Tuesday 5 October 2021

Bland, Etc

Here's an interesting ("interesting") fact for you: Telford got its first stretch of motorway in 1975.  It got its second stretch, which took it to the M6, in 1983.  That's a brand new, six lanes of tarmac, seventy mile an hour road bulldozed across the countryside to connect the New Town with the motorway network.  Meanwhile it got its railway station, Telford Central, in...1986.  Even though the Shrewsbury-Wolverhampton line had been there since 1849, so all they had to do was whack a couple of platforms down and they were done.

The fact is, Telford isn't really interested in trains.  It was part of the third wave of New Towns, conceived in the sixties then largely built in the seventies, and the prevailing thought at that time was that everyone would have a car.  Everyone.  There was no need to build a railway station because you had that handy motorway.  

Even when they did build it, the emphasis was very much on "get here by car and go somewhere else" rather than "welcoming gateway to the town".  Telford Central is built within a triangle formed by three major roads - the M54, the A5, and the A442, a dual carriageway spine that runs north-south through Telford.  It's a small ticket office and waiting room, combined with a big car park.  There are no facilities, unless you count a Beefeater and Premier Inn off to one side, and there's no feeling of arrival.

I wandered over from the westbound platform to the station building in the hope of seeing something inspirational.  There were some transport policemen having a chat, an empty bus shelter, a woman waiting impatiently.  The transport policemen wandered off to their van parked to the side.  The woman was picked up by a cab.  Then the station was silent again.  It didn't feel right.

Christ almighty that's a bad photo.

In fairness, the town council seems to have realised that this isn't the greatest introduction to the town, and have constructed a large elaborate footbridge to carry you across into Telford proper.  Called the Silver Swallow Bridge - a name, you will be unsurprised to learn, that was invented by a schoolchild - it's a behemoth, crossing first the railway tracks and then the dual carriageway to deposit you in the town.

I walked across it as the rain began to hammer down.  It had been threatening all morning but that was while I was safe and dry on various trains.  The minute I started walking out in the open, the skies turned dark and the rain fell.  I crossed the bridge and ended up on what felt like a service road round the back of some offices.

The route into town was convoluted; I followed a woman who seemed to know where she was headed.  I crossed a wide pedestrian area that the office buildings seemed to turn their back on.  The council had laid on trees and benches but it didn't feel like a boulevard or a place to linger.  The mood wasn't helped by two young lads, huddled under a tree and clearly negotiating something furtive.  I hurried on and up to another footbridge to take me over another main road.

Now, at last, I could see the Telford Centre, the central shopping mall.  While the earlier New Towns looked to Europe for their inspiration, with open, multi-level shopping precincts, the later ones - Milton Keynes and Warrington and Telford - cast their eyes across the Atlantic.  That meant a mall, a huge enclosed area that contained all your shopping needs, surrounded by roads and plenty of car parking space.  The mall was the future; it was warm, and weatherproof, and you could separate shoppers from services with ease.  

I have nothing against shopping malls.  I spent a great deal of my childhood loitering in the Luton Arndale.  They are, however, pretty generic.  Milton Keynes spent an astronomical amount on its central shopping centre, with huge windows allowing natural light, marble floors, and tropical planting.  They made their retail destination a destination.

It was clear that Telford had not had the budget of Milton Keynes and the result was pretty much the same as every other indoor shopping centre in the United Kingdom.  That's fine when you're, say, Leeds, and you've covered over a few streets to make a mall that compliments the rest of your town centre.  In Telford, though, it was a problem.

The effect was that this town could be anywhere.  It should be the big attraction; it should be the heart.  Instead it was just another shopping centre, and I got no feeling about what Telford actually was.  The other problem with having a covered shopping centre as your town's hub is: all it has are shops.  A town is more than retail, and you can't really have a thriving centre if it's all closed and sealed off at 6pm.

The council finally realised this and a few years ago they built the Southwater development.  A pedestrian bridge - obviously - extended the Mall so that it could drop you in a new section of town, with pubs, restaurants, a cinema and hotels.  Suddenly, there was a space for the night-time economy!  And yet, it is just as generic as the shopping centre, only in a 21st century way.  Grey boxes house a Hungry Horse, a Zizzi, a Pizza Express, a Bella Italia; in short, the exact same national chains you get at any retail park.  

I walked through the development to find the lake that justified the "water" part of the name, and found a shallow pond that looked like one of those drainage pools you get on new housing estates.  Turning round, I was confronted with the blankness of the architecture, the big empty plaza without any life to it, the way the buildings didn't recede into the distance but instead just stopped: the town centre was done, thank you very much, nothing more to see.

Even though the rain was pelting down now, I wanted to walk to my next station without going through the shopping centre again, so I took a narrow side route past the requisite TGI Friday's and ended up in a huge open-air car park with an Asda looming on the horizon.  It gave me my first glimpse of public transport after the trains, a bus station with its signage half as big as NEW LOOK or H&M.

Skirting the centre was easy.  It exists as an island, surrounded by four roads to form a square, each of them carefully planned to be converted to dual carriageways if the need arose.  This was a Motorcity, the other part of American towns that was shipped across the Atlantic.  There was a token and, by the looks of it, relatively recent attempt to calm the traffic by the Asda - flat paving leading into road hump crossings, posh streetlamps, a bit of greenery - but it still wasn't a friendly atmosphere.  Turning the corner under the House of Fraser felt like rounding the edge of a fortress.  A bluff, square castle and I was cowering in the moat.

I was the only person on the pavement.  Yes, the weather was bad, but you expect to see one or two people out and about.  There was nobody.  Everyone heading into town had driven here and walked inside the shopping centre, or had gone straight from the bus station under cover to the shops.  Out here on the streets it was empty. It wasn't even especially busy with cars.  Telford's road layout is so meticulously designed that you only head into the town centre if you want to go to the town centre; there are so many bypasses and diversionary routes to keep you away from these four central ways that you have to work to get here.

Towns need people.  They need to move around freely, walk on the streets, wander.  Good towns - good places - invite you to stroll.  There are interesting sights, shops for you to call into, cafes, museums.  There's a mix of humans that makes a community.  On the streets of Telford, there was none of that.  There wasn't even a view.  When I looked to the right I saw the top of the shopping centre; a flat mess of air conditioners and service pipes and utilities.  The pinnacles were the tops of internal features - the roofs of domes, the upper parts of glass pyramids - and they were uninterested in putting on a show for outsiders.

I had, in my head, already planned a route to Oakengates station, and it meant that I had to pass through a retail park to get there.  I followed the footpath sign past the Odeon cinema.  The only movie posters were for No Time To Die, because (a) that was the only film getting released that week and (b) that was the only film worth talking about.  (Yes I have seen it, and yes I enjoyed it, with reservations, and if you really want to read a rough rundown of my thoughts on it, you can read them here).  But the other side of the Odeon didn't look like a retail park, it looked like the car park for an office building - there were no shops in sight.  I thought I must've taken a wrong turn, so I walked back to the road.  Perhaps I had to go behind the Odeon rather than across it.

There was a roundabout - of course there was, I was in a new town - and a couple of low hotels that looked like student accommodation.  But further on from that was another, bigger roundabout, and I pulled out Google Maps in the driving rain so that I could try and deduce where I was meant to be headed.  There was a blue sign pointing to Oakengates, so I followed that.

It was only when I saw the same blue glass, stubby Dallas office building I'd seen leaving the station that I realised I'd walked in a complete circle and the footbridge I was heading for was the Silver Swallow Bridge.  I sighed and pushed on.  Normally I'd turn back, find the right path, but I was sick of Telford.  It was dispiriting and dull and I wanted to go somewhere else.

The bridge deposited me next to the station building and I followed a foot and cycle path that shadowed the A442.  It was noisy and isolated, hemmed in by traffic and trees.  It only got worse as, once I passed under the M54, the path became overgrown on one side.  I could still hear the traffic but now I was on a segregated, lonely route.

This is another part of Telford's loyalty to the car.  Pedestrian routes are segregated and sent places people don't want to walk.  I wondered what it was like to be a housewife, a student, a pensioner, to know that the town centre with its shops was just over there, but without access to a car you were left to follow meandering and dangerous looking paths.  I'm a hefty 44 year old man, and I was apprehensive about turning a corner on that path and finding a gang of youths waiting for me in the undergrowth.  How would it be if you're a 16 year old girl who works in McDonalds and has to get there for the breakfast shift before the buses start?  

The path split and splintered into side routes but I stuck to what seemed like the main way and took a bridge over the railway.  It was stone and brick, and obviously predated the town around it; a remnant of when this was countryside.  It emptied me out at the back of an office park.  I wondered what the workers stood by the photocopiers thought when they looked down and saw me roll out of the undergrowth next to their parked up BMWs.

The hill rose steeply and then I encountered something I'd not seen elsewhere in the town: a bus in motion.  I'd seen them parked up in the station, but how they got there was a mystery, because I'd not seen any of them driving about.  There was nobody at the bus stop, but still, it was nice to know they got around, and weren't for show.  

Snedshill was, it turned out, actually historic, but in the same way that a Civil War battlefield is historic: there's nothing to see.  As the name Furnace Way hints, this was once the site of one of the earliest ironworks in an area that produced Ironbridge, but it's now long gone.  Instead, there are retirement bungalows, a park wedged behind the dual carriageway, and, as you approach Oakengates, a few old cottages threaded along the road.

I wasn't enjoying Telford, which made me sad.  I'd long harboured a plan to visit here, but it was disappointing me.  The problem with that third wave of New Towns is they have a vague sense of hopelessness about them.  They weren't built in thrusting 1960s Britain, with the Beatles and Bond and Concorde, but in the 1970s, with the Bay City Rollers and Love Thy Neighbour The Movie and Concorde not selling because fuel prices were astronomical.  Instead of aiming high, trying to make the lives of its residents better, Telford felt insular and uncaring.  It felt less like a town, more like a load of disparate settlements grouped together arbitrarily.

Which is, of course, partly because that's what Telford is.  No New Town in the UK is entirely new - we're far too small and compressed an island to manage that.  Instead Telford filled in the gaps between existing Shropshire communities with new housing and built a town centre for them to aim for.  It's why Oakengates has had a railway station since 1849 - it was there long before the New Town Commission came calling.

I was immediately cheered by an old Co-operative sign, embedded into the wall, a beautiful piece of tiling.  Admittedly, the building it was in was now a pizza parlour, but still, it was the first bit of history I'd seen since I'd got off the train.  Beyond that was Oakengates town centre, a couple of narrow streets snaking up the hill and lined with a variety of pubs and shops.

Oakengates will never be mistaken for Hampstead or Chiswick.  Half its shops were shut; there were members of staff dangling out the front doors of Ladbrokes and the Eastern European supermarket smoking fags.  One of the pubs was still urging us to support England in the Euros.  It was grubby and down at heel.

But here's the difference between Oakengates and Telford town centre - it felt alive.  There were cars and taxis.  There were pedestrians.  People were having pints under the awnings outside the pubs.  A woman in an Afro-Caribbean shop was talking so loudly and excitedly I could hear her out on the street.  I felt like I was in a Place, somewhere people lived rather than existed.  I crested the top of the high street and turned back towards the station feeling a lot jollier.  I'd finally found some personality.

Oakengates station is at the bottom of Station Road, across from Station Mews and backing onto Station Fields; they're not very imaginative round here.  I headed back down Station Road, past a sign on an industrial unit advertising its Meat Trade Counter which sounded unpleasant for about fourteen reasons, and towards the station.  It was absolutely barrelling it down with rain now, so I didn't bother taking a look at the station house that was now a dental practice - or the pair of slippers that had been discarded on a grass verge and which would haunt me for the rest of the day - and headed for the platform.

Christ almighty that's a bad photo.

I was followed into the shelter by a tall man with a paperback.  He stood at the far end and read his book then, five minutes before the train arrived, tucked it into his pocket and walked away.  He didn't get the train.  I'm now left wondering if this means that Oakengates station doubles as a lending library and I hadn't noticed, or if this was some sort of gay sex pick up that I completely missed the signals for.

My final stop for the day was Wellington, and this is where I owe them an apology.  Wellington is a fine old market town, listed in the Domesday Book and with a charter going back centuries.  It has hundreds of years of history and personality and it deserves a full evaluation.

However, when I arrived, it wasn't just raining, it was engulfed.  Wellington was drowning.  It was heavy, consistent, vertical sheets of water crashing down and flooding the town.  I walked from the station to the pedestrianised area and my coat was clinging to me and my glasses were in desperate need of windscreen wipers.

Out of a sense of duty I endured the rain to do a circuit of the shopping district.  I feel like when people talk about the death of the High Street they are referring, quite specifically, to Wellington.  It was more than a little sad.  Lovely historic buildings that no doubt once housed charming shops were now filled with charity shops.  That's the ones that were filled at all; too many were vacant.  Someone had strung Wellington Boot bunting over the streets to try and induce a cheery atmosphere but in this downpour it looked sarcastic.  I called it a day.

If I was Michael Portillo, I'd have an entire team helping me out with umbrellas and cars and replacement bright pink suits for when the first one got soaked.  I'm not though, I'm just me, and after a miserable afternoon I wanted to find somewhere warm and dry that served beer.

Look at that damp face.  Are you going to deny it one joy?  You beast.

With the beer inside me I felt brave enough to head back out to the station.  Wellington is tucked below street level, in a cutting, meaning it's a somewhat inauspicious welcome to the town.  There are a few steps up to a bus exchange and the back of the shops, or a slowly rising road to the bridge over the tracks.  It feels a bit buried.

On the plus side, being an original station on the line means it gets a proper Victorian station, with fine platform awnings and footbridges.  This wasn't anything special - it wasn't a grand termini - but it still had more dignity and presence than Telford Central's grey box.  It was solid and proud.

I'm not against New Towns at all.  I admire them and support them and some of them are fantastic.  Telford seemed to do it all wrong, somehow.  I wanted better for it.  I really wanted to like it.  But it let me down.

Christ almighty that's a bad photo.