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.


Anonymous said...

Hagley is very walkable to the industrial midlands, but imagines itself to be deeply rural and genteel.

Anonymous said...

I suppose you could go via Manchester every now and then just for a change.