Wednesday 25 March 2020

The Beeching Reversal

It's time to talk about Beeching again.  Trigger warning for those of you of a sensitive disposition. 

For over a hundred years, passengers rode the rails on the line between Coventry and Nuneaton.  There were half a dozen stations en route, serving towns and villages.  There was a halt specifically for the workers at the Daimler factory.  There were freight loops and colliery branches.  It was, in short, a regular, normal rural railway line.

Then along came that damn Doctor Beeching.  He wiped away all the passenger services on the line.  On the 18th January 1965, all the stations along the line were closed forever.  Suburban services to Foleshill and Chilvers Cotton were gone; the village of Hawkesbury lost its trains forever; the town of Bedworth was taken off the map.  It remained as a freight line, but for two decades, that was it.

In the mid-1980s, British Rail approached the government with a suggestion.  Since there was this railway line running between two large towns, how about restoring the railway route, and maybe putting another halt in the middle at poor neglected Bedworth?  It would just be a trial, and if it didn't work out, they could withdraw the trains completely and turn it back over to freight.

Thirty-two years later Bedworth station is still there.  Its platforms were busy when I visited, even though it was a Tuesday lunchtime, and it seemed incredible that anyone could have decided a station here was a bad idea.  In fact, it was such a good idea that a mere twenty-eight years later, two more stations were opened on the line - the previously mentioned Bermuda Park, and my final station of the day, Coventry Arena.  Why, with development levels like that, it could be at capacity somewhere around 2288!

The new Bedworth station was built on the site of the old one, though without any ticket office or facilities, and is a two minute walk from the town centre - handily underlining what a stupid decision it was to close it in the first place.  I took a stroll into the pedestrianised precinct, following a woman who'd just waved off her friend on the platform and who kept looking over her shoulder at me as though suspecting I was stalking her.

Bedworth was not a rich town, nor was it a pretty town, but I liked that.  It probably says a lot about me that I was far more keen on Bedworth simply making do with what it had than Nuneaton's aspirational tendencies.  Settle for what you have, rather than try hard and fail, is basically my mantra.  There was a gloriously ugly tower block for the County Council, and a lot of mid-century brick precincts. 

I ignored the tempting smell of a burger van in the main square, wafting grease and gristle into the air and making my stomach rumble, and instead headed out to the south, past a delightful Civic Hall.  Firstly, it had a gold postbox outside.  I love finding a gold postbox.  I try not to deliberately hunt them out so it comes as a nice surprise.  This one commemorated show jumper Nick Skelton's 2012 gold.

Secondly, the line-up at the Civic Hall was quite gloriously terrible.  Before you criticise me for being a metropolitan snob, sniggering at the threadbare provincial cultural offerings, I should tell you that one of the posters in the window was for Jim Davidson.  Elsewhere, there were posters for a multitude of tribute acts - Patsy Cline, Kenny and Dolly, "The Upbeat Beatles", and one headlined simply LIONEL which I assume was a fake Lionel Richie but I hope was actually Blair - and something called Menopause the Musical 2: Cruising through Menopause.  This starred Heather from EastEnders and - per the poster - "Nicki French (Eurovision)" and was sponsored by, which specialises in solutions to impotence, vaginal dryness and incontinence.  I hope it's not too amusing, because those poor usherettes will be mopping up the aisles all night.

I left Bedworth's town centre and crossed its ring road - of course it has a ring road, this is the Midlands - and passed the Miners Welfare Park (please note that missing apostrophe is nothing to do with me).

The gates had been redecorated in a massive commemoration of the fallen.  Now I'll preface this with saying that commemoration of the sacrifices made for our freedom is not a bad thing in itself, and remembering means there's less chance of repeating the errors that lead to wars in the first place.  At the same time, the excessiveness of the tribute made me uncomfortable.  It wasn't respectful or dignified but instead smacked of a kind of one-upmanship.  It was the war memorial equivalent of those people who wear really massive poppies in mid-September so you know they really CARE, and you're somehow being an absolute monster because your coat doesn't look like a Flanders meadow.  It's fetishising the act of remembrance rather than actually remembering.

Also I don't know about you but this sounds like a threat to me.

I walked past the Conservative Club, which was advertising its acts in the window - sadly I'd missed Suzzi (yes, two Zs) and Marie Kelly's performance on the 28th will have been lost to quarantine - and I headed out of town along the Coventry Road.  At first it was much like any other town - plain old semis, some terraced houses, a Sainsbury's Local and an industrial estate.  Then, as the houses got bigger, I noticed that they were transforming, and this was becoming one of the tackiest roads I have ever walked down.

Not all the houses were bad, of course.  But some kind of mad building frenzy seemed to have enveloped the residents, a kind of competitive Keeping Up With The Joneses, and it had ended in mutually assured destruction.  Every other house had an out of proportion extension, a double garage bigger than the house itself, a porch that could've accommodated a donkey derby.  One house was in the process of adding a two-storey porte-cochère onto the front of a very ordinary bay fronted semi.  Gardens were covered by acres of paving, and front walls were instead replaced by columns and period-inappropriate coaching lamps.  By the time I got to the house with the name of the owners actually picked out in black brick in the front wall, I had no more gasps left into me.  Well done, Coventry Road; your style is unique and distinctive, and I am very glad I don't live there.

Coventry Road finally took me under the M6, because no matter where you are in the Midlands you are never more than half-an-hour's walk from a motorway.  The flyover here was well crafted though, with giant concrete Vs as support that formed a dense lattice pattern as I approached.  So much more interesting to look at.

I always find passing under a motorway a little bit exciting.  The sheer breathlessness of the engineering that went into it, these mighty stretches of concrete and steel.  The noise of the traffic overhead.  And the void spaces under it, the lengths of bare land under the flyovers, appeal to that part of me that likes the places between - the alleyways, the garages, the railway arches.  Bits of our world that exist but are overlooked.

The motorway also marked the end of Warwickshire and the start of the West Midlands, as I entered the city of Coventry at its northern limits.  I passed under the railway line, the same railway I'd be taking later on, and entered what a sign informed was "Longford Village".  Judging by the design of it, this should've been a pretty canalside enclave.

The reality was a little more grim.  Industrial units and fenced-off compounds lined the road, occasionally interrupted by homes that looked under siege from the relentless traffic.  One truck was parked across the pavement; its owner dashed out of the chippy, his fish supper in his arms, then cursed as he tried to get the battered door open with only one hand.  After a few bashes and thumps he climbed inside and the engine revved, belching black smoke across me as it mounted the canal bridge.  There was a pub here, the Longford Engine, which had received a makeover and optimistically advertised its "canalside terrace".  Technically it was true that the pub backed onto the towpath but I couldn't see many people going for a drive here to enjoy the views.

I'd reached the centre of Longford village, a strip of takeaways and hairdressers and dubious businesses (I'll just say "specialists in indoor growing equipment" and leave it at that) and I decided to break away from the main road.  My Ordnance Survey app had shown some pathways behind a set of cul-de-sacs to the west, so I headed into The Croft.  At a final turn, between two houses, a small path descended into a patch of green.

Alright, green was overstating it.  It was actually a series of waterlogged fields, grass and mud and bare trees around the brown River Sowe.  On a nice day, in summer, this would be a pleasant stroll away from the city.  In early March, after weeks of rain, it was a brown mess.

I picked my way through the puddles, clambering into the long grass when the route ahead became too deep with mud to pass through comfortably, occasionally having to jump them.  At one particular point I had to divert into the copse, cracking branches as I pushed through the trees, to get round a point where the path was simply a pond.

Why are you doing this? I asked myself.  Why are you making a mess of your boots and jeans just because it looked a bit more interesting on the map?  And I realised that was question asked and answered.  It was because it was more interesting.  It was far more interesting to duck down a back road, take a short-cut, follow a line on a map, than simply go from A to B.  Part of the reason for this blog is exploration, to see places I wouldn't normally see.  Sometimes it's a beautiful waterfall in the Lake District, sometimes it's a bit of scrubland on the edge of Coventry.  But it's always different and new.

I crossed the Coventry Canal by a series of flats that felt a separate universe from grimy Longford and followed a path round the back of a gas terminal.  I got my first glimpse of the Ricoh Arena, the biggest landmark round here and the reason my next station existed.

The stadium opened in 2005 as the new home of Coventry City - a team whose fortunes had declined between commissioning and completion.  When they'd started work on the arena, Coventry had been in the Premiership, but by the time it opened they were in the league below.  They stayed there for almost a decade, weathering administration, while the stadium was used for Olympic football in 2012.  The story got a lot more complicated then, as the rugby team Wasps purchased the stadium as their new home ground; there were a lot of shenanigans, which I have to be honest I couldn't quite follow, but the upshot is that the stadium built specifically for Coventry City to play at now hosts no football at all.  It's a rugby arena, and Coventry are forced to groundshare with Birmingham City.  I'm sure there are many nuances I'm missing, but it seems like a colossal mess to me.  And I instinctively dislike any team that ups sticks from its traditional home to move to the provinces - yes, I do mean you, MK Dons.

I'd thought I'd be in time for the train, but as I rounded the corner I saw it take off without me.  There was meant to be a half hourly service on this line by now, and even electrification, but as always the money had run out and it never happened.  That was nothing compared with the stupidity of the station itself.  Coventry Arena was alongside its namesake with crowd control facilities - except the station doesn't have a good enough service to support stadium traffic, and would become dangerously overcrowded on match days.  As a result it closes before and after any events, entirely negating its reason for existing.  Well done everyone.

Adjacent to the Arena is a shopping centre, your standard out of town development with acres of parking and a Tesco so large it has its own weather system.  There was a Marks & Spencer so I went and had a drink in the cafe, lowering the tone with my muddy jeans and getting odd looks from the pensioners inside.  I wiped away the sweat and allowed myself to relax before returning to the station.

It's not a bad little station, two platforms and a ticket machine.  And it's definitely better than what was there before i.e. nothing.  It's a great two fingers to Beeching if nothing else.  It's just a bit depressing that it's not running to its full potential.  The other side of the Arena was an expanse of grey tarmac for cars.  They should be entirely unnecessary.

I took a seat on the platform, across from a memorial wall to "Sky Blue Legends"; apparently Coventry City was still here in spirit.  I'd enjoyed my little jaunt out.  I was getting a taste for travelling round the country again.  I looked forward to my next trip out, and I was determined to make it soon.  The only thing that could stop me now was some sort of national emergency trapping me in my home for weeks. 


Monday 23 March 2020

Middle Distance March

A couple of weeks ago I did something odd.  I went out on the trains.

I bought a ticket, went on a regularly scheduled train, took a trip to somewhere without it being important or necessary or vital.  Remember those days?  Good times.

I went to Nuneaton.  Is Nuneaton funny?  I sort of feel like it is.  I feel like it's one of those places comedians reach for because of the way it sounds, like Kidderminster or Slough.  It's a conglomeration of consonants that clicks, bounces off your tongue.  Maybe it's the "nun" part.  Nuns are always funny.  To me, anyway.

I'd no idea what to expect from Nuneaton station so it came as something of a surprise.  It was huge.  The Trent Valley Line was built in the 19th century as a diversionary line, so that trains from London to Liverpool and Manchester wouldn't have to pass through Birmingham, and it means that a relatively small town like Nuneaton ended up with a station spread across half a dozen island platforms with electrified rails.

It's a station that's still expanding, too, with Network Rail constructing a new platform 6 & 7 on the far lines in the early 2000s.  They built it in their standard, modular style, which I've not seen outside of a ticket office before.  It's a bland, competent style, that won't offend anyone in twenty years time, but won't have station architecture geeks like me cooing over it either.

Sadly the Railway Restaurant - and its attendant Model Railway Shop - was long closed, the windows boarded up, and the only catering facilities left now was a Pumpkin cafe.  I went up and over the tracks, arriving on platform one just as the train from Coventry came in and disgorged its passengers, then went outside to the car park in search of a station sign.

It's a broad, solid, building; not necessarily attractive, but enough of a statement to be proud of.  I wish it had a better approach than an acre of grey tarmac and the loading bay of an Asda.  There's space for a proper station square.  There is a clock tower though, so that's nice.

I descended down the hill and across the ring road into the back end of Nuneaton bus exchange, dodging single deckers to reach the pedestrianised precinct.  People were wandering around town, shopping, getting coffees.

That is a statue of Nuneaton's most famous daughter, Mary Ann Evans, better known as George Eliot, in a square named after her.  Nuneaton is incredibly proud of George Eliot, and rightly so, what with her being one of the greatest novelists in the English Language.  Play to your strengths and all that.  Especially if the competition is Mary Whitehouse, Ken Loach or Nigel from EastEnders (hang on, scratch that: Larry Grayson is also from Nuneaton.  Where's his statue, eh?).

As I wandered round the town centre, I got a feeling of sadness.  Nuneaton's shopping district was on a downward slide.  There were vacant shops everywhere.  To Let and For Sale signs hung from every other building.  Streaks of bustling retail were broken by shuttered vacancies, broken teeth in a smile.

At some point in the Eighties, Britain took Napoleon's "nation of shopkeepers" slur as a badge of pride and pivoted to retail everywhere.  Shops were the answer to everything.  Never mind making stuff, never mind constructing or designing, just ship it in from somewhere else and sell it.  Our town centres were pedestrianised and expanded.  Which was fine, until the internet and austerity came along and changed the way we shopped.  Why go into town to pay for a shop's rents and rates and electricity bills when that CD could be posted through your door for half the price?

Now you get towns like Nuneaton.  Not important enough to be a regional centre and attract the big boys.  Not small enough to have the charm of local shops and market retailers.  A town that sold itself to the shopkeeper and is now seeing them all vanish.

I went into the Ropewalk Shopping Centre, past the shuttered HMV and the closed Monsoon, and used the toilets.  After scrubbing my hands for way too long - this was still early enough in the pandemic to feel awkward about it, and to worry an attendant might think you were loitering - I re-emerged into the quiet mall.  I think town councils are going to have to make serious decisions as more and more traditional retailers disappear, and places like the Ropewalk are where they should be directing their glance.  These glossy indoor malls are dated.  They're yesterday's shopping experience.  Yes, they cover you from the rain, but they're also generic and bland; they close at 6pm and seal off an entire section of the town.  As the retail market shrinks, knock them down and replace them with apartment blocks.  Put people in the city centre instead of security grilles and uniformed guards.  Make town centres places where people can walk and enjoy themselves all day and night and maybe they'll come back to life.

I stepped back out into the real world by Nuneaton's admirable town hall, then encountered another sliver of the Ring Road.  I realise this makes me a total nerd but I find it really difficult to cross at a pedestrian crossing when there's no green man.  Yes, I know, there's no traffic coming, but if I've pushed the button, I have to wait for that signal to cross.  I just do.  It gets embarrassing when, as happened here, I stood on the island waiting while a tiny Asian woman who looked like she was older than the Earth itself gaily marched across the carriageway and left me behind.

I finally got the signal to cross and ended up in Riversley Park.  Now this was a proper municipal park.  Flowerbeds and lawns stretched alongside a churning river.  There was a museum and art gallery with a tea room.  Gardeners were planting spring bulbs beside the war memorial.

There were people too, walkers in waterproofs, elderly couples arm in arm, mums with prams.  Folks with dogs stopping to chat, one side's French Bulldog suspiciously sniffing the other side's Golden Retriever.  Children playing in the kind of playground I'd have killed to play on when I was young with a rocket ship tower and swings and climbing frames.  Even on a chilly, overcast day, you could feel the hope of a new season, the whiff of optimism.  Nature starting to return.

I took a narrow tunnel under the railway line into the second half of the park, where a giant leisure centre dominated.  The outdoor pitches were screened from public view but I could hear the excited chatter of girls playing - netball?  Hockey?  Lacrosse?  Out the other side, onto the main road, following a sign for the George Eliot Hospital - told you they were proud - and passing two bin lorries swapping crews with much laughing and noisy banter.  I ended up at a huge roundabout with a railway viaduct soaring over the top.  As I watched, a purple and orange West Midlands Railway train glided over the top, and I realised I'd probably have a heck of a wait at the next station.

Never mind.  I turned onto the Coventry Road, the old route to the city before they built the much larger A444 dual carriageway.  It climbed a hill, past a church with a neat little development of sheltered housing surrounding it, past George Eliot Street - alright, you're starting to lay it on a bit thick now - and over a canal.  There's always a strange disconnect when you climb a hill and find a canal, passing over water when you instinctively feel it should be below you in the valley.

In Hill Top, I spotted a tiny sign pointing to Bermuda Park, the industrial estate that gave my next station its name, so I swerved off the main road and into a small estate of corporation houses.  I walked down Middlemarch Road, past Marner Road, and decided it would be a while until I read another George Eliot novel.

Across the railway tracks and into a miserable little playground, then I was following a path behind a high embankment.  It was lonely and isolated until I stepped out onto the main road at the back of the industrial estate.  Trucks moved in and out of anonymous cubes decorated with names that made no sense - mash ups of words, random initials, no clue as to what any of these firms actually did.  Steel fences with spiked tops guarded against the curious.

If you ignored the beep of reversing lorries it was all pretty quiet.  In the distance, I spotted a field of orange masts, and as I got closer it formed into Bermuda Park station, a name that is way too glamorous for the reality.

The station only opened in 2016 to serve the factories at the south of Nuneaton.  Surprisingly, it was built without a car park, though commuters to Coventry were already using the layby outside.  Surely all new stations on the edge of towns are built as park and rides these days?  Even more surprisingly, there didn't seem to be a convenient footpath to the housing estate the other side of the line.  I wonder if this is because the council have quietly marked the expanse of scrub and grass between the railway and the Coventry Road as a potential new development site, and they want Barratt Homes to pay for it.

It's an unexciting station, two platforms with steps and a ramp.  There's no ticket office - just a machine by the entrance.  I had a while until my train so I found a seat and ate my lunch, staring at the cash and carry over the way.  If I'd planned better, I could've gone fifteen minutes to the end of the road and eaten at the Beefeater that occupies the house where George Eliot grew up, but to be honest, I'd kind of had my fill of her by that point.  A chicken caesar wrap from the Co-op would do me fine, thanks very much.