Sunday 16 June 2024

Bricks and Pieces

In a sign that this blog is getting ever more desperate for attention, I've finally pivoted to video!  Don't worry, this won't be a regular thing. 

Merseyrail recently released a toy version of its 508 trains that you can build yourself.  Don't call it Lego; it's definitely not Lego.  It's something very different indeed called City Brix.  I decided that if I was going to put it together, I'd let you, the viewer, enjoy it with me.  So here's a video of a Tom Allen-soundalike who's old enough to know better wrestling with a children's toy.

Incidentally they put two sheets of the stickers in the pack, so I've got a spare set, if anyone wants it.

Thursday 6 June 2024


Eagle-eyed viewers will spot that I'm at Stoke-on-Trent station.  "But wait!" you're saying, because apparently you're the kind of person who talks to webpages.  "Didn't you do Stoke-on-Trent station already?"  And it's true, I have visited this station before.  I came here with Robert and Ian in 2012 when we were looking at where a station used to be on the West Coast Main Line.  I felt for a long time that I did Stoke dirty.  Yes, I went to the station, and yes, I got a sign pic - inside, because it doesn't have a sign outside, a situation that is somehow still true in 2024 -  but I felt like the city deserved more.  When it showed up again on the West Midlands Railway map I thought, well here's an opportunity to visit the city again and visit it properly.

I almost immediately went off this idea.  The main reason was the strange way Stoke exists as a city.  It's not one conurbation; it's actually a conglomeration of six towns brought together under one unifying name.  As such, I'm pretty sure that anything I did there would alienate about eighty percent of the city.  I imagined furious comments: why did you go to Hanley?  Burslem's where's it's at!  and No wonder you found the architecture in Fenton uninspiring, it's nothing compared to Tunstall and Longton4eva.  The only possible way around that would be to visit all six towns and give my careful measured thoughts about all of them - possibly with some kind of ranking scheme - and I really can't be bothered.

I therefore decided what I'd do was get the hell out of Stoke and walk to Newcastle-under-Lyme instead.  If this offends you as a resident of Stoke, then (a) I'm sorry and (b) probably don't read on any further.  I walked out of the station, hoping to take in the magnificent station square laid out by the railway company, but it was covered with Heras fencing and cones and the statue of Josiah Wedgewood was barely visible.  Under the tracks via a low underpass and then back up again to cross a huge dual carriageway, the Queensway, which slices through the city parallel to the railway.  A silver plaque on the bridge commemorated its opening in 1977, and most of it was a little faded, the name of the actual Secretary of State for Transport was entirely scrubbed out.

A little light investigation and I discovered that the name of the Transport Secretary at that time was the Right Honourable William Rodgers MP, who caused a great deal of political disquiet by leaving the Labour Party to form the SDP in 1981.  I like to imagine his name was scrubbed off by a furious Trotskyite, perhaps shouting "Splitter!" as he did so.  

Up ahead of me was Stoke-on-Trent's Civic Centre.  I saw this on the map and I got a bit excited.  I love a Civic Centre.  They're almost inevitably a slab of 1970s concrete, all weird angles and unusual staircases.

Stoke's Civic Centre is not like that.  This one looks like it's escaped from an office park on the edge of Braintree.  It's hopelessly dull and unimaginative and pedestrian.  I walked round it, and found it abutted a nice old Victorian Town Hall, but that made it worse.  It was so bland, and yet, huge; like a really massive Ryvita.  There was a small square wedged behind the Civic Centre, with a large piece of curving metal art that had been systematically and repeatedly defaced by teenagers.  There's something extremely depressing about graffiti that's been done in permanent marker.  At least spray paint has a bit of colour and artistry about it.  Bland swear words and names scrawled in a sharpie is so basic.

I disappeared into the back streets of Stoke, long rows of terraces.  The whiff of neglect hung over them.  Weeds sprouted out of brickwork and windows were covered with chipboard.  Heavy metal doors stopped squatters and looters.   Where they were occupied, thick blinds were pulled down over the front window to hide the interior from passers by.  Occasionally there'd be a home that was properly maintained - nicely painted woodwork, a gate neatly closed - a jar of flowers on the windowsill - but more often that not the houses were faded and unloved.  On one corner, Keir Starmer looked down at us from an electronic billboard and promised a better world than this one.

I wasn't sure there was one.  Not in Stoke, anyway.  Everything about it seemed so ugly.  I've been in inner cities before, over and over; I've worked my way round the post-industrial North.  I've seen brutality and abandonment.  There was something about Stoke that was actively, forcefully, violently unpleasant.  As though the city was conspiring to be as depressed as possible.  The shops were mean and unfriendly.  Offices and workshops stood away from the road, hiding, walls and fences keeping passers by at a distance.  New builds, where they came, were defensive and blockish, without any art or elegance.  You could almost hear the Planning Committee: you want to build some flats there?  Sure, why not.  Do whatever you want.  Rather you than me.

Yes, that hideous building is called Champagne House.

I crossed over a wet A-road and into a side street that went up the hill.  When I say up the hill, I actually mean, it was a hill, because this road was vertiginous.  It started reasonably enough, then basically went vertical; I regretted not packing crampons in my backpack.  I'd not been prepared for this and I had to pause halfway for breath, looking down with a vague sense of wonder at the drop.

A sign warned me that the top of the road was a dead end, but I gambled that was for cars only, and found a small cut-through by some pensioner bungalows.  It brought me out on a village green, a small oasis of trees in the middle of Penkhull.  There was a Co-op and a pub and a chippy getting the fryers ready for opening; through the window I could see the fat bubbling under lights, pumping out a tantalising smell.  

It should've been enough to win me back but it didn't.  I was having a miserable time.  The rain was constant and relentless.  The streets were at best hideous and at worse boring.  I still had a way to go to get to Newcastle and there wasn't even a railway station waiting for me there.  I was livid, to be honest, and I decided Stoke could go fuck itself.

I was soon walking round the back of Stoke's hospital, past more old people residences.  I couldn't decide if that was cruel or practical.  Yes Agnes, it is a lovely house, and over there is the building you're probably going to die in, and sooner rather than later.  The Council had put in a cycleway, sort of, slipping a long stretch of tarmac between the curb and the paving slabs, but not marking it as reserved for bikes; I avoided it, because I knew that the second I stepped in it the entire Tour of Britain would appear and scream at me to get out of the way.  I followed a desire path over a hillock of green and ended up on The Avenue.

Now that I've written it was called The Avenue, you know what this road was like, right?  Huge trees and grass verges.  Large but undistinguished houses at the end of an acre of block paving, the kind of houses that are advertised based on how many bedrooms they've got rather than their actual features; it's about square footage, not charm.  The newer houses built on the side roads were even less attractive, because they didn't even have space, pressed up against one another with barely a gap inbetween.  The best bit of the walk was when I got an unexpected whiff of solder, a smell I haven't smelled for decades, and which immediately transported me back to teenage lessons in CDT labs.

At some point I must have crossed the border, because I found myself walking along the sports fields of Newcastle-Under-Lyme School (founded 1602).  You could tell it was a posh school because it had one of those metal and foam structures for the boys to practice their rugby scrums on.  I looked up its alumni, and the most prominent one to me is Roger Johnson off North West Tonight, unless you count a former Rear Admiral with the delightful nickname of "Spam".  

This being the Midlands, I soon found myself at a ring road, and disappeared into a dark underpass decorated with friezes celebrating Victoria and Elizabeth II.  A statue of the former Queen stood in the middle of the gardens at the top of the underpass, and I idly wondered where they're going to put the inevitable statues of ERII.  There's not the opportunity to build grand parkland and distinguished squares any more - that sort of thing takes up land and costs money - so I can only imagine that Her Majesty's effigies will all be wedged on the side of office blocks or in the foyer of council buildings.

Newcastle-Under-Lyme has had a charter for nearly a thousand years, which is why I'm willing to overlook it calling itself Newcastle when we already have a perfectly good Newcastle in the North East.  It does seem to be trying to rebrand itself as NUL on the banners and websites I saw (#lovenul) but that cancels itself out to be honest.

The shopping centre was what you'd expect from a town in England in 2024; a bit scruffy, a bit unloved.  Stores that had been built in a flush of post-war prosperity were now either empty or covered in corporate branding so you couldn't see their charm.  There was a square with an open air market, but it was the quietest market I have ever seen.  It was lunchtime on a Tuesday and it was covered with a deathly silence, as though everyone was already packing up to go home.  

I wandered aimlessly, not really sure where I was, but when I encountered the bus station I decided I'd stop.  Nothing had grabbed me enough to make me want to stay and I had a bus to catch.  I've reached a point on the West Midlands Railway map where there are a lot of single, isolated stations, towns and cities I left for special one-off visits or which I missed due to shenanigans on the railway.  I'd put them off because I like the walking, to be honest, and now there's not much walking left, so I'm going to have to bite the bullet and visit them one after the other.  Stoke was one station on its own, and Nantwich is another.  For a mad moment I considered walking between them; there's actually a long-distance footpath that connects them, The Two Saints Way, but that would've taken the best part of eight or nine hours to walk and I wasn't that committed to the idea. 

Instead I boarded a bus, the 85, which connects Newcastle-Under-Lyme and Nantwich.  It takes an hour and forty minutes to do the whole journey but, thanks to the government, it's still only two pounds, which surprised me; I was sure there would be some sort of get out clause on the price.  I clambered aboard with a mix of pensioners and students, took a seat, and was taken out of Newcastle and into the countryside.

Our first proper stop was at Keele University, which was a little triggering for me.  Keele was my first choice university - my only choice, if I'm honest.  My reasoning was this: I was an extremely shy teen who found it difficult to make friends and talk to people.  If I went to a university that was in the middle of nowhere - where the students had to live, study and exist on a single site - then I was bound to encounter at least one humanoid I could be friends with.  They'd be trapped with me.  As it turned out, my grades were just too low, by two points, and they kept me waiting for a week while they decided whether to take me or not.   They eventually decided "not".

This is actually a good thing, because I am 100% sure I wouldn't be here writing this if I had gone.  Keele is an extremely isolated place to study and if you're even slightly inclined to melancholia it can push you over the edge.  About a decade later, I stayed there for five days as part of a study course for work, and it was exactly as I had feared it would be: nobody talked to me, I had nowhere to go, and I spent an awful lot of time in my room feeling depressed.  I really did have a lucky escape.

Like all educational establishments, Keele had transformed itself completely over the last twenty years, and I struggled to recognise any of it.  I thought I recognised the hall of residence I'd stayed at during that work's trip, but it was only briefly, and soon we were in the village of Keele itself.  I was frankly surprised how easy the transition was - I suspected the villagers would've set up gates and a watch tower to stop students wandering into their homestead.  Mind you, students are very different these days, very sensible and teetotal, so they probably encourage them.

More countryside, and then Madeley, which had an actual duck pond with actual ducks on it.  We stopped for a bit, to even out the service; at least I assume that's why we stopped.  In London, I believe the buses tell you this is what is happening, and apologise; here in the provinces, we sit in awkward silence and hope it hasn't broken down.  The woman behind me sneezed as we took off again, and I wondered if she'd covered her mouth.  Betley smelt of silage and had a village green with black silhouettes of servicemen on it; every lamppost had been decorated with D-DAY 80 signs.  As we left the village, we passed a statue of a greyhound in someone's garden; the statue had been given a cape and a helmet and a shield with the flag of St George on it.

At forty minutes in we passed from Newcastle-Under-Lyme into Cheshire East.  By now I was starting to get pins and needles and I wondered if I should walk up and down the aisle like they tell you to do on flights to stop getting deep vein thrombosis.  The passenger tally had barely shifted, which surprised me; these people were keen enough to visit Newcastle they'd take an extremely long bus ride to get there.  The Wychwood Park signposted its Hotel - Golf Club - Residential Hamlets, while the White Lion Pub invited you to JOIN US ROUND THE BACK FOR A BEER.

The outskirts of Crewe brought another shudder - this was where I'd worked for eighteen months until I had a nervous breakdown and took redundancy.  There was the Crewe Hall Hotel, where I had the most miserable Christmas lunch of my life - a department of complainers who moaned about the free meal and the fact that they had to attend and be all jolly when they could be enjoying an afternoon off.  I may have got a little drunk to get through it.  We passed the station, first the shiny new glass entrance at the back, then the dated front, where again we paused to even out the service.  The bus took a route into town down Edlestone Road, and I was hit with a memory of walking along that street and seeing the sky absolutely full of circling birds.  It was phenomenal.

Crewe bus station is so new most of the passengers on board expressed surprise at it being open; it was less than a month old.  It replaced a bus station that absolutely needed to be replaced and was intended to be the centre of a brand new regeneration scheme.  Unfortunately the developers pulled out, leaving a gleaming interchange and multi-storey car park in the centre of literally nothing.  The buildings around it were demolished but nothing is being built to replace them.  It's been hit by the one-two-three of pandemic, Liz Truss, and HS2 being withdrawn from the town.  So much of Crewe's future was predicated around them being a hub for the 21st century and beyond and now it's been snatched away with nothing to replace it.  I'd almost feel sorry for the town if I didn't have such traumatic memories of it.

The bus skirted the suburbs of Crewe, through council estates and new builds, though always with a patina of grim over the top.  An extremely hot scaffolder with jug ears and a turned up nose got on and flicked through a handful of fivers.  Outside the Minshull takeaway, a small boy, about four years old, boarded with his mother, and his beaming excited grin immediately lifted the mood of everyone on board.  He skipped down the aisle and I found myself smiling back.  I'm not completely dead inside.

Welcome to Nantwich: Floral Market Town.  The woman who'd sneezed behind me finally got off the bus at a small patch of green; she'd been my companion the whole journey.  We pulled into the bus station at exactly two thirty, bang on time.  I unfolded myself from my seat, hoping the blood would rush back to my legs, thanked the driver because I was brought up right, and stepped down.

I'd like to extend an apology to Nantwich.  I'd long held a vague grudge against it, based on the fact that I'd once spent a day there on a course and I'd hated it.  It turns out that wasn't Nantwich at all.  I'd misremembered, and it was some other small market town in Cheshire where I'd had an awful time.  (I'm not 100% sure but I think it might have been Congleton).

Nantwich, it turned out, was a delight.  It was everything you'd want from an English market town.  Narrow pedestrianised streets lined with charming buildings.  A town square with trees and a church.  Interesting shops and pubs and cafes.  A sense of purpose and pride.

It was, admittedly, Very Tory.  The whole place was decked out in Union Jack bunting and a yellow AA sign informed me that the streets would be closed for the D-Day Commemorations.  There was a branch of Joules and a branch of Fat Face and there was a menswear shop that seemed to specialise in clothes Nigel Farage would love: pastel chinos and linen jackets and so many hats.  You couldn't wear those trousers if you'd ever voted Green, they'd simply crumble to dust in your hands.  

The local branch of WH Smith was branded WH Smith Stationers which intrigued me.  I wondered if this was perhaps a new look for the store.  It turned out that Nantwich used to have two Smiths, one across the way with the books and so on, and this one purely for stationery; the larger branch closed earlier this year and they consolidated the whole thing into one without bothering to replace the sign.  Inside it very much felt like two shops shoved together inelegantly; the windows were covered to give more shelf room, making it dark inside, and deep canyons of merchandise were laid out without much regard.

I'm going to go off on one now, and feel free to skip these two paragraphs because it's very personal, but what has been done to WH Smith over the past twenty years feels like what has happened to the United Kingdom over the same period of time.  It used to be an absolute icon of the High Street and a place of pilgrimage for thousands of families.  Everybody loved it.  I can't be the only child whose mum would leave him in Smiths while she shopped elsewhere, knowing that the combination of books and videos and stationery would keep me entertained and safe.  WH Smith was a legend and we were all proud to visit it; hell, I worked there for five years, mainly because it was a dream come true.

Now it's nothing.  Now it's The Works, but without the bright stores and friendly interiors.  It's downmarket and grim while still, for some reason, being very expensive.  WH Smith in 2024 is a tarnished, destroyed brand, and entire generations of children have grown up seeing it as just another shop.  They could've been a classy, premium store - armchairs to relax in, coffee shops, art clubs and calligraphy lessons and book talks.  A kind of Waterstones plus.  Instead, like UK PLC, they've cut every corner to maximise profit, creating an experience nobody enjoys, nobody wants to pay for, and are somehow still stinking up perfectly reasonable neighbourhoods.  It makes me sad and angry and I want the whole thing to go under to put it out of its misery.

I followed the streets round and round, taking it all in, until the rain started to spot again.  The Nantwich-Crewe trains are every two hours, so I had a choice: barrel down the road to the station and get the three o'clock train, or go for a pint until the 16:55.


One pint became two, and then I left, happier than when I sat down.  Alcohol is famously a depressant, and if you're in a bad mood, it's probably not wise to take a glass.  On the other hand, it cheered me right up.  I left the town centre, past a banner for Nantwich Pride (July 20th, Nantwich Civic Hall - Families Welcome) and a pub that had a cartoon of the Beatles on it, for some reason, before I reached the level crossing for Nantwich station.

It wasn't, if I'm honest, one of my favourite trips out on the trains.  There hadn't really been much to see.  I seem to have managed to write an awful lot about it though.  Sorry about that.

Once again, thank you to the Ko-fi contributors who helped pay for the train trips here.  You're marvellous.