Thursday 18 July 2019

Request Accepted

One of the things I like about trains is their anonymity.  As a shy, anxious person, I dislike any form of transport that requires me to talk to another human being.  In terms of travelling, walking is the best, because that's me and no-one else.  Next is trains, because once you've bought a ticket (which you can do online) that's it: you get on board and stay there until you get off and nobody bothers you.  Buses require a conversation with the driver, who in my experience is usually a mardy twat, and you have the tension of not knowing where the stops are.  The very worst experience is a taxi, where you a wedged in a tiny space with a complete stranger who may want to rape or murder you, or worse, may want to have a chat.  How people can willingly submit themselves to an Uber where you're not only trapped in a car with a stranger but also they have the ability to slap a star rating on your very existence as a human being is beyond me; frankly I'd rather strap myself into a wheely bin and have it dragged along by donkeys.

The exception to the trains are cool and relaxing rule is the request stop.  These are stations where you have to find a member of staff and ask them to halt the train just for you.  I've been to a fair few of these over the years, from Tonfanau in Wales to Braystones in Cumbria and New Clee near Grimsby.  I even visited the legendary Berney Arms when I was travelling for the aborted book, a trip I really should stick on here some day (it involved a guard asking me if I was really sure I wanted to get off there).  They're usually on tiny, quiet branch lines, isolated spots in the countryside or away from the main routes where there's barely any traffic.

The stress is finding a member of staff to ask them to stop.  If you're lucky, they'll get out of the train and stand on the platform and you can dash down to put in your request.  If you're not, they'll stay hidden in their guard van, squirreled away with a newspaper, and it makes me sweat and panic and have palpitations.

I'd not really expected to find any request stops on the West Midlands Railway - a network that's pretty urban - but stretching down on the Moor Street to Stratford stretch is a little chain of request halts.  I decided to collect most of them in one day, to minimise the stress, leaving Wootton Wawen for another day largely because it sounds like a Frank Muir insult and so it deserves special attention.

My first station, though, was a regular old stop: Earlswood.  I got off the train alongside a delightful old couple who immediately locked arms and walked towards the exit entwined.  I was a lot quicker, of course, nipping up the steps to get the sign selfie at the roadside.

What I hadn't realised, in my haste to get to the sign, was that there was a fence at the top, stopping you from turning right.  And since I wanted to turn right, I had to go back down the steps, past the befuddled looking elderly couple, and out a side exit on the platform into a small avenue of houses.  As is the rule with all stretches of railway cottages, a couple of them had been decorated with train themed novelties - lamps and the like - because train nerds add at least two grand to the value of any home that's trackside.

I followed the road for a little while until I saw a fingerpost pointing the way to a public footpath.  There was a locked gate and, either side, a wooden fence covered in barbed wire.  "Typical," I thought.  "The farmer has blocked the way for hikers, despite it being a legal right of way."  With a sense of moral indignation I vaulted the fence - even though I was wearing shorts - and felt smug at having avoided this obnoxious hick's attempts to bar my progress.

It was then I noticed the well-maintained gap in the hedge, just beyond the sign, with the bushes carefully trimmed by the landowner to let walkers by.  I felt suitably shamefaced.

I tracked down the side of a small copse for a couple of minutes then stepped out into the middle of a field of wheat.  I'd only travelled a little way - I could still see the road behind me - but everything suddenly felt still and quiet.  It was noon; there was no breeze, no birdsong, just the high heat and the long stretch of field.  I felt as though I'd stepped through into a different world.

I followed the dirt path, footsteps and paw prints baked into it like fossil finds, and entered the thick woods at the far end.  The heat was immediately whisked away and I was shaded by the high trees.  The leaves broke up the sunlight, scattering it around me, catching my face and arms sometimes, sometimes leaving me in darkness.

I am a city boy.  I like the countryside, but I couldn't live there.  The other night - after England won the Cricket World Cup - the BF decided we needed to celebrate and went to the shop.  Five minutes later we were opening a bottle of wine.  You couldn't do that out here.  You'd have had to do without.  I'd have had to endure him yammering on about cricket - the dullest of all sports, which is quite some achievement when you think about it - without the benefit of alcohol.  One of us would've been dead by the end of the night and I'm not sure who.

And yet.  And yet.  It was so peaceful.  As I walked I felt my shoulders slide, my pressures fade.  I began to relax.  I began to breathe.  Wandering around the suburbs of cities collecting the stations is never dull; there's always something new and interesting to see.  But here I appreciated the solitude and the beauty.  Breathing in the scents of nature.  Listening to nothing but my own footsteps.  It was certainly appealing.

Of course, this wasn't as isolated as it seemed.  This was a nature reserve near the second largest city in the country; I'd soon encounter a walker with his happy golden retriever, and the remains of a base built by teenagers, and a car park.  But there was still a solitude that left me grinning happily.

I turned south.  The coppice formed part of a nature reserve around the Earlswood Lakes.  These are three reservoirs, built in the early nineteenth century to provide water for the newly built Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal.  At first they were purely practical, but any wide body of water close to an industrial city is soon going to attract the attention of daytrippers, and it became a popular spot for picnics.  I was on the northern side of the lakes, at the edge of Terry's Pool, but I couldn't seem to see any water.  I knew I was getting closer - I could hear voices and splashing - but the trees remained stubbornly thick.  All I could see was waterlogged mud and a stagnant, unmoving channel.

A jogger burned by me, lithe in black spandex and wearing tight wraparound shades.  That was the exact point where I remembered I had a pair of prescription sunglasses at home that I could be wearing instead of squinting every time I leave the house in summer.  I think I've worn them about twice; thankfully they were free with my regular pair of glasses otherwise I'd be really annoyed I wasn't getting my money's worth out of them.

Another smell reached me, a smell of burning, the thick musk of wood on fire.  It wasn't the smell of a barbecue but was instead something far more unprofessional.  It was the smell of my teenage years, in the local Bluebell Woods with my friend Sanjay, trying to summon up a campfire despite us having absolutely no outdoorsman skills whatsoever.  We'd build a little pyramid of sticks, light it with a match, and it would burn thickly for a few minutes producing plenty of smoke.  And then it'd go out, and we'd sit next to it wondering what to do now.  I know there's a lot of chatter about kids these days being obsessed with their smartphones but at least they'd have been able to whip out a Samsung and find a YouTube video to tell them how to get a proper burn going.

Slightly anxious I was going to encounter a minor forest fire, I followed the path a little further, in time for the jogger to come back past me again.  Either he'd done a fairly sharp u-turn or he was faster than I thought.  But now, at least, I'd got a glimpse of water through the trees.

I was immediately cheered.  I'd come to The Lakes, and I'd seen The Lakes.  The blog post wouldn't have an embarrassing hole in the centre of it.  I negotiated past a mother in a Villa Is In My Soul t-shirt, her two toddlers excitably grabbing at every bit of grass they and tree they saw, and ended up at the nature reserve's southern entrance.  Now there was a proper view across the lake.  I walked down to the end of one of the fishing piers and stood for a while, quietly, just enjoying it.

I drifted.  I stood on the pier and drifted.  Just in my head of course; I wasn't off in a boat.  If I hadn't been afraid of toppling into the water I'd have closed my eyes.  It was so peaceful and charming.  Finally I turned back towards the exit.  Waiting on the gate to the car park was a robin.  Is there anyone who doesn't immediately smile when they see a robin?  You'd have to be a sociopath not to find them utterly joyous.

There was a playground by the car park, and in the shade of one of the trees, two mums had spread a picnic blanket and were happily munching crisps with their babies.  I walked out into the village of Terry's Green, more of a high-end hamlet: a single long street of detached homes.  Every other house seemed to be in the middle of a building project.  There were stacks of bricks for new driveways, cement mixers for extensions, boards advertising Another Great Bathroom by....  This was a place of subtle upgrades and adding value.

It was almost as silent as the field.  The only time I saw another person was when my hungry stomach churned out an enormous belch; immediately a cyclist overtook me and a man with a lawnmower appeared from behind a hedge, as though my mum had sent out agents to humiliate me and to teach me a lesson for not covering my mouth when I burped.  At the end of the road, just as a breeze appeared, I saw the railway bridge and then, the sign for the station.

The Lakes halt was built to accommodate all those Brummie daytrippers.  It opened in 1935, long after the rest of the line, and so was done relatively cheaply.  It was given short platforms - though I hadn't realised just how short they were until I got there.  Announcements on the train coming down had advised passengers for the Lakes to get in the front, and this was because the platform could only hold a single carriage; the other three dangled off the end.

I went in the shelter and got out my lunch: an LGBT sandwich from Marks and Spencer.  I'd bought it earlier, purely because a gay sarnie made me laugh, and because a portion of the cost went to gay charities.  The LGBT stood for lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato.  Having tasted it, I can now see why nobody has thought to put guacamole in a BLT before.  That'll teach me to buy food for any reason other than "it tastes nice".  I forced myself to swallow it - I'll leave you to make your own gay joke there - and tried not to think about the upcoming request I was going to have to make.

I was surprised when somebody else turned up on the platform ahead of the train, a teenage girl in tiny denim shorts who weighed roughly the same as my right arm.  She stood on the end of the Harrington Hump and talked into her phone, holding it horizontally from her mouth like an Apprentice candidate.  Why do teenagers do this?  Is this the evolution of technology?  Are mobiles so distant from the concept of the telephone they no longer associate them with that weird receiver/mouthpiece contraption in the hall - if, indeed, their family even has a landline these days?  Or are they just really antisocial and don't give a toss that everyone else can hear both sides of their conversation as they play it through their speakers?

It was good that she was there in a way, because it quelled a fear I had about the request stop.  The train was ten minutes late - trespassers on the line apparently - and I was a bit scared that the driver would simply whizz past without stopping to make the time back up, pretending he hadn't seen me.  A saucy looking teen would definitely attract his attention though, and indeed, when he pulled into the platform, the driver turned his head to make sure he got a decent look.  She climbed on board while I headed for the conductor and, slightly tremulously, said, "Can you stop at Danzey for me please?"

"Danzey?  Certainly sir," he replied.  My anxiety was absolutely unfounded, as it often is.  He was polite and efficient and everything I needed him to be.  By the time we stopped at my station I was almost as calm as when I'd been stood by Terry's Pool.

There was someone else getting off the train with me anyway, an outdoorsy-looking teenager in a green gilet whose mum was waiting for her on the platform with car keys in hand.  She excitably asked her daughter about the trespasser, but she knew nothing; she'd had her headphones in and hadn't heard any of the announcements.

I left the station, crossing the car park where a banner for a long finished festival had fallen into the hedge, and headed for the roadside.  Danzey is even more isolated than The Lakes or Earlswood; its nearest centre of population is the tiny hamlet of Danzey Green.  It was originally known as Danzey for Tanworth, because about a mile away is a much larger village, but here on the ground it was a stationmaster's house and a pair of shelters and not much else.

It was time for me to play one of my least favourite games: avoid the traffic.  The lanes here were quiet but there was still a few cars, which made the lack of footpath an irritation.  I trekked up the hill, flinging myself into the hedge now and then when I heard the whistle of a car behind me, hoping they didn't think I looked incredibly suspicious.  If I'd been in the city they'd have probably thought I was trying not to be seen.

Daisies speckled the mown grass, while thistles and nettles reached out from the longer stretches.  I crunched dry wood beneath my heavy boots and built up a sweat as the road rose upwards.  The cars that passed were largely executive class, BMWs and Audis, with a smattering of SUVs and the occasional convertible.  The open topped cars always had someone far too old or bald at the wheel.  At one point, there was the snarl of an old-fashioned engine, and a red E-type swung by me, elegant and glamorous and charming.  There was a tractor too, with a trailer of shrink wrapped hay bales, which only reminded me of that moment in the novel of Moonraker where Krebs releases a lorryload of newsprint down a hill to wreck 007's Bentley.  He called them "toilet paper of the Gods" (take that, people who say Fleming is humourless!) and the black plastic rolls behind the tractor had the same vibe.

Soon I turned away from the mildly smutty amusement of Butts Lane and I approached the edge of Tanworth-in-Arden.  The village sign had a second, smaller one underneath, though with my dodgy eyes I couldn't read it from a distance.  Normally it's a proud boast, like Twinned with Gesundheit-im-Saxony or Winner, Britain in Bloom 1996.  When I got closer I saw that this one read Residents Fighting Crime By Property Marking.

Immediately beyond that, under the 20 mile an hour circle, were two more signs: This is a Neighbourhood Watch Area and Thieves Beware: Smartwater in this area.  It wasn't exactly an open arms welcome.  I felt like I was under suspicion for just being a stranger in town.  However, yet another sign gave a hint that poor Tanworth was in the middle of a crimewave.  In my travels around the country, I've often happened across little stands at the side of the road, selling eggs and jam, with an honesty box for your money.  Here though, the stand outside the farm had been replaced by a white A-board, with an exasperated Produce Stolen AGAIN So Please Call At House, and then a list of jams and marmalades.  

It was a shame Tanworth had the crime levels of inner city Detroit because it was quite easily one of the prettiest villages I had ever visited.  At its centre was a green, around which charming, well-appointed homes gathered, with a war memorial and a church with a spire.  There were Tudor beamed cottages and iron street lamps and even a red phone box that still had a working telephone inside.

Tanworth-In-Arden's picturesque centre attracted the eye of the television moguls, and it became used as the outdoor location for that most iconic of Midlands TV shows: Crossroads.  When there was a bit of money spare in the meagre budget, ATV permitted the producers to go outdoors to visit the motel's nearby village "Kings Oak" (that lack of an apostrophe in King's is so casually Acorn Antiques).  Crossroads was never a thing when I was growing up - we were a Coronation Street house - so I didn't get the thrill of recognition I got when I visited, say, the Red Rec, but it was still pleasing to know I was in a bit of television history.  You can even see the Tanworth green in this clip of the very last episode in 1988.  (Yes, you heard, the very last episode.  I will not give anything made by Carlton the time of day).  

Admittedly, the village doesn't quite have the hustle it once had.  The post box has a Post Office sign on top, but that building's long been converted to a private house; the same goes for the former butchers and tea rooms, while the village shop is now a beauty salon.  (There's an excellent comparison of the village as it appeared in Crossroads and as it is now here).  There is, however, still a pub, which of course called to me.  I was hot and sweaty and the thought of downing a pint of something foamy and boozy was incredibly appealing.

I was disappointed.  The Bell overlooks the village green, but it wasn't the comfortable, dark drinking hole I'd wanted.  It had been gentrified, gastropubbed, stripped out and painted pale grey.  The tables were for eating, not drinking, and I was stood at the bar for several minutes while the owners dealt with customers ordering food.  Finally I got to order a pint - of Stella Artois, not the niche local brew I'd hoped for, because their pumps were limited to lagers mainly.  There were huge varieties of wines and spirits but not much in the way of proper beer.

I took my pint over to the window and perched on a stool beside a narrow zinc shelf.  Sitting in one of the high sided banquettes for my one drink felt frowned upon, and I didn't want any food, so I rested my sweaty forearms on the metal and cooled down.  They left marks in perspiration where I'd been.  I was lowering the tone, with my backpack and my shorts covered in burrs from the grass, but I was thirsty and I'd paid my four pounds ten so I wasn't really bothered.  The moneyed retirees in the restaurant, the owner with his blonde highlights, and me with my dripping forehead and soaked through shirt, we'd all stick it out together.

My bravado didn't last forever though.  In my timetable, I'd allowed for a fair old rest at the Bell.  I'd imagined a series of lazy pints to while away the afternoon.  The stool was uncomfortable though, and I didn't feel welcome, so I supped up, returned my glass to the bar, and headed out of the village.

I'd planned on walking across country.  My Ordnance Survey map had shown a footpath that traversed the fields, taking a footbridge over the railway line then ending up almost on top of Wood End station.  I must have missed the signpost though, because I soon realised I'd overshot the spot where the right hand turn should have been, and I was simply following the road.  I mentally shrugged.  I don't like going back on myself, and it was a quiet enough road for me to walk on without too much stress about being mown down by a Range Rover.

There were a few homes dotted around, mostly old cottages in stone and brick, with the occasional white and black beamed house tucked at the end of a driveway.  As I got closer to the main road at Wood End itself, though, the homes took a turn.  They were still big, huge in fact, but they were also pretty... awful.  The characterful houses were replaced by tacky mansions.  Detached, modern buildings, built out of shiny red brick with fake looking concrete pediments and porches and balconies.  Big garages sat at the head of acres of driveway with two or three cars.  They looked like supersized suburbia, Barrett Homes that had somehow grown to mammoth proportions, outsized and disjointed.  They were expensive but not attractive.   

By the time I saw Wood End's double arrow sign at the roadside, I could've been in any well-appointed district of the city.  There were driveway entrances every few feet and a layby underneath the sign was filled with cars parked for the commute.

I followed a long alleyway between back gardens and the railway embankment - and when I say long, I mean really long; I was almost back at The Lakes by the time I got to the end - until I reached the steps down to the platforms.  They were extremely modern, in grey and yellow, but what surprised me was there were no ramps.  They'd reconstructed access to the platforms in 2014, removing a bridge over the tracks, but they'd put no way for anyone less able to use steps to get down into the cutting.  I was so used to seeing modern stations with a Mouse Trap style run of ramps, I didn't realise you actually could put in steps without a ramp these days.

Down below things were far more traditional.  There was a central paved section, and another Harrington Hump, but beyond that the platform was scuffed and broken up.  There were concrete shelters, and a tunnel entrance to the south.

More interestingly, a couple of old-style railway signs had been preserved, one on each platform.

It was only a few minutes before my train emerged from the tunnel.  I raised a hand and it slid to a gentle halt.  Request made.  Request accepted.

I forgot to say thank you to the person who donated to my Ko-fi after my pathetic outpouring of self-pity the other week.  Thank you, and I hope the subsequent posts have made up for my wallowing!

Thursday 11 July 2019

Beer Goggles

Beer is awful.  At least, it is at first.  Beer is this orange mess you have to force yourself to like because everyone else is drinking it.  That first pint you get as a teenager, that wondrous moment when you get to drink what everyone else drinks... and then you taste it and it's bitter and flat and gross. 

Of course, you have to train yourself.  You have to force yourself to have more and eventually you get used to it.  After a while you sort of like it.  Then you really like it.  Then you end up an alcoholic like me.

I bring all this up because I was visiting Burton-upon-Trent.  Or Burton-on-Trent.  I can't quite get to the bottom of which is the correct version.  I can't even get to the bottom of whether it has hyphens in it or not.  The council website lists its address as Burton upon Trent and that feels like the most incorrect version of all. 

Anyway, I was visiting that place and, despite what the sign up there says, it's a name synonymous with beer rather than the National Forest.  Burton is the home of beer.  They've been brewing here for centuries and it's still the main industry in town.  Walk from the station to the town centre and you pass by the huge main brewery, straddling Station Street and dominating every view.

This was, originally, the Bass brewery, a famous name in British beer.  However, after mergers and buyouts and sales, it's now the MolsonCoors brewery, which is of course rubbish.  Even the logo is terrible. 

It was lunchtime on a baking hot Thursday and the streets were filled with brewery workers nipping to the Sainsbury's for their lunch.  I crossed over at a busy junction and ended up in a pedestrian zone where enthusiastic men in shirt and tie were trying to flog electricity to disinterested passers by.

From there it was a brief little wander down to a market square, with a church and cafe tables and an assortment of stalls.  It was pretty, a nice little centre to a small town.

Can you tell I'm struggling to say anything about Burton(-)(up)on(-)Trent?  Because while it was perfectly pleasant, there really wasn't anything to catch me.  The town centre was a mix of old and new buildings.  There were plenty of shops.  There was a college, still marked as the Technical College on a fingerpost, with demob happy teens lazing around outside. 

There was absolutely nothing wrong with Burton, but there was absolutely nothing special about it either.  I ducked behind the church and wandered around some riverside meadows, where there were ducks and a Victorian footbridge, and people sat on benches taking in the sun.  A pair of teens were trying to get an Instagram worthy shot, with one girl stood in the reeds and the other on the footpath.  I hesitated so she could snap her photo but she waved me on.  "We'll be ages," she admitted.

Before long I'd done a circuit so I walked back into town.  Most of the shops are tucked away in a pair of malls so I headed into them, if only to get a bit of aircon.  In the centre of Cooper's Square was a monument to brewing because, as I say, they're really keen on the beer.

The sofas aren't part of the monument.  There seemed to be some kind of furniture sale, with a bored looking man slumped in one of the armchairs playing with his phone.  There was another monument to brewing outside the shopping centre as well, though this one was a bit more avant garde.

There were no monuments to Marmite, Burton's other contribution to the national cuisine, which was a shame.  Marmite came about when someone realised they could turn all the leftover brewer's yeast into a food, giving hope to all manufacturers that they can turn their waste products into a handy sideline.  One day we'll all be spreading bits of plastic regurgitated from the Dyson factory on our toast, you watch.  I had a bit of a wander round the Waterstones, as is the law whenever I spot a bookshop, then took a turn and realised I was back on the market square again.  So that was that.

It was no good.  I'd resisted it long enough.  I was going to have to go to the pub.  But which one?  The day before I'd put out a request on Twitter for recommendations, and I'd got half a dozen back.  Unfortunately, Burton's commitment to beer hadn't yet translated into all-day drinking.  Looking at the websites I found that most of the decent pubs closed at 2:30 and then reopened in the evening, which severely limited my choice.  Either that or I would have to go for one of the lesser pubs or, heaven forbid, a Wetherspoons.

What I really wanted to do was drink some Burton beer but, to be frank, I don't particularly like Bass beers.  Carling?  Are you mad?  Carling is the drink of thugs and idiots.  Perhaps a Doom Bar, if I could find one, but that MolsonCoors had put me off the whole idea to be honest.  I didn't particularly want to give my money to a North American brewery because it will only encourage them to make more, and Americans and Canadians cannot make beer.  It is the most tasteless piss of all tasteless piss.  It makes Carling taste sophisticated and complex.

I walked round the back streets, past a couple of pubs converted into houses that still hung their signs outside; that's somehow sadder than them not being pubs at all, a remnant of the good old days slapped onto modern practicality.  I had decided to head for the Coopers Tavern based on three facts.  First, it was the only one of the recommended pubs that seemed to be open all day.  Second, it was originally the tap house for the Bass brewery, so while I wasn't actually going to drink local beer, I was in a pub that was of genuine importance to the local brewing industry.  Third, the Our Story section of the Joule's Brewery website is so delightfully bitter and pissy I had to encourage that level of pettiness.

Inside, the pub was dark and low-ceilinged, a series of small rooms with the barrels at the back.  There wasn't a bar, more a space to be served, with a friendly looking barman and the beers chalked up on the wall.  I picked the IPA and tried to ignore the cluster of pub bores who were loudly discussing how good it would be if they brought back National Service though naturally, "my lad wouldn't be able to handle it.  Too soft."  Would it surprise you to learn that not one of these moaners was old enough to have done National Service themselves?  Of course it won't.

I went back to the front with my pint so I wouldn't have to listen to them any more and took a sip.  It was... okay?  A bit too dark for me.  There was a strong aftertaste that didn't really agree with me.  Beer tastes change and evolve as you get older.  When you're young you stick with the blandest lager you can find because then you're getting the alcohol without the taste.  As you grow, you get bored of that, so somewhere around your early thirties you move onto bitter, because that's got a bit of a flavour to it - start with the simple ones, like Boddingtons.  Then you begin delving into the craft section until, when you're in your forties like me, you realise you have a whole ladder of preferred brands in your head, a Choose Your Own Adventure of IF they don't have this beer THEN go to this beer UNLESS they have this one.  The next step, beyond that one, is joining CAMRA and doing that thing where you get a little shot glass of beer before you'll bring yourself to commit to a full pint.

I think the Joule's IPA was built for that stage of life.  It was a bit too complex for me.  It was for people who have used the phrase "barkeep".  It took me a fair while to finish it but, because I am brave and strong, and also cheap, I was determined to polish off the whole pint. 

I headed back to the station.  It won't win any prizes.  It's a 1960s construction, mounted on a bridge over the tracks and surrounded by parking and taxi ranks.  Like the rest of the town, it's ok.  Just ok.  Maybe the key to really appreciating Burton is to be drunk.  It would explain a lot.