Sunday 29 January 2023

Downhill All The Way


Kidderminster is one of those places that will be forever associated with Victoria Wood in my head.  Long before I ever dreamed of heading to the West Midlands "Kimberley's Friend" was talking about Mrs Gupta on the tills:

She's nice, Mrs Gupta.  She comes from - ooh, where is it?  It's got a right funny name and it's a really long way away.  Kidderminster.

It means that, mentally, the word Kidderminster is said in a particular way in my head and always will be.  Kidderminster.  Kidderminster.  

I strode out of the station and down the hill towards the glistening spires of the town centre.  Actually the pavement was glistening in places too; the frost hadn't entirely departed from the heavily shaded streets and it made the path slippery.  I moved gingerly, not caring that I looked an idiot.  I recently turned 46 which is, I believe, officially late forties, and so the idea of breaking a hip is now something I should be concerned about.  I'm getting my electric mobility scooter next week.  

I passed the courthouse, and a new apartment block with a real ale pub in its base.  I find this new brand of pubs fascinating but also off-putting.  A shop converted into a bar, selling small brews - it doesn't feel like a proper pub.  I don't think I could relax in a place that small, where the barman can see you drink and is probably going to ask what you think of the Fuzzy Forehead IPA when you're not that bothered so long as it's got alcohol in it.  Further along was an interior design shop whose window showcased neon signs that said things like DANCING QUEEN and GOOD VIBES ONLY and frankly it took every inch of self control not to hurl a brick through the glass.

Like most Midlands towns, Kidderminster wholeheartedly embraced the Ring Road, and a dual carriageway sweeps around most of the town centre; like most Midlands towns, they also forgot to finish the loop and there's a big unbuilt stretch.  I disappeared into a subway that took me into an open space at the centre of the roundabout.  I always like these little islands, surrounded by roads but hidden away; if they weren't a haven for all the worst behaviours in society they'd be a lovely spot to hang out in.  As it was I simply pressed on through to the other side.

Waiting at a bus stop was a man in shorts.  Shorts?  On a cold day?  Obviously I swooned at his sheer overwhelming masculinity.  This is the behaviour of an alpha male, demonstrating his astonishingly high testosterone levels that mean he simply puts up with having freezing cold legs on an icy day.  Some might argue that this is why "trousers" were invented, but those people are cowards or women, inadequates who are afraid to flash goose pimply white shin flesh.  I managed to somehow walk past him, despite the massive erection his manliness had caused me, and I ignored the huge puffa jacket he was wearing on his top half to stop hypothermia kicking in.  What a hero he was, and definitely didn't have any hang ups about his gender or anything.

The town centre proper was marked by a statue of the town's most famous resident, if you don't count Rustie Lee: Sir Rowland Hill, inventor of the postal system.  Thanks to him we can now pay ninety five pence to send a bit of coloured card to a nephew who's forgotten we exist and who will throw it in the bin the minute he realises there isn't a tenner inside.  Thank you, Sir Rowland.  

Kidderminster was proud of its son; in addition to the statue, there was a shopping centre named after him, and the Wetherspoons is called the Penny Black.  Or rather, was called the Penny Black; it closed in 2019.  That should have been my first warning sign.  A town of fifty five thousand people that cannot support a Wetherspoons is not in a great state.

It was market day, and I threaded through the stalls on my way up the steep hill to the Swan Shopping Centre.  Vape products seem to be very big on markets these days.  Row after row of tubes and boxes ready to pump over-sweet smoke into the face of passers by.  The Swan centre, meanwhile, crowned the top of the hill, but inside was dark and depressing.  The Christmas tree was still up, and it was long past Twelfth Night.  

I wondered if the Rowland Hill Shopping Centre was perhaps where all the proper shops were, so I gave that a go.  It was, if anything, even sadder than the Swan, to the extent that I wasn't even sure if it was open when I walked in.  Most of the shops seemed to be long gone.

Still, there was a third shopping precinct to try, Weaver's Wharf, which was opened by the Duke of Kent in 2004.  (A newspaper report from the time says that the reception was in Frankie & Benny's, and I would've dearly loved to see His Highness's face when they presented him with a freshly defrosted chicken parmigiana and a Diet Coke with no ice).  There was a Next, and a Marks, with the anchor tenant being... Debenhams.  Oh dear.

I leaned up against the wall of the vacant department store and took stock.  Besides me Julia Roberts still grinned through the glass in a perfume ad, her features washed out from the sun, so all that was left was that legendary grin; the Cheshire Cat, sponsored by LancĂ´me.  I was miserable.  I'd got a timed ticket because it was a lot cheaper, and that meant I had another four hours to kill in Kidderminster.  I felt like I'd already seen literally everything there was to see and there wasn't much.  The architecture was uninspiring, the shops were bland.  I googled Visit Kidderminster and discovered that the top attraction was the Severn Valley Railway (closed for the winter) and the second attraction was the Museum of Carpet (only open in the morning on a Thursday).  After that it was an Arboretum on the outskirts of the town, and then nothing.  

There weren't even any decent pubs.  Every one I'd passed had looked like you needed a minimum of three facial tattoos to gain admittance; one even had a sign over the door saying they were not responsible for any injuries sustained on the premises, which is of course totally normal.  I circled through the back of Weaver's Wharf and found one reason for the town centre's lack of dynamism - a huge Tesco Metro in a sea of parking.  A look at the map reveals that there's a Sainsbury's and a Morrison's within the ring road too.  Why bother with the centre when you can do all your shopping in the one store - food, clothes, everything?

I ended up in a little coffee shop with a cup of tea, passing up the opportunity to eat at an Indian "Streatery" on the grounds that streatery is one of the worst neologisms I've heard in a long time.  

This blog has, entirely coincidentally, become not just a catalogue of knob gags and pictures of idiots larking about in front of railway stations, but also a chronicle of the decline of the British High Street.  Over the years I've gone from town to town and watched the empty shops pile up.  At one time I could rely on a fair sized town to have a Marks, a Boots, a WH Smiths.  Probably a Waterstones and a whole load of places that sold clothes.  Plus small independents and a historic department store that's seen better days but stocks everything and a branch of an odd local chain like Fulton's Foods or Boyes or Quality Save.  I can't say that any more.  Town centres are hollowed out, bloodied by superstores who are now being bloodied by discounters.  They're expensive to visit, because parking charges are one of the few areas a Council can make money.  They're grimy, because that same Council hasn't got the money to spend on them being tidied up.  There are more homeless people in them than ever, holed up in the doorways of the empty shops, and the shops that are filled are packed high and gaudy.  Once the vape shops and the tattoo parlours and the tanning salons were on the back streets, but now they're right in the centre, opening up in what used to be Top Shop or Burtons.

It's obvious where the blame lies.  You can blame the internet all you like, but the truth is, we've been ground down by the Government.  We've been cut at and hacked at and left with fewer pounds in our pocket to spend.  Our Councils have been deprived of cash to the extent that they're going bust and so basic niceties of existence - flower beds and theatres and attractive paving - have been abandoned so they can simply keep the street lights on.  They've stopped being places you'd ever want to visit.  We're being beaten down into nothing, and it's swilling over into the towns; the places where we live and work are reflecting our bashed up souls.  They're lost.  It's depressing and it's despair inducing and I honestly can't see the way out.  The current Government is stripping Britain for parts and in a couple of years a new administration will be left with the chewed up remains.

I decided I couldn't stay in Kidderminster any more.  Never mind not having a train ticket home; I'd have to go somewhere else for the afternoon or I'd end up jamming a coffee stirrer into my eyeball to try and end the misery.  I leapt up and headed back to the station.  On the way I spotted something delightful - a model railway shop, Footplate, which cheered me immensely.  

I'm aware that a lot of my readers are condemning me for going to Kidderminster in January in the first place.  Going at that time of year meant I wouldn't be able to travel on the Severn Valley Railway, one of the most famous steam railways in the country (and one which, shortly before I arrived, announced a financial crisis and a round of redundancies).  Of course you're correct.  And Bridgnorth, the terminus of the railway, is on the West Midlands Railway map, so I actually have to visit it.

What you're forgetting is I bloody hate heritage railways.  I don't see the point of them.  And I dislike steam trains especially.  So yes, one day I'll have to come back to Kidderminster for the Severn Valley Railway, but I'm going to do it with a friend or a relative or a carer of some sort who can cheer me up.  I'm not doing another steam train alone.

The proper Kidderminster station is unabashedly modern, and all the better for it.  It's made no effort to blend in with its heritage neighbour and is instead stark glass and steel.  It opened in 2020 and still has that New Station Smell to it, though one of the doors was broken, and they haven't found a tenant for the coffee unit.  Still, it is at least the future - something Kidderminster as a whole desperately needs.

Saturday 28 January 2023



I resisted collecting the West Midlands Railway map for a long time.  You might think it was the logical next step after the Northern one, but the journey put me off.  There is, really, only one way to get to the West Midlands from Liverpool, and so it's a series of repetitive trips through exactly the same stations every time.  At least when I was doing the Northern map I could mix it up a bit - a slow train to Manchester one week, a little dart to Preston perhaps, then a TransPennine Express to Scarborough (back when TransPennine Express ran trains).  For the West Midlands, it's a London Northwestern via South Parkway, Runcorn, Acton Bridge and so on, every time.  

Plus, it takes ages. I finally stepped onto the platform at Hagley a full three hours after I'd arrived at Lime Street.  I could've got to London in that time.  Instead I was in a small village on the edge of Worcestershire.  

On the plus side, it was a nice station, well-kept and tidy.  It had been painted in historic colours and retained a village halt atmosphere.  I left the platform and walked down a row of neat cottages to the main road.  The village's position on the railway to Birmingham means it's prime commuter territory and it felt it.  Self-assured, wealthy but not ostentatious.

I avoided the centre and instead walked straight out of the village.  Brake Lane passes between two schools, the Catholic High School and the local comp.  I can imagine a well-meaning town planner thinking that would be a boon for the community.  They could share facilities!  They could work together!  It would bring them into one unit!  Instead I bet they absolutely hate each other.  I bet the last day of term is marked by ructions, with all the teachers having to line up outside to stop the inevitable fights.  Teenagers love to mark out who is on their side and who isn't, who is in and who is out, and those two schools would have a rivalry that would make Glaswegian football fans quake in fear.  They may as well have built a wall with guard towers and patrolling Alsatians down the middle of the road.

The road petered out into nothing.  Houses thinned, and a cul-de-sac sign appeared to let me know it was a dead end.  A couple walked together, holding hands, and a jogger with shorts over those athletic pants that I'm sure have some sort of highly technical name but I just think of as "tights, but for men".

I turned off the road and down a well-trodden footpath running between fields.  This was part of a long distance footpath called "The Monarch's Way", following the route the future Charles II took after he fled the final battle of the Civil War.  He was heading for the coast so he could flee into exile, but at the start, after the Battle of Worcester, he headed north.  I'm guessing he was a bit confused after all the fighting and let's be honest, they didn't have the Ordnance Survey and GPS in those days.  I liked the idea of him turning up in Dudley and trying to hire a boat to France, only to have it politely explained to him that he was several hundred miles off course.  

The sun was as high as it was ever going to get, bright and shining through the trees but not warm.  I hugged my coat close.  Ahead of me were two dog walkers, which annoyed me a little.  I was enjoying the solitude.  I was enjoying striking out across country on my own.  They were slow, too, sauntering along, rather than matching my breakneck pace, and I finally caught up with them at a kissing gate.  The wife smiled at me and apologised if I'd heard them arguing.  "We can't agree on the best way to train the dog," she said.

Her husband hastily added, "It's not our dog," which raised questions I wasn't brave enough to ask.  I imagined they'd had enough for a neighbour's ill-disciplined mutt, and snuck it out every day to try and get a bit of training into it.  I didn't say anything of course, because I am a socially awkward idiot.  Instead I smiled and walked on, round the back of some farmhouses.  There was a wheely bin pen and the owners had put up a sign barring dog owners from putting their bags of mess in them, which seemed a bit tight to me.  Rather that than dangling the bag off a passing tree.  

There was a whistle of air, a rumble of wheels, and then a train appeared, riding back towards Birmingham above the stream on an embankment.  I pressed on, pausing only for a quick pee behind a bush, hoping that those two dog walkers behind hadn't acquired a sudden lick of speed and were going to round the corner and catch me.  

The path was rough and torn up by bikes and horses and dogs but the chill meant I perched on the tops, crunching along, feeling the ruts beneath the soles of my feet.  It was almost a dance, a delicate movement over the surface, hovering.  I hit a proper road and the sudden tarmac felt strange after the path.  Over a bridge, under a railway bridge, and I was on the outskirts of Churchill.  Again, I turned away from the populated parts and disappeared onto a back path.

It's not real hiking.  It's very much the soft handed, suburban version of rambling.  I wasn't striking out across wild countryside, just taking short cuts behind houses and across farmer's land.  But it felt good to do.  I'd been trapped inside for far too long, I realised.  I needed to have a bit of outdoors time.  A bit of solitary walking with nobody else around to interrupt my thoughts.

Of course, in England, you're never far from civilisation, and the trail soon ended up on an A road.  I walked along the side of it while trucks and cars sped by, putting their foot down to enjoy the national speed limit after pootling through a village.

Blakedown arrived quicker than I thought it would, almost sneaking up on me.  The station was tucked down a side road on the edge with a level crossing.  As I arrived, the lights began to flash, and the barriers dropped to allow a northbound train passage.

Blakedown is on the Snow Hill lines, which means you can get a train from here as far as Stratford-upon-Avon.  It also means they have extremely long announcements.  The announcer robot started listing the stations the train called at while it came into the platform, and was still listing them when it was long gone.  If you were headed for The Lakes and didn't know it was a request stop, sorry, that bit was said after you'd already boarded.

I wandered onto the southbound platform.  There were no benches, so I strolled back and forth, chewing on the ham and mustard sandwich I'd bought at Lime Street an age ago.  After the country walk, I was heading into town.

Monday 23 January 2023

The Future Is Now

It's been a long time coming.  A very long time.  But finally there are new trains on Merseyrail.

Yes, the 777 trains finally went into service this morning - well, one of them - and I was there to witness this historic event.  I was there with Robert, who'd taken the morning off specially, and we headed into Central along with roughly eight thousand other rail enthusiasts to see the future in action.  I didn't get a press pass; I didn't want to overawe the journos from Granada Reports and the Echo with my astonishing bona fides.  Instead I boarded the train with the great unwashed and found a seat.

A hard seat.  It was fine for the time but I wouldn't fancy going from Hunts Cross to Southport on them.  The little leatherette headrests are scant consolation for the numb buttocks.  Still, we were off, and the train was pleasingly quiet.  Anyone who's ridden the soon to be decommissioned 507s and 508s knows that, for electric trains, they're surprisingly noisy.   Clicking, chugging, whirring, not to mention the clatter over the tracks themselves, and when they get into a tunnel it's virtually impossible to have a conversation.  The 777 (in this case, 777 049, for those of you of a trainspottery bent) glides out of the station with a whirr.  It's not got the sexy purr that Birmingham's electric trains had but it's pretty cheery.

The interiors are bright and clear.  It feels more spacious, which might be because of the lack of carriage doors; this is one long train you can move down easily.  The days of people moving from one carriage to the next and forgetting to close the door behind them, leaving it banging irritatingly all the way to Aughton Park, are gone.  There's WiFi - which I couldn't get to work, but that might've been me - and charging spots under every seat.  Bikes are catered for, and so are pushchairs, and there are luggage racks and grab bars everywhere.

The most exciting feature for me is the glowing LED display telling you where you are en route and what the facilities at each station are.  I love it so much.  I'm so easily impressed by a gadget.  It tracks along the line, flagging up each station and the arrival time (which proved a bit of a mistake on the return leg when the sheer weight of enthusiasts taking pictures and leaping on and off caused it to be delayed, making all the arrival times a nagging red).  Alongside it is a scrolling message space telling us these are OUR trains and plugging Saveaways and season tickets.  I'm guessing there's already an ad seller trying to flog it to Pantene and Cadburys.

There was an honour guard of staff at every station, yellow tabarded, some snapping pictures and all of them looking thrilled.  It's a big day for the Liverpool City Region.  These trains are owned by the local authority, and so basically my Council Tax paid for it.  I asked if they'd name one after me but so far I haven't heard back.  They're replacing trains that have been on the rail network for as long as I've been on Planet Earth and I think people are going to be delighted when they see them.

Somewhere outside Sandhills the set of four seats in front of us was cleared and Andy Gill from North West Tonight appeared with a camera man.  Right behind him was the man himself, Mayor Steve Rotherham.  They proceeded to sit in front of us, holding an interview, while I felt a blush rush up over my face.  Still, it means, for the first time in my entire life, I've been on telly: gurning and trying not to look at the camera.  

Robert never made it on air, which is payback for that time we went to see Pointless and he, Ian and the BF all appeared in an audience shot and they cut me off the edge.  No I'm not bitter.

Steve finished his interview and did a bit of glad handling, asking a potential voter nearby what he thought of the trains.  Unfortunately he'd not taken into account the, let's say, devoted personalities of us train folk.  His question of "what do you think of the new trains?" was met, not with a resounding fabulous!, but a "better than I thought they were going to be".  Steve quickly skulked away.  Similarly, a reporter from Radio Merseyside prowling the aisle realised not to canvass the opinions of any of the middle aged men about the train or she'd get a load of information about bogies she didn't know she needed.  Instead she pounced on the slightly bewildered looking civilians who hadn't realised the magnitude of their journey and just wanted to get to Fazakerley Hospital.

At Kirkby, the end of the line, we all disembarked to take a picture of the front.  It's interesting that the M logo is accompanied, not by Merseyrail or Merseytravel, but by Metro.  Is there a rebrand coming?  

A train man literally sighed with disgust when I took a selfie in front of this train, as well he might.

We all got back on board for the return trip, for some reason passing up the opportunity to sample the delights of Kirkby.  More photos were taken, more videos - I apologise to all those people who got my fat head in the back of their YouTube presentations.

Back to Central, and we stayed on for another round trip.  The dignitaries all got off, while a lot of the train fans did too so they could film it departing, leaving it much like an ordinary train trip to Kirkby.  It meant I got to look out at the scenery a bit - Everton's new stadium rising in two curved halves on the dockside, like an upturned crab; Kirkdale's broken lift "until further notice", a reminder that even what was once new and exciting falls to the ravages of time and lack of maintenance; the row after row of new trains at the depot, waiting to join their brother over the next year or so.

The new trains will make Merseyrail feel so different.  Modern, forward thinking, exciting.  I hope the rollout is fast enough to mean that they can ferry people to the Grand National or the Open or Eurovision, these big events that will act as a showcase for the City region.  I hope people are proud of them.  I hope the scallies don't tear them to pieces.

I got off the train at Moorfields so I could get the Wirral Line home, promising to have a drink with Robert at a later date (he was staying on until Central to maximise his new train time).  I filmed the train departing from the platform.  The first train of many.

Wednesday 18 January 2023

The Let Down

I was, briefly, in That London last week.  The ostensible reason was so I could cross off seeing the Abba holograms.  I was one of the few homosexuals in Britain who still hadn't seen it and they were threatening to make me a straight if I didn't hurry up.  The actual, secret, main reason I was going to London was so I could visit Crossrail the Elizabeth Line.

I have been following the Crossrail Project for literally decades.  I remember seeing reports of it on Newsroom SouthEast, back when it was being proposed by British Rail (I may not be young).  I've watched it slowly crawl through Government and TfL until a spade went in the ground.  I visited an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects all about the design of the station.  I watched, enviously, as bloggers and Twitter users and people I actually know in real life travelled down to London and experienced the new shiny world of Crossrail. 

I planned my route.  I was staying in a hotel near Stratford International station, at the back of Westfield.  A moment, by the way, to say that the area around there - the former Olympic village - is a completely desolate space.  It reminds me of when I visited Canary Wharf back in the early 90s.  It's a lot of tall buildings with very few people; impeccably manicured lawns and nobody to use them.  Anyway, I decided I would do the patented Merseytart exploration of the line: 








That way I'd cover the core tunnels, plus I'd visit the huge Canary Wharf station.  If I had time I'd jump back on the train and visit Woolwich, because I'd been there when it was just a big hole in the ground so it'd be good to compare and contrast, but the main part was visiting the central underground stations.  

I walked to Stratford station.  It's a much sadder station than I remembered.  In my head it's the gleaming steel and ambition of the Jubilee Line Extension, the crowning glory at the end of the route.  That massive ticket hall appeared on all the literature and in all the pieces promoting the new Tube line.  The addition of new routes, plus the millions more people who use the station, has left it tired and confused.  There are passageways and footbridges everywhere, but it all feels illogical, as you'd expect from a station that's been cobbled together over a century.  The DLR goes from here, unless you want to go to that destination, in which case it's in a completely separate part of the station.  The Central Line and the Jubilee Line are miles apart, and the platform numbering seems to have been pulled off a board randomly by Rachel Riley.  At some point they'll have to start all over again with it and try and make it make sense.

Still, at least there's those lovely purple line trains to travel on.  I marched through the ticket gate and directly to the platform, but the first train was going to Liverpool Street only; it wasn't even stopping at Whitechapel en route.  A bit annoying, but thanks to diamondgeezer I was aware that the linking up of the sides of Crossrail was a long and drawn out process, so presumably this was part of that.  

The train came and went and I looked up to the departure board and... that one was going to Liverpool Street only, too.  Was I perhaps on the wrong platform?  Was there an underground one for trains through the centre?  Then I heard the announcement. "mumble mumble industrial action mutter Elizabeth Line whisper stammer trains restart at six thirty Friday morning."


Now, this blog is very much pro-union and pro-industrial action.  If circumstances are such that the withdrawal of labour is your only resort then it is a desperate state of affairs and it is sometimes the only means of action a worker has against their boss.  Trade unions got many of the rights and privileges we currently enjoy as employees, often through strikes; do you think women would get six months maternity leave purely through the generosity of their bosses?  Of course not.  And strike action should be disruptive.  You need to demonstrate why your work is so valuable to both your employers and the public at large.

On the other hand, couldn't you have picked one of the other 364 days in the year folks?

I was incredibly disappointed.  Getting down to London is a rarity for me these days - in fact, as you may have noticed, doing anything is a rarity for me these days.  I've been trapped under a huge project at home and haven't been able to have the time off to gallivant on the trains.  This was a rare opportunity for me to see something new and exciting, a rare example of this country investing in transport and the future rather than banging on about the good old days.

I sadly boarded the train.  They're nice enough - not a very satisfying noise, I'll be honest - but they were clean and open.  Passengers were taking them for granted.  I was the only idiot looking at them.

When you have a plan you were really excited about, having it taken away leaves you a little hollow.  You can't really think of an alternative.  I was in London, one of the greatest cities on earth, and I couldn't think of what to do with myself.  I eventually decided to do a little bit of transport exploring.

The Battersea extension to the Tube opened in 2021 but again, that was after I'd last been in the capital.  I headed down the Northern Line to take a look.

My main impression?  Nice enough.  I mean, it does the job.  Perhaps it was my general feeling of let-down but I was a bit "is that it?"  The Jubilee Line Extension spoilt us all.  It made us think new underground lines should be palaces.  There should be huge open spaces and gleaming technology and art.  In reality, this is all you need for an underground station.  Two platforms, some escalators, a ticket hall.  Job done.

Outside was rain and a building site.  Again, the station building is nothing special; a glass box with a different coloured roof to provide a moment of interest.  You can see what it's for and it attracts the eye.  On a dark night it'll be a glowing and inviting beacon.  

It's just not... special.  I want the Tube - all new stations - to be special.  They're important focuses for people.  They're hubs for communities.  I guess I care about them more than other people.  

Of course I had a look inside the Power Station itself, and of course I was underwhelmed.  It's been beautifully restored.  They've clearly spent an absolute bomb on it.  But it is, at the end of the day, a shopping mall, and not even one for the likes of me, one for people with too much money.  Calvin Klein and L'Occitaine and Mulberry.  When Reiss and Marks and Spencer are the low-end retailers I back away slowly, that working class chip on my shoulder calling out to me.  

Outside meanwhile there are canyons of anonymous apartments at prices that make me gag (one bed studios still available starting at £450,000).  They're not even very nice; they're so closely packed that an awful lot of people are going to be staring at one another across the narrow pedestrianised alleyways.  And again, there was nobody about.  Admittedly it was raining but it didn't feel like a place.  It felt like a dormitory.

Still, Abba were good.  So there's that.