Sunday 16 June 2024

Bricks and Pieces

In a sign that this blog is getting ever more desperate for attention, I've finally pivoted to video!  Don't worry, this won't be a regular thing. 

Merseyrail recently released a toy version of its 508 trains that you can build yourself.  Don't call it Lego; it's definitely not Lego.  It's something very different indeed called City Brix.  I decided that if I was going to put it together, I'd let you, the viewer, enjoy it with me.  So here's a video of a Tom Allen-soundalike who's old enough to know better wrestling with a children's toy.

Incidentally they put two sheets of the stickers in the pack, so I've got a spare set, if anyone wants it.

Thursday 6 June 2024


Eagle-eyed viewers will spot that I'm at Stoke-on-Trent station.  "But wait!" you're saying, because apparently you're the kind of person who talks to webpages.  "Didn't you do Stoke-on-Trent station already?"  And it's true, I have visited this station before.  I came here with Robert and Ian in 2012 when we were looking at where a station used to be on the West Coast Main Line.  I felt for a long time that I did Stoke dirty.  Yes, I went to the station, and yes, I got a sign pic - inside, because it doesn't have a sign outside, a situation that is somehow still true in 2024 -  but I felt like the city deserved more.  When it showed up again on the West Midlands Railway map I thought, well here's an opportunity to visit the city again and visit it properly.

I almost immediately went off this idea.  The main reason was the strange way Stoke exists as a city.  It's not one conurbation; it's actually a conglomeration of six towns brought together under one unifying name.  As such, I'm pretty sure that anything I did there would alienate about eighty percent of the city.  I imagined furious comments: why did you go to Hanley?  Burslem's where's it's at!  and No wonder you found the architecture in Fenton uninspiring, it's nothing compared to Tunstall and Longton4eva.  The only possible way around that would be to visit all six towns and give my careful measured thoughts about all of them - possibly with some kind of ranking scheme - and I really can't be bothered.

I therefore decided what I'd do was get the hell out of Stoke and walk to Newcastle-under-Lyme instead.  If this offends you as a resident of Stoke, then (a) I'm sorry and (b) probably don't read on any further.  I walked out of the station, hoping to take in the magnificent station square laid out by the railway company, but it was covered with Heras fencing and cones and the statue of Josiah Wedgewood was barely visible.  Under the tracks via a low underpass and then back up again to cross a huge dual carriageway, the Queensway, which slices through the city parallel to the railway.  A silver plaque on the bridge commemorated its opening in 1977, and most of it was a little faded, the name of the actual Secretary of State for Transport was entirely scrubbed out.

A little light investigation and I discovered that the name of the Transport Secretary at that time was the Right Honourable William Rodgers MP, who caused a great deal of political disquiet by leaving the Labour Party to form the SDP in 1981.  I like to imagine his name was scrubbed off by a furious Trotskyite, perhaps shouting "Splitter!" as he did so.  

Up ahead of me was Stoke-on-Trent's Civic Centre.  I saw this on the map and I got a bit excited.  I love a Civic Centre.  They're almost inevitably a slab of 1970s concrete, all weird angles and unusual staircases.

Stoke's Civic Centre is not like that.  This one looks like it's escaped from an office park on the edge of Braintree.  It's hopelessly dull and unimaginative and pedestrian.  I walked round it, and found it abutted a nice old Victorian Town Hall, but that made it worse.  It was so bland, and yet, huge; like a really massive Ryvita.  There was a small square wedged behind the Civic Centre, with a large piece of curving metal art that had been systematically and repeatedly defaced by teenagers.  There's something extremely depressing about graffiti that's been done in permanent marker.  At least spray paint has a bit of colour and artistry about it.  Bland swear words and names scrawled in a sharpie is so basic.

I disappeared into the back streets of Stoke, long rows of terraces.  The whiff of neglect hung over them.  Weeds sprouted out of brickwork and windows were covered with chipboard.  Heavy metal doors stopped squatters and looters.   Where they were occupied, thick blinds were pulled down over the front window to hide the interior from passers by.  Occasionally there'd be a home that was properly maintained - nicely painted woodwork, a gate neatly closed - a jar of flowers on the windowsill - but more often that not the houses were faded and unloved.  On one corner, Keir Starmer looked down at us from an electronic billboard and promised a better world than this one.

I wasn't sure there was one.  Not in Stoke, anyway.  Everything about it seemed so ugly.  I've been in inner cities before, over and over; I've worked my way round the post-industrial North.  I've seen brutality and abandonment.  There was something about Stoke that was actively, forcefully, violently unpleasant.  As though the city was conspiring to be as depressed as possible.  The shops were mean and unfriendly.  Offices and workshops stood away from the road, hiding, walls and fences keeping passers by at a distance.  New builds, where they came, were defensive and blockish, without any art or elegance.  You could almost hear the Planning Committee: you want to build some flats there?  Sure, why not.  Do whatever you want.  Rather you than me.

Yes, that hideous building is called Champagne House.

I crossed over a wet A-road and into a side street that went up the hill.  When I say up the hill, I actually mean, it was a hill, because this road was vertiginous.  It started reasonably enough, then basically went vertical; I regretted not packing crampons in my backpack.  I'd not been prepared for this and I had to pause halfway for breath, looking down with a vague sense of wonder at the drop.

A sign warned me that the top of the road was a dead end, but I gambled that was for cars only, and found a small cut-through by some pensioner bungalows.  It brought me out on a village green, a small oasis of trees in the middle of Penkhull.  There was a Co-op and a pub and a chippy getting the fryers ready for opening; through the window I could see the fat bubbling under lights, pumping out a tantalising smell.  

It should've been enough to win me back but it didn't.  I was having a miserable time.  The rain was constant and relentless.  The streets were at best hideous and at worse boring.  I still had a way to go to get to Newcastle and there wasn't even a railway station waiting for me there.  I was livid, to be honest, and I decided Stoke could go fuck itself.

I was soon walking round the back of Stoke's hospital, past more old people residences.  I couldn't decide if that was cruel or practical.  Yes Agnes, it is a lovely house, and over there is the building you're probably going to die in, and sooner rather than later.  The Council had put in a cycleway, sort of, slipping a long stretch of tarmac between the curb and the paving slabs, but not marking it as reserved for bikes; I avoided it, because I knew that the second I stepped in it the entire Tour of Britain would appear and scream at me to get out of the way.  I followed a desire path over a hillock of green and ended up on The Avenue.

Now that I've written it was called The Avenue, you know what this road was like, right?  Huge trees and grass verges.  Large but undistinguished houses at the end of an acre of block paving, the kind of houses that are advertised based on how many bedrooms they've got rather than their actual features; it's about square footage, not charm.  The newer houses built on the side roads were even less attractive, because they didn't even have space, pressed up against one another with barely a gap inbetween.  The best bit of the walk was when I got an unexpected whiff of solder, a smell I haven't smelled for decades, and which immediately transported me back to teenage lessons in CDT labs.

At some point I must have crossed the border, because I found myself walking along the sports fields of Newcastle-Under-Lyme School (founded 1602).  You could tell it was a posh school because it had one of those metal and foam structures for the boys to practice their rugby scrums on.  I looked up its alumni, and the most prominent one to me is Roger Johnson off North West Tonight, unless you count a former Rear Admiral with the delightful nickname of "Spam".  

This being the Midlands, I soon found myself at a ring road, and disappeared into a dark underpass decorated with friezes celebrating Victoria and Elizabeth II.  A statue of the former Queen stood in the middle of the gardens at the top of the underpass, and I idly wondered where they're going to put the inevitable statues of ERII.  There's not the opportunity to build grand parkland and distinguished squares any more - that sort of thing takes up land and costs money - so I can only imagine that Her Majesty's effigies will all be wedged on the side of office blocks or in the foyer of council buildings.

Newcastle-Under-Lyme has had a charter for nearly a thousand years, which is why I'm willing to overlook it calling itself Newcastle when we already have a perfectly good Newcastle in the North East.  It does seem to be trying to rebrand itself as NUL on the banners and websites I saw (#lovenul) but that cancels itself out to be honest.

The shopping centre was what you'd expect from a town in England in 2024; a bit scruffy, a bit unloved.  Stores that had been built in a flush of post-war prosperity were now either empty or covered in corporate branding so you couldn't see their charm.  There was a square with an open air market, but it was the quietest market I have ever seen.  It was lunchtime on a Tuesday and it was covered with a deathly silence, as though everyone was already packing up to go home.  

I wandered aimlessly, not really sure where I was, but when I encountered the bus station I decided I'd stop.  Nothing had grabbed me enough to make me want to stay and I had a bus to catch.  I've reached a point on the West Midlands Railway map where there are a lot of single, isolated stations, towns and cities I left for special one-off visits or which I missed due to shenanigans on the railway.  I'd put them off because I like the walking, to be honest, and now there's not much walking left, so I'm going to have to bite the bullet and visit them one after the other.  Stoke was one station on its own, and Nantwich is another.  For a mad moment I considered walking between them; there's actually a long-distance footpath that connects them, The Two Saints Way, but that would've taken the best part of eight or nine hours to walk and I wasn't that committed to the idea. 

Instead I boarded a bus, the 85, which connects Newcastle-Under-Lyme and Nantwich.  It takes an hour and forty minutes to do the whole journey but, thanks to the government, it's still only two pounds, which surprised me; I was sure there would be some sort of get out clause on the price.  I clambered aboard with a mix of pensioners and students, took a seat, and was taken out of Newcastle and into the countryside.

Our first proper stop was at Keele University, which was a little triggering for me.  Keele was my first choice university - my only choice, if I'm honest.  My reasoning was this: I was an extremely shy teen who found it difficult to make friends and talk to people.  If I went to a university that was in the middle of nowhere - where the students had to live, study and exist on a single site - then I was bound to encounter at least one humanoid I could be friends with.  They'd be trapped with me.  As it turned out, my grades were just too low, by two points, and they kept me waiting for a week while they decided whether to take me or not.   They eventually decided "not".

This is actually a good thing, because I am 100% sure I wouldn't be here writing this if I had gone.  Keele is an extremely isolated place to study and if you're even slightly inclined to melancholia it can push you over the edge.  About a decade later, I stayed there for five days as part of a study course for work, and it was exactly as I had feared it would be: nobody talked to me, I had nowhere to go, and I spent an awful lot of time in my room feeling depressed.  I really did have a lucky escape.

Like all educational establishments, Keele had transformed itself completely over the last twenty years, and I struggled to recognise any of it.  I thought I recognised the hall of residence I'd stayed at during that work's trip, but it was only briefly, and soon we were in the village of Keele itself.  I was frankly surprised how easy the transition was - I suspected the villagers would've set up gates and a watch tower to stop students wandering into their homestead.  Mind you, students are very different these days, very sensible and teetotal, so they probably encourage them.

More countryside, and then Madeley, which had an actual duck pond with actual ducks on it.  We stopped for a bit, to even out the service; at least I assume that's why we stopped.  In London, I believe the buses tell you this is what is happening, and apologise; here in the provinces, we sit in awkward silence and hope it hasn't broken down.  The woman behind me sneezed as we took off again, and I wondered if she'd covered her mouth.  Betley smelt of silage and had a village green with black silhouettes of servicemen on it; every lamppost had been decorated with D-DAY 80 signs.  As we left the village, we passed a statue of a greyhound in someone's garden; the statue had been given a cape and a helmet and a shield with the flag of St George on it.

At forty minutes in we passed from Newcastle-Under-Lyme into Cheshire East.  By now I was starting to get pins and needles and I wondered if I should walk up and down the aisle like they tell you to do on flights to stop getting deep vein thrombosis.  The passenger tally had barely shifted, which surprised me; these people were keen enough to visit Newcastle they'd take an extremely long bus ride to get there.  The Wychwood Park signposted its Hotel - Golf Club - Residential Hamlets, while the White Lion Pub invited you to JOIN US ROUND THE BACK FOR A BEER.

The outskirts of Crewe brought another shudder - this was where I'd worked for eighteen months until I had a nervous breakdown and took redundancy.  There was the Crewe Hall Hotel, where I had the most miserable Christmas lunch of my life - a department of complainers who moaned about the free meal and the fact that they had to attend and be all jolly when they could be enjoying an afternoon off.  I may have got a little drunk to get through it.  We passed the station, first the shiny new glass entrance at the back, then the dated front, where again we paused to even out the service.  The bus took a route into town down Edlestone Road, and I was hit with a memory of walking along that street and seeing the sky absolutely full of circling birds.  It was phenomenal.

Crewe bus station is so new most of the passengers on board expressed surprise at it being open; it was less than a month old.  It replaced a bus station that absolutely needed to be replaced and was intended to be the centre of a brand new regeneration scheme.  Unfortunately the developers pulled out, leaving a gleaming interchange and multi-storey car park in the centre of literally nothing.  The buildings around it were demolished but nothing is being built to replace them.  It's been hit by the one-two-three of pandemic, Liz Truss, and HS2 being withdrawn from the town.  So much of Crewe's future was predicated around them being a hub for the 21st century and beyond and now it's been snatched away with nothing to replace it.  I'd almost feel sorry for the town if I didn't have such traumatic memories of it.

The bus skirted the suburbs of Crewe, through council estates and new builds, though always with a patina of grim over the top.  An extremely hot scaffolder with jug ears and a turned up nose got on and flicked through a handful of fivers.  Outside the Minshull takeaway, a small boy, about four years old, boarded with his mother, and his beaming excited grin immediately lifted the mood of everyone on board.  He skipped down the aisle and I found myself smiling back.  I'm not completely dead inside.

Welcome to Nantwich: Floral Market Town.  The woman who'd sneezed behind me finally got off the bus at a small patch of green; she'd been my companion the whole journey.  We pulled into the bus station at exactly two thirty, bang on time.  I unfolded myself from my seat, hoping the blood would rush back to my legs, thanked the driver because I was brought up right, and stepped down.

I'd like to extend an apology to Nantwich.  I'd long held a vague grudge against it, based on the fact that I'd once spent a day there on a course and I'd hated it.  It turns out that wasn't Nantwich at all.  I'd misremembered, and it was some other small market town in Cheshire where I'd had an awful time.  (I'm not 100% sure but I think it might have been Congleton).

Nantwich, it turned out, was a delight.  It was everything you'd want from an English market town.  Narrow pedestrianised streets lined with charming buildings.  A town square with trees and a church.  Interesting shops and pubs and cafes.  A sense of purpose and pride.

It was, admittedly, Very Tory.  The whole place was decked out in Union Jack bunting and a yellow AA sign informed me that the streets would be closed for the D-Day Commemorations.  There was a branch of Joules and a branch of Fat Face and there was a menswear shop that seemed to specialise in clothes Nigel Farage would love: pastel chinos and linen jackets and so many hats.  You couldn't wear those trousers if you'd ever voted Green, they'd simply crumble to dust in your hands.  

The local branch of WH Smith was branded WH Smith Stationers which intrigued me.  I wondered if this was perhaps a new look for the store.  It turned out that Nantwich used to have two Smiths, one across the way with the books and so on, and this one purely for stationery; the larger branch closed earlier this year and they consolidated the whole thing into one without bothering to replace the sign.  Inside it very much felt like two shops shoved together inelegantly; the windows were covered to give more shelf room, making it dark inside, and deep canyons of merchandise were laid out without much regard.

I'm going to go off on one now, and feel free to skip these two paragraphs because it's very personal, but what has been done to WH Smith over the past twenty years feels like what has happened to the United Kingdom over the same period of time.  It used to be an absolute icon of the High Street and a place of pilgrimage for thousands of families.  Everybody loved it.  I can't be the only child whose mum would leave him in Smiths while she shopped elsewhere, knowing that the combination of books and videos and stationery would keep me entertained and safe.  WH Smith was a legend and we were all proud to visit it; hell, I worked there for five years, mainly because it was a dream come true.

Now it's nothing.  Now it's The Works, but without the bright stores and friendly interiors.  It's downmarket and grim while still, for some reason, being very expensive.  WH Smith in 2024 is a tarnished, destroyed brand, and entire generations of children have grown up seeing it as just another shop.  They could've been a classy, premium store - armchairs to relax in, coffee shops, art clubs and calligraphy lessons and book talks.  A kind of Waterstones plus.  Instead, like UK PLC, they've cut every corner to maximise profit, creating an experience nobody enjoys, nobody wants to pay for, and are somehow still stinking up perfectly reasonable neighbourhoods.  It makes me sad and angry and I want the whole thing to go under to put it out of its misery.

I followed the streets round and round, taking it all in, until the rain started to spot again.  The Nantwich-Crewe trains are every two hours, so I had a choice: barrel down the road to the station and get the three o'clock train, or go for a pint until the 16:55.


One pint became two, and then I left, happier than when I sat down.  Alcohol is famously a depressant, and if you're in a bad mood, it's probably not wise to take a glass.  On the other hand, it cheered me right up.  I left the town centre, past a banner for Nantwich Pride (July 20th, Nantwich Civic Hall - Families Welcome) and a pub that had a cartoon of the Beatles on it, for some reason, before I reached the level crossing for Nantwich station.

It wasn't, if I'm honest, one of my favourite trips out on the trains.  There hadn't really been much to see.  I seem to have managed to write an awful lot about it though.  Sorry about that.

Once again, thank you to the Ko-fi contributors who helped pay for the train trips here.  You're marvellous.

Friday 31 May 2024


Last week I wrote a piece about the plans for Baltic station and in passing, I sarcastically mentioned how there was "no further info on how and when they're going to sort out Liverpool Central."  Literally the next day Steve Rotherham put out some info on how and when they're going to sort out Liverpool Central.  Well played, Rotherham.

I say that: this was more of a hopes and dreams announcement rather than anything actually tangible.  Still, they included some whizzy CGI, which is always pleasing to see.  

The announcement came with the establishment of a Liverpool-Manchester Railway Board, which exists to try and get funding for improvements to the connections between the two largest cities in the North West.  Their vision is for a brand new high speed railway via Warrington and Manchester Airport with new termini at each end - an underground station at Piccadilly, enabling through running to Leeds if anyone decides that joining up with a third major city is something worth doing, and a massively revamped Liverpool Central.

This last part came as a surprise.  Central did, of course, once have direct trains to Manchester, as well as London and other destinations.  Beeching axed most of the routes in the Sixties, diverted the long distance ones into Lime Street, then the Link and Loop project sent the commuter routes underground.  The train shed was demolished, the platforms swept away, and Central became nothing more than a local station.

It is, however, a local station and a half.  Despite having only three platforms, Central is the tenth busiest station outside the capital with 11.4 million passengers last year - 900,000 less than Glasgow Queen Street, and more than Lime Street.  The Northern Line platforms in particular are beyond capacity, a single island somehow expected to cope with twelve trains an hour in each direction, including terminating services from Kirkby and Ormskirk that need to be turned round.  Something has to be done.

The proposed solution appears to be using the new Liverpool-Manchester route as an excuse to completely rebuild Central, gaining access to funds that wouldn't otherwise be available, and creating an entirely new station that none the less contains elements that are more than 150 years old.  But enough of that: where's the whizzy CGI?

It's important to note that these are images of what Central could look like, which does, of course, mean nothing.  I could look like Ryan Gosling given enough money and plastic surgery, but it's not going to happen.  This appears to be the existing entrance to the station on Ranelagh Street, with the existing shopping mall demolished in favour of a large open public space.  This is a great idea.  Central's shops have always been down at heel, and (with the exception of the Sainsbury's Local) have never really taken advantage of their location.  There are people streaming through there eighteen hours a day and yet most of the shops open at nine and close at five, leaving a dead space in the evening.  The only sadness is that this will mean the end of the legendary Leather Shop, a store that nobody has ever gone into, nobody has ever purchased anything from, and which has none the less existed on this site for decades.

Another image shows a second entrance to the station; the building behind the overhang is the Art Deco Oxfam so we can deduce this seems to be an opening out onto a pedestrianised Newington.  This makes sense.  The movement of traffic from the station is no longer straight out into the shopping district.  Bold Street and Ropewalks are vibrant, busy areas, and a back entrance would shorten the journey for people going to, for example, Chinatown or the Philharmonic.  

Connecting the two entrances is this long concourse which appears to finally take advantage of Liverpool Central's big plus: land.  Most of the time, expanding an underground station in a city centre is an expensive job involving a lot of demolition.  Central had the good luck - depending on what way you look at it - to have been demolished in the middle of an economic downturn.  That means the land where the old above ground station was has never really been filled in.

This image from Google Maps - I drew the rough paths of the Northern and Wirral lines on myself - shows that beyond the mall at the front there's car parks, workshops, nothing much.  Over the years proposals have come and gone - a couple of skyscrapers, a leisure development that ties in with the adjacent Lewis's building - but nothing of any real import has actually happened.  Meaning that the land is there to be exploited, and building work can be carried out with relatively little disruption to the rest of the city.  A new concourse can fill this gap between the buildings and cover any new tunnelling work - of which there will presumably be a lot.  The plans are vague, but since the images don't show any actual platforms, we have to conclude the new line from Manchester to Liverpool will occupy a third underground level, below the Northern and Wirral lines.  That's a pretty deep construction, but is again ideal if they're going to use the opportunity to split the busy Northern platforms.  The simplest option would be a central rail line with platforms either side, getting rid of the island, but I would hope they would try and future proof it a little and build four platforms - two for terminating services and two for through services. 

The press release vaguely mentions two other parts of the scheme intended to alleviate the pressure on the city's termini.  One is a tunnel to enable more local trains to go to Central instead of Lime Street; this was, of course, an original aspiration of the Link and Loop back in the 1970s.  That would've used the Victoria Tunnel to get there, with a new station at the University, but the various crises of the decade put the end to it.  Ironically, that may have been a good thing on one level, as Central would've reached breaking point a long time ago if there were also services from St Helens and Huyton trying to pass through it.

The other suggestion is an underground route between Lime Street and Central, providing seamless interchange and effectively turning them into one big station.  I'm less keen on this idea to be honest.  The inspiration is apparently King's Cross St Pancras, where you're able to move entirely under cover from the Eurostar to the Leeds trains and vice versa.  What this misses is that the reason they're interconnected is because there's a bloody great Underground station in the gap.  Also, the two stations are literally next door to one another, while Central and Lime Street are very much separate.

It's a five minute walk between the two, which ok, probably isn't great on a rainy Thursday, and yes, is not the most glamorous of routes (call in at the Blob Shop on your way past, you know you want to).  But it's nothing that couldn't be helped with some traffic calming and a little light refurbishment.  An underground route would be several hundred metres long, if it went as the crow flies (not guaranteed given the large buildings en route) and you'd probably need some travelators in there.  It'd be windowless, obviously, and if it's not behind the ticket barriers, it would be a magnet for the unhoused and the undesirable.  It's one of the reasons they filled in the subway from Lime Street to St John's, after all.  Also, judging by how the roof of the passageway between the mainline and underground stations at Lime Street has been leaking for, I would estimate, the best part of a decade, maintaining such a passageway would be an expensive job that's beyond the capabilities of the authorities.

I'm cautiously optimistic.  The Mayors working together is a start, and a new incoming Labour government would mean the city region's politics would align with the national ones (I mean by the colour of their rosettes, obviously; Liverpool is to the left of pretty much any potential administration).  I'm not enamoured with the designs, mainly because they're old fashioned to me - they remind me of the concept for the rebuild of Camden Town, which dates from the turn of the millennium.

Baltic's industrial feel was far more intriguing to me, but I get that you need a hook to grab people when you have concept art; a big sailing roof or a neon glow is headline grabbing in a way that simplicity isn't.  My only sadness is that I've reached that point of middle age where I look at the proposals pessimistically and wonder if I'll even be around when they're built.  

Well, that was a cheery way to end things, wasn't it?

Sunday 26 May 2024

A Day In May

I am normally quite lucky with the British rail network.  It's rare that my trips are interrupted by cancellations or delays.  There's often a bit of overcrowding, there's sometimes a late arrival, but by and large, for someone who takes as many trains as I do, I have little to complain about.  

It does mean that when things do go wrong, I have a little anxiety attack.  So it was on my latest visit to Birmingham.  There was a problem with the signals at Jewellery Quarter, the WMR Twitter account helpfully informed me somewhere outside Wolverhampton.  Services on that line were meeting with delays and cancellations.

By the time I finally reached Moor Street, the problem had been fixed, but the trains were still a mess.  The platform was filled with grouchy passengers, their days out ruined, and the departure board was theoretical only.  A train for Stratford arrived, but I didn't board it because it was fast to Dorridge.  I settled in a seat on the one behind, only for the guard to announce that this one would also go fast, despite what the Next Train indicator had said, so I leapt off again.  Tyesley and Acocks Green, meanwhile, disappeared and reappeared from the board, seemingly at random - a service would be serving Tyesley, then it would vanish and be replaced by Acocks Green, then the same thing would happen in reverse.

All in all I spent nearly an hour on that platform waiting for the right one out.  It wasn't so bad.  It was a beautiful, warm day.  I had a podcast in my ears.  I could watch the excited trainspotters opposite, three men of advancing years jotting every new arrival down in their notebook.  I was curious about that - surely a dedicated trainspotter (and these men looked like they'd been doing it for decades) would already have collected all the boring old commuter trains on the Snow Hill Line?  I thought trainspotting was about trying to see all the trains, not the same ones over and over, but maybe I've been getting it wrong.

I wanted to go to go to Acocks Green, the more distant of the stations I planned visiting that day, but because of the chaos of the trains I decided I'd board the next one and get off wherever it stopped.  That turned out to be Tyesley, which I have been constantly misspelling as Tylesley because I think I'm being haunted by the Ghost of Ivy.  It's also pronounced Tile-sley, which feels counterintuitive to me.  Still, it's a nice enough station, painted in retro colours and with old fashioned signage.

The ticket office, though, is a proper gem.  It's retained all of its original tiles, on the walls and floor (or at least a very reasonable facsimile) and looks well-kept.  The benches could do with being a little more period-appropriate, and it would've been nice if the ticket window was actually open, but still.

Outside, it's more of the same; a stout Victorian building on a road bridge, with the towers of the city centre barely visible through the smoggy haze.  

I paused for the sign picture by a phone box that had seen better days but which still, despite everything, contained an actual phone.  Only one other person had come out of the station with me and he paced up and down.  His agitated tone, followed by a sharply barked conversation down his iPhone, made me think he wasn't happy with the West Midlands Railway service he'd received today.

The road split after the station, so I took the left hand branch past a furniture showroom with a skip outside and a door shop.  A row of downbeaten stores culminated in the very much closed A1 Lounge Suites, its windows barricaded, its white plastic columns outside hinting at a club which had never had any glamour even while it was open.  The sunshine baked the pavement and drivers went by a little too fast.

As the road shifted from commercial to residential, I got a pleasing surprise on a care home: a blue plaque dedicated to John Curry OBE, the Olympic gold medal winning figure skater.

John was the first British man to win a figure skating Olympic gold, at Innsbruck in 1976; he won the Sports Personality of the Year and was widely admired.  He was also gay, and was outed by an American interviewer after his win.  It was the start of the press treating him as a punching bag, and the public making him the target of their jokes.  By 1980, his place at the podium had been taken by Robin Cousins - another gay male figure skater, but one who didn't embarrass the British public by actually admitting it - and then Torvill and Dean came along and swept up figure skating in their undeniably heterosexual wake.  John Curry, meanwhile, moved to New York to get a bit of privacy.  He finally died in 1994 from AIDS-related illnesses.  He's often forgotten as a figure in the history books of Team GB, out of the closet before it was fashionable, a bit too effeminate for the nation to really take him to heart.  Even today, the local community group blog about the unveiling of his blue plaque mentions his "untimely death" and nothing more.

I did a little salute to the queer pioneer then ducked down a side road.  The Warwick Road was wide and boring.  Plenty of grass verges and trees but not much to look at.  Behind it, though, were neat little suburban streets with tidy Victorian villas.  Acocks Green - a name which is definitely not funny in the slightest - developed as a desirable place to live with the coming of the railway, and the red brick homes with neat plaques giving each one its own name - Ashby, Charfield, Bescot - were testament to this.  A husky dog watched me from a bare window, its owners inside painting the ceiling, while the plethora of building work and scaffolding hinted at upwardly mobile investors.  

On the corner of the road was a small church, with volunteers mowing the lawn and a gate inscribed with AND THOU SHALT LOVE THE LORD THY GOD WITH ALL THINE HEART AND WITH ALL THY SOUL AND WITH ALL THY MIGHT, then a quick dogleg and I was in Sherbourne Road.  The name Sherbourne always reminds me of my A-Level English teacher, a woman who transitioned from a Miss to a Mrs in the summer between my first and second years.  However, her and her husband - another teacher in the department - changed their name to Sherbourne, rather than have her take his name, as it was the place where they met.  As teenagers, this produced an eyeroll of cynicism, but from 2024 it seems quite sweet.  It says something I can't remember what her maiden name was, but Sherbourne is lodged in my head forever.

Sherbourne Road was more flats than houses, culminating in a decent block of 1970s homes surrounded by grass.  I had a vague sense of deja vu, and I wondered if I'd mucked up; if I'd actually collected this station before and forgotten to cross it off the map.  Turning the corner and seeing the station building on the bridge, I realised I was thinking of a spot in Manchester, back when I'd been collecting the tram stops.  I wish I could tell you where.  Names are nothing to me, they flit in and out of my head, signs that I dodged in front of.  Places, on the other hand, I remember with startling accuracy.  The BF and I recently had a few days away in North Yorkshire, and places I hadn't been to for a decade, tiny villages with stations hidden away, came swimming back into my memory with absolute clarity.  I was able to guide the car based entirely on a single visit in 2013.  If ever went to that street in Manchester again I'd remember it in nauseating detail, but for the time being, it's a mystery.

I went down to the platform, but the next train coming through didn't stop at Small Heath, so I went back up to street level for a bit of a wander around.  Like Tyseley, it was a decent little station, though not quite so pretty.  It had lifts to the platforms and electric doors, and I'm guessing that in the modernisation process some of its charm was taken away.

If the trains hadn't been a mess, I'd have gone from Acocks Green to Tyseley, and I would've missed out on the area round the station.  Which would've been a shame, because it was exactly the kind of community you want to find around a city transport hub.  Parades of shops under green trees; cafes, restaurants, grocery shops and churches; a big Victorian police station that was actually still in use as a police station (even if the query office was closed - I saw a man trying to shout his problem into the intercom on the doorstep).  Admittedly, the Great Western pub was surrounded by Heras fencing and had its windows shuttered with steel, but nothing's perfect.

I wandered down one side of the road, then back up the other.  The row of shops included the surgery for the local MP, Labour's Jess Phillips, a woman who does a lot of good work while also managing to be really quite irritating.  She's a little too keen on appearing on telly for my taste, a little too enamoured with being outspoken and brave and having celebrity friends.  This goes for all MPs who become regulars on Have I Got News For You or who have a podcast.  Just do your bloody job, will you?

(Incidentally, if you think I'm being unfair on her, you should meet the BF, a man so left wing even Lenin would ask him to tone it down a bit.  He has an internal rolodex of Labour MPs who he despises wholeheartedly because they were not sufficiently supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, and Jess Phillips is on his shit list.  I texted him this picture of her office, and he replied with one word: "Cunt.")

I walked back to the station, because nice though Acocks Green was - nope, still not a funny name, don't know what you're talking about - there wasn't really much to make you linger.  I passed a missing cat poster that dated from - oh dear - July last year and went down to the baking hot platform, where I found a lot of annoyed passengers.  It seems that the train I had spurned had then been cancelled, without warning or explanation, and the people waiting were furious.  As I walked down the trackside I got snatches of irate complaints into mobile phones - "no, they didn't say anything" - "it says half an hour but who knows" - "I could've got a bus".

I went away from the rest to eat my sandwiches and people watch.  I'm lucky enough to be able to travel on the trains during the week, when it's quiet, so it was unusual for me to be seeing the West Midlands Railway on a Saturday.  The crowd was younger, livelier, dressed down.  The sunshine had brought out the shorts and the t-shirts and the crop tops, and they carried with them a sense of optimism.  Even with their delayed journey, it was ok in the end, because there was no rush; this was a Saturday, and people were travelling for fun.  Admittedly, there may have been other factors contributing to their general merriment - there was a distinct scent of weed wafting from a couple of men, and a girl on a bench near me was telling her phone friend "I just want a drink, I don't care what" - but there wasn't the urgency you sometimes feel on weekday travel.

Nope, still not funny.

One train ride later and I was one of two people alighting at Small Heath.  My companion first approached a man on the platform for a cigarette - he didn't have one - then he came over to me.  "I like your t-shirt," he said.  "It's a great t-shirt."

Three thoughts went through my head, one after the other:

1) it's not a t-shirt, it's a shirt, it's got a collar and buttons for God's sake;
2) that was an unprompted compliment from a stranger, how lovely;
3) he's clearly not the full shilling, you should probably get out of here.

I mumbled a bashful thank you and took the stairs two at a time.  There was no need - a group of Asian lads had come onto the platform, missing the train into the city by seconds, and their good natured bantering was a far more attractive target.

Up at street level there was another hazy view of Birmingham in the distance.  Small Heath station is only two miles from the Rotunda, but it felt like another world.  The peaks and spires seemed to be an island with nothing to do with this grimy back street.  There was no connection, no ramp up to the skyscrapers; they were off doing their thing and there may as well have been a moat between us and them.

The road south was clogged with traffic, nose to tail, barely moving.  I wasn't sure if there'd been an accident or if this was the normal state of affairs.  There'd be the occasional scream of music through open windows - people who do this are never listening to anything good, are they? - or an irate honk because someone hadn't moved to fill the gap in front within the requisite point three of a nanosecond.  The heat was making us grumpy now, sulky, and being trapped in a tin box wouldn't help.

A cross over the canal, then the scent of freshly cut grass in the park, its playground empty for the afternoon.  I went over to the other side of the road via a pedestrian crossing - the traffic may have been slow, but I didn't trust them to allow me across unless there was a green man - and took a right.

Doof, doof, doof-doof-doof do-do-do-do.

Walford Road was a standard inner city street.  Tight packed terraced houses with a bay window and a tiny yard out front.  Cars wedged onto the pavement as much as they dared.  A few trees, every once in a while, tall and trimmed.  I walked past a man sat on the wall with two adorable tiny toddlers, excitedly waving at passers by, one being cuddled on his dad's lap.  A 24 hour supermarket advertised its launderette and service washes: Est 1978 was posted on the end.  I was following a woman down the road, at a respectful distance so she didn't think I was stalking her.  We approached a part of the pavement that had been narrowed by a parked white van, and in the gap, three boys on bikes laughed and joked.  Even on a hot day like this, they were wearing the uniform of ne'er do wells, hoodies over their head, black face masks over the lower part of their face.  I was a little trepidatious but the woman simply said "excuse me boys" and they parted for us, one of them even saying sorry for getting in our way.  

At the end of the street, where it met the busy Stafford Road, the land had been cleared for the Islamic Centre of Britain, a proposed mosque-community centre-learning place that seemed to have some nice CGI's but nothing more.  Its website is still appealing for donations to help it get built.  

This part of Birmingham formed one edge of the Balti Triangle, the place where the famous Balti was actually invented, and which had once been filled with restaurants serving the dish.  Times had changed, however.  You can get a Balti more or less anywhere now, and the area around Stafford Road has reverted back to being a local centre for the Asian population.  Chicken takeaways and dessert shops had filled in where they'd been.

I was in a minority here.  Almost every face I saw was Asian; I would occasionally see a white face outside one of the cafes, or waiting at a bus stop, but by and large it was me and a lot of people who didn't look like me.

I could see how, if you were a white person, this could be intimidating.  Looking around and seeing Halal stores and Asian grocers, women in hijab and men in thobes, nobody who looks like you.  I could see how this might lead you to think it was a "no-go" area for you, an alien place where you wasn't welcome.  But they were just people.  They were the same people shopping and talking and eating and being themselves.  I never felt threatened or in danger or out of place; this was still clearly England, with ads for Matalan and the new Mad Max film on the bus stops, with double deckers and the odd crisp packet on the pavement.  This was a different kind of England but there are different kinds of England everywhere.  That's one of the good things about this country, that we're all rubbing up against one another in our own little communities, that people are allowed to simply get on with their lives and so long as they don't bother anyone everything's fine.  As the great philosopher Belinda Carlisle once said, live your life, be free.  

Besides, at least this was different.  I've been all over the country and I've seen the same high street over and over.  Boots, Smiths, Tesco Express, vape shop, tanning shop, hairdresser.  Starbucks and Costa and Caffe Nero.  Marks if you're posh, Home and Bargain if you're not.  Empty Debenhams, empty Wilko, empty Woolies if things are really bad.  Bit of pedestrianisation and a statue to Queen Victoria.  Over and over.  At least here I was seeing things I'd never seen before, window displays that were intriguing, smells that tempted me in a different way to the usual grease of a chippy or a Greggs.  

The road ducked under a railway line and brought me out at the massive Camp Hill Circus, a roundabout so huge its wooded centre probably counted as a National Forest, and I followed the dual carriageway of the ring road.  As usual for the centre of Birmingham, this was a road that was built for cars, and pedestrians were a resented concession.  Heavy traffic swung by belching out pollution - my lungs were probably two shades darker after that day - and beside me were old factories and tinny industrial units.

Even a hint of water couldn't dress this part of town.  Birmingham likes to boast it has more canals than Venice, but this is very much a quantity vs quality factoid.  You can't really compare the ramshackle beauty of elegant Italian waterways with an oily cut round the back of a warehouse.

I had a little while until my train so I headed up the hill, not really realising how steep it was.  Regular readers (hello you!) will be aware of my fondness for sports stadia, a fondness which is diametrically opposite to my fondness for actual sport.  For some reason, I just like them.  My trips round the West Midlands had taken me to Aston Villa and West Brom so I thought, as I was in the area, I'd go and have a look at Birmingham City's home ground, St Andrew's.

The season had finished now - which was why I was visiting, by the way - and it looked like they'd immediately sent in the builders to try and refurbish the place fast.  The car park was a mass of mini cranes and diggers and fencing.  I was intrigued to see they had a Kop end, which is always odd for me; yes, I know there's a history to football grounds having Kops, but in 2024, there's only one worth mentioning, so you may as well rename yours.

Birmingham City was one of the reasons my final station still existed.  Bordesley station gets one Parliamentary service a week, and they've timed it for 14:08 on a Saturday so at least it can be slightly useful in getting people to the football ground.  That single service was also the reason why I'd ventured to Birmingham at the weekend; it had to be collected.

I approached the station with some trepidation.  The problem with somewhere that gets such a rare service is you're not sure how much the train company actually cares about it.  You don't know if they'll go to the expense of unlocking it for the one or two people who might possibly use it.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted the open gate under the viaduct, and headed into the darkness, blissfully cool after my sweaty hour's walk.

The graffiti on the walls was the angry kind, furious with the city council for not supporting the homeless and spending the budget on, and I quote, "shit".  This was of course Birmingham who don't have any budget left to spend on anything but that's by the bypass.  I could see how this cool, sheltered space might be attractive to homeless people, and also, why the city council were very keen indeed to stop them moving in.  You should never look down on any1 unless your helping them back up & into life read one piece.  Bear that in mind on July 4th, would you?

Up top was what you'd expect from a station that was barely used.  A single island platform.  A shelter with no seat.  A small emergency contact panel.  There was a smart card validator, which I'm sure gets absolutely no use whatsoever - who would be checking tickets here?  

Bordesley station's days may be numbered.  Even as I write, the Camp Hill line is being brought back into passenger use, with three new stations opening soon.  That route goes from the city centre to Kings Norton and the trains will terminate at New Street, which is less than ideal.  New Street is always busting at the seams and adding any additional services is a nightmare - the new arrival is only possible because the Cross City line isn't back at pre-Covid service levels, so there's a little bit of slack.  The ideal situation would be to build a tunnel underneath and create an S-Bahn but nobody ever seems to want that so instead they'd like to send these trains into Moor Street, which has plenty of room for a new platform and isn't choked with other trains, but to do that you'd have to build a new chord... right through Bordesley.

Everybody wants this to happen.  Everybody thinks this is a great idea.  Nobody wants to pay for it.  As a result, the Camp Hill line will open in a sub-optimal fashion, New Street will continue to be stuffed to the gills, and Bordesley will carry on getting one train a week.  If the new chord came in you could build a brand new station that would enable interchange between Camp Hill and Stratford services, which would alleviate pressure on the city centre even more, but anyway, let's not go mad, be happy you've got a new railway line at all.  

Sweat had run into my eyes from the walk and so I took advantage of the empty station to lift my shirt and wipe my face with it.  At that exact moment, a man came round the corner, getting an eyeful of my big white belly and making me visibly jump.  I didn't see his reaction but I bet it wasn't flattering.  I'd not expected anyone else to turn up and here was someone observing me flashing the general area.  Humiliating.  It quickly became clear that this was another gentleman who was into trains, as he pulled out an actual video camera and began filming.  I've looked on YouTube but I've not been able to find out who it was; if it was you, please identify yourself below.  And also, please don't put footage of my beer gut on the internet.  Many thanks.

My final train of the day arrived to take me back to Moor Street.  The timetable was back to normal; the railway had sorted itself out.  It's not perfect, but it could be a lot worse.

This trip was entirely funded by your Ko-fi donations.  Thank you so much for any and all contributions.  You're stars.