Thursday 29 April 2010


Welshpool Station SignBirmingham News Street station isn’t an appealing place at the best of times. With half the lights switched off thanks to an electrical fault, the resulting gloom does nothing to improve it’s appeal.

More of a worry that as well the escalators, the electrical mishap had closed all the concessions on the concourse, apart from a dimply lit branch of WH Smith. While this might have been a minor inconvenience for those in the magazine rack reading library, for me it could have been disastrous as my favourite muffin supplier was out of action. I was facing a long train journey at the mercy of the onboard catering trolley.

A quick dash up to the shopping centre above the station and a bit of hammering on the counter sorted things out as I purchased the last double-chocolate muffin in the place. Even better, it was so freshly baked the choccy chips were gooey as I sat and ate it three-quarters of an hour later.

My trip to Welshpool was a spur of the moment decision. Faced with a department meeting which didn’t concern me but promised to be limb-gnawingly dull and held in some out of the way centre that I suspected would tax my limited ability to navigate the roads of Coventry, I decided that a day off and a nice train ride was in order. The destination was one I’d promised to myself a couple of times looking out of carriage windows from passing trains. The weather was threatened to be superb, what was stopping me ?

Birmingham to Welshpool is served by a surprisingly long train that was unsurprisingly low of passengers. In my carriage there were no more than half a dozen of us. A couple of seats in from sat a sharply dressed man in a pale grey suit that contrasted with his Virgin Media t-shirt. When the guard arrived to check tickets he surprised me by pulling out an old-fashioned roll of cash rather than a piece of plastic to pay up – more Dell Boy than Gordon Gecko.

Plastic coated fieldSome say that England is disappearing under concrete. I disagree as the gaps between towns are still huge when viewed from the train. “They” may need to revise there opinions however as the latest thing seems to be to cover fields in plastic sheet. Long, shiny strips of the stuff are laid in neat rows covering and protecting (I assume) the precious seedlings. For anyone who complains about bright yellow fields of oilseed rape, the sight of striped grown visible from miles away should have them prepareing to fire off a missive to the Daily Telegraph.

At Telford the sharp dressed man left and was replaced by two very clean cut men in identical suits and ties who sat facing each other around a table. On the lapel of the one facing me was a large black badge on which I could read the words “Elder O’Brien” and “Jesus Christ”. I’d guess that it was Mr O’Brien on the train and not his boss, although if I’m wrong then the journey was surprisingly uneventful – no water into wine, raising the dead or that sort of thing. Closer inspection later allowed me to read the full text showed him to be a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ and the laterday saints – more commonly called a Mormon. Followers of this faith often carry out 18 months to 2 years full-time missionary work around the world apparently (OK, I looked it up on Wikipedia). It would appear that Elder O’Brien and his colleague were off to the wild lands of deepest Wales to print religion to an area where strange people spoke a funny language...

To be frank, the scenery on this trip isn’t much to write home, or even a blog post, about. It’s green and pleasant enough but rarely diverted me from my book, a slightly turgid tomb on the history of Radio 4. When we reached Shrewsbury the keen observer would notice some slight changes. The railway signals are the old-fashioned semaphore type rather than traffic lights.

Shrewsbury ArtThe station entrance is guarded by a huge signal box and the multiple platforms speak of a town of considerable importance. The platforms are graced with a brace of train-spotters, the first I’ve seen. Where once would have been displayed adverts there is now an art show by the Shrewsbury Youth Project. Each arch on a wall is home to a large canvas that has been decorated in a style the cognoscenti would call “Street Art” and others “Graffiti”. I suppose it ads a splash of colour to the scene and keeps the kids off the streets where they might choose to paint surfaces that can’t be easily replaced. You have to wonder if the architects and builders of the station ever envisaged that we’d be less interested in repairing the canopies than hanging up aerosol cartoons of people on bikes by “Shaz”.

The hills arrive as we approach journeys end. I could tell that I was in Wales thanks to the local speed camera van having something unpronounceable written in big letters on the side. Presumably “Safety Camera Partnership” or similar doesn’t translate naturally but you don’t want to annoy someone who has just been nicked for racing his Ford Escort down a windy road built for sheep by imposing law from a blatantly English vehicle”. Business looked slow as the only powered transport other than the train was a distant tractor.

Welshpool has several stations but the one travellers arrive at is a single platform affair with a bus stop shelter and connections to the town on both sides via a straggly metal footbridge. In an effort to completely avoid any steps and the straddle the neighbouring bypass the designer produced a structure looking like an enormous daddy-longlegs that someone painted in pale, municipal, grey. Contrasted against this were several fluorescent jackets belonging to one of the largest Police presences I’d seen for a long while.

The Old StationExiting the giant insect I wandered over to the Old Station. It was this building that caught my eye as I’d travelled past previously. A magnificent bring building obviously intended as a show-off gesture by a confident railway company. Now separated from the platforms by the main road, it has been turned into a sort of shopping centre where women buy clothes inspired by the countryside, rather than the sort of thing real country people wear which is mostly wellingtons and baler twine, for themselves and their husbands. For the gentleman there is a golf shop and surprisingly a small room full of Hornby trains and Scalextric cars. For the tourists, Welsh fudge and rock plus all manner of lovely souvenirs were on offer for that last minute present buying spree. While poking around and realising that even I was too fashionable for the garments on offer, I asked why the local constabulary were out in force.

“The Queen has come by train to open the new livestock market” was the reply. This explained it, when the monarch arrives then every copper locally is expected to polish his or her boots and keep the local population under control. Judging by the numbers on duty, it would have been a field day for burglars in the surrounding areas. Even though there was no sign of the royal train, every exit on the footbridge was guarded and a small group sat on borrowed chairs by the end of the station building.

Now the livestock market appeared to be on the other side of the tracks to the town in an industrial area. On that basis I didn’t expect to see HRH during my visit. How wrong I was. At the end of the short walk into town were streets bedecked with bunting and crowds filling the pavements – only prevented from encroaching on the road by cattle barriers and even more burly coppers. In the distance were some official looking cars and in front of these were some armed forces cadets, a lady in mayoral garb, lots of press wielding cameras and in the middle of the scrum, a very short lady dressed in blue.

QueenTo my right was the Royal Hotel, obviously the destination for the party and outside there more official types who were presumably wishing her maj had stayed in the car and ignored the crowds so they could have something to eat. Instead she was making her way down one side of the street talking and collecting bouquets from the public. On the other side of the road, Prince Phillip performed the same function although you get the feeling that those there felt they had got Wise and not Morecombe – good but you wanted to meet the bigger star.

Eventually the Queen got as far as me to the sound of cameras and mobile phones snapping away. A spontaneous burst of applause rang out – presumably clapping to congratulate her on being Queen or something. The general feeling was “Isn’t she tiny” and “Doesn’t she look lovely” followed by “Thank God she’s got here, now we can have something to eat” from those by the hotel.

Even then the entertainment was not finished. The BBC correspondent Andrew Marr was doing a piece to camera, presumably desperate to link the new market into some election farming story. “Hello Mr Andrew Marr” shouted someone close to me although he received no acknowledgement. Possibly Marr had already discovered that the big political story of the day was happening elsewhere...

With the Queen in the hotel feasting on the best this part of Wales can offer, the crowd dispersed. I headed off down a side street – fighting up the main road wasn’t an option as everyone had decided they needed to be somewhere they weren’t. Feeling a bit peckish myself I found a fish and chip shop with attached cafĂ© and ordered Newspaper frontfish (unspecified and no options were offered) chip and peas (mushy, again, not options). I’d picked up the local paper to read as it had a suitably apocalyptic story on the front page regarding the recent Icelandic Volcano. The editor had obviously decided that this was a bandwagon not to be missed and leapt on it with aplomb - “Volcano wreaks havoc in Powys” - which translates into “bowls players held up abroad thanks to lack of flights” . The food was very hot and very tasty. If I'm being picky, the peas and chips got a bit mixed up on the plate but who cares ? Not the local population as the place was filling up nicely as I finished munching. You could hardly hear “Loose Women” playing on the large screen telly opposite the serving counter.

After this I took a gentle stroll up the high street. For pudding I tried a shortbread biscuit, which was disgusting, and then a chocolate covered ring doughnut from a different shop which wasn't that much better. Handy diet hint: only eat food that you throw away before the second bite.

The town hall has been turned into a rather nice indoor market. Lots of local food on offer plus hardware, second hand books and two stalls of “stuff”, those weird gift like things involving far too many fairies and elves plus added dream catchers. How do they make a living ? Also, perhaps I was being unfair but on seeing another bakers stall, I decided against more cake attempts in that direction even though the comestibles on offer looked tempting and home made in a good way.

Over the top of the hill is the third station which belongs to the Welshpool and Llanfair Light Railway which although it closed in 1956, lives on in the hands of enthusiasts who run steam engines on days when I'm not there leaving me with a view not much better than that available from Google Streetview.

Giant HandbagNever mind, I wasn't there to look at steam trains. Even if I'd wanted to I didn't have time. Besides, the canal museum spotted on the way into town looked very interesting with an unusually shaped warehouse. Back in town the Queen had started to move so the straight route was blocked but some nifty navigation past the chip shop circumnavigated her. It's at that point my luck ran out – for future notice, the museum is shut on Wednesdays. Still, there were some nice wooden sculptures outside to look at, if you like giant handbags and fake birds anyway.

Back at the station the royal train was parked in the platform looking very nice and purple. Wale's best were blocking all entrances to the footbridge just in case anyone tried to find a seat on-board. A few people hung around but by this point she was ensconced in the travelling throne so there was nothing to see. Eventually the train pulled out and the plebs were allowed to wait for their own rather less grand conveyance.

Sitting on the platform a concrete mixer drove past with a fantastic claim, “Longest concrete conveyor in the world” . What a claim and what a way to finish up the day.

In summary: Welshpool, lovely town but give it a miss on Wednesday and try to avoid your visit clashing with the Queen.

See more photos on Flickr