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.
It’s an easy station to find, though. If you pass the John F Kennedy memorial, you know you’re going in the right direction.
We’re definitely in inner-city territory here. Small industrial buildings lined the roadsides, along with warehouses and other Industrial Revolution-era buildings, in various states of repair. The plexiglass bus shelters on the road were scratched and marked and covered in fly-posted ads for nightclubs. Off-licences and takeaways rubbed shoulders with a fireworks wholesaler and a “legal highs” retailer.
There were a couple of breaks from the slightly down-at-heel feeling came from the Custard Factory, a new development of shops and offices, which seemed to involve painting the old buildings in pastel shades. One genuine surprise was The Old Crown pub, a building which claims to date back to 1368, and looked slightly incongruous amongst all the 19th and 20th century buildings.
Time grew short, so I quickened my pace. Navigation was easy, as the railway runs on a viaduct here, parallel to the main road. As long as I kept the viaduct on my left, I knew I was heading in the right direction. Finally I turned onto Coventry Road, which passes under the railway.
Tucked away under the bridge, and hidden behind a bus shelter, is the station entrance. I wasn’t sure why a bus shelter was needed under a bridge, but then I realised that rather a lot of water was dripping down from above. A forgotten poster in the bus shelter still advertised changes to services for a St Patrick’s Day parade – seven months ago.
Poor Bordesley. It’s on a main line served by London Midland and Chiltern Railways trains, but neither seems interested in stopping there. Really, it’s too close to Birmingham Moor Street to have a catchment area of its own, and I’m sure the railway companies would prefer people commuting from here to use the frequent bus services, rather than cramming onto trains already busy with passengers from further afield.
At street level, a poster frame had been damaged, apparently some time ago, and showed no signs of being replaced. Nearby, the train times (or should that be time?) from the station were proudly displayed on an A4 sheet of paper. Never let it be said that the railway authorities don’t look after the station, though – in 2011 it was closed for six weeks for platform repairs, which reportedly cost in the region of £75,000.
The bus shelter prevented me from getting a decent angle on the sign photo, which explains the bad framing and the slightly strange expression on my face. Not for the first time, I regretted not having one of my regular travel companions, Scott or Ian, with me – at least they can hold the camera further away than arms’ length.
Sign photo taken, I went to climb the stairs up to platform level. I don’t think I have ever seen a less promising way into a railway station. The dark, badly-lit passageway did not inspire confidence. When you do a blog like this, it comes with the territory – not every station is going to be a Corrour or Coombe Junction, and I am always prepared for a bit of urban grimness. We were not quite at Ardwick levels of unpleasantness, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Bordesley station – tucked away out of sight, with only one train a week and no CCTV – would be a good place to murder someone – just as long as you didn’t plan to make your getaway by train.
I emerged onto the platform, which – as you would expect – is about as basic as you can get. There’s a small waiting shelter (with that tell-tale eau de latrine scent inside), and that’s about it. Oh, there is a smartcard reader – even parliamentary stations are not exempt from Centro’s Swiftcard scheme.
The whole station had a melancholy atmosphere. Adjacent to the tracks, buried under weeds, I could see the remains of an additional platform, no doubt a hangover from better times.
In the distance, Birmingham City’s stadium can be seen. Bordesley is the nearest station to the ground, and on match days the station comes to life, as London Midland stop additional trains here. For the rest of the year, one train a week is your lot.
Trains raced past every few minutes, and I could hear the roar of traffic on the busy roads below. The tower blocks of Birmingham city centre were tantalisingly close on the horizon. On the station, however, there was a strange sense of desolation. I suddenly felt very lonely and anxious – the latter condition not helped by the fact that my train was a few minutes late. I nervously played with my phone, repeatedly refreshing the National Rail app to see where the train was.
The delay was only three minutes, but even so it was something of a relief to see the London Midland train approach and slow down for the stop. Here it is: the 1337 departure to Great Malvern, the only (scheduled) train to stop at Bordesley all week. The surprised guard released the doors for me and I gratefully hopped aboard.
I was glad to get away from Bordesley, and even happier when, a few minutes later, the train pulled into the lovely Birmingham Moor Street station, where I decamped to the station buffet. I thought the woman behind the counter was looking at me a bit strangely – it was only when I sat down with my coffee and bagel that I realised I was sweating profusely. It took a few minutes of deep breathing to get back to normal.
Moor Street was an agreeable way to end my visit. I stayed there for about 15 minutes, recharging my batteries, before starting for home. I took a shortcut through the Bullring shopping centre – which was not a shortcut, thanks to the hordes of shoppers I had to fight my way past. I got lost at New Street again, this time trying to find the entrance. By 2.30pm I was back en route to Liverpool. It was the briefest of brief visits to Birmingham, but I was pleased to get Bordesley ticked off my list on the second attempt.