Regular readers (hello you!) will remember that a couple of months ago I had a whole day out planned but it was waylaid by a lineside fire. I didn't want to put all that effort and spreadsheet work to waste - sometimes co-ordinating timetables is complex, folks - so I decided to have another stab at visiting Wilnecote. I left home around nine am and by lunchtime I finally got there. This is one of the problems with visiting the West Midlands Railway map; there's an awful lot of travelling you have to do before you ever actually get anywhere.
I got off to a Royal welcome; a lady in a wheelchair excitedly greeted the train with a wave of a Union Jack flag. I got an insight into what it must be like to be Prince William - a little bit embarrassing. I made my way up to the street as a boy and girl sauntered down. They had the studied, lethargic cool of teenagers, totally relaxed, totally unbothered - until they realised they had actually missed their train, and there wouldn't be another one for an hour, at which point they looked panicky and confused. I passed them with the smugness of age and took the sign pic.
Wilnecote station is on Watling Street, the actual Roman road from London to Wales, and as such is surrounded by a confusing mix of buildings. This has been a main road for 2000 years so life has gravitated towards it. There were tiny industrial units, cottages, a chip shop that looked like it had once been a transport café; a world of people strung along the highway. Further out it gave way to a bland new build estate - my first destination.
Even though my next station was Tamworth to the north, I wanted to make a little detour to a network of cul-de-sacs built in the 90s. This had once been a factory - a car factory in fact, the home of Reliant cars, the legendary three-wheelers. Now the BF's family were the proud owners of Reliant cars when he was growing up, so he's instructed me to be very nice about them, and not recourse to lazy gags about Del Boy. I will say that they are what we shall call an acquired taste and that personally I don't understand why you'd buy a car with three wheels when millions of years of human innovation have taught us that four wheels are the perfect number to use.
The Reliant motor company was founded in Tamworth and built the cars for seventy years before finally dying in the early 21st century. The factory here had closed before that, but it's still marked by the streetnames; the main route through the estate is Tom Williams Way, after the founder, and the closes off to the side are named after Reliant models - Regal Close, Fox Close, and, of course, most famously, Robin Close.
Normally I'd walk right through and out the other end, but this is one of those paranoid, designed to drive out crime developments, so it's a dead end. I'd walked into it and the only way out was to go back the way I came, enabling all the curtain twitchers and paranoid types to make a note of my general appearance so they could grass me up on NextDoor. Fat middle aged man spotted taking photographs, lunchtime Friday - probably a pervert - keep your kids indoors.
I walked back to the turn into town and was somewhat surprised to see Melvyn Hayes smirking at me over the top of a double glazing showroom. It seemed that the firm on the corner were deeply respectful of British history and particularly Our Brave Lads and commemorated this was a mural on the side of the building; it wasn't Melvyn Hayes in It Ain't Half Hot Mum at all, simply a Brave Tommy. The mural continued on the side wall, with a stretch of local landmarks - a Reliant Robin, the local church, a pair of Tamworth pigs - then a stretch with the Queen and a particularly emaciated looking Churchill. I couldn't work out why he'd turned up looking so bad, but checking out the same location on Google Streetview from last October, it appears it used to be Captain Sir Tom. They've painted out the "Thank you NHS" - rude - and made it black and white and removed the caption saying who it is, presumably because the Captain Tom Foundation slapped a claim on them for stealing their copyrighted image. (Also that Queen has a vague air of Eric Idle, but it's still better than anything I could draw).
The Tamworth Road was much as you'd expect - worker's cottages, the odd takeaway, a school. I crossed over at a pelican and got a bit of a shock as I spotted a newsagent with a canopy sponsored by The Sun. You know you've gone full native on Merseyside when you're shocked to see people admitting to reading The Scum. It was like seeing the owner stick his gross sexual predilections on the front of his shop - James's Newsagent In Association With Dog Fucker Magazine.
After a roundabout the main road turned away and I was left in a leafier, more suburban route, the houses screened from the traffic by a length of trees and a grass verge. A van did a three point turn, en route to laying a new driveway, while there was the gentle hum of a lawnmower somewhere in the distance. The road ended abruptly with a footbridge.
The M42 passes to the east of Tamworth, while the A38 between Birmingham and Derby - and later, the M6 Toll - pass to the west. Watling Street used to connect the two but that was inadequate for the traffic so a bypass was built in the 90s, effectively severing Tamworth proper from its southern suburbs. To get people across the dual carriageway they built a footbridge. I suppose they thought it would help. They failed to take into account that some of us - i.e. me - do not like footbridges one bit.
I steeled myself. I took off my glasses, in case the wind ripped them off and hurled them into the traffic (this is a strange paranoia I have which is not based on any actual experience). Squinting, I mounted the ramps, walking well within the centre of the footpath, trying not to think about the absolute certain death just metres below my feet. I pushed across the middle, moaning with terror slightly, and finally, blessedly, reaching the other side where I could descend a set of stairs. It was there that I noticed the old lady who'd crossed ahead of me without any trouble or hesitation. Bitch.
Back on safe ground I passed the Tamworth Cruising Club, proudly flying its union flag and its purple platinum jubilee flag, and then crossed the canal by a footbridge. A boat chugged along towards me, and the driver raised his hand in a friendly wave.
The Kettlebrook Road had been turned into a cul-de-sac by the bypass and now it carried a slight air of desolation. The units here were grimier, dustier; there were adverts for Champion sparkplugs and Ferodo brakes, two companies that used to have posters everywhere but seem to have vanished completely from sight. Across the road, two young men on bikes hovered on a street corner, watching me walk by with dark eyes. I'm sure they were training for a triathlon or something. I passed a blue plaque commemorating the building where they'd built the first Reliant car then reached The Egg.
The Egg is the nickname for a complex of roads to the south of the town centre. In effect, it's a circular dual carriageway, with roundabouts where other roads meet it - basically one huge two-way roundabout with smaller roundabouts on it. It's raised on bridges at some points, it has the river Anker passing underneath it, and it has a railway slicing across to one side; it's a marvel of engineering.
Unless you're a pedestrian, in which case it's a massive pain to get across. The designers put in underpasses to get you from one side of the road to the other. I mean, at least it's not a footbridge, right? Unfortunately, underpasses beneath dual carriageways generally look like this:
Then, when you get to the other side, there's a lot of green space and fields and reeds. It's lovely, really; you can convince yourself you're in countryside rather than basically at the centre of a big roundabout. I would not, however, use it after about eight o'clock at night, and probably never if I was a woman on my own. It felt unsafe. Even in the early afternoon, there were two men sat on the back of a bench, their feet on the seat, working their way through cans of cider from a plastic bag. Humans are fragile, and cars are not. Put the cars in the underpasses and tunnels and let the people see sky and safety.
Still, on a warm May day, it was undeniably pleasant to walk alongside a river with the sun beating down on you. I passed under another dual carriageway and the island grasses merged into parkland. A funfair had set up there ahead of the four day Jubilee weekend, already advertising its special rates, and a little further on was an adventure playground absolutely heaving with excited children. I could hear their laughter and excited screams even from a distance. The benches around the park café were filled with walkers and pensioners, while across the water, Tamworth castle appeared from behind the trees.
I knew absolutely nothing about Tamworth before I knew I was headed there. It was a railway station, that was all. I was fascinated to learn - admittedly mainly from Wikipedia so if this is all bollocks, I'm very sorry, I'm a terrible researcher - that the town was once astonishingly important to this island. The Anglo-Saxons settled here first, and then it became a royal town for the kings of Mercia. As time went on, they became more settled, and Tamworth approached capital status for the ancient nation. A few kings and queens who all seemed to have names beginning with Æ ruled from here until the Vikings turned up and plundered the town. After that, it became less relevant, though the Normans built a castle here after they invaded, and it was captured during the Civil War, but to a large extent it was a market town that turned industrial in the 19th century.
I threaded my way through a school trip in high-vis jackets assembling under the castle, and wondered whether to book a ticket for the Here and Now: Best of the 80s concert in August (Belinda Carlisle, The Fizz, and Katrina "of the Waves"). I passed through over the castle moat and through a well-preserved gateway into the town's market square.
The town is unsurprisingly proud to have been the home of Robert Peel, who lived at Drayton Manor nearby (now better known as a theme park of course). They've put up a nice statue to him and there were a couple of pubs named after him. The White Lion, on the other hand, was not named after him, but it did have a banner hanging advertising that it was a proud sponsor of Tamworth Pride, a nice little reminder that even in small towns things can get better. (It's July 16th, by the way, if you're passing).
I wandered down another back street and by the time I stumbled on the church of St Editha I was smitten. Look, I know Tamworth will never be the location for a romantic mini-break, or a big tourist draw. But I spent a perfectly pleasant couple of hours wandering around a pretty town centre. It was a lot more charming to me than some places with a much better reputation.
I took a moment to pause in an old churchyard for a drink of Coke, then headed out along Albert Road, which seems to be some kind of medical row. There were so many dental surgeries here, making me wonder if Tamworth has refused to fluoridate its water or something. Every other building was a dentist's. I'd not noticed the residents had particularly rotten teeth but maybe that's because they have such easy access to oral hygiene. At the end of the road was a roundabout with a statue of Queen Æthelflæd (see what I mean about those Æs?) and beyond that, the station.
As the spot where the Birmingham to Derby Line crosses the West Coast Main Line, Tamworth is an important passenger interchange, though that's not translated into especially memorable architecture. Electrification in the 1960s saw the old Victorian buildings demolished and a more practical building constructed, one that boils down to a set of staircases and lifts to get you from one platform to the other. It's not doing anything ambitious. It's also been horribly blighted by a big cheap multi-storey car park to one side.
A train had just come in as I arrived so I loitered on the forecourt to wait for the crowds to thin out a little. It seemed like a young crowd, boisterous teenagers probably returning from college in Birmingham or Derby. Some of them were younger, fresh from their last day of school, their white shirts covered in signatures.
I do not fit in with this youthful vibe.
There are two pluses to Tamworth's important railway position. The first is that it's got some great passenger facilities. I easily found a seat in a comfortable waiting room that had a vending machine and plenty of information.
Secondly, Tamworth is an absolute mecca for Gentlemen Who Like Trains. I'd spotted a somewhat anxious man while I sat in the waiting room, constantly walking in and out, checking a tiny book. I'd thought he was perhaps a tourist who was lost, but then I saw him come to life as a train came in. Suddenly he was scratching away in his notepad, while further down the platform, a gaggle of older men took photographs and wrote in books of their own. The train was the one you can see above and, once again, I like the stations, not the trains, so I can't tell you why this train was so exciting. They hovered some more, but when my CrossCountry train came in, they barely looked up; clearly it didn't meet their exacting standards.
Willington doesn't get much of a service. It's a village that has the misfortune to be between Burton-on-Trent and Derby on a major rail line; as such it gets a train every couple of hours so it doesn't slow the main route down too much. Indeed, for a time they took the station away entirely, closing it in 1968, only to have to open it again in 1994 when someone at British Rail realised that serving a town of a few thousand people is kind of a good idea. A sign on the platform welcomed me on behalf of Willington's Women's Institute, who it seemed had adopted the station, and which had a vague air of "if you muck this place up, we'll come for you."
The sign was perhaps aimed at Willington's most famous neighbours, the pupils of Repton School, a grammar and boarding school that's existed since the 16th century; indeed, for a long time it was called Repton & Willington, with a sign advising you to alight here for the school. Repton's alumni include Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Clarkson, Roald Dahl and Christopher Isherwood, though it should be noted that not many of them seem to have enjoyed it (Clarkson was in fact expelled) and since the Wikipedia page has an entire section for Controversies I perhaps wouldn't put your kid's name down yet.
Unsurprisingly, given its somewhat grand surroundings, Willington was going all in on the Jubilee, another thing that was alien to an adopted Scouser. The event was marked up here on Merseyside with a grand total of sod all, with even some of the posher bits of the Wirral being entirely bunting-free; I saw more red Liverpool flags in one street in the run up to the Champions League Final than I saw Union Jacks over that whole weekend. Here in Willington though, the notice board plugged tea parties, picnics, and a "sports extravaganza" (football, tennis, tug-of-war and bowls - nothing too vulgar). There were prizes for "Best Dressed House" and "Best Dressed Street" and the lampposts were covered in purple flags. I ducked down to the canal, away from the pretty centre, and watched the boats for a bit.
I had a couple of hours to kill until the train south so I wandered round the block for a bit. Willington seemed perfectly nice but a bit boring. I felt like I'd seen every interesting element of it in just a brief stroll. What could I do?
Reader, I'm going to ask you to take a breath before I tell you this next part. That pint of lager cost me five British pounds and forty pence. That's right. More than a fiver for a pint of fizzy wee. Ok, it was nice fizzy wee, not Carling rubbish, but still: five pounds forty. I know Londoners are dying to swarm the comments with "WE PAY £5.40 FOR TAP WATER DOWN HERE!!!" but I'm used to Northern prices. Although I did once pay £5.65 for a pint in the All Bar One in Derby Square, Liverpool, I think; I can't quite remember because I blacked out. Yes, it was a nice pint, and yes, it was a nice pub (there was a very strident lesbian informing her wet Tory friends that actually Boris Johnson's lockdown parties were a very big deal) but have a word with yourself.
I reeled out onto the street, simultaneously punch- and actual-drunk, and waited for a train back into Birmingham. Of course there were delays which meant I'd miss my connection back to Liverpool, but after the last time I'd tried to visit this part of the world, I'd learned my lesson and bought an open return. But I didn't mind, because I had more important things to think about. Five pounds forty.