Wednesday 20 March 2024

A Tale Of Two Cities (Actually Small Towns)

Harry Beck was, obviously, a genius, and the way he redesigned the London Underground map to be diagrammatic rather than geographic was game changing.  Having said that, it also lead to a lot of absolutely filthy lies being inflicted upon the public.  I had two more stations to visit, in Hinckley and Atherstone, and they looked reasonably close on the West Midlands Railway map.  About the same as South Wigston and Narborough, only across rather than along.  

The reality is the two stations are at least eight miles apart, nudging ten depending on your route, and the path is mostly along the straight as a die Roman Road slash dual carriageway.  It is, in short, not worth doing.  I'll happily walk for three hours at a time if it's interesting or scenic or historic.  Lolloping along Watling Street for an afternoon with nothing to look at except the backs of Romanian delivery trucks?  No thank you.

I decided it would be easier to treat both towns as one offs, getting a look at their high streets then returning to the station for the next train out.  Hinckley was first.

I'm always pleased to visit a station and find it's still got all the trappings of a proper halt; the building, the awning, the footbridge.  Hinckley's footbridge doubles as a right of way across the railway and I crossed the tracks opposite a lot of people with shopping bags heading home after a visit to the town centre.

From the station it was a steep walk up a hill to the town itself, past residential streets and a couple of pubs.  Hinckley's newest shopping centre, The Crescent, loomed over the road.  I'm not sure why councils are still permitting this sort of development.  For one thing, it was an incredibly ugly block, as the five screen cinema meant there was a requirement for large black boxes and it didn't matter what it looked like on the outside.

Then, of course, you've got the fact that this is a brand new shopping development that isn't alongside all the other ones.  It's a draw away from the traditional retail heart and it's unfortunate.  This is a leisure based development (plus a Sainsbury's) but it's a separation; you have a Prezzo there, not with all the traditional stores.  Perhaps I'm being unfair - the road to the station in a town is rarely the top priority, and I'm sure it's nicer from the other side.

Besides, Hinckley didn't seem to be doing too badly.  I continued along streets that seemed to be filled with businesses, then past a primary school with a playground of excitable kids.  It was World Book Day and the mix of outfits was a joy.  I'd have been a lot stricter about the criteria for dress up if I was a teacher, though.  There were a few too many Marvel superheroes for my liking, which, ok, you could say are in books, but I don't think that's quite in the spirit of the day.  I pictured some poor girl dressed as Amy March leaning against the wall because her bustle and corset meant she couldn't sit down while fourteen Spider-Men made pew pew noises as they shot their webs at one another.  Amy will be the winner in the long run, of course, because she has an enquiring mind that appreciates great literature, but there and then in that playground she'd have felt a right loser.

There's something a bit odd about that sign celebrating "Entrepreneurial Hinckley" with a top hat on it.  It's probably meant to make you think of thrusting imagination, like that Stephen bloke on Dragon's Den who won't invest in anything unless they mention TikTok and use pointless buzzwords, but it actually comes off as more Alf Roberts.  Rotund shopkeepers stood in back rooms with glasses of sherry chatting about potholes.  

Hinckley's long, straight main street was remarkably well stocked, and even on a weekday afternoon there were plenty of shoppers.  There were the usual names but also local businesses with their own USPs.  I was particularly taken with a dessert shop offering 12% off collection and dine in.  That 12% fascinated me.  I'd love to see the accounting that lead to that particular number.

Hinckley reminded me of Wigan.  No, wait; hear me out.  There was something about its long pedestrianised street on a steep hill that made me think of Greater Manchester.  While Wigan has pies, however, Hinckley has stockings and socks, having been a centre of the hosiery trade for centuries.  I love finding out a town has a proud past as purveyors of an incredibly niche item, which probably comes from having a home town that was once famous for making hats.  I sadly couldn't find a specialist store where I could purchase some Hinckley Socks, but that's probably for the best as I have a sock drawer that is already begging to be edited.

The pedestrian zone ended but the shops continued, though they became a little more specialist.  A European food store had a graphic in the window informing me that French Hot Dogs Are Available Here!  I'd never heard of a French Hot Dog, and having discovered what they are, it's very fortunate that the doctor told me about my high cholesterol before this trip, otherwise I'd be suffering a coronary right now after consuming fourteen of them in a row.  I turned off into a side road, past a shop that sold dance wear and a vinyl shop called Nervous Records, and began the descent back down the hill.

This is in no way a slur on the people of Hinckley who are, I'm sure, a fine and proud community of home owners.  But as I walked past their houses I noticed there was a certain tendency to flamboyance in their exterior decoration.  It was as though the town's residents had a competition among themselves to make their houses as individual as possible.  Artex.  Coloured paint.  Mock-Tudor beam work.  Shutters.  Up and under garages with fake hinges at the side to try and make a slab of steel look like a wooden gate.

Every other home seemed to have a twist on it.  It certainly gave me something to spot as I walked parallel to the railway line.  A long row of homes had been squeezed in here, but they looked like good, decent houses, even if their view was a train line on one side and factories on the other.  

It was a bit of a surprise to find myself back at the station; I'd not really taken in that I'd done a complete loop.  I took it as a sign that I should go to the next town and, after a change in Nuneaton, I was alighting at Atherstone.  I was pleased to have reached here via London North Western; after a few Cross Country's it was good to return to the actual purpose of this blog.

Across, on the opposite platform, was another fine railway building, with a little more pomp than the one at Hinckley.  I was on the Trent Valley Line now, the section of the West Coast Main Line that avoids Birmingham, so it was unsurprising to me that it had a little more zhush than its predecessor.  The boarded up windows were a disappointment, mind.

I left the platform and ducked under one of the lowest railway bridges I've ever walked under; the clearance was 6' 3" according to the warning notice, but even I, at a lowly 5' 9", felt like the top of my head was grazing the ironwork.

I emerged on the other side, mad keen to take a look at the station itself, but was disappointed.  It turned out the building was no longer used for railway purposes and was instead a vet's surgery.  The access to the platform was via a narrow alleyway at the side rather than through the far grander building.  What a let down.

On the plus side, the station is a lot closer to the town than Hinckley, and soon I'd reached the appropriately named Long Street.  Atherstone was a convenient spot to stop on Watling Street, the route from London to Wales, given that it's virtually at the centre of the country, and the sheer number of pubs along Long Street would attest to this.  The sad thing - particularly for an old alcoholic like me - was that none of them looked very welcoming.  One in particular had a tranche of old men sat in the window giving the kind of looks to passers by that could technically count as a hate crime.  There was also a pub called The Clock, which was all well and good, except the clock was showing the wrong time; I cannot support such behaviour, even if I was gagging for a pint at that point.

Beyond that were plenty of other shopping options, though Atherstone didn't have the breadth of Hinckley.  The constant traffic down the centre of the street detracted from the atmosphere too - I dread to think what it would've been like if they hadn't built a bypass - but I still found myself charmed.  It was another busy, thriving little community, and I felt as though people would enjoy living here.

The market square, with the church at one end and a tavern on the corner, was a classic of its type.  The scrawled chalk paintings by the local kids on the flagstones added to its appeal.  I went back down Market Street ("formerly Butchers Row") and tried to ignore the strong smell of fish and chips wafting over me.  High cholesterol, remember.  

I walked as far as the Conservative Club (or the "Connie Club" as it called itself on a chalkboard, giving it a chumminess that no doubt dissipated the second you saw a framed portrait of Margaret Thatcher) then turned and walked back.  On one corner, there was a sudden scream from a woman with two friends; she dropped her shopping bags and began thrashing at her head in a panic.  "It went in me bag!"

Her two pals watched with a mix of amusement and mild horror.  Clearly something had fallen on her and then plummeted into the carrier.  They backed away from it, then slowly approached, before gingerly feeling around for whatever terrifying wildlife had launched itself at her.  The first woman burst out laughing.  "It were a bit of grass, you twat!"

I veered off the main drag for a little wander, spotting the constituency office for the local Tory MP (there was a To Let sign on it, but that seemed to be for the shop underneath; give it time).  The bus exchange sat opposite some more modern flats, and there was a 1970s bulk of red brick council offices.

Once again, I had the feeling that the town was "done".  It was pleasing, inoffensive, probably lovely to live in, but I couldn't see myself rushing back.  I wandered back towards the station, annoyed that I'd not been more inspired, annoyed that I'd not found a decent pub.  Then I noticed an A-board by the entrance to the station: The King's Head - A Warm Welcome To Customers Old And New.  It turned out Atherstone did have a decent pub; it just wasn't with all the others, but instead sat by a canal with a pleasing outdoor terrace and a nicely refurbished interior.

Let's not dwell on the fact that there were only two people in there, and one of them was me, shall we?

I had my pint - then another one, to be sure - then rolled back for my train.  That was the last station of the day, but there was one more to visit on this trip.  It would just be a bit more difficult to collect.


hazelnicholson said...

There's been a big scandal at Atherstone Conservative Club

Scott Willison said...

Well that explains why the chalkboard said "all welcome"...