The reason I started this blog, way back in - jesus christ - 2007, was because I like railway stations. Yes, there was a completist, nerdy part of me that wanted a project, plus I have a general fondness for infrastructure and transport, but by and large my interest was the buildings that form a station. It means that I like to see a station at its very best, and will often delay visiting when I know it's undergoing refurbishment, for example.
As such, I would like to offer an apology to University station. I was under the impression that it got a big new ticket office last year and, indeed, that was the plan. The University's sport centre hosted events during the Commonwealth Games and so money was allocated to build an entirely new entrance for a station that's already at capacity. Since the Games had come and gone I thought the work was finished. Sadly not. There were delays with extending the platforms, then Liz Truss tanked the economy and the price of everything shot up. Suddenly the budget allocated for the rebuild was no longer sufficient, meaning that there is an almost, but definitely not in any way, new ticket hall at one end of the platform waiting to be finished.
The platform itself is decorated with posters plugging the University's achievements, as you'd expect from the only station in Britain specifically built to serve a university (although, fun fact, if the City Line had been plugged into Central as planned back in the 1970s, there would have been a station built specifically for Liverpool University, and it would've been underground i.e. the best kind of station). When you get up the stairs, though, it becomes clear that it desperately needs work.
This was mid-morning on an ordinary weekday and we were queueing on the footbridge to get out. It was a ridiculous situation, and to be honest, it made me side-eye Transport for West Midlands for waiting until the Commonwealth Games to do anything about it. University is one of the busiest stations on their network and is clearly overcrowded; a solution should've been found years ago.
I finally made it out through the narrow ticket hall and into the street. University was opened in 1978 and its building is very much of that era - red brick and practical, its only moment of excitement being the triangular roof light. You can see its brothers all over the country, as budget cuts and a downturn in passengers saw British Rail build only what they needed to without any fancy fripperies.
The eagle-eyed among you may have spotted that it was a little bit snowy in Birmingham. I'd managed to pick the one day to travel down where there would be a comprehensive blanketing of the white stuff. I picked my way down the hill from the station into the campus, taking delicate, careful steps on the slush and ice formed by the hundreds of students ahead of me. They busied around me, laughing, happy, joyous, some even having snowball fights, while I moved at a fraction of my usual pace in case I slipped and broke a hip.
This makes me sound unnecessarily miserable and grumpy. In truth, I always find walking round university campuses invigorating. They're often well laid out, pedestrianised in the main, with careful architecture and landscaping. They have a pleasing non-corporate air - this is a place of learning, a place where books and computers and minds are in charge. And they have the energy of youth fizzing through it, electric, exciting, a place dominated by active and forward thinking individuals. A campus stroll lifts me up.
Perhaps it's nostalgia for a time when I had no concerns other than reading the odd book and drinking pints. I don't think so. Emerging into Birmingham University's central square, white rather than green today, it felt like a wonderful place to be. A huge open space surrounded by educational buildings and capped with a beautiful clock tower that chimed twelve as I looked at it.
I walked up to the road behind a girl who delighted me with her cliched student appearance. She was wearing pyjama bottoms, with a puffa jacket and a woolly hat crammed over the top; a bottle of cider poked out of her coat pocket. I don't know where she was going or what she'd been up to the night before but I strongly suspected paracetamol would be involved at some point.
Pritchatts Road mixes the university with the real world. Over the years they've bought up houses for offices and lecture areas and the university infirmary, but peppered in among these buildings are expensive detached homes behind driveways who I expect regularly put in complaints about the students. Living by a world-famous, highly respected campus brings prestige and a certain element of desirability, but it also brings nineteen year olds who can't hold their booze peeing up against your gateposts.
The roads were fairly quiet though, through a combination of middle-class luxury and the snow. I was entering Harborne, which has been one of Birmingham's more desirable suburbs for centuries, and so the district is peppered with cricket pitches and tennis courts and private schools. Outside one of them, a lorry put his foot down so that he could soak me and a mother and son with slush, which was wonderful. This kind act of charity also brought to my attention that I had a hole in my walking boot, a hole that would allow more and more slush and water to get in and soak my sock over the course of the day; truly, the driver was a hero.
I reached the end of Harborne High Street but instead of turning down it I pressed on. The road sloped downwards and my already clumpy and hesitant walking became even more so. Ahead of me, an Asian woman barrelled along, talking into her phone (a rather mysterious call from the Far East?) while I clutched at railings to avoid plummeting to my death. I never used to be this cowardly. I think lockdown may have done it for me; it's put fears into my head about being out and about that never used to be there.
I was making this diversion for one specific purpose: pilgrimage. There is a row of houses on North Road, opposite the park, and at one end there is a small commercial unit. In 1986, this entered television history as the home of Acorn Antiques.
Here I was, at a little shop on the outskirts of Manchesterford. Obviously the main sketch itself was filmed at Television Studios but very brief, very terribly directed filmed inserts were made here, along with the title sequence where Miss Babs enters the shop while Mrs Overall puffs a fag in the window. It's a spot of television history and it can be yours.
Acorn Antiques is up for sale, though not with Dorcas & Hincaster, the Manchesterford estate agents, but instead with Wentworth & Rose for £560,000. You could fill the place with antiques for that, and still fit a new cistern into the downstairs cloakroom into the bargain. Sadly, it no longer appears to be called Acorn House, and unforgivably, the estate agents make absolutely no mention of its pivotal spot in Western civilisation. Perhaps because they realise that having dumpy homosexuals turn up on your doorstep to snap selfies isn't really a great selling point.
I was of course thrilled to be here. Victoria Wood is, and always will be, one of the touchstones of my life; she was an inspiration and a legend. Her writing crafted how I see the world and how I write about it myself. She went way too soon, and I'll always regret never being able to somehow meet her and tell her how much she meant to me.
Blimey, oh-fiddley-bob: no pillar box.
Having walked down the hill, I now had to walk back up it, though that didn't feel quite so arduous. Probably because I couldn't see the slide to my certain death while it was behind me. I walked up a road lined with worker's cottages that are probably astonishingly expensive these days and reached the High Street.
Like everywhere else, it was having a tough time, though perhaps not to the same degree. Bensons for Beds had closed and left a large hole in the retail offering, but there was still an M&S Food and a Waitrose, and a jewellers selling Patek Phillipe watches. The main source of disquiet was outside Greggs, which was for some reason closed and locked, denying a group of anxious buyers access to their lunchtime steak bake.
Harborne's proximity to a large proportion of students means that its hospitality sector is thriving, to the extent that the Wikipedia page lists a pub crawl called the Harborne Run - hitting every pub in the street and getting a pint. What else was I to do?
No, of course I didn't do the pub crawl. This blog encourages responsible drinking. Besides, I'm not a pub crawl kind of drunk; I'm a sit in a corner huddled over my pint and muttering to myself kind of drunk. The pub I'd picked was one of the less trendy ones on the street, and I took up a table in the back while the barmaids unfurled their St Patrick's Day decorations from a box. (This weekend, there will be one type of pub celebrating St Patrick's Day, and another type of pub celebrating Mother's Day, and there is no crossover between the two). I gently toasted dry in the warm room. I was wet through from sleet raining down on me, and my sodden foot was icy cold. My glasses steamed up, over and over, as did the screen on my phone.
Finally I finished and walked to the end of the street, past a load of pubs that looked much nicer than the one I'd been in. A beauty salon's window called out Doesn't your wife deserve a massage? while a modern church boasted a sign saying In all things love with an arrow through a heart, a weirdly secular, greetings card message to put next to a full sized crucified Jesus.
By now the sleet was driving, to the extent that it was easier for me to simply take my glasses off than squint through the impacted snow. It means that many of the photos that follow will be of even more amateurish quality than usual as I basically pointed my camera in vaguely the right direction and pushed a button. Sorry.
I ended up on a grand avenue with trees down the centre, the kind of lovely, well-laid out road you can find all over our cities. They were laid out in a time when roads were for pootling, for promenading, an elegant way to travel, and so they were designed to make the experience pleasurable. Now I walk along them and think about all the wasted space. Stick a cycle lane in there, in either direction, and a tram line down the middle. It'll never happen - this country loves its cars way too much - but nice as it was it felt like a lot of dead land that could be used far better.
Selly Oak began to rise up on the horizon with its tall flats and its ordinary semis. It's one of those bits of Birmingham that everyone's heard of, though I knew nothing about it at all. It seemed to be your standard inner city district - tower blocks and shops, paved over driveways to hold the cars, a couple of student halls plonked in the middle. One of those halls, I'm guessing, housed some arts students judging by the snowcatperson outside.
The avenue became a lot busier, and a lot less charming. Houses and flats were wedged in tight. The snow had begun to melt and pooled in dips and cracks in the road. The path no longer crunched as I walked, but instead sloshed.
I bounced across a series of busy roads, exhaustedly taking one dogleg after another of staggered pedestrian crossings. The mud on the grass showed where people had tired of waiting for the green man and simply hurled themselves across the carriageway. I ended up outside a giant Homebase, its car park deserted, and then the delightfully named Battery Retail Park. In the distance were the giant funnels of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, an alien spacecraft crashed into the suburbs.
Ducking round the back of the retail park, past a deserted cycle hire docking station (their time really has passed, hasn't it?) I encountered more enormous student castles and then a canal.
Selly Oak railway station predates its neighbour at University by over a century but it received a similar makeover in the 1970s. Any hint of Victorian elegance was swept away for another red brick shed in amongst a sea of car parking.
The only relic of its heritage is the nearby railway bridge, reconstructed in the 1930s. They were so proud of it they wrote SELLY OAK RAILWAY BRIDGE on the side, which is completely pointless but at the same time quite lovely.
I tried getting a picture with the sign outside, but the combination of snow, an unfriendly set of traffic lights that favoured every single other direction rather than the pedestrian crossing, and a wet and cold and tired body, meant it was staggeringly inadequate. Instead I walked up to the station and took a picture outside the ticket office. If you don't like it, tough.
Once again I'll remind you that I couldn't see a damn thing.
I headed onto the platform for the train home. Two stations might not seem much, but it was a satisfying cross off, even if part of me suspects I'll have to come back again when University's properly finished. Until then, I'll keep myself happy with a delicious mug of home-made sherry, and a couple of sausage dumplings.
That new retail park in Selly Oak is an abomination.
A massively hostile place to negotiate as a pedestrian (with dog-leg pelican crossings, as you mention, across hopelessly narrow pavements). There's no direct footpath to get towards the Bristol Road, although a muddy desire line track has already appeared.
And this in the middle of a densely residential area with students, within 5-10 minutes walking distance of lots of homes.
A fair proportion of roads in Brum suburbs that seem unusually wide *did* indeed have trams running in the centre space back when.
React, react, react.
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