Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Slightly Off

Have you ever been hammering a nail into wood and it's gone wonky?  You've not done anything different, nothing deliberate, but whack!  That crack of the hammer has sent the nail off at an angle.  It's still a nail in a gap, so it's useful, but it's wrong.  It's off somehow.  The other nail heads sit flat and smooth in the wood but that one, single, slightly off bash has left a crooked head that sits awkwardly.  It does the job, but wrong.

Sometimes your days are like that.  Nothing is actually wrong, nothing is actually bad, but something goes off at a slight angle and the rest of the day follows.  You're working at less than capacity, and you know it, and you can't stop it.

Somewhere around Stafford station I realised that I wasn't operating right.  My brain was filled with negativity and misery and I couldn't quite purge it.  I'd missed my scheduled train from Lime Street - no real bother, as there was another half an hour later - but it put me sideways.  I wasn't in the timeline I wanted.  While at Stafford station I tweeted something, and I was ever so politely upbraided for it: justified, well put, and therefore deadly.  Random trolling I could dismiss, but a proper, well thought out response?  Well that person was just being intelligent and reasonable, and there was no way to argue with that.


It meant that I arrived at my first station full of self-loathing, out of sorts, off centre.  I didn't arrive at Rugeley Trent Valley thinking I was entering the promised land.  The station did nothing to help itself.  I stepped off the train and enjoyed a strong whiff of manure - "good country air", as my mum always used to call it when we encountered it in the wilds of Hertfordshire.  There were three platforms, one for the local services and two through platforms, plus a station building rendered useless by track removal.  Now it was removed from railway business, pressganged into being an HQ for industry, and the station's facilities were reduced to a couple of ticket machines and a car park.


"Health & Schools not HS2" is one of those arguments that really annoys me because you can't argue back.  Nobody, anywhere, can argue against money for the NHS and money for education.  Any reasonable human being knows that those should be financial priorities.  What annoys me is the idea that there is a binary choice, that there is only 50p available and you can either spend it on ickle cutie orphans or a big shiny train for rich people.  That's not how governments work.  Governments can spend money on more than one thing at a time, and if they haven't got enough money, they can raise it to ensure the priorities have funding.  It's not either/or, it's about budgeting and spending and income, but somewhere along the line the powers that be have convinced us that there is only a load of coppers and a button left in the treasury and so we need to spend this precious resource wisely.  It's not true at all.  Spending money on health and schools is an absolutely fantastic idea.  I support it wholeheartedly.  I think we should spend money on HS2 as well, and if there's not enough money in the treasury to pay for it, well, there's a lot of rich people who could donate a million or two they wouldn't notice to Her Majesty's Government.  Pitting interested parties against one another turns the UK into a kind of island thunderdome, and to be honest, I'm already terrified by the prospect of that once there's a No Deal and we leave the EU and I have to murder my neighbours for a tin of Spam.


On the plus side, I collected another station, but I wasn't especially happy about it.

I walked under the railway bridge, past the industrial estate, and over the river where I got a clear view of the decommissioned power station.  It wasn't exactly verdant fields of bounteous beauty, let's be honest.


Rugeley is a small market town right at the edge of the West Midlands.  Technically it's Staffordshire, but there's a direct rail line into Birmingham and the accents I heard had the thick twang of Brum, so I'm claiming it for the metropolis rather than the shires.  I crossed the Trent and Mersey Canal and turned into town by a Catholic church; there was a working men's club with a big banner advertising an appearance by "Kazabian" that weekend.  On the A4 poster underneath, someone had misspelt the name of the tribute band as "Kasabian", which I'm sure was a perfectly innocent mistake and they'd be happy to refund anyone taken in by the error.

It was wet and it was grey and it was cold.  It was January, basically.  No-one had told the town council though, who were persisting with festive joy by leaving the Christmas lights up way past Twelfth Night.  Even I'd taken my decorations down by that point, and I once left my tree up until Easter.


It contributed to Rugeley's unloved, unkempt feeling.  I walked through the pedestrianised centre amidst the pound shops and the charity shops - there were hardly any High Street names.  In the market square, under the clock, a few stalls were out selling the usual tacky merchandise.  You hear a lot of talk about bringing the European style of shopping over to the UK, having sunlit markets filled with glorious merchandise, fruits and veg bursting with colour and vitamins.  It'll take a lot to overcome the typical British market which consists of multiple configurations of the following:

(a) a stall selling "Ex-Catalogue" clothes ("catalogue" will be spelt wrong)
(b) a stall selling CDs by absolutely nobody you've ever heard of, all of which have a sleeve either depicting a man with Brylcreamed hair holding a trumpet or two men with beards in comfy sweaters in a field;
(c) a stall with toys on blister packs that will explode into a thousand pieces and choke the dog after the first play
(d) a stall with an array of batteries, lighters and air freshners, all being sold in multiples at suspiciously low prices

You could cruise the market for half an hour before you found anyone selling produce.  That's usually because they've relocated to the indoor market, which is all of the above, but it smells of haddock.


Perhaps one day we'll rediscover our love for buying our apples from a burly man with tattoo'd knuckles who wants to bring back National Service and puts everything in pounds and ounces because he refuses to let those Eurocrats tell him what to do.  Until that day, I'll scoot past them in search of a supermarket that has a Council hygiene rating on the door.


On the far end of the centre, the bit with the kebab shops, the "To Let" signs were more frequent; the Rugeley Cake Emporium had a Closing Down Sale rendered in WordArt.  I ended up by a large roundabout which doubled as a memorial to the town's colliery workers.  It consisted of four life-size figures staring impassively out at the passing cars, and perhaps it's my homosexual bias, but there was more than a whiff of the Village People about them.  Very Macho Men.


Out of town now, past rows of council homes and a primary school and another working men's club.  I cut across the car park of a medical centre and found my second station of the day: Rugeley Town.


I'd intended buying my ticket here, to take me down the line: Network West Midlands' Daytripper, their equivalent of a travel card.  But Rugeley Town didn't have a ticket office.  I found a machine, but that could only sell end-to-end tickets, not day rangers.  Grumbling to myself, I bought a single to the next stop, Hednesford, and hoped that it would at least get checked to justify the money.  It didn't.


There was a significant gap between the two stations, and I looked out of the train window at snow dusted countryside.  It was thick and rough.  I was passing through Cannock Chase, an area I'd heard of but didn't know anything about.  There were heavy copses and sudden, steep hills, then we were behind a huge Tesco and pulling in at Hednesford station.


Beeching (spit) closed the passenger line between Walsall and Rugeley in 1965.  The stations were demolished and the towns were left without a service.  The power station, however, meant that the line was still needed for freight, meaning that all the small towns along the route got to watch trains go by without getting to use them.  The Chase Line was finally reopened between Walsall and Hednesford in 1989, with extensions to Rugeley Town in 1997 and Rugeley Trent Valley in 1998, but what a waste of time and money there was in the meantime.  Twenty four years of economic advantage thrown away and then, years later, a load of money having to be spent restoring facilities that had previously been needlessly demolished.


I passed on the delights of the Station Cafe, whose laser printed sign showed pictures of its offerings (QUICHE CHIPS AND SALAD, CURRY RICE AND CHIPS and, most tempting of all, BEEF DINNER) and instead wandered onto the main street.  It was smaller and quieter than Rugeley, more like a suburban parade, but it came with one strange and mystifying bonus: it smelt of Golden Virginia tobacco.  I thought at first there must've been a passer by smoking it, but as I walked down the street, it got stronger, hanging in the air.  Strange, but at the same time, comforting.  My granddad gave up smoking in the 80s, but before that, he smoked Golden Virginia, pulling the brown fibres out of a tin.  It's an incredibly evocative smell - the smell of childhood, of his big old house with the fireplace and the stout table, the smell of comfort.  He died a couple of years ago but it's still completely him.


I'd passed through the town before I knew it.  Rather than simply head for the next station, I'd decided on a little detour, and I turned north.  I'd spotted the Museum of Cannock Chase on the map, and I thought that might be an interesting diversion and a way of learning exactly what it was.  I was en-route when I spotted an impressive set of gates and I knew I had to make a detour.


The Hednesford War Memorial is both simple and impressive.  A set of steps rise up the side of the hill, climaxing in a simple post that looks out over the town.  It was beautifully laid out.  I climbed slowly - they were a little icy - my eye always drawn to the memorial at the top.


There were, of course, far too many names: First World War, Second, Korea, and even a single casualty marked Northern Ireland.  Thankfully there was nothing more recent, though I have seen names for Afghanistan and Iraq elsewhere in the country.  It was, however, a lovely spot.  The trees had grown around it, so it couldn't really be seen from the town any more, but looking back down the walk I got a great view of the town they'd died to protect.


Back at the base I swerved off the road and into the countryside.  The ground was frosted and crunchy beneath my boots.  It was a track between bare branches, brown and dead.  Silent.  It gave me time to think, which is never a good thing.  When I'm alone with my thoughts is when the dark ones slip in.  I need to be distracted.


I almost fell out of the undergrowth onto the road by the museum.  It was a dinky little building.  As I arrived a party of primary school children filed out, noisy and excited, and crossed to the "Craft Demonstration Building" over the way.  It was built on the site of the Valley Colliery; as an awful Southerner, I'm always surprised there were coal fields this far south.  Mining to me happened in (a) Yorkshire and (b) South Wales, and it's weird to think of polite Staffordshire being torn open to access the black seams.


The story of the area's mining history understandably dominated the museum.  Before the industries came, Cannock Chase was heathland and forests, first as a Royal hunting ground, then owned by monasteries, until the dissolution saw the land handed over to the gentry.  That was when the thick woodland started to be cut down for iron smelting and coal mining, and towns began to grown around the edges to feed it with workers. 

Now the industry has pretty much gone, and what's left is managed by the county council as Britain's smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  Wildlife has been allowed to reclaim the land while the forests are managed.  They're encouraging more heathland too, reintroducing plants that were dug up decades ago, while at the same time trying to cope with visitors and outdoor adventurers.

It was a neat, compact little museum, filled with all the stuff you get in regional history buildings - old bottles, programmes from football matches, black and white photos of people stood in front of factories in their best hats.  At the back was a little temporary exhibition place where an artist was showing her black and white drawings of wildlife and people associated with conservation.  It was not bad stuff, although I was put off by the presence of Ricky Gervais in amongst your Jane Goodalls and David Attenboroughs; banging on about how gross it is that Korean people eat dogs doesn't make you the new Terry Nutkins. 

I'll be honest - after fifteen minutes I felt like I'd "done" the Museum of Cannock Chase, even though there was a gallery upstairs I hadn't visited.  I used the loo then walked back into Hednesford across the park, with a frosty bowling green and tree stumps carved into animal shapes.  The view was utterly dominated by a vast Tesco built on top of a car park.  It was a huge, grey lump, ugly and inconsiderate to the town, and it caught your eye everywhere you looked.


I actually wanted to buy a bottle of water and a sarnie, but the Tesco was so offensive to me I wandered back to the station and used a Co-op instead.  That decision bit me on the backside as the woman behind the counter was chatty.  I'm bad with chatty shop workers at the best of times - I didn't have time to prepare for a social interaction, I just wanted a chicken Caesar wrap - but she also had an incredibly thick Brummie accent and I honestly couldn't quite understand her.  I ended up just nodding and smiling and wishing she'd scan it all a lot faster.  I will have to train myself up to understand it.  I can't spend the rest of this map wandering around like Helen Keller. 


I headed south, out of town on the Cannock Road, past a swathe of new developments.  Have you noticed that houses now share an awful lot of facilities they never used to?  The front gardens all run into one another, just one length of lawn, and the driveways will be communal.  They'll merge into one another.  Not just the old semi/terrace divisions of old, but blocks, with doors on the side, taking you round the corner to another set of homes.  They're tiny and on top of one another and still too expensive. 

Hednesford drifted into Cannock; there was a sign at the border, but it was thick with green mould and you couldn't see the town name.  Council houses cascaded down the hill and the noise of primary school children in the playground bounced into the air. 


Chadsmoor smelt of chips.  Its strip of takeaways were chucking fried potato at builders and plumbers, though the Indian takeaways were saving themselves for the evening trade.  There was a poster on a phone box for a wrestling match featuring someone called Scrubber Daly, which sounds like a really hard working prostitute to me, and a bulky baptist church.


There was nothing to inspire me.  A mean strip of traffic lined with tiny terraces, their rendering cracked, occasionally punctuated by stone cladding.  I dodged dog turds and dashed from one pavement to another where there were gaps.  Even when the homes got bigger, rising up the social class, they still looked unfriendly; homes that would put Hawkers are not welcome stickers in their front window and tut if you tried to do a three point turn using their drive.  They seemed defensive.


The edge of the town centre brought a fire station and a lawnmower repair shop that looked like it had been there since about 1956, and then I was descending down to the edge of the ring road.


I'm sorry, Cannock.  As I say, I was depressed.  But I took one look at that view - a dual carriageway, a McDonalds, the back of a B&M, with just an ugly multi-storey rising up on the horizon - and I thought nope.  I didn't want to go there.  I wanted to go home.  I turned away and walked out of the centre to the railway station.


I walked up the embankment from the street, up the ramp to the elevated platform, and only then did I discover that not only was there no ticket office here either, but the single machine was on the opposite platform.  A sign telling me that might have been nice.  Stuff it, I thought.  I would travel back to Rugeley Trent Valley ticketless, or at least buy one from the guard on the train when she did an inspection.  (As it turned out she didn't, so I travelled for nothing.  Sorry.  But to be fair, Network Rail has got an awful lot of money out of me over the years, and it's their own fault for not letting me buy a Daytripper back when I wanted to).  I waited for my train north again, avoiding my fellow passenger and her friend who were extremely "refreshed" at one o'clock in the afternoon, and hoping that my brain would sort itself out before I reached Lime Street.