Tuesday 30 May 2023


Regular readers (hello you!) may be a little discombobulated at this point.  "Aston?" you may be thinking.  "Didn't he already do Aston?  Are you telling me we're going to get all this nonsense for a second time?"

Well, yes, you're right.  I have already been to Aston (though back then, it had a Network West Midlands sign rather than a TfWM one, so at least it's slightly different).  I wasn't here to collect the station, specifically, however; I was here to visit an icon.

One thing the recent (brilliant, thrilling) Eurovision coverage of Liverpool hammered home is just how photogenic and famous the city is.  Drone shot after drone shot took in the landmarks.  It almost became embarrassing; yes, here's the Pier Head, and the Liver Building; now let's have a look at St George's Hall, or the Cavern; quick zoom past the cathedrals and now a break bumper based around the Albert Dock.  There was an embarrassment of instantly recognisable, beautiful buildings to take in and appreciate.

Birmingham, I'm afraid, doesn't quite have the same appeal.  What's famous in Birmingham?  The BT Tower, which is a less attractive version of the one in London?  The Library, which is only a few years old and still unfavourably compared with the old one?  A shiny Selfridges?  You don't really have an embarrassment of riches.  

Birmingham's most famous landmark isn't a building at all - it's a road.  Junction 6 of the M6, in fact, at the point where it meets the A38(M).  This is Spaghetti Junction, or, as it's known to its mum, the Gravelly Hill Interchange.  Five layers of roads, two layers of railway and a canal all contrive to swing upwards and under and around one another.

I walked to it from Aston station and soon disappeared underneath the concrete flyovers.  As you'd expect round here, the car is king.  Pedestrians are hived off to the side, forced to wait between long gaps at pedestrian crossings.  The road took me towards Salford Circus, a glamorous name for a big roundabout, but that would mean I wouldn't experience Spaghetti Junction proper so I left the street and headed down to a canal towpath.

In the countryside, canal towpaths are a shortcut through nature.  The combination of water and vegetation is soothing.  In a city, it becomes a danger.  You're plunged onto a narrow, single path, no escape, no way out, adorned with graffiti and hidden.  

This canal path was even darker.  The concrete of the roadways lowered the ceiling to almost touching height.  It sucked out the light, creating stretches of deep blackness, broken up by huge columns that concealed the view ahead.  It was disturbing and dark.  Now and then hatches had been punched into the roadway to give some light to the canal below, but when it illuminated graffiti that looked like a message from the Riddler it wasn't exactly reassuring.

I was alone on the path, which was fine with me.  This wasn't a place where I wanted to be accompanied.  The view soon opened up, and I was taking in the sweep of roadways, the curves of access routes.

I began to feel a new emotion: awe.  This was a tremendous achievement.  The way the roads took you from one level to the next, never making you stop, always moving.  Over the canal, under the railway, over another road.  I pictured the engineers back in the days before computers planning this.  Compasses, slide rules, T-squares.  Then the pouring of concrete, the thousands of work hours, the absolute precision needed to make each slab connect and work.  Each pillar at just the right height to accommodate its cap.

Alone, under those unforgiving concrete views, I should've felt vulnerable.  Instead I felt a weird sense of pride.  Humanity has blighted this planet, corrupted it, changed it and destroyed it.  But it has done so through its own genius and Spaghetti Junction was, to me, an expression of the human genius.  It was an incredible achievement.  What a piece of work is a man.  

Almost as if the universe wanted to remind me that actually, humans are awful after all, at the exact moment I was marvelling at man's genius I encountered a tribute to its cruelty: a memorial to DC Michael Swindells, a policeman killed on the towpath.  There was a fresh wreath, because it turned out I was there one day after the anniversary of his death.  

The path swung upwards and over the canal via a small bridge, accompanied by a second that carried electrical cables and warned me of death if I got too close.  I saw another person at that point, a shirtless man with his dog; he looked unwell and unhappy.  I took the path under more flyovers, through a compound of road workers in hi-vis who watched me pass curiously.

I got a moment of panic that there was no way out of here; up ahead was a firmly locked gate.  But then I spotted the pedestrian exit via a kissing gate, and I emerged into the car park of the Midlands Greek & Cypriot Association, founded after the invasion of the island by Turkey.  It's a building that combines community facilities, a school and a church, plus a cafe and a sports field.  As I passed, two men in suits emerged from the inside and began picking up litter.

Beyond was a small estate of flats and maisonettes and then the stretch of green that was Brookvale Park, with a playground and then a couple of closed kiosks that had been politely restored.  They were somewhat overshadowed by a pair of steel columns, glinting in the sun, designed by the sculptor Tim Tolkien (great nephew, since you ask).  They're nice enough, but if I'm honest... I prefer the kiosks.  They're less fussy, more charming.

From there it was a steep climb on terraced streets up the hill.  I'm going to go out on a limb here and say this isn't the most charming of Birmingham's districts.  There was a meanness to the houses, an attitude in the way even the cars were parked.  One of them had a bumper sticker with the FakeTaxi logo on it, something I have only recently learned is a series of pornographic films.  I wonder why you'd put that on your car?  Isn't that like declaring your devotion to masturbation?  Why not stick a sign saying "Massive Wanker" on your parcel shelf?

The road undulated, down, then up, and I found myself walking behind a large lady with a headscarf, carrying a bag of compost.  She dangled it from one hand, lazily, tired.  Across the street, a quite patently stoned man spotted her.  He was stood on the pavement outside his house, swaying gently, the joint between his fingers.  He called out to her.


"Yeah," she replied, noncommittally.



Gravelly Hill station was tucked down below the street and, quite unforgivably, didn't have a totem to its name.  There were signs affixed to the brickwork pointing you in the direction of your platform but there wasn't a single prominent sign to attract your attention from the street.  I had to snatch a picture with one of the platform signs in the few moments before my train arrived.

Note that it's is called the "home of Spaghetti Junction".  They won't even call it the Gravelly Hill Interchange on a sign that already has Gravelly Hill on it!

The briefest of journeys brought me to Erdington station, the next on the line and the last uncollected station between New Street and Four Oaks.  Another ramp took me down to street level.  While Gravelly Hill had no street presence at all, Erdington was overburdened.  Allow me to present the railway bridge sign:

and the totem version:

Christ but I've got a big square head.

There was also this, which I am assuming is some kind of artwork but, as is usual for the West Midlands, they didn't bother with any actual interpretation boards to tell you what it was or who it was by.  Perhaps it was a piece of art, perhaps it was just a large stone they couldn't move out the way.  Who can tell.

The station was in a row of shops that hinted at the varied ethnic mix for the area - salons with black hair a speciality, a supermarket with a dozen national flags laser printed on its front, a Turkish barber and a Thai masseuse.  On the corner, Tyler's Kitchen offered Jamaican mutton curry and rice and peas while promising that everything it served was 100% Halal.  I darted across the wide junction, where an imposing building was now a wedding house, and walked past terraces and closed pubs.

"Fatagain" City Scaffolding?  Fat Again?  Ok.

At Marsh Lane, the road suddenly opened out into a dual carriageway in the way that Birmingham's streets seem to do without thinking.  It's a city based entirely around cars and it can't help itself; every now and then it panics and bulldozes a highway through a residential to make sure its drivers aren't delayed for more than eight seconds.  This was at least a green dual carriageway, with no-mow May in full effect and giving it an almost pastoral feel.

A man came out of one of the houses that lined the street and walked to the pavement - across his neighbour's front garden.  There was something about him that radiated bad news.  A general vibe of unpleasantness.  He gave me a look over his shoulder as he reached the roadside, one that was just a little too long, and I felt a quiver of anxiety.  He paused to light a cigarette and I took the opportunity to pass him but I could feel him walking behind me.  Fortunately, I walk very fast, and I was soon leaving him behind, but I will admit that when he shouted across the road to his mates outside a corner shop I was fully expecting them to join him in ambushing me.

A Co-op that hasn't been upgraded to the new branding is a sure sign that a district isn't at its best.  Head office are clearly wavering over whether to spend the money on it, or close it altogether.  Erdington's centre, meanwhile, was a five-way crossroads, surrounded by shops and a pub and a cinema turned bingo hall.  One of the stores had a "night hatch", for service until 3am: a handwritten post it in the corner of the window said We do not serve single's Please do not ask, which gave me a flashback to the pupils at school who'd buy a single fag from the dodgy newsagent round the corner to smoke ostentatiously round the back of the Rondy.

You may, of course, be wondering where the hell I was going.  With my last station collected I could've got back on the train and gone home.  That wouldn't have felt right though, so I'd planned a final, fourth station to visit.  Unfortunately I'd gone the wrong way.  Halfway down Slade Road I realised I was on my way back to Gravelly Hill and, no offence, that was not top of my wish list.  I hate to turn back on myself so I cut down a side road, getting a brief vista of Birmingham from a distance, and then I walked to the edge of Brookvale Park - yes, that exact same park I walked past earlier.

I followed the outer road round the park, north this time.  There were dog walkers and parents with pushchairs.  One car pulled up and three women in full burqa got out; their driver, meanwhile, was a man wearing a t-shirt that said Show me a trick and I'll give you a treat.  The sun was warm and I felt lazily content.

The park gave way to another dual carriageway and I was back on the right path, skirting the Witton Cemetery and encountering the M6 once again.  There was an enormous dead space beneath it, acres of grey tarmac with discarded fast food boxes hinting at its night time uses.  I don't know what you can do with these big empty lots in our cities - they're such a waste of real estate.  Too dark for vegetation, too grimy and noisy for civilised life, instead existing as a void to be filled by people who are drawn to the edges of our society.  

Alongside the viaduct were industrial units, garages, warehouses; the businesses we tuck away where we don't want to see them.  Radios pumped out music to drown out the clatter of metal and tools.  There was a scent of oil and burning.  I ducked down a side road and there was the canal again, the same one I'd followed earlier, though somehow it looked even shabbier now in the open than it had hidden beneath Spaghetti Junction.

I was now headed into that most dreadful of places: the business park.  Unfriendly signs warned me that although I could walk on their footpaths, they'd really like to remind me that they were only letting me do this out of the goodness of their hearts, and at any point I could be bundled into a van and taken away to the public highway where I belonged.  To show just how special their hallowed paths were, they weren't paved like normal streets, but were instead made up of bricks.  This probably seemed extremely classy in the 80s when they were laid but decades of encroachment by the roots of the surrounding trees was making them pop up in mounds.

I walked on, the only person in amongst the trucks, past a factory that had its No Smoking On Site sign in both English and German, which gave it a pleasingly stentorian tone.  Rauchen Verboten sounds so much more frightening.  The charming scent of a council tip signalled that I was back on public roads, and then there was a set of allotments, with an Asian woman pausing over her spade to enjoy the sun on her face.  This felt like an area where things were hidden away; there was also a custody suite for the police.

On the main road again, there were grimy empty patches of land, and signs pointing to the sports facilities hidden behind the houses.  A billboard with a cheery smiling man in a rubber ring asked "Back in the dating pool?  It might be hard, but safe sex is easy."  Then there was the greyhound stadium.  I'm increasingly surprised that greyhound racing still exists.  It seems like something from another era, like cock fighting, something we collectively agreed wasn't really on and quietly dropped.  At its height, there were more than seventy greyhound stadia, but now it's down to twenty.  (A quick look at the Greyhound Board of Great Britain website tells me that there aren't any racecourses left in the north west, with the nearest course to Liverpool in Sheffield, which I'm weirdly pleased about).

Perry Barr seems to be hedging its bets a little, advertising its speedway races as much as its dog races.  It's also starting to look a little out of place because, it turns out, Perry Barr has had a heck of a makeover since I was last here.  This wasn't a surprise to me.  The main athletics stadium for the Commonwealth Games is up the road so Perry Barr was the main point of arrival for visitors; obviously it was going to be spruced up.  Even when I'd visited in 2019, there was a protest about the demolition of the flyovers at this point (only in Birmingham do people complain about flyovers getting knocked down).  

I'd not realised how comprehensive the redevelopment was.  Suddenly there were tall blocks of flats, good ones.  The traffic had been calmed and cycle and bus lanes were introduced.  There was actual greenery.  It was a complete transformation.

Key to this has been the rebuilding of Perry Barr station.  When I visited in 2019 I didn't mince my words - I called it ugly.  Its sole moment of charm was a British Rail era sign that had somehow clung on into the 21st century.  The whole thing had been knocked down and rebuilt to a design that was eventually worth having - TfWM's first attempt was so ugly there was a huge public outcry - it seems people want their railway stations to be beautiful and welcoming and not to look like a portakabin that slipped off the back of a lorry.

The new design is bright and airy and clean.  The weathered metal on the outside has got silhouettes in it to make it look interesting.  You can walk from one side to the other, unencumbered, and take a lift down to the platforms.  There's a ticket office.  There's even a pedestrianised station square, with seating that was actually being used by people, something that normally only happens in CGI renders.

In short, the new Perry Barr station is fantastic.  You see, Birmingham?  You can do it when you try.  Well done.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant as always thank you Scott.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, as always. I always look forward to your 'write ups'. Keep them coming.

David B said...

Good to see you back. Intrigued by the offhand observation that "there was a police custody suite" among some allotments. Really?

Jack Kirby said...

The artwork is Insect & Celtic Cross by Ronald Rae, installed in 1998. The Celtic cross relates to the artist's roots, the insect is carved at equal size to the cross to show respect for life on all levels. Unusually for Centro it was a purchase rather than a commission, and I can't deduce a link with Erdington immediately.

Scott Willison said...

Thanks for the nice comments folks. Especially thanks to Jack for that info about the artwork. I find it deeply irritating that they don't tell you these things while you're out and about. The artwork is right there, in front of you, making you question it! Put up a sign for the artist it's only polite!