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.