One question I've often had to field since I dragged this blog back to life is "why?". Not "why are you trying to visit all the stations on a map?", because most people I know have long given up on trying to get a justification for that out of me. No, what they want to know is "why on earth would you willingly spend your free time travelling round the Midlands?"
The Midlands - particularly the Birmingham-related parts of it - have a reputation as one of Britain's least lovely spots. You can find people who'll defend London's grimiest inner cities or Middlesbrough's industrial wastelands or Liverpool's abandoned docks, finding true beauty in their desolation. But it's rare you'll get someone sticking up for Birmingham. It's a sulky, unloved part of the world.
One of the reasons why I'm doing this blog is to explore this massive, highly-populated part of the country that I know very little about, and to find good spots wherever I can. You might find this hard to believe but I don't go to the grimiest hellholes with glee on my face, looking forward to tearing it to pieces in a barely-read blog a few days later. I want to find goodness. I want to find charm. I want to be dazzled.
Unfortunately I was at Tame Bridge Parkway.
No-one has ever been inspired by a "Parkway". Michael Portillo hasn't rhapsodised about Didcot Parkway; nobody's rushing to make Port Talbot Parkway Grade II listed. Tame Bridge Parkway squats beneath a dual carriageway, the M6 roaring close by, a pair of platforms with a redbrick ticket hall and acres and acres of car park.
Above, four lanes of traffic streamed past. There were no buildings or homes. Tame Bridge Parkway was built for drivers. There wasn't a community for it.
I crossed a smelly canal, its weed-choked banks adorned with a burnt-out car lying on its roof, then entered the cavernous undercroft of the motorway. The M5 and M6 meet at this point, their slip roads pouring into one another, and below you get to look at acres and acres of dead space. Plants won't grow here. People won't live here. They serve no useful purpose other than as compounds for more cars - as above, so below. Unless you're a concrete fetishist like me in which case you get to stand around and look at them, but even that gets boring after a while.
A little bit of humanity started to creep in now. Bus stops and grass verges; houses and industrial units. An enterprising company had set up one advertising board for its granite worktops alongside a completely separate one for granite headstones, really hoping you wouldn't link the two in your head and spend the rest of your time staring at your new kitchen island and imagining the words RIP GRANDMA
etched in it. A sign in the centre of the dual carriageway welcomed me to "The Delves In The Borough Of Walsall".
A less friendly sign had been erected by the police further along. "Warning: No car cruising in Black Country area - HIGH COURT INJUNCTION IN FORCE".
I had no idea what "car cruising" actually meant. At first I thought it was about kerb crawling and I was confused - isn't that illegal anyway? A bit of googling and I discovered it was actually the practice of boy racers screaming down Birmingham's dual carriageways and into its car parks to perform tricks and show off in their souped-up cars. This is the problem with building your city around cars. You've built the perfect environment for people to speed and have fun in them and, as a consequence, cause a massive danger.
I turned into a residential side street by a block of old people's flats, its bus stop filled with ladies off to the shops with their trolleys, and walked past the lawns and the neatly parked cars. My mum always used to say that you could tell who bought their council houses because the first thing they did was rip off the standardised front door and replace it with one of their own. Now you can tell which ones are owner occupied by the lack of insulation and solar panels, housing associations taking every opportunity and government grant to minimise the bills. In the north end of Birkenhead, almost all the houses have been covered with cream exterior insulation, except for the ones that have been sold, which break up the run of energy efficiency with their mean brick exteriors and, yes, their fancy front doors.
There was a sharp break as the homes became industry, suddenly, as though a switch had been flicked. I was taken by the FH Tompkins Buckle building; a standard factory with 1950s peaked roofs had received a wonderfully 70s/80s extension at the front. The red porthole windows wedged in the grey plasticky exterior made it look like a polytechnic science block. I've done a bit of searching and I think the company is still there, making buckles, but I'm not really sure, as its website is delightfully ancient
I rounded a corner and let out a gasp. I was in the presence of an icon. If you travel from north to south on the M6 with any regularity, you become used to certain roadside buildings as markers on the way. One big one for me, as it was roughly the halfway point, was the RAC headquarters that thrusts out towards the motorway. It was a large glass building, seemingly hanging over the road, and giving the impression that inside was a huge team of headset-wearing operatives monitoring the nation for breakdowns. You could picture them leaning in over green radar screens, whispering urgently, fielding calls and dispatching operatives - "Susan Melgrove is reporting a flat battery in Harrogate and needs us. Good luck and God speed."
Now, it seemed, I was right behind it, on the other side. I'd not even spotted it on the map so it was a proper thrill and brought a huge beaming smile to my face. Admittedly, from the rear it's not as impressive. The building's been designed to wow motorway users and at the back there's a vehicle compound and a boring flat block of offices. None the less, it brought back happy memories of travelling up and down the M6 to Ormskirk at the beginning and end of term.
Another turn, and the road started to get those ostentatious lamppost flags councils put up to try and impress visitors. I was approaching the home of Walsall FC, the football club Bescot Stadium station served, and as usual I wanted a quick look at the home ground. I love a sports ground for the same reason I love a bridge or a museum; it's big, flashy, public architecture. As I approached, I tried to work out where it was, thinking it had to be behind that drab University of Wolverhampton factory unit. Then I realised. It was the drab University of Wolverhampton factory unit.
Look, Walsall are in the bottom league, they're hardly likely to have a huge Emirates style bowl. Still, it was a bit disappointing to see something that could've passed for a closed down Carpetright as a town's main sporting venue.
Directly opposite the ground was Bescot Stadium station. I think it says a lot about the visitor numbers to Walsall's games that the car park suggested that rail users should park at one end on match days to leave room. If there was a car park directly opposite Anfield it would be full from about 7am on a Saturday morning.
Bescot Stadium opened as Bescot station, then was renamed Bescot Junction, then finally became Bescot Stadium in 1990, and it must have one of the grimmest approaches on the British railway network. To reach the platforms, you have to cross the car park, then follow a dark fenced off route under the M6. They've stuck some poetry on the floor here, and the fence has a fancy top to it, but it's still a pretty ominous walk.
Once you're past the motorway, there's a bridge over the canal, where I counted an impressive four shopping trolleys in the water, one with a plastic seat for toddlers. Then there's another bridge to take you up and over the tracks, this one in pebbledashed concrete and speckled with mould. Normally at out of the way stations there are a lot of signs from the Samaritans, pleading with you to call them rather than jump on the tracks. The signs here were a lot more confrontational, warning about the penalties for jumping, telling you to grass up mates who vandalise the railways, informing you just how many people actually survive being hit by a train but have to lose a limb. This wasn't pretty or scenic; Jenny Agutter wasn't waving her knickers around anywhere near Bescot Stadium.
The footbridge did at least give you a view of Bescot depot, a mass of tracks speckled with freight trains. As I have often said, I'm a station nerd, not a train nerd, so this view didn't really do much for me, but I'm sure my readers will love it so here's a picture.
There was at least a station building on platform 1 - it was closed, but never mind - and there were LED screens to tell you when the next train was. I've been to stations in Manchester that have had a lot less in the way of facilities. I took a seat and ate my sandwich - a Sainsbury's Christmas one, pigs in blankets; disappointing, 4/10 - and then the train arrived to take me to Walsall, my final stop.
Walsall station emptied out directly onto a pedestrianised street tucked behind the heart of the town centre, which was handy. I followed the rest of my passengers up to Park Street, Walsall's main shopping drag, but I didn't hang about. I was headed for the town's jewel.
The New Art Gallery Walsall
opened in 2000, another of those Millennial icons that now seem like a universe away, and was built primarily to house the Garman Ryan Collection. Kathleen Garman was a socialite and artist who became the mistress of Jacob Epstein in the 1920s. His wife shot Kathleen in the shoulder with a pearl-handled pistol - as I said, it was the 1920s - but Epstein still lived with her until her death, before marrying Kathleen in 1955. Their daughter Kitty went on to marry Lucien Freud; sadly, their two other children committed suicide.
Kathleen was a devout art collector and along with her friend Sally Ryan she donated all her pieces to the borough of Walsall. The New Art Gallery was conceived as a place to give it the setting it deserved and also, to act as a focus for regeneration for the town.
On the first count, it succeeds brilliantly. The gallery is beautiful to walk round, all calming wood and soft lighting, and each piece is given the prominence it deserves. There's a lot of Jacob Epsteins, as you'd expect, but there's also stuff by Picasso, Rembrandt, Degas, plus historic pieces from Ancient Egypt. It was laid out by theme - a room about Trees, a room about Children - and it meant you could look at the different way artists had interpreted a similar subject. I wandered around for a while, enjoying myself, picking out which one's I'd have for my living room. I didn't take many pictures - go to the gallery and enjoy it yourself - but I must point out that this is the installation in the second floor lift vestibule.
There were two disappointments. The first was that, though it was a four floors of galleries, only two were open. The third floor was being prepared for a new exhibition and the fourth - which hosts a roof terrace - seemed to be a victim of the pandemic. The second disappointment was when you passed one of the beautifully crafted rectangular windows, carefully placed within the gallery for light and effect, you got a glimpse of Walsall.
Because, and I'm sorry to say this, I did not like Walsall. It's not all their fault; it's clearly suffering in the same way a lot of satellite towns in the 21st century are suffering. The big stores were closing up and Park Street was left as the home of vape stores, pound shops, and To Let boards. Corporate signage had covered up any interesting architecture while big ugly shopping centres had swallowed up a lot of the real estate.
It was one of those towns where, for no reason at all, it seemed to have decided to be as ugly as possible at all times. And after the endless beauty in the art gallery it seemed even more hideous. I walked down to the market square, where permanent stalls sold catalogue rejects, and doubled back in search of the bus station.
This did, at least, look like a big impressive piece of architecture. It's a statement, and it's a landmark, and it works. And when you get inside you get to look up at the roof and imagine you've been captured by a pop art alien and this is their flying saucer.
But it is, when all is said and done, just a bus station. I turned away from it, past the closed National Express ticket office - the glass walls giving me a great look into the bare interior - and through a small arcade back to Park Street. Outside a convenience store, the owner was arguing with some bolshie college girls who couldn't definitely prove they were 18; across the way, a man stood in the doorway of a vape shop, dancing to the pounding techno music they played or possibly, to the tune only he could hear. The burger stall that was wedged halfway up pumped out the smell of grease. I decided to leave.
Because I like to wallow in misery, instead of going back the way I came where it was at least airy and pleasing, I headed into the Saddlers Shopping Centre. Walsall station had once opened up directly onto Park Street
, but the lure of a new Marks and Spencer proved too much for the town, and the station building was demolished to provide the residents with all the under cover shopping pleasures they could handle. (The Marks closed in 2018, less than 30 years after it became part of the Saddlers Centre; the station concourse was more than 50 years old when it was knocked down). The station ticket hall was shoved at the back of the mall.
In fairness to Walsall Council, they've realised this was a grave error. A few years ago they purchased the Saddlers Centre to help regenerate the town, and their masterplan
includes a new station entrance, once again opening up onto Park Street and reclaiming its importance.
I hope it goes ahead. It's a lot cheaper to produce masterplans than to actually construct anything, but Walsall needs something to get it back. I walked through dark corridors down to the platform. Because of the shopping centre overhead, trackside is dark and miserable; most of the passengers had congregated in the open air section, and I joined them.
I'm often asked "why on earth would you willingly spend your free time travelling round the Midlands?". After visiting Walsall and its environs, part of me was inclined to wonder the same thing. My next trip out would have to be a lot more cheering.