Tuesday 5 December 2023

Ordinary World

Sometimes I come back from a trip out on the trains positively champing at the bit to type it up.  I'm almost in a fugue state, hammering away at the keyboard, memories and impressions flowing out of me.  Sometimes, however, I return from a trip and think: what am I going to say?  Not everywhere can be inspiring.  Some places simply exist.

Welcome to Landywood.

I'd like to make it clear that there's nothing actually wrong with Landywood.  It's a perfectly adequate station.  But that's all: adequate.  It has two platforms.  A couple of shelters.  Next train indicators.  No station building or lifts, just access from a pair of side roads.  It has a metal sculptural topper on its totem:

So that's nice.  As is seemingly always the way with art on the West Midlands network, I can find absolutely no information about who designed or commissioned it, so my apologies to the artist involved.  Landywood does have a sign pointing to it which is in ALL CAPS, which is horrible, but that's as notable as it gets.

It is, in short, a perfectly ordinary halt on the British rail network.  Which is fine if all you're doing is using it to catch a train, but I'm trying to extract content for a not even slightly popular blog here.

Actually, there's one slightly interesting fact about Landywood station: it's not in Landywood.  That's a village to the south.  The station is actually close to the centre of Great Wyrley, a mining village redeveloped into a satellite suburb in the Sixties for the workers in the city.  Avenues of semis and bungalows on roads called Sunbeam Drive and Paddock Lane curl their way from a small low shopping centre with a Co-op and a local Italian restaurant.

The Davy Lamp pub, constructed along with the rest of the estate as the hub, was closed and gone now.  Not quite gone: it had been converted into a Bargain Booze, so the local alcoholics will have to take their cheap drink back to their homes rather than enjoying it with convivial company.  Maddeningly, the signs for the old pub remain on the side of the building, a reminder of what you once had, like keeping your ex's name after they left you.

A Royal Mail van pulled up on the pavement as I walked by, and the scary looking postwoman clambered out and stood on the kerb.  She bellowed at the beauty salon in her thick Brummie accent: "I've got a couple of parcels for you!", because round here, apparently the delivery folk don't deign to walk the ten yards to your front door.  I wouldn't have argued with her, mind, she looked like she could crush me with a single thumb, so I scurried back across the supermarket car park and down the side of the station.

The streets were silent, as you'd expect in a suburb in the middle of a weekday.  One house was a building site as its owners converted it from a perfectly acceptable 1960s bungalow into a whitewashed facsimile of a new build.  The roof now had windows for its loft conversion and I once again wondered why someone would buy a bungalow and then put in a second storey; can you not just buy a two-floor house in the first place?  Two storey houses are usually cheaper than bungalows.  A fat cat wandered out in front of me and miaowed for attention.  I bent down and murmured hello puss, but got only a small nuzzle in before it realised I wasn't going to give it food and wandered off into a garden.

It was all very familiar.  It was like wandering round the streets I grew up on, a nice little Sixties run of homes that had front gardens and driveways and a quiet sense of pride that their occupiers were on the ladder up.  The countryside brushed up against the homes, close enough to play in and make you feel rural, but distant enough that you had all mod cons.  I'd cycled down these roads, chatted aimlessly for hours in them, gone to school on these pavements, and the fact that mine were a hundred miles away from here didn't make them any different.  

Soon I was in Landywood proper, with its older cottages and a narrow road without a pavement.  A Methodist Church with beams stood at the side, its noticeboard plugging its coffee morning ("be assured of a warm welcome"), its minister and church chief contact both women - a fact that used to be so unusual they made a whole sitcom about it, and now it's pretty much the norm.  

As so often when I'm in the West Midlands, I was headed for a canal.  The Wyreley and Essington Canal twisted its way through the countryside of South Staffordshire for decades but, as with a lot of waterways in the region, it never made much money.  After nationalisation the canal was one of the first to be closed and now most of it is unnavigable.  Branches have become clogged and abandoned.  At Landywood, the route has been turned into a country park.

I sank beneath the road and onto a small path that ran along the narrow, stagnant canal.  With no flow to reenergise it the water had become clogged with plants and debris.  Trees tumbled into the course and stayed there to rot.  Meanwhile, the towpath was awash with damp fallen leaves, concealing a thick layer of mud.

I ducked branches and pushed through bushes.  My heavy boots squelched in the mess.  It was dark and silent, the grey sky flat between the branches of the trees.  Beneath a bridge, the rain had caused the canal to burst its banks, almost covering the path.  I splashed through.

Ducks swam in the algae-choked water.  They gently moved away from me as I approached, casual, not bothered, until they realised I was coming a bit too fast and suddenly burst into the air to escape, leaving clear patches in the green behind them.

After a while I reached another bridge, but this one had been filled in.  The top of a stone sluice was visible above the waterline, and I could hear it running on the other side, but I was forced up and over the road, past a sign from the Council that informed me how many steps I was taking walking the towpath.

There was a man up ahead.  He had binoculars raised to his face and was staring intently at something in the distance.  At his feet was a Pomeranian, politely waiting for him to finish.  I wondered what had caught his eye: a rare bird?  A distant aircraft?  A farmer's wife getting changed at an open window?  I considered asking him, but realised he might actually tell me, so I hugged the far side of the path and left him to it.  He was completely absorbed and barely noticed me.  The Pomeranian watched me go by.

The path dipped under the railway line - I hung around hoping for a train to go over, but was out of luck - and then there were a couple of carved wooden seats.  A Tesco carrier hung from the tree between them, bloated with rain water, while the badly covered graffiti on one post informed me that a named local "is gay".  Normally I'd think this was a bit of homophobic abuse, but this is the 2020s; people are a lot more up front about their sexualities.  It was entirely possible that this was an advert.  Perhaps Grindr hasn't reached this particular corner of the countryside.

A bend in the path and the vista opened up.  The canal widened to reed-filled ponds.  Signs of human abuse became more and more frequent; there was an empty beer can in the hedge every metre along, running the gamut of cheap but potent brands - Special Brew, Skol, Carling.  There was even the packaging for a four pack of K Cider, a drink I didn't even know still existed.  It used to be inhaled by the kind of student who thought they were too classy for Diamond White but still wanted to get very drunk very fast.  I heard a train go by, screened by the trees, and then I was under the line, where more graffiti proclaimed Aryan and Hola I'm Back and a particularly dopey individual had signed their full name, including surname, and put a heart underneath.

The path ended with a dog leg path, designed to stop cyclists from getting access, and concrete blocks to try and minimise fly tipping.  I was chucked out at the side of the road beside a sign telling me I'd reached Bloxwich.  There was a Jet garage with its own Londis - no doubt the source of all those cheap beer cans - and then Bloxwich North station was hiding under a bridge.  There was another piece of art on the totem - a waterwheel, I'm assuming.  Seriously West Midlands Trains, just a little plaque, that's all I need.

Some genius had decided to put the ticket machine right in front of the station sign, meaning you could only actually see it from a limited angle.  I wedged myself in for the legally required selfie.

I went down to the platform - past a Millwall sticker and a sign from West Midlands Police warning me not to loiter because there had been complaints - and went into the shelter to wait for my train and eat my sandwich.  It's that time of year when the stores wheel out their festive offerings and I eat them all.  I'm an absolute sucker for a limited edition, fully aware that I'm going to get my heart broken when I find one that's incredibly tasty and they whisk it off the shelves on Boxing Day.  This was a Christmas Club from Marks, which had the twin benefits of being both tasty and giving a portion of the profits to Shelter, allowing me to feel ever so slightly virtuous as I stuffed my face.

The trip to Bloxwich itself - no compass direction needed - took only a couple of minutes; indeed the guard didn't even have time to work her way down the carriage to check my ticket before we'd arrived.  (Once again I spent an entire day out on the trains and not one single individual checked my ticket the whole time.  I'm a fool buying them.  I could save a bomb just winging it.  Of course I'd never do that, and I can assure you that any Ko-Fi contributions are spent on train related antics and not a summer house in Antigua.)

Bloxwich's Wikipedia page is really down on the place: it has an entire section headed "Deprivation".  I prepared myself for the worst.  Once I'd snapped a picture of the totem art...

(is it swords?) ...I made my way into the town centre.  Something immensely cheering happened on the way in.  A woman stopped me and asked me for directions.  Normally I'm useless at this, nervous and forgetful and obviously, I wasn't a local, but she was asking me where the station was.  "Up there and to the left," I was able to tell her authoritatively, and she thanked me and went on, leaving me filled with pride at having been able to assist her.  It's a tiny thing, but it made Bloxwich for me, because after that I was in a great mood.

As such, I may have viewed the town through a joyous filter, because it certainly didn't seem that bad to me.  There was a church and a tidy green with some public art, a library that was actually open, and then a high street that had very few empty shops.  Admittedly, there was a large proportion of charity shops and bargain stores (including one called, delightfully, Wow That's Cheap!), but that's still more than a lot of other towns can scrape together.  There were banks and a post office, plus a market hall backed by a sadly closed Wilko.

It was busy, too.  There were plenty of shoppers about, and a queue out of the door of Greggs.  I much preferred Allmarks further up the street that sold the kind of bargain cakes full of colour and flavourings I didn't think you could buy any more.  Which would you rather have - a blueberry muffin from a generic coffee shop or a jam donut for sixty pence?  Their window display also carried a "synthetic cream donut" for £1.30, and I found that use of the word "synthetic" charming.  None of your crème pat nonsense, this stuff comes out of a squirty can, and you bloody love it.

The road split around a small park and I thought they'd begun putting up their Christmas decorations (this was still late November - told you I was struggling to find something to say).  On closer inspection I realised that the red garlands weren't happy chains of poinsettas or tinsel, but were instead long lengths of poppies.  Turning Remembrance Day into a kind of festive celebration is deeply tasteless to me.  Respect is quiet and dignified; it's not gussying up a fountain so it looks like a Gallipoli-themed merry go round.  The purpose of the poppy wasn't just to remember our war dead, but also to raise funds for the survivors, and I wondered how many of these decorations get put away and taken out every year without a single donation to the British Legion.  Plus, seeing this display about twenty yards from a knife amnesty bin... Perhaps, instead of showing how very much you cared about people who'd been dead for decades, you could turn your attention to that bin, and what's going on there.  Think about the present for a bit.

I'll be honest: there was one feature of Bloxwich that I was absolutely dying to see, ever since I'd done a bit of idle googling.  After the death of the Princess of Wales, a local stonemason, Andrew Walsh, crafted a tribute to her.  His day job was a funeral director and he turned to his usual materials to craft the statue, which he intended to present to Walsall as a suitable memorial.  He turned out... this.


It's quite a good likeness, if you ignore one teeny tiny element.  Walsall wasn't amused, and refused the gift.  Earl Spencer was livid.  A decision was made by the transport authority to put it in their brand new bus station, but when they consulted with the Palace over the wording of the memorial plaque, they were politely informed that they couldn't erect it.  

Andrew took his statue back.  He removed the veneer, to make Di a little bit less shiny, but still nobody wanted it.  So he put her up outside his funeral home and that's where she remains to this day.

I had to see it, of course.  If someone crafts a statue to the late Princess of Hearts off their own back and sticks it in a car park outside a funeral home that is the very definition of camp.  It's right up my Straße. 

The erect nipples are certainly a choice - especially, and I'm no boob expert, as they don't seem to be in the right spot - but she looks a lot better now she doesn't gleam in the sunlight.  Stripping that veneer had an unfortunate side effect of making her less weatherproof, by the way, and for a while she turned green with algae.  Fortunately Diana seems to have been cleaned up and this remains as a beautiful tribute to a woman we can certainly agree wore a dress quite well.  I wouldn't say it was any worse than the official statue of the Princess of Wales in Kensington Gardens, which depicts her shortly after finishing her shift as a secretary in an employment agency and grabbing at two random kids.  If it was in Walsall town centre, as intended, nobody would care; it would be another spot for pigeons to sit on and for Goths to loiter round.  Here, out in Bloxwich, she's special, the Black Diana Nobody Wanted.

Nothing could really top that, so I headed back to the station.  I had read that Bloxwich was famous for its many pubs, but every one I passed was closed, and I didn't fancy going to a Wetherspoons.  I wasn't that desperate for a pint.  For once.  Instead I returned the way I came, trying to think of some over arching theme for the blog post I would eventually write.  I never did find one. 


Anonymous said...

Well I enjoyed your blog.

Scott Willison said...

And bless you for that!

David B said...

You do usually manage to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. Your choice of geography for this tranche of stations has meant you will face many such ears (and I was born in Brum, so I can say this!)

Anonymous said...

As long-time columnist Peter Rhodes put it in the Wolverhampton Express and Star during the Walsall Bus Station controversy, the problem with that statue isn't that it's black. It's that it looks like Denis Nordern.