The second part of my Severn Beach Line misadventures. The first part is here.
My preference for station collecting is to get them in order. Start at one end of the line, hop on, hop off, cross them off the map one by one. Sometimes the timetables get in the way.
St Andrews Road railway station doesn’t get much of a service. After a couple of peak time trains, it only gets a service every four hours. I realised that I’d have to get there first, cross that station off before any others, otherwise I could have ended up in a timetable hole.
It was immediately obvious, on arriving, why the trains were so infrequent. It wasn’t a station, just a platform beside a vast complex of sidings. Long freight trains stretched away in both directions, diesel engines idling. As I climbed the footbridge over the tracks, all I saw were hulks of industry. Silo towers and conveyor belts and oil tanks. Wide expanse of open concrete. Heaps of gravel and coal. There was a smell of fuel mixed with refuse, as a nearby recycling plant smashed another lorry load of unwanted glass.
When St Andrews Road opened, in 1917, this would have been a vital link to bring workers to the docks. Ports don’t work like that anymore. Automation and containerisation mean that though there are still huge quantities of goods passing through Bristol, there isn’t the need for the men. St Andrews Road clings on, because it’s easier to leave a station with a minimal service than it is to close it.
There was a brand new road junction outside, practically gleaming, to give access to an Asda distribution centre the size of Lincolnshire. I headed south, down the main dock road, in the shadow of trucks and tankers. The pavement was incredibly wide, three metres at least, but I was the only pedestrian, a tiny human overshadowed by the fume-belching vehicles. Past the Avonmouth Space Program – disappointingly, just a self-storage facility – and the bus garage. As the road curved, a bike lane suddenly appeared out of nowhere, leading to a toucan crossing. It almost immediately vanished again, no doubt put in thanks to some kind of grant and never actually used by a cyclist.
The road became a dual carriageway, then a roundabout for access to the M5; I felt puny and insignificant. Squatting to one side was the incredibly American bulk of Costco, a piece of Texas that had somehow crash landed into south-west England. Everything about it – the logo, the size, the tyre workshop – screamed USA, making the tiny Corsas and Fiestas in the car park look ridiculously inadequate. There should have been trucks and pickups instead of the odd Peugeot.
I knew that I wanted to get over there, to the other side of the roundabout, but I couldn’t actually see a way of doing it. Then I spotted a footbridge, and the blood drained from my face. It was vertigo time.
It wasn’t bad at first. The steps were fine. It was only as I turned onto the main bridge structure that the terror kicked in. I reached out with one hand to grab the railing, only for it to wobble under my touch. End of that. Instead I crashed down the middle, treading a straight path along the centre, trying not to see the cars and buses sweeping below me, trying not to think about the way the bridge seemed to be swaying, trying to ignore the sweat that was pooling in my clenched fists. Only when I reached the other side did I realise I’d been moaning the whole time, a long, low groan of agony and tension.
I reassembled myself on the pavement, pulled fingernails out of the palm of my hand, and headed into Shirehampton Village. It’s signposted as such, but it’s not a village as you’d recognise it. Just a long Council estate, curving around the road into Bristol, a place for the dock workers to make their home. Brick houses, some pebbledashed, some painted; last year’s Christmas decorations still on a few, the odd plastic butterfly under an upstairs window. Silent streets interrupted only by the whine of a man giving his Peugeot a going over with a pressure wash.
On the horizon, the concrete viaduct of the M5 bridge over the Avon. There were no ornamental sphinxes here, either, no decoration of any kind. A slab of grey stone on columns. The only colour was the blue of the motorway signs, bluer than the morning skies, and the occasional flash of an Eddie Stobart. The Clifton Suspension Bridge inspired and captivated. This bridge carried people away. Living beneath that I could see how you’d start to think that the best way to live involved getting away. It gets in your head after a while, the fast traffic, the speed of trucks and cars going somewhere, while you sit below. Not moving.
Some old people bungalows were built next to a school, a little hub of civic responsibility, and then on the end, Guide and Scout huts. I remembered back when I was a Scout, until teenage hormones made me too embarrassed to dress in khaki every Friday night and tie reef knots. The Guides who shared a hut with us were demeaned and insulted at every opportunity. If they’d been over a fence, it would’ve just been worse; the girls next door, rivals, inferiors, someone to patronise. Until, somewhere around fourteen, that fence started to look a bit too high, and the Scouts started to want to peek over the top…
Mentally writing a CBBC sitcom in my head, I walked into the older part of Shirehampton. The curve of the avenues straightened into terraces. At its edges, the tarmac peeled back to reveal cobbles. There was a surprising blue plaque, commemorating the childhood home of Sir Robert Stephens, an actor I only know now through his marriage to Maggie Smith, his actual acting work disappearing into grey.
Back across the Portway, and into a stretch of field called the Daisy Field. There wasn’t a single daisy to be seen, sadly; plenty of daffodils and dandelions though. Perhaps it was too early in the year for daisies. At the exit, a deep bin was provided for dog mess, and I added “emptying that bin” to my list of jobs I never want to have to do.
The station was across the street, but I was too early for the train, and a bit peckish. Instead I turned right, heading under the railway bridge into a smuggler’s cove of a village. The street wound its way down to the river past confectionary coloured Georgian homes. At the end of the road was the Lamplighter Inn, the kind of pub that Long John Silver used to go to in search of new cabin boys. It overlooked the wide Avon, with the local chapter of the Sea Cadets. Across the river, the sailboats were moored in the harbour at Pill.
I’d have liked nothing more than to have sat in the garden of the Lamplighter, watching the river for a while with a pint of beer. Unfortunately, despite the sign promising they’d be open at eleven, it was locked tight. Instead I took a seat in a nearby park, while two dog walkers chatted loudly. A collie bounded around, barking constantly, excited but ignored; his owner hissed the occasional “shush” but otherwise she let him get on with polluting the air.
The more I listened to their conversation – an antisocial but extremely gratifying hobby of mine – the more I realised that the dog walkers weren’t a couple of friends chatting, but were instead a kidnapper and their hostage. The stout lady dog owner had effectively imprisoned the man with chat, and every time he attempted a way out she blocked it. Every “well, I must dash” or “anyway” was met with an impeccably placed parry as she kept him trapped. New topics were seamlessly introduced without a pause for breath. At one point she was asking him what his favourite meat was, like a demented Buzzfeed quiz, interrogating him on chicken v beef. He looked more and more desperate. Another couple of minutes and I think he would have thrown himself into the river.
As it was, the lady herself ended the conversation, suddenly and without warning, with a “RIGHT.” She bellowed at the collie and marched away, tossing a “see you tomorrow I expect!” over her shoulder. I am certain that the man changed his dog walking regime to avoid her. In fact, he may have given the dog away that afternoon.
Outside the station I was stopped by a man. “Is there a coffee shop or something round here?”
“No,” I said gloomily, thinking of the still shuttered Lamplighters Inn. “Nothing.”
I was starting to get a bit peckish. It was lunchtime, and I’d done a fair amount of fast-paced walking. Enough to burn off the enormous Wetherspoon’s breakfast I’d consumed that morning, anyway. I can’t quite work out how they make any money – the breakfast was only a fiver, but it was the size of a banquet plate, a smorgasbord of meat and beans and toast. I expect the regular parade of alcoholics who start their day with a pint of the cheap lager and a shot are funding the low prices.
And no, before you ask, I didn’t have a beer with my breakfast. I had a tea. I’m not that bad.
I hopped off the train at Avonmouth in search of a café or a coffee shop or somewhere I could get a sandwich. The station was at the very edge of the dock estate, opposite what was probably once a row of busy shops, but was now a parade of blocked off fronts and flats. There was a big pub on one end, and a paint shop, and a café that was just too rough for me. Somewhere along the line I’ve drifted away from my working class roots and become – not middle class, because I’ve never eaten quinoa, but somewhere in between, drifting in a kind of no-man’s land. The monied glamour of Montpelier’s coffee shops made me feel out of place, and now the down and dirty workman’s café made me equally uncomfortable. Perhaps I should just accept that I don’t feel comfortable anywhere.
I was, however, tempted by an old-fashioned caff a little further on. Splayed round a corner, it didn’t seem to have been refurbished since about 1963. I peeked through the lace curtains in the window and spotted plastic chairs at formica tables and a tiny pepperpot old lady doling out a cup of tea to a hi-vis wearing builder. There was a Luncheon Voucher sticker in the window and neon stars with the prices of the specials written on them. It was great.
What stopped me going in to sample their pasties and home made cakes was the name stencilled over the door – In The Mouth.
In. The. Mouth.
That’s just too on the nose for me. It’s a bit too direct, and has a weirdly sexual connotation to it. It didn’t sit right. In The Mouth would be a great name for an adult film, or a particularly blunt dentist, but it doesn’t make me want to guzzle a panini. I turned away sadly, crossing the road by the closed-up public toilets and wandering out of the village.
I walked out onto the same dock road I’d been on earlier, only this time I was walking north. If you want to know what it was like, go back a few paragraphs; it hadn’t changed since the morning. There was a distinct lack of eating places, unless you count a Subway in a petrol station, which I don’t. I realise this makes me a food snob of the highest order but I’m just not comfortable with eating a sandwich freshly prepared next to the axle grease and air fresheners. I fished around in my pocket and found a half-eaten pack of Softmints from the day before to keep me going.
On and on the road went, lined with grey buildings peddling dirty, grimy businesses. Tyres and engineering companies and signwriters. A workshop with its doors open sent the smell of spraypaint wafting into the road, and suddenly I was three again. My dad was a paint sprayer when I was very young, and he’d come home from work smelling like that, his overalls splattered with random moments of technicolour. Sitting beside him while he talked, breathing in a chemical scent that in retrospect probably did me no good at all. He’d tell stories of his day that used to terrify me. I was such a wimpy, introverted child, and his tales of male bonding, what we’d call “banter” now, used to scare the hell out of me. I lived in fear of ever being an apprentice somewhere and, as happened to someone at his work, getting stripped naked and sprayed all over, like Jill Masterson in Goldfinger. Every time I started a new job for the rest of my life, a tiny part of me was waiting for the scary initiation ceremony. Fortunately I ended up a weak-limbed pseudo-intellectual and only ever taking jobs in feminised offices and shops where that sort of behaviour was frowned upon. If I was dropped into one of these industrial units I’d have been torn limb from limb within minutes.
A curve in the road brought a makeshift shrine, set back from the pavement. Memorial plaques and footballs and cuddly toys, and a large photo of a boy in his late teens. Flowers only starting to wilt by a birthday card – Happy Birthday Jordan. I’d assumed that the accident that had killed Jordan had been recent, but a Google search when I got back to the hotel revealed it was four years before. This memorial had become as permanent a reminder of him as his grave.
Sobered, I pushed on, past a blank space of concrete where a factory used to be, two wind turbines turning lazily in the barely-there wind. Huge over elaborate signs welcomed me to a business park but I headed off to one side, up the steep incline of a railway bridge. The raise in elevation meant that, for the first time, I got a glimpse of the Severn Bridges, both of them, distant but still impressive. They soon vanished as I left the road on a sign posted public footpath.
It’s unfortunate, but there’s often a disconnect between the Ordnance Survey and the reality. It’s deeply upsetting because the OS is the finest set of maps in the world; it has a detail and accuracy that cannot be beaten. But while your Landranger proudly notes that there’s a bike/footpath along along the Severn and you’re more than welcome to follow it, on the ground, sometimes all you find is a load of long grass and trees and nowhere to go.
I was wandering around a load of scrubland behind a factory and there didn’t seem to be any kind of footpath at all. There was a rusted railway siding, presided over by a cat licking its paws, and a distinctly unpleasant smelling stream, but nothing that said “gentle perambulation”. Soon I was stamping down ankle high wild grasses, looking for a sign of some sort, hoping that I wouldn’t have to head back to that tedious dock road for the third time.
Finally I spotted a barely-there gap between the trees, and I dived into it. It looked like a footpath, a muddy, messy one, but at least it was pointing in the right direction and meant I didn’t have to wander onto the railway tracks. I thought back to the OS map labelling this twisting, narrow route between trees a “cycle path”, and made up my mind to write them an e-mail demanding a correction. There was no way you could cycle along here – the trees hadn’t been cut back in years, and brushed my head and clothes. The further along I went the more I became convinced that I was the first person to come this way in a long time.
I was sandwiched between the river and the backs of industrial units, the hum of machinery a constant tone underneath. Pipes poked up from beneath the soil in places, pointing towards the water in a vaguely sinister manner. I had to clamber over one, up and down a rusting metal ladder that felt incredibly unsafe. The path kissed the road, meeting it at a layby filled with litter – mattresses, a fridge, polystyrene. From then on the path paralleled the tarmac, separated only by brambles. To the passing vehicles I’d have just been a floating head. It was ugly and uninspired.
Miles after mile it went on, the green sign posts optimistically pointing the way, the reality being a scramble through another pile of thorns and a stinging nettle hand. The grey curves of the Seabank Power station, gas fired, humming, then, a little further on, a building site beside the railway. New roads intruding. I crossed the railway line and was finally on the river side, though my hopes of seeing Wales across the estuary were dashed. Rough trees blocked the view. Horses chewed seagrass, lazily watching me as I passed, disinterested.
Grass turned to gravel turned to tarmac. Now I was on an access road for another of those mysterious pipelines, ejecting who knows what into the Severn. It curved back under the railway but I turned away, scrambling up an embankment and onto a high sea wall. There were the bridges and, further along, the little village of Severn Beach, end of the line. New homes had been built beneath the flood defences, optimistically, but in the village centre the homes were older and tighter.
I was incredibly hungry by now, hoping for a pub where I could get a pint and a hearty lunch, but there wasn’t one. The shopping parade had only two shops in it now. The storefronts in the others had been clumsily blocked up to make flats, big walls of brick with holes punched in them. There was a newsagent and a bakery, and the bakery had a couple of plastic tables in it, so I wandered in and dropped my bag and looked at the handwritten menu on the wall.
The woman behind the counter was too quick; she was asking me what I wanted before I was halfway down the first column, so I blurted out a request for a sausage sandwich. Her face dropped. “Oooh, I’m not sure we’ve got any sausages on, love.” She turned, and called to her friend in the back: “are there sausages?”
“That’s fine,” I stammered, “I’ll have something else…” But they were debating now. They’d just cleaned the grill, but they could put on another lot.
“No, honestly, it’s no problem…” She dismissed me, chatting to the girl behind. “Are you sure? ‘Cos you did just clean it.”
“No, really, it doesn’t matter,” I blurted out. I pointed desperately at a bap under the counter, wrapped in plastic. “I’ll have that.”
The woman behind the counter finally turned back to me. She had a confused look on her face, a sort of “why did he ask for a sausage sandwich if he doesn’t want one?” look, a resigned face of disappointment. Another annoying customer. I took the sandwich and my tea and sat in the corner and tried to could make myself as small as possible.
Because it became increasingly clear that these women were ready to close up. It was early afternoon, and they wanted to go home now the lunchtime rush was done. They cackled to one another in the back, sharing their plans for the afternoon, shopping, tidying, dealing with big useless retired husbands. As one of them brushed the floor around me, she called out a joke her son had told her – “what does one avocado say to another avocado? Let’s ‘ave a cuddle!” – but the older woman in the back didn’t get it, so the wordplay had to be explained. I blew on my tea and willed it to cool down. I used to work in a shop, and I know the resentment that courses through every fibre of your being when someone turns up moments before closing. I scoffed the sandwich, gargled with the too-hot tea, then left my crockery on the counter and fled.
On the bend in the road was a bus shelter and the husk of an amusement arcade. Little more than a shed, the sign showing sunlight through gaps, bits of wood and metal scattered across the forecourt. The estate agent board had been there so long it was falling to pieces too. Severn Beach was as close as Bristol had to a seaside resort for a while, but now it was bungalows and retirees. Long straight avenues of low homes, the gardens overdecorated with tchotchkes, a dozen windmills and fifty wheelbarrows of posies and a thousand gnomes. That pub was still absent.
Without realising, I’d reached the edge of the village. The M49 – a junctionless connector road between the M4 and the M5 – slices behind Severn Beach, while the mainline railway to Wales disappears into the tunnel beneath the river here too. So much transport, all ignoring the little village. I crossed the M49 by a high bridge, practically walking in the road so I didn’t have to look down at the speeding cars and trucks below, then again over the M4, and down into New Passage.
In the 18th century this tiny hamlet was a ferry head, a spot for passengers to cross the river. The Severn Tunnel killed it off and it became what it is today – a bypassed spot, a road abandoned. Farm houses and a former chapel lined the quiet street; it would have been pleasant if you ignored the constant roar of traffic barrelling down the motorway. I reached the river and found that I was between the two bridges – the old Severn crossing to my right, the new one to my left.
I took them in. The older bridge, opened in 1966, is more graceful; a white suspension bridge with cables strung across the water. The newer one, opened thirty years later, is meatier and more practical. It’s a viaduct with, suddenly in the centre, two tall towers reaching over the shipping lane. Walking beneath it I marvelled at the thick concrete, the heaviness, the brilliance of its design. The Clifton Suspension Bridge the day before had been elegant artistry, as much there to be admired as used. This was designed by engineers, stripped of pretension, admirable but a little sad.
Back into Severn Beach, past a holiday park of lonely caravans, and then on to the station. During its seaside heyday, this had been a much grander terminus, with a bay platform for excursion trains and a building across the tracks. Now, like the rest of the town, it had been abandoned and isolated. There are trains only every couple of hours, and they pull into a single platform. No ticket office or friendly stationmaster; barely even a sign. I boarded a small diesel train and rode back into the city, desperate to finally get that pint.