I'm not talking about a proper, scenic branch line, a Flanders and Swann, Michael Portillo in a pink suit, canter down a beautiful scenic Devon valley. I mean a stub. A couple of stations that just poke off the side of a main line. They take you out of your way if you're collecting the long strip of stations. They're inconvenient, a distraction.
In the end, what you have to do is swallow it in one go. Head to the end of the branch and get it out of the way.
I went to Redditch.
To be fair, the Redditch branch wasn't an insignificant sideline at all until the mid-Sixties; it was a proper line, winding its way all the way down through Evesham towards Gloucester. A certain Doctor came along and closed almost the entire track - almost. Luckily for Redditch, it was designated as a New Town in 1964, and doubling the population of the settlement while taking away its railway connection to the nearest major city at the exact same time was seen as problematic. Miles of the track were lifted, but this stub remained, pulling off the line to Worcester at Barnt Green with a brief pause at Alvechurch.
Naturally, having been forced to keep the railway going against their will, British Rail did everything it could to try and dump it. They stripped it back to a single track, they demolished the original station building, they gave it the minimum service levels they could possibly manage. As the train pulled into the town centre, I saw the high brick walls of a former goods yard surrounding us, now infilled with blocks of flats. It used to be big. We ended up against a single platform with a tiny hut of a station building.
I headed out into the car park in search of a station sign. There wasn't an actual totem, but there was a little sign saying Welcome to Redditch stuck on the end of the building, so I positioned myself under it for the selfie. It was only as I pressed the button on my camera that I noticed the white van parked right in front of me actually had an occupier, a burly man in his forties who was looking at me with a mix of curiosity and bemusement.
I scuttled off, through an underpass that followed the route of the old railway, and almost immediately found a much better station sign that wouldn't have made me humiliate myself in front of a workman.
There has been a town here for centuries, long before it was a designated overspill for Birmingham, and initially my walk could've been in any reasonably prosperous Midlands town. There was a stretch of brick villas overlooking a well-kept cemetery; a lot of hedges and trees and cars parked on the kerb. I took a side road into a small development of pensioner's houses, scattered over the hillside.
One of the front doors had a sign on it: Warning! Inside this house lives a Brummie! It's weird how that came across as... comic. If that had said Inside this house lives a Scouser or a Cockney or a Manc, it would've seemed vaguely threatening, like putting up a sign warning about your vicious Doberman. A Brummie though? No-one's scared of Brummies. I blame Benny from Crossroads. (That's the first Crossroads reference on this blog and I strongly suspect, as I cross the West Midlands, it won't be the last).
I crowned the hill then descended down into the town. Redditch was a major manufacturing centre for years, specialising in, somewhat improbably, fish hooks. Why a town about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in England decided to concentrate on fishing equipment is one of those mysteries of engineering. It meant that there was an industrial base for the New Town so, starting in the mid-Sixties, the centre was redeveloped with a ring road and a network of dual carriageways to connect it with brand new suburbs. Redditch contains one of only two cloverleaf junctions in Britain, the massive, complex connection between two major roads that you can only build when you have a lot of spare land and an absolute disregard for anyone who isn't a driver.
Ring roads slice off sections of a town and make them "other". They redefine what the town is. I walked past perfectly decent old buildings - a Salvation Army hall, a fifties office block, a chapel - that were run down and tired. They were on the wrong side of the dual carriageway and their value had plummeted accordingly. The Ring Road was a border.
It was a border for pedestrians too. I ended up descending below the road, into an underpass decorated with a bright mural, then rising up again to reach the centre. People are always relegated to the below-ground dwellers; nobody ever thinks about putting the road in a tunnel and letting pedestrians wander freely above.
I gained ground alongside the town's theatre, which was advertising its "Easter panto", so I suppose that's a thing now? Redditch is doing Beauty and the Beast, with Kerry Katona as "the Atomic Fairy" and Tricia Penrose as "the Enchantress", so hurry before it sells out. Further on was the brutal bulk of the Town Hall, a kind of red brick lump of a bunker with a coffee shop in the centre of its U-shaped mass the only moment of humanity.
This was Redditch's main street, but it was weirdly quiet. Admittedly, it was a Tuesday morning, and I'm a bit mutt & jeff at the best of times, but it still seemed muted. This was the main route from the Town Hall to the parish church - it should've been thriving.
All became clear when I rounded a corner.
Redditch doesn't have a town centre, it has a shopping centre. In 1976 James Callaghan opened the Kingfisher Shopping Centre, a massive covered mall that took up all the retail space. That main street was quiet for a very simple reason - if you weren't in the Kingfisher, you may as well not exist.
I headed inside and, for someone who grew up in Luton, which similarly dropped a massive Arndale on the town centre, it was all very familiar. Once you were inside the daylight disappeared. Now and then it would suddenly break through, in roof vaults that had probably been added during a refurbishment, but otherwise it was a series of long anonymous arcades with bright artificial light. I was anywhere.
I wandered around. It was reasonably busy and there were only a few empty store fronts. The customers seemed cheery enough. It was just all a bit bland. There was a single moment of interest, when I rounded a corner and found an open square with mosaics mounted high on the walls.
They turned out to be by the great Eduardo Paolozzi, probably best known to readers of this blog as the guy who did the mosaics at Tottenham Court Road tube station, and were unveiled by the Queen in 1983. In my mind's eye I could see how they must've looked back then, against a darker, more concrete backdrop; a splash of colour to draw the eye. The refurbishment of the centre had put them against bland white cladding and now they were diminished.
I walked round another corner and realised I'd done a loop, which was embarrassing. I studied hard and worked out how to get out of the centre by the station. I'd sort of had it with Redditch. It hadn't caught me. It was, like a lot of New Towns, still looking for a soul, the kind of thing that you get after a few generations have lived and breathed and died there.
I ended up in The Hub, a more recent addition to the centre which may as well be subtitled "a symbolic journey through society". On the top floor was the glamorous cinema where the beautiful people were. Drop a level, and it was the restaurants, for the moneyed classes with plenty of leisure time and disposable income. There was direct access from the car parks here too so you didn't have to get wet when you left your 4x4. Down the escalators again to the Lower Ground and you were confronted by Home and Bargain and B&M. The ceiling was lower, the lighting harsher, the decoration more basic And under that was the bus station, cold and concrete and ugly, squirreled away in the undercroft where people who use public transport belong.
I crossed back over the road and returned to the railway station. When the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive took over responsibility for public transport in the region in the Seventies, they began to increase the rail services again. They were finally able to bring in an electrified Cross-City line in the early Nineties, terminating at Redditch, but since the branch line was single track it severely restricted the number of trains they could run. In 2014, Alvechurch station, halfway between the junction at Barnt Green at Redditch, was upgraded to two platforms and two tracks. This meant there was now a passing place, and the service could be increased to three trains an hour.
Alvechurch was also given all the bells and whistles of a twenty-first century station, with help points and lifts to all platforms, but it still felt pretty lonely. I got off the train with one other passenger, a woman in her early twenties, who annoyingly walked at roughly the same speed as me. She would sometimes slow down, but because I was also pausing to take photographs, I never actually overtook her. It meant I stayed more or less the same distance behind her the whole time and it clearly began to unnerve her, because when we got to the street she pulled out her phone and pretended to be looking at it so I'd pass. I must get a t-shirt made that says I AM NOT A RAPIST, HONEST, to stop this sort of thing happening.
I stood aside to let a small playgroup of hivis-jacketed toddlers pass by, all holding hands for security - a genuinely life-affirming sight - and then walked towards the centre of Alvechurch. I was suprised to find that this was actually rural. I'd assumed, looking at the map, that this would be little more than a suburb of Redditch, but no, this was real countryside. There were fields and horses and everything.
I walked down the long hill into the centre of the village. It was genuinely charming. There were timber framed houses around a small square; a post office, still with its red phone box outside; a village hall with moss-covered tiles on its roof. It was the kind of place whose sheer Englishness makes you smile. I was annoyed with myself for liking it so much while disliking Redditch; I recognised that this was also a heartland of privilege and wealth, unlike the much less well off New Town. But it's hard not to like a street of leaded glass and overhanging upper floors and a chip shop called the Tudor Rose Fish Bar that's housed in an actual Tudor building.
Alvechurch also had a new addition to my forthcoming coffee table book The West Midlands Has Some Really Great Street Names:
I nipped in the Co-op, where some boisterous teenage employees were having the best day at work, then walked past the Gin & Pickles delicatessen, where three women were trying to manhandle pushchairs inside for a lunchtime latte. From there it was a stroll out of town on well-maintained pathways. There was a large, recently rebuilt school with a public library, then a series of nicely maintained homes before I ducked under the M42.
The daffodils were in bloom on the verges as I ducked down the side route of Aqueduct Lane. Large, beautiful mansions were tucked behind electric gates and thick foliage. They'd have been wonderful places to live if you ignored the constant stream of noise from the motorway a couple of hundred metres away. I pictured the expensive garden parties, the catered events on the lawns, the marquees and glamour, except everyone was having to shout at the top of their voice to be heard over the noise of Eddie Stobarts headed for Bristol.
I soon encountered the reason for Aqueduct Lane's name. The Worcester and Birmingham canal passed over the top of the roadway, leaving a dank brick tunnel for passage underneath. I walked under it, just for the thrill of passing underwater without getting my feet wet, then doubled back and up the steps at the side to the towpath.
Ignore that pesky road noise and it was an idyllic country scene. I walked alongside the canal, on a muddy path disrupted by a stormy night before, and watched the odd bird curl overhead. I breathed in the soft air.
All too soon it was time for me to return to the street. This time I went upwards, crossing over the canal on a bridge, then following the B road as it curved towards Barnt Green. Across the way was the wide water of the Lower Bittell Reservoir. An unnecessarily stark sign warned me it was the property of the local fishing club: Do not trespass - no bathing - no fishing. How you run a fishing club then ban fishing is beyond me; you're breaking your own rules, guys! I wondered how long that "no bathing" rule lasted in a heatwave. Exactly how many days of sweltering hot August days was it before the local teens were in that water, larking about and disturbing the carp?
For a little while I was forced to walk on the damp grass verge, avoiding McDonald's wrappers and discarded bits of motor vehicles (VX14ZHM, you seem to have abandoned your registration plate up against a fence there; please pick it up as soon as possible). Luckily, a cracked and neglected path opened up on the left hand side, so I crossed over and stopped cursing the local council for ignoring pedestrians again.
The landscape was still bare, but spring was trying its best to come through. In a field I spotted my first lamb of the year, clinging to its mother, the other sheep baaing their approval. It was warm and sunny, warm enough not to need a coat, but there was still the splash of cars in puddles and naked branches on the hedges that scraped me.
Barnt Green only became a proper settlement in the 20th Century, when the combination of the railway and the motorway made it an attractive escape for the residents of Birmingham. The houses on the outskirts told the story - 1930s detached homes, with new fangled garages and double driveways. I turned into the village centre by a home that had an absolutely enormous radio mast in the back garden. It was bigger than the roof, and could probably pick up the noise of pulsars. Somewhere in Australia a radio ham was complaining that they kept getting a Brummie interrupting their conversations with chat about the traffic on the B4120.
That's a bollard outside the local primary school. I believe it's meant to be for the drivers, to remind them to slow down in case of tiny children, but to me it looks like an exhibit in a museum of advertising gimmicks that you couldn't get away with these days.
Barnt Green had a busy, well stuffed high street, with a couple of restaurants and an ironmonger and a hairdresser's and a Tesco Express. There was a shop selling exclusive fashions that only a middle aged middle class lady with nothing better to do with her time would buy and a coffee shop advertising its upcoming poetry night with a James Bond gunbarrel style poster. I burned past all of them. I'd made ridiculously good time on my walk. Redditch's general... Redditchness had meant I'd left there ahead of schedule, and the short cut by the canal had carved even more time off my walk. I now had two hours until my train back to Liverpool from New Street. Really there was only one thing to do.
Oh, be fair, it's been a while.
I settled into a booth at the Victoria. It was a gastropub, really, with the seats for boozers easily outweighed by tables for diners, but it was clean and modern and the staff were warm and pleasant. There was a huge array of gins behind the bar, as is required in all pubs at the moment, and the music was consistently Radio 2 friendly. I could've happily stayed there all afternoon, but after one pint, I forced myself back up and out the door.
I walked back up the main street. There was a little park, barely more than a playground, where a woman with pink hair was sneaking a cigarette; a sign at the entrance warned you that Horses are not allowed in these gardens, and I wondered about the circumstances that lead to it being put up. Perhaps someone organised an impromptu steeplechase over the swings on August Bank Holiday 1988 and the carnage caused the parish council to put their foot down.
Barnt Green station was tucked behind the sheds and bags of fertilizer at Tony's Handyman store. It did, at least, have a totem sign.
Its position as a junction meant the station was splayed across four tracks, with the busier route to Worcester towards the back. I walked to the curved platform 3. The circularity of taking a Redditch train back to Birmingham pleased me. It closed off the branch line.
This entire trip was paid for thanks to your generous donations to my Ko-fi page. Except for the beer; I bought that myself, because you shouldn't be subsidising my alcoholism. I hope you all realise how grateful I am. Thank you again!