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 Lancôme.  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.


Anonymous said...

Kidderminster has long been an oddity of a place. Now a dormitory for Birmingham and the midlands, but with an industrial past all of its own, now mostly gone, leaving large peripheral estates as unemployment blackspots, with all the usual social pathologies that come along for the ride.

But on the other hand, it's also the focus for a extensive rural, agricultural hinterland. There was a big cattle and livestock market until recently. And for a lot of countryside youth - Young Farmers Clubs and the like - it's still nightlife central.

Sadly, even in summer, the town centre is one of the West Midlands' dreariest. And as I'm sure you have experienced on your quest, it's up against some stiff competition.

diamond geezer said...

The Museum of Carpet is excellent, sorry, at least by Kidderminster standards. Janet kindly showed me a lovely bit of shuttling.

Even back in 2019 I noted a ridiculously high proportion of charity shops (but the Debenhams wasn't yet under threat, they were closing Wolverhampton's instead).

Rest assured you're going to like Bridgnorth - it's dramatic, more upmarket and should even be worth the horror of a steam train ride. Make sure you sit on the right hand side because that's where the elephants are.

cjw714 said...

When I lived in the Midlands I used to visit Kidderminster to watch the football and remember it as a typical, unexciting and uninspiring but pleasantly busy place. Was shocked on our last trip back to the UK that it's not only small towns like Kidderminster that are depressingly run-down but even larger places like Swansea and Carlisle feel very uninviting.