Tuesday 5 November 2019

Fire Walk With Me

I have a gas fire in my living room.  It was operated by remote control, but that stopped working about five years ago, and ever since then we've been all "we really should get that fixed."  Well, a week or so ago, we finally got a man out to look at it, and he said "oh dear GOD, what was installed here, this is all ILLEGAL, you have no chimney liner, you're lucky you weren't GASSED."  Which was quite an afternoon, let me tell you.

So we ended up in Saltney looking at replacement fires and, as is my wont, I ended up looking at railway stations.  Saltney is a small town on the very edge of Chester.  It bleeds across the border from Wales into England; the English side is classier looking, but the Welsh side has an Asda, so who's the real winner?  (When I worked for Chester Council I used to get people who'd bought properties in Saltney phoning up to register with us and they were almost inevitably horrified when I informed them they were on the Welsh side).

The appropriately named Boundary Lane is the actual border between the two countries, but it's easier to refer to the railway line as a marker post.  The Chester to Shrewsbury line shadows the border on its way up from Wrexham and at Saltney it's a handy demarcation point.  The line then progresses to Saltney Junction, where it joins up with the North Wales Line and proceeds into Chester station.

As a town on the edge of a conurbation, where a large river prevents easy road access to the city centre, you'd expect Saltney to have its own commuter railway station.  And it did, for nearly a hundred and twenty years, from 1846 to 1960, when the passenger station was closed.  The goods yard was shut up seven years later, and since then, the only way to get from Saltney to the centre of Chester is via road across the congested Grosvenor Bridge. 

What's left on the site of the railway station is a business park that has, in a kind of twisted logic, been named after the railways.  The Sidings features four buildings; Great Western House (the former carriage repair shop), plus Mallard House, Pullman House and Scotsman House.  It's as if they built a housing estate on top of Hyde Park then named all the roads after the trees that were chopped down to build it.

Obviously, the world of Britain in the 1960s was a very different place.  Trains were big annoying steam things that were a hundred years old; you had to follow their lines and their timetables and buy a ticket.  They didn't have the freedom of the car.  Now, as you edge through a traffic-choked Curzon Park to the Chester ring road and hope and pray you can find a space and then pay an exorbitant sum of money for the privilege, the idea of a fast train into town seems very appealing.

Strangely, there's never been much of an idea to reopen Saltney station.  I did find a twelve year old report suggesting that opening a station at Lache, a mile or so to the south, might be an idea; that would enable a park and ride facility, and would be close to the Chester Business Park and a proposed bypass.  The fact that the only mention I can find of this station is in a twelve year old document should give you a clue about how active a proposal it actually is, though I really hope it gets built, because then Chester will have a station to the north called Bache and a station to the south called Lache and that kind of thing amuses me.

So there you go: Saltney.  It used to have a station, now it has a small business park.  As for the fire, we've decided to get an electric stove.  The good thing about electric stoves is they don't murder you while you sleep.

Wednesday 30 October 2019

Town and Country

Perry Barr was ugly.  There's no other way of putting it.  I'm a great supporter of British Rail's 1960s stations, built as electrification swept the country - your Coventry, your Stafford - but Perry Barr was done on the cheap.  It was concrete above the tracks, it was concrete by the tracks.  There were metal fences by the steps and you stepped up to an overbridge wedged behind the dark ticket office.  It was how I imagine it must be to get transported to prison by train.

Step outside the station and you're in a parade of grim shops, trapped on a dual carriageway, with a flyover blocking out the sun.  Barriers hold you onto the narrow pavement.  A homeless man begged for change in the doorway.  It was dystopian.

The one good thing about Perry Barr station was also a symptom of its neglect.  Above the doorway was a real old British Rail sign, a weird mishmash of styles that had somehow clung on through decades of rebranding.  It was all-caps, which was a no-no in later BR rules, and I'm not even sure if that's Rail Alphabet.  I'd guess it was from a period when British Rail was still a bit loose with how it applied the rules, and then for fifty years, it's entirely passed under the radar.  Someday West Midlands Railway will replace it with a huge piece of laser printed steel that has Perry Barr in big letters and the corporate logo front and centre, and that'll be sad.  In the meantime, enjoy it while you can.

I threaded my way through the busy pavements and across the road to the One Stop Shopping Centre.  Don't be deceived by appearances; it may look like a miserable 1980s shopping arcade, but it's actually worse than that.  The One Stop Shopping Centre is a retail park with a massive Asda and outlet shops built surrounding acres of parking, and this run of glass is merely a front so the entrance from the bus exchange looks half-decent.  It is nothing.

I walked past the succession of bookies and round the side, to where the delivery bays opened out onto the street frontage.  There was an unusual sight under the flyover; a man dressed in full John Bull garb talking to a journalist on the central reservation.  My heart sank as I wondered what nightmarish Brexit lunacy he was peddling, until I saw his sign: God Bless Our Flyover.  It seems the Perry Barr flyover's days are numbered, with the council planning to demolish it and calm the roads to improve the area ahead of the Commonwealth Games (the nearby Alexander Stadium will be the main location for the athletics events in 2022).  Only in Birmingham would people be fighting for a flyover; anywhere else in the country people would be grumbling about its existence.  There were no men in giant hats campaigning for the Churchill Way flyovers in Liverpool to be preserved, put it that way.

I choked back the traffic fumes and turned down a side road by a pub, the Seventh Trap, a low squat building that could be open for business or abandoned - I suspect it looks pretty much the same either way.  A bunker with barred windows.  I was heading for a small side road, really an access route for the backs of people's houses wedged alongside the River Tame.  A sign warned me there was No Dumping - £20,000 Fine, a sign which was comprehensively ignored by everyone.

I walked past the mattresses, fridges, and general building waste that had been dropped in the hedgerows.  Around halfway I realised that this was probably a dumb idea.  I was here in a strange city, wandering down a clearly unpleasant back alley, vaguely hoping I was going in the right direction; if I was raped and murdered here, even the Crimewatch reconstruction would say I was asking for it.  I proceeded anyway, with the blithe confidence of an idiot who has Google Maps and a bloody-minded refusal to backtrack.

I pushed through a gateway that took me to a turning circle for the One Stop centre's delivery vehicles; a skip was full to overflowing, any hope of it ever being picked up abandoned.  There was a set of steps and I went down them and into a different world.

The mansion at Perry Hall existed for hundreds of years, passing from knight to knight, until in 1927 it was finally abandoned.  Birmingham City Council bought it and its lands and turned it into a public park for the benefit of its residents.  Now Perry Hall Park occupies a large swathe of the city, with grasslands, ornamental gardens, and sports pitches.

The shift was sudden and welcome.  Yes, I could still hear the constant drone of traffic in the distance, a grumble that never left, but now there were trees and grass.  I'd felt small by that flyover, intimidated and insignificant; I felt small here too, but in a different way.  Now I was overwhelmed by nature.

There's a green island in the park, surrounded by a curious channel with square corners; this is all that's left of Perry Hall mansion - the moat.  Where there used to be a stately home, there's now a very posh bird island, a flat expanse of lawn.

I crossed the River Tame and followed a high bank around the edge of the cricket pitches.  The grass acts as a flood defence, swallowing overflowing water before it reaches the city, but on a crisp October day it was nothing more than a quiet vista.  The more I travel in the West Midlands, the more these whipcrack changes of pace have become familiar.  In most other cities I've visited, a park like this would be feted and celebrated, and surrounded by beautiful streets.  In Birmingham I'm always finding sudden changes - incredible ugliness that snaps into picturesque views.  Old village centres surrounded by roaring motorways, blackened industrial estates next to dense woodlands.  Far more than Liverpool or Manchester, I'm never entirely sure what I'll find when I step off the train.

My path meandered through meadows, where dog walkers stood still and waited for their retrievers to retrieve, and then I was in a quieter corner of the park.  The path dropped low down to the level of the river so it could pass under the railway bridge; across the way, builders shouted obscenities at one another, which kind of ruined the pastoral mood.  Up again, and I was at the backs of houses, until I finally emerged on the Hamstead Hill.

Yes, that's Hamstead, no p: this was very different to its London namesake.  While that is an enclave of prosperity, Hamstead no p is a former mining village swallowed up by the city.  There were no exclusive boutiques or elegant wine bars - instead I walked past Topps Tiles and the offices of a housing association, while the yellow sign of a Lidl caught the light in the distance.  The road rose up over the railway and I wandered to the Birmingham-bound platform. 

The ticket office was closed for refurbishment though, if I'm honest, I hadn't expected it to be open anyway; most of the ones I've encountered close at lunchtime and don't reopen until next morning. 

When I'd planned this day out, it was intended as a way of completing that loop above New Street.  I liked the idea of closing off that circle (well, more of a triangle) in one trip.  However, the map is slightly disingenuous.  There are fast and slow services on the loop, and the slow southbound services all go via Hamstead and Perry Barr; it wasn't possible to go direct from Hamstead to New Street on that left hand line.  (I would argue that you should move the station mark away from the branching point, in that case, and put it firmly on the Perry Barr line, but it is occasionally used by fast trains when engineering works close the Witton branch, so they're clearly hedging their bets).

The west side of the loop will have to wait for when I visit Walsall.  In the meantime... it's good to be back.

(Yes, I do need a haircut). 

Friday 25 October 2019

Up The Villa

I've been going to Birmingham a fair while now.  I've just about got to grips with New Street Station - although I have thoughts on it, to which I will one day devote an entire blog - and its many exits.  I know where Moor Street is in relation to New Street.  What I haven't quite grasped is the best way to get between the two.

At first, I walked on the pavement to get there.  This involved crossing the service entrance to some shops, cutting across a pedestrianised plaza, then taking a ramp down to the road across from the station.  It was a bit grim, and there were usually a couple of aggressive homeless people begging en route, so I switched to cutting through the Bullring shopping centre.

This had its own problems.  As a vast indoor shopping centre, they're very keen to get you in, but not so keen to let you out, so the building carries you along without really letting you know how to leave.  It doesn't help that the entrance from New Street is on the first floor, but the slope of the city centre means that the exit to Moor Street is on the level below.  I never know how close to get to Selfridges before leaving; is it before or after?

On this occasion, I picked the wrong door, and passed a Pizza Hut and a Handmade Burger Co. to end up at the foot of Selfridges' giant lumpy form, and across from the back of Moor Street's platforms.  The entrance to the station was quite a way away (so far, in fact, that they recently announced a new back entrance to be built in this exact spot) but luckily, I wasn't getting a train this time.  I was just using Moor Street as a landmark.  Where I was actually headed was HS2 town.

Behind Moor Street, long strips of hoardings seal off a vast stretch of the city centre as work proceeds on making a brand new high speed railway station.  Curzon Street will be the terminus of the first phase of HS2, from London to Birmingham, and the former Parcelforce depot on the site has been levelled while builders and engineers smash it into shape.  Everywhere I walked there were hard hatted men in high vis pointing and waving bits of paper about.

There was so much work going on, in fact, it boggled my mind that it is under the threat of cancellation.  If the government decides not to proceed with HS2 the diggers and trucks will quietly back off and leave a huge scar in the centre of the city - which presumably will be flogged off to property developers at dirt cheap rates to claw back some of the money spent.  Then in twenty years time the railway between London and Birmingham will be even more clogged than it is now, HS2 will be resurrected, and they'll realise there's nowhere to build a station any longer.

I skirted round the edge of the building site and into Eastside City Park, a wide expanse of grass and stone and a pleasing new open space for the city centre.  Overlooked by the now quaintly dated Millennium Point, it was intended to be at the heart of a whole new district, though the HS2 station has kind of knocked that redevelopment back for the time being.  None the less, a mass of blocky university buildings have been built along the northern edge.  It was a good place for a breather, and there were plenty of people about enjoying their morning, but it still felt a bit bland and corporate.  It had a slight whiff of Milton Keynes, rather than Britain's second biggest city.  Perhaps it's because of all those low slung buildings, rather than the skyscrapers you'd expect, perhaps its the black archways over the walkway that reminded me of the car parks on Midsummer Boulevard in MK, but it was all a little bit clean and scrubbed and bland.

More impressive was the remains of the original Curzon Street station.  Opened in 1838, the London to Birmingham railway terminated here, and the grand entrance building housed the original ticket offices, waiting rooms and refreshment spaces.  In 2019 it looks tiny; a cube with some columns.  It looks hopelessly inadequate for such an important service, and indeed, it quickly became overwhelmed.  New Street opened twenty years later, and almost all the passenger services were diverted there, with Curzon Street becoming a goods station instead before closing altogether in the sixties.

The plan is now to incorporate the Curzon Street building into the edge of the new station, a tiny piece of history clinging to the massive new expanse of railway lands.  It'll be little more than a monument, a kind of Grade 1 listed noticeboard to let you know where the station's back entrance is, but it's pleasing to think that two hundred years after it was built, it'll be used for London-Birmingham services again.  (I will be writing a letter of complaint to HS2 regarding its claim on the hoardings outside that this is the "world's first mainline passenger railway building"; the present building at Edge Hill isn't even the original for the Liverpool to Manchester railway, and it's still older than this one).  In the distance I could hear the grinding and churning of trains leaving New Street and heading east.

I wandered down and out of the park, among hordes of young happy students looking optimistic and bright, and hated them all.  How dare they make me look old and miserable.  At the far end I collided with the dual carriageway of the A4540, streams of traffic separating the shiny city centre from the inner city residences.  It was a stark and sudden change.  On one side, gleaming shiny modernism; on the other, low terraces and old pubs.

Nechells had been slums for decades until the city's authorities took the district in hand in the 1950s.  They levelled street after street and replaced them with tower blocks and modern flats, surrounding them with grass and playing fields and making a new, clean future.

Of course, you know how this turned out; the Council didn't care for the flats or their residents, the buildings rotted and decayed, and forty years later they started demolishing those slums and replacing them with new homes.  Some of them still cling on, but across the city they're being knocked down and replaced with three-bedroom homes on cul-de-sacs.  Living in the sky is reserved for the wealthy denizens of the apartment blocks sprouting inside the ring road.

I followed the Vauxhall Road, avoiding the heavy man in a heavy metal t-shirt who emptied the content of his nose onto the pavement, and ducking round the hijab-wearing mums who were chatting over the heads of their kids in the pushchairs.  There was the headquarters of the Fire Service, and a couple of schools, then a deserted shopping precinct with almost all its shutters down.  The only shops that were open were a Halal butcher and a newsagent; the only person I could see was a homeless man sat on the bench with his bin bag full of possessions.

High green fences surrounded the brightly coloured buildings of the Heartlands Academy.  It was lunchtime but I couldn't see any sign of the kids.  Are they even let out of the school at dinner now?  Is this one of those things that children are warned against, in case they fall prey to paedophiles or worse, a local chip shop, and make Jamie Oliver sad in the process?  I imagined that somewhere behind that fence they were being filed into the dining hall to be fed extremely healthy and nutritious food and they were hating every single mouthful.

Further up a mosque had taken over a building that I'm sure in a previous life would've been a pub; a two storey building at the base of some flats surrounded by tarmac.  They had a sign up appealing for funds for refurbishment, which made me imagine that they still hadn't got round to stripping out the interior, and they being were forced to pray under packets of Big D peanuts and posters for Heineken.  It's hard to be truly close to Allah when you bend down and get a whiff of fag ash wafting out of the carpet.   

Duddeston station brought with it a pleasing surprise: art.  The lift shaft was decorated with this figure, made out of holes punched into metal.  There were similar artworks mounted on the platform though I couldn't find anything to tell me who it was by or where it came from; I suspect that in the continual shuffle to rebrand everything from WMPTE to Centro to Network West Midlands to Transport for West Midlands the explanatory signs went missing and never reappeared.

I took my sign selfie - much to the amusement of a young girl who emerged from the station just as I was snapping away - then headed across the tiled floor and down to the single platform.

Things get a little bit confusing with the next train indicators at Duddeston.  All the trains that pass through here also pass through New Street, and the destination boards all mention this - Walsall via Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton via Birmingham New Street, and so on.  Thing is, Doddeston is the first station out of New Street if you're heading to Walsall, so it's a little jarring to see it still listed on the destination - especially on an island platform, where both trains indicators scroll via New Street next to one another even though they're patently going in different directions.  I mean, I've been on trains all over the place, and I still double checked against the timetable before I got on a train.

(Incidentally, as I was about to board, a man I'd seen milling about came up to me and asked if this was the New Street train.  I said no, that was the other platform, and he went away quite happily.  It was only as the train left the station that I realised that of the dozen or so people on the station, only me and him were white, and he hadn't asked any of the black or Asian men which platform he needed to use.  I don't think this was accidental).

The train wound its way from Duddeston, up and up, until it finally dropped us off at Aston on a viaduct.  I walked down the steps to the street, only pausing halfway to take the obligatory sign picture.

Aston, of course, means only one thing: Aston Villa.  Outside the station, purple banners guided the new arrivals towards the stadium.  Part of me wanted to head in the opposite direction, so that I could see Spaghetti Junction, but I decided to save that for when I collected Gravelly Hill, what with it being technically the Gravelly Hill Interchange.  Instead I turned up Grosvenor Road and passed under the first of many Match Day Parking Restrictions Are In Place signs. 

We're now going to have a brief foray into our regular series of Scott Talks A Load Of Old Bollocks About Football.  One of the interesting things about the West Midlands is that it's an absolutely massive region with half a dozen professional football teams and they're all a bit rubbish.  How do they manage that?  Liverpool and Manchester have two top flight teams, as does Glasgow.  Yet Walsall and Coventry City scrape around the bottom tiers while Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion are in the Championship.  Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers are both in the Premiership, but they're fairly recent arrivals, hovering in the middle of the table and acting as three point donation schemes for the bigger clubs.  And ok, two teams in the Premiership is pretty good, but they're not exactly legends are they?  I can't see there being many excitable Far Eastern supporters getting AVFC tattoo'd on their ankle the way they do for say, Manchester United.  They're dull and a bit laughable.

As far as I can see Aston Villa's main claim to fame is attracting bizarrely posh fans who don't have anything to do with the local area.  Princes William and Harry are fans, and according to my research, neither of them hail from the West Midlands, while David Cameron claimed to be a fan (though like a lot of the things that came out of his mouth, this was probably a massive lie).  What do Aston Villa have that other clubs don't?  Is liking a London club seen as a bit parochial and alienating to the plebs, while liking a Northern club would seem patronising, so they split the difference and plumped for one halfway?  Do they have extensive helicopter parking?  Do they serve swan pies?

(I'm sure I will get complaints on Twitter and in the comments from people telling me all the trophies the Brummie teams have won and how actually you'll find they're fine teams with a great history and I would like to say in advance: I don't care, football is rubbish, nyah nyah nyah).

There were more slum clearances with blocks of flats receding into the distance beyond acres of grass.  It's strange how all this open space doesn't feel welcoming; how all the trees around the flats didn't create a beautiful landscape.  Theoretically these miles of green should improve a district but instead they made it feel abandoned.  Each home, each building, became a landmark in a sea of grass, an island; crossing from one to another felt like a massive distance. 

The road passed under the A38(M) Aston Expressway, a particularly exciting road if you're a nerd like me.  It's a motorway-standard road that runs from Spaghetti Junction into the centre of Birmingham and it's made of seven lanes with no central reservation.  Normally it's three lanes in each direction, with an empty lane in the middle, but at peak times traffic is redirected and it becomes four lanes in one direction and two in the other (still with the empty lane separating them).  There's no other road like it in Britain.  I've only been on it once, about twenty years ago, and sadly it was in three and three mode; I'd love to go down it when it was four-two.

(Yeah, come at me football fans; your sport is shite and not as interesting as a motorway.  THERE I SAID IT).

I was now getting into proper Aston Villa territory, as the banners had stopped giving simple walking directions and had instead moved onto rousing slogans for the supporters: FIGHT LIKE LIONS and ROAR WITH US and variations thereof.  The road split around the Holte Hotel; while the left hand road looked like it had the more interesting sights, I took the right, because while I wanted to see Villa Park, I wasn't actually that interested.

I walked up a little further, then popped up to take a look at the front of the stadium, with Aston Villa spelt out in brick.  It was alright, I suppose; like all English football grounds, it was simultaneously impressively large and a little bit shit.  I like looking at big stadia purely as an architecture fan - they're huge lumps of building and should be appreciated.  Villa Park was like a lot of the historic teams' grounds, a mish-mash of Victoriana and clunky metal framework and services wedged wherever they could find a gap.  The stained glass windows were an unusual and slighty kitschy touch.

As is usual, I took a picture of the ground and texted it to the Liverpool supporting BF to see what his reaction was.  Usually it's something mature like "shithole" or "tin shed"; this time he replied "bring Jack Grealish back with you", so the actual football was clearly bottom of his priorities.  Which is another demonstration that Aston Villa aren't that important - he couldn't even get up the effort to insult them.

I passed under the overhanging terraces of the Doug Ellis Stand and past the car park and club shop, before crossing the road to reach Witton station.  Witton is closer to the stadium than Aston, though it obviously has the disadvantage of a name that's nothing to do with the football club; there have therefore been occasional proposals to rename it Villa Park, but these haven't come to anything yet.  I dodged round a group of Turkish women who were very angry about a text they'd received and were shouting at the phone and ended up under the railway bridge taking a selfie in front of a lot of people waiting for a bus.

Unsurprisingly, Witton was built for crowds.  Long ramps lead up to the tracks, while the platforms were notably clear of benches or flower pots or anything that could get ripped up and chucked after a five nil drubbing.  There was a waiting room that was open on match days only, and the platform signs had the Villa crest on them, but the sportiest part of the whole station was a pair of trainers abandoned on the tracks.  It was a station that came with its own boots.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

RIP Walrus: 2011-2019

Steve Rotherham, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, made an announcement today:

“Today I am announcing the start of a new era for smart travel for the Liverpool City Region. 
“Our city region already has more than 400,000 journeys per week on the Walrus card, the largest scheme outside London, but I’m not satisfied with being the best of the rest. 
“Right now, our ticket system overall is a confusing mix of prices and products, with the challenge put to the travelling public to find the cheapest price – if they can. We need to change this by making catching a bus or train as easy as possible and ensuring that passengers know they are not being ripped off. 
“The first step will be the phasing out of Walrus to be replaced with a new MetroCard, with the ability for tickets to be bought online, coming in the next few months."

Yep, the Walrus is dead.  And let's be honest, this was a mercy killing. 

Merseytravel's very own smart card, the Walrus, was announced to the public back in 2011.  This bit of plastic would take every form of ticket available - season, day, single journey.  It'd be smart and updateable.  It'd be valid on every form of transport across Merseyside.  By 2012 it'd be used by season ticket holders, and by 2013 it'd have pay as you go.  The future was coming.  I was so excited, I actually typed a blog post from an airport departure lounge on my phone; I really had to get down how keen I was for this to happen.

Time moved on, and the Walrus didn't appear.  And when I say time, I mean years.  It was late 2014 before they started creeping out, purely as a method for holding the Saveaway.  You couldn't load them online; you couldn't buy them in advance; there was no personal details held, so you couldn't check the usage.  It was a bit of plastic you handed over when you bought a Saveaway - and keep the receipt, because hardly anyone had a way of checking if it was valid.  And you had to go to a PayPoint shop to buy it, because the buses couldn't sell it, and Merseyrail were sticking with the paper form.

Slowly, over time, other products were added.  Some of the yearly travel passes, and then some of the monthly ones.  But it was still clunky and ineffective.  Meanwhile, other city regions introduced their own smart cards without hassle or problems.  On top of that, new technology swept in to overtake the idea of a plastic travel card.  My mum used her debit card on the tube when she was visiting my brother - no Oyster required.  I collected Manchester's tram stops almost entirely using my phone - an e-ticket on Northern from Liverpool, then a day ticket on the getmethere app.  The world was moving on and the Walrus looked dated. 

I'm not sure what the problem with Walrus was; I've heard rumours about in-house software, or the zones being difficult to programme.  All I know is that the decision to kill it should've happened about five years ago.  Scrap the work, go to London, and pay them for whatever they use for the Oyster.  Sorted.  The swiftness of the MetroCard's implementation - online testing before Christmas, with availability for the public in the New Year - makes me think this is exactly what's happened.  The MetroCard isn't as sexy a name as the Walrus, but if it works, who cares?  (It's better than getmethere, anyway).  With it comes a promise of online top ups, fare capping, and smooth movement between transport methods.  Admittedly, we had these promises back in 2011, but this time I actually believe it might happen.  And about time too.

Goodbye Walrus.  We hardly knew ye.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

A Tale of Two Cities (Abridged)

Hereford and Worcester will always be linked in my brain.  The ancient counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire were abolished in 1974 as part of the massive Local Government reforms that also created the Metropolitan Counties and the likes of Cumbria and Avon.  At first, the proposed county was called Malvernshire; that was widely disliked, so they had a try at Wyvernshire (from the river Wye in Hereford and the river Severn in Worcester), but everyone hated that as well, so the county ended up being called Hereford & Worcester.

That was the county name I learned at school, colouring it in on the map in my exercise book, and that's what still sounds right to me.  It was colossally unpopular though.  Herefordshire was big, but it only had about a third of the population of Worcestershire, so the residents thought they were being taken over.  Nobody was ever very keen and finally in 1998 it was abolished and the two old counties made their way back into existence.  Hereford & Worcester clings on in the name of the BBC radio station and the fire service and the minds of Gen Xers like me who think Herefordshire sounds weird.

I'd been staying in a Travelodge in Hereford for three nights but I'd held off exploring the city until Sunday, planning on doing it as a double bill with Worcester.  Unfortunately my body had different ideas.  I had a bit of a sore throat on Saturday night, which made me cough during the night, which gave me a headache, which were joined by a runny nose, which meant by Sunday morning I was feeling rough.  Really rough.  I had a cold.

I know there are women reading this (I assume there are a couple of you) and rolling your eyes.  "We BLEED every month!  We force human beings out of bits of us that are clearly too small for the job!  You men don't know suffering!"  And you're absolutely right: I don't know what that level of regular, persistent unpleasantness is like.  I can only compare it with how I usually feel, and I usually feel fairly chipper and upbeat, and this cold made me feel awful.  I wanted to stay in bed where it was warm and not do anything.

But I had already paid for the ticket, and I knew that if I didn't get out to Worcester and have a bit of a look round Hereford, I'd regret it.  So instead of a full, long day of considered exploration of the two cities, I had to do the quick version.  Walk round them, go to the stations, walk back.  Sorry but be glad you got anything.

It was barely past eight on a Sunday morning when I emerged from the underpass under the ring road into the pedestrianised centre of Hereford.  There was a strip of Polish shops here, their windows promising unusual food in laser printed full colour, and then a church with a coffee shop where you were encouraged to "do good with your coffee".  Everything was silent.  Sunday morning is quiet for any town but it seemed even more so in Hereford.

Broad Street offered grand buildings interspersed with churches and more modern mistakes and then I was in the Cathedral close.  It was too early for worshippers so I had the building to myself.  I stood for a moment, looking up at the tower in the sun, then I let out a big ugly sneeze.  I moved on.

I'll be honest: Hereford hadn't impressed me in my few days here.  I could see it had its charms.  There had been a well-attended market the day before, and there were certainly some very pretty buildings.  But something about the place was tired and lost.  I felt like it was the kind of city people couldn't wait to leave.  I'd seen a lot of teenagers about over the past few days, hanging outside the McDonalds, bored, and I imagined that was a way of life for a lot of them.  Just waiting.

There was a plaque on the wall of one of the buildings commemorating the birthplace of Richard Kemble, theatre manager and his children John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons.  Interestingly, while the professions of the men were left a mystery, Sarah Siddons had (The Actress) after her name, in case you got her confused with Sarah Siddons (The Waitress) or Sarah Siddons (The Dental Hygienist).  It was even more jarring given that Sarah Siddons is easily the most famous of the three, and probably the only one an average person could name.  (Although I just asked the BF if he'd heard of any of them, and the only one he knew was Richard Kemble, until he realised he was thinking of the bloke out of The Fugitive, so maybe none of them are that big a deal any more).

I ended up back on the main street, with a huge statue of a Hereford bull at its centre.  The shops were suffering the same problem all cities have now; fewer and fewer people were visiting.  There were a lot of empty spaces, and building work to convert vacant upstairs floors into flats.

I had a sausage and egg McMuffin in McDonalds, the only place open at this time of day, and watched a volunteer with a lanyard bring in a couple of homeless men and buy them breakfast.  I sucked down the ridiculously awful coffee - McDonalds coffee is concentrated caffeine with no regard to taste - and then used the buzz from it to propel me onto the next stage of my walk.

I'd reached the other side of the ring road, where the Franklin Barnes building offered a nice bit of 1960s modernism.  That great font, and the iron artwork!  Sadly, the building seemed to be barely used these days - it was built as a garden centre but they're long gone - and I suspect it won't be around for much longer.

I had good reason to fear Hereford doing the wrong thing by the Franklin Barnes building, because for the last few days I'd got to see what they'd done to the station.

It's a fine Victorian pile that's sadly underused today.  The ticket office is small and cramped, while most of the building is inaccessible to the public.  The real problem is just outside it.  In the sixties and seventies, well-meaning civic planners drove ring roads through swathes of British towns and cities as the car was the future.  In a lot of cases, these ring roads tended to follow the railway at least in part - it was often a bit of town that was run down, or filled with cheap industrial units, while the tracks formed a natural border the road could ape.  It also saved on expensive bridges over the tracks for the new road.  What tended to happen, though, was the station ended up on the wrong side of the bypass.

This didn't matter to the planners in those days because hey, railways were the old way, and this was the groovy twentieth century where everyone would have a car and possibly a jet pack.  It put the station outside the city.  Obviously, this turned out to be a mistake, as trains continued to be successful and popular and weirdly getting new visitors to your city to drag their suitcases through underpasses or over footbridges was colossally unpopular.  Town planners have spent the last few decades unpicking this mistake, calming the roads outside stations, and making it an open, welcoming gateway.  Coventry, for example, has removed a junction of its ring road by its transport hub and turned the reclaimed space into parkland. 

Hereford's ring road is tight to the medieval centre; you have another half a mile to walk to get to the station.  None the less, the present day planners have learned absolutely nothing from the past, and have sent a brand new road right in front of the station.  Named the "Hereford City Link Road", because they couldn't even be bothered trying to make it interesting, a dual carriageway smashing its way past the railway station and connecting two main roads out of the city was opened in 2017.

The railway station is just off camera there, to the right.  In front of it is a forecourt of parking, then four lanes of traffic.  It's bare, blasted land.  The flythroughs before it opened showed an avenue flanked with trees; none of them seem to have showed up.  Signs offering "prime development sites" sit on the corner of rubble and concrete.  And pedestrians are left hanging at a crossing that doesn't seem to prioritise them in the slightest.  I passed through this junction half a dozen times over the course of my stay and every single time one or two people gave up waiting for the green man and hurled themselves across the road.  If people are wondering if the puffin crossing is working because they've seen nothing but a stream of traffic in every direction, you've done it wrong.

Maybe in a few years time it'll all look a lot better.  Those development sites will be filled; the kinks will be worked out.  I'm not holding my breath.  Every time I stepped out of the station I was struck again by how awful and unwelcoming it all was.

Look at me manfully persisting even though I'm suffering.  What a hero.

I boarded the West Midlands Railway train to Worcester.  The Ashes were on at Edgbaston, so the train was filled with people in straw hats carrying picnic baskets.  (A couple of days before the guard had warned: "This train is going to get really busy after Worcester, so if you need to use the toilets, do it now.")  I was able to get a seat and I sat down for the surprisingly long journey to Worcester, hoping nobody would sit next to me and have to suffer my spluttering.

Worcester immediately marked itself out as - well, if not a party town, certainly one that was a lot more fun.  I went down the steps from the platform behind a gang of twentysomethings, good looking and well dressed, clearly about to have a ball of a day in the city.  I trudged behind them into the ticket hall, tucked under the railway arches, then out onto the street for the sign pic.

Foregate Street is wedged beneath the bridge carrying the railway through the city, with the beautifully decorated ironwork immediately something of a landmark.  There's something so much more vibrant and exciting about a station that's right at the heart of the city, spilling its passengers out onto a main thoroughfare.  Take note Hereford.

I walked through the city centre, a long strip of chain stores interspersed with restaurants and bars.  By now it was nearly eleven am and the shoppers were out, thronging the pathways, and enjoying the sun.  Outside the Carphone Warehouse, a man was trying to train his Golden Retriever to run in and out of the bollards.  I thought at first he was doing it to busk, but there was no hat out, and the dog was so daffily useless it seemed to be a work in progress.  The owner was good-natured and happy though, laughing as he called the dog back when it wandered off somewhere more interesting, and passers-by stopped to smile.

I passed the gleaming gilt of the Guildhall and headed towards Cathedral Square, a new development at the foot of the hill.  Galleries of chain restaurants - All Bar One, Starbucks, Ask, a "coming soon" Five Guys had been wedged in around an open plaza backing onto an older precinct.  There were already people sat at the outdoor tables.  It felt light and pleasant.

Also here was a statue of composer and local lad Edward Elgar.  I'd seen his handprints throughout my travels, with his name popping up in businesses and streets and footpaths.  He was born outside Worcester, in Broadheath, and his father ran a music shop close by.  He lived in the county on and off throughout his life, returning here to retire and finally being buried alongside his wife in Little Malvern.  (I was surprised to read of the wife, to be honest, but then I realised I had Edward Elgar mixed up with notorious homosexual Benjamin Britten.  I almost outed Elgar without any just cause).

I headed past the cathedral, in mid-service, and down a side street where a blue plaque commemorated Elgar's former home (now a hotel).  It was a narrow cobbled street that lead to the rear of the cathedral grounds.  Under an archway and found myself on a quiet college green.  There was scaffolding over the back of the cathedral, and it struck me how much work is always needed for a building of that vintage.  Unless it's just a big scam by the Church of England and they pay builders to do nothing on religious buildings all the time to raise funds.

A set of steps beneath a building so comically picturesque it could easily have been shipped in from Disneyland...

...emptied me out onto the riverside.  The path was busy with strollers and joggers, families and couples, people taking in the gentle breeze of the water that cooled the hot August air.

Swans were scatttered across the Severn, and here and there I heard the chink of glasses from pub terraces.  I followed the path south, away from the city centre, towards the old port area.  The prow of the King's School boathouse jutted out over my head.  The quality of architecture made me think the King's School probably wasn't the local comp.

At the end of the path, a lock emptied the Worcester and Birmingham Canal into the river Severn.  If I'd followed that towpath I could've walked all the way to the Gas Street Basin, right at the heart of Birmingham; as it was, I wandered into a small canal basin made upmarket with apartments and bars.

There were pretty houseboats moored by the path, covered in flowers and plants, though a sign warned me that these were Private moorings - for your own safety keep off, which seemed to hint the boat owners were waiting in the dark with a shotgun ready to blow away trespassers.  There was another sign, warning me about Operation Leviathan, a task force stopping illegal fishing, and I wondered why the policemen responsible for coming up with operation names didn't just write the hard-hitting thriller their ridiculously over the top titles hinted they were dying to put together.

There was a sponsored walk going down the towpath that day, with signs everywhere, and when a phalanx of fast-paced pensioners appeared wearing tracksuits behind me, I decided to leave them to it and clambered back up to street level.  I was in a less-pretty area of town, where the ring road was being dug up even on a weekend, and a Nandos and cinema had been built in fake brickwork, but soon after that I'd stumbled into another pretty street.

It was all so relentlessly charming and lovely I had to take a breather.  Fortunately, at a crossroads, the brown-tiled Eagle Vaults pub called out to me.  I got a pint of Wainwright and settled into a quiet banquette.

It was barely twelve, so maybe a little early for booze, but I deserved it.  I was aching all over from the walking and my head was throbbing.  And where better to stop and pause than a proper old boozer with a silent telly and a tired old dog who gracefully took any affectionate pat you pointed his way.

A little light-headed - turns out bitter and Lemsip aren't equally valid treatments for a cold; who knew? - I tottered out of the pub, across the ring road, and onto George Street to head for Shrub Hill station.  There was a brief moment of drama where I was almost killed by a cyclist; he was in the wrong lane, travelling against the direction of traffic, through a red light, while I crossed on a green man.  I almost wish I'd been mortally wounded because he'd have got the book thrown at him.  Beyond it was a long strip of retail park.  In all the fuss about the death of the British High Street, it's interesting that the retail park is dying too and nobody cares.  They used to be a strip of big names in big stores but so many of them have gone bust or downhill that they end up being a row of B&M, Home and Bargains and the vacant shell of a Staples.  Given the body blow out of town developments gave to city centres it's poetic justice of sorts.  At this one, a Majestic Wine Warehouse hinted at better times, but they're a brand on its knees as well so it'll probably be a Matalan by Christmas.

Over the canal, round the corner, and I spotted the sign for Shrub Hill in the distance.  There was an ugly block of offices, bland and brutal, its roof crowned with mobile phone masts.  Someone had given it the name Elgar House, presumably in a fit of irony.  Across the way, the Great Western pub hinted at an old world of railway hotels.  I paused, took the sign picture, then got a shock.

Shrub Hill station opened in 1865 and it still retains its original building, with a loop of road heading up to the porte-cochère entrance.  But the city has chosen to cover it up with bad developments and grime.

Leaving aside Elgar House muscling in on the right and destroying the view of the building, that is a deeply unimpressive vista.  A car park.  Industrial units.  The building deserves so much more.  Imagine if that loop of road was instead filled with a public open space, fountains, benches.  A grand staircase leading down from the station entrance.  It could be so much more, a much greater welcome to Worcester.

Admittedly, Foregate Street is better located for the town, but it's also hemmed in on all sides.  This could be a great gateway to the city with taxi ranks, buses, and it could drive the regeneration of what's a grimy quarter.

Shrub Hill's on a triangle, heading towards Paddington, so the Hereford-Birmingham services often skip it altogether.  As I arrived on the platform though, a West Midlands Railway train was just pulling in, so I hastily leapt aboard.  It meant I had to skip the listed waiting room but I needed to get that train.

What I didn't realise was that it was going to reverse, so I was sat on there for a good few minutes before the train took off again.  Still, it was good to have a sit down before my final walk through Hereford.

When it opened, Hereford station was known as Hereford Barrs Court.  This was because there was already a much smaller station to the west of the city centre called Hereford Barton.  Barrs Court was much better placed for railway services so it quickly outpaced its rival.  Barton was demolished before the century was out, though the line was retained for goods and avoiding services for another eighty years before finally closing in 1979.  That route is now preserved as a walking and cycle path, while the goods yard was turned into a Sainsbury's supermarket and a Travelodge.  My Travelodge.  I thought it'd be an interesting way to finish the day by following at least a little of the old railway line.

I walked south, through the back roads, until I reached the long sweep of grass that was the Castle Green and a footbridge across the Wye, the Victoria Bridge.  Another cyclist tried to run me over, even though there were clear signs instructing him to dismount, but I managed to avoid this two-wheeled vendetta and walked across to the Bishop's Meadow.

Hereford was at play.  The grass was covered with families, couples, football games and children playing.  There was a buzz of laughter and joy.  As I walked the riverside path I was joined by dog walkers and hikers.

Water gives everything a sheen of glamour.  From the bank of the Wye the city suddenly became romantic.  The cathedral dominating.  Although let's be honest; if you're at your best seen from a distance...

The path rose to road level as I crossed the foot of the ancient Wye Bridge, now superseded by a concrete 20th century construction, then I was back on the slightly scrappier end of the river walk.  It was a bit rougher here, more unkempt, and the views weren't quite as pretty.  In the distance the ironwork of the Hunderton Bridge, which once carried the railway, slid into vision.

I went up to the bridge.  For a hundred years this carried rail traffic, but now it's utterly peaceful, the loudest noise being the whizz of bike wheels or the crunch of footsteps.  I was feeling absolutely exhausted by this point, but there was still that familiar thrill of walking where trains once went.

The route went round the side of the supermarket and ended up in the car park.  The only hint of its former importance is a building on the far side which housed the Great Western Railway Staff Association; a social club for rail workers that still operated today.

I went into Sainsbury's and stocked up on essentials - by which I mean cold and flu remedies.  Then I staggered the last few metres, past the Cider Museum (closed on a Sunday, because obviously who would want to visit a leisure attraction at the weekend?) and into the bland yet comforting surroundings of my hotel room.  It hadn't been made up but I didn't care.  The Do Not Disturb went on the door and I collapsed onto the bed, feeling terrible, and yet, satisfied.  The Hereford End was complete.