Thursday 13 October 2022

Up The Airport

When I was a child, a thing we would do was go Up The Airport.  We'd get in the back of my dad's van then go across town to Luton Airport.  We'd park up at the viewing area by the runway, sit on a bench, and look at the aeroplanes taking off.  Sort of.  This was Luton Airport in the 1980s, so it wasn't exactly a relentless barrage of 747s.  Now and then a small charter plane would appear.  We'd badger my mum and dad for a burger or an ice cream from the viewing area cafĂ© and never get one.  This is what passed for entertainment in the days when all the telly could offer on a Sunday was religion, politics and Mahabharat.  

The highlight for me, every time, was when we could persuade our parents to let us poke around the airport terminal.  It was fairly new at that time, built out of red bricks and concrete and looking like the headquarters of a minor building society.  It's still there in fact, buried under successive terminal expansions: it's the location of that Burger King on Google Maps:

Even at the age of nine or ten the exciting part for me was a bit of transport infrastructure.  We only went on one holiday abroad when I was growing up, when my dad had to go to Malta for work and so we managed to tag along to the free accommodation, so airports were still places of unimagined glamour and excitement.  The Departures area was low lit and had a shiny marble floor, plus a single shop that sold everything you needed for a holiday - sun tan lotion, shades, magazines.  We would once again try to persuade our parents to buy us something from here, not being old enough to understand the phrase "outrageous mark up", and we'd once again be denied.  Then we'd go home.

There is a point to all this nostalgic noodling, and that is that I always planned Birmingham International station to be collected without any others because it was an airport station.  It was an exciting destination.  It was a place that could entertain me all on its own.  I figured that between the airport and the NEC next door I'd be able to find plenty to keep me amused.

Birmingham International station came into being during a rare purple patch for British local government.  The Metropolitan County of West Midlands had come into being, and taken over responsibility for Birmingham Airport.  The council wanted to expand the facilities there, plus there was the NEC under construction not far away, so they worked with British Rail to build a station on the main Birmingham-London line which passed through the centre of the site.

It opened in 1976, and the station still has the solid, brick and concrete feel of the mid-seventies - turning away from Brutalism and towards something a bit friendlier, but still enormous slabs of construction.  It's been refurbished since of course, most notably by Virgin Trains.  They did their customary job of sticking an enormous bit of glass on the front to try and make it look like an airport terminal.  It also contains some bus stops, but in the main it feels like a giant void for no real reason at all.  Showing off for the sake of it.

After a poke around and a picture with the sign, I headed back upstairs to take another train.  International station was a fair distance from the main terminal, and so a decision was made to build a shuttle to ferry passengers back and forth.  The council worked with the technology section of British Rail to come up with a solution.  I swear it was their only choice, throw up your hands and raise your voice: monorail!  Monorail!  MONORAIL!!!

Opening in 1984, the Air-Rail Link had two trains that could glide as softly as a cloud.  At first it worked well, but time moved on, and building an experimental system that received such an intensive service proved problematic.  The parts became outdated and difficult to replace and finally the monorail was closed down in 1995.

Its replacement, opening in 2003, was far more down to earth.  It's a cable-driven system, a technology that's been used for hundreds of years, which tows each train back and forth the six hundred metres or so to the terminal.  It's not quite as glamorous as a genuine bona fide electrical six car monorail, but it actually works, so it's immediately an improvement.

The shuttle arrived in the dedicated waiting area and I boarded with three airport employees who bitched about one of their fellow workers for the ninety second trip.  Inside they've been built for numbers, rather than comfort, with plenty of space for luggage.  The interiors had been sponsored by Emirates and a video played as we travelled extolling the wonders of flying with them.  

That's a big patch of white hair in my beard, by the way.  I hadn't dribbled toothpaste down myself.  Yes I am old.

Almost as soon as it had begun we pulled into the terminal station.  I was officially Up The Airport now and I wandered through into the Departures area hoping for some top grade entertainment.  Perhaps a little people watching with a pint.  

I was out of luck.  There was a Burger King, and a closed Frankie and Benny's with a few benches outside, but that was it.  The majority of the Departure area was devoted to queueing space.  Get them in, get them through, seemed to be the principle here.  It was quite unsatisfying.

I returned to the Air-Link for my train back to the terminal.  It was pleasingly futuristic, but in a retro, Logan's Run type way; the kind of future that is still full of clunky buttons and flashing lights and computers have giant reels of tape on them.  I managed to board the other shuttle from the one I arrived on, which was decorated in a similar but slightly different sponsored manner.

With the airport proving to be remarkably dull, it looked like the NEC was going to have to keep me amused.  There's no shuttle from the station here, just a long corridor that sloped down to a bank of escalators.  I was surprised to be pushed through a metal detector on the way through.  Nothing was triggered, and they showed no interest in my backpack, and I wondered exactly how sensitive they were.  Perhaps if there was a show that needed added security they were turned up to max.

There were two events going on that day.  Somewhere in the bowels of the complex, Iceland was welcoming its managers for a conference.  Here though, it was UK Construction Week.  I fancied having a wander around, but it was one of those events where you had to register, and I wasn't in the mood to invent an entire building company so that I could get a glimpse of some stands peddling creosote.  If I'd been there a day later I'd have got Grand Designs Live, which presumably starts off well then goes horribly over budget and carries on eight months longer than it's meant to, and also the Horse of the Year Show, which I didn't realise was still a thing.  Apparently Sky Sports nabbed the rights off the BBC a few years ago, only to pass them on to a channel called "Horse and Country TV", which appears to be online only.  This is why you shouldn't always chase the cash.  The organisers must've got a short-term injection of money from Sky, but they've lost the opportunity for people to happen across it on a Thursday night and become fascinated by dancing horses.

Without an exhibition to visit, there is no actual reason to go to the NEC.  It's not architecturally interesting.  It's a lot of boxes arranged around a weedy looking garden that was mostly being used for fag breaks.  It's got a Starbucks and a Wetherspoons, but so have most high streets, and there was a Londis that had a sign outside saying WE SELL TOBACCO.  In short, I had basically seen all there was to see.

I went outside.  In recent years developers have realised that this is an ideal spot for attracting punters - right by the motorway, in the Midlands, lots of transport options - and so a complex called "Resorts World" has sprung up next to the NEC.  It's so important, it's actually mentioned on the West Midlands Railway map:

The first phase of the development was the NEC Arena (not to be confused with the National Indoor Arena, where they held Eurovision), but it's since been joined by more shops and restaurants.  There's also something called "The Bear Grylls Adventure", which looked like a playground for stag dos.  I'm guessing it's more of the "Bear Grylls jumps out of aeroplanes" end of his TV shows rather than the "Bear Grylls sucks water out of some elephant dung" bit, though who knows these days.  I was taken with the giant face with googly eyes, until I realised it was the mocked up back of a combat helicopter for overgrown children to rope slide out of, and I immediately lost what little interest I had in it.

I skirted the lake to head for the main attraction, the Resorts World complex, which opened in 2015 with a casino and cinema and hotel all designed to suck as much cash out of you as possible.  Inside it was gleaming steel and coloured LEDs, a polished floor surrounding gently whirring escalators that cascaded up through the floors at interesting angles.

It was also completely and utterly dead. It was twelvish, so in fairness the restaurants were still setting up, but there wasn't anyone milling around.  A security guard chatted to the girl on the information desk.  A cleaner wandered by with a trolley.  

The outlet mall stretched down one side, a single curving corridor of shops.  When it originally opened there were a couple of floors of stores but lack of interest meant the upper area was converted into a bowling alley.  Now there's about a dozen shops with a single member of staff wandering around, picking at the clothes, occasionally folding something, hoping you'll wander in and see their bargains.  I went in one shop, The Works, where I bought a box of sticky labels for three quid and which I am frankly thrilled with.  Stationery makes me happy, what can I say?  But then I was at the end by the car park ticket machines and so I turned back the way I came.

The casino in the complex operates 24 hours a day so I thought it at least might be a throbbing hub of excitement.  No such luck.  It was impossible to see into the casino itself, but the two bars at the edge were deserted.  I didn't see a single man in an eyepatch cruelly sucking on a cigar, nor any glamorous women in tight dresses bending over to distract handsome players with their cleavage.  Like everything else in Resorts World it was all style and no content.

I went back outside to look at the lake, standing next to a gaggle of people enjoying a cigarette (if anyone should be sponsoring the attractions round here it should be Lambert & Butler).  I was, to be honest, miserable.  It took me more than two hours to get to Birmingham International and I felt like I'd seen it all in half that time.  

I decided to take a walk out of the NEC to see if I could see anything of the HS2 station site.  There will be a stop here that, at present, seems to be called "Interchange".  At one point is was Solihull Interchange, until presumably someone pointed out Solihull is miles away, and they don't seem to have come up with a better name yet.  It'll be built in the triangle formed by the M42, the A45, and the A452, and an automated people mover will then ship you across to the NEC and the Airport and, presumably, International station too.  No word on whether this will be a monorail too; I guess we have to wait and see if the mob has spoken.

I passed the Crowne Plaza hotel, wondering idly if Kevin McCloud was in there ahead of his Grand Designs exhibition, criticising the size of the rooms and the layout of the shower, and headed for the east car parks.  This is not a place designed for pedestrians.  The pavement soon vanished, and I found myself trudging over rough mud and hard concrete to try and reach the motorway bridge.  The main traffic was a series of horseboxes as the Horse of the Year show ramped up its preparation.  

Ahead of me the land had been stripped bare for construction, but I was actually at the wrong end; I needed to be further north to get a decent look.  As it was all I could see was a load of works and nothing really of interest.  I walked back the way I came, following my own footsteps in the dirt.

That was enough.  I decided I'd go home.  My trip Up The Airport had lasted barely an hour.  I returned through the security checks to the NEC, passing the convention attendees who had filled the Wetherspoons, and following the long corridor back to the station.  

I have one, final, complaint.  Birmingham International (which isn't actually the name of the airport anymore, it's just Birmingham Airport, but it'll probably all change when HS2 arrives) doesn't have a nice station sign.  So take your pick which one counts for collecting purposes.  It's either this one:

Outdoors, large, terrible font.  

Or it's this one:

Indoors, small, still in Virgin Trains colours even though they're long gone.

Decide amongst yourselves which you prefer.  I was too disappointed to care.

Wednesday 28 September 2022

Seeing Is Believing

Perception.  It's a strange, unknowable magic.  What you see is different to what I see, and we will never know.  Our eyes play tricks on us, fill in gaps, take shortcuts that alter our views.  Our brains filter and reinterpret.  Each of us lives in a world no-one else can access.

Who you are changes too, and changes the way you see things.  I returned to Kidsgrove station not realising I'd been there before.  I'd visited back in 2014, as part of the Northern Rail map, and I'd forgotten about it.  When it showed up on the West Midlands Map too I blithely pencilled it in for a visit.  Back then, I'd come at the town second, starting out at Longport and walking up the canal.  I'd passed from the industrial ruins of Stoke on Trent through countryside and parkland before pitching up at Kidsgrove station.  The walk had turned greener and warmer as it went on; the streets I'd passed through had been leafy and the houses large.  There was a church and trees and a canal view - it seemed charming.  The station was a bit run down, but stations often are, and I'd come away with an upbeat report.

Since I'd last been here the Accessibility Fairy had visited and planted some lifts and new walkways.  I might have spotted that I'd been here before if they hadn't; I normally have a great memory for places.  Kidsgrove was just different enough to fox me.  Either that or the dementia has started hitting.  I was mainly impressed that all that clean white steel was still clean white steel and hadn't been graffitied or vandalised in any way.  I suppose it's only been a few months - this time next year the local teens will have discovered the blank canvas and will be painting it with obscenities and love notes. 

The station is on an island, a canal on one side, the tracks on the other.  Did I take this picture to shame the person who had parked on the extensive yellow hashes?  That's a distinct possibility.

Students of the decay of the human being may wish to contrast this photo with the one in the earlier post and then recoil in horror.

I crossed the canal to enter the town centre proper.  The A50 climbed a steep hill with small shops on one side.  The Kidsgrove Bank Dental Surgery still looked an awful lot like a NatWest, while flags hanging from the lampposts urged me to keep the town tidy.  On top of the hill the Victoria Hall stood firm, home to the town council (though it's now part of Newcastle-under-Lyme borough) and an event hall for hiring.  The clock tower kept the correct time which is depressingly rare.

I was in search of an old station site.  The current Kidsgrove station opened as Harecastle and was one of three stations that served the town.  Another line, constructed mainly to service the pottery and mining industries, looped away from the mainline and went via Tunstall to Stoke.  It gave Kidsgrove two more stations - Liverpool Road and Market Street Halt.  I ducked behind a telephone exchange and across some waste ground to where the Pottery Loop Line had once been.

It's now a walking and cycle route and Market Street Halt was positioned behind the Masonic Hall, handy for the town's main shopping district.  There's nothing there now, just a crossing of footpaths, but it felt satisfying to tick another station off, even if it was only virtually.  I went back to the town round the back of the Labour Club.

It turned out this was one of those "bitterly ironic" locations.  At the front of the club was a small queue, a few mums with pushchairs, some pensioners.  They were queuing for the town's food bank.  

Food banks make me furious.  I shouldn't know what a food bank is.  I shouldn't be aware of them.  I live in one of the richest countries on earth.  Nobody in this country should be relying on handouts.  Nobody should be suffering.  There shouldn't be people - vulnerable people, people with children - queueing for baked beans and powdered milk and tea bags.  This is appalling.  This country is appalling.  And if you voted for the shower of blue bastards who've made it worse over the past decade, fuck you.

Sorry, wandered off topic there.  But to return to the oddness of perception; I'd previously seen Kidsgrove as a well off town.  Now it was coloured with sadness and deprivation.  Now it had empty shops, low-grade retail, odd businesses that seemingly had no place on a high street.  That food bank queue had altered how I saw the town.  Of course, it's also possible that Kidsgrove has severely gone downhill in the interim; it has been eight years since I was last here, eight years of Tory rule, eight years of Brexit and Boris.  

I looped round the threadbare town centre, past motor centres and bakeries (this month's doughnut: Jaffa) and then down a side road.  There was a "neighbourhood community facility", buried behind high metal fences and looking very closed, and a lot of social housing that twisted and turned down the hill.  I could see through to their back gardens where they suddenly plunged down at terrifying angles, and tried to imagine mowing those lawns without slipping.  

Beneath the railway bridges, then on to Tesco, the site of Kidsgrove's other former railway station, Liverpool Road.  The Potteries Loop Line, gently curving through village after village, couldn't compete with the direct routes taken by road.  The goods traffic went first, then, in the Sixties, Beeching came along and killed it off.  A cycleway follows the old route but nobody is agitating for trains to return.

I nipped into Tesco to use the facilities, then returned back to Liverpool Road and turned down by the Lidl for the canal.  It was a thick brown, the colour of rust, a side effect of iron leaking into the water, and it looked grim and unloved.  A pub nearby advertised "canalside views" and I wondered if anyone bothered.

This was the Trent & Mersey Canal, connecting Northwich with Derby via the Potteries, but I didn't see much sign that it was well navigated.  I walked about a mile and didn't see a single boat navigating it.  There was one narrowboat moored up, abandoned, its woodwork rotted and its ropes thick with mould.  On the top a Dyson handheld hoover had rusted and cracked.  There were walkers, sprightly pensioners in cagoules who offered a cheery "morning!" as I passed, and the occasional dog.

Clearly the canal does still have its users; there were extensive facilities for showering and water at one point, and plenty of places to tie up.  Perhaps this was simply the wrong season for it.  I pushed on, trying to enjoy the walk, trying to avoid the dark thoughts swimming around inside my head.  Kidsgrove had depressed me and made me feel negative and I needed to distract my brain before I turned it in on myself.

Soon enough I was leaving the towpath and clambering up onto a busy road.  It was the same A50 that had passed by the Tesco earlier; I could've got here a lot quicker by following it, but then I'd have missed the delightful scents of Kidsgrove's sewage treatment works, which shadow the canal.

The village of Church Lawton, hidden to the north of the main road, gave way to the edges of Alsager itself.  A sign for the Geberit factory gave me a momentary chill.  I'm currently in the middle of a big bathroom refurbishment and I have seen way too many toilets and sinks lately.  They give me hives, particularly Geberit, which is definitely towards the "how much?" end of bog production.  

Alsager was a small farming community until the railways came, when it became a fashionable place for the more well-off industrialists from Stoke to have their homes.  There was a pleasing mix of cottages and villas, well-kept and well-scrubbed, proper Cheshire affluence that had arrived in the nineteenth century and never gone away.  Alsager is far too close to Crewe and Stoke to get the glitter of the Golden Triangle but it still carries with it a slight sniffiness, a "better than you" tone. A sign in a solicitor's window advised me that "a will is not enough" and "how would you feel if your grandchildren lost 40% of your estate in Inheritance Tax?"   To which any reasonable person would reply "bloody hell, how much money have you got?"

Alsager proper is centred around a crossroads, with a civic hall and library complex surrounded by trees and grass.  The shops here were very much open and well-used; the bakery here was promoting its fully laden, freshly made Turkey Wrap, rather than the pleasing but cheap assortment of E numbers you got in Kidsgrove.  

Nothing is fair.  There are winners and losers in everything, particularly capitalism.  But I'd only walked for an hour and I was in a different universe of wealth.  And yet: there's a food bank in Alsager too.  Nobody is insulated from poverty.  It's just that it's taking a little longer to reach some people - and by the looks of it, this winter will be the crisis point.

No, alcohol is not a solution to life's problems.  It does let you forget for a while, though.  I went in a deserted pub on the main street, the kind of place that you know is full of Sixth Formers on a Friday night taking selfies and doing Jagerbombs, and I sat in the window and drank my pint while Lizzo told me it was About Damn Time on the TV screen above my head.  I got lightly toasted.

It was time for my train.  I headed south to the station.  Ahead of me, an Amazon driver pulled off a u-turn from a Bond film, swinging across the carriageway and dodging traffic with aplomb.  The other cars stopped in his tracks - perhaps out of admiration, perhaps fear.  The barriers lights on the level crossing began to flash and the driver went through at speed as though he was being chased.  At some point all these Amazon drivers are going to get other jobs and they're going to unleash their mad driving skills on normal cars and our A-roads will turn into Wacky Races.

I went to the Crewe bound platform.  Across from me, there was an excitable group of teenagers, who literally leapt for joy when their train arrived.  I sank into a bench and ate the Marks and Spencer wrap I'd bought at Lime Street that morning, a little crushed after hours in my bag.  

Another day, I might have been charmed by Alsager.  I might have delighted in it.  Not today though, not after Kidsgrove.  Perception is a funny thing.