Posts Tagged ‘stourbridge’

The news this morning included an item about the sound made by stars – some unimaginable humming in the vastness of space. Rays from our own astral body, the sun, were reaching the places I passed through today making a kind of late pseudosummer, as I moved on public transport from Lancashire to Wolverhampton; from Wall Heath to Stourbridge. Between great gusts of wind, dislodging leaves rendered particularly colourful by the wet summer, there were moments of large and curious silence, seeming to say hey, how did we get here?

I reached Stourbridge, site of much mithering on the last walk, around 4pm and started walking, rising above the town on a cycle route. This took me past industrial units and into Withymoor Village, a residential area within a loop of B-road, built on reclaimed mining land. I liked this place – winding paths, greenery, willows and leylandii.

The surrounding hills (the Black Country is nothing if not hilly) a latticework of redbrick, green fields, hedgerows, and the colourful steel of industrial units. Kids playing outside (the kind of thing people, including me, say doesn’t happen any more). I liked the miniaturised heritage of this person’s wall and fence combo – the mini-reverse-portcullis and panel of stone like badges saying ‘it’s a castle right enough’:

Faded cans of Stella, a discarded BMX glove and a bag flapping in a tree did nothing to dispel a benevolent mood. A passing bunch of teenagers, slouching along Morlock-like in their hoodies, gave me slight pause – mainly as I had just been reading about a sort of fight with a similar bunch. These guys were no doubt completely harmless, for all I know a chess club or group of bellringers, but I did nevertheless fumble in my many layers of clothing to ensure a Fred Perry logo was visible, and prepare a bonding gambit along the lines of ‘I say you fellows – your chav stylings have something in common with my vaguely Mod-like attire – let us celebrate what we have in common.’

For a while I was back on the canal system, climbing the Nine Locks of the Delph. I paused for a drink at the Vine, aka the Bull and Bladder, a pub of many rooms and the brewery tap for Bathams, producers of an extraordinary straw-coloured beer. The exterior is adorned with a quote from Shakespeare, ‘Blessing of your heart/You brew good ale’ (though on an old photo inside I think it said ‘Thy Art’ instead of ‘Your Heart’ – there is probably a story to this).

As the sun set, I headed from the Vine up into Brierley Hill. This walk paralleled and, in parts, coincided with one I made c1990 when I made my way on foot from Stourbridge to Jennie‘s house, my first visit there and our second date (which may have involved seeing Gremlins 2). One of those moments from which much else flows, rivers of event cascading down the years. Seeing the street again I was struck by how beautiful these streets are; the way houses of differing design (some almost Gothically ornate, some sturdy and plain) and the occasional chapel, pub or small factory all combine into long terraces broken only with narrow alleys (I think knowns a gittens round here); the mature trees pushing up the blue bricks around their roots. Halloween decorations glistened on some of the windows, and there were spices on the breeze from the takeaways of the High Street. On the way back up the hill, I glimpsed a strange (rather Homeric) sight: three sad-faced young women in the doorway of a house, all in dressing gowns, undertaking a rapid transaction of some kind with a guy in a hi vis jacket.

From Brierley Hill I walked down to Merry Hill along new roads, much around me still being built. I found the Copthorne Hotel, my berth for the night – a large warm corporate space. Judging by the sign on a ‘Coffee/Tea Station’, the Copthorne is currently hosting the West Bromwich Building Society. Later, the sound of many people shouting/laughing and exerting themselves to endlessly beating music came from beneath a large grey hoodlike roof outside my window – perhaps the Building Society crew, indulging in one last bacchanal before the recession kicks in.

Having dumped my bag I went for a walk along the Waterfront, a canalside leisure and dining type of place near the hotel. Back in the 90s, I was fascinated by the Brewer’s Wharf, a pub new-built from old bricks. This kind of salvage-themed hyper-reality is common now of course. The Brewer’s Fayre I visited in Chester is another example of a widespread trend, whilst back in Ormskirk there are (snigger) new houses built out of reclaimed brick to resemble converted barns. I had a fancy to finally visit the Brewer’s Wharf, but peering into the window I wasn’t drawn – I could feel the overchilled lagers freezing my fillings from several yards away. A nearby Wetherspoons provided the chance to try a local beer from Lye (which was very nice).

Outside again, I explored the rest of the Waterfront. Clearly designed to attract a night crowd, it was mainly empty at this hour. Somewhere called PJs had a banner advertising ‘All you can drink for £15’ which, amusingly, had the drinkaware.co.uk URL in the corner – an incongruous and forlorn hint at ‘responsible drinking’. If selling unlimited alcohol for little money in a venue next to a canal constitutes ‘responsible drinking’, then I can’t wait to see what DrinkOblivious.co.uk are peddling. Perhaps the idea of printing small messages in the corner of huge adverts, completely contradicting the main message, will catch on – adverts for lapdancing clubs could have small print saying ‘go home to your wife, you sad git’, whilst adverts for Saw-type movies could advise one to ‘keep torture porn out of your head at all times’.

It is now Saturday morning. I’m posting this from the foyer (finally using my eeePC for its intended purpose), comfortably replete with my £3.29 breakfast from the nearby Sainsbury’s, listening to people complain about the disco noise as they check out on the other side of the gleaming marble floor. A brochure invites me to celebrate ‘A Bejewelled Christmas and New Year’ – so I need to decide – how hard and glistening do I want the turn of the year to be?

Photos from this leg

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The Black Country is a fascinating region, varied, surprisingly green in places, full of heritage, rich in language and humour. There are plenty of interesting and rewarding journeys to be made through this hard-to-define region. This, however, wasn’t one of them. A combination of post-viral feebleness, chilly grey aspic weather and too many memories made this a rather dismal day-trip, and what follows is more of a reflection on trudging away from the past than a specific travelogue. But fear not – normal service will be resumed – soon I will clamber out of the Stourbridge of despond, ascending the Nine Locks towards Merry Hill, a place which promises both joy and elevation – what could be better?

I set off in darkness to get the first train. Watched the sun rise over the Mersey. A weekday in Autumn – it was pleasant to be swaddled in fleece, reading a paperback western (Cold Corpse, Hot Trail by Peter Brandvold) while people in suits wrote to-do lists and logged on from laptops.

I arrived at Wolverhampton and hurried toward Jay’s Cafe, where I hoped to enjoy the finest bacon sandwich in the kingdom to start the day’s walking. However, the building had been gutted and builders were at work – on what is hopefully a refurbishment of the legendary cafe, rather than a rebirth as something completely different. I had a poor-quality substitute in a fast-food chain outlet, and spent a bit of time shopping – part of my attempt to solve the equation of dressing for middle age, described at length here.

Around 10.30 I set off down the Penn Road, past the drive-‘thru’ McDougalls built on the site of the Midlands Dairy, which J.B.Priestley once described as looking ‘like an outpost of a new civilisation’ (the dairy that is). The Penn Road is long and lined with mature trees, which have they effect of giving the various houses, temples and old people’s homes that line the street behind darkened driveways a slightly sinister, T.H.R.U.S.H Headquarters look. (One of the big houses is owned by Hell’s Angels, which I find curiously comforting.) I made my way up Swan Bank, an Edwardian-era street where I once lived, noting that a) the small shop was now a house called Ye Olde Shoppe and b) the front door I painted 20 years ago still apparently has the same paintjob. From there I walked on to Penn Common, through some woodland and towards Sedgley. At Gospel End, missing the chance for detours to the Crooked House or Sedgley Beacon, I walked in to Baggeridge Country Park…

Gideon Hawk, hero of Cold Corpse, Hot Trail, has a lot of troubles but, being a fictional character, can take decisive actions with definite effects (eg shooting his enemies.) Perhaps this is part of the appeal of fiction – the myth that definite ends can be achieved through planned actions. In reality, actions multiply but effects are partial and unpredictable. I lived in Wolverhampton for 14 years, having moved there from Brighton at the age of 25. Things happened. Two marriages, two jobs, three houses, all sorts of stuff. I don’t care to remember much about that first marriage and pretty much pretend it never happened. In a way, my life has expanded to the point where it contains things I don’t own…

…smooth grassy hills built over the spoils of the former mining industry, also part of Himley Hall Estate. Passing the Hall, I arrived at the A449, a road often driven. I could have walked about six miles along the canal, but feeling grim, weary and beset with confused memories, headed straight down the A449 though Wall Heath, Kingswinford (home of this landmark building, another marker of the ‘new civilisation’ perhaps)

and Wordsley. Stourbridge, where I lived for six months after the forgotten marriage and before moving back to Wolves has moved from shabby-genteel to outright decay, or so it seemed to my increasingly jaundiced eye.

I walked up the High Street. A shoeshop proprietor was talking Freemasonry with his customer. Seeking an end-of-walk drink, I entered the local Wetherspoons and got a pint. The building seemed to go on forever, a multi-sectioned Inferno of drink, cheap food, enormous displays of colour-coded condiment sachets… It was the moment in the rhythm of the pub day when the clientele comprise people who have stayed too long, arrived too early, have nowhere else to go or should never be in any licensed premises. (I, of course, was there for only the noblest of reasons.) Good beer, and a glimpse of strangely-angled architecture, made it a worthwhile visit.

I got the bus back to Wolverhampton. The sun came out, shining on roads and woods.

Back in Wolves I had a sense of a day turning – a guy who had sat opposite me on the train on his way to work now passed me on his way home. Despite a sense of ‘you can’t go home again’, I decided to have a last drink in Wolverhampton, back in the first pub I visited here, in 1986. The Posada, sometimes unkindly referred to as the ‘Piss Odour’, is a tiled Victorian corridor-like drinker. I came here straight from an interview at the Art Gallery, having just told the panel that I was going to ‘look around the town’. The panel came in shortly afterwards for their lunch, which was quite funny. I got that job, lived in the West Midlands for a while, and met the beloved soulmate-for-eternity to whom I am now married (suggesting that sometimes things do work out as in the purposeful universes of fiction, or better), moved to the North West and, eventually, started an episodic walk back to Brighton.

The late afternoon sun made the buildings blaze. People I would never know walked past in a golden glow. I sat with a drink, looking out, a position I have often found myself in – almost a default – sitting in a bar, expectant, as if waiting for someone to enter without knowing who, or why.

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