Saturday, 10 May 2008

Bridgenorth via Kidderminster and the Severn Valley Railway

It's probably fair to say that Kidderminster isn't high on most peoples lists of dream holiday locations. I have wandered through the town centre in the past and it's no more interesting than any other downbeat Midlands town whose industrial base has largely deserted it. However there is one attraction that many of the competitors would love to have, Kidderminster is home to the Severn Valley Railway. Perhaps it is a peculiarly British eccentricity, or an example of “people power”, but when railway lines were closing in the 1950s and 60s, enthusiasts started banding together to buy and re-open them. Up and down the country railways that the powers that be decided were unnecessary have found a new lease of life providing entertainment for both travellers and operators.

My trip started with a run through central Birmingham past endless amounts of industry both live and dead. The highlight was probably West Bromwich Albion's football ground which appears to be a giant marque – the sort of thing you see trade stands in at outdoor events but on a much larger scale. I'm assuming some football goes on in there but since I don't follow the beautiful game I'm not sure.

I sat towards the back of the train and through the door that lead to the drivers cab I could see the track we had just travelled over. Quite why this view is so appealing when there are perfectly good windows in the side is something I accept but don't understand. Perhaps it's the fact that it's so often denied to us that matters. As a bit of an enthusiast I suppose I like to see the equipment that makes the railway work, for a while anyway, a bit like seeing behind the scenes in a theatre.

A mystery appeared on the skyline at Rowley Regis – two large communications towers on the horizon. Thanks to the haze they were a little indistinct but I'd certainly like to know more. A dig around on Google Maps hasn't enlightened me. Since we are talking about pretty substantial structures I would have thought they would be obvious on the satellite view but no.

Passing through Old Hill there is a golf course. Nothing special except it appears to be in a back garden. It is complete with rough, fairway, green and flag, all the builder needed to add was a bunker or two and the job would be complete. Perhaps this is a new idea – separate holes at different locations. To play a round you catch a bus and get off at different stops to tee off for each hole. Taking a different bus could give a different course effectively each time. Perhaps I should patent that idea ?

From Stourbridge Junction the landscape changes from buildings, via a burst of red sandstone in a cutting to rolling countryside. One minute you are in Birmingham and its environs, the next to the sound of choirs singing “Jerusalem”, the English country with hills and trees and everything.

Kidderminsters' proper station is a couple of platforms with a building picked from an uninspiring catalogue. Next door is the Severn Valley's much more imposing attempt. Brick built with towers, a sweeping approach and a proper ticket office you'd not be blamed for thinking it had always been there. The effect is helped because it is surrounded by buildings that are a lot older. The town was a big producer of carpets and also hosted the weekly livestock market so goods facilities were important and these buildings survived. One warehouse houses a railway museum full of signs and memorabilia. Admittedly on a weekday out of the holiday period I was the only visitor and the lady looking after the café wasn't doing great business but it's free and well worth the visit.

Being out of season there are only four departures to Bridgenorth, my intended destination. I'd missed the first but after half an hour the next train puffed into the station. Enthusiasts will want to know it was pulled by a GWR 0-6-0 Pannier Tank locomotive. Everyone else will just say it was a steam train. A line like this is staffed mainly by volunteers. Not being paid seems to affect their pride in the job as the coaches were taken away and washed before we were allowed to board. That care and attention plus the well presented uniforms that everyone wore spoke of a pride that has long since been beaten out of public life in other sectors.

Now when you take a traditional steam train ride in Britain you expect to see many things from the window – hills, sheep, cows, abandoned cars etc. More of a surprise was the sight of water buffalo followed by elephants. It is possible that some farmer had decided that cattle were too much trouble and wanted something with more meat on its bones but more likely that that section of line runs past West Midlands Safari park. I had to look this up which indicates someone is missing a trick with the advertising – a banner on the fence might get them a few more visitors.

Puttering through he countryside this way is very restful. The gentle sway of the coach, the noise from the engine and the clickety-clack of the wheels is enough to lull the passenger to sleep which is a pity as the view are not spectacular but pleasant in a very English way. The railway manages to do more than simply re-create the technical aspects of the line, it also recreates the atmosphere of the 1930s. Each station is immaculately presented with “set dressing” of luggage and ephemera. Some might see this as a Disneyfication of the past but I like to think it's more than this. The timetable is adhered to but in an unhurried and unpressured way. Post was being sent up the line by handing it to the guard and all the staff talk to each other like old friends, which of course many of them will be.

On reaching Bridgenorth everyone piles off the train and heads across a modern and surprisingly high footbridge which dumps you at a roadside. I followed the signs to the cliff railway as most of these trips seem to involve one so why break the habit ?

The town is on a very steep hill hence the funicular, one of the few not at a seaside. The line is crammed in between buildings and would be easy to miss if you weren't looking for it. The ride is quick and not in the least bit scary. I love the design of the cars which are bubble like rather than the Victorian boxes found elsewhere. 90 pence buys a return to the town, which considered the other option seems a bargain. Tickets come out of a proper machine set in the office desk. The only problem is that they are torn in half for each section of the trip so you don't get a souvenir !

The trip from Kidderminster is just over 16 miles but you might as well be in another world when you reach the centre of town. Yes there are a couple of chain stores, the ubiquitous WH Smith & Woolworths, the rest are the local shops beloved of tourists if not townspeople. The centre is dominated by the town hall which hosts markets in the arched area underneath. At one end of town a castellated gate provides a traffic obstruction. Quite how these survived the 1960's rush for road building I don't know, but I suspect the tourist office is glad they did. It's this sort of thing that give a destination like this atmosphere and makes it worth coming. There isn't a town square as such, just a wide main street with the market hall and lots of parking in the space that would once have been home to cattle on sales days.

Regular readers of this blog will be pleased to know that there is a small indoor market. The highlight is undoubtedly the second hand book stall which is huge and home to a wide variety of titles, not just pulp fiction but proper books you would be really pleased to track down. The rest of the market appears more like a down market department store with each area owned by someone else. With so little space to play with I doubt that they could do anything else. Mind you, the butchers selling local delicacies at the front was very tempting...

Under the side of the town gate I found one of the most unexpected shops I've found ever – an importer of weird American foodstuffs called Americalicious. Without teh Interweb I seriously doubt that the owner would stay open for more than a week but when I went in he was busy parcelling up goodies to dispatch around the country. Most of the display seemed to consist of Hershey products but as anyone brought up on a diet of Cadbury products knows they are an abomination. I settled for a packet of Jell-o and some Kelloggs Fruit Loops. Reading the nutritional information on the side explains so much about the size of America today – the main ingredient of each product appears to be calories.

After taking in both model shops (three if you count the one that specialises in die-cast collectibles) and an antique centre that used to be a garage, I decided I needed food before the return trip. Since I hadn't picked up a newspaper I headed to Smiths, the only newsagent as far as I could tell, and then to the Swan pub on the other side of the road.
Waiting at the bar to order the landlord was saying farewell to someone. He explained that the lady had worked in the pub for 28 years and the previous day had been her last with them. I asked what she did and he said, “She was the chef”. Now that's not a good thing to hear when you are about to order lunch but apparently they had a replacement and everything would be fine. Sadly the traditional toad in the hole had sold out and I didn't know what the next two over enthusiastically offered options were so I plumped for a mixed-grill affair. This arrived after about 25 minutes and looked OK. However I suspect the new cook is still finding his feet. The chips were both hot and not cooked properly, the bacon seared but surprisingly pink. The beer was nice though even if it wasn't a local brew.

After this I had to waddle back to the station fairly quickly to catch the train. I made it with ten minutes to spare and settled down in a compartment coach. These have long since disappeared from the real railway and I for one miss them. I understand that people could get up to mischief when hidden away but if you were in a quiet one, it meant a peaceful journey as noise and trouble didn't travel. Neither did heat though and the other passenger sharing it with me decided to go and find an open coach as this was too hot – vintage coaches offer no air conditioning !

A couple of stops down the line I was joined by two of the volunteer “explainers” from the Engine House museum on the line. This is a new attraction which aims to showcase some of the lines locomotives and put them in context. This all sounds very worthy and I wonder how many of the tourists will care when someone tries to explain why an exhibit matters when all they want is for their kids to use it as a climbing frame. Anyway, the volunteers were talking about a recent diesel gala. Apparently they find that not all enthusiasts are equal, even amongst the “anoraks” some are weirder than others. People sniffing in diesel fumes and sighing in the same way a wine taster does are definitely considered to be on the lunatic fringe !

Neither seemed to know why an ITV outside broadcast van was parked up in Arley station but we were all impressed when the dish unfolded itself from the roof, spun around and started hunting for a signal. The high-tech contrasted with it's surroundings and the coal powered train we were riding on. That coal made its appearance as we trundled through a long tunnel later on in the form of sparks flying by the windows. You don't see them in the sunlight but would certainly notice it if they hit some dry undergrowth nearby.

We made it back to Kidderminster in time to find crowds of kids being disgorged from the main line stations doors as the returned from school. Fighting my way through the crowds I made it on to the a train that turned out to be running straight through to Leamington. As we rumbled off it was interesting to compare the two trains – I was in a carriage that rattle because of the engine under the floor. All around were plastics and metal. The seat was comfortable but not luxurious. The journey would be punctual but impersonal. By contrast my steam trip had seem me wallow in seats surrounded by wood and fittings that were certainly not vandal-proof. The windows opened so I could stick my head out. It was a different age.

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