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?


David B said...

LOL at 'Brut for men'

Anonymous said...

That was the old Centro livery from the 1990s/2000s, or at least an approximation of it.