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 mypelvichealth.co.uk, 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.