Thursday, 10 January 2019

It's Just Like Starting Over


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

I picked Dorridge.


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

It turned out to be a bit of a star.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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


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

ITHANGYEW.


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


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

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


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


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


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

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

WAIT. A. SECOND.


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

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

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


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

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