About three years ago, with my mission to collect every Northern station coming to an end, I needed something else to do. "Hey!" I thought. "Why don't I write a book? Just do the blog again, but with different railway lines. Easy, and this way people will pay me!" I looked around the country and picked a half-dozen railway lines that looked interesting. I did my usual trick - took a train, got off, walked to the next station, got another train. I took loads and loads of notes and photos.
And then I just had to write the book. And it was hard. Like, really, really hard. Writing here, I can chuck out any old nonsense. I can divert onto a weird tangent. I can have a pointless nostalgia trip. I can fill it with innuendo. Writing a book, though, all I could think was "people have paid for this. People have put down their money. It can't be your usual rubbish. It has to be good."
I never got the right tone. I never enjoyed writing it up. A year later, frustrated, angry, upset, driven to tears on more than one occasion, I abandoned the book. The drafts have sat on my laptop ever since, a reminder of a thwarted ambition.
I've decided to get something useful out it, and so here is some of "the book". In April 2016 I went down to Bristol and visited the Severn Beach Line. Over two days I collected the stations on what's sometimes called Britain's most scenic commuter line. I've not edited it for the blog, so the style is a little different to usual, but I've not done any other blogging this month so this'll stop April from being a gap in the history. The photos have also been shoved in a little inelegantly; obviously I didn't plan on them being in the book, but I did take the usual sign pics because I'm a nerd like that. Hope you at least find it interesting.
Lawrence Hill railway station was thick with drab. Along the platform were a load of students, late for their first lecture, not particularly caring. I was the only person leaving the train. I wandered out of the station, through the Lidl car park, past the two bald men in bomber jackets manhandling a trolley full of shopping to the bus stop. I wondered if they were going to try getting the trolley on board as well, or if they were just going to leave it on the pavement and sacrifice the quid. The tiny Asian woman in a headscarf already waiting looked down at the floor as they wedged themselves onto the bench next to her.
It was already a different world to Bristol Temple Meads, where I’d started that day’s journey, one stop down the line. Temple Meads is a grand, mock-Tudor cathedral to the railways, all soaring arches and stone floors and booming announcements. It’s InterCity 125s and café bars. The district round the station is a sort of mini-Canary Wharf, the same glass and steel boxes and empty piazzas only just a little bit shorter. A queue of grey-suited white faces wound its way out of the Starbucks.
There wasn’t a Starbucks in Lawrence Hill. There was a Halal butcher, and a kebab shop, and café with the brilliant name of Waamo, but they lined a noisy road and were covered in scaffolding. As I turned a corner, I nearly ran into a woman bellowing Polish into her mobile. I followed a road that paralleled the railway, the tracks screened off by thick brambles dotted with litter, the vague smell of dog mess wafting up from little bagged packages dangling off branches. A hefty Academy occupied a square block of a building, like a B&Q that had come adrift from its moorings and had been co-opted into use by the locals; it made the original turn of the century school building cower in its shadows.
I was in Bristol to follow the Severn Beach Line. Eleven stations, curling their way through the city, then branching off to the docks and the estuary beyond. I bounced along enthusiastically, happy to be exploring, happy to be somewhere new. I’d never been to Bristol before, not known much about it really, and it was already intriguing me.
There was a road closed for sewage works, a stack of pipes piled up on the churned up grass of a nearby park, so I took a diversionary route past Bristol Central Mosque. It looked like an old factory from the outside, red brick, sloped roof, a gravelled car park to the side and a green and white sign over the fire exit. Only a pair of intricate mosaics on either side of the main entrance told you this was something other than an engineering firm on hard times.
Beyond were terraces of tight bay windowed houses. Bristol was in the middle of its mayoral elections, and I saw a few Labour posters in the window, plus a board for the Green candidate wedged behind the wheelie bins. The stores dotted amongst them were aimed at the local Asian population; you could tell because they laid out the fruit and vegetable on the street for you to touch and smell. British people don’t trust produce unless it’s been shrinkwrapped.
I crossed the street to read a community noticeboard. It’s one of my hobbies, catching up on the local news, who’s standing for Parish Councillor (usually just one name, unopposed), what the latest police bulletin is. This one hinted at the area’s troubles – a cocaine support group in the Methodist Church, advice to get out of debt – and its diversity, with an English Conversation Group to help locals with the language. There was also a poster asking for test subjects for the University - Are you 30-60? Want to support research using your nose? You could make £70 for participating - so I gave serious thought to taking part, because I really am that easily bought.
On St Marks Road, I wandered past more takeaways, Indian and Pakistani restaurants, barbers specialising in “ethnic” hairstyles. Easton Mosque was expanding, and the boards outside urged you to e-mail or call to find out what their plans were. Gulzar’s Fancy Goods intrigued me; I wondered what counted as “fancy”. Doilies? I couldn’t see much call for doilies. A board in the window said they stocked Islamic Books and DIY and paint, which is an admirably diverse stock policy, but not that fancy. Unless the paint came in a jam jar with a bit of red and white checked cloth on the top. I stopped for a cup of tea in an Indian café. The walls were painted purple, with faded family portraits of neat Asian families posing stiffly at weddings and parties.
The strange part was, there were no actual Asian people inside. It was fairly busy for ten in the morning, but every face was white. There were a couple of mums with pushchairs, a man in a suit bashing at his phone, a couple of earnest volunteer types having a breakfast meeting over a stack of binders, but not one brown face. Even the waitress was a skinny blonde.
I wondered if the area was being, and I use this word deliberately, colonised. In the Sixties and Seventies, the working class whites fled the inner cities, leaving it for the new arrivals from the Commonwealth. They thrived in these districts, made them their own, and now the whites were coming back. I imagined speculators looking at these well-built, sturdy homes, close to the city centre, in the middle of excitingly exotic districts, and thinking “I’ll have some of that.” I’d already seen a whitewashed deli on a side street, one that dripped with middle class privilege.
I was still early for my train, so I wandered the long way round, past what can only be described as a bong shop. It sold all sorts of, let’s just say, “paraphernalia”, with signs saying “this is for decorative use only”. You could perhaps persuade yourself that they were just very fancy vases, if you ignored the five foot tall fibreglass Rastafarian in the window with a spliff hanging out of his mouth. It reminded me of those adverts you used to get in the back of music magazines, selling cannabis seeds but being careful to tell you that you aren't allowed to let them grow. Smiling – there was something in the air – I climbed the steps to Stapleton Road station. An arch bridge rusted away, a legacy of when there were four tracks through here. On the walls, a mural commemorated notable locals – Sukhsagar Dattar, Indian independence activist; Mary Carpenter, child welfare reformer; Rajah Rammohun Roy, Bengali reformer. They carried suitcases and met on the platform.
A quick trip on the train later and I was in Montpelier. If the area around Stapleton Road was hinting at middle-class gentrification, Montpelier was embracing it. The road from the station was a parade of small, hip shops; boutiques, hairdressers, pastel coloured fronts with hand crafted artisan nick nacks inside. Bars that advertised their “teapot cocktails and local gin”. A junk shop, in the centre of the row, achieved the messy casual look by actually being messy and casual. There were empty crates and, as is mandated by law for all junk shops, a half-naked mannequin. I picked through the CDs on the table outside – a lot of Britpop, a lot of acoustic guitar, some late 90s House. That was the locals – late 30s, early 40s, good job, young kids, not quite ready to go the full suburban life yet so pitch up here in a tastefully restored villa with hardwood floors and original mouldings. Have to make room in the house, and there's Spotify now, yeah?
I stopped for another cup of tea – if my tannin levels aren’t stocked up regularly I go into a dead faint. The café occupied a corner plot, with benches outside. On one of them, a group of six chatted while a man took photos on an enormous Canon. I wasn’t sure what their deal was – some kind of publicity shots I suppose – but they paid no attention to the photographer, even when he rammed his long lens right in their face. Inside, the soup of the day was Persian lentil, and there were three flavours of crisp – salted, salt & vinegar, and, of course, chorizo.
I felt quite out of place. These people were slim and pretty and tapping at iPads. I was fat and sweaty and middle aged and scrawling in a notebook. I was an invader from the planet Boring. I smoothed down my hair and pretended to appreciate the atonal beats of the mellow ambient music. I have a CD collection that’s full of Britpop and acoustic guitar and 90s House too, but somewhere along the line I took a different path to these people. I still have all my CDs, for a start. I like nice stuff, of course, but here it seemed fetishized, adored. I couldn’t quite bring myself to care.
I got up and left, wondering if I’d be photoshopped out of the backdrop of those publicity stills. At a bus stop, there was a man eating Cheerios out of the plastic bag, dipping into them as though they were crisps. I was pretty sure he didn’t belong in Montpelier either.
As I descended the hill, the mood shifted. Shabby chic became just plain shabby. The carefully curated, pretty world started to fall apart. Anger crept in.
The graffiti added to the air of degradation. Banksy is a Bristolian, and made his mark on the streets of the city. He’d opened the floodgates. Every wall, every vacant shop, was smothered in paint. I’m used to only seeing graffiti as the beginning of the end, the sign that somewhere has given up; here it was intended as a celebration in itself. Most of it, of course; there were still the same crude expletives and genital drawings in amongst the anti-capitalist protests and murals of Bob Marley. I took a few photos, and an elderly woman stopped me.
“Are you taking photos of interesting things? Because there’s a black man asleep in a chair further down the road. He looks so peaceful. I wish I had a camera myself.”
I took her advice and went and looked and, yes, there was indeed a man asleep in an armchair in the middle of a patch of waste ground. I’m not sure he'd gently drifted off into slumbers – there were three homeless men across the way necking Tennants Super, and he looked like he went to the same costumiers – but it was certainly a sight.
I ducked down a back street, encountering blocks of concrete social housing linked by walkways, and the headquarters of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft: a collective trying to improve the district through direct action and art. They were responsible for curating much of the graffiti I’d seen, and their gallery sold quirky pottery. Its orange walls seemed to glow amidst the grime.
I turned into the residential district behind the main road, finding a colourful square of terraced houses. I’d seen this over and over in Bristol: homes painted soft blues and pinks and yellows, standing apart from their neighbours. Coming from the north, where there is street after street of red Coronation Streets, it was surprising, but I liked it. It broke up the view.
I followed the tree-lined avenues back, puffing a little as the roads headed upwards. This was where the teapot cocktail drinkers lived, not the citizens of the People’s Collective. There was no urban artwork here. It broke open to the greenery of Cotham Gardens, dominated by the kind of playground I would have killed to play on as a child, then I was crossing the bridge to Redland station.
On the train, there was a mild disagreement between an Eastern European boy and the guard. He’d boarded with a bike, and the guard was trying to tell him that he should put it in the space reserved for cycles instead of blocking the gangway. He looked at her with dead eyes, staring her down, while she simplified her language. “Bike! Front of train! Hazard!” After a third try, it dawned on her that this wasn’t a matter of miscommunication – he genuinely didn’t give a shit. Defeated, she shook her head and opened the doors for Clifton Downs.
All through the day I’d been slowly climbing the social scale, but at Clifton Downs I’d finally reached the money. It dripped with it. Shiny houses that had been buffed gleamed in the sunshine. Offices for “wealth management” companies and discreet clinics with names like Newness and Rejuvenate promised youth. Women with thick sunglasses airkissed outside restaurants. If I’d felt a mess in shabby-chic Montpelier, here I was basically a tramp. It was coming up to lunchtime so I’d thought about going somewhere to eat, but one look at the beautiful people sunning themselves on the terraces had me scurrying to the back streets like a vampire escaping daylight.
Instead I wandered past Clifton’s historic lido, now repurposed into a classy spa, with a pretty pub wedged into the corner. I pictured the classy ladies emerging from the spa, fresh from a seaweed wrap and healthy lunch of rice and a single piece of salmon, and caning it into the pub. “I need a pint of lager and a Scotch egg and I need it NOW!” The majority of Clifton is elegant Georgian terraces, but in the Sixties, the University constructed a Brutalist slab, four floors of concrete with a car park and a cursory link to a much older building. Its ugliness and refusal to fit in was refreshing; I’d much rather see a building being itself than a fake “in keeping” construction.
I was heading for Clifton Cathedral, the main Catholic place of worship for Bristol, which I’d been surprised to see on my Ordnance Survey map. Say “cathedral” and you imagine some epic construction, all soaring buttresses and towers. This one seemed a lot more modest. I eventually found it, finished in the 1960s and being very much of its type. A stubby dome sat on top of a low, flat base, with sharp slabs of concrete reaching higher into the sky. It was fine, I suppose, a perfectly adequate building, but I live near Liverpool: when someone says “Catholic cathedral” to me I picture a huge steel construction that dominates the skyline. This was more like a church with pretensions.
I wanted to explore the inside, but the roof was being repaired. I have a bad habit of turning up at landmarks when they’re swathed in scaffolding. It’s like someone checks my diary and decides that the perfect time to do the drains is the day I’m visiting. Instead, I carried on through Clifton’s quiet streets, past a nursery school where a little girl was being incredibly bossy in the playground. Her voice crashed into the street: “NO. We’re not playing that game.” Finally I happened on a pub advertising a starter and a main for a tenner, so I settled in the window with a pint.
I’d ordered pulled pork sliders and a burger; only after they arrived did I remember that a “slider” was a tiny burger, so I was eating the same meal twice. I inhaled them, not realising how hungry I was until I actually had food in front of me. Meanwhile the pub began to fill up. I was immediately alienated by a posh couple who brayed loudly two tables down. He was wearing a Breton shirt and no socks; she clutched a handbag under her arm and picked at a bowl of olives with half-inch fingernails. They both looked like they’d just fallen off a yacht. I’d spotted them earlier, when they complained about the road resurfacing outside with the barmaid; apparently this was the mayor’s fault, though I couldn’t work out why re-laying tarmac was anyone’s fault. It’s just something that needs to be done, isn’t it? The woman ended the conversation by shouting “Vote for Charles – he’s a neighbour of ours!” It will come as absolutely no surprise to you to learn that Charles was the Conservative Mayoral candidate. I wondered if I could throw the salt and pepper pots hard enough to knock them out.
I ate my burger while they drank more, their voices getting louder and more shrill. A friend passed and they hammered on the window to get her to come in and talk. She complained about her various ailments, they sympathised, then the minute the friend left the posh woman rolled her eyes. They didn’t buy her a drink either. I considered burning down the pub with them in it, but instead I wiped my mouth and left.
I’d deliberately detoured from the railway so that I could see the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Brunel’s other great piece of engineering in the city. There was a great need for a bridge across the Avon from Medieval times, but the Admiralty’s need to get high-masted ships to the docks stopped any from being built between the city centre and the sea. Any bridge would either have to open in some way, restricting traffic, or would have to be so tall that it would be an engineering challenge.
However, at Clifton, the Avon is at the base of a deep gorge. A road between the clifftops would achieve the height necessary to allow ships to pass while also minimising the actual bridge length. As with so many problems in Victorian society, Isambard Kingdom Brunel came up with a solution – an iron suspension bridge with stone towers decorated with sphinxes, in the Egyptian fashion of the time. Work started in 1830… and continued for thirty years. The money kept running out. Contractors went bust. The towers were constructed, but the ironwork was harder to fund, and then, when it was finally bought, they didn’t have enough money to actually put it on the bridge.
Brunel died in 1859, the bridge still unfinished, the ironwork flogged to London to build the Royal Albert Bridge. The scheme was revised by William Henry Barlow and Sir John Hawksmoor as a way to try and get the bridge built; this included buying second hand chains from the demolished Hungerford Bridge. Finally, in 1864, the bridge was opened to the public, with the towers lit by magnesium flares. In the fine tradition of grand British public events going awry, these were immediately blown out by the December winds.
The bridge has served Bristol for over a hundred and fifty years now, becoming a symbol of the city itself. Standing next to it, I could see why it had captured the public imagination. The Avon Gorge is astonishing, a very un-English landscape, dramatic and awe-inspiring. The bridge should be fragile by its backdrop, but instead it’s muscular and powerful. It’s humans defeating nature, overcoming the obstacles, triumphing.
As with Clifton cathedral, the suspension bridge was in the middle of maintenance work. The tower on the Leigh Woods side was swathed in scaffolding, tiny men in hard hats clambering all over it, performing tasks that were a mystery to me but which I was also glad I would never have to do. I walked up to the base of the Bristol tower and peered over the side. It was a very long, very uncompromising way down. Above my head was a metal plaque: TALK TO US – Call the Samaritans for free. Clifton Suspension Bridge has a sideline as a suicide hotspot, though the installation of new guard rails has halved the number of deaths. Poignantly, the side facing the gorge is the most popular one to jump from. It seems that the victims want the best possible view before they go.
It’s hard to overstate how magnificent the bridge is. Everything about it is epic. It shouts at you, cows you into submission. It’s no longer an important route – most traffic now uses the M5 bridge, further down river, while the end of Bristol’s city centre dock trade meant that the Admiralty restrictions could be lifted – but it’s still an incredibly important structure. They never did build the sphinxes, incidentally; the money ran out.
I turned back. I would have liked to have walked across the bridge, but that was a detour too far, plus I do suffer from vertigo. I’d hate to have got halfway then collapsed to the floor, clinging to the railings and sobbing, before being rescued by firemen. Instead I headed up to the top of the hill overlooking the gorge, beside Bristol’s observatory, so I could take in the bridge from another angle. It was packed with tourists having exactly the same idea, so I went back down to the road. It was cooler here, sheltered from the afternoon sun by high trees, and large mansions were set back from the road. I imagined the Jane Austen-esque parties that must have once filled these villas, lots of waving fans and fluttered eyelashes and promenading. They were mostly offices now, home to accountants and stockbrokers.
I crossed the road and headed up what I thought was a path to the downs. It turned out to be a very informal path – in other words, muddy and slippery. The sunshine had come after days of rain, and in amongst the trees the ground hadn’t dried out yet. I staggered upwards, hoping I wouldn’t slip and bounce all the way back down to the road, until I finally hurtled out onto the grass at the top of the hill. If there had been anyone about I’d have looked like a recently escaped convict.
After a moment to compose myself, I began the stride across the grass. It was a Wednesday afternoon, the traditional sports time for Universities, and the various pitches were filled with football games. Around the edge, damnably healthy types jogged by, their t-shirts shouting their participation in fun runs and half marathons and 10k pursuits. I kept my head down. I’ve never been sporty – I like writing and I’m into train stations, so this probably comes as no surprise – and as I creep closer to forty I’ve become heavier and unhealthier. I looked at the lithe toned joggers with a mixture of envy and bafflement. Yes, I’d love to have abs you could bounce coins off, but really, what was the point? I mean, you’re going to die in the end whatever happens. It’s an absolute. So why not have a bit of fun while you’re alive? Why not eat a cake, or drink a pint, or sit in front of the telly in your pants mainlining nachos? (That last one may just be me, and yes, now it’s written down, I accept it’s not great behaviour).
Being around the sportsmen was also anxiety inducing. Every time the football came even vaguely in my direction a new bead of sweat broke out on my forehead. I didn’t want to have to kick the ball. I can’t. I mean, I can actually perform the act of connecting my foot with a ball, but I have no control over it. The ball might be cannoned twenty yards, or it might dribble off to one side. I might miss it entirely. And I can’t throw, either, certainly not a large heavy leather ball. So I kept my head down, walking at a speed that was just a little bit uncomfortable, until I was well past anything vaguely resembling physical activity and I could have a sit down on a bench under the trees.
I sat for a little while, drinking a bottle of water, taking in the sun. There was an ice cream van, and strolling pensioners, and cyclists. The Downs are over 400 acres of open land, meaning there’s plenty of room for crowds of people without it ever feeling full. It was the spot where 6000 people stood on a hillside in 1983 to form the words GOOD MORNING BRITAIN, a little piece of televisual history that means absolutely nothing to anyone under the age of thirty but which pleased me (and now you know what I was doing instead of learning how to kick a ball). I lazed, the two pints of beer from lunch sinking into me. Until an old man wandered past and, unashamedly, let out an enormous and lengthy fart. I took that as a signal and left.
I found a side gate, off the main paths, and entered the cool shady streets. The homes were a mix between small, expensive looking villas, and huge ugly apartment blocks. As though to conceal their ugliness, all the apartment blocks had been given astonishingly twee names. I’d pass a lovely little detached home that had a number on the gate, while next to it, five floors of red brick bulk was called something like “Fairy Badger Knoll”. I was glad to step off the tarmac and onto a steep side path that took me down to the Portway, the busy main road that shadows the Avon.
The space between the railway line and the road was being turned into a nature reserve. At the moment, this seemed to manifest itself mainly in the form of informational signs every fifty yards, plus a gigantic fish tail built out of rusting metal. The rest was thin grass and some square ponds, a real “it’ll be nice when it’s finished” situation. I managed to find a gap in the traffic and hurtled across to the pavement on the other side.
My plan had been to follow the road to Sea Mills, but a single finger sign pointed at a half-concealed staircase heading down to the river. I can’t resist forgotten walkways, and I was bouncing down the steps without a second thought. It brought me out right on the river wall. Mud flats glistened in the sunlight, the water levels low. I was enjoying the silence, the isolation, when an old man appeared on the path walking towards me; he nodded a hello, then called to a terrier in a padded lifejacket, almost as old as him. “Come on Ed.”
The lifejacket made my mind wander. It’s a bad habit of mine, thinking about the disasters that could befall me at any moment, getting a ghoulish thrill from the thought of my impending death. I looked down at the path beneath me: grassy, muddy, with no barriers or fences to stop me from plummeting into the river. I imagined a slip, a fall, my head cracking against the bricks and knocking me unconscious, then my body sliding under the dark water, never to be seen again.
I was in the middle of picturing the tearful mourners at my funeral when the path curved inwards, to accommodate the head of the River Trym. A badly rusted bridge, looking more like a hazard than a piece of transport infrastructure, carried the railway over the water. I crossed the line by a foot crossing then headed up to the platform. That was enough for the day, I thought. There were still four stations left to visit, but that could wait until the morning. All I wanted to do now was relax.
Part two will follow later.