Wednesday 23 February 2022

Wide Open Spaces

For reasons far too dull to go into here, I was in Liverpool city centre in the early evening with time to kill. Can we talk about this hospitality gap we have in the UK, where there’s nowhere to go between the shops closing at five thirty and your dinner reservation at seven thirty? The default used to be to go to a pub, but I was in the University district, and students these days don’t drink because they’re all healthy and care about their bodies so there are hardly any pubs. It’s disgusting really. We have an entire generation of nineteen and twenty year olds who’ve never woken up in a stranger’s bed, their head pounding because of too much cheap lager, and had to sneak out before the other person wakes up. (Not that that ever happened to me of course). 

Anyway. I found myself wandering the University precinct, an area of the city centre that’s unfamiliar to me. If you’re not a student there’s no real reason to come up here, and so the various alleyways and pedestrianised walkways are a mystery. I’d been to the Student Union before, of course; I came here with the Edge Hill LGB Society (no T back in those days, though we added it the following year because we were not awful people). It was very early in my first year and was intended as a welcome to the area for new gay students, to let them mingle with other homos from the area, so I piled into a minibus with a load of people I didn’t know and we all headed into Liverpool pretending we were after comradely conversation and discussions of queer politics when we were actually all after a snog. None of us got one; the Edge Hill people stayed in one corner and the Liverpool people stayed in another and I ended up giggling with a gay guy and a lesbian. 

Where was I? Oh yes, on the nostalgia train.  I wandered into Blackwells, a once great bookshop that’s now a shadow of its former self. They had a 3 for 2 that looked interesting but it was close to closing time and the staff had an air of “I sincerely hope you’re not thinking of browsing because I need to get home” about them. I walked away from there, down a path full of revoltingly young and happy well educated people, and I ended up on the bit of land behind the Union. It’s been landscaped beyond all recognition but there are some things you can’t hide. Like this. 

Guarded by spikes to stop any, ahem, “adventurous” spirits venturing over the wall, that’s one of the vents above the main tracks into Lime Street. There’s a ridge of rock around Liverpool which meant when Victorian engineers tried to get trains close to the city centre they had to tunnel. Or rather, in those days, dig down into the ground to create a cutting they could roof over. Because of the steam trains they obviously had to make room for ventilation and so these voids exist along the length of the tunnel.  There’s another one right next to this one. 

This open expanse of hedges and paving isn’t so much a lovely space to relax and more of a practical solution. Those Victorian tunnel builders were still learning their craft, and so they dug a relatively shallow hole. It’s created a tender zone where you can't build.  In fact it's worse than that.  A sign on one of the voids warns that you need a permit to operate heavy vehicles in the area, purely to stop trucks from plummeting onto a Pendolino.

In an ideal world there'd be a station here so that all the students could get easy access to the railway.  The sheer volume of trains using these tracks make that difficult, though a suggestion pops up now and then to much head shaking from Network Rail.  

It did make me think though.  Nearly five years ago I followed the routes of the Waterloo and Victoria tunnels, two disused freight tunnels that pass under the city.  They solved the ventilation problem by creating towers to suck the smoke up and out and distribute it over the heads of poor people.  The shafts are still there, though in 2017 two of them were inaccessible, hidden behind the fences round the former Archbishop Blanch school and basically a building site.

Now that's developing into a new district, Paddington Village; there's a college, a multi-storey car park, an office block and a Novotel opening soon, with work underway on more to come.  It occurred to me that the ventilation towers might be more accessible now.  I walked up to Grove Street and there it was.

A round circle of brick in the middle of a plaza, right outside the entrance to the Royal College of Physicians and surrounded by fancy seating and planting.  There was no sign to tell you what it was.  It was simply a mysterious cylinder, plonked outside all the gleaming new buildings, a historic artefact breaking through.

Its sibling hadn't fared as well.  As with the University Precinct, the tall buildings of Paddington Village have to avoid the tunnels underneath the site.  The foundations for multiple storied hotels would slice straight through them and, even though they've been out of use for decades, nobody really wants to give up completely and fill them in.  The result is another wide open plaza, but with steps and ramps built in to process the changes in levels over the site.  The second ventilation shaft has seemingly ended up buried inside the landscaping and now barely pokes above ground, surrounded by planting.

I turned round and looked out as the sun came down.  One advantage of Liverpool facing west is it gets awesome sunsets and suddenly, briefly, I was looking down over a golden city, its buildings glowing, its towers and crowns on fire.  I trotted down the steps and returned to ground level.  There had to be a pub round here somewhere.

Thursday 17 February 2022

Second Best

It's been said that if you put something extremely sweet in your mouth, it'll make whatever you follow it with taste a thousand times more sour.  So if you stuck a spoonful of sugar on your tongue, then followed it with a bitter lemon, your face would turn inside out with the sheer pain of its tartness.  

I bring this up as a caveat before I write anything about Craven Arms.  You have to remember that I had just arrived in the town after a morning in the beautiful, charming Church Stretton.  I'd rambled over hillsides and wandered picturesque streets and enjoyed the beauty of nature.  I was now somewhere else.  That place might not be the most wonderful place on earth, but coming right after Church Stretton, its flaws seemed all the more apparent.

I will say that walking out of the station to find an abandoned block of flats doesn't fill you with the best first impression.  The ground floor was boarded up, and I could see the vacant apartments inside.  I'm not sure what happened here - was there a fire? - because the development looked new and interesting, with matching terraced homes nearby and solar panels on the roof for the full green effect.  I passed through to the main road, past a cafe called - yes! - Station Cafe (presumably pronounced Station "Caff") and walked towards the town centre.

For centuries, there wasn't really much round this way.  There were a couple of hamlets, Newton and Newington, but they were barely worth talking about.  The main feature was the Ludlow to Shrewsbury road following the gap in the hills on its way to Church Stretton and beyond.  At the turn of the 19th century, however, a coaching inn, the Craven Arms, opened on the road for travellers.  When the railway followed a few decades later, they passed up naming the station after one of the generically titled villages in favour of the far more famous inn.

As happened all across Britain, the arrival of the railway meant the arrival of people, and a town grew up around the station to service the passengers.  Craven Arms is, therefore, a town named after a railway station named after a pub.  

Of course, this was catnip to me; I had to go to the Craven Arms in Craven Arms.  That's a properly historic reason to visit the pub.  Even Michael Portillo would find time to visit the pub that gave the town its name, in between biscuit factories and looking smug.  I ended up disappointed.

The Craven Arms pub stands on a prominent roundabout in the centre of town and it is definitely, comprehensively, closed.  I did some digging around to find out what happened.  In February 2020 they posted on Facebook:
Due to flood damage the pub will be closed from 7pm tonight until Monday, sorry guys!!!

A follow-up post appeared on the 4th March:

Heyyy all just to keep you updated we now have heating again but we are still waiting on the coolers to be done 😞  fingers crossed will be this week

On the 20th March 2020, the government closed all the pubs and put us in lockdown.  I imagine at that point the licensee thought "stuff this for a lark," packed up their goods and disappeared into the night.  I don't blame them to be honest, but it did leave a big hole in the middle of town.  If you're the town of Craven Arms, it feels wrong that the pub that gave you its name is no more.  It was sad and also ominous; a real ravens leaving the tower moment.  

I turned back to have a walk round the centre.  The difference between a historic country town (like Church Stretton) and a more modern one like Craven Arms was glaringly apparent.  It wasn't just the buildings, or the town's layout, spread over a series of straight roads that intersected at right angles.  It was the difference between small, individual farming and more comprehensive, more industrial agriculture.  One back street was dominated by a compound for selling farm machinery.  Huge tractors and diggers and harvesters towered over the pavement.  Meaty, hard, lumps of metal, made for churning up ground in huge quantities, made to carve and slice through crops.

On one corner, a dull modern office building was home to Euro Quality Lambs - a company that promised to deliver "high quality lamb carcasses throughout the UK and Europe".  This was the brutal reality of livestock farming.  This wasn't fluffy ickle sheep prancing over hillsides, this was an animal to table processing centre.  

I walked away, wondering when the lambs will stop screaming, and found the Market Hall.  That was another difference from Church Stretton - the Victorian practicality of putting the market under cover, making it permanent, able to operate all week instead of one special day.  It's no longer in use for that purpose however.  Instead it's been transformed into the Land of Lost Content.

Owner Stella Mitchell has built up, over the decades, a comprehensive collection of... stuff.  There's no real other way to describe it.  Packaging, signage, clothing, toys, general miscellany - it's spread throughout the market hall for you to take in.  The delightfully retro website - is that part of the collection? - has its full history and mission statement.

I didn't go in, for two reasons.  The first was that you were meant to book ahead or, alternatively, call a number on the door for admission.  I'd not booked and my social awkwardness couldn't cope with the idea of asking someone to open up a museum for me.  I'd have felt obliged to walk round every inch of it so that I didn't let the owner down.

The second reason I didn't go in was the charge was eight quid.  Am I cheap, or does that seem like an awful lot of money to look at someone's collection?  I couldn't bring myself to pay for it so I walked away in search of Craven Arms' other big tourist attraction.

I'm sure the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre has a purpose.  I'm sure it has a mission statement and an ambition.  I'm not quite sure what it's for.  It's a nice enough building, very Millennium Project-y, with all the eco credentials that come with that.  It had a cafe and a gift shop, selling bird feeders and local gin and copies of Precious Bane, a book set in the local area which I have read and remember being absolutely dreadful.  

It also had an exhibition.  Costing five pounds to get in.  And once again, I was forced to say "nope".  There was the promise of a film beyond the sign, and historical information, and a recreation of an Iron Age hut, and a replica of a mammoth found in the local area - not the actual skeleton itself, because that's at the Natural History Museum.  A replica.  For five British pounds.  Yes, yes, support the arts, support our nation's history, support the culture, but that seemed to be a little bit piss-takey for me.  I used the toilets - they were free at least - and left the building behind a party of school children.  I imagine school trips were what kept the place going.  I certainly couldn't imagine many people driving here specifically to visit.

Out the back of the centre are the Onny Meadows, an expanse of walking paths and landscaping based around the River Onny.  February probably isn't the best time of year to visit the meadows, and let's be honest, I'd just romped over National Trust hillsides so this was a little underwhelming, but at least it was pretty and quiet and gave me a bench to sit and eat my sandwiches.

The question was, what to do with the rest of the afternoon, until my train at five o'clock?  I had a couple of hours to kill now.  

Be honest; you knew that was coming.

There was a big pub near the Discovery Centre that advertised rooms and good food and beer.  This last one was a lie; their options were Carling, Worthington's, and a lot of lagers I had never heard of.  I settled for a Worthington's and took a seat at an octagonal table in the window.  The table was sticky from being continually sprayed with antibac.  Above me was a line of fairy lights and the world's tiniest disco ball, barely a couple of inches in diameter, and not even slightly festive.  There was a dance floor, with pale blue LEDs surrounding it, and an England flag hanging from the ceiling.  The flag had a Sports Direct logo in the corner.

The only other patrons were two middle aged ladies and their elderly mother who were drinking coffee on the other side of the room, plus the boyfriend of the barmaid, who sat at the end of the bar fiddling with his phone while she served then joined in conspiratorial gossip when she was free.  I drank my pint and left long before the burger and a pint offer kicked in at 5:30.

Now what?  I walked round the town centre streets again, up one road, down another.  I passed the only other pub and it looked somehow worse than the one I'd just left.  The window of the general store advertised a Flicks in the Sticks event at Aston on Clun village hall: a showing of No Time To Die.  Obviously I applauded Aston on Clun's taste in movies, while internally sniggering at the word Clun.  I seemingly had only one place left to go.  Shopping.

There isn't an Asda in Craven Arms, or an Aldi, or a Morrisons.  There's not even a Tesco Metro.  Instead the locals shop at Tuffins, a local supermarket with stores here and in Welshpool.  I went inside for a poke around, past a sign that informed me that the Co-op had purchased their supplier and so they'd be selling their products but "We are proud to be an Independent Supermarket and will NOT be turning into a Co-op".  

You know when you go on holiday, and you end up in the local supermarché, and it's all familiar and yet at the same time, deeply weird?  That was what it was like wandering round Tuffins.  It sort of made sense as a supermarket - there was milk and bread and orange juice - but the brands were odd, and the layout was strange.  There was a garden centre next to the bakery.  There was an aisle that sold balls of wool on one side and children's underwear on the other.  It had a charmingly ramshackle feel to it, like it had started as a tiny shop but they'd kept buying the buildings next door and knocking through and then trying to find stuff to fill it with.

As I was so close to Wales - this part of England is known as the Welsh Marches, a historically fuzzy borderland between the two countries - I picked up a bara brith for the BF, plus a copy of Viz for the train journey home.  It was nearly four o'clock when I left the store and I felt like I had exhausted Craven Arms.  It was shutting up shop.  I walked back to the station - the cafe was closed now - and took a seat on the cold platform to watch the sun start to go down.

Craven Arms wasn't a bad town, don't get me wrong.  I bet lots of people love it.  You're still in those wonderful hills, after all, and there's places to shop and eat.  There was a charity bookshop that was selling some of the most bizarre and lurid paperbacks I've ever seen, and a new surgery building that looked modern and efficient.  You've got a station with plenty of trains.  It just wasn't for me.  I was far more of a Church Stretton chap.  

Monday 14 February 2022

Church Walks


I am a full, card-carrying member of the swathe of humanity labelled "Generation X".  We're the last generation to have a handful of tv channels and the first to have computers in our home; we're the generation that embraced SAW and techno and grunge and Britpop.  We grew up with Spielberg films and E-numbers and nothing to do.  We're a generation that is, above all, riddled with cynicism and disdain and an ironic distancing of every experience.  It was something we developed to cope with Thatcher and Reagan and AIDS and the threat of nuclear war hanging over our heads and all our parents getting divorced.  We became tough.

I suffer from this affliction more than most.  Every joyous event happens to me through glass.  I watch it from outside, unwilling to commit until I've decided if this is something I will allow myself to enjoy.  Every unfiltered moment of happiness is met with pursed lips; every emotional outpouring is greeted with a raised eyebrow.  I am, in short, a nightmare.

It means that when I am told something will be beautiful and great, I'll blow my cheeks out dismissively and say to myself, "we'll see about that".  I arrived in Church Stretton with my cynical faculties at maximum.  I'd read, prior to arriving, that this was a lovely place.  A gem in the Shropshire countryside.  "Nicknamed Little Switzerland", one website told me.  Yeah, yeah, I thought.  

I left the station and cracked a smirk of superiority.  Beyond the platform was a rough, badly tarmacked road, cracked and broken, lined with garages and workshops.  Cars and vans broached the pavement while at the end of the street was a fast, unlovely A-road.  Charming?  I thought.  This could be anywhere.

I crossed back over the railway line, past the town sign informing me it was market day, and something hit me.  Perhaps it was the fine buildings, grand but not ostentatious; perhaps it was the steep hills rising up to form a picturesque backdrop.  Perhaps it was the ginger cat that stepped away from the verge to beg for a stroke at my feet.  Something infiltrated my brain and made me think, "oh no.  This place is great."

Church Stretton, it turns out, lives up to its reputation.  It's a thoroughly charming little market town, threaded around a couple of main streets, that oozes personality.  It has a thriving community of residents; there was a two metre long notice board outside the post office, groaning under the weight of notices for support groups, events, clubs.  Women's Circle?  Sequence dancing?  Gardening club?  They were all here.

The High Street passed through an intriguing mix of buildings and styles.  Most of the stores were occupied, which is a rarity in 2022, and small side alleys begged to be explored.  The market square was filled with half a dozen stalls selling fruit and veg and cheese and soft furnishings - no knock off designer gear or dirt cheap kids rugs with a rough approximation of Peppa Pig on them.  I ducked down one and found the parish church in its square of graveyard.

The street on the other side brought a library, with a visitor's centre, and a series of neat cottages.  A woman came down the path of one as I passed, yawning: "Ooh, you're tired!" she laughed.  She was dressed in serious country wear, stout boots and thick jumper and a gilet.  I went to the bottom of the street, to "Cunnery Road" - a name that sounds like a particularly filthy euphemism - and doubled back onto the bottom of the High Street.

It wasn't perfect.  The shops were mainly designed for expensive browsing rather than everyday purchases.  There were more antique shops than anything else; the town's one shoe shop had a sign in the window explaining the owner was retiring, and I didn't see anywhere that sold everyday, normal clothes.  You could've got yourself a nice silk scarf but if you wanted a new pair of pants you were out of luck, unless you went to one of the two wool shops and bought the yarn to make your own.  The hardware store had a window filled with ironwork statues; I doubt you'd have been able to get a drill bit there.  There were food stores on the main drag but they sold artisan, organic, gourmet foods, the kind of shop that has a lot of shortbread for some reason.  There was a supermarket, and you'll be unsurprised it was a Co-op, not one of those vulgar Tesco Metros, and it was tucked away round the back with a car park and a bus stop where you couldn't see it.

It's easy to be beautiful when you have money.  It's easy to be charming when you don't have to really work at it.  This is not to demean Church Stretton at all; I was absolutely taken with it.  But the people here had disposable income and leisure time to enable them to make their town as pretty as possible without relying on cash-strapped councils or overworked volunteers.

Down a back road, past an abandoned 1930s garage that managed to look picturesque even in its derelict state, and round a village green with wide oak trees placed on it.  A sign informed me that the three oaks commemorated the reigns of Edward VII, George V and George VI; Edward VIII was discreetly absent.  There was a small seating area and I parked myself for a drink of water and a pasty from my bag.  

Normally, of course, I'd walk to my next station from here.  But Craven Arms was seven miles away.  There were two ways to get there; either I could follow the A49 through the narrow gap in the hills - a busy road with few pavements - or I could walk to the top of the ridge and follow that over the top.  Neither route seemed appealing so I'd be getting the train.  It meant that I'd exhausted Church Stretton's attractions.  I'd gone in one shop, a kitchen store kitted out like a traditional village shop with high wooden shelving, and one of the owners had fussily started playing with a display of hand-made cards near me in case I shoved a pair of tongs in my backpack without paying.  Quite unwelcoming.  There were cafes, but they were either busy or more foody than I wanted, not the kind of place you can sit with a single cup of tea..  And the pubs weren't open yet.

I checked my Ordnance Survey app and decided I could go for a little countryside walk, just enough to take me round the town, just enough to fill the time.  I headed up the hill past discreet villas tucked behind CCTV guarded fences, all built high enough to enable their living rooms to have a great view down the valley.  There was a small gate (warning: busy road) and then I was walking towards Carding Mill Valley.

A cold wind barrelled down through the peaks and hit me square in the face as I followed the road.  Either side of me, sheep nuzzled at steep hillsides, the grass too thin too properly cover the rock below.  Bare trees shook as each gust struck them.  My face became pink and pinched; I felt every chilly blast.  

I realised, as I walked, how much I had missed this.  Months of being locked in the house, moving from room to room, barely going out, had made me into a hermit.  I am a total homebody; I love my little house, and I'm perfectly satisfied with the internet and a telly to keep me company.  I hadn't really missed going out.

Now though; now I was feeling it throughout my body.  The thrill of exploring again.  The excitement of visiting a strange place, of walking down alien footpaths and not knowing where they'd take me.  Seeing sights and views that were different to my own corner of the country.  A smile spread across my face.  My cynicism was really getting a beating.

I paused at the visitor's centre to use the coldest toilet in the western hemisphere then took a small side path away.  There is a steep plateau here, the Long Mynd, which has a path running its length; it gives amazing views and is well worth the effort.  I wasn't dressed for a hike - I was wearing jeans, for goodness' sake - no matter how tempting it was to walk up and up and up.  I took one final glance at the sun bouncing off the hillsides.

Considering it was February, the path wasn't too muddy; the weather had been relatively good lately so the odd puddle was easily avoided.  It hugged the side of the hill with grazing fields rising above me and then a sharp plunge downwards into woodland below.  I had it to myself, but a mess of bootprints in the muddier sections showed me I wasn't wandering off into the unknown.

The path reached a low point beside a reservoir spilling its contents through a sluice gate and down into a stream below.  I paused on the bridge for a moment to watch the water then followed it across, past an abandoned sheep pen, and to the bottom of a slope.  I looked at it with a mix of confusion and disappointment.  I was meant to go up there?

I scrambled.  The surface was rough and loose; stones slipped from underneath me as I pushed on.  I didn't slip but it wasn't dignified.  I reached the top, sweating, short of breath, and paused for a drink.  At least, I thought, it would be all downhill from here.  And the view was great.  I could see Church Stretton below me, suddenly tiny.

The path here seemed a lot less used; I guessed that most people took the other branch alongside the reservoir, the one that traversed the hills properly.  There was a single abandoned shoe liner, the type you put in your walking boot to make the walk softer, dumped when it had rubbed its owner too much.  A sheep haughtily watched me approach, rightly judging that I was neither a danger nor bringing food.  I was only an irritation.

There was another branch in the path and I sighed.  A check of the OS Maps app again; yep, I wasn't following the nice clear way in a straight line.  Instead I made my way down a steep slope through a thick carpet of fallen leaves.  My feet sank into them every time, a full inch of compost-to-be, and I clung to the fence as I walked to try and avoid sliding down.  At the bottom, the leaves had gathered against the fence even more deeply.  It was like walking through dun-coloured snow.

I shadowed the fence.  Below me the hill dropped away into woodland, but here the trees were thinner, more open.  It was still winter and so the bright sunshine could reach me through their bare branches.  However, the openness also meant less protection.  I reached a sprawl of fallen trees.  They'd collapsed in the winds and crushed the fence beneath them, their roots exposed, a gaping hole where they'd once stood.

Climbing over them directly would've been too difficult, so instead I pulled myself up the bank to go round.  Finally, the slip happened, the one I'd been expecting throughout the walk; I clattered down on my knees into the soft mud.  It left brown marks all over my trousers, and dirt on my hands and under my fingernails.  I muttered swear words to myself, while a part of my brain wondered what I'd do if I fell properly here on the hillside and broke something.  Was it even worth calling for an ambulance out in the middle of nowhere?  I may as well curl up and wait for the sheep to eat me.

I stopped, suddenly furious.  I'd reached the point where the path turned down, towards the town again, and I needed to pass through the fence.  I'd expected a gate or a stile but there was nothing.  The Shropshire County Council arrows cheerily pointed down the hill but someone had "helpfully" repaired the fence here, blocking it up completely, and with a string of barbed wire over the top.

There was a narrow point in the corner where the fence hadn't quite reached.  I hoiked one leg over, but stumbled a little with the change in levels, and toppled backwards; instinctively I reached out to grab something.  The thing I grabbed was the barbed wire and a spike plunged into the palm of my right hand.  I let out a single Freddie Uncle Charlie Katie and pulled my hand away.

Luckily, we live in a pandemic world.  I had a bottle of Purell in my pocket and I squirted it into the bloody hole, feeling the sharp sting as the alcohol worked on the wound.  It had stopped bleeding by the time I stumbled and rolled and clattered my way down the hill and onto the road again, emerging between two houses and no doubt looking like a dishevelled mess.  I hoped nobody had been watching my undignified descent from their back window.  If I end up on You've Been Framed, I want that £250, thank you very much.

The road back into town wasn't as charming as Church Stretton's centre, a lot of boring detached homes and bungalows behind hedges.  After a couple of steps my Fitbit brrrd on my wrist; I'd hit 10,000 steps.  I wasn't surprised.  (The app also claimed I'd walked up 67 flights of stairs, which makes me think it's not really designed for country walking).  By the time I'd reached the centre of the town the pubs had opened, but I felt too much of a state to visit them.  Instead I walked straight to the station.

There was a bench under the footbridge and I tried to make myself more acceptable to polite society.  I wiped myself down with a Wet One.  I sprayed some deodorant and some Hugo Boss.  I brushed off the worst of the dirt.  By the time the train arrived to take me to Craven Arms, I was as presentable as I'm ever going to get.  Which still isn't great if I'm honest.  (Self-deprecation, that's another Gen X trait.  I'm a cliché).