Sunday 24 March 2024

The Morning Shift

Motorway service stations are rarely a high point of anyone's journey.  They sit close to the carriageway, sometimes spread over the traffic, a halt for a pee and a sandwich and then out again.  Any romance of the open road has long gone.  Their facilities are frequently old and overcrowded.  Their forecourts are expansive and badly laid out.  

At five in the morning, you can, if you squint, get a bit of glamour out of them.  I walked out of the Tamworth M42 Travelodge and there was a silence ahead of me.  The only lights were an orange glow from the KFC.  There were no people.  Cars were stilled.

I turned away from the parking area, towards a hump of grass with a couple of picnic tables optimistically strewn across it.  I'd stayed overnight, walking out here from Wilnecote, having a Burger King in my room with a bottle of Coke before getting an early start.

This overnight was, at heart, the reason for my three day trip to Leicester.  I could've got the other stations any time.  Polesworth, however, could only be collected at one particular point.

Polesworth railway station was never that popular.  Its position on the West Coast Main Line meant it was in the way.  Fast trains needed to get by; they didn't need to be held up by a stopping service.  It got fewer and fewer trains over the years until it closed temporarily during the modernisation of the railway in the early 21st Century.  

You can't simply close a railway station forever; it requires an Act of Parliament.  However, during the modernisation works, the footbridge to the southbound platform was taken away... and never replaced.  The number of trains able to serve the station halved immediately; there was no way on or off one of the platforms.  As a consequence, a not very popular station became largely useless, and the timetable was altered to reflect this.  You can't close a railway station, but you can run the bare minimum service to it as a token effort.

One train, at 06:48 on weekday mornings, to Crewe.  That's it.  That's the only service Polesworth gets any more.  

Getting there from the Tamworth services meant turning away from the motorway - obviously, I wasn't about to walk down the hard shoulder - and disappearing onto a long closed back road.  Lots of service stations have these secret exits, put in place for emergency access, but frequently closed in recent years as locals became wise to them and started using them as unofficial junctions.  This one was a dark tunnel of trees at the back of a warehouse.

I'd planned ahead and bought a small pocket torch from Asda.  Without it, I'd have been in absolute darkness.  I felt the prickle of anxiety as I walked, not knowing what was ahead for me, mixed with a thrill of being alone.  I love it when I feel outside of the world.  It may have been a tarmacked back route now mainly used by dog walkers, but at that early hour, it was my empire.

Too soon I reached the barrier closing off the road to traffic and I was on the pavement in the hamlet of Birchmoor.  I lowered the beam of the torch, in case I accidentally swung it into a bedroom window and scared some poor old dear into thinking the aliens were landing.  The houses were quiet.  I crossed over the motorway and got a giddy glimpse at the traffic below.

If you're one of those people who comes to this blog for the photography; firstly, who hurt you?  And secondly, I'll have to apologise.  At that time in the morning, in that level of darkness, my poor camera was useless.  With a flash, without a flash, all it produced were blurry disappointments.  I had to fall back on my iPhone which, presumably, has a whole series of microprocessors working away to try and make sense of what you're pointing at.  It means that some of these pictures have a romantic wash to them that is nothing to do with the reality of the scene and is instead Tim Cook making every photo Insta-ready.

As I turned onto the main road, all the street lamps came on, instantly, at once.  I felt that little frisson of excitement, the idea that I might be magic and that I'd turned on the lights with some hitherto undiscovered superpower, a notion I get every time this happens.  I checked the time: exactly five thirty.  I turned right at a pub which I absolutely must inform you is called The Game Cock Inn - sounds like a wonderful way to pass an afternoon - and on to the outskirts of Polesworth.  A single car passed me, the first one I'd seen since the motorway, and I saw the driver give me a questioning look as he went by.

The stilled village swam up around me.  The road descended slowly down a hill.  Some of the houses were starting to show life now; bedroom and bathroom windows illuminated, the residents not yet managing to make it downstairs.  A man appeared with an enthusiastic dog - the first time I shared a path with a human all morning - and he nodded a hello before disappearing down a side road with the deeply unattractive name of The Gullet.  

A humpback bridge took me over the Coventry Canal, nothing more than a black streak at this time of day.  I'd reached the centre of the village now, with a fire station and a cross roads, sprawling wide over.  I crossed leisurely, wondering how busy it got in the day, then took the bridge over the River Anker.  I could hear it, rather than see it, the thrash of water in amongst the dark of the flood plains.  

This seemed to be the traditional heart of the village, with half-timbered buildings and historic pubs.  The Red Lion featured a slightly camp sign, with an image that looked less like a proud lion and more like a poodle begging for a bit of your tea.  There were signs for the chippy, and a police station converted into a home, the blue lamp still outside; is that allowed?  Isn't that like impersonating a police officer, but with your house?

Commuters were starting their Fridays, driving through the village a little too fast, taking advantage of the empty road.  The gap between cars got shorter and shorter.  Now there were lights on downstairs in the houses on the road, with the occasional resident visible in the front room, shuffling about in a dressing gown.  Enormous flat screen televisions flickered on walls as breakfast television caught you up with whatever atrocities had occurred while you slept.

The road rose again, another gentle hill, and then I turned off into a network of slight cul-de-sacs and semis.  There was, to my surprise, a sign pointing to the station; I'd have thought they'd have taken that down to avoid disappointing weary travellers.

The tracks became visible as I walked and then, finally, I was at Polesworth station.  It was tucked away at the end of Orchard Close, with a turning circle in front.

I walked up to the gate and pushed.  It didn't move.  My heart sank.  I'd been scared of this.  Polesworth might theoretically get a service, but that didn't mean London Northwestern had to look after it.  I pictured them locking and unlocking the gate either side of the scheduled service, one man hovering for ten minutes with a key to let any potential passengers in or out.  Or maybe they didn't do that?  Maybe they left it locked up.  The odds on anyone using the station were so slim - why not gamble?

Perhaps there was a keypad, or a "press here to contact us" button?  Nothing.  I paced back and forth, panicking.  My main worry had been that the train wouldn't stop at all; now I was worried I'd watch it stop from the other side of the fence.  Time ticked away.  Five minutes.  Ten.  No sign of anyone to unlock it.

And then I thought... it is locked, right?

I walked back and pushed.  It resisted - but there was no padlock.  I reached through and grabbed the bolt.  It slid aside easily and allowed me access.  

For a moment I stood on the platform, calling myself all sorts of names.  I'd nearly lost Polesworth entirely thanks to my own stupidity.  But now I was here, waiting for a train I really hoped would stop.

As the dawn crept over me, I wandered up and down the platform (there were no benches).  I was surprised that the station was in such good nick, to be honest.  The lights were LED; they were painted in the green corporate colours of London Northwestern.  The noticeboards were filled with up to date notices.  It felt like it was being taken care of, far more than some stations I've been to with much better services.

It was so nicely maintained, in fact, that I wondered why they'd not bothered restoring the station to a fit state.  Polesworth village has a population of about 10,000 people, a fair few of whom I'll bet would appreciate a service to Stafford and Northampton.  The local council has vaguely suggested a new station with a car park so that people can commute - the M42 passes close by, after all - but other than making it an aspiration the plan hasn't got any further.  

Then, something unexpected happened: more potential passengers arrived.  Two men walked onto the platform and stopped in shock to see me waiting there.  They stared for a moment, then started to pace up and down the platform, chatting away, and not paying me any mind.

I realised, from the brief snatches of conversation I heard as they passed, that these were also Men Who Liked Trains.  There were a total of 188 people using Polesworth in 2022/23, giving it a certain frisson of notoriety as one of the least used stations in Britain, and as such it attracts a disproportionate amount of interest.  I was a little disappointed, as I'd hoped that there would be one person using Polesworth as an actual regular station for their commute.  I felt a bit bad for ruining the men's exciting visit.  They were going to be Kings of Polesworth and they weren't even the first people on the platform.  I wondered if they'd also stayed at the Travelodge, and had been half an hour behind me the whole time.  Imagine going all that way just to visit a railway station; what a pair of nerds.

At exactly 06:48 the train slid into the platform and stopped.  I didn't have to signal for it or anything; the driver did his duty correctly.  I boarded, delighted, and joined a lot of half-asleep people on their way to Crewe.  Nobody checked my ticket, which was disappointing.  I wanted to produce my single from Polesworth.

Although I should register my complaint that there's no totem sign outside.  I had to settle for a platform sign to prove I'd been here.  Ignore my downcast face: I was absolutely thrilled inside.

With that station collected, the only real block to me finishing off the map was gone.  Polesworth was a station that involved a certain amount of hassle - overnight stay, early morning walk, limited service.  Now I've got it, the rest should be easy.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to my Ko-fi.  It really helped pay for this little trip.  If you feel like donating, you can find the link here.  Don't worry if you don't. 


diamond geezer said...

And this is why I will never visit all the stations in the West Midlands. You'd never get me in a Tamworth Travelodge for a start.

Delighted you've been, though, and with a tale epic enough to match the achievement.

David B said...

How many of the 'Top 10' least used stations have you visited? Quite a few, I think.

The Shillito said...

I actually found myself in a situation where Polesworth station would've been useful not too long ago. I went to visit Twycross Zoo and technically speaking Polesworth is the closest train station, though it would've needed a bus service to get to the zoo itself, which Atherstone has instead. I ended up driving for various reasons, and I stopped by Polesworth out of curiosity, but as we all know it doesn't count if you don't get a train to or from it.

John said...

Why didn't you go now (April/May) when you could have done the walk without the torch?

Karen Wiggins said...

This is aweesome