Ah, Birmingham. England’s second city. Throbbing heart of the industrial Midlands. Hub of England’s canal network. Gateway to the Black Country. Punchline to a million jokes for lazy comedians; here are some: Spaghetti Junction, Bullring, New Street station.
Maybe that last one will no longer apply soon, as New Street station is in the throes of a massive regeneration. The first phase – the new ticket hall – is open, and impressed me with its attractiveness. Not that it would be hard to improve on the old New Street building. I proffered my London Midland Great Escape ticket to the barrier staff, and hurried to find an exit to start my latest Station Master quest.
One downside, for occasional visitors to the city like me, is that the layout of the station has completely changed, and the main entrance on New Street is closed for the foreseeable future, presumably to allow the ugly 1960s forecourt to be replaced by something that people will walk into willingly.
I struggled to find the appropriate exit, but eventually emerged on the opposite side of the station to the one I needed. I had to walk right round the outside of the Bullring to get to Moor Street station, from where I followed the imaginatively named High Street out of the city centre.
Poor Birmingham. It sold its soul to the motor car in the 1960s, a mistake for which it is still paying. Massive dual carriageways radiate from the city in every direction, bringing cars right into the city, where they get snarled up in immense traffic jams. The powers-that-be have belatedly realised, and the last couple of decades have seen improvements to rail services and the creation of the Midland Metro, but the car still rules supreme, unfortunately.
My target was Bordesley, the first station beyond Moor Street on the Birmingham-Stratford line. This was my second attempt to visit the station – a previous visit last year had been thwarted by overhead wire problems on the journey down from Liverpool. On that occasion, I had to console myself with a trip to Moor Street station instead – not a bad station to visit, but something of a consolation prize. Almost a year on, and I was ready to try again.
Bordesley receives precisely one scheduled train per week – the 1255 from Stratford-upon-Avon to Great Malvern, which calls at Bordesley at 1337 on Saturdays only. I had approximately 45 minutes to walk from New Street to catch it.
Despite football being a national obsession, my personal interest in the game begins and ends with how well Gareth Bale fills a pair of shorts. However, for thousands of people up and down the country, Saturday means getting up at the crack of dawn to travel to the other end of the country for their team’s crucial (it’s always “crucial”) away game.
This always presents a challenge for the railways, who have to cope with an influx of passengers. British Rail – that lumbering, inefficient organisation which, we were told, never responded to passengers’ needs – ran scores of “footex” trains every week, conveying trainloads of scarf-waving football supporters to the four points of the compass.
These days, special trains for football matches are few and far between, and football fans usually travel on regular services, often under the watchful eye of the British Transport Police. If you’re lucky, the train company will stick an extra coach or two on, but that’s about it.
One vestige of the football special does linger on, however. The main line of the Cheshire Lines Committee from Liverpool to Manchester runs right past the south stand of Old Trafford, home of… (Googles) …Manchester United. In 1935, the enterprising CLC built a siding and platform to serve special trains from Manchester city centre. Nearly eighty years later, the platform is still there, and on match days a procession of Northern Rail trains shuttle to and from the station, dropping off the home team’s supporters right next to the stadium.
Of course, being Manchester United supporters, they probably have to get a train from London first (I am assured, by football supporting friends of mine, that that is a funny joke).
Wondering where Part 1 is? It’s over on my personal blog.
It was Wednesday afternoon, and Ian and I were on the train to Corrour. This is one of those stations. When trainspotters gather, they speak of Corrour in hushed tones. In lists of superlatives, Corrour features heavily: the highest, the most remote, and so on…
Corrour was opened with the line in 1894, giving access to the Corrour Estate. The landed gentry would arrive for fun-packed holidays of deer stalking and grouse shooting – to this day, the Caledonian Sleeper makes special provision for people travelling with firearms.
More recently, it has become a popular station with walkers, who start and end their long rambles in the countryside here. In the 1990s it became famous for another reason. In Danny Boyle’s seminal film Trainspotting, the station was the starting point for the junkie protagonists’ day out in the country.
Disclaimer: I am not a heroin addict, and I’m fairly sure Ian isn’t either. I have also never seen Trainspotting, although visiting the station has persuaded me to finally watch it. The DVD hasn’t arrived from Amazon yet, but I have a feeling I will be impatiently sitting through grimy misery, waiting for the 60 seconds of railway footage. Sorry, Danny Boyle – good job on the Olympics thing, though.
If you haven’t already, you may want to read my account of the Caledonian Sleeper over on my main blog, which marks the start of my Scottish trip.
Scotland, I think I’m in love with you. It was Tuesday morning, and I was enjoying the first of three days exploring the Highlands in the company of my friend Ian. We had arrived in Fort William a few hours earlier on the Caledonian Sleeper. After the overnight journey from London, any other journey seems rather ordinary, but as the ScotRail Super Sprinter chugged its way south – back the way we had come earlier that morning – I really couldn’t have been happier.
The railways came late to this part of Britain. It wasn’t until 1894 that fearless navvies completed a route through some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the country. Despite the best efforts of Beeching, over a century later there is still a substantial network of routes criss-crossing the Highlands. The West Highland Line, linking Glasgow, Fort William and Mallaig, regularly features on lists of the greatest train journeys in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. The scenery is truly spectacular. The line twists and turns, following the contours of the landscape as well as it can. In places the train hugs the side of cliff faces on narrow ledges, in other parts it traces a curve round the shores of lochs. Sometimes, where the engineers could find no other alternative, you find yourself flying across valleys on majestic viaducts.
Every station on this route deserves to be visited for this blog, and one day I will come back and do just that. For now though, I had to make do with Rannoch, an isolated station located in the heart of the moor from which it takes its name.
Brading has two platforms, although only one has track these days. The passing loop here was removed in 1988. Ever since then, the positioning of the remaining double track sections has left the line with a lopsided service pattern of 2 trains per hour, separated by a gap of 20 or 40 minutes.
The disused platform and signal box have been reopened as a small visitor centre, although I arrived after it closed at 4pm, so had to content myself with photos taken from a distance. It took me a few minutes to work out that the man in the signal box was, in fact, a dummy. Dummy.
The station is well looked after, and it was good to see the canopy still intact. Its ornate ironwork incorporates the monogram of the Isle of Wight Railway, the pre-Grouping company which operated this line.
As outlined in my previous post, the Isle of Wight Steam Railway had proved more taxing than expected. I was back on Island Line now, consulting the timetable to work out the best way to get all the stations. I barely noticed the schoolchildren who invaded the train at Sandown, boisterous in the way that schoolchildren generally are.
I was still feeling a bit miserable, and Lake, the next station I visited, did little to cheer me up. It’s a relatively new station, opened in 1987. Of course, that means it’s as perfunctory a structure as you can imagine, with just a single wooden platform and a tiny bus shelter to provide protection from the elements.
In an attempt to cheer the place up, the South East Wight Rangers had painted a mural in the adjacent underpass. It was a valiant effort, but it’s a shame to see that it has been damaged by scorch marks and rust stains. It also couldn’t disguise that unique eau de latrine that pervades railway underpasses all over the country.
The Isle of Wight actually has two railways: the Island Line with its quaint 1930s electric trains, and the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, with quaint 1900s steam trains. Check out the map to the right, which looks like something from the Island of Sodor, but does in fact come from the South West Trains web site.
My aim was to visit every station on the line, steam and electric. Taking into account that Ryde Pier Head and Shanklin were ticked off the previous day, that left me nine stations to “do”. I thought that this would be easily achievable in one day. The Island Line is less than 30 minutes end to end, and for most of the day has two trains per hour (albeit at slightly awkward 20/40 minute intervals). The steam trains run less frequently, but with only four stations on this section to capture, I didn’t consider that a major obstacle. Even so, I decided to get to the steam section first, to get it out of the way.
On Thursday morning, I strolled to Shanklin station in glorious sunshine. The cloudless sky and warm temperatures would persist all day (I later discovered that the Isle of Wight had been the warmest place in the whole UK that day, with temperatures peaking just shy of 25 C). I don’t fully appreciate bright sunshine, thanks to my fair-skinned complexion. I don’t go nicely tanned like most people, instead simply skipping straight to the overcooked lobster phase. I ventured out in shorts and T-shirt, but also applied some factor 200 (I think) sunscreen. Well, it was either that or a beekeeper’s outfit.
A joint “Island Liner” day ranger ticket is available for the princely sum of £15, allowing unlimited travel on both companies’ lines. I turned up at Shanklin station on Thursday morning to purchase it. Immediately in front of me in the queue was an elderly gent, who engaged the booking office clerk in some genial conversation:
“All right, mate, how are you this morning?”
“Fine, thank you. And yourself?”
“I didn’t sleep too well, I heard some strange noises during the night.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Strange banging sounds coming from the station.”
“Oh, that’s odd. I just need to serve this customer.” (he gestures to me)
“Yes, they were strange noises, you might want to check that out.”
“OK, I’ll check the CCTV. But I need to serve this gentleman.”
“Oh?” (turns around, notices me) “OHH! Well, I’ll let you get on then.”
The clerk gave me a weary look. I suspect he speaks to this man quite a lot.