Hereford and Worcester will always be linked in my brain. The ancient counties of Herefordshire and Worcestershire were abolished in 1974 as part of the massive Local Government reforms that also created the Metropolitan Counties and the likes of Cumbria and Avon. At first, the proposed county was called Malvernshire; that was widely disliked, so they had a try at Wyvernshire (from the river Wye in Hereford and the river Severn in Worcester), but everyone hated that as well, so the county ended up being called Hereford & Worcester.
That was the county name I learned at school, colouring it in on the map in my exercise book, and that's what still sounds right to me. It was colossally unpopular though. Herefordshire was big, but it only had about a third of the population of Worcestershire, so the residents thought they were being taken over. Nobody was ever very keen and finally in 1998 it was abolished and the two old counties made their way back into existence. Hereford & Worcester clings on in the name of the BBC radio station and the fire service and the minds of Gen Xers like me who think Herefordshire sounds weird.
I'd been staying in a Travelodge in Hereford for three nights but I'd held off exploring the city until Sunday, planning on doing it as a double bill with Worcester. Unfortunately my body had different ideas. I had a bit of a sore throat on Saturday night, which made me cough during the night, which gave me a headache, which were joined by a runny nose, which meant by Sunday morning I was feeling rough. Really rough. I had a cold.
I know there are women reading this (I assume there are a couple of you) and rolling your eyes. "We BLEED every month! We force human beings out of bits of us that are clearly too small for the job! You men don't know suffering!" And you're absolutely right: I don't know what that level of regular, persistent unpleasantness is like. I can only compare it with how I usually feel, and I usually feel fairly chipper and upbeat, and this cold made me feel awful. I wanted to stay in bed where it was warm and not do anything.
But I had already paid for the ticket, and I knew that if I didn't get out to Worcester and have a bit of a look round Hereford, I'd regret it. So instead of a full, long day of considered exploration of the two cities, I had to do the quick version. Walk round them, go to the stations, walk back. Sorry but be glad you got anything.
It was barely past eight on a Sunday morning when I emerged from the underpass under the ring road into the pedestrianised centre of Hereford. There was a strip of Polish shops here, their windows promising unusual food in laser printed full colour, and then a church with a coffee shop where you were encouraged to "do good with your coffee". Everything was silent. Sunday morning is quiet for any town but it seemed even more so in Hereford.
Broad Street offered grand buildings interspersed with churches and more modern mistakes and then I was in the Cathedral close. It was too early for worshippers so I had the building to myself. I stood for a moment, looking up at the tower in the sun, then I let out a big ugly sneeze. I moved on.
I'll be honest: Hereford hadn't impressed me in my few days here. I could see it had its charms. There had been a well-attended market the day before, and there were certainly some very pretty buildings. But something about the place was tired and lost. I felt like it was the kind of city people couldn't wait to leave. I'd seen a lot of teenagers about over the past few days, hanging outside the McDonalds, bored, and I imagined that was a way of life for a lot of them. Just waiting.
There was a plaque on the wall of one of the buildings commemorating the birthplace of Richard Kemble, theatre manager and his children John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons. Interestingly, while the professions of the men were left a mystery, Sarah Siddons had (The Actress) after her name, in case you got her confused with Sarah Siddons (The Waitress) or Sarah Siddons (The Dental Hygienist). It was even more jarring given that Sarah Siddons is easily the most famous of the three, and probably the only one an average person could name. (Although I just asked the BF if he'd heard of any of them, and the only one he knew was Richard Kemble, until he realised he was thinking of the bloke out of The Fugitive, so maybe none of them are that big a deal any more).
I ended up back on the main street, with a huge statue of a Hereford bull at its centre. The shops were suffering the same problem all cities have now; fewer and fewer people were visiting. There were a lot of empty spaces, and building work to convert vacant upstairs floors into flats.
I had a sausage and egg McMuffin in McDonalds, the only place open at this time of day, and watched a volunteer with a lanyard bring in a couple of homeless men and buy them breakfast. I sucked down the ridiculously awful coffee - McDonalds coffee is concentrated caffeine with no regard to taste - and then used the buzz from it to propel me onto the next stage of my walk.
I'd reached the other side of the ring road, where the Franklin Barnes building offered a nice bit of 1960s modernism. That great font, and the iron artwork! Sadly, the building seemed to be barely used these days - it was built as a garden centre but they're long gone - and I suspect it won't be around for much longer.
I had good reason to fear Hereford doing the wrong thing by the Franklin Barnes building, because for the last few days I'd got to see what they'd done to the station.
It's a fine Victorian pile that's sadly underused today. The ticket office is small and cramped, while most of the building is inaccessible to the public. The real problem is just outside it. In the sixties and seventies, well-meaning civic planners drove ring roads through swathes of British towns and cities as the car was the future. In a lot of cases, these ring roads tended to follow the railway at least in part - it was often a bit of town that was run down, or filled with cheap industrial units, while the tracks formed a natural border the road could ape. It also saved on expensive bridges over the tracks for the new road. What tended to happen, though, was the station ended up on the wrong side of the bypass.
This didn't matter to the planners in those days because hey, railways were the old way, and this was the groovy twentieth century where everyone would have a car and possibly a jet pack. It put the station outside the city. Obviously, this turned out to be a mistake, as trains continued to be successful and popular and weirdly getting new visitors to your city to drag their suitcases through underpasses or over footbridges was colossally unpopular. Town planners have spent the last few decades unpicking this mistake, calming the roads outside stations, and making it an open, welcoming gateway. Coventry, for example, has removed a junction of its ring road by its transport hub and turned the reclaimed space into parkland.
Hereford's ring road is tight to the medieval centre; you have another half a mile to walk to get to the station. None the less, the present day planners have learned absolutely nothing from the past, and have sent a brand new road right in front of the station. Named the "Hereford City Link Road", because they couldn't even be bothered trying to make it interesting, a dual carriageway smashing its way past the railway station and connecting two main roads out of the city was opened in 2017.
The railway station is just off camera there, to the right. In front of it is a forecourt of parking, then four lanes of traffic. It's bare, blasted land. The flythroughs before it opened showed an avenue flanked with trees; none of them seem to have showed up. Signs offering "prime development sites" sit on the corner of rubble and concrete. And pedestrians are left hanging at a crossing that doesn't seem to prioritise them in the slightest. I passed through this junction half a dozen times over the course of my stay and every single time one or two people gave up waiting for the green man and hurled themselves across the road. If people are wondering if the puffin crossing is working because they've seen nothing but a stream of traffic in every direction, you've done it wrong.
Maybe in a few years time it'll all look a lot better. Those development sites will be filled; the kinks will be worked out. I'm not holding my breath. Every time I stepped out of the station I was struck again by how awful and unwelcoming it all was.
Look at me manfully persisting even though I'm suffering. What a hero.
I boarded the West Midlands Railway train to Worcester. The Ashes were on at Edgbaston, so the train was filled with people in straw hats carrying picnic baskets. (A couple of days before the guard had warned: "This train is going to get really busy after Worcester, so if you need to use the toilets, do it now.") I was able to get a seat and I sat down for the surprisingly long journey to Worcester, hoping nobody would sit next to me and have to suffer my spluttering.
Worcester immediately marked itself out as - well, if not a party town, certainly one that was a lot more fun. I went down the steps from the platform behind a gang of twentysomethings, good looking and well dressed, clearly about to have a ball of a day in the city. I trudged behind them into the ticket hall, tucked under the railway arches, then out onto the street for the sign pic.
Foregate Street is wedged beneath the bridge carrying the railway through the city, with the beautifully decorated ironwork immediately something of a landmark. There's something so much more vibrant and exciting about a station that's right at the heart of the city, spilling its passengers out onto a main thoroughfare. Take note Hereford.
I walked through the city centre, a long strip of chain stores interspersed with restaurants and bars. By now it was nearly eleven am and the shoppers were out, thronging the pathways, and enjoying the sun. Outside the Carphone Warehouse, a man was trying to train his Golden Retriever to run in and out of the bollards. I thought at first he was doing it to busk, but there was no hat out, and the dog was so daffily useless it seemed to be a work in progress. The owner was good-natured and happy though, laughing as he called the dog back when it wandered off somewhere more interesting, and passers-by stopped to smile.
I passed the gleaming gilt of the Guildhall and headed towards Cathedral Square, a new development at the foot of the hill. Galleries of chain restaurants - All Bar One, Starbucks, Ask, a "coming soon" Five Guys had been wedged in around an open plaza backing onto an older precinct. There were already people sat at the outdoor tables. It felt light and pleasant.
Also here was a statue of composer and local lad Edward Elgar. I'd seen his handprints throughout my travels, with his name popping up in businesses and streets and footpaths. He was born outside Worcester, in Broadheath, and his father ran a music shop close by. He lived in the county on and off throughout his life, returning here to retire and finally being buried alongside his wife in Little Malvern. (I was surprised to read of the wife, to be honest, but then I realised I had Edward Elgar mixed up with notorious homosexual Benjamin Britten. I almost outed Elgar without any just cause).
I headed past the cathedral, in mid-service, and down a side street where a blue plaque commemorated Elgar's former home (now a hotel). It was a narrow cobbled street that lead to the rear of the cathedral grounds. Under an archway and found myself on a quiet college green. There was scaffolding over the back of the cathedral, and it struck me how much work is always needed for a building of that vintage. Unless it's just a big scam by the Church of England and they pay builders to do nothing on religious buildings all the time to raise funds.
A set of steps beneath a building so comically picturesque it could easily have been shipped in from Disneyland...
...emptied me out onto the riverside. The path was busy with strollers and joggers, families and couples, people taking in the gentle breeze of the water that cooled the hot August air.
Swans were scatttered across the Severn, and here and there I heard the chink of glasses from pub terraces. I followed the path south, away from the city centre, towards the old port area. The prow of the King's School boathouse jutted out over my head. The quality of architecture made me think the King's School probably wasn't the local comp.
At the end of the path, a lock emptied the Worcester and Birmingham Canal into the river Severn. If I'd followed that towpath I could've walked all the way to the Gas Street Basin, right at the heart of Birmingham; as it was, I wandered into a small canal basin made upmarket with apartments and bars.
There were pretty houseboats moored by the path, covered in flowers and plants, though a sign warned me that these were Private moorings - for your own safety keep off, which seemed to hint the boat owners were waiting in the dark with a shotgun ready to blow away trespassers. There was another sign, warning me about Operation Leviathan, a task force stopping illegal fishing, and I wondered why the policemen responsible for coming up with operation names didn't just write the hard-hitting thriller their ridiculously over the top titles hinted they were dying to put together.
There was a sponsored walk going down the towpath that day, with signs everywhere, and when a phalanx of fast-paced pensioners appeared wearing tracksuits behind me, I decided to leave them to it and clambered back up to street level. I was in a less-pretty area of town, where the ring road was being dug up even on a weekend, and a Nandos and cinema had been built in fake brickwork, but soon after that I'd stumbled into another pretty street.
It was all so relentlessly charming and lovely I had to take a breather. Fortunately, at a crossroads, the brown-tiled Eagle Vaults pub called out to me. I got a pint of Wainwright and settled into a quiet banquette.
It was barely twelve, so maybe a little early for booze, but I deserved it. I was aching all over from the walking and my head was throbbing. And where better to stop and pause than a proper old boozer with a silent telly and a tired old dog who gracefully took any affectionate pat you pointed his way.
A little light-headed - turns out bitter and Lemsip aren't equally valid treatments for a cold; who knew? - I tottered out of the pub, across the ring road, and onto George Street to head for Shrub Hill station. There was a brief moment of drama where I was almost killed by a cyclist; he was in the wrong lane, travelling against the direction of traffic, through a red light, while I crossed on a green man. I almost wish I'd been mortally wounded because he'd have got the book thrown at him. Beyond it was a long strip of retail park. In all the fuss about the death of the British High Street, it's interesting that the retail park is dying too and nobody cares. They used to be a strip of big names in big stores but so many of them have gone bust or downhill that they end up being a row of B&M, Home and Bargains and the vacant shell of a Staples. Given the body blow out of town developments gave to city centres it's poetic justice of sorts. At this one, a Majestic Wine Warehouse hinted at better times, but they're a brand on its knees as well so it'll probably be a Matalan by Christmas.
Over the canal, round the corner, and I spotted the sign for Shrub Hill in the distance. There was an ugly block of offices, bland and brutal, its roof crowned with mobile phone masts. Someone had given it the name Elgar House, presumably in a fit of irony. Across the way, the Great Western pub hinted at an old world of railway hotels. I paused, took the sign picture, then got a shock.
Shrub Hill station opened in 1865 and it still retains its original building, with a loop of road heading up to the porte-cochère entrance. But the city has chosen to cover it up with bad developments and grime.
Leaving aside Elgar House muscling in on the right and destroying the view of the building, that is a deeply unimpressive vista. A car park. Industrial units. The building deserves so much more. Imagine if that loop of road was instead filled with a public open space, fountains, benches. A grand staircase leading down from the station entrance. It could be so much more, a much greater welcome to Worcester.
Admittedly, Foregate Street is better located for the town, but it's also hemmed in on all sides. This could be a great gateway to the city with taxi ranks, buses, and it could drive the regeneration of what's a grimy quarter.
Shrub Hill's on a triangle, heading towards Paddington, so the Hereford-Birmingham services often skip it altogether. As I arrived on the platform though, a West Midlands Railway train was just pulling in, so I hastily leapt aboard. It meant I had to skip the listed waiting room but I needed to get that train.
What I didn't realise was that it was going to reverse, so I was sat on there for a good few minutes before the train took off again. Still, it was good to have a sit down before my final walk through Hereford.
When it opened, Hereford station was known as Hereford Barrs Court. This was because there was already a much smaller station to the west of the city centre called Hereford Barton. Barrs Court was much better placed for railway services so it quickly outpaced its rival. Barton was demolished before the century was out, though the line was retained for goods and avoiding services for another eighty years before finally closing in 1979. That route is now preserved as a walking and cycle path, while the goods yard was turned into a Sainsbury's supermarket and a Travelodge. My Travelodge. I thought it'd be an interesting way to finish the day by following at least a little of the old railway line.
I walked south, through the back roads, until I reached the long sweep of grass that was the Castle Green and a footbridge across the Wye, the Victoria Bridge. Another cyclist tried to run me over, even though there were clear signs instructing him to dismount, but I managed to avoid this two-wheeled vendetta and walked across to the Bishop's Meadow.
Hereford was at play. The grass was covered with families, couples, football games and children playing. There was a buzz of laughter and joy. As I walked the riverside path I was joined by dog walkers and hikers.
Water gives everything a sheen of glamour. From the bank of the Wye the city suddenly became romantic. The cathedral dominating. Although let's be honest; if you're at your best seen from a distance...
The path rose to road level as I crossed the foot of the ancient Wye Bridge, now superseded by a concrete 20th century construction, then I was back on the slightly scrappier end of the river walk. It was a bit rougher here, more unkempt, and the views weren't quite as pretty. In the distance the ironwork of the Hunderton Bridge, which once carried the railway, slid into vision.
I went up to the bridge. For a hundred years this carried rail traffic, but now it's utterly peaceful, the loudest noise being the whizz of bike wheels or the crunch of footsteps. I was feeling absolutely exhausted by this point, but there was still that familiar thrill of walking where trains once went.
The route went round the side of the supermarket and ended up in the car park. The only hint of its former importance is a building on the far side which housed the Great Western Railway Staff Association; a social club for rail workers that still operated today.
I went into Sainsbury's and stocked up on essentials - by which I mean cold and flu remedies. Then I staggered the last few metres, past the Cider Museum (closed on a Sunday, because obviously who would want to visit a leisure attraction at the weekend?) and into the bland yet comforting surroundings of my hotel room. It hadn't been made up but I didn't care. The Do Not Disturb went on the door and I collapsed onto the bed, feeling terrible, and yet, satisfied. The Hereford End was complete.
Wednesday 21 August 2019
Tuesday 13 August 2019
Over on the far left of the West Midlands Railway map, there's a line which goes nowhere near the West Midlands. A thin pink line travels between Shrewsbury and Hereford. It's a Transport for Wales service, travelling from the coast of the country, dipping into the border counties of England, then finishing up in the big cities to the south of Wales. It's a long, slow route. By the time the train pulls into Craven Arms, it's already three hours distant from its start in Holyhead, and it'll be another three hours before it reaches Swansea.
I decided that, as I was in Hereford, I'd take out the bottom couple of stations from the map, the ones that would be hardest to visit in a day from Merseyside. Even then, I'd have to visit the towns then return to the trains, rather than walk between them. While there is a long-distance trail connecting Leominster and Ludlow, it's a wavy, meandering route, diverting to take in small villages and picturesque points, and turning a twelve mile "as the crows fly" walk into something more like sixteen or seventeen. Alternatively, I could've walked along the side of the A49 that travels between the towns, but honestly, where's the fun in that?
Instead I jumped off the train at Leominster with an hour to look round before the next train onwards. Of course, the first thing to make clear is that even though it's spelled Leominster it's actually pronounced Lemster. This is a trick to root out strangers to the town. Once they are discovered, they're tied to a block of concrete and thrown in the river Lugg to drown.
This is a joke. I'm only saying it because something about Leominster rubbed me up the wrong way. It was probably the fault of the woman who nearly ran me over in the station forecourt.
I was walking on that clearly delineated, raised footpath across the car park, when a driver backed her car out of a space with such speed and vigour she shot onto the pavement and forced me to stop. Then she merrily drove away without a moment's consideration. I don't suppose I need to tell you she was driving the smallest possible hatchback, a tiny flea speck of a car that could've done a three point turn on a copy of the Daily Mail without creasing the edges, but there you go.
I recovered what dignity still remained after I'd yelped like a Yorkshire Terrier in full view of passers by and took my sign picture, then followed the road into town. It was a grubby, uncared for thoroughfare. The buildings were mismatched, the paint peeled. Big houses had multiple doorbells for the many tiny homes within. At the entrance to a side road, two men with tattoo'd necks had parked their car on the double yellows and let their cigarette hands trail out the window.
So yes, Leominster wasn't showing me its best face. The areas round railway stations are rarely charming; they're often strips of takeaways, B&Bs, bedsits. I hadn't expected it in a quiet Herefordshire market town.
I reached the town centre, a knot of closely tied streets, and ended up in narrow pedestrianised roads. They opened up briefly into a nice little market square before closing up again.
Things were a bit better here, more cared for and more exclusive. There were antique shops and cafes and people busily shopping, but there were still a fair few arseholes around. The family that barged me into the gutter, refusing to concede an inch of pavement. The retirees sat outside a pub who literally pointed and laughed at my shorts. (And I have good legs!). By the time I reached the long strip of the High Street I was soured on the place, even though it was objectively fine.
That's a proper Georgian High Street: wide, dignified, appealing. I wandered down to the bottom, past more junk shops and a pub advertising music from "Dangerous Dave" (Dog friendly - owners on a lead!). It was hard for me to really hate a place that had its own Barometer Shop.
On my way back up, though, I encountered a "survival" shop. It sold itself as a place for hardy travellers, but there was an excess of soldier equipment and camouflage: it all looked a bit "prepper" to me. Since I'd already passed a shop selling army surplus and military regalia, plus the Leominster Gun Shop with a window of stuffed rabbits (presumably just prior to getting their heads blown off), I added it to my "this town is weird" prejudice and walked down a back road to the churchyard.
It opened out into an expanse of green parkland overlooked by Grange Court, a charming half-timbered building now turned into a community and visitor centre. It peered out over the beautifully maintained gardens - a sign in an empty shop had informed me that Leominster in Bloom Welcomes the Heart of England In Bloom Judges so they were clearly on their best behaviour - and the quiet grass. It was a mellow Saturday afternoon stroll. Two teenagers sat on a bench were making it even more mellow; as I walked past I got a distinctly herbal scent that explained their giggling. Time to head back to the station, I thought.
On a bin by the station there was a single pair of glasses. By this point I simply shrugged and thought "fair enough".
As you can imagine, my expectations for Ludlow were now at rock bottom. And Ludlow didn't help itself with its railway station. All day I'd been travelling between charming Victorian GWR relics; even at Malvern Link, the old station house sat alongside the new one. Ludlow demolished its station in the Sixties. In 2002 a ticket building was opened. It looks like this.
Hang on, let me just check that's the right file, and I haven't accidentally uploaded a picture of a bus station toilet in Loughborough.
No, that's correct. The historic town of Ludlow has this redbrick monstrosity as its main railway station. There's even a plaque on the side, commemorating its opening and who designed it, which is like punching yourself in the face then using your blood to sign your name across your forehead.
I walked down the back of a Tesco superstore, past an Aldi and a barber called "Mark the Nutty Barber" (am I the only person who doesn't want a wild and crazy guy cutting my hair? I want someone quiet and trustworthy, not an improv group) and soon I was in the centre of town.
This was Leominster done right. The Georgian and Victorian homes were well-maintained and clean. I immediately felt more relaxed and calm.
Ludlow, it turned out, was a thoroughly nice town to visit. This was clearly a popular opinion, as the streets were rammed with day trippers, but you could see why. There's been a settlement here for a thousand years, since the castle was constructed to keep an eye on those pesky Welsh types, and the centre still follows the medieval street patterns with plenty of historic buildings.
I turned away from the centre for the time being and walked down the sloping Broad Street, where a woman was calling her husband a "wally" for thinking there were two separate Costas next to one another rather than one large knock through. There was something delightful about a Brummie saying "wally", the way the word sounded heavy in her mouth, the fact that she was saying a word I hadn't heard in thirty years since I graduated to far more profane alternatives.
I passed the Conservative Club and ended up at the Broad Gate, Ludlow's only remaining gate. Calling it the Broad Gate made you wonder about the other ones, because this could only let one car through at a time with barely any room for a pedestrian either side. Beyond was a row of charming little cottages sloping down to the river. I could see down shaded alleyways to thick, lovingly tended back gardens. They looked adorable, though I should imagine the constant stream of tourists walking past your front window gets tiresome, and one house had tucked a laminated sign into a plant pot, hinting at a darkness for the row:
Will the disgusting individual who leaves their
bagged dog waste in this planter stop this immediately.
This has become a regular occurence and is revolting.
You clearly think it is someone else's duty to clean up for you!
It is NOT.
I sympathised - people chucking bags of dog muck all over the place is a curse of modern society - but there was still part of me that was amused by the buttoned-up rage beneath those few lines. They were fuming.
At the bottom of the hill was the Ludford Bridge over the river Teme, an ancient monument that's been there for six hundred years. I ducked into one of the pedestrian passing places above the water and paused for a moment.
I felt relaxed. Calm. I watched the river for a while, the churning over the rocks, the plants dangling in the water. Let my mind drift. Then I turned and trekked back up Broad Street.
I ducked down a side street to vary my route, its houses leaning in on one another, walls at strange angles and curves, then turned up Mill Street. Tiny boutique shops were tucked in under the old buildings. There was a menswear shop that had a nice looking display, but I suspected if I wandered in it'd be like a low budget remake of Pretty Woman with me as a hairier Julia Roberts. Instead I went somewhere much more my mark.
The Blue Boar was coming to the end of its lunch service and I was able to find a quiet corner to drink my pint and take a breather. Not for long. Suddenly the bench seat opposite me filled with a bunch of braying Londoners, out for a weekend away, talking about how you didn't get pubs like this in the capital "because they've all been replaced by wine bars", although he mentioned one in Parson's Green that was tucked away and "not many people knew about it." They drank lager (the men) and gin and tonics (the women) and they called across to another couple who came in after them and demanded they sat on the end. They were really annoying. When they started debating the value of PDF as a format - the men; the women were looking at their phones - I downed my pint and left. I guessed the Mercedes outside was theirs, and considered dragging the clasp of my backpack down the side of it to leave a nice mark.
Now I'd reached the Market Square, in full Saturday swing, and I pushed my way through the crowds. To one side, the Assembly Rooms were swathed in scaffolding as they underwent refurbishment (part funded by the European Regional Development Fund, so you'll be unsurprised to learn they voted Leave round here), while an angelic war memorial took up the other side. St Laurence's Church, so dominant from other parts of town, could barely be seen here, so it was a surprise when I spotted it down a side alley.
I looped my way back to the railway station, stopping on route to buy a sandwich. There were plenty of tea rooms to pick from but I felt self-conscious - not quite up to par. I liked Ludlow, and it was easily the better place to visit, but deep down I suspect I belong in Leominster. That's self-esteem for you.