Friday 22 February 2019


We're all friends here, so I feel like I can confess something to you without you judging me too harshly.  Just outside Wolverhampton there's a storage yard for BOC, the chemical and gas company.  There's rack after rack of gas cylinders and I would dearly love to let off a firework in the middle of them and watch them explode.  One after the other, balls of bright flame bouncing off one another, triggering detonation after detonation.  Is that wrong?  Should I be worried?  Am I a pyromaniac?  It goes through my head every time I pass it, the image of that yard exploding over and over.  I'd never do it of course, but if someone else did, I'd absolutely pull up a chair.

Let's move onto something a little more wholesome - railway stations.  My first port of call was Smethwick Galton Bridge.  It's a relatively new arrival, opening in 1995 at the crossover point between the Birmingham-Wolverhampton and Birmingham-Worcester lines.  Previously there was a station serving just one line, Smethwick West, but now you got a handy interchange. 

It's an incredibly 1990s building too, looking a bit like a Tesco superstore that's been broken into pieces and scattered across the railway lines.  There are lift shafts and stairwells everywhere, connecting the four separate platforms and allowing movement between each one.  Pleasingly, I used three of the platforms during the course of the day; my completist brain demands that I go back and use the fourth one at some point.

Outside you're emptied onto a dual carriageway with a bus stop wedged in behind the safety fence.  So much of the West Midlands is spent crossing dual carriageways.  I avoided the stare of the man from Network Rail and took my sign selfie.

There was a pleasing surprise there, too.  Back when I visited Olton, I was surprised to find its travel information board topped by a statue of a silver knight.  Reader Jack Kirby intervened in the comments to tell me that it was part of a Centro scheme called Linkspots providing a piece of public art at stations.  It turns out Smethwick Galton Bridge has one too, which means I have a new tag for the list, and a new quest to find them all. 

The Linkspot, and the name of the station itself, commemorate the adjacent Galton Bridge.  When it opened in 1829 it was the largest single span bridge in the world, another of those Thomas Telford constructions he seemed to churn out without a second thought.  Obviously I had to make a diversion to have a look.

Its age and importance - the bridge is Grade 1 listed - means it's no longer used for traffic, with cars diverted to the adjacent Telford Way.  Galton Bridge is now a canal crossing just for pedestrians and cyclists. 

Of course, the problem with bridges is they're best viewed from elsewhere, rather than when you're on top of them.  I'd tried to get a shot of the bridge from the station but hadn't found a good enough viewpoint.  I walked across 190 years of history, got to the scrapyard on the other side, then turned round and went back again.

Across the main road then down a back street, marked by an apartment block at its head.  It was clearly new with silver-grey cladding and stubby trees yet to grow in, but while it looked gleaming and modern, it also looked impermanent.  Across the way a Festival of Britain-era block of flats looked far more solid and confident.  I bet that'll still be there in fifty years time, while the newer block will have been replaced by an even larger bulk.

At the top of the road a medical centre was being demolished and the foreman called over one of his workers.  Not for work purposes, but because there was a visitor, a scraggly, dirty looking man with wild eyes.  He unveiled his prize - a bottle of expensive looking alcohol.

"Bit early for whiskey," joked the younger man.

The vendor wasn't in the mood for jokes.  "Fiver," he demanded.  Cash for his contraband.  The builder's mate headed to his van for his wallet, and I crossed the street.

It was a long curving avenue, a row of semis opposite a school and a recreation ground.  But there was something dispiriting about it.  Almost every garden was paved over to provide parking.  Shonky pink slabs that didn't match the house behind.  A path peppered with dog turds.  It was half term, but the recreation ground was completely deserted; the only life on the football pitches were hordes of seagulls.  It felt grey.

There was something about the way the houses had been fiddled with too, a cheapness, a lack of care.  Extensions were blocky, porch roofs oversized.  There was an overabundance of plastic columns; white PVC and ridged to add a touch of undeserved grandeur.  They were tacky.  Some of the houses still had gardens and all their original features, and almost every single one of them had a council-installed handrail on the entrance to the front door.  A few more years and they'd have been sold and their hedges and silver birch trees would be torn up to provide room for the Vauxhall.

At the bottom of the hill. a shopping parade of sorts: vapes, a Londis, a central heating firm.  Always OPEN for food and drink lied the sign on the door of the shuttered Merrivale pub.  Beyond that was a community centre with boarded up windows, a snooker hall called Hotsho (the t and s were long gone) then the hulk of abandoned factories by the level crossing.

Langley Green station was accessed via a long path down the side of the railway tracks.  I trekked along it to the platform, too early for my train of course.  There wasn't a proper sign. 

I was about to disappointedly take a picture of the platform sign when I spotted a totem way across on the other side of the tracks.  It was quite handy, actually, as it meant I got a look at the station building.  Another 90s building, it was pleasing enough.  It had a clock tower at least which I always like.

Inlaid in the gable end was the logo of Centro, once the brand for the Midlands' transport services until it changed to Network West Midlands.  It's now Transport for West Midlands, proving the people who most profit from local government reorganisations are brand consultants.  The last one hasn't quite been rolled out across the region yet; I spotted its distinctive diamond design on a few bus flags, but it was mostly the lower case n of the previous design still hanging in there.  It definitely hasn't filtered down to the stations yet.  As with Transport for Greater Manchester, I suspect making their shiny trams look properly corporate is the priority, with manky old trains very far down the list.

I left the station and headed up to the railway bridge for the sign.  It was in entirely the wrong place.  There was no entrance nearby, no footpath - it seemed to have been picked simply because it was the highest point. 

As you can see, it was a little windy up there.

I returned to the platform and ate my chicken Caesar wrap while I waited for my train to turn up.  The next station was Rowley Regis, which sounded promising.  I mean, Regis.  A royal station!  How exciting!

It was not exciting.

Rowley Regis station's platform shelters make it look like a Texaco garage.  Still decorated in the London Midland black and green - presumably because all that steel will be a bugger to repaint - it was headed by one of the more perfunctory station buildings I'd seen.  A squat brick box straddled the bridge.

The most regal part of Rowley Regis were the gates to the northbound platform which were covered with undeserved flourishes.  The rigid curl of the fake flags reminded me of the plastic banners I had on my Lego castle.  Bring back the Linkspots, I say.

There was a sign problem here, too.  It was just a flat piece of board on the front of the ticket office - impossible to see unless you were stood right in front of it on the opposite side of the road.  Station signs should ideally be at 90 degrees to the road so that you can, you know, see them.  It meant it was an absolute nightmare to get a picture of as well.

That definitely says Rowley Regis up there.  Trust me.  Squint.

I walked away from the station through a strip of concrete walled compounds.  A hand car wash sprayed water across the pavement, while a tiny portakabin smelling of chip fat and bacon tempted me with an open all day blackboard outside.  I turned at the corned and headed down, past a Lidl with a podiatrist upstairs, into Blackheath town centre.

It was an unlovely strip of basic stores.  There was a pub called The Shoulder of Mutton at Blackheath which I admired for its specificity but otherwise there wasn't much to admire.  A large Sainsbury's superstore lurked behind the High Street, dragging the shoppers away and leaving the rest to suffer.  I walked it in a few minutes, ending up outside the library, a glass and steel building that looked wilfully out of place.  It was more like an amusement arcade from one of the more down at heel seaside resorts - Redcar perhaps.

I ducked into the side streets to get away from the traffic.  They were filled with sheltered housing - dead handy for the shops - and then a tight knot of terraced homes that wedged up against the street line. 

Waterfall Lane took its name literally.  It didn't gently descend down the hill but instead plummeted.  I was glad I'd not been here a couple of weeks earlier in the snow as my walking boots did their best to grip the tarmac on the way down.  The view was nice enough, but I was still happy to reach the bottom and have it level out.

Down here, where the road crossed the canal, some new flats had been built to take advantage of the waterside views.  And I suppose, if you listened to the hoot of the swans and angled yourself on the balcony just right, you might have been able to convince yourself it was charming and scenic.  You just needed to avoid spotting the council depot across the road, or the trading estate on the other side of the canal, or the graffiti.

The road bottomed out at a wide junction and I turned up to Old Hill station.  As I was taking the picture I heard a whisper of electrics, and looked up to see my train pulling into the platform.  It was on the far side, beyond the car park and the footbridge, so I'd have no hope of reaching it.  It looked like I had a half hour wait ahead of me.

I walked up the platform - past the people who'd just got off my train, the bastards - and made my way to a slightly damp bench for the wait.  There were worse places I could've been stuck.  Old Hill was quiet and felt safe.  There was a timber yard behind it, the saws screeching in the background, and the whiff of sawdust in the air was pleasing.  Almost festive.

It was only as I sat down that I realised why Rowley Regis had stuck in my head - and again, it was thanks to a comment on a previous post.  An anonymous writer had pointed out that a few minutes walk away from the station was a street called Bell End.  I cursed myself for missing it.  It had made the news last year when a petition was drawn up to change the name because it was so embarrassing, only for a much larger petition to appear and demand that it stayed.  I'd missed the opportunity to see some top grade smut.  There was no way I was going to walk back up Waterfall Lane, so I sighed and boarded a train away from a real-life Carry On location.

Cradley Heath is one of the busier stations in the West Midlands, for one main reason:

The Merry Hill Centre is Birmingham's version of the Trafford Centre, or perhaps Gateshead's Metro Centre: a huge out of town shopping complex the size of Mars, built on former steelworks.  It had the first Pizza Hut in Britain, and the first drive-thru McDonalds, but the most exciting feature was a monorail.  Yes, a genuine bona fide electrified six car monorail.  (Okay, it wasn't six cars).  It travelled over the roof of the shopping centre, connecting the car parks with a development across the canal and with a planned extension to a tram stop at Round Oak.  There were four stations, with names dripping with Stateside glamour: Waterfront East, Grand Central, Times Square and Boulevard.

It lasted five years.  Opened in 1991, it was plagued with technical problems from the start.  There were also questions over its evacuation processes in an emergency.  The centre battled on with it, but the extension never happened, and finally in 1996 it was closed and the cars were sold to Australia.  The only remaining section is on top of Marks and Spencer, and still visible on Google Maps:

I am incandescent with rage that I never got to ride this.  I'm not especially keen on monorails - there are some people who advocate them as the future of transport, but they seem to have been saying that for fifty years now and still nobody's biting - but they carry a certain excitement and novelty.  Watching a video of them on YouTube I know that I'd have spent a good deal of my teenage years just riding them back and forth.  I'd have become that weird boy the monorail drivers waved at as he came and took his usual seat on a Saturday morning. 

The only plus side of the Merry Hill monorail being a thing of the past was that I didn't need to make a big detour to see it.  Instead I headed west, following two young mums along Forge Lane.  Now God knows I have no room to body shame, what with my belly being large enough to have its own gravitational field, but why do women with enormous arses wear jeggings?  The two women in front of me were squeezed into skintight denim that made their already considerable posteriors look grotesque.  They rolled and rotated, the cleavage between the cheeks deep and outlined, with nothing hidden.  I have a considerable backside myself - you could store a few books on their shelf - and I can't imagine any circumstances where I'd highlight it to such a blatant degree.  Is this another thing we can blame on Kim Kardashian?

The two girls went into a bus shelter, and soon I was turning down New Street, a long straight road that was delightfully hodgepodge.  Cottages rubbed up against semis, flats above shops, a plastics firm down a side turn between terraces.  There was a pub, the White Horse, right in the middle of the row and somehow hanging on, even though its opening hours were willfully eccentric; no lunchtimes, but weekdays from 3pm instead.  Perhaps they were hoping to grab the post school run mums?  Its doors were decorated with a strange phrase:

Tara-a-bit, I guessed, was goodbye, but Owamya?  It sounded African - perhaps there was a large Nigerian community round here, I wondered.  Only when I googled it at home did I discover it's Black Country slang for hello - how are you.  And they say Scousers have a language all their own.

As the road rose beneath me, the houses got more suburban, with driveways and wheely bins plastered with hand made ads for a fashion show at the local Methodist church.  I found myself on what has to be one of the best street names in the West Midlands, second only to the famous Bell End:

There's something gloriously perfunctory about that.  So down to earth.  Bob's Coppice Walk was, it turned out, a curved road cut into the side of the hill, along which had been threaded a series of bungalows for the elderly.  They had big picture windows to enable them to look out over the trees and the hills.  It was peaceful.

Perhaps a little too peaceful.  A little too staid and boring.  There weren't any cars or pedestrians.  The only person I saw was a girl with her dog.  She was sat on a garden wall, scrolling through her phone, waiting for someone perhaps.  I ducked past BMWs parked on the path and houses decorated with butterflies and headed into the trees.

I'd seen the footpath through the woods on the map, and so I'd headed that way for a change of scene.  It really was a change.  Suddenly the town disappeared and I was in the country.  The trees were high and dense and the only sound was birdsong.  Ignore the concrete path and the discarded cigarette packets and I could've stepped into the countryside.

Beyond there was a strange series of houses, only a half dozen, wedged in amongst the trees as though they'd been forgotten about and the woods had been allowed to grow up to their front gates.  It was a silent hamlet clustered around a deserted narrow road.  I tacked through, pausing only to try and stroke a pony in a field (he realised I didn't have any food and rightly ignored me), and then the city reasserted itself.  I crossed a footbridge over a stream and found myself in a dead end street beside an MOT centre.  The spell was broken.

It was busy and noisy and dirty again.  Lye station was further along the road, past an accountancy firm where the employees stood in the car park smoking their last fag of the dinner hour, past The Cafe with its All-Day Breakfasts and Fresh Cut Sandwiches.  I was actually early, and could've headed into Lye itself for a look round, but instead I took my sign picture and headed down to the platform.

With only three letters, Lye has one of the shortest station names in the country, and that's just about the most interesting thing about it.  There was a blocky ticket office building, or so I thought; the information on the platform told me there was no office at this station at all and you'd have to buy a ticket from the machine on the Stourbridge bound platform.  (There were, incidentally, no signs to this effect up on the railway bridge, so if I'd needed to buy a ticket I'd have been pretty annoyed at having come all the way down to the track only to have to cross over again.  It wouldn't have mattered anyway, because on all my travels so far on the West Midlands Railway, I haven't had my ticket checked once).

I boarded the train, resigned to a long wait for the train home at Smethwick Galton Bridge.  I had a timed ticket so there was no flexibility.  Until it occurred to me; if I was early, and I had time to spare, then did that mean...?  A few taps on my phone and I worked out yes, it was possible.  I rode for a few stops then practically hurled myself off for a fast walk up the hill.  Sweating, wheezing, I made it to my destination in record time, and drank it in.

Totally worth it.


A brief thank you to everyone who contributed to the Ko-fi page I mentioned in my last post.  I am overwhelmed by your generosity, and if I was still capable of expressing human emotions, I'd probably cry or something.  Your money covered the costs of this trip, and also paid for my next one, so don't worry I'm spending it on blog related stuff, not just wasting it on booze.  I'm extremely grateful.  Thank you again!

Tuesday 19 February 2019

New! Exciting! Improved! (not necessarily exciting or improved)

Last month, I asked for opinions from YOU, the reader.  The problem was the name of the blog still reflected my quest to acquire Northern Rail, and since I was now loitering in the West Midlands, it was out of date.  I canvassed you for your opinions on what to call it, and all your submissions, via the comments or Twitter, were gratefully received.  (All except the submission from my mum, who said she thought "Off The Rails" would be appropriate, and which cut a little too close to the bone). 

After umming and aaahing and generally putting the decision off, I finally came to a conclusion.  And so, ladies and gentlemen (though let's be honest, it's mostly gentlemen reading this nonsense), I present.... Round the Rails We Go.

Removing the geographic specificity means I can wander anywhere I like and it's covered.  It is not, I hasten to add, a mission statement; I will not be visiting Corrour station any time soon.  It is an acknowledgement that the remit of this blog is a lot bigger than when I started, with hundreds of railway stations now under my belt.

The new title also means that I don't have to keep harassing the lovely Jamie for redesigns.  He dropped me a header he'd designed, entirely off his own initiative, way back in the Merseyrail days of the blog.  (Prior to that it was a kind of orange colour.  We don't talk about that).  I gratefully received this moment of actual art on the blog, and Jamie has since updated it every time.  This way I don't need to keep going back to him and saying "can you change it to Round the Cornish Riviera Stations this week?".  He agreed to this redesign - in purple, because I like purple - and also provided the new background image, which I love.  Thank you Jamie, and I owe you a pint.

I've also added one other thing to the blog.  This is a bit embarrassing, and this is probably the only time I'll ever mention it.  However, for twelve years now I've been wandering all over the country, writing about it, and sticking it on the internet.  That's a lot of train travel and a lot of time spent writing and the expense has gone entirely one way.  I'm not complaining, because this blog and the travel has brought me a great deal of joy, but the further I travel from my house, the more the train tickets cost.  I don't like obligation on either side, so there was no way I was going to set up a Patreon (£6 a month will get you a t-shirt with my face on it!) but I have added a button, over there on the right.  It's for KoFi, and if you click it, you go through to a page where you can give me three quid.  That's it.  If you do feel like a tiny contribution, that's lovely, and I very much appreciate it.  If you don't, or can't, that's absolutely fine as well.  It's there if you want it.  Thanks.

Right, let's move on and I'll try not to think about it ever again.  To the trains!

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.