine. Offices for “wealth management” companies and discreet clinics with names like Newness and Rejuvenate promised youth. Women with thick sunglasses airkissed outside restaurants. If I’d felt a mess in shabby-chic Montpelier, here I was basically a tramp. It was coming up to lunchtime so I’d thought about going somewhere to eat, but one look at the beautiful people sunning themselves on the terraces had me scurrying to the back streets like a vampire escaping daylight.
Instead I wandered past Clifton’s historic lido, now repurposed into a classy spa, with a pretty pub wedged into the corner. I pictured the classy ladies emerging from the spa, fresh from a seaweed wrap and healthy lunch of rice and a single piece of salmon, and caning it into the pub. “I need a pint of lager and a Scotch egg and I need it NOW!” The majority of Clifton is elegant Georgian terraces, but in the Sixties, the University constructed a Brutalist slab, four floors of concrete with a car park and a cursory link to a much older building. Its ugliness and refusal to fit in was refreshing; I’d much rather see a building being itself than a fake “in keeping” construction.
I was heading for Clifton Cathedral, the main Catholic place of worship for Bristol, which I’d been surprised to see on my Ordnance Survey map. Say “cathedral” and you imagine some epic construction, all soaring buttresses and towers. This one seemed a lot more modest. I eventually found it, finished in the 1960s and being very much of its type. A stubby dome sat on top of a low, flat base, with sharp slabs of concrete reaching higher into the sky. It was fine, I suppose, a perfectly adequate building, but I live near Liverpool: when someone says “Catholic cathedral” to me I picture a huge steel construction that dominates the skyline. This was more like a church with pretensions.
I wanted to explore the inside, but the roof was being repaired. I have a bad habit of turning up at landmarks when they’re swathed in scaffolding. It’s like someone checks my diary and decides that the perfect time to do the drains is the day I’m visiting. Instead, I carried on through Clifton’s quiet streets, past a nursery school where a little girl was being incredibly bossy in the playground. Her voice crashed into the street: “NO. We’re not playing that game.” Finally I happened on a pub advertising a starter and a main for a tenner, so I settled in the window with a pint.
I’d ordered pulled pork sliders and a burger; only after they arrived did I remember that a “slider” was a tiny burger, so I was eating the same meal twice. I inhaled them, not realising how hungry I was until I actually had food in front of me. Meanwhile the pub began to fill up. I was immediately alienated by a posh couple who brayed loudly two tables down. He was wearing a Breton shirt and no socks; she clutched a handbag under her arm and picked at a bowl of olives with half-inch fingernails. They both looked like they’d just fallen off a yacht. I’d spotted them earlier, when they complained about the road resurfacing outside with the barmaid; apparently this was the mayor’s fault, though I couldn’t work out why re-laying tarmac was anyone’s fault. It’s just something that needs to be done, isn’t it? The woman ended the conversation by shouting “Vote for Charles – he’s a neighbour of ours!” It will come as absolutely no surprise to you to learn that Charles was the Conservative Mayoral candidate. I wondered if I could throw the salt and pepper pots hard enough to knock them out.
I ate my burger while they drank more, their voices getting louder and more shrill. A friend passed and they hammered on the window to get her to come in and talk. She complained about her various ailments, they sympathised, then the minute the friend left the posh woman rolled her eyes. They didn’t buy her a drink either. I considered burning down the pub with them in it, but instead I wiped my mouth and left.
I’d deliberately detoured from the railway so that I could see the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Brunel’s other great piece of engineering in the city. There was a great need for a bridge across the Avon from Medieval times, but the Admiralty’s need to get high-masted ships to the docks stopped any from being built between the city centre and the sea. Any bridge would either have to open in some way, restricting traffic, or would have to be so tall that it would be an engineering challenge.
However, at Clifton, the Avon is at the base of a deep gorge. A road between the clifftops would achieve the height necessary to allow ships to pass while also minimising the actual bridge length. As with so many problems in Victorian society, Isambard Kingdom Brunel came up with a solution – an iron suspension bridge with stone towers decorated with sphinxes, in the Egyptian fashion of the time. Work started in 1830… and continued for thirty years. The money kept running out. Contractors went bust. The towers were constructed, but the ironwork was harder to fund, and then, when it was finally bought, they didn’t have enough money to actually put it on the bridge.
Brunel died in 1859, the bridge still unfinished, the ironwork flogged to London to build the Royal Albert Bridge. The scheme was revised by William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawksmoor as a way to try and get the bridge built; this included buying second hand chains from the demolished Hungerford Bridge. Finally, in 1864, the bridge was opened to the public, with the towers lit by magnesium flares. In the fine tradition of grand British public events going awry, these were immediately blown out by the December winds.
The bridge has served Bristol for over a hundred and fifty years now, becoming a symbol of the city itself. Standing next to it, I could see why it had captured the public imagination. The Avon Gorge is astonishing, a very un-English landscape, dramatic and awe-inspiring. The bridge should be fragile by its backdrop, but instead it’s muscular and powerful. It’s humans defeating nature, overcoming the obstacles, triumphing.
As with Clifton cathedral, the suspension bridge was in the middle of maintenance work. The tower on the Leigh Woods side was swathed in scaffolding, tiny men in hard hats clambering all over it, performing tasks that were a mystery to me but which I was also glad I would never have to do. I walked up to the base of the Bristol tower and peered over the side. It was a very long, very uncompromising way down. Above my head was a metal plaque: TALK TO US – Call the Samaritans for free. Clifton Suspension Bridge has a sideline as a suicide hotspot, though the installation of new guard rails has halved the number of deaths. Poignantly, the side facing the gorge is the most popular one to jump from. It seems that the victims want the best possible view before they go.
It’s hard to overstate how magnificent the bridge is. Everything about it is epic. It shouts at you, cows you into submission. It’s no longer an important route – most traffic now uses the M5 bridge, further down river, while the end of Bristol’s city centre dock trade meant that the Admiralty restrictions could be lifted – but it’s still an incredibly important structure. They never did build the sphinxes, incidentally; the money ran out.
I turned back. I would have liked to have walked across the bridge, but that was a detour too far, plus I do suffer from vertigo. I’d hate to have got halfway then collapsed to the floor, clinging to the railings and sobbing, before being rescued by firemen. Instead I headed up to the top of the hill overlooking the gorge, beside Bristol’s observatory, so I could take in the bridge from another angle. It was packed with tourists having exactly the same idea, so I went back down to the road. It was cooler here, sheltered from the afternoon sun by high trees, and large mansions were set back from the road. I imagined the Jane Austen-esque parties that must have once filled these villas, lots of waving fans and fluttered eyelashes and promenading. They were mostly offices now, home to accountants and stockbrokers.
I crossed the road and headed up what I thought was a path to the downs. It turned out to be a very informal path – in other words, muddy and slippery. The sunshine had come after days of rain, and in amongst the trees the ground hadn’t dried out yet. I staggered upwards, hoping I wouldn’t slip and bounce all the way back down to the road, until I finally hurtled out onto the grass at the top of the hill. If there had been anyone about I’d have looked like a recently escaped convict.
After a moment to compose myself, I began the stride across the grass. It was a Wednesday afternoon, the traditional sports time for Universities, and the various pitches were filled with football games. Around the edge, damnably healthy types jogged by, their t-shirts shouting their participation in fun runs and half marathons and 10k pursuits. I kept my head down. I’ve never been sporty – I like writing and I’m into train stations, so this probably comes as no surprise – and as I creep closer to forty I’ve become heavier and unhealthier. I looked at the lithe toned joggers with a mixture of envy and bafflement. Yes, I’d love to have abs you could bounce coins off, but really, what was the point? I mean, you’re going to die in the end whatever happens. It’s an absolute. So why not have a bit of fun while you’re alive? Why not eat a cake, or drink a pint, or sit in front of the telly in your pants mainlining nachos? (That last one may just be me, and yes, now it’s written down, I accept it’s not great behaviour).
Being around the sportsmen was also anxiety inducing. Every time the football came even vaguely in my direction a new bead of sweat broke out on my forehead. I didn’t want to have to kick the ball. I can’t. I mean, I can actually perform the act of connecting my foot with a ball, but I have no control over it. The ball might be cannoned twenty yards, or it might dribble off to one side. I might miss it entirely. And I can’t throw, either, certainly not a large heavy leather ball. So I kept my head down, walking at a speed that was just a little bit uncomfortable, until I was well past anything vaguely resembling physical activity and I could have a sit down on a bench under the trees.
I sat for a little while, drinking a bottle of water, taking in the sun. There was an ice cream van, and strolling pensioners, and cyclists. The Downs are over 400 acres of open land, meaning there’s plenty of room for crowds of people without it ever feeling full. It was the spot where 6000 people stood on a hillside in 1983 to form the words GOOD MORNING BRITAIN, a little piece of televisual history that means absolutely nothing to anyone under the age of thirty but which pleased me (and now you know what I was doing instead of learning how to kick a ball). I lazed, the two pints of beer from lunch sinking into me. Until an old man wandered past and, unashamedly, let out an enormous and lengthy fart. I took that as a signal and left.
I found a side gate, off the main paths, and entered the cool shady streets. The homes were a mix between small, expensive looking villas, and huge ugly apartment blocks. As though to conceal their ugliness, all the apartment blocks had been given astonishingly twee names. I’d pass a lovely little detached home that had a number on the gate, while next to it, five floors of red brick bulk was called something like “Fairy Badger Knoll”. I was glad to step off the tarmac and onto a steep side path that took me down to the Portway, the busy main road that shadows the Avon.
The space between the railway line and the road was being turned into a nature reserve. At the moment, this seemed to manifest itself mainly in the form of informational signs every fifty yards, plus a gigantic fish tail built out of rusting metal. The rest was thin grass and some square ponds, a real “it’ll be nice when it’s finished” situation. I managed to find a gap in the traffic and hurtled across to the pavement on the other side.
My plan had been to follow the road to Sea Mills, but a single finger sign pointed at a half-concealed staircase heading down to the river. I can’t resist forgotten walkways, and I was bouncing down the steps without a second thought. It brought me out right on the river wall. Mud flats glistened in the sunlight, the water levels low. I was enjoying the silence, the isolation, when an old man appeared on the path walking towards me; he nodded a hello, then called to a terrier in a padded lifejacket, almost as old as him. “Come on Ed.”
The lifejacket made my mind wander. It’s a bad habit of mine, thinking about the disasters that could befall me at any moment, getting a ghoulish thrill from the thought of my impending death. I looked down at the path beneath me: grassy, muddy, with no barriers or fences to stop me from plummeting into the river. I imagined a slip, a fall, my head cracking against the bricks and knocking me unconscious, then my body sliding under the dark water, never to be seen again.
I was in the middle of picturing the tearful mourners at my funeral when the path curved inwards, to accommodate the head of the River Trym. A badly rusted bridge, looking more like a hazard than a piece of transport infrastructure, carried the railway over the water. I crossed the line by a foot crossing then headed up to the platform. That was enough for the day, I thought. There were still four stations left to visit, but that could wait until the morning. All I wanted to do now was relax.
Part two will follow later.