Monday 22 April 2024

Moody Blues

 The guard scanned my e-ticket.  He looked at the results.  

"You've come all the way from Liverpool to go to Bromsgrove?"

"Yeah," I smiled.

"Never mind."  He walked away.

Bromsgrove started well enough.  It got a new station a few years ago and it's a whizzy, modern design, with a ticket office-slash-coffee shop, bike racks, and public toilets.  It was, however, starting to suffer from that very British disease - a lack of maintenance.  Eight years since it was unveiled to the public, and there was rust on the metal steps, and the toilets were seemingly permanently locked.  Giving a town an asset is not enough - you need to keep it up.

The design was pleasing and interesting though, particularly for a small town.  It could've been a couple of lift shafts and a ticket machine but they'd spent a few quid making it interesting.  I particularly liked the massive double arrow tower; no mistaking what this was.

I walked through what seemed like acres of car park to head into the town centre, and got a surprise as I did so.

Twenty-five minutes to get into town?  I'd looked at it on the map and it had seemed like no more than a gentle stroll.  Not centrally located, of course, but certainly not twenty-five minutes away.  I huffed in frustration and walked out of the car park, past a Co-op and a knot of small modern shops, then over a steep hump onto the main road.

By the time a heavy rain drop had fallen directly into my ear, somehow, I was in a foul mood.  I had written Bromsgrove off.  It was annoying me.  The distance to the town centre, the boring walk along a straight road, the fact that it had taken me literally hours to get here - I was furious.  I was filled with a bubbling resentment that I had come all this way and found nothing but this.

Signs kept popping up to tell me how close I was to the town centre, a countdown that barely seemed to change; I had walked what felt like miles and then a sign appeared telling me I was still twenty minutes away.  Filthy lies.  A dual carriageway appeared, and I crossed via a staggered crossing that seemed to actively hate permitting pedestrians over the road.  This was the A38, and I'd planned on walking down it to get to Droitwich Spa.

Not any more.  I'd whipped myself up into such a self-pitying fury I'd decided I was going to get out of Bromsgrove as soon as possible.  One circuit of the town centre and then I was gone.

In fairness, it was a neat little town centre.  A single pedestrianised road, nicely done up, tidy trees and relatively few empty shops.  The Works pumped bubbles into the air, making it a little festive, while a young girl was setting up a microphone and speaker for a spot of al fresco busking.  Importantly, a branch of my nemesis, the Edinburgh Wool Shop, was long closed and boarded up.  The rain had been intermittent, one of those on again off again affairs where the skies really can't get up the energy for a proper storm, so there were blue skies above.

I reached the end of the street, passing a statue devoted to AE Housman and a couple of less than charming looking pubs, then turned and went back.  It was lunchtime, and there were schoolkids spilling all over the place, some of them being so loud and noisy I genuinely wondered if they were in pain.  I passed a kebab shop with a sign in the window: Orange chips served Tuesdays and Saturdays.  I'd never heard of orange chips before, so I did a bit of googling and discovered they are a Black Country delicacy.  The orange refers to their colour, as they're cooked in a dyed batter; what it's dyed with apparently varies from shop to shop, with paprika or turmeric being the most common explanation.  This seems to be a real game changer, chip wise, if you listen to the locals, but as with many of these traditions, I can't help thinking if it was that good it'd be everywhere.  Banoffee pie was only invented in the 1970s and now it's on every menu in the land; orange chips have supposedly been around since the war and yet never spread from a very tight area of the Midlands.

I walked back the way I came. The busker was singing Michael Jackson's Earth Song, which reminded me of an ex who was absolutely obsessed with the song, and would tunelessly croon "what about sunrise? What about rain?" to himself in idle moments.  I headed down to the Waitrose at the end of the street to use their toilet, but in another move deliberately contrived by Bromsgrove to irritate me, it was out of order.  I ducked over a small stream and onto Station Street, thinking that might be a more interesting route back to the railway.  It was a narrow, curved road, threading between car showrooms and engineering works, and it became clear why the New Road was built instead to get people in and out of the centre.  

A couple of turns and I found myself at the entrance to what looked like a park.  I considered walking in, for a variation, but there was something slightly unwelcoming about the entrance.  I checked the map and discovered that this was in fact the northern entrance to the Bromsgrove School, a large private school whose alumni include Ian Carmichael, Jimmy from Emmerdale, and the legendary Richard Wattis ("Hello, Fenella? I'm afraid I shan't be able to get back for dinner.  A sort of war's broken out.").  My hackles rose up again, angry at this bastion of privilege, and became even more pronounced as I followed the road south and realised that their campus was absolutely enormous.  As is often the case for public schools, I've found, the Wikipedia page has its own Scandals section, one part to cover a price fixing cartel, the other for a teacher who was imprisoned for having sex with the girls.  Imagine paying fifteen thousand pounds a term for your daughter to be molested.  (I'd like to point out that my ordinary, bog-standard, free to attend comprehensive school does not have a section for Scandals).

Soon I was back at the station in the middle of a sudden hailstorm - I appeared to be experiencing every kind of weather that day - and ready for a train to take me to Droitwich Spa.  I can safely say I will not be returning to Bromsgrove.

Droitwich's station wasn't as modern or clean.  It had two platforms between trees, and a small 1970s style ticket office with a sign in the window informing us it was closed for the rest of the day.  The Victorian waiting rooms had been boarded up and covered with murals to try and make them less disappointing.  There were old-fashioned signal arms at each end of the platform.

Beyond the station were a few industrial units and a takeaway with its window entirely missing: a handwritten sign on the wooden shutters advised me they were OPEN AS USUAL.  Then there was a ring road, and a Morrison's, and it seemed like the "spa" part of the name seemed a little over-promising, like when people double-barrel a child's name to make it sound classy, not realising that Monica-Jade is actually a thousand times more vulgar.

The spa part comes because salt has been extracted from here for thousands of years; indeed, the Roman name for the town was Salinae.  The water here is incredibly saline, and so an attempt was made to turn it into a spa during the Regency period.  The problem was that "taking the water", as at Leamington or Bath, was impossible because of the high salt content, so instead people were encouraged to bathe in it to cure their aches and pains.  There's still a lido in the town (although there was a period when it was closed for lack of Council funds) and they're rightly proud of their long industry.

The shopping precinct was a proper, old-fashioned precinct, with covered paths and a square with a coffee shop in the middle.  There was a queue out the door of Quality Crust as people went for a sandwich.  I took a few turns and ended up by the library, a modern hub with a backdrop of gabled buildings.  Droitwich was turning out to be a fascinating mix of old and new.

Behind a vaguely homoerotic statue devoted to saltworkers was the bulk of the Raven Hotel, a mishmash of a building with bits dating back to the 16th century.  Sadly, it was long closed, the restaurant sign collapsing, and destined to be flats someday.  Possibly.  It is of course listed, and so there are the usual delays where a developer tries to reconcile commerce and history.  For now it's dotted with CCTV signs and warnings of demolition and danger.

I ended up on Droitwich's traditional High Street, sidelined by the precinct and the ring road but now reborn as a street of independent shops and bars.  Lightbulbs had been strung across the road to give it a more festive air.  It had tattoo parlours and restaurants and a barber with a picture of Christopher Walken advising us Walkens Welcome.

I ducked down a side path to take a look at the Tower Hill Brine Pump, the last remaining one in the town, where a barred window allowed me to peek in at the machinery inside.

Droitwich Spa was, inarguably, a better place to visit than Bloody Bromsgrove, or perhaps I'd simply mellowed over the course of the afternoon.  It certainly had a better class of pub.  I picked one at random and had a pint of Kinver Light Railway Beer, purely for the name. The barman was a cheery sort, happily yammering on to his regulars, though his attempts to engage in conversation with me were met with my usual confusion.  My brain operates on a delay when it comes to unexpected chat; someone talks to me, it sits there for a while to take on board the fact that another human wants me to speak, forces me to grunt out some kind of weak acknowledgement, then takes its time coming up with a proper answer - by which time the other person has already moved on because I seem to be a monosyllabic oddball.  This is why I thank the lord for the internet, where I can type things and come off as clever and funny, rather than the tragic reality.

With the pint inside me - oh alright, two - I walked back to the station, taking a different route under the ring road and ending up in a no-mans-land of bare industrial spaces and spiked fences.  Droitwich Spa was a strange little town, mixing genuine heritage and beauty with some incredibly ugly work spaces.

I ate a sandwich on the platform to soak up some of the beer then got on the train to Hartlebury.  I'd miscalculated this part of the trip.  While there are two trains an hour north from Droitwich Spa through the station, only one of them actually stops; I'd not realised this until I'd checked the times in the pub, and now I realised I had a narrow window before I needed to start my way back to New Street for my pre-booked ticket.

Once again, the station and the community it served were at a distance from one another.  I didn't want to risk walking off and missing my connection back, so I took a look down the valley towards the village and then turned left.

Was my decision to stay in the vicinity of the station influenced by the fact that the building has been converted into a pub and microbrewery?  I couldn't possibly comment.

The Tap House was an oddity of a pub.  A name like that makes you think it'd be hipster aligned, serving craft beers only, while its position in the countryside and its attached restaurant made you think it was more of a country eatery.  In fact it was both these things, and also neither.  As the afternoon wore on, it began to fill with workmen.  This was a proper boozer, a place for locals to come and unwind after the day, and it was charming.  It wasn't perfect - the reading rack offered up Caravan and Motor Home, Commercial Motors and the Daily Mail - but it was near as dammit.  A real community drinking spot.  The railwayana was a cherry on top.

I walked back to the platform, jollier than before, another three stations off the list.  The afternoon had actually ended up being relatively pleasant.  Probably because I was no longer in Bromsgrove.