Wednesday 28 February 2024

Pub Crawl


This is not a blog about trains.  I know I keep saying that, and nobody ever believes me, but it's true.  I know nothing about trains.  I don't know numbers, classes, nothing.  I do know when a train doesn't look right, and that was the feeling I got when a green and blue train scooted into Lichfield City station.

Was this... from the past?

Regional Railways?  Centro?  Had this train been scooting round the network for decades and nobody had thought to give it a quick refurb?  On board, it seemed modern, dot matrix displays, that sort of thing.  I turned to WhatsApp, where I am in a group of Men Who Like Trains, and I am very much the simple cousin who's been allowed to sit at the table with the grown ups because sometimes he does something funny.  I decided to pretend I knew a little, and referenced the Merseyrail train I'd seen in British Rail colours:
I assume this is West Midlands Railway doing the "old livery" thing?
Ten minutes later, Paul replied:
See?  That's a little pat on the head for me from the clever boys, a "bless, you tried".  These trains are also about to be hauled off for scrap, so they've done a little paint job to say goodbye.  I like the Merseyrail one better.  That British Rail blue and yellow?  Iconic.  This mishmash?  Not so much.  I expect locals are flooded with nostalgia but it's not very pretty.

I was taking the train to Shenstone, where I had a wait until the next train.  Shenstone is a small village more or less equidistant from Sutton Coldfield and Lichfield.  It was a walkable distance to the next station but it would be along the side of an A road, and I really wasn't in the mood for that.  That's no fun, swallowing diesel and hoping nobody drives through a puddle.

There was a decent sized station building at Shenstone, nicely kept, although the ticket office and waiting room were closed.  I headed to the main road for the sign selfie and a strong waft of manure drifted across from the fields.  As I positioned myself, there was a sharp crack, and I wondered who was letting off fireworks in the middle of the day.  Then I realised - that wasn't a firework, it was a gun.  I was in the countryside now.

Shenstone itself was delightful... what there was of it.  This is in no way a criticism.  It's a small village, it's not going to be full of endless distractions and a heady nightlife.  It's a place where folk live and maybe work and raise kids.  It's pretty.

Main Street seemed to be the place to go.  It was a mix of farmhouses and cottages, darting in and out of view, some so close to the road the pavement disappeared altogether.  A 20th century parade of shops with flats above brought a butcher and a dentist and a pharmacy, with a Costcutter doubling as the post office.  There was also a clock tower.

I love a commemorative clock tower.  This one was the Queen Elizabeth II Coronation Diamond Jubilee Clock; note they specified the Coronation jubilee, because the date on the side was June 2nd 2013.  I imagined the villagers deciding to do something for the actual Jubilee in 2012, then they didn't raise enough money or there was a delay putting it up, and so they pretended it was to celebrate the anniversary of the coronation instead.  I was pleased it worked.  Ten years is a long time to keep a clock going, particularly with local government cuts and the cost of electricity.  

The noticeboard across the way was a bit too polite for me; I like the gossipy ones, particularly if they've got the minutes of Parish Meetings ("the Chair once again reminded Councillor Havering that egg mayonnaise sandwiches were not to be eaten during the proceedings").  There was a course of bible studies (five evenings of prayer, worship and teaching delving into the Book of Jonah and exploring the depths of our hearts), the usual pre-printed Slimming World flyer, a notice for half term art activities for young kids.  There was a card for "Holiday Italian" and I wondered if that was a euphemism like "French Lessons".  Probably not; Shenstone seemed far too respectable for that sort of thing.

I realised I'd reached a dead end, with cul-de-sac signs indicating the end of Main Street.  So I turned round and moments later I was back at the War Memorial.  Oh, I thought.  I still had time to kill until my train.  What to do?

There was a pub called The Railway Inn.  Ignoring it would have been criminal.  

It didn't actually feel much like a pub that lunch time.  It was being used as a creche, apparently; one side of the bar was filled with soft toys, and every now and then a toddler would wander by and eye the strange old man sipping a pint.  The TVs, instead of showing Sky Sports News, were tuned into CBeebies.  Being a childless man in his forties, I've never watched CBeebies, but I'm happy to report it's delightful.  I got the end of a programme with Bernard Cribbins (RIP) reading a story, then one of the cutest little boys I have ever seen drew a little map so his Auntie could find buried treasure in the garden, then an episode of Andy's Dinosaur Adventures where an overexcited man travelled back in time to paint a Stegosaurus.  Another story but with Justin Fletcher and a smaller version of Hacker T Dog this time.  I was absolutely charmed, and this should be rolled out on pub tellies across the nation.  The sight of Cribbins smiling gently would stop at least 80% of pub fights before they started.

I dragged myself away in case I got sucked into a particularly exciting episode of Yakka Dee! and returned to the station platform to eat my sandwich and await the train south.

A moment of applause for the mural in the bike storage area on the station, by the way.  The angle of the walls and the background makes it almost 3-D.  It's arresting and fascinating.

While Shenstone was country air and Victorian majesty, Blake Street was very much late Seventies.  I walked down the staircase from the platform beneath a gleaming roof of varnished wood.  It was louche and moustachioed; I expected it to offer me a brandy and tell me not to worry about a taxi home.  The orange handrails just added to the air of Brut for Men.  

The station building itself was no looker, very definitely from a time when British Rail was running on fumes, and in need of a bit of paint.  A long ramp took the less able up to the platform without using the stairs; in fact the ramp was so long I could imagine a load of disabled people taking one look and deciding to go home.  It would be less effort.

I crossed the car park and posed.  I say posed; I actually mean "tried not to look too gormless".


The estate beyond the station dated from round about the same era as the station building.  It seemed incredibly familiar to me, and after a few minutes I realised why: it was like being in Brookside Close.  The houses, the way they were arranged, the look of everything - it was Manor Park all over again.  At any moment Heather Haversham could've come round the corner in her 2CV, ready to tut at all the rusty ovens on the lawn across the way.

Time had changed the houses, of course.  A large portion of them had extensions on one side - proper extensions, not converted garages, Billy Corkhill - and electric car chargers had sprung up by the driveways.  The Sutton Coldfield television mast, meanwhile, towered in the distance, slim but still menacing somehow, a shard of technology watching over the locals.

The road twisted this way and that, taking me through suburban sprawl, until I ended up on an older road with a set of railway cottages.  It took me to the main Lichfield Road past a sprawl of red brick apartments, set among grassy embankments and parking.  When did we stop building these, by the way?  Every new development is fifty detached houses, three or four bedrooms, with no apartments.  Flats are left for city centres when actually, there are single people and couples who'd quite like to live in a new home on the edge of town.  It's like we've forgotten how to mix types of building together.

I'm going to struggle now.  The Lichfield Road was long and straight and really, quite dull.  Half a mile of main road.  The only features of interest:

(a) an abandoned Christmas tree (plastic)

(b) houses set back from the main road so you could back out of your drive without interrupting the traffic flow, another design feature we seem to have forgotten how to do;

(c) a bus stop that wasn't in use, which was so dull I didn't even take a picture of it.  

Look, I tried, but the distance between Blake Street and Butlers Lane stations is basically a fifteen minute walk.  There was nothing for me to do except...

I know, I do drink too much.  If it's any consolation I'm writing this totally sober.  Yes, it's 10:30 on a Wednesday morning, but it's a start.  Besides, I had to visit the Butlers Arms after I read the website and it mentioned their eclectic taste in furnishings.  This mainly manifested itself in a lot of very colourful chairs, but there was also a flamingo made out of tools:

After a pint - possibly more than one, who can say - I walked to the station round the corner.  It was school chucking out time and a load of rowdy boys bounced and careened off one another outside the station.  Fortunately they headed to the Birmingham bound platform, no doubt to cause havoc in the Bullring.  

Butlers Lane was a simple halt for much of its life, until the electrification of the line caused a rebuild in the Seventies.  For some reason British Rail didn't think that huge amounts of sparking electricity and platforms made of wood was the greatest combination on earth.  It still feels a little tucked away, a little redundant; that incredibly dull name doesn't help.  Blake Street and Butlers Lane is a one-two punch of Ronseal station names.

This little jaunt crossed off the last few stations on the northern part of the Cross-City Line; everything between New Street and Lichfield has now been collected.  The map is slowly disappearing.  Perhaps it'll be done by the end of 2024?

Sunday 25 February 2024

The Big Questions


What is art?

You can make a lot of arguments about it.  You can define it in all sorts of ways.  To me, art is something that serves no practical purpose.  It doesn't feed you or clothe you or put a roof over your head.  It's merely there to make your life a bit better.  It might educate you as well, tell you something about the world or human beings, but at its core art is one of those wonderful things mankind evolved to do purely to make our existence a little more tolerable.

It's why I'm always keen to see artworks at railway stations.  You're stood on a platform, waiting for a train that might be delayed, to take you to a job you hate.  And there's a small mosaic, or a mural, or a painting, and it lifts you briefly.  It makes you a bit happier.  (Please note: this does not extend to pictures painted by local schoolchildren, which I really despise, because I am a miserable old git). 

The southbound platform at Lichfield Trent Valley has a large sign inlaid in a crazy paving wall.  It tells you how far you are from Glasgow and London in miles.  It's not a glistening nude in a Hockney or a thought provoking Whiteread but it's a little bit of pep on the platform.  British Rail spent money it didn't have to putting in a tiny extra.  It's art.  

Which is why it's annoyingly poorly treated.  A picture from the other platform will make it clear why.

I would estimate there is something in the region of eight hundred and forty thousand other spots on the platform you could've put those benches.  Anywhere else for a seat.  But no: right in front of the Glasgow portion of the artwork, blocking it from view to all passengers and rail users.  It's disrespectful and it's plain annoying.  No wonder the Scots are so desperate to leave the Union.

I left the station via a convoluted route that took me up onto the Birmingham bound platform then down some stairs to the northbound platform.  Spoiler: over the course of the day I will use every one of these platforms, a fact that delights me way too much.  It dropped me into the station car park, alongside a silver box that served as ticket office and coffee bar.

I hate leaving a station through the car park, even more so when there's not even a path and you have to hop from one painted walkway to the next.  It makes you feel second rate.  You're going to walk from here?  What kind of loser are you?  I walked up to the road and took the sign selfie, much to the amusement of a gaggle of road workers across the carriageway.

In short, Lichfield had started badly for me.  I walked towards the city centre, past a sign welcoming me to the birthplace of Dr Johnson ("a Fairtrade city") and past grass verges dotted with crocuses, purple and yellow and white.  The early hint of spring.  Seeing a phone box at the side of the road was retro enough; its bottom half, though, was covered with an advert for London Midland trains, the small print underneath warning me that the offer may change in 2014.

The road was lined with buildings from all eras.  Georgian town houses ran alongside Victorian villas and then, constructed on what used to be their gardens, modern terraces and blocks of flats.  One particular row of 1970s homes was all twisted angles and living rooms above the garage, deliberately quirky, deliberately modern.  Lichfield's an ancient city and the architecture showed its development.

The Samuel Johnson Community Hospital appeared on my right and I sighed, knowing I was going to see that name a lot more over the course of the day.  The man was a genius and an incredibly important figure, of course, but you know guys, less is more.  (And before anyone complains, yes, I do also think there is way too much Beatles stuff in Liverpool).  

I'd reached the edge of the centre now, the road splitting off the traffic so I could descend the hill into the town.  A man passed me talking into his mobile phone, holding it at a distance from his face so he could bark into the loudspeaker.  Can I ask why this has caught on?  He wasn't the first or last person I saw doing this.  Is it because of The Apprentice?  Have people decided that bunch of weird, socially inadequate money obsessed losers are somehow also role models and we should all copy their amazing calling skills?  I wouldn't mind but these people are never having an interesting conversation.  If you're going to make your chat publicly available, at least have the decency to be discussing a dirty affair or something.

I could tell I was approaching the heart of Lichfield because there was a shift in the stores.  One minute it was a firework shop and a takeaway, the next there was a store called Paraphernalia and a place offering Beginners Tassel Making Workshops.  I was getting into fancy, aspiration land, and that was before I'd reached the private dining restaurant and the wood-timbered branch of Boots.  

I was being charmed by Lichfield, and if you're a regular reader (hello you!) you'll know that doesn't happen often.  It was historic but still felt alive, not an open air museum.  I turned into the Market Square, home of the Samuel Johnson Birthplace and, of course, the obligatory statue:

...but also the home of a load of banks, and people bustling about.  It was a market square I could imagine hosting a market, which is often a rarity, as local authorities seem far more keen to turn them into car parks.  I felt like this had been the hub of the city for centuries.

From there it was a gentle stroll past a man cutting carpet in the street to the Minster Pool, the city's former mill pond that divides the cathedral hill from the city.  Even on a cold February it was a centre for walkers and families, taking in a little break amongst the ducks.

I walked over the dam that created the mill pond and into the cathedral close, a cobbled street that curled past the kind of houses that turn up in period dramas.  I imagine the BBC has been here a few times, spraying fake snow in the road and having Martin Chuzzlewit wander about blowing into his hands even though it was actually June.  

Obviously, the cathedral was undergoing refurbishment works when I arrived, because this is my curse.  Still, it didn't prepare me for the West Front.

I actually gasped when I turned the corner and saw the main part of the cathedral.  Dozens of figures filling niches across the end, each carefully crafted, intricate and stunning.  I stood there for a few moments, staring, taking it in.  I'd been in two minds whether to visit the cathedral, as a dyed in the wool heathen, but that view convinced me I'd have to go inside.

Of course, it didn't disappoint.  There's been a place of worship here for over a thousand years and every inch of it resonated with history and pride.  A cathedral in a smaller city doesn't get lost amongst the mass of people outside - it stays a focal point.  I wandered the aisles, reading the plaques, glancing at the statuary, listening to the blunt honk of the organ as they tested single note after single note.  

I don't believe in God, never have, apart from a weird period aged about six when I became obsessed with Jesus as a sort of ancient Paul Daniels who could turn up on a cloud and practice magic.  Walking in the cathedral though I could see how it worked.  Imagine being a tiny medieval peasant and stepping into this house of the Lord.  You'd be overawed and overwhelmed by its size, its magnificence, its sheer power.  I felt tiny and I've been inside much larger structures. (Insert joke here). 

The most awe-inspiring element for me, however, was to one side, in the Chapter House.  Housed in a glass case, open to show a couple of pages, was the St Chad Gospels.  This is a religious text that has been in the possession of the Cathedral since at least the Tenth Century, and was probably written a couple of hundred years before that.  It contains some of the earliest written Welsh, as well as inked illustrations.

I stood and stared at the book for longer than was polite.  That book predated the Norman Conquest; it came from a time we know very little about.  It was there, in front of me, a piece of human history from 1300 years ago.  It had passed through thousands of hands, almost all of whom were now long dead.  We're a speck of nothingness on the planet, a fraction of its existence; each life is fleeting and insignificant.  This book transcended us all.

I stepped back out into the garden at the front of the cathedral, a little annoyed.  Why had nobody ever told me about Lichfield?  I'd known it as a name, in passing.  I'd seen it on signs.  Nobody had ever told me it was so charming, so pretty, so eminently visitable.  It was like a less pretentious Chester.

Back past the foot of the Minster Pool, into the centre again, to what seemed to be the nightlife part of the city, with restaurants and pubs trying to tempt me in.  There was that man again:

Samuel Johnson seems to look vaguely baffled in every single picture.  It's as though he thoroughly disapproves of whatever you're getting up to in several centuries time.

Eventually I reached the edge and the spell was broken.  The cars returned.  The buildings became more basic and prosaic.  The hustle came back.  I reached the station, and was initially impressed with it: a stout red brick building from 1882.

In close up, though, it disappointed.  The facilities for passengers were a tiny ticket office - the rest of the building was sealed away from sight.  I walked past the waiting cabbies and down a subway to the steps to the island platform.

At least here they'd maintained the historic look, with period-appropriate painting and nicely restored awnings.  The waiting room was locked up tight but still, if you squinted, you could just about pretend you was waiting for a steam train.

Lichfield in short then: nice city.  Shame about the stations.