Wednesday 30 October 2019

Town and Country

Perry Barr was ugly.  There's no other way of putting it.  I'm a great supporter of British Rail's 1960s stations, built as electrification swept the country - your Coventry, your Stafford - but Perry Barr was done on the cheap.  It was concrete above the tracks, it was concrete by the tracks.  There were metal fences by the steps and you stepped up to an overbridge wedged behind the dark ticket office.  It was how I imagine it must be to get transported to prison by train.

Step outside the station and you're in a parade of grim shops, trapped on a dual carriageway, with a flyover blocking out the sun.  Barriers hold you onto the narrow pavement.  A homeless man begged for change in the doorway.  It was dystopian.

The one good thing about Perry Barr station was also a symptom of its neglect.  Above the doorway was a real old British Rail sign, a weird mishmash of styles that had somehow clung on through decades of rebranding.  It was all-caps, which was a no-no in later BR rules, and I'm not even sure if that's Rail Alphabet.  I'd guess it was from a period when British Rail was still a bit loose with how it applied the rules, and then for fifty years, it's entirely passed under the radar.  Someday West Midlands Railway will replace it with a huge piece of laser printed steel that has Perry Barr in big letters and the corporate logo front and centre, and that'll be sad.  In the meantime, enjoy it while you can.

I threaded my way through the busy pavements and across the road to the One Stop Shopping Centre.  Don't be deceived by appearances; it may look like a miserable 1980s shopping arcade, but it's actually worse than that.  The One Stop Shopping Centre is a retail park with a massive Asda and outlet shops built surrounding acres of parking, and this run of glass is merely a front so the entrance from the bus exchange looks half-decent.  It is nothing.

I walked past the succession of bookies and round the side, to where the delivery bays opened out onto the street frontage.  There was an unusual sight under the flyover; a man dressed in full John Bull garb talking to a journalist on the central reservation.  My heart sank as I wondered what nightmarish Brexit lunacy he was peddling, until I saw his sign: God Bless Our Flyover.  It seems the Perry Barr flyover's days are numbered, with the council planning to demolish it and calm the roads to improve the area ahead of the Commonwealth Games (the nearby Alexander Stadium will be the main location for the athletics events in 2022).  Only in Birmingham would people be fighting for a flyover; anywhere else in the country people would be grumbling about its existence.  There were no men in giant hats campaigning for the Churchill Way flyovers in Liverpool to be preserved, put it that way.

I choked back the traffic fumes and turned down a side road by a pub, the Seventh Trap, a low squat building that could be open for business or abandoned - I suspect it looks pretty much the same either way.  A bunker with barred windows.  I was heading for a small side road, really an access route for the backs of people's houses wedged alongside the River Tame.  A sign warned me there was No Dumping - £20,000 Fine, a sign which was comprehensively ignored by everyone.

I walked past the mattresses, fridges, and general building waste that had been dropped in the hedgerows.  Around halfway I realised that this was probably a dumb idea.  I was here in a strange city, wandering down a clearly unpleasant back alley, vaguely hoping I was going in the right direction; if I was raped and murdered here, even the Crimewatch reconstruction would say I was asking for it.  I proceeded anyway, with the blithe confidence of an idiot who has Google Maps and a bloody-minded refusal to backtrack.

I pushed through a gateway that took me to a turning circle for the One Stop centre's delivery vehicles; a skip was full to overflowing, any hope of it ever being picked up abandoned.  There was a set of steps and I went down them and into a different world.

The mansion at Perry Hall existed for hundreds of years, passing from knight to knight, until in 1927 it was finally abandoned.  Birmingham City Council bought it and its lands and turned it into a public park for the benefit of its residents.  Now Perry Hall Park occupies a large swathe of the city, with grasslands, ornamental gardens, and sports pitches.

The shift was sudden and welcome.  Yes, I could still hear the constant drone of traffic in the distance, a grumble that never left, but now there were trees and grass.  I'd felt small by that flyover, intimidated and insignificant; I felt small here too, but in a different way.  Now I was overwhelmed by nature.

There's a green island in the park, surrounded by a curious channel with square corners; this is all that's left of Perry Hall mansion - the moat.  Where there used to be a stately home, there's now a very posh bird island, a flat expanse of lawn.

I crossed the River Tame and followed a high bank around the edge of the cricket pitches.  The grass acts as a flood defence, swallowing overflowing water before it reaches the city, but on a crisp October day it was nothing more than a quiet vista.  The more I travel in the West Midlands, the more these whipcrack changes of pace have become familiar.  In most other cities I've visited, a park like this would be feted and celebrated, and surrounded by beautiful streets.  In Birmingham I'm always finding sudden changes - incredible ugliness that snaps into picturesque views.  Old village centres surrounded by roaring motorways, blackened industrial estates next to dense woodlands.  Far more than Liverpool or Manchester, I'm never entirely sure what I'll find when I step off the train.

My path meandered through meadows, where dog walkers stood still and waited for their retrievers to retrieve, and then I was in a quieter corner of the park.  The path dropped low down to the level of the river so it could pass under the railway bridge; across the way, builders shouted obscenities at one another, which kind of ruined the pastoral mood.  Up again, and I was at the backs of houses, until I finally emerged on the Hamstead Hill.

Yes, that's Hamstead, no p: this was very different to its London namesake.  While that is an enclave of prosperity, Hamstead no p is a former mining village swallowed up by the city.  There were no exclusive boutiques or elegant wine bars - instead I walked past Topps Tiles and the offices of a housing association, while the yellow sign of a Lidl caught the light in the distance.  The road rose up over the railway and I wandered to the Birmingham-bound platform. 

The ticket office was closed for refurbishment though, if I'm honest, I hadn't expected it to be open anyway; most of the ones I've encountered close at lunchtime and don't reopen until next morning. 

When I'd planned this day out, it was intended as a way of completing that loop above New Street.  I liked the idea of closing off that circle (well, more of a triangle) in one trip.  However, the map is slightly disingenuous.  There are fast and slow services on the loop, and the slow southbound services all go via Hamstead and Perry Barr; it wasn't possible to go direct from Hamstead to New Street on that left hand line.  (I would argue that you should move the station mark away from the branching point, in that case, and put it firmly on the Perry Barr line, but it is occasionally used by fast trains when engineering works close the Witton branch, so they're clearly hedging their bets).

The west side of the loop will have to wait for when I visit Walsall.  In the meantime... it's good to be back.

(Yes, I do need a haircut). 

Friday 25 October 2019

Up The Villa

I've been going to Birmingham a fair while now.  I've just about got to grips with New Street Station - although I have thoughts on it, to which I will one day devote an entire blog - and its many exits.  I know where Moor Street is in relation to New Street.  What I haven't quite grasped is the best way to get between the two.

At first, I walked on the pavement to get there.  This involved crossing the service entrance to some shops, cutting across a pedestrianised plaza, then taking a ramp down to the road across from the station.  It was a bit grim, and there were usually a couple of aggressive homeless people begging en route, so I switched to cutting through the Bullring shopping centre.

This had its own problems.  As a vast indoor shopping centre, they're very keen to get you in, but not so keen to let you out, so the building carries you along without really letting you know how to leave.  It doesn't help that the entrance from New Street is on the first floor, but the slope of the city centre means that the exit to Moor Street is on the level below.  I never know how close to get to Selfridges before leaving; is it before or after?

On this occasion, I picked the wrong door, and passed a Pizza Hut and a Handmade Burger Co. to end up at the foot of Selfridges' giant lumpy form, and across from the back of Moor Street's platforms.  The entrance to the station was quite a way away (so far, in fact, that they recently announced a new back entrance to be built in this exact spot) but luckily, I wasn't getting a train this time.  I was just using Moor Street as a landmark.  Where I was actually headed was HS2 town.

Behind Moor Street, long strips of hoardings seal off a vast stretch of the city centre as work proceeds on making a brand new high speed railway station.  Curzon Street will be the terminus of the first phase of HS2, from London to Birmingham, and the former Parcelforce depot on the site has been levelled while builders and engineers smash it into shape.  Everywhere I walked there were hard hatted men in high vis pointing and waving bits of paper about.

There was so much work going on, in fact, it boggled my mind that it is under the threat of cancellation.  If the government decides not to proceed with HS2 the diggers and trucks will quietly back off and leave a huge scar in the centre of the city - which presumably will be flogged off to property developers at dirt cheap rates to claw back some of the money spent.  Then in twenty years time the railway between London and Birmingham will be even more clogged than it is now, HS2 will be resurrected, and they'll realise there's nowhere to build a station any longer.

I skirted round the edge of the building site and into Eastside City Park, a wide expanse of grass and stone and a pleasing new open space for the city centre.  Overlooked by the now quaintly dated Millennium Point, it was intended to be at the heart of a whole new district, though the HS2 station has kind of knocked that redevelopment back for the time being.  None the less, a mass of blocky university buildings have been built along the northern edge.  It was a good place for a breather, and there were plenty of people about enjoying their morning, but it still felt a bit bland and corporate.  It had a slight whiff of Milton Keynes, rather than Britain's second biggest city.  Perhaps it's because of all those low slung buildings, rather than the skyscrapers you'd expect, perhaps its the black archways over the walkway that reminded me of the car parks on Midsummer Boulevard in MK, but it was all a little bit clean and scrubbed and bland.

More impressive was the remains of the original Curzon Street station.  Opened in 1838, the London to Birmingham railway terminated here, and the grand entrance building housed the original ticket offices, waiting rooms and refreshment spaces.  In 2019 it looks tiny; a cube with some columns.  It looks hopelessly inadequate for such an important service, and indeed, it quickly became overwhelmed.  New Street opened twenty years later, and almost all the passenger services were diverted there, with Curzon Street becoming a goods station instead before closing altogether in the sixties.

The plan is now to incorporate the Curzon Street building into the edge of the new station, a tiny piece of history clinging to the massive new expanse of railway lands.  It'll be little more than a monument, a kind of Grade 1 listed noticeboard to let you know where the station's back entrance is, but it's pleasing to think that two hundred years after it was built, it'll be used for London-Birmingham services again.  (I will be writing a letter of complaint to HS2 regarding its claim on the hoardings outside that this is the "world's first mainline passenger railway building"; the present building at Edge Hill isn't even the original for the Liverpool to Manchester railway, and it's still older than this one).  In the distance I could hear the grinding and churning of trains leaving New Street and heading east.

I wandered down and out of the park, among hordes of young happy students looking optimistic and bright, and hated them all.  How dare they make me look old and miserable.  At the far end I collided with the dual carriageway of the A4540, streams of traffic separating the shiny city centre from the inner city residences.  It was a stark and sudden change.  On one side, gleaming shiny modernism; on the other, low terraces and old pubs.

Nechells had been slums for decades until the city's authorities took the district in hand in the 1950s.  They levelled street after street and replaced them with tower blocks and modern flats, surrounding them with grass and playing fields and making a new, clean future.

Of course, you know how this turned out; the Council didn't care for the flats or their residents, the buildings rotted and decayed, and forty years later they started demolishing those slums and replacing them with new homes.  Some of them still cling on, but across the city they're being knocked down and replaced with three-bedroom homes on cul-de-sacs.  Living in the sky is reserved for the wealthy denizens of the apartment blocks sprouting inside the ring road.

I followed the Vauxhall Road, avoiding the heavy man in a heavy metal t-shirt who emptied the content of his nose onto the pavement, and ducking round the hijab-wearing mums who were chatting over the heads of their kids in the pushchairs.  There was the headquarters of the Fire Service, and a couple of schools, then a deserted shopping precinct with almost all its shutters down.  The only shops that were open were a Halal butcher and a newsagent; the only person I could see was a homeless man sat on the bench with his bin bag full of possessions.

High green fences surrounded the brightly coloured buildings of the Heartlands Academy.  It was lunchtime but I couldn't see any sign of the kids.  Are they even let out of the school at dinner now?  Is this one of those things that children are warned against, in case they fall prey to paedophiles or worse, a local chip shop, and make Jamie Oliver sad in the process?  I imagined that somewhere behind that fence they were being filed into the dining hall to be fed extremely healthy and nutritious food and they were hating every single mouthful.

Further up a mosque had taken over a building that I'm sure in a previous life would've been a pub; a two storey building at the base of some flats surrounded by tarmac.  They had a sign up appealing for funds for refurbishment, which made me imagine that they still hadn't got round to stripping out the interior, and they being were forced to pray under packets of Big D peanuts and posters for Heineken.  It's hard to be truly close to Allah when you bend down and get a whiff of fag ash wafting out of the carpet.   

Duddeston station brought with it a pleasing surprise: art.  The lift shaft was decorated with this figure, made out of holes punched into metal.  There were similar artworks mounted on the platform though I couldn't find anything to tell me who it was by or where it came from; I suspect that in the continual shuffle to rebrand everything from WMPTE to Centro to Network West Midlands to Transport for West Midlands the explanatory signs went missing and never reappeared.

I took my sign selfie - much to the amusement of a young girl who emerged from the station just as I was snapping away - then headed across the tiled floor and down to the single platform.

Things get a little bit confusing with the next train indicators at Duddeston.  All the trains that pass through here also pass through New Street, and the destination boards all mention this - Walsall via Birmingham New Street, Wolverhampton via Birmingham New Street, and so on.  Thing is, Doddeston is the first station out of New Street if you're heading to Walsall, so it's a little jarring to see it still listed on the destination - especially on an island platform, where both trains indicators scroll via New Street next to one another even though they're patently going in different directions.  I mean, I've been on trains all over the place, and I still double checked against the timetable before I got on a train.

(Incidentally, as I was about to board, a man I'd seen milling about came up to me and asked if this was the New Street train.  I said no, that was the other platform, and he went away quite happily.  It was only as the train left the station that I realised that of the dozen or so people on the station, only me and him were white, and he hadn't asked any of the black or Asian men which platform he needed to use.  I don't think this was accidental).

The train wound its way from Duddeston, up and up, until it finally dropped us off at Aston on a viaduct.  I walked down the steps to the street, only pausing halfway to take the obligatory sign picture.

Aston, of course, means only one thing: Aston Villa.  Outside the station, purple banners guided the new arrivals towards the stadium.  Part of me wanted to head in the opposite direction, so that I could see Spaghetti Junction, but I decided to save that for when I collected Gravelly Hill, what with it being technically the Gravelly Hill Interchange.  Instead I turned up Grosvenor Road and passed under the first of many Match Day Parking Restrictions Are In Place signs. 

We're now going to have a brief foray into our regular series of Scott Talks A Load Of Old Bollocks About Football.  One of the interesting things about the West Midlands is that it's an absolutely massive region with half a dozen professional football teams and they're all a bit rubbish.  How do they manage that?  Liverpool and Manchester have two top flight teams, as does Glasgow.  Yet Walsall and Coventry City scrape around the bottom tiers while Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion are in the Championship.  Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers are both in the Premiership, but they're fairly recent arrivals, hovering in the middle of the table and acting as three point donation schemes for the bigger clubs.  And ok, two teams in the Premiership is pretty good, but they're not exactly legends are they?  I can't see there being many excitable Far Eastern supporters getting AVFC tattoo'd on their ankle the way they do for say, Manchester United.  They're dull and a bit laughable.

As far as I can see Aston Villa's main claim to fame is attracting bizarrely posh fans who don't have anything to do with the local area.  Princes William and Harry are fans, and according to my research, neither of them hail from the West Midlands, while David Cameron claimed to be a fan (though like a lot of the things that came out of his mouth, this was probably a massive lie).  What do Aston Villa have that other clubs don't?  Is liking a London club seen as a bit parochial and alienating to the plebs, while liking a Northern club would seem patronising, so they split the difference and plumped for one halfway?  Do they have extensive helicopter parking?  Do they serve swan pies?

(I'm sure I will get complaints on Twitter and in the comments from people telling me all the trophies the Brummie teams have won and how actually you'll find they're fine teams with a great history and I would like to say in advance: I don't care, football is rubbish, nyah nyah nyah).

There were more slum clearances with blocks of flats receding into the distance beyond acres of grass.  It's strange how all this open space doesn't feel welcoming; how all the trees around the flats didn't create a beautiful landscape.  Theoretically these miles of green should improve a district but instead they made it feel abandoned.  Each home, each building, became a landmark in a sea of grass, an island; crossing from one to another felt like a massive distance. 

The road passed under the A38(M) Aston Expressway, a particularly exciting road if you're a nerd like me.  It's a motorway-standard road that runs from Spaghetti Junction into the centre of Birmingham and it's made of seven lanes with no central reservation.  Normally it's three lanes in each direction, with an empty lane in the middle, but at peak times traffic is redirected and it becomes four lanes in one direction and two in the other (still with the empty lane separating them).  There's no other road like it in Britain.  I've only been on it once, about twenty years ago, and sadly it was in three and three mode; I'd love to go down it when it was four-two.

(Yeah, come at me football fans; your sport is shite and not as interesting as a motorway.  THERE I SAID IT).

I was now getting into proper Aston Villa territory, as the banners had stopped giving simple walking directions and had instead moved onto rousing slogans for the supporters: FIGHT LIKE LIONS and ROAR WITH US and variations thereof.  The road split around the Holte Hotel; while the left hand road looked like it had the more interesting sights, I took the right, because while I wanted to see Villa Park, I wasn't actually that interested.

I walked up a little further, then popped up to take a look at the front of the stadium, with Aston Villa spelt out in brick.  It was alright, I suppose; like all English football grounds, it was simultaneously impressively large and a little bit shit.  I like looking at big stadia purely as an architecture fan - they're huge lumps of building and should be appreciated.  Villa Park was like a lot of the historic teams' grounds, a mish-mash of Victoriana and clunky metal framework and services wedged wherever they could find a gap.  The stained glass windows were an unusual and slighty kitschy touch.

As is usual, I took a picture of the ground and texted it to the Liverpool supporting BF to see what his reaction was.  Usually it's something mature like "shithole" or "tin shed"; this time he replied "bring Jack Grealish back with you", so the actual football was clearly bottom of his priorities.  Which is another demonstration that Aston Villa aren't that important - he couldn't even get up the effort to insult them.

I passed under the overhanging terraces of the Doug Ellis Stand and past the car park and club shop, before crossing the road to reach Witton station.  Witton is closer to the stadium than Aston, though it obviously has the disadvantage of a name that's nothing to do with the football club; there have therefore been occasional proposals to rename it Villa Park, but these haven't come to anything yet.  I dodged round a group of Turkish women who were very angry about a text they'd received and were shouting at the phone and ended up under the railway bridge taking a selfie in front of a lot of people waiting for a bus.

Unsurprisingly, Witton was built for crowds.  Long ramps lead up to the tracks, while the platforms were notably clear of benches or flower pots or anything that could get ripped up and chucked after a five nil drubbing.  There was a waiting room that was open on match days only, and the platform signs had the Villa crest on them, but the sportiest part of the whole station was a pair of trainers abandoned on the tracks.  It was a station that came with its own boots.

Wednesday 23 October 2019

RIP Walrus: 2011-2019

Steve Rotherham, Mayor of the Liverpool City Region, made an announcement today:

“Today I am announcing the start of a new era for smart travel for the Liverpool City Region. 
“Our city region already has more than 400,000 journeys per week on the Walrus card, the largest scheme outside London, but I’m not satisfied with being the best of the rest. 
“Right now, our ticket system overall is a confusing mix of prices and products, with the challenge put to the travelling public to find the cheapest price – if they can. We need to change this by making catching a bus or train as easy as possible and ensuring that passengers know they are not being ripped off. 
“The first step will be the phasing out of Walrus to be replaced with a new MetroCard, with the ability for tickets to be bought online, coming in the next few months."

Yep, the Walrus is dead.  And let's be honest, this was a mercy killing. 

Merseytravel's very own smart card, the Walrus, was announced to the public back in 2011.  This bit of plastic would take every form of ticket available - season, day, single journey.  It'd be smart and updateable.  It'd be valid on every form of transport across Merseyside.  By 2012 it'd be used by season ticket holders, and by 2013 it'd have pay as you go.  The future was coming.  I was so excited, I actually typed a blog post from an airport departure lounge on my phone; I really had to get down how keen I was for this to happen.

Time moved on, and the Walrus didn't appear.  And when I say time, I mean years.  It was late 2014 before they started creeping out, purely as a method for holding the Saveaway.  You couldn't load them online; you couldn't buy them in advance; there was no personal details held, so you couldn't check the usage.  It was a bit of plastic you handed over when you bought a Saveaway - and keep the receipt, because hardly anyone had a way of checking if it was valid.  And you had to go to a PayPoint shop to buy it, because the buses couldn't sell it, and Merseyrail were sticking with the paper form.

Slowly, over time, other products were added.  Some of the yearly travel passes, and then some of the monthly ones.  But it was still clunky and ineffective.  Meanwhile, other city regions introduced their own smart cards without hassle or problems.  On top of that, new technology swept in to overtake the idea of a plastic travel card.  My mum used her debit card on the tube when she was visiting my brother - no Oyster required.  I collected Manchester's tram stops almost entirely using my phone - an e-ticket on Northern from Liverpool, then a day ticket on the getmethere app.  The world was moving on and the Walrus looked dated. 

I'm not sure what the problem with Walrus was; I've heard rumours about in-house software, or the zones being difficult to programme.  All I know is that the decision to kill it should've happened about five years ago.  Scrap the work, go to London, and pay them for whatever they use for the Oyster.  Sorted.  The swiftness of the MetroCard's implementation - online testing before Christmas, with availability for the public in the New Year - makes me think this is exactly what's happened.  The MetroCard isn't as sexy a name as the Walrus, but if it works, who cares?  (It's better than getmethere, anyway).  With it comes a promise of online top ups, fare capping, and smooth movement between transport methods.  Admittedly, we had these promises back in 2011, but this time I actually believe it might happen.  And about time too.

Goodbye Walrus.  We hardly knew ye.