Saturday 23 September 2023



I could steal that bag.

The thought popped into my head, entirely unbidden, even surprising me.  I was stood in the doorway of a train as it slid into the station at Penkridge.  Two women, early fifties, probably on their way back from a very drunken holiday somewhere hot, had got on at Crewe and left their suitcases in the vestibule while they crashed into their seats.  They were pink, plastic, shell suitcases, the MAN luggage tag dangling from the handle, and not too big.  

I realised that they couldn't see their bags.  They could only see the top half of me because of the seat backs.  I could grab one of the suitcases and simply step onto the platform.  The doors would close behind me, the train would take off, and if they were lucky, they'd spot me with the big neon suitcase on their way past.  If they were unlucky, they wouldn't notice until they got to Birmingham and tried to gather their bits together at the terminus.

I could steal that bag.

I didn't, of course.  I'm not a thief.  I don't get any thrill from danger or risk; in fact it fills me with anxiety and makes me shiver.  Also, there was nothing to be gained from stealing a load of dirty underwear and half-empty toiletries.  Maybe a bit of duty free if I was lucky but I didn't particularly fancy rooting through some soiled bras to find it.  Still: I could steal that bag.  A single, clear thought registering in my brain.

I realised I was in an odd mood.

Penkridge was always going to be a one off trip.  It's a small market town in Staffordshire, a strange stop for the Liverpool-Birmingham service; if there were any other trains passing through I'm certain London North Western would scrub it from its calling list.  It's neither a commuter town nor a destination in its own right; it's simply somewhere that had the good fortune to get its railway station on a route between two of the biggest cities in the country.

It has some very fancy LED next train indicators.  I've not seen ones like this before, with actual colours and different fonts; I was impressed, which shows you what a low bar you need to cross to impress me.  I am not Shania Twain.  I got off the train behind a tired looking mum and her two kids.  She looked like she was absolutely desperate for them to go back to school; halfway down the ramp to the car park she suddenly yelled "well why don't you ASK HIM?" in response to their incessant chatter.  She was not having a fun day out.

I headed down to the car park from the viaduct, past the boarded up station building.  You can stick as many fancy shutters on it as you like folks, it won't make this into a Swiss cottage.  As usual I sighed that the building wasn't being used for anything at all.  If you really don't want to put a ticket office in it, rent it out as a pub, or a community centre, or turn it into a house.  A boarded up shell benefits nobody.  I took my spot under the sign, next to a Slimming World a-board (Yes you can!), and did the selfie.

My hair is reaching "background artist on the planet Vulcan" levels now.  I need to get it cut.

September was being September.  We'd come out of the heatwave, that unbearable week of sweaty sheets and still air, and the rain had finally come, but it was in fits and starts.  It struggled to be anything longer than a shower.  And it was still sticky; the rain wasn't enough to take the edge off.  People were wearing shorts with anoraks, light summer dresses under umbrellas, t-shirts and jeans.  Nobody knew how to dress.  

I'd risked it and come out in shorts and a shirt.  There was a jacket in my bag, a little light one, but I really didn't want to wear it.  I could feel the heat sliding over me and I wanted as much cool breeze and moisture there to offset it.

I crossed the main road through the town, the A449, past the farming supply store with straightforward low prices.  There's something about that straightforward I don't like, something a bit Brexity, a bit common sense and silent majority, but that may just be me the uncultured townie not knowing the country ways.  I also gritted my teeth at a run of tweeness - Golden Oldies antique furniture next to Dickens of A Tea Shoppe next to Trudie's Sweet Shop - and hoped that Penkridge wasn't a market town theme park, built for tourists and not real people.

In fairness, it was a real, proper town with a narrow high street adorned with pubs and grocers.  A butcher on the corner was "Celebrating 40 Years - 2015", while a beauty salon was "Celebrating 10 Years - 2014" and really guys, I think it's time to take the signs down now.  The Co-op had closed, to relocate to a larger store out of the town centre, but beyond that it seemed in pretty good shape, with a nice mix and few empty spots.  I crossed over to the church hall so I could have a good look at the noticeboard, something I always do in a strange town.  It gives you a little glimpse of the community.

Slimmer's World were here too, plus Zumba and social mornings.  There was a whist drive every Saturday and a brass band performance and Senior Boogie-Fit With Claire on Wednesday mornings.  And there was... oh dear.

If you're not terminally online, you might be thinking, "oh, Matt le Tissier, that nice footballer for Southampton.  How lovely."  If you've dipped into the cesspit of human depravity that is Twitter, however, you'll know that Matt is a Covid sceptic, anti-vaxxer, CBD hawker, and general GB News favourite.  The other day he retweeted Laurence Fox protesting Russell Brand's video rants being demonetised so... that's a lot.  And here he was in Penkridge - guests of the Round Table no less.  I did wonder if they knew what they were booking.  They were hoping for nice anecdotes about the FA Cup and instead they got a Powerpoint presentation on why the 15 Minute City is one step away from the Government locking you in a box and throwing you in a river.

At the end of the road was the Market Place, bounded by a primary school, a pub, and some delightful cottages and houses.  The actual markets relocated to a purpose built space by the river, so they naturally turned the square into a car park.  You could've had a nice open plaza here, bit of cobbling, some outdoor seating for the pub, but then where would people put their Mondeos when they wanted to pick up a Chinese?  You don't need nice open spaces really, they don't turn a profit.

I passed the community library - "community" because it's run by volunteers, rather than trained professionals demanding a living wage to provide a service, and I'm sorry, these last few paragraphs are making me quite depressed - and got caught up in a knot of sixth form boys noisily heading into town.  They had new haircuts and all wore suits and I thanked the lord that I hadn't had to do my A-levels while strapped into a collar and tie.  I went to a Sixth Form College, and so we were treated like mini adults and allowed to wear whatever we wanted; this being the early nineties, I wore nothing but flannel over band t-shirts, jeans, and Dr Martens boots.  So did everyone else, in fact.  We'd created our own uniform.

I turned off the road at The Boat pub and descended to the canalside.  There wasn't really much to retain me in Penkridge - the pubs weren't even open - and I didn't fancy getting on the next train home.  Instead I decided to walk north to Stafford along the Staffordshire and Worcester Canal.  It was a fair old walk, about six miles, but I figured this would be my last opportunity for a proper stroll before the really bad weather set in.  I wasn't going to be able to mince down a towpath in driving October storms.  

The homes along the canal addressed it in two ways.  Across the river, where there wasn't a path, a mobile home park embraced the waterside living.  Every caravan had a terrace, or a patio, or a wooden seating area, as close as it could get to the canal.

On the side I was walking, however, the homeowners hid behind high fences and walls.  They guarded their privacy and their yards from prying eyes.  You caught a snatch of grass, a hint of tree between the slats of the fence, then there was a locked gate.  I can imagine it feels less than secure, having a publicly accessible path running at the rear of your home, but it was a shame that the only way they could take in the watery view was to go into an upstairs bedroom.  One house bucked the trend.  They had put out a bench by the towpath, with a sign inviting you to take a rest, a lovely little touch of humanity.  It was too early in the walk for me to sit down but I gave it an approving tap as I passed.

For a while, there were moored barges, their owners starting the day lazily.  A woman sat on the open back with a cigarette and a cup of tea.  A man mopping the roof from the path.  Another jumping down with his dog, ready for the first walk.  A lock closed off the section of canal and separated it from the next.  Now I was on my own.

I'll admit it now: I wanted to be alone.  Sometimes I get the urge.  The need to be away from everyone.  It's hard to do, in this tiny packed island we live in, but sometimes I need to escape.  To walk without any thoughts.  To stroll without a deadline or an obligation.  To escape.

I was soon passing under the M6.  It's remarkable how many times I've walked under motorways since I started collecting this map.  The Midlands are a knot of highways and we're all forced to submit to them.  I feel like eighty per cent of my blog posts have involved the phrase "viaduct" or "underpass" or "concrete".  The strangest part is that I'm following public transport the whole time, and yet I keep encountering huge road projects.  Beneath the motorway everything went dark.  There weren't any lights to help guide the pedestrians or the boat users.  It was a slash of black, a walk through a void, with distant sunlight burning at either end in pockets of hope.

I kicked a wayward stone into the canal and delighted in the satisfying "plop" as it entered the water.  The grass tickled my ankles, made them wet; the sun hadn't dried off the morning's dew.  It began to rain.  Slow, lazy rain, half-arsed, soaking into my shirt, but it was still too warm for a coat and I didn't feel like stopping.  It only looked like a shower anyway.

A boatyard promised canal tours and boat building; they'd buy your boat for cash.  A man emerged from one moored alongside the towpath.  He was rough and dirty, his hair a mess, a scraggly beard and a thick grey jumper with a hole in the stomach.  He was carrying a shower tray and looked surprised to see someone walking here.  Then it was another lock, with the towpath descending alongside, its cobbles slick with the rain.  I walked gingerly, to try and avoid a fall, but no, of course there was a skid.  The one time there was a person to see me and I slipped.

For a while, the path was shadowed by the road, separated from the carriageway by a low fence.  They split apart again and the traffic returned to being a sound.  Trees curled down over me, some of them bright with berries.  Autumn was coming in and they were offering up their seeds for next year.  I squashed them under my boots.

Acton Trussel - which sounds like a 1930s gentlemen's outfitters - appeared across the canal.  There were a few houses on my side, mostly farm house looking buildings, but across the way there were 1970s detached houses.  I could see the odd BMW on the drive and conservatories giving an all-weather view of the water. 

I paused under a bridge to wipe down my glasses and the lens of the camera.  The rain had become a fine mist.  The air was wet, a general clinging moisture, so that I seemed to be getting drenched from every side.  It wasn't worth wearing my jacket now.  All it would do was be another wet layer.  I stood on the bank and took a few breaths.  It was an hour since I'd left Penkridge and my mind was starting to turn in on itself.  The canal views weren't captivating enough to distract me; it was a single path without deviation.  My brain whispered to me.

Fortunately, I found a way to concentrate my mind shortly afterwards.  A grey boat pulled away from the bank about ten yards ahead of me and I realised, to my horror, that he was going the same way as me.  We were going to accompany one another - him never going fast enough to leave me behind, me never slow enough to fall back.

I burned with hatred for that boat.  It was ruining my day.  I couldn't relax or enjoy the scenery because of that boat.  I couldn't be alone with my thoughts because they were soundtracked by a ugga-ugga-ugga of a diesel engine.  A few minutes before, my thoughts had been going to some wildly dangerous places, so in a way the noise was doing me a favour by drowning them out.  That wasn't the point.  I raged inside, absolutely livid with the boat and its pilot.

After a good mile of me muttering insults at the oblivious boater, we reached Deptmore Lock, and I realised I'd be free of him.  I strode past as he moored up to wait his turn, my nose high in the air, revelling in the victory in this competition he'd had no idea he was in.  On the other side of the lock though: dammit.  A boat was again pulling away, this one crewed by a pair of retiree couples, noisy and boisterous and having a whale of a time.  Absolute bastards.  I couldn't face being accompanied again so I broke into a record breaking stride.  I pushed myself as far as I could to get away from them.  I concentrated so hard on burning away, I didn't notice I'd left them behind a long time ago.  I paused for breath after a while and realised I was quite alone again.

I was on a part of the canal where few walkers ever came.  The path was overgrown and my bare legs were stroked and stung by nettles.  I tried to remember; is it better to walk forcefully through them or to try and edge round them?  There's that phrase, grabbing the nettle; does that mean if I go quickly the stings won't work?  Whatever I did, it didn't matter.  Soon my shins were numbed from the onslaught.  

Once again, my side of the canal was wild and unkempt while across the way it had been civilised.  Stafford Boat Club, a marina of barges and a discreet clubhouse behind tended hedges, was followed by a public park.  I could see dog walkers through the trees and empty playgrounds.  On my side, an information board informed me that I was by the Radford Meadows, a wetland where the River Penk flooded and provided breeding grounds for birds and wildlife.  I'd noticed the gap in Stafford on the map, a pause separating the town into two dumbbells of population, and it was interesting to see the reason developers hadn't swept in and colonised the land.

Humans were making themself known in other ways.  There was a neat pile of beer cans and a pair of boxer shorts tucked into the long grass, writing a story I'm not sure I wanted to read, and then the muddy track became concrete.  It felt unsafe after the rough walk of the last miles; slick with rain and slightly angled towards the water.  I pictured myself tipping into it and vanishing under the brown surface, and the dark thoughts swelled up again.  I was glad to spot a car showroom and then, beyond that, steps to take me up to the road.

I appeared on the A34 beside a large pub and I was suddenly acutely aware of what a mess I looked.  Soaking wet, covered in filth below the knees, my hair slicked against my head.  I looked like I'd actually been in the canal and had pulled myself out.  I paused in a bus shelter, trying to see if there was a way to make myself look half decent but no: I was a lost cause.  I pressed on into town.

The main road was lined with 1930s houses, interspersed with newer developments.  I had to take a major detour around a roundabout because it had been built to access a retail park and the developers weren't really interested in pedestrians coming in.  The number of spaces on the sign that were unoccupied by shop names made me think they shouldn't be quite so fussy.

Beyond the railway was a building site.  This had been the home of General Electric for many years, a large factory just off the Lichfield Road.  However, in 2019, GE's parent entity the Sheinhardt Wig Company consolidated its manufacturing to one site in Rugby, and now this is going to be 350 new homes in a development called "Victoria Gate".  I'm not sure why it's going to be called Victoria Gate, but if you want to live between an A road and a mainline railway this is the spot for you.  I don't know where you'll work, though.  

Perhaps you could work in a shop, as I passed a second out of town retail park, and wondered if Stafford Council actually wanted its town centre to survive.  There was a run of small hotels and B&Bs and then a convent nursing home.  I'm not sure if this means it's a nursing home for elderly nuns, or if the nuns do the caring; I hope it's the former, because from what I know about nuns (i.e. I have seen The Blues Brothers) they're not the most empathetic sorts. 

I crossed over a gyratory - sorry, island - and marvelled at the distinctive spire of the Stafford Baptist Church.  Rather than being a simple tower, it was made of exposed beams, as though the tiles had been stripped away.  It was very distinctive and modern, so I was surprised to learn that it's original to the building, and dates from 1896.  The architect was from Birmingham, Ewan Harper, and I was impressed by his style.

I'd reached the town centre proper now.  A 1930s cinema stood empty.  The posters on the outside - Jungle Cruise and Candyman - showed it had been open relatively recently, but I guessed that Covid destroyed its business.  I must admit, I've only seen three films at the cinema since lockdown: Barbie (once), See How They Run (once, because my mum wanted to see it) and No Time To Die (seven times).  Admittedly this is partly because as I've got older I've developed an intense dislike for other human beings and being crammed in a room full of them as they laugh and talk and eat and breathe is intolerable to me now.  I passed Stafford's Civic Centre - I love a Civic Centre - but I skirted the town proper.

I was in a bad mood.  I was wet and miserable and I wanted to go home.  I passed the town's old mill wheel and entered Victoria Park which was, I will admit, lovely.  On a summer's day it must be absolutely wonderful, with its lawns falling down to the river, and its bowling greens, and even an aviary full of cockatoos and budgies.  On that miserable day, however, the shelters were mainly occupied with students from the nearby college eating their lunch, and the paths were empty.

The last time I was in Stafford, with Ian and Robert a whole eleven years ago, I was extremely uncharitable about the station.  In fact I called it a shithole.  That was too harsh.  Admittedly, it's no St Pancras - but what is?  It has some nice lines and shapes.  The porte-cochere has that pleasing upward curve - even if it's now inaccessible to vehicles, therefore losing its entire purpose - and who doesn't love a massive Double Arrow on a tower?

It is, effectively, Coventry on a budget.  The interior isn't great - it's been "modernised", so a Starbucks has been wedged in one side, and there are signs and screens cluttering up the space.  On one side was a "customer information" desk - a small standee like they have in supermarkets to give out free samples, staffed by two women in uniform.  The refurb was done when Virgin Trains ran the station so of course that means there's red and grey everywhere, completely inappropriately.  Richard Branson should be punished for many reasons - he unleashed Tubular Bells on the world, let's not forget - but his insistence on splashing that brash red all over stations where it absolutely didn't work is pretty high up the list.  

It distracted from some of the parts of the station that were pleasing - the dark wood ceilings, the broad staircases with their concrete walls, the sheer efficiency of the place.  You could easily get around from one spot to the next. 

I really, really hate children's artwork in public places.  Save that shit for your mum's fridge.  

I paused in the toilets to swap my soaking wet shirt for a dry t-shirt I'd thought to pack.  Instantly my mood lightened.  Never underestimate the power of the weather to affect your mood.  Well, the weather, and a generally gloomy disposition that doesn't need much provoking to go down a dark alley.  

I think my hair might actually look better there than it did in the first photo.


FreddyP said...

Beautifully written as always, Scott.

Stuart R said...

But as you stepped onto the platform at Penkridge for the second time that day, your eye was caught by the sight of a pink suitcase, sitting forlorn and unloved!