Wednesday 6 April 2022

Best Laid Plans

There are some days when you just shouldn't leave the house.

I had everything planned.  I spent an afternoon working out how to visit three stations on the West Midlands Railway map: Tamworth, Willington and Wilnecote.  The last two get only a couple of CrossCountry services a day, so the timings had to be precise to be able to collect them.  I worked out a way of doing it that meant I would finish my day with a train from Willington to Birmingham at 17:17, getting into New Street at 17:55 and allowing me to dash to get the Liverpool train home at 18:04.  It was a tight connection but I thought it was perfectly do-able, so long as I could make it across the station in time, and I thought I'd got the geography of New Street sorted enough to be able to manage it.

I bought all my tickets and loaded them into the CrossCountry app.  Another e-mail came with the confirmation, warning:

Due to the continued issue with train crew availabity... there will be disruption from Saturday 26 March - Friday 1 April.  We will be running a normal timetable, but there may be some short notice cancellations and fewer carriages...

I could live with that.  It was a risk but fair enough.  The morning of my trip out, I went to the CrossCountry website to check that my trains were still running.  I was surprised to learn that my 17:17 train no longer existed.  Instead, there was a train twenty minutes later.  Those of you paying attention will realise that meant I would miss my London Northwestern train home.

I sighed and went into the customer chat and they confirmed, yes, the timetables had changed, but don't worry: your ticket is still valid.  Well, your CrossCountry one is.  I was stuffed with the London Northwestern one and because it was an advance ticket, there was no refund.  Because I like to be sure I can get home - I'm funny like that - I went into the LNW app and bought a ticket for the next train after the one I should've got.  Then I headed to Lime Street for my day out.

(Don't worry, I'll stop complaining in a bit.  Bear with.)

I had nearly an hour to kill at New Street before my train to Wilnecote so I wandered up into the shopping mall to have a poke round Foyles.  I bought a couple of books, thanked the Lord there wasn't a Foyles in Liverpool or I'd have no money left, and went back down to see if they'd got a platform yet for my train.

The word Cancelled lit up on the departure board.  I rushed to Twitter.

A major trackside fire was taking place at Burton-On-Trent, meaning a lot of trains couldn't run... mainly services through Tamworth, Willington and Wilnecote.  Those of you still paying attention will notice that those are the exact stations I'd been planning on visiting.


That was the end of that, I thought.  Even if I hung around the station in the hope that services would come back, they would be chaotic for the rest of the day.  Those very specific trains to very specific stations would be out of the question.  I was, in short, stuffed.

After a few minutes of despondency - nobody likes to go to New Street unless they really need to - I decided I'd have to go somewhere.  I bought a Daytripper ticket from the machine, scanned the departure board, and rushed down to a platform to get a train.  I was going to Chester Road!

If you're the kind of person who comes to this blog in search of meticulously-researched facts about places, then first of all, aim higher, because I am no diamondgeezer.  A bit of cursory reading and that's it for me.  Secondly, you're not going to get any of that in this blog post.  I was travelling blind.  I picked the Lichfield part of the Cross City Line purely because I knew for certain I'd not visited any of the stations there; if there were exciting, unique sights for me to see, I had no idea.  If there's a flock of wandering ostriches housed in a field round the corner from Chester Road station, I missed it, and I'm sorry.

I will say that I got into station collection mainly because I like station architecture.  Not only historic, Victorian, birth of the railway stuff, but also the styles beyond - the Art Deco, the Brutalist, the Post-Modern.  The West Midlands haven't been great for any of that, if I'm honest, because a combination of extreme British Rail cutbacks, electrification and a general malaise about history means a lot of the station buildings have been swept away.  Having said that, I think Chester Road deserves better than a tin shed for its platform buildings.  Not even a shed, actually; a shed has four walls and a roof.  This is a curve of ugly steel, a bus shelter somehow extended to fifteen metres, and it's determinedly cheap and utilitarian.  You're covered from the rain and that's it.

One sign snap and I was off down a side road, shadowing the railway north to the next station.  There were a few rows of railway cottages, with small terraces beyond.  In a very Birmingham vista, a block of flats peered over the top of the older buildings; no matter where you go in England's second city, there always seems to be a high rise hovering in the background.

There was a primary school, the kids loudly raucous in the playground, boisterous and joyous.  The houses turned to Arts and Crafts semi-detached homes, early suburbia, each pair slightly different to its neighbour to make you feel unique.  A lot of them retained their front gardens, which was increasingly rare in a world of two or more car houses, and bare trees occupied verges at the road's edge.  

Google Maps had suggested that I should stick to the road I was on, but there was a signpost, and I'm easily swayed so I followed that for my next station.  It took me onto The Boulevard, a road - no, an avenue - of subtly moneyed homes.  It was sitcom land, Terry and June, cooking dinner for Sir, with the cars still on the drive because the owners had walked to the station for their city centre job; Reggie Perrin with a Brummie accent.  Every fourth house had a builder doing improvement works.  Every third had a loft conversion.  I followed a man who came out of a house with a wheelbarrow.  At first I thought he was a gardener, but then he took a swing onto a side access route, and I realised he was headed for some allotments.  The West Midlands' answer to Tom Good.  

The skies were turning.  I'd left home with my jacket stuffed into my bag - it had been warm and pleasant back in Liverpool.  Here there was a chill and a greyness that threatened worse to come.  The winds whipped up, whirling round me.  I reached the top of the Boulevard and paused to take a picture of the charming green space.

Before I could put my camera away, the snow started.  A little, then a little more, then a lot.  

I hovered behind a hedge and wrestled with my bag, pulling my jacket out.  By the time it was on and I could proceed the odd flakes had become a flurry.

Time between those three photos: less than two minutes.  The snow wasn't settling, and I knew it would just be a shower, but it was still a shock to see how swiftly the weather had turned.  Only a couple of days before I'd been wearing shorts and a t-shirt and now it was winter again.

On Station Road, the wind smacked me in the face, barrelling along the tarmac and catching at my loose coat.  (I will only button my coat in the direst of blizzards - don't ask my why, I've always been that way).  Fortunately my next station was visible, marked out with a huge sign across the road bridge, making it easy to pose and look like I had dandruff.

By the time I reached the platform at Wylde Green the snow had slowed to the odd flake.  I took up a seat for my twenty minute wait for the next train.

The wait did allow me to experience one of the pleasures of the Cross City line.  They have one of the best sounding trains on the network, the Class 323s, which whirr and purr as they take off.  As someone who doesn't particularly get excited about trains, I have to say, the 323s are a definite favourite:

I had to check what class of trains ran on the Cross City Line on Wikipedia by the way, and that's where I learned that they're about to be replaced by the Class 730s.  Whether these trains have a distinctive burr, I am yet to discover, but I bet it's on its way out.

By the time I'd finished the sandwich I bought at Lime Street (Marks and Spencer Ham and Coleslaw, hadn't spotted it had coleslaw in it when I bought it, 4/10), the skies were blue again.

I boarded my train, leaving wet footsteps behind me, and took it the one stop to Sutton Coldfield.  Sorry, I should rephrase that: I took it the one stop to the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield, whose platform signs feature what apparently passes for an Attractive Local Feature board in the West Midlands.

Really makes you want to rush to Sutton Park, doesn't it?  

I'm being overly harsh.  As it turned out, Sutton Coldfield still had its original Victorian station building, though a little bit of reading tells me that this was only thanks to vigorous local campaigning in the 1970s.  Entering the fine booking hall with its high ceilings and benches for people to rest, you have to wonder about the mentality of an organisation that would willingly wipe this away for nothing more than "progress".  Is it the most beautiful railway station you've ever seen?  No.  Does it work?  Absolutely.

Outside, the station sign persisted with the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield moniker, even though the map and the National Rail booking system insisted otherwise.  A bit of reading up - and as I say, I'm not IanVisits - shows that it gained this title when Henry VIII granted it a charter.  When it was incorporated into the city of Birmingham for local government purposes in the Seventies, it seemingly lost its status, but thanks to campaigning from the local MP Andrew Mitchell it was confirmed that Sutton Coldfield was still entitled to use the term.

There are a few pertinent facts to be dealt with here.  The first one is that Andrew Mitchell is awful, but he's a Tory MP so you knew that already.  Secondly, having Henry VIII give you something in the sixteenth century isn't a card you can wave for another five hundred years.  Peter Chardstock said I had a cute arse in 1995 but that doesn't entitle me to claim I have a cute arse until the end of time; things change, and since there's not a Royal palace or a castle or even a small flat where Andrew carries out his improper business in the Sutton Coldfield area, clinging onto that title seems a bit daft.  You're not Windsor.  Thirdly, and this is the most important point, who on earth gives even the tiniest of shits?

I headed into the town centre, which is absolutely what you expect from a West Midlands town centre, i.e. a precinct.  As with all smaller town centres in Britain, it was experiencing a real downturn, with vacant units outnumbering the occupied on the pedestrianised street.  There was a Taco Bell, which always gives me a start.  There's been a Taco Bell in Liverpool for years now but it still doesn't seem right.  Taco Bell is such an American place, far more than Pizza Hut or McDonalds, and seeing it on a boring old UK high street is a weird clash of cultures.  It's like a giant Twinkie sitting on Nelson's Column.

At the bottom of the street, there was a "restaurant quarter" i.e. a Nando's and an Ask Italian, but I followed the ring road back round, ducking through the Aldi car park and finding myself on a side street outside the Market Hall.  It had rebranded itself as the place "for life's essentials", but then the sign listed "life's essentials" as "shoe accessories, evening purses, slippers, trolleys, belts" so I suppose the people of Sutton Coldfield have different priorities to me.

Past an office block built to look like a Georgian terrace and a multi-storey car park that looked very closed indeed and I found myself back at the foot of Station Street.  I turned up into Mill Road, where I discovered the historic heart of Sutton Coldfield, the part they would probably put on postcards if municipal post cards were still a thing.  (Are they still a thing?  I hope so).  

The steep hill past the Masonic Hall - a building I noted the ring road avoided demolishing, funnily enough - came out on a civic crossroads with old buildings and the parish church.  No, the clock in the clock tower didn't show the right time, which was a shame, but it was a nice little district.  There were tiny shops here who obviously thrived on being different to the mainstream stores in the precinct, though sadly quite a few of the fronts were vacant.  Quirkiness alone can't carry you through a pandemic.

The pavement was filled with schoolkids, teenagers from the Grammar School and the College that lined the road.  Many of them had that distinctive arrogance that A-level students get because they're allowed out of class outside of normal times.  It's a "yeah, the KIDS can only come out of the school building during the lunch hour, but it's gone two o'clock and I'm off into town for a burger, I ROCK" attitude that I know all too well from hanging out in the Arndale of an afternoon while I was in Sixth Form.  There was also an impressive civic complex for the police and fire service, built at a time when local government pomp was encouraged, though the former magistrate's court in the centre is now the Sutton Coldfield Masjid.  Bet the policemen loved that moving in next door.

Beyond that, there were mansion houses - converted into flats of course - punctuated by blocks of a more modern vintage.  The Holy Trinity Catholic Church loomed over the street, impressive and imposing, a model of 1930s modernity.  That was a boom time for churchbuilding in the UK as they rushed to fill the new districts with parish buildings, a move that carried on right up until the 1960s.  It's a shame in a way that this peak of construction was immediately followed by a rise in atheism that meant they lost a huge proportion of their visitors.  Holy Trinity continues, but I noticed from its website that it has combined with other churches to form a parish now.  

There was a sign pointing to The Belfry, the Open-hosting golf club that even I've heard of, and then a crossroads where the A5127 meets the A453.  It was controlled by a set of traffic lights but there were no pedestrian crossings there.  This drives me absolutely crazy - you're installing a set of lights anyway, stick in a pelican crossing so that people don't have to dart across lanes of traffic.  It'll delay the drivers by a minute at most.  Whatever you've saved by not implementing a pedestrian crossing is cancelled out by the cost of constantly having to clean blood off the road.

I made it across in one piece and pushed on past the gated houses and apartments.  At Bracebridge Road, there were signs indicating that this was the Four Oaks Estate and a private road.  No Through Road - Residents Only they snootily declared, and if I'd known about this place beforehand I'd have immediately turned down there to have a poke around.  It's apparently one of the most exclusive estates in the County, with million pound houses, and last year they applied for planning permission to erect gates over the roads to seal them off.  It was rejected by the planning committee - unanimously, I should add, at 10-0 - on the grounds that they are privately maintained public highways and a right of way.  Well done Birmingham City Council, stick it to the poshos.

The road split further up around the Four Oaks methodist church, so I took the right hand fork.  The station was there, but I pressed on.  I'd been walking for a few hours, so I thought I deserved a treat, and headed into the commercial district at Mere Green.  It quickly became clear why Sutton Coldfield town centre wasn't in a great way - the people with money didn't shop there.  Mere Green was a strip of beauty parlours, dog grooming establishments, and restaurants.  One restaurant promised Filthy burgers and Kick Ass Chick'n; you can always tell when an area's posh because they love to serve more disgusting and calorie filled versions of the food they sneer at working class people for eating.  There was an M&S Food Hall and a Sainsburys, plus a small pedestrianised shopping complex (definitely not a precinct, how dare you).  

There was also a Cook shop, which turned out to not be a cookshop, but instead a store solely devoted to those astonishingly expensive ready meals they sell in garden centres that look quite nice but not worth the money.  (£7.95 for a lasagne for two?  Nah, you're alright, thanks).  I didn't even know they had branches, and I realised why: their only store near Liverpool and Manchester is in Hale, and you can only enter Hale if you own at least three gold cards and have caps on all your teeth.

I found a pub and took a seat.  I'd at least relaxed after the stresses of my best laid plans going to pot.  Even though I've been travelling all over the country for years by rail, I still get extreme levels of anxiety every time the trains go wrong.  It doesn't suit my brain.  If I've planned something, I need it to go right.  I checked Twitter and CrossCountry were tentatively hoping to start their services back through Tamworth at three o'clock-ish, meaning I may have possibly been able to visit Willington after all.  That was no good to me over here in Sutton Coldfield, of course.  Another day.

One pint became two, became three.  Lightly toasted, I left the pub and made my way back down the road to Four Oaks station.  This is the limit for some of the trains from Birmingham - the rest continue on to Lichfield Trent Valley.  I thought about going north again, maybe collecting the last two stations covered by my Daytripper ticket at Butlers Lane and Blake Street.  But the beer was swilling around inside me, and there was a southbound train on the platform ready to depart.

Soon I was riding the whizzy, whirry 323 back into the city centre, happy and contented.  It may not have been the stations I'd expected to collect, but an afternoon out on the trains is never a bad thing.


The beers on this trip were paid for by Kevin's very generous donation over on my Ko-fi.  Thanks again, Kevin!

Sunday 3 April 2022

MUPDATE: A Map! Update

It's the most wonderful time of the year: the time when a railway map is updated.  Actually, West Midlands Railway seem to have updated the map ages ago, because the map on their website is dated "June 2020", but there was quite a lot going on in June 2020 what with the global pandemic and everything so I've only just noticed.  And to be fair, the changes are in the main, relatively minor.  For example, the font used has been ever so slightly tweaked:

The old one is at the top, the new one is at the bottom.  It's a move away from the corporate font to something a bit more generic which is a shame.  Large towns with multiple stations like Birmingham and Worcester have also got their name emboldened, so you can spot them easier.  There's also been a minor, corporate livery related change:

It seems Avanti have spotted that, while there were many regrettable parts of the Virgin branding, having bright red as your corporate colour is really eye catching and memorable so have swapped it back.  This has of course extended to the key, which is now in proper alphabetical order:

They've also removed the "step-free under construction" symbol from the map, presumably so they don't get up the hopes of any disabled people viewing.  

The biggest change however is a whole extra station:

Welcome to the map Worcestershire Parkway.  This is a park and ride station built at the point where the Worcester-London line crosses the Birmingham-Cardiff line and about a mile and a half from the M5.  This is slightly annoying, as I did the Worcester end of the map three years ago, but I'll have to go out to collect Ashchurch for Tewkesbury anyway so it'll be a handy two-for-one.  And I can never complain about new stations being built - the more the better!