Wednesday, 21 August 2019

A Tale of Two Cities (Abridged)

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.


3 comments:

Jon said...

You can come back next year for Worcestershire Parkway ...

Scott Willison said...

Have to be honest I'm kind of hoping Worcestershire Parkway doesn't make it to the map. That's a long way to go for one station!

Dominic said...

Not sure about Wyvern being derived from the names of the rivers: the meaning I know is that is a kind of mythological creature, akin to a dragon or a griffin (maybe not fire-breathing, I'm not sure), that is regarded as a symbol of Wessex (and appears on the "flag of Wessex", although I think that is itself a fairly recent creation). I think the buses in Worcester were called "Worcester Wyverns" at one point too. I think your assessment of Worcester is more generous than mine would be! Pretty buildings, but a lot of grimness among them....