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!