It was obvious, right from the my first moment on the platform, that I'd shifted up the social ladder on arrival at Yardley Wood. The passengers who got off with me were well-dressed and carried shopping bags from town. There were a whole load more trees, and the trackside planters were far better taken care of. At street level, the shopping parade was full of old-school amenities, rather than the takeaways and tanning salons I'd seen at Spring Road - a butcher, an electrical shop, a paper shop. I'd definitely entered suburbia.
I walked past the car park - Yardley Wood actually has two, underlining its stockbroker sprawl status - and pretended not to notice a man pulling his jumper off and accidentally exposing his hairy chest, and found the station sign.
The road sloped downwards, past a large pub that had been gastro'd up, and ended up at a roundabout. A series of pensioners in walking gear strode across the road and I turned into Trittiford Mill Park.
As the name implies, there was a mill here for centuries until it finally burned down in the 1920s, with the mill pond turned into an ornamental lake. The park was busy with joggers and walkers that day, and I followed the path southwards round the edge of the lake. My heavy walking boots clattered on the tarmac, spooking a man who was out for a stroll and heard me approaching behind him; he pretended to find something very interesting in the trees so that he could stop and let me pass.
The main road was too close for the park to become an idyll, an isolated patch of green away from everything. You never forgot you were in the city. At a layby, a burger van was dispensing greasy meat to workmen, while two girls took their lunch hour on a bench. It was warm and pleasant. I watched people feeding bread to the ducks, overcoming my natural instinct to scold them - it does them no good you know - and a man embarrassedly taking a call on his mobile, ruining his family walk. His wife and father stood a little further on, looking vaguely annoyed.
Trittiford Mill Park forms a link in the chain of The Shire Country Park, an overall name given to the various green spaces that surround the River Cole on its way out of the city. "The Shire" is a surprisingly rural name for it, until you learn that JRR Tolkien used to live in the hamlet of Sarehole, further upstream from Trittiford, and so they've laid a claim to it being the inspiration for the Hobbit's home country.
I will admit right now: I am not a Tolkien fan. I've seen the first Lord of the Rings film - it was alright - and I got about halfway through The Hobbit before giving up on it, because I thought it was terrible. I realise I'm in the minority about this. I'm sure that there is an epic world of adventure and deep folklore that is calling to me, but it never appealed. The closest I got was a childhood immersion in Fighting Fantasy books and a teenage AD&D phase. As such, I can't speak to the accuracy of The Shire Country Park's claims. I will note, however, that they only decided to call the park The Shire in 2005, after the film series was a massive global success; before it got that name it was referred to as the Millstream Project. I would also like to point out that Sarehole is a very rude and amusing anagram. To me, anyway.
At Scribers Lane, the river Cole overcame the road in a ford. The lane was no longer used for traffic, and there was a footbridge for pedestrians, but there was something utterly charming about finding a ford in a West Midlands suburb. A bit of rural life had somehow slipped into the big city. Across the road, the path became a lot less formal; the hard paving gave way to mud and dirt, and it wound its way through the trees rather than pushing them to one side.
The river had split in two, culverted on one side, following its natural course on the other. Squint a bit and you could almost be in the countryside, if you ignored the mass of litter that filled the waterway. At one point, where an outflow pipe emptied its load, the river was choked with plastic bottles, as though there'd been a party somewhere upstream.
There was another ford at Slade Lane, but I didn't push on down the river. The path became even tighter and rougher after that and I wanted to walk somewhere with pavements again. I turned up the road, where a breaker's yard had spilled its damaged cars onto the highway, and where neat mid century council houses and flats looked out over their hedges. At the top, a sign urged you to Test Your Brakes. I made sure I was capable of stopping before proceeding. Safety first.
I was back in suburbia again, with semis and grass verges and plenty of traffic. A new development had been slotted in on one side, and I yearned for a Sharpie so I could graffiti the road sign and turn Bach Mill Drive into Bach Mill Turner Over Drive. Old people's bungalows and maisonettes were set amongst green spaces, with the odd block of high rises dotted among them. I wish we still built estates like this. Mixes of architecture and residents, plenty of open land, room to breathe. Instead we cram as many houses into the available plots as we can, calling them "three bedroom" when the third is barely a cupboard, calling them "detached" when you can reach out and touch the house next door. The gardens are parking spaces and there's no grass or greens for kids to play on because the council can't afford to maintain them and anyway, you can squeeze three more houses in that spot.
The land rose and fell as it mounted hidden hills. Every other lamppost had a sign taped on it for a missing cat; sadly Ozzy had been gone for a month now so it seemed he was unlikely to reappear. Occasionally there was an older building in amongst the newer ones, a Victorian cottage or a farmhouse, a legacy of when this would've been a country road.
The road began to climb again after it crossed the river, passing by primary schools noisy with children. I could see into the playground of one of them and a handful of kids were up against the fence, hiding amongst the trees and creating an imaginary adventure. A community church with a giant wooden cross outside - the kind you usually see on fire in dramas about the KKK - had an A-board on the pavement promoting its Youth Club Event. Photo zone! Sports! Game! Art! Music! Snack! Friendship! it promised. Leaving aside the lack of a plural for some of those - you'll get one snack and one game, son, and like it - I instinctively mistrust any event that takes place in a church. Sure, they seem all happy and jolly and nice, and you go thinking it's better than hanging around on a street corner, then next thing you know you're playing Onward Christian Soldiers on a tuba while wearing a polo neck. They're sneaky, those churchy types; far better to spend your evenings being sullen in a bus stop.
My next station was Shirley, and I'm going to pause here so you can all get that joke out of your system. I've seen Airplane! more times than I remember too. Like Hall Green, it's been cared for and restored, with lifts provided in a sympathetically designed tower painted in heritage colours. The whole line has an active Friends society, which according to the posters I'd seen was founded in 2020. That seems unlikely, because the line is so obviously prime volunteer territory, and also I can't quite believe anything happened in 2020. Weren't we indoors the whole year? Their website opens with this, which I'm going to reprint in full:
Welcome to the Friends of the Shakespeare Line (FoSL), a voluntary Community Station Partnership, a not-for-profit overarching organisation operated by volunteers for volunteers to supporting their commitment as adopters at their railway station between Birmingham and Stratford upon Avon. We are supported by a number of other organisations and individuals including the train operator West Midlands Railway Ltd.
I'm going to be honest: I'm not entirely sure what any of that means.
One of the Friends' ideas is a series of poems, one for each station, threaded down the length of the line. They suggested that you send in poems of your own - this YouTube video, featuring a quite remarkable beard, explains how - and there were station specific poems. I must record for posterity that this station's poem began Shirley... you're the reason I have to get up really early.
The whole line between Tilsley and Bearley Junction was marked for closure in the Beeching Report. I mean, it's a line that connects a Britain's second largest city with historic Stratford through various villages and towns - who on earth would want to use that? The sheer weight of protests made British Rail back down, but they had another stab at closing the southern end in the Eighties, because I guess having a line come to a dead end in the a small town like Henley-in-Arden made more sense to the network planners than having it go to somewhere people have heard of and want to visit. You do wonder sometimes if British Rail was run by a lot of people on crutches because they kept shooting themselves in the foot.
The line survived, and has continued to be a useful link. Its success can be seen in Whitlocks End station. There are three trains an hour for most of the stations on the line, but only one of those goes all the way to Stratford-upon-Avon. The other two used to turn back at Shirley, but it was realised that if you pushed the terminus on a station, to Whitlocks End, you could build a significant Park and Ride facility too. That would stop commuters from clogging up the roads at Shirley, and the new look station was opened in 2011. It was clearly a success because I was the only person who got off the train who didn't immediately head for the car park.
It was something of a shock to realise I was in the sticks. Over the course of the day's stations - from Spring Road to Hall Green to Yardley Wood to Shirley and now Whitlocks End - I'd gone from city to town to country. It was a very English countryside, tamed and organised, fields and lanes and relatively pacified, but it was still, none the less, definitely not urban.
With the rousing smell of manure in my nose I headed south along the road. It soon became clear that Whitlocks End's regular train service meant this wouldn't be rural for long. There were already houses here, big detached homes, a lot of them in the middle of being refurbished or extended, but on the fields in between signs were springing up. New developments were being pencilled in. You were encouraged to register your interest, or visit the show home, or were told there was only one property left. The fingers of Birmingham were reaching out and wrapping around this part of the world and in a few years it would be another district of the city.
For the time being, Tidbury Green, the name of the village around the railway line, was clinging on to its separate identity. You could tell, however, that it was colonised by commuters. I didn't see a single pedestrian as I walked along, and the houses I passed were all silent. They carried the whiff of new money, the hint of that vulgar Brummie couple on Harry Enfield's programme who were considerably richer than you. One house was so astonishingly tacky I couldn't help but admire it. It featured:
- a wishing well on the drive
- two fake heritage lamp posts
- a clock in the eaves
- a life size stuffed horse in the porch
Whoever lives there is, safe to say, a "character".
Suburbia returned as I approached Wythall. The houses were tighter together with wheely bins outside. I'm not sure why these bins had an extra plastic front to them; they looked like they were all wearing a veil. Is it to help you lift the lid? I negotiated the ones left on the pavement and climbed the hill to where the station was, opposite a small supermarket and with a phone box outside. There was no phone in it and it had been painted blue. It was the shittiest Tardis in the universe.
I bought myself a Coke from the shop then headed for the platform to wait for my train back into Birmingham. I'd managed to time it badly, so I had an hour's wait, but there was a generous shelter to sit in and I had my headphones and podcasts to listen to. The station building was another wooden hut with a poem on the wall and a plaque for a Steven John Cooke - loving husband, devoted dad and grandad.
Wythall meant I'd crossed six whole stations off the map. I felt immensely pleased with myself. That only left five stations on the Shakespeare Line, the five from Henley-in-Arden onwards. I'll save them for another day. You need to keep a treat for later.