Sunday 31 December 2023

Super Bedankt, 2023

It's the last day of December, so, like every other blogger on the planet, here's a summary of the year.  I say "every other blogger" but there's fewer and fewer of us around.  Everyone's pivoted to YouTube or TikTok, or they're sending out Substack emails that you have to pay for.  I will never do that because I am too unphotogenic for YouTube, I don't understand TikTok, and the pressure of subscribers would send me into a tailspin of anxiety; I don't think anyone really wants to read emails called here is a list of train stations that exist, I got them off Wikipedia, I really needed some content this week be kind.

Anyway.  The point is that this has been a bit of a year on the blog.  After a few weird periods with pandemics and endless stuff going on with me at home, 2023 was surprisingly down to earth.  Me, some railway stations, and some walking.  Usually on a towpath.  I'd not realised, until I went back over the posts, quite how much time I'd spent on towpaths this year.  Even when the blog went abroad it went to a city full of canals.  This is not part of a rebrand; this is not round the canals we go.  That bloke on BBC Four has got that market sewn up anyway.  

As the West Midlands Railway project reaches maturity, it's inevitable that the stations are less centralised, more peripheral.  I'd not noticed as I was doing them quite how peripheral they were.  Wem, Penkridge, even as far as Long Buckby - I've seemingly only coasted round the distant corners of the map.  When I did go into town, admittedly, it was to beneath Spaghetti Junction, which is about the most urban location you can go to (and another towpath), but other than that there was a lot of striding across fields and through country parks.  For a blog that's really about cities and towns, it was surprisingly green.

That wasn't deliberate.  It's just me trying to spread myself about.  If I do the west of the map one day, I like to go somewhere at the opposite end the next.  I don't want to go to the same regions over and over.  I am starting to run out of options though.  I've visited two thirds of the West Midlands Railway map now, and so a lot of the stations left are the big hitters - Leicester, Northampton, Rugby, the central Birmingham stations, which need to be covered properly.  I've also not done any of the tram stops, though that's partly because I'd been waiting for them to finish the Wolverhampton station extension, which finally opened in September.  (It also means I can finally visit Wolverhampton station itself).  There are also some complex stations to visit, with very limited services.  I reckon, however, that I might be able to polish the whole thing off in 2024.  Five years of hard work done (sorry, that should be "work").

The true highlight of 2023, for me anyway, was the trip round Amsterdam's Metro.  It didn't seem to do much for the blog in terms of visitors or comments but I don't care.  Carousing around Amsterdam was absolutely one of the best experiences of my life, once you get past the terrible first day of flight cancellations and Luton Airport hotels.  For two days I wandered around a beautiful city, using its fast, efficient, reasonably priced transport network, visiting places I'd never been before and would never normally get a chance to see.  It was absolutely bloody brilliant.  The only thing is it slightly ruined me for my return to the UK, where everything is seemingly broken or expensive or broken and expensive.  I don't think I'll get a chance to do another foreign city, but that hasn't stopped me planning it.  I have Excel spreadsheets detailing how I could collect every station on both the Rotterdam and Stockholm Metros, if any eccentric Russian oligarchs want to chuck few grand in my Ko-fi.  

Closer to home, Merseyrail finally got its new trains... sort of.  The roll out has been slow and patchy - I went out the other day and three of my four trains were rattly old ones - and their reliability hasn't been great.  Headbolt Lane finally opened, but the battery trains kept going out of service, meaning it's still not at its full potential.  People won't use a brand new station unless they can be sure they can get a train.  And construction on Baltic station isn't due to begin until 2025 at least, so I'll probably be pushing 50 when I finally get there.  Possibly from the other side.

That was a bit of a downer to end on, wasn't it?  Instead let's finish with a thanks to you, the reader.  You don't have to read this load of old guff and yet you keep coming back.  I'm touched and honoured and I still get excited when somebody comments.  I rarely comment back because part of me thinks that's really vain, like I'm revelling in the attention, but be assured they're all appreciated, as are the random Ko-Fi donations (especially the anonymous person who has bought me a coffee every single month - you are loyal and a delight).  Rest assured, I will carry on churning out the nonsense, and even if you get tired of it, if you see one more towpath or rant about the Government and decide you've had enough and leave, I'll still be here.  I've nothing else to do, quite frankly.

Monday 18 December 2023

And Yuletide Felicitations To You


I'm not festive.  At the best of times I'm not exactly Kris Kringle, but this year in particular, I've been a misery guts.  It took me ages to put up the tree, the presents remain in their Amazon boxes by the back door, and it took an enormous amount of grumbling from the BF before I finally knuckled down and did the Christmas cards.  Something about Xmas 2023 isn't working for me.

I decided to try and get in the mood with a trip out on the trains.  What could be more Christmassy than a small town celebrating the season?  I pictured snow covered rooftops, a church with happy parishioners, a children's choir singing carols as I passed by.  A busy, jostling high street, but not the cut throat horror of a city centre.  I headed for Wem.

A market town in Shropshire, not far from the borders, with a tiny rural community?  What could be more Christmassy than that?  It also meant I could fill a gap on that pesky Transport for Wales line running down the left hand side of the map by collecting it, plus its neighbours, Prees and Yorton.

But first I had to get there.  Poring over the timetables, I worked out the most efficient way to get to the two village stations would be to go to Wem first, then change to another train going back out.  Prees and Yorton are both request stops so I accosted the guard.  He was a chirpy Welshman with an RMT badge on his uniform who seemed pleased to have an excuse to stop - the new trains, he told me, were too fast, and they ended up hanging around at stations to even out the timetable if they didn't stop at the request stations.  As we approached, he gave me a long spiel about watching myself as I disembarked - the platform was quite a distance from the doors, you see - and then we pulled into Prees.  

Normally, arriving at the station is just the beginning.  Regular readers (hello you!) will know that it's usually the start of a lengthy meander through some winter-blasted landscape to get to the next stop.  The problem was, Prees station was in the middle of nowhere.  The village that gave it its name was a mile away.  There were no footpaths south.  I could walk along the A road to Wem, but who really wants to trek down a highway?  So I waited.  In an hour's time the train south would come and I could go to Yorton.

Prees is particularly remote.  There's the old station house alongside, of course, quiet on a weekday morning.  A level crossing after a nasty bend in the road.  But nothing much else to see.

At least it had shelters on the platforms, allowing me to hide away from the winds that whipped across the fields.  I installed myself in the southbound one and waited for the train.

Time passed slowly.  My podcast wasn't grabbing me.  My fingers froze in the cold and I jammed them into my pockets - effective, but ruling out me reading a book.  I watched the occasional truck or car spin past, turning across the level crossing.  Now and then it would close for a freight train or an express, penning in the one vehicle behind the gate.

I learned every inch of the shelter.  The pile of mush in the corner where gritting salt had congealed.  The black panel that would've once held a public phone but was long gone.  The occasional scratched graffiti.  Eventually I got up and paced the platform, back and forth, up and down.  I put on some banging beats to liven up my brain and body, jiggling a little as a particularly good one came on, embarrassing myself for the CCTV cameras.  Then the train came in.

It was the exact same train I'd arrived on, with the exact same guard.  I asked him to stop at Yorton, a little shame faced, and he gave me a look which clearly implied "are you taking the piss?" As we pulled into the station, he began his usual spiel about the high step, then realised he was wasting his time.  I gave him a polite thumbs up as I got off the train but I don't think he was amused.

Yorton was slightly less isolated than Prees.  A cul-de-sac of homes had been built on what probably used to be the goods yard, while the station house was now a private residence, as several signs reminded you - though slightly confusingly, it announced this on a sign with the British Rail double arrow logo.  

Beyond the station was the Railway Inn which I assumed was closed and converted into a house.  They must've left the sign up for whimsy, because it didn't look like a country pub - there wasn't eight miles of car park, and an adventure playground, and a sign outside telling me what football matches I could see.  There wasn't even a mention of their menu.  I was surprised to get home and discover that it's very much a going concern, although it doesn't open until 5pm on weekdays.  It's clearly a proper, old fashioned boozer, and I was very sad I didn't get a chance to visit.  

I'd originally planned on getting the train back north again, to Wem, and risking the shame of having that conductor for a third time.  However, a sign near the entrance to the station told me there'd be a bus coming along in about eight minutes.  This would, at least, make a change, so I dashed up the steps to the platform because - for some unknown reason - they'd mounted the totem sign up on the embankment rather than down at road level.  You know, where it might be useful.

The bus left from a stop called, delightfully, Jubilee Tree Houses, a few yards away from the station.  A triangle of roads surrounded a single tree with a split running down its trunk.  There was a bench around it and a noticeboard advising me that I was needed to "help shape the housing future" of the villages.  I loitered by the bus stop; the grass around the tree was too wet for me to use the bench, and anyway, I didn't want to miss the bus.

One big problem I have with buses is their lack of information.  If I'm at a railway station and the train is delayed, there's an announcement, and maybe a countdown clock too if you're lucky.  At a bus stop there's nothing.  If it came early, you don't know; if it's late, you don't know.  You stand there, hoping, staring at the horizon, waiting for it to swing round the corner.  Eventually the 511 arrived, a few minutes late, and I could stop feeling anxious.  The driver was a bearded bloke in dark glasses who took my £1.60 (by card, of course, this is the cashless society) and politely waited for me to sit down before he started tearing through the country lanes.

He dropped me off by that church I'd been hankering for.  No, there wasn't any snow, but the church of St Peter and St Paul was exactly what I wanted: stone tower, bit of graveyard, walls and a gate.  

The only thing I knew about Wem prior to arriving was that it was the home of the Taskmaster himself, Greg Davies; Dave Gorman once bought him a load of Wem-related memorabilia to try and win a task.  One of the items was a book about the history of Wem and Greg was baffled that they found enough to fill it.  

I can sort of see his point.  Wem was a nice little town but it was very average.  It wasn't charming enough to attract tourists, but it wasn't ugly enough to be amusing.  It was, in short, a small country town with no pretentions.

Yes, that place is called The Warbling Tit.  It's a bird, get your mind out of the gutter.

I strolled down the main street, rows of tightly packed historic buildings - a smattering of Georgian, a Victorian manse, a half-timbered cottage.  The decorations were very much on the minimalist side - a single lit banner across the road, and a lot of small trees poking out of the sides of shops.  I wanted baubles and glitz and shininess.  Wem wasn't giving me that festive boost I needed.

I did a circuit of the centre, ducking down alleyways and passing equestrian supply shops and a town hall that claimed Wem stood for Where Everyone Matters.  The Wem Business Park was marked with a sign over the entrance that was like a grim Disneyworld attraction, a forgotten corner of the park that provided only moderate excitement.

Of course, there's one sure fire way of cheering me up.

I picked the Castle Inn for a pint at random, and it was a good pub, warm and welcoming and busy.  I'd mulled getting some food while I was there, but the couple ahead of me at the bar were turned away from the restaurant part because a party was expected.  I took my seat in the corner as they arrived, a barrage of bright old ladies who chattered and giggled.  They were dressed to enjoy themselves.  One woman, in her seventies at least, wore a white minidress under a leopardskin coat.  Her feet were in red sparkly shoes with candy-striped high heels.  She was, of course, fabulous.  I was once again reminded that the pensioners of today were the ravers of the sixties; they weren't grimly keeping the British end up during the war, they were on the Pill and doing the frug and wearing hot pants and thigh high boots.  Stop trying to get them to sing along to Vera Lynn and break out the Hendrix.

Wem has a long history of game old birds; a plaque behind my seat reminded me of the time during the Civil War when the womenfolk dressed as Parliamentarians to foil an attack from the Cavaliers.  As I read up on it on my phone, another older lady came in and proceeded to chat away with the barmaid, full of energy despite her walking frame.  I considered staying longer, missing my train and getting the next one, but a man came in and sat at the next table and he gave off a strong negative energy.  The waitress greeted him with a menu and said they could do him a Christmas dinner, if he wanted; he sharply replied, "I don't believe in turkey.  I think it's cruelty, the way they slaughter them.  If I had my way, I'd shoot them all.  Not the birds, the people."  The waitress backed away.  Typical: a man shows up and ruins the vibe.

I left the pub after that, briefly nuzzling the resident cat on the way out, and headed to the Co-op for a sandwich.  There was a group of excited primary school children there, setting up for a Christmas carol performance, and I'm afraid my day out in the countryside hadn't given me a Scrooge-like conversion to the season, because I legged it in case I had to hear Away In A Manger.  Instead I headed to the station.

It's a plain, ordinary affair, perfectly decent, with shelters and a level crossing.  It's safe to say it's a little neglected; there was an informative map of the local country stations which bore the logos of both British Rail Provincial (the forerunner to Regional Railways, which itself disappeared with privatisation) and the Countryside Commission (abolished in 1999).  At what point does a sign start being a historic relic and in need of restoration?

Wem also has the tiniest totem sign I've ever seen.  Not the sign itself, which is normal, but the little strip along the bottom announcing the station name.

Did someone forget to add it on, and there was a last minute addition?  Did they think because Wem is only three letters, they could get away with the smallest possible name badge?  It could do with a scrub either way.  Wem deserves better.

Anyway, Merry Christmas!

Nope.  Still not feeling it.

Saturday 9 December 2023

The Shock Of The Old

I was at Lime Street, waiting for a train to West Kirby, hoping, as I always do these days, that it'd be a new one.  I heard the rattle and crash of an old Merseyrail train coming round the corner, but when it finally emerged, I got a nice surprise.

As a farewell present for the old trains, 507 001 has been decorated in a rough approximation of the British Rail livery it had when it first came into service 46 years ago.  Seeing the return of BR blue was a heck of a shock to the system, even if, when I first came to Merseyside, they were long repainted into yellow and white.  There was something so strange about the new, gleaming, white Lime Street Lower Level with this streak of 1970s design poured through the centre.

The train was actually headed to New Brighton but I got on board anyway.  You have to, don't you?  As I've said a million times - and someday someone will believe me - I'm not a train fan, I'm a station fan.  And when I do like a train it's because it's new and modern and gleaming.  I have no nostalgia: steam trains were cold and noisy and smelly, diesels are the same, and old trains didn't have aircon or electronic displays or CCTV.  Trains have got better and smarter over the years and we should applaud that and not hark back to when you sat in a compartment with a murderer bringing up phlegm for the eighteen hours it took to get to Truro.  

That being said, I do like a unicorn, and as the only Merseyrail train in the BR livery, 507001 is special.  I'd have been annoyed if I didn't rid it at least once.  I rode it as far as Birkenhead Park.  Sadly, they've not decorated the interiors to match the exterior; it's still the 00s revamp inside.  I was hoping for a return of those yellow and green seat covers that were always, always, hanging off the cushion underneath.

A quick trip under the river later and I was getting off to wait in the rain for my actual train.  507 001 is going to carry on looking like this until it's either dragged off to be scrapped or Robert and the Class 507 Preservation Society manage to rescue it from the dumper.  They're doing their best to have this train kept alive for future generations to visit and admire and go "Jesus, you mean to tell me they kept these going for nearly fifty years?".  If that appeals to you, please, give them a shout and a hand.  All donations gratefully accepted.

My train to West Kirby was one of the old trains too, but in the boring yellow and grey.  I know they're all dying but is it too much to ask that Merseyrail carry on cleaning them?  My one was absolutely filthy, with long streaks of dirty black marks all over it.  Ah well.  Here's a video of 507 001 on its way out of Birkenhead Park.  We shall never see its like again.  Well, we will, for probably a few months yet, but that's not quite the poignant farewell a blog post like this needs at the end.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Ordinary World

Sometimes I come back from a trip out on the trains positively champing at the bit to type it up.  I'm almost in a fugue state, hammering away at the keyboard, memories and impressions flowing out of me.  Sometimes, however, I return from a trip and think: what am I going to say?  Not everywhere can be inspiring.  Some places simply exist.

Welcome to Landywood.

I'd like to make it clear that there's nothing actually wrong with Landywood.  It's a perfectly adequate station.  But that's all: adequate.  It has two platforms.  A couple of shelters.  Next train indicators.  No station building or lifts, just access from a pair of side roads.  It has a metal sculptural topper on its totem:

So that's nice.  As is seemingly always the way with art on the West Midlands network, I can find absolutely no information about who designed or commissioned it, so my apologies to the artist involved.  Landywood does have a sign pointing to it which is in ALL CAPS, which is horrible, but that's as notable as it gets.

It is, in short, a perfectly ordinary halt on the British rail network.  Which is fine if all you're doing is using it to catch a train, but I'm trying to extract content for a not even slightly popular blog here.

Actually, there's one slightly interesting fact about Landywood station: it's not in Landywood.  That's a village to the south.  The station is actually close to the centre of Great Wyrley, a mining village redeveloped into a satellite suburb in the Sixties for the workers in the city.  Avenues of semis and bungalows on roads called Sunbeam Drive and Paddock Lane curl their way from a small low shopping centre with a Co-op and a local Italian restaurant.

The Davy Lamp pub, constructed along with the rest of the estate as the hub, was closed and gone now.  Not quite gone: it had been converted into a Bargain Booze, so the local alcoholics will have to take their cheap drink back to their homes rather than enjoying it with convivial company.  Maddeningly, the signs for the old pub remain on the side of the building, a reminder of what you once had, like keeping your ex's name after they left you.

A Royal Mail van pulled up on the pavement as I walked by, and the scary looking postwoman clambered out and stood on the kerb.  She bellowed at the beauty salon in her thick Brummie accent: "I've got a couple of parcels for you!", because round here, apparently the delivery folk don't deign to walk the ten yards to your front door.  I wouldn't have argued with her, mind, she looked like she could crush me with a single thumb, so I scurried back across the supermarket car park and down the side of the station.

The streets were silent, as you'd expect in a suburb in the middle of a weekday.  One house was a building site as its owners converted it from a perfectly acceptable 1960s bungalow into a whitewashed facsimile of a new build.  The roof now had windows for its loft conversion and I once again wondered why someone would buy a bungalow and then put in a second storey; can you not just buy a two-floor house in the first place?  Two storey houses are usually cheaper than bungalows.  A fat cat wandered out in front of me and miaowed for attention.  I bent down and murmured hello puss, but got only a small nuzzle in before it realised I wasn't going to give it food and wandered off into a garden.

It was all very familiar.  It was like wandering round the streets I grew up on, a nice little Sixties run of homes that had front gardens and driveways and a quiet sense of pride that their occupiers were on the ladder up.  The countryside brushed up against the homes, close enough to play in and make you feel rural, but distant enough that you had all mod cons.  I'd cycled down these roads, chatted aimlessly for hours in them, gone to school on these pavements, and the fact that mine were a hundred miles away from here didn't make them any different.  

Soon I was in Landywood proper, with its older cottages and a narrow road without a pavement.  A Methodist Church with beams stood at the side, its noticeboard plugging its coffee morning ("be assured of a warm welcome"), its minister and church chief contact both women - a fact that used to be so unusual they made a whole sitcom about it, and now it's pretty much the norm.  

As so often when I'm in the West Midlands, I was headed for a canal.  The Wyreley and Essington Canal twisted its way through the countryside of South Staffordshire for decades but, as with a lot of waterways in the region, it never made much money.  After nationalisation the canal was one of the first to be closed and now most of it is unnavigable.  Branches have become clogged and abandoned.  At Landywood, the route has been turned into a country park.

I sank beneath the road and onto a small path that ran along the narrow, stagnant canal.  With no flow to reenergise it the water had become clogged with plants and debris.  Trees tumbled into the course and stayed there to rot.  Meanwhile, the towpath was awash with damp fallen leaves, concealing a thick layer of mud.

I ducked branches and pushed through bushes.  My heavy boots squelched in the mess.  It was dark and silent, the grey sky flat between the branches of the trees.  Beneath a bridge, the rain had caused the canal to burst its banks, almost covering the path.  I splashed through.

Ducks swam in the algae-choked water.  They gently moved away from me as I approached, casual, not bothered, until they realised I was coming a bit too fast and suddenly burst into the air to escape, leaving clear patches in the green behind them.

After a while I reached another bridge, but this one had been filled in.  The top of a stone sluice was visible above the waterline, and I could hear it running on the other side, but I was forced up and over the road, past a sign from the Council that informed me how many steps I was taking walking the towpath.

There was a man up ahead.  He had binoculars raised to his face and was staring intently at something in the distance.  At his feet was a Pomeranian, politely waiting for him to finish.  I wondered what had caught his eye: a rare bird?  A distant aircraft?  A farmer's wife getting changed at an open window?  I considered asking him, but realised he might actually tell me, so I hugged the far side of the path and left him to it.  He was completely absorbed and barely noticed me.  The Pomeranian watched me go by.

The path dipped under the railway line - I hung around hoping for a train to go over, but was out of luck - and then there were a couple of carved wooden seats.  A Tesco carrier hung from the tree between them, bloated with rain water, while the badly covered graffiti on one post informed me that a named local "is gay".  Normally I'd think this was a bit of homophobic abuse, but this is the 2020s; people are a lot more up front about their sexualities.  It was entirely possible that this was an advert.  Perhaps Grindr hasn't reached this particular corner of the countryside.

A bend in the path and the vista opened up.  The canal widened to reed-filled ponds.  Signs of human abuse became more and more frequent; there was an empty beer can in the hedge every metre along, running the gamut of cheap but potent brands - Special Brew, Skol, Carling.  There was even the packaging for a four pack of K Cider, a drink I didn't even know still existed.  It used to be inhaled by the kind of student who thought they were too classy for Diamond White but still wanted to get very drunk very fast.  I heard a train go by, screened by the trees, and then I was under the line, where more graffiti proclaimed Aryan and Hola I'm Back and a particularly dopey individual had signed their full name, including surname, and put a heart underneath.

The path ended with a dog leg path, designed to stop cyclists from getting access, and concrete blocks to try and minimise fly tipping.  I was chucked out at the side of the road beside a sign telling me I'd reached Bloxwich.  There was a Jet garage with its own Londis - no doubt the source of all those cheap beer cans - and then Bloxwich North station was hiding under a bridge.  There was another piece of art on the totem - a waterwheel, I'm assuming.  Seriously West Midlands Trains, just a little plaque, that's all I need.

Some genius had decided to put the ticket machine right in front of the station sign, meaning you could only actually see it from a limited angle.  I wedged myself in for the legally required selfie.

I went down to the platform - past a Millwall sticker and a sign from West Midlands Police warning me not to loiter because there had been complaints - and went into the shelter to wait for my train and eat my sandwich.  It's that time of year when the stores wheel out their festive offerings and I eat them all.  I'm an absolute sucker for a limited edition, fully aware that I'm going to get my heart broken when I find one that's incredibly tasty and they whisk it off the shelves on Boxing Day.  This was a Christmas Club from Marks, which had the twin benefits of being both tasty and giving a portion of the profits to Shelter, allowing me to feel ever so slightly virtuous as I stuffed my face.

The trip to Bloxwich itself - no compass direction needed - took only a couple of minutes; indeed the guard didn't even have time to work her way down the carriage to check my ticket before we'd arrived.  (Once again I spent an entire day out on the trains and not one single individual checked my ticket the whole time.  I'm a fool buying them.  I could save a bomb just winging it.  Of course I'd never do that, and I can assure you that any Ko-Fi contributions are spent on train related antics and not a summer house in Antigua.)

Bloxwich's Wikipedia page is really down on the place: it has an entire section headed "Deprivation".  I prepared myself for the worst.  Once I'd snapped a picture of the totem art...

(is it swords?) ...I made my way into the town centre.  Something immensely cheering happened on the way in.  A woman stopped me and asked me for directions.  Normally I'm useless at this, nervous and forgetful and obviously, I wasn't a local, but she was asking me where the station was.  "Up there and to the left," I was able to tell her authoritatively, and she thanked me and went on, leaving me filled with pride at having been able to assist her.  It's a tiny thing, but it made Bloxwich for me, because after that I was in a great mood.

As such, I may have viewed the town through a joyous filter, because it certainly didn't seem that bad to me.  There was a church and a tidy green with some public art, a library that was actually open, and then a high street that had very few empty shops.  Admittedly, there was a large proportion of charity shops and bargain stores (including one called, delightfully, Wow That's Cheap!), but that's still more than a lot of other towns can scrape together.  There were banks and a post office, plus a market hall backed by a sadly closed Wilko.

It was busy, too.  There were plenty of shoppers about, and a queue out of the door of Greggs.  I much preferred Allmarks further up the street that sold the kind of bargain cakes full of colour and flavourings I didn't think you could buy any more.  Which would you rather have - a blueberry muffin from a generic coffee shop or a jam donut for sixty pence?  Their window display also carried a "synthetic cream donut" for £1.30, and I found that use of the word "synthetic" charming.  None of your crème pat nonsense, this stuff comes out of a squirty can, and you bloody love it.

The road split around a small park and I thought they'd begun putting up their Christmas decorations (this was still late November - told you I was struggling to find something to say).  On closer inspection I realised that the red garlands weren't happy chains of poinsettas or tinsel, but were instead long lengths of poppies.  Turning Remembrance Day into a kind of festive celebration is deeply tasteless to me.  Respect is quiet and dignified; it's not gussying up a fountain so it looks like a Gallipoli-themed merry go round.  The purpose of the poppy wasn't just to remember our war dead, but also to raise funds for the survivors, and I wondered how many of these decorations get put away and taken out every year without a single donation to the British Legion.  Plus, seeing this display about twenty yards from a knife amnesty bin... Perhaps, instead of showing how very much you cared about people who'd been dead for decades, you could turn your attention to that bin, and what's going on there.  Think about the present for a bit.

I'll be honest: there was one feature of Bloxwich that I was absolutely dying to see, ever since I'd done a bit of idle googling.  After the death of the Princess of Wales, a local stonemason, Andrew Walsh, crafted a tribute to her.  His day job was a funeral director and he turned to his usual materials to craft the statue, which he intended to present to Walsall as a suitable memorial.  He turned out... this.


It's quite a good likeness, if you ignore one teeny tiny element.  Walsall wasn't amused, and refused the gift.  Earl Spencer was livid.  A decision was made by the transport authority to put it in their brand new bus station, but when they consulted with the Palace over the wording of the memorial plaque, they were politely informed that they couldn't erect it.  

Andrew took his statue back.  He removed the veneer, to make Di a little bit less shiny, but still nobody wanted it.  So he put her up outside his funeral home and that's where she remains to this day.

I had to see it, of course.  If someone crafts a statue to the late Princess of Hearts off their own back and sticks it in a car park outside a funeral home that is the very definition of camp.  It's right up my Straße. 

The erect nipples are certainly a choice - especially, and I'm no boob expert, as they don't seem to be in the right spot - but she looks a lot better now she doesn't gleam in the sunlight.  Stripping that veneer had an unfortunate side effect of making her less weatherproof, by the way, and for a while she turned green with algae.  Fortunately Diana seems to have been cleaned up and this remains as a beautiful tribute to a woman we can certainly agree wore a dress quite well.  I wouldn't say it was any worse than the official statue of the Princess of Wales in Kensington Gardens, which depicts her shortly after finishing her shift as a secretary in an employment agency and grabbing at two random kids.  If it was in Walsall town centre, as intended, nobody would care; it would be another spot for pigeons to sit on and for Goths to loiter round.  Here, out in Bloxwich, she's special, the Black Diana Nobody Wanted.

Nothing could really top that, so I headed back to the station.  I had read that Bloxwich was famous for its many pubs, but every one I passed was closed, and I didn't fancy going to a Wetherspoons.  I wasn't that desperate for a pint.  For once.  Instead I returned the way I came, trying to think of some over arching theme for the blog post I would eventually write.  I never did find one.