Monday 30 August 2021

Return to Form

No, not there.  Where's the sun coming from?  Ok there.  Wait for the traffic to clear a bit.  There's a lot of traffic.  I'm not making an idiot of myself alongside idling cars, I'll wait for them to go.  Any time now.  Ok, try that.  Can't see the screen.  Damn sunlight.  Try it again.  Still can't see.  Third time.  Ah well, it is what it is, it'll have to do.

Yep, that's me outside a railway station taking a photo under a sign.  We're back in business, folks.

It had actually taken a lot of time to decide where my first post-pandemic station would be.  It became a thing.  It was such a moment of significance, this return to the trains, that I'd convinced myself it should be special.  It had to be in the West Midlands of course - none of those stations out on the fringes.  Not Wem.  I wanted to spread myself about equally though, not stick to any particular line.  I wanted to do it justice, but nowhere too notable.  After a lot of consideration, I alighted on Sandwell & Dudley, which is not in Dudley.

There's been a station on this spot since 1852 but it was rebuilt completely in the Eighties and boy, it shows.  The red brick station is filled with post-modernist touches, flounces here, quirky affectations there.  The lift towers are crowned with twists of metal that serve no purpose other than to be exciting and interesting.

On the information point outside is another of Centro's Linkspots, an art project introduced by one of TfWM's predecessors and which I can find frustratingly little information about.  (If you google "Centro Linkspots", this blog is the top result, which makes me wonder if I've made the whole thing up).  Sandwell & Dudley gets a peacock, which I'm sure is for extremely valid and sensible historic reasons and was lovingly crafted by a talented artist, but without a plaque or a sign I can't credit them.  Sorry about that.  I will say, well done, it's very nice.

It was also, by quite some way, the most attractive feature for miles around.  Sandwell & Dudley deposits you into a world of grime and industry.  It's brutal grey sheds mounted against hard roads built for HGVs.  I walked away from the station, past a Railway Inn that exuded menace, and up to a huge roundabout where lorries swung round at speed.  There was an abandoned office block, half finished, a banner outside begging for tradesmen, and a tannoy at one of the factories sounded its horn and belted out an important message that was incomprehensible from the road.

The buildings were a strange mix of pre and post war brick and modern practicality.  This had clearly been an industrial district for decades, and so there were factories that dated from that era, where your premises were a shop window.  Elsewhere though, rough metal boxes predominated, cubes of blank steel built to be filled with whatever you needed.  The air was filled with the noise of grinding and drilling as machines carved out their business, and there was the scent of turned metal.  Cars filled the pavement and verge.  

Past a garage ("independant Porsche centre" the sign proclaimed, immediately filling me with doubt about their level of quality control) and a tyre centre and then there was wasteground.  Metal gates that must've once guarded a centre of employment were rusted orange, litter jammed underneath them, trees and weeds climbing them.  Sprayed across them was DONT VAX, a reminder that the world had changed significantly since I was last out here.

At the turn onto Albion Road a woman passed on her mobile.  "I saw it on the news last night," she said, presumably referring to the disaster unfolding in Afghanistan.  "It's heartbreaking."  Her sincerity was undercut, for me, by her accent.  Look, I know it's not nice or clever, but that thick as butter Black Country accent renders everything ever so slightly comic.  I blame Lenny Henry, whose pronunciation of Doooodlay is burned into the brains of all kids of the 80s.  I'll adjust to it eventually, I'm sure, but for now it clatters against my ears.

There were men stood around in the forecourt of a pet warehouse, laughing, and a couple of starkly modern trading units.  On the other side of the road was the long chain of a triangular roofed factory, running to a small security hut and then, finally, a delightful office block.  The laser printed signs above the windows said this was the home of Liberty Performance Steels, but the proud stone entrance told the real story: Albion Steel Mills, Established 1852, with AD 1938 dating the building.

The road continued over the Walsall Canal where another freedom fighter had painted No vaccine - wake up you dumb fuck.  The singular use of "fuck" makes me think this was targeted at one particular dumb fuck, one man whose mate really wanted to tell him not to get the jab but couldn't get up the courage so he wrote it on a wall on his commute.  Certainly I always get my public health advice from graffiti.

There was a narrow canyon of a road, high walls hemming you in while lorries streamed by.  At one point the pavement was blocked by a hefty Transit van with an England flag on its front grille, and I made a dash into the road to get round it.  Then the houses started to come, new builds at first, clearly constructed on abandoned industrial sites, then after that, older semis and retirement blocks.

I followed a girl in a hi-vis tabard for a bit as she headed for the bus stop, shouting excitedly into her phone in Gujarati, before turning into a road of council houses where the smell of newly cut verges lingered.  The houses were the type you'll see all over Britain, identical brick semis built to house the workers for all those factories I'd passed.  Some were now private homes, and declared it with paved over front gardens and side extensions.  Others still looked the way they had when they were built, ramps to the front door and grab rails hinting that someone had been born and lived and would die in this one home.

I was heading for the garages.  They were on a bend, screened off behind a verge and looking a wreck as all council garage areas do.  In the middle of them, though, was a gateway and a sign.

Beyond was the Sheepwash nature reserve, a pocket of greenery tucked into a triangle between houses and the railway line.  There were trees and grass, the whisper of the wind, and then, the river Tame curling around beside the footpath.

Spots of rain began to fall.  It was a hot day and it felt like they'd burst from an overenthusiastic cloud; it was meant to be warm sunshine.  I had a coat in my bag, but I knew if I put it on I'd simply sweat away to nothingness, so I pushed through, letting it splatter my shirt.  I passed some dog walkers who were similarly dressed for summer, now moving that little bit faster to get out of the park and home, and then I had the reserve to myself.

Through the trees I got, at first glimpses, then a full view of a lake scattered with islets.  It was tranquil and peaceful and entirely the result of man-made intervention and destruction.  This had, for over a century, been a pestilent, polluted landscape.  It was agricultural, a place to scrub your animals - hence Sheepwash - then, after the canals and railways came, a dumping ground.  The land was torn apart for its coal and clay and gravel.  In the 60s, when these stopped being profitable, the council turned the mess into a tip, and dumped rubbish into the ground.  It was only in the 80s that the site was cleaned up - as best as it could; there were poisons throughout the soil - and it was landscaped and it became a nature reserve.  Suddenly the blot became an asset.

I followed the path up, over the culverted Tame, past signs warning No Swimming.  I wondered how much attention was paid to those signs on long summer days when bored teenagers wanted to escape the heatwave.  Probably zero, and the council knew this; it was merely a back-covering exercise.  If you drown, it's your fault; don't say we didn't warn you.

The path was occupied by a flock of Canada Geese, taking in the warmth from the heated pavement.  I expected them to flee as I approached but they barely moved; some of them didn't even get up.  I ended up tiptoeing through them, like Tippi Hedren, trying to remember if it was geese that had the violent streak.  Beyond the path became rougher and less formal, skirting another, smaller pond, and then turfing me out onto an estate that looked just like the one I'd come from.  I was soon at the main road, the rain barrelling down now, and the contrast with the silent park I'd left two minutes ago was stark.  I love these pockets of greenery that emerge in cities, hidden back channels and waste grounds gone native, turned into parks and gardens by good-minded councils and volunteers.

At this point the railway and canal crossed the road on viaducts that had been decorated with bright colours and metalwork.  I'd have liked to have showed you them but the rain splattered against the lens of my camera and ruined the photos; it was all I could to take a soggy sign picture then dash up to Dudley Port station.  

Dudley Port station is also not in Dudley, but is in the neighbouring borough of Sandwell.  Dudley doesn't actually have its own railway station; that was taken away in the sixties.  It had stood on a line that went beneath Dudley Port station, meaning there was a High Level/Low Level interchange here, but now it's only served by Wolverhampton-Birmingham trains.  For the time being, anyway; the Midland Metro is finally getting another line here, with the old trackbed being cleared and converted for tram use.  The line will branch off the existing route at Wednesdbury and head for Merry Hill, with a hoped for opening date of 2023; Dudley Port will become an interchange again and indeed, a few days after my visit, the overflow car park was closed to form a worksite.

I helped a woman with a pushchair up the steps to the platform then loitered under the shelter, huddled with the other passengers away from the fierce rain.  The plus side of it being so wet was now it was difficult to see what was rain and what was sweat.  I was badly out of shape.  Lockdown had made me soft and flabby and eroded my walking muscles.  I resolved to get out more often, to force myself to walk more places, get back into the habit.  (That was less than a fortnight ago.  Number of times I have been out for a walk since then: zero).

Tipton was also soaking wet as I headed for the station sign.  There used to be a level crossing here, but the inconvenience was so much they finally built an underpass and redirected the road.  Seemingly I was the only passenger who wasn't headed under the tracks as I walked through an elaborate metal sign to take my selfie.

Apologies for any beads of rain marring the photos from now on.  I did wipe the lens down but it wasn't ideal.

I'd considered walking down the canal to Coseley, my next station; it's a direct route that shadows the railway line.  But I thought that would be boring, and this way, I got to go through Tipton town centre.  It turned out it was in bad shape.

The shopping centre was a blasted square of emptiness, with drab shops and too many shutters.  It looked half-abandoned.  Opposite it, the church of St Martin and St Paul had been closed with a For Sale sign wedged on the front.  It's still there though the website is cagey about the price.  Perhaps you fancy a really elaborate home, close to the shops, close to the station?  Invite me round for the housewarming if you do.

I walked past the headquarters of the Tipton & Coseley Building Society, pleased that it still existed in an era where mutuals were dying out, and overtook a rowdy couple who were clutching cans of what might have been an energy drink and might not.  I climbed over the canal bridge.  It had been surfaced with pretty red bricks that looked delightful but were an absolute nightmare to walk on in rainy conditions.  I was wearing thick walking boots with heavy treads and even I felt a couple of slips and slides as I mounted the curve.  Alongside the canal, new homes had been constructed, with a developer's board boasting about their desirability.

There was more industry here, light engineering firms and mechanics, upholsterers and factory seconds shops, plus one of the tackiest new builds I've seen in a long time.  Imagine a standard Barratt Home but with a load of plastic columns and over-elaborate ironwork wedged on the front.  "Threeway Pressings" prompted a dirty gurgle from my childish mind, then I was at a crossroads behind Mad O'Rourke's Pie Factory.

Now I will admit, I'd seen this on the map and been tempted.  What a perfect way to celebrate my return to the railways; a pie and a pint in a place that made them specially.  It seemed ideal.  I was put off, however, by the website.  I like a bit of whimsy as much as the next man - I mean, what is this blog if nothing but whimsical musings about parts of the country I happened to pass through?  The "About" section, though, is a smorgasbord of comedy bits - "famous visitors included 'Rudyard Kipling' whose son trained here before going on to open his own cake factory" and "they are all prepared to a unique set of recipes, known only to three people, the parish priest and a cat".  It was all a bit try-hard, a bit wacky, a bit Colin Hunt, and I found it incredibly off-putting.  It all reeked of bantz bantz bantz and I can't in all conscience encourage that kind of behaviour.

Instead I pushed on, passing the abandoned hulk of the Staffordshire Territorial Army, and reaching a new clutch of houses that all had enormous 4x4s on the drive.  Porsches, BMWs, Range Rover; they were clearly moneyed.  Unfortunately all the houses were fronted with lime green plastic grass that made them look cheap and vulgar.  How difficult is it to whip out a Flymo every couple of weeks?  Are they really so lazy that they'll sacrifice their kerb appeal and harm the environment?  They don't look nice, they don't feel nice; all they do is soak up heat and confuse the birds.  

I reached the A4123, better known as the Birmingham New Road, an impressive slice of highway connecting Wolverhampton and Birmingham.  It was a road from the early days of the motor-car, provided with ample verges and landscaping.  Pleasant houses were set back behind long gardens.  This was designed to whisk 1920s dandies across the Midlands, probably while wearing goggles and with a blonde girl by their side.  Now it was an artery filled with heavy goods vehicles and buses that stopped, started, stopped, started at traffic lights and turns.

Some of the bus stops still carried warning signs from the government, Travel only if it is absolutely necessary, a little slice of dystopia still hanging on in 2021.  Rather more prosaic was a sticker on one of the timetables: FOR GOOD FUCK MR GRUMPY and a telephone number.  Roger Hargreaves really has branched out, hasn't he?

As I passed an industrial estate the pleasing scent of burgers and bacon wafted over from a mobile van called, according to the sandwich board on the roadside, "Nat's Baps".  Of course.  I began to slightly regret not having that pie and a pint.  Still, I'd reached the branch road off into Coseley town centre, with its Centro sign still pointing to the station, so I thought I might find something of interest there to eat.  I walked by a delivery driver with a metre long box who was getting no reply from the front door; he finally walked round to the side and hoiked the package over a side gate.  I hope it wasn't a valuable vase.

Coseley itself was a strip of stark 60s buildings, filled with unfamiliar local shops, apart from a single Greggs that was doing a roaring trade.  Little old ladies passed me with face masks still in place, while a pair of parents tried to control an over-excited four year old.  The road opened out to the Library, with a mobile vaccination centre out the back (I thought back to the helpful advice scrawled on the side of the canal steps and hurried by) and I realised I'd walked right from one end of Coseley to the other without stopping.

I felt foolish about turning back, so I pushed on up the hill, where a burnt out husk of a pub stayed attached to a beauty salon, and small old people's bungalows fronted onto the road.  The station almost took me by surprise, appearing round a final corner.

Coseley has, at some point, received a large amount of attention to make it pretty.  The path down to the platform features a series of ornamental circles, mounted into the railings, as a tribute to a local poet:

And then, when you get down on the platform, you look back up and it spells out Coseley.

It made me laugh when I saw it, spelled out like that, the ordinary on the back of something artistic.  It's the work of Steve Field, and serves as a tribute to a romantic poet called John Cornfield who was from round here (this appropriately flowery piece has some handy background).  Coseley was cared for, with a mural of a train and a mass of flowers on every surface.  It was a good place to finish my first day back; a station that will never be important or famous, but that meant a lot to its users.  This was what I liked to see when I travelled.  It was good to be here.

Sunday 22 August 2021

The Same, But Different

This was going to be a blog post.

This was going to be a recollection of a Saturday spent with Phil and Paul and Rob.  Where we rode a charter train from Skipton to Carlisle with a full English breakfast inside us.  Where we worked our way back to the West Coast Main Line via the Cumbrian Coast Line.  It was going to be a blog post about food and views, about chats and laughs, about dropped toast and circular roofs and closed coffee shops.

Instead it's become an aide-mémoire.  I have a terrible memory for where I've been; I vaguely gesture at the Northern rail map and say, yeah, done it all, take your pick.  It's a load of ticks.  But travelling over these routes today I realised it was so much more.  Each station became a memory; every halt was a trigger.  I watched platforms appear and disappear and tiny moments of my life rose up before me.

This blog is simultaneously a record, and transient; it's incidents of my existence, burned into the internet for as long as Google wants it.  It's days in summer and winter and my past.  As I watched the stations pass by, fragments, pieces, rose up in my brain and pummelled me.  A week in Kirkby Stephen station house.  The green at Bootle.  The steps to the town at Appleby.  There was a minute where I saw Green Road as an upcoming halt and I thought I didn't remember it at all; then I saw it, and I realised it was square windows in the shelter, and a walk behind a school sports field, and a tea room.  It was a mish mash of times in my life that clashed and shouted and laughed.  There was a walk along a beach, round a quarry, through the most depressing village in the world.  There was a closed shop here, and a great pub there, and a bridge, and a footpath.

Every station clicked and shouted to me.  I might not have remembered the name, but I remembered the feelings, the cold of a stormy day, the rain, the sun, the happiness when I saw a platform, the anger when I realised I'd missed my train.  I saw days out, weeks out, travels all across the north.  They mingled with other trips I'd made - no, that was Middlesbrough, no, that was Barmouth, yes, that was Maryport.  My brain became a swirl of happiness.

Because every station being a memory means every station is unique to me.  It's hanging off the cliff at Nethertown or the amazing roof at Hellifield or the rescue instructions at Dent.  La'al Ratty at Ravenglass and the offices at Lazonby.  I watched them burn past and each platform, each sign, was a landmark.  Every time I smiled as I realised why that station was unique to me; why it was a place that belonged only to me.

I should write a post about my day out.  I should write about the travel.  Instead I'm wrapping myself in my memories, in the wonders of places visited.  You shouldn't dwell in the past, but every now and then, it's good to pay it a visit.

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Return of the - ok, maybe not the King, maybe a minor Baron

It's been a very long time since I went anywhere on the railway that wasn't Merseyrail.  Fifteen months, in fact.  I know this, because a mix of sentimentality and grim fascination made me keep the e-ticket on my phone the whole time.  

That was when I headed for the stations between Nuneaton and Coventry Arena; for complex reasons involving a Day Ranger that I can't quite remember I only needed an additional ticket for this part of the trip.  What I do remember is that on the train back, at Wolverhampton, a man sat next to me wearing a face mask.  Alright mate, calm down, I thought.  That's a bit over the top.  Now I'm the person who severely judges anyone in the supermarket for not wearing a mask.

I could've gone out before, of course.  I could've strapped on the face mask, loaded up on the antibac, and headed to Birmingham.  But at the same time, I couldn't.  The trains were for people who had to leave the house; they were for people who had to go to work or visit people.  Important reasons.  Not larking about under station signs.  

Plus, of course, I was afraid.  Not for myself.  I am stupidly unconcerned about myself.  My brain's an absolute mess but I am quite blithe about my physical health.  It'll sort itself out, I think.  It won't be too bad.  And if I die, I die, whatever.  It was my time.  

I do, however, care about the people around me, and the people who've been shielding, and friends and relatives.  If it was just me I'd probably have the West Midlands Railway map done by now.  The fear of passing anything on, however; that's stopped me from travelling out there.

Until now.  I have booked a ticket to a station on the map.  I have worked out a schedule to visit some railway stations.  I have planned a walking route.  I'm double vaxxed (AstraZeneca, a bit tired the day after but otherwise no ill effects) and ready to go.  I've reached the point where I hope the positives outweigh the minuses.

I might chicken out.  I might reach the day of the trip and anxiety will swamp me and it'll be, nope, no, can't do this.  But on the other hand, I might be sitting down in a couple of weeks time with a cup of tea to write a blog post about a back street in Birmingham, accompanied by a picture of my gurning face.  Fingers crossed.