Sunday, September 13, 2009


October 9, 2001, Birmingham, England.

You might ask why I flew to Britain's second-largest city four weeks after 9/11, but let me save that for another time. The good news was, the plane wasn't crowded, so I had a two-seat to myself, and they let me have two little bottles of red wine to have with dinner. And the British soldiers who met us at the gate with serious-looking automatic weapons made me feel that I wouldn't need to worry about pickpockets in the airport. I tried to act normal, really I did. I was allowed into the country.

I had made plans so that following the convention I attended, I would have two whole days to play tourist. The first day I took a train up to London, because it is hard for me to get within two hours of London and not want to go there. It's like New York, and yet very different. It's as if two teams had been charged with designing a top world city and had had very different ideas about what to do. I love being in both cities. But that's not what we're here today to talk about either.

This second day, I knew where I wanted to go. I left my city hotel and went across the street to New Street station and purchased a Cheap Day Return to Whatstandwell.

New Street in 2003 was voted the "worst station for customer satisfaction" in Britain. It reminded me of Penn Station in New York, and trust me, that is not a compliment. At track level, it is a crowded, curved space below street level. Above it is a Brutalist station building completed in 1967. The main front faces away from the Birmingham city center and the namesake New Street. Above the station is an even uglier shopping mall called The Pallasades (sic), through which passengers may reach New Street and most of the city. Here is a fine description of the experience that I just found on a web page called Itchy Birmingham:

If you're coming into Birmingham city centre by train then depressingly there is no avoiding this place. With a pan pipe rendition of Hit Me Baby (One More Time) ringing in your ears you'll soon find yourself sprinting for the exit. As you reach daylight the farewell sign will say 'Thank you for shopping at The Pallasades'— refrain from sticking your fingers up and shouting 'I had no bloody choice! I just got off a bloody train.'

What does this look like? I never took a picture from the city side, but here is a good one posted to a discussion by "Feltip".

The Pallasades was originally called Birmingham Shopping Centre as seen here. Aside from the name, this is exactly how I remember it looking in 2001, right down to that McDonald's franchise on the left. This is the view from the corner of New Street (the street) and Corporation Street, which I would call the two main streets in the city, as you approach the busiest railway station in Britain outside of London. Can you find the entrance? Can you even tell that the station is there?

Below is the fine front entrance that they built on the back side of the station. I took the trouble to walk around to here, but as you can see, not many people do. Below that is a closer view of what some architect considered a welcoming entrance. I admit I took this one at night, so it's a little dark, but really, look at that. How would you rate this for customer satisfaction?

It's hard to get a good view of the track level from anywhere, but this night shot will give you some idea.

OK, enough ragging on poor New Street station. I avoided it in rush hours, and at the times I was there, I had no difficulty at all with the practical matters of buying tickets, seeing train information on the big boards, and finding my track. But damn, it's ugly.

Before we leave, you might like to see what New Street, the street, looks like. I took this on a rainy day. I have other photos of monumental buildings in Birmingham but this one gives you the best idea of what things look like if you wander around downtown. I thought it looked pretty good. The shops are all rented out and even on this day they seemed to be doing business well enough.

The street there on the right is called Needless Alley. There has to be a story but I don't know what it is. I can imagine a landowner who has the whole block and wants to build on it, being told that he has to provide at least a narrow street through it, to which he disagrees, but provides it anyway, and names it Needless out of spite. But Birmingham was known for the manufacture of metal "toys", meaning small commodities, and I wonder whether needles were manufactured or sold here. I don't know the answer.

On we go.

I was going to ride two trains. The first one was on a through route called Cross Country, which means it does not go to London, but rather comes from south Wales or southwest England via Birmingham to points in northeast England and Scotland. My train would leave at 09:06 and arrive at Derby at 09:51, leaving me plenty of time for the connection, a local train leaving Derby at 10:31. I expected to be able to have a quick look outside the station at Derby, but the train was almost a half hour late.

The ride passes through a few suburban towns and then across fields. The only large town before Derby is Burton upon Trent, which is dominated by huge brewery tanks. Evidently the local water is very good for brewing beer and ale. Bass Ale comes from here, and so does a popular bitter in England, Worthington.

It was along here that I overheard two young men with shaved heads discussing things. They were on their way to a football match. At length they fell silent and looked out across the fields. One of them then made an interesting observation. But first I have to describe how to say it.

Pronounce "cow" by starting to say the "ca" in "care", and then add a long "o". OK? "ca-oh". Pronounce "massive" with an "a" as in "cat". And pronounce "benign" something between "buh-nine" and "buh-noin", something like a Long Island accent if you know how that sounds. He said this:

The cow is a massive beast. But it's benign.

I almost burst out laughing. The setup was the accent, but the punch line was the unexpected word "benign", which in the States is a fancy word used almost exclusively to describe tumors. I did not actually burst out laughing because these two looked like they'd break your nose before they'd bother finding out why you were laughing at them. They got off at Derby too, to change for Nottingham.

The train was late, but I had still arrived at Derby in time to make the connection. As I expected, the local train was a DMU, a set of diesel-powered cars of uncertain vintage, standing at one of the platforms. There weren't many passengers.

Derby 10:31, Whatstandwell 10:52.

The branch line was single track. I got off at Whatstandwell, and and after the train disappeared into a short tunnel, I took this picture looking forward to where it had gone. Is this the most amazing rural station scene possible? Don't people go to railway museums to see things like this?

I was the only passenger who chose to get off at this remote location. It was the middle of nowhere, or maybe just outside of nowhere. To the left, there was a small parking lot and a road just beyond, signs of civilization, but there was not a building to be seen other than the little shelter you can see there on the left.

I didn't notice until later on, when I looked at the photograph, that there was a totally overgrown platform on the right, for another track that was no longer there. Some research told me that this had once been a through route from London to Manchester, although it was now a dead-end local branch line.

Do you like that arched bridge? I sure do. There was no sign to guide me, but the map I had printed out from the web, before I left New Jersey, told me that it was the way to Whatstandwell.

Here is what I saw as I went up the steps to the bridge.

The arch bridge goes over the railway, and once had steps down to the long-disused other platform. From that point, there are steps going further up. They go over a canal, parallel to the railway but higher up.

Here, I've gone up those steps, and I'm looking back down to the railway and the arched bridge.

I didn't take a picture of the canal. Once I was over the canal, I was on a footpath bordered by stone walls, that led up to the village of Whatstandwell. Here's the path.

At the end of the path, I was on the main road in Whatstandwell, which was almost the only road. It was the main road. Its name is the Main Road. I am not joking. You can look it up.

Above, from Google Maps, with my annotations.

I didn't snap a picture of the Main Road, but what I recall is that it was lined with grey stone buildings and stone walls. Wikipedia provides us this view of Whatstandwell, a little ways down the Main Road.

From the footpath, I crossed the Main Road, turned right, and then went left into the side road. It went uphill like this, past more grey stone buildings.

And looking back downhill, below.

The place I was going to advises:

The nearest rail station is Whatstandwell, from which it is a STEEP uphill walk of about 1 mile.

To myself I belittled the capitalized word in this description. I concentrated on the distance of one mile: that's nothing. I could walk that easily. So it's uphill. But they meant it about being STEEP. As I continued onward, I started to believe that Whatstandwell was in the Grand Canyon of Great Britain.

Here is the road farther up, now in a place called Crich Carr. I stopped here to admire the scenery. Someone was sitting in a chair in the front of a house and I smiled and nodded as if I came by this way every day.

And now, even farther up, here is the view looking back toward Whatstandwell. See what I mean? It's way down there in that valley you can't even see into from here. How about that scenery though? I bet you want to be here. This was the beginning of October too, and everything is still green in the Derbyshire Dales.

The sign points to a public footpath to Wakebridge, stated to be 1/4 mile off. England still has an enormous number of narrow public rights of way for footpaths between towns, a heritage from centuries ago.

And now, finally, the road almost levels off. Speed limit 30, and that's miles per hour, not kilometers.

I was almost there! Just ahead, beyond that house, turn right, a short way, turn left.

Where? Does it matter to you where I was going? Did you like the journey? Maybe I was going to a place you wouldn't have taken all this trouble to go see. But you can still enjoy the journey from the depths of Birmingham New Street to the insane beauty of Derbyshire. And you can do it about two hours. Life is good.

Next time: Niagara.


  1. So you went to the trolley museum?

    And you didn't mention the other similarity between New Street and Penn station: not enough tracks feeding into one end of the station (in the case of New Street the east, and Penn the west).

    Just in case that wasn't enough, here's what the side of New Street the Derby Line goes from looked like until the 60's:

  2. Yes, Crich Tramway Village, the National Tramway Museum. I have a dozen or more photos and some recollections, but that will be some other time.

  3. I found out now that Whatstandwell was Florence Nightingale's home station. She lived about a mile north on the Main Road. I had trod in the footsteps of greatness.

  4. Joe, This story has many parallels for me. I too was organising a conference in the UK at the time of 9/11 but the date of mine was 10/11 to 12/11 - you can imagine what happened to my USA keynote speakers. I think I've written the story somewhere - must look it up.

    I share your feelings about Birmingham New Street.

    The most interesting parallel is that I made the same journey your describe (Whatstandwell to Crich) roughly 10 years before you. I remember it just as you tell it. Thanks for the pics. I have no pictures other than those in my head and heart and from that memory I have recorded a piece of music. You will find it here (my name above is a link to this) I hope it evokes the journey for you as it does me. Perhaps we should combine your pics and my music in a movie.

  5. Nice piece of music. Thanks.

    Not a bad place to get lost in. I wonder whether they've considered placing a few walking directions signs from the station. Provided you're in shape for the steep climb, it is a beautiful walk. [1] over the bridge, [2] right, [3] left, [4] bear left, [5] right. That's all the turns there are. Gaa, that penultimate photo... I could have taken more of those but I didn't.