Sunday 26 May 2024

A Day In May

I am normally quite lucky with the British rail network.  It's rare that my trips are interrupted by cancellations or delays.  There's often a bit of overcrowding, there's sometimes a late arrival, but by and large, for someone who takes as many trains as I do, I have little to complain about.  

It does mean that when things do go wrong, I have a little anxiety attack.  So it was on my latest visit to Birmingham.  There was a problem with the signals at Jewellery Quarter, the WMR Twitter account helpfully informed me somewhere outside Wolverhampton.  Services on that line were meeting with delays and cancellations.

By the time I finally reached Moor Street, the problem had been fixed, but the trains were still a mess.  The platform was filled with grouchy passengers, their days out ruined, and the departure board was theoretical only.  A train for Stratford arrived, but I didn't board it because it was fast to Dorridge.  I settled in a seat on the one behind, only for the guard to announce that this one would also go fast, despite what the Next Train indicator had said, so I leapt off again.  Tyesley and Acocks Green, meanwhile, disappeared and reappeared from the board, seemingly at random - a service would be serving Tyesley, then it would vanish and be replaced by Acocks Green, then the same thing would happen in reverse.

All in all I spent nearly an hour on that platform waiting for the right one out.  It wasn't so bad.  It was a beautiful, warm day.  I had a podcast in my ears.  I could watch the excited trainspotters opposite, three men of advancing years jotting every new arrival down in their notebook.  I was curious about that - surely a dedicated trainspotter (and these men looked like they'd been doing it for decades) would already have collected all the boring old commuter trains on the Snow Hill Line?  I thought trainspotting was about trying to see all the trains, not the same ones over and over, but maybe I've been getting it wrong.

I wanted to go to go to Acocks Green, the more distant of the stations I planned visiting that day, but because of the chaos of the trains I decided I'd board the next one and get off wherever it stopped.  That turned out to be Tyesley, which I have been constantly misspelling as Tylesley because I think I'm being haunted by the Ghost of Ivy.  It's also pronounced Tile-sley, which feels counterintuitive to me.  Still, it's a nice enough station, painted in retro colours and with old fashioned signage.

The ticket office, though, is a proper gem.  It's retained all of its original tiles, on the walls and floor (or at least a very reasonable facsimile) and looks well-kept.  The benches could do with being a little more period-appropriate, and it would've been nice if the ticket window was actually open, but still.

Outside, it's more of the same; a stout Victorian building on a road bridge, with the towers of the city centre barely visible through the smoggy haze.  

I paused for the sign picture by a phone box that had seen better days but which still, despite everything, contained an actual phone.  Only one other person had come out of the station with me and he paced up and down.  His agitated tone, followed by a sharply barked conversation down his iPhone, made me think he wasn't happy with the West Midlands Railway service he'd received today.

The road split after the station, so I took the left hand branch past a furniture showroom with a skip outside and a door shop.  A row of downbeaten stores culminated in the very much closed A1 Lounge Suites, its windows barricaded, its white plastic columns outside hinting at a club which had never had any glamour even while it was open.  The sunshine baked the pavement and drivers went by a little too fast.

As the road shifted from commercial to residential, I got a pleasing surprise on a care home: a blue plaque dedicated to John Curry OBE, the Olympic gold medal winning figure skater.

John was the first British man to win a figure skating Olympic gold, at Innsbruck in 1976; he won the Sports Personality of the Year and was widely admired.  He was also gay, and was outed by an American interviewer after his win.  It was the start of the press treating him as a punching bag, and the public making him the target of their jokes.  By 1980, his place at the podium had been taken by Robin Cousins - another gay male figure skater, but one who didn't embarrass the British public by actually admitting it - and then Torvill and Dean came along and swept up figure skating in their undeniably heterosexual wake.  John Curry, meanwhile, moved to New York to get a bit of privacy.  He finally died in 1994 from AIDS-related illnesses.  He's often forgotten as a figure in the history books of Team GB, out of the closet before it was fashionable, a bit too effeminate for the nation to really take him to heart.  Even today, the local community group blog about the unveiling of his blue plaque mentions his "untimely death" and nothing more.

I did a little salute to the queer pioneer then ducked down a side road.  The Warwick Road was wide and boring.  Plenty of grass verges and trees but not much to look at.  Behind it, though, were neat little suburban streets with tidy Victorian villas.  Acocks Green - a name which is definitely not funny in the slightest - developed as a desirable place to live with the coming of the railway, and the red brick homes with neat plaques giving each one its own name - Ashby, Charfield, Bescot - were testament to this.  A husky dog watched me from a bare window, its owners inside painting the ceiling, while the plethora of building work and scaffolding hinted at upwardly mobile investors.  

On the corner of the road was a small church, with volunteers mowing the lawn and a gate inscribed with AND THOU SHALT LOVE THE LORD THY GOD WITH ALL THINE HEART AND WITH ALL THY SOUL AND WITH ALL THY MIGHT, then a quick dogleg and I was in Sherbourne Road.  The name Sherbourne always reminds me of my A-Level English teacher, a woman who transitioned from a Miss to a Mrs in the summer between my first and second years.  However, her and her husband - another teacher in the department - changed their name to Sherbourne, rather than have her take his name, as it was the place where they met.  As teenagers, this produced an eyeroll of cynicism, but from 2024 it seems quite sweet.  It says something I can't remember what her maiden name was, but Sherbourne is lodged in my head forever.

Sherbourne Road was more flats than houses, culminating in a decent block of 1970s homes surrounded by grass.  I had a vague sense of deja vu, and I wondered if I'd mucked up; if I'd actually collected this station before and forgotten to cross it off the map.  Turning the corner and seeing the station building on the bridge, I realised I was thinking of a spot in Manchester, back when I'd been collecting the tram stops.  I wish I could tell you where.  Names are nothing to me, they flit in and out of my head, signs that I dodged in front of.  Places, on the other hand, I remember with startling accuracy.  The BF and I recently had a few days away in North Yorkshire, and places I hadn't been to for a decade, tiny villages with stations hidden away, came swimming back into my memory with absolute clarity.  I was able to guide the car based entirely on a single visit in 2013.  If ever went to that street in Manchester again I'd remember it in nauseating detail, but for the time being, it's a mystery.

I went down to the platform, but the next train coming through didn't stop at Small Heath, so I went back up to street level for a bit of a wander around.  Like Tyseley, it was a decent little station, though not quite so pretty.  It had lifts to the platforms and electric doors, and I'm guessing that in the modernisation process some of its charm was taken away.

If the trains hadn't been a mess, I'd have gone from Acocks Green to Tyseley, and I would've missed out on the area round the station.  Which would've been a shame, because it was exactly the kind of community you want to find around a city transport hub.  Parades of shops under green trees; cafes, restaurants, grocery shops and churches; a big Victorian police station that was actually still in use as a police station (even if the query office was closed - I saw a man trying to shout his problem into the intercom on the doorstep).  Admittedly, the Great Western pub was surrounded by Heras fencing and had its windows shuttered with steel, but nothing's perfect.

I wandered down one side of the road, then back up the other.  The row of shops included the surgery for the local MP, Labour's Jess Phillips, a woman who does a lot of good work while also managing to be really quite irritating.  She's a little too keen on appearing on telly for my taste, a little too enamoured with being outspoken and brave and having celebrity friends.  This goes for all MPs who become regulars on Have I Got News For You or who have a podcast.  Just do your bloody job, will you?

(Incidentally, if you think I'm being unfair on her, you should meet the BF, a man so left wing even Lenin would ask him to tone it down a bit.  He has an internal rolodex of Labour MPs who he despises wholeheartedly because they were not sufficiently supportive of Jeremy Corbyn, and Jess Phillips is on his shit list.  I texted him this picture of her office, and he replied with one word: "Cunt.")

I walked back to the station, because nice though Acocks Green was - nope, still not a funny name, don't know what you're talking about - there wasn't really much to make you linger.  I passed a missing cat poster that dated from - oh dear - July last year and went down to the baking hot platform, where I found a lot of annoyed passengers.  It seems that the train I had spurned had then been cancelled, without warning or explanation, and the people waiting were furious.  As I walked down the trackside I got snatches of irate complaints into mobile phones - "no, they didn't say anything" - "it says half an hour but who knows" - "I could've got a bus".

I went away from the rest to eat my sandwiches and people watch.  I'm lucky enough to be able to travel on the trains during the week, when it's quiet, so it was unusual for me to be seeing the West Midlands Railway on a Saturday.  The crowd was younger, livelier, dressed down.  The sunshine had brought out the shorts and the t-shirts and the crop tops, and they carried with them a sense of optimism.  Even with their delayed journey, it was ok in the end, because there was no rush; this was a Saturday, and people were travelling for fun.  Admittedly, there may have been other factors contributing to their general merriment - there was a distinct scent of weed wafting from a couple of men, and a girl on a bench near me was telling her phone friend "I just want a drink, I don't care what" - but there wasn't the urgency you sometimes feel on weekday travel.

Nope, still not funny.

One train ride later and I was one of two people alighting at Small Heath.  My companion first approached a man on the platform for a cigarette - he didn't have one - then he came over to me.  "I like your t-shirt," he said.  "It's a great t-shirt."

Three thoughts went through my head, one after the other:

1) it's not a t-shirt, it's a shirt, it's got a collar and buttons for God's sake;
2) that was an unprompted compliment from a stranger, how lovely;
3) he's clearly not the full shilling, you should probably get out of here.

I mumbled a bashful thank you and took the stairs two at a time.  There was no need - a group of Asian lads had come onto the platform, missing the train into the city by seconds, and their good natured bantering was a far more attractive target.

Up at street level there was another hazy view of Birmingham in the distance.  Small Heath station is only two miles from the Rotunda, but it felt like another world.  The peaks and spires seemed to be an island with nothing to do with this grimy back street.  There was no connection, no ramp up to the skyscrapers; they were off doing their thing and there may as well have been a moat between us and them.

The road south was clogged with traffic, nose to tail, barely moving.  I wasn't sure if there'd been an accident or if this was the normal state of affairs.  There'd be the occasional scream of music through open windows - people who do this are never listening to anything good, are they? - or an irate honk because someone hadn't moved to fill the gap in front within the requisite point three of a nanosecond.  The heat was making us grumpy now, sulky, and being trapped in a tin box wouldn't help.

A cross over the canal, then the scent of freshly cut grass in the park, its playground empty for the afternoon.  I went over to the other side of the road via a pedestrian crossing - the traffic may have been slow, but I didn't trust them to allow me across unless there was a green man - and took a right.

Doof, doof, doof-doof-doof do-do-do-do.

Walford Road was a standard inner city street.  Tight packed terraced houses with a bay window and a tiny yard out front.  Cars wedged onto the pavement as much as they dared.  A few trees, every once in a while, tall and trimmed.  I walked past a man sat on the wall with two adorable tiny toddlers, excitedly waving at passers by, one being cuddled on his dad's lap.  A 24 hour supermarket advertised its launderette and service washes: Est 1978 was posted on the end.  I was following a woman down the road, at a respectful distance so she didn't think I was stalking her.  We approached a part of the pavement that had been narrowed by a parked white van, and in the gap, three boys on bikes laughed and joked.  Even on a hot day like this, they were wearing the uniform of ne'er do wells, hoodies over their head, black face masks over the lower part of their face.  I was a little trepidatious but the woman simply said "excuse me boys" and they parted for us, one of them even saying sorry for getting in our way.  

At the end of the street, where it met the busy Stafford Road, the land had been cleared for the Islamic Centre of Britain, a proposed mosque-community centre-learning place that seemed to have some nice CGI's but nothing more.  Its website is still appealing for donations to help it get built.  

This part of Birmingham formed one edge of the Balti Triangle, the place where the famous Balti was actually invented, and which had once been filled with restaurants serving the dish.  Times had changed, however.  You can get a Balti more or less anywhere now, and the area around Stafford Road has reverted back to being a local centre for the Asian population.  Chicken takeaways and dessert shops had filled in where they'd been.

I was in a minority here.  Almost every face I saw was Asian; I would occasionally see a white face outside one of the cafes, or waiting at a bus stop, but by and large it was me and a lot of people who didn't look like me.

I could see how, if you were a white person, this could be intimidating.  Looking around and seeing Halal stores and Asian grocers, women in hijab and men in thobes, nobody who looks like you.  I could see how this might lead you to think it was a "no-go" area for you, an alien place where you wasn't welcome.  But they were just people.  They were the same people shopping and talking and eating and being themselves.  I never felt threatened or in danger or out of place; this was still clearly England, with ads for Matalan and the new Mad Max film on the bus stops, with double deckers and the odd crisp packet on the pavement.  This was a different kind of England but there are different kinds of England everywhere.  That's one of the good things about this country, that we're all rubbing up against one another in our own little communities, that people are allowed to simply get on with their lives and so long as they don't bother anyone everything's fine.  As the great philosopher Belinda Carlisle once said, live your life, be free.  

Besides, at least this was different.  I've been all over the country and I've seen the same high street over and over.  Boots, Smiths, Tesco Express, vape shop, tanning shop, hairdresser.  Starbucks and Costa and Caffe Nero.  Marks if you're posh, Home and Bargain if you're not.  Empty Debenhams, empty Wilko, empty Woolies if things are really bad.  Bit of pedestrianisation and a statue to Queen Victoria.  Over and over.  At least here I was seeing things I'd never seen before, window displays that were intriguing, smells that tempted me in a different way to the usual grease of a chippy or a Greggs.  

The road ducked under a railway line and brought me out at the massive Camp Hill Circus, a roundabout so huge its wooded centre probably counted as a National Forest, and I followed the dual carriageway of the ring road.  As usual for the centre of Birmingham, this was a road that was built for cars, and pedestrians were a resented concession.  Heavy traffic swung by belching out pollution - my lungs were probably two shades darker after that day - and beside me were old factories and tinny industrial units.

Even a hint of water couldn't dress this part of town.  Birmingham likes to boast it has more canals than Venice, but this is very much a quantity vs quality factoid.  You can't really compare the ramshackle beauty of elegant Italian waterways with an oily cut round the back of a warehouse.

I had a little while until my train so I headed up the hill, not really realising how steep it was.  Regular readers (hello you!) will be aware of my fondness for sports stadia, a fondness which is diametrically opposite to my fondness for actual sport.  For some reason, I just like them.  My trips round the West Midlands had taken me to Aston Villa and West Brom so I thought, as I was in the area, I'd go and have a look at Birmingham City's home ground, St Andrew's.

The season had finished now - which was why I was visiting, by the way - and it looked like they'd immediately sent in the builders to try and refurbish the place fast.  The car park was a mass of mini cranes and diggers and fencing.  I was intrigued to see they had a Kop end, which is always odd for me; yes, I know there's a history to football grounds having Kops, but in 2024, there's only one worth mentioning, so you may as well rename yours.

Birmingham City was one of the reasons my final station still existed.  Bordesley station gets one Parliamentary service a week, and they've timed it for 14:08 on a Saturday so at least it can be slightly useful in getting people to the football ground.  That single service was also the reason why I'd ventured to Birmingham at the weekend; it had to be collected.

I approached the station with some trepidation.  The problem with somewhere that gets such a rare service is you're not sure how much the train company actually cares about it.  You don't know if they'll go to the expense of unlocking it for the one or two people who might possibly use it.  I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted the open gate under the viaduct, and headed into the darkness, blissfully cool after my sweaty hour's walk.

The graffiti on the walls was the angry kind, furious with the city council for not supporting the homeless and spending the budget on, and I quote, "shit".  This was of course Birmingham who don't have any budget left to spend on anything but that's by the bypass.  I could see how this cool, sheltered space might be attractive to homeless people, and also, why the city council were very keen indeed to stop them moving in.  You should never look down on any1 unless your helping them back up & into life read one piece.  Bear that in mind on July 4th, would you?

Up top was what you'd expect from a station that was barely used.  A single island platform.  A shelter with no seat.  A small emergency contact panel.  There was a smart card validator, which I'm sure gets absolutely no use whatsoever - who would be checking tickets here?  

Bordesley station's days may be numbered.  Even as I write, the Camp Hill line is being brought back into passenger use, with three new stations opening soon.  That route goes from the city centre to Kings Norton and the trains will terminate at New Street, which is less than ideal.  New Street is always busting at the seams and adding any additional services is a nightmare - the new arrival is only possible because the Cross City line isn't back at pre-Covid service levels, so there's a little bit of slack.  The ideal situation would be to build a tunnel underneath and create an S-Bahn but nobody ever seems to want that so instead they'd like to send these trains into Moor Street, which has plenty of room for a new platform and isn't choked with other trains, but to do that you'd have to build a new chord... right through Bordesley.

Everybody wants this to happen.  Everybody thinks this is a great idea.  Nobody wants to pay for it.  As a result, the Camp Hill line will open in a sub-optimal fashion, New Street will continue to be stuffed to the gills, and Bordesley will carry on getting one train a week.  If the new chord came in you could build a brand new station that would enable interchange between Camp Hill and Stratford services, which would alleviate pressure on the city centre even more, but anyway, let's not go mad, be happy you've got a new railway line at all.  

Sweat had run into my eyes from the walk and so I took advantage of the empty station to lift my shirt and wipe my face with it.  At that exact moment, a man came round the corner, getting an eyeful of my big white belly and making me visibly jump.  I didn't see his reaction but I bet it wasn't flattering.  I'd not expected anyone else to turn up and here was someone observing me flashing the general area.  Humiliating.  It quickly became clear that this was another gentleman who was into trains, as he pulled out an actual video camera and began filming.  I've looked on YouTube but I've not been able to find out who it was; if it was you, please identify yourself below.  And also, please don't put footage of my beer gut on the internet.  Many thanks.

My final train of the day arrived to take me back to Moor Street.  The timetable was back to normal; the railway had sorted itself out.  It's not perfect, but it could be a lot worse.

This trip was entirely funded by your Ko-fi donations.  Thank you so much for any and all contributions.  You're stars.


Anonymous said...

I am forever haunted by my one and only visit to Acocks Green station. I was promised a taxi and got caught in the most monstrous storm I have ever witnessed. I eventually gave up waiting for said taxi and ventured into the station, got some shelter on the stairs only for armed police to burst in and move me back into the rain. It really was biblical to the point where I needed a new laptop, phone, shoes, wallet and belt. Happy memories. Thanks for an absolutely terrific read, Scott.

Scott Willison said...

ok you can't just chuck in a sentence like "got some shelter on the stairs only for armed police to burst in and move me back into the rain" without context

John said...

Despite noticing there is no L, you've still misspelled Tyseley!