Friday, 29 July 2011

Invest Here (London 40 minutes).

My final overnight stop is a hotel next to the NEC.  Before I get there I have a look at the site of the new HS2 station at Bickenhill.  Despite the fact that it is right next to the built-up area, beside the M42, this is still a landscape of wheat fields and pasture.  If I covered my ears (and ignored some low level fly tipping) I could still be in deepest Northamptonshire.

This is really what HS2 is about.  It will be 40 minutes to London from here, and you will also be able to get faster connections to the north, via the link to the West Coast Main Line at Lichfield.  Not surprisingly I’m now on the part of the route where the local Councils support it, although the first of them, Solihull, is in danger of getting splinters in a painful place with its delicate exercise in fence-sitting.

I don’t envy Solihull Council’s situation one bit.  The Airport, the NEC and the Birmingham Business Park are all on their patch, and HS2 could be a major boost for all of them.  On the other hand their green belt villages out as far as Balsall Common are implacably opposed.  In the circumstances supporting HS2 subject to a massive list of provisos is probably the only thing they could have done.

I have to walk across the NEC complex, which appears to be shut, to reach my hotel.   Right at the start I’m greeted with a sign saying “Private Property – no through way”, and they certainly don’t make it easy for pedestrians.  The only footpaths appear to link the individual car parks to the Exhibition Halls, and I end up having to follow the verge along the access road.  Still I get my reward when I am greeted with a huge advertising hoarding telling me “Birmingham City Council Supports HS2”.  It is so big that you would need a least a hundred Stop HS2 posters to cover it up (pictured below).  The Council clearly wants every visitor to the NEC to know where it stands.  And I don’t blame it. Support has been extremely thin on the ground so far, and Birmingham needs to try and even up the score.

I deliberately chose to spend the night close to the NEC and the airport because I thought I would find supporters of HS2 here, and the reception staff at the hotel don’t disappoint me.  “I support it. I think the benefits for our economy will eventually justify the cost”, one of them tells me.  But he also admits that he has some friends in Birmingham who think the environmental cost is too high.  His colleague is initially much more uncertain.  Then she realises I’m not asking her whether walking all the way is a good idea, but whether HS2 itself is.  And then yes – she supports it too.  And I was right.  The NEC is shut. It only operates September to May apparently.

The following morning the same receptionist is on the desk as I check out and she asks me which places I’ll be walking through.  One of them is Chelmsley Wood.  Yesterday when I told someone I met that I was going there I was warned, “It’s really rough.  You’ll probably get mugged”.  The receptionist turns out to live there herself, but she smiles sweetly when I tell this story and assures me I’ll be fine.  Even so I’m a bit anxious as I start out.

First of all I visit Birmingham Business Park.  This is a very high quality working environment, complete with trees, lakes, and individually designed buildings in spacious settings.  It was started about twenty years ago, but there is still plenty of room for further expansion.  There are some well known names here, Fujitsu and Orange for example, but also smaller companies taking one floor of a building.  It is one of Birmingham’s premier business locations (the name says it all really) and HS2 would give it a further boost.

Best of all, for me at least, there is a signed pedestrian route to Chelmsley Wood.  I follow it out of the Business Park and with some trepidation take my first steps into the estate.  I’ve driven past the edge of Birmingham on the M6 plenty of times, and seen the tower blocks in serried ranks marching across the landscape.   I suppose I am expecting to find a concrete wasteland of blocks of high rise flats and maisonettes, poorly maintained “amenity greens”, the occasional burnt out car, a few packs of stray dogs, and some obviously mentally ill people shouting at passers by.  I really need to apologise for making that assumption.  It isn’t like that at all. 

No, on this mild summer’s day in the school holidays Chelmsley Wood feels just like any other 1960’s suburb anywhere.  Many of the tower blocks are gone now, demolished more than ten years ago.  Today it’s a large estate of neat two storey houses, most originally built by the Council, but in many cases since bought by their owners under the Right to Buy, with well maintained gardens and plenty of trees.  The remaining tower blocks look pretty well looked after too.  Today you could in all sincerity call Chelmsley Wood leafy.  In fact I will.  It’s leafy.  I know a lot of public money has been spent here in recent years, but from my time there I would say it was well worth it.

I walk up to the corner of the estate where HS2 will cross the football pitches on its viaduct over the M42, and talk to a woman out walking her dog.  “We don’t want the line here,” she says.  She talks about the extra noise, the loss of the open space, and the impact on house prices just like everyone else has done all along the route. 

Down in the Chelmsley Wood shopping centre, a busy pedestrianised mall with a host of well known high street names, things are rather different.  I go into a café and get a bacon and egg roll and a coffee.  I ask the women serving what they think about HS2.  The shopping centre is only half a mile from the route but they don’t have any opinion about it and don’t see why they should.  They’re very friendly and wish me well on my walk, but they aren’t remotely interested in the reason for it.

And when the political calculations are done this could be the Achilles heel of the STOP HS2 campaign.  There is a narrow corridor along the route in which people are very well informed, are interested in challenging every aspect of the case, and are prepared to put in time and (if they can afford it) money to fight their corner.  Half a mile away (further in rural areas admittedly) it just isn’t on people’s radar.  In London and Birmingham, if they know about it at all they probably think it’s a good idea.  Elsewhere, they’re probably just glad it doesn’t affect them.

I need to cross an area of open land to get to the next estate on my route, Kingshurst.  I’m ashamed to say I’m again a bit apprehensive at this point.  But the open land marked on the map turns out to be Meriden Park, and it’s absolutely lovely.  Kids off school are using the skate park or the adventure playground.  Families are sitting round having picnics, and the lake with its brick bridge is pretty as a picture (pictured above).   This is all part of the Kingfisher Country Park, which follows the river Cole into Birmingham.  As I head off on my own journey I’m genuinely sorry to leave.

The Green Belt here is a narrow strip separating Coleshill from Kingshurst and Chelmsley Wood.  It has already provided the opportunity to build the M6 and the M42, and will now provide space for two HS2 lines, one to Birmingham, the other to the West Coast Main Line at Lichfield, as well as a third section linking them together.   Despite the motorways, once you get into the middle of the area it is still an agricultural landscape, with the spire of Coleshill church on one side and the remaining tower blocks of north Solihull on the other (pictured below).  And I imagine that the woods are a carpet of bluebells in the spring. 

The path is very well trodden, and takes me round to Water Orton.  Here I’m back in a Warwickshire green belt village which is not at all happy about HS2.  At least eight homes will have to be demolished for the Birmingham line alone, and the route also passes very near the village school.  I speak to a woman watering her garden.  “It’s all very well building new lines in Spain or France, but we’re a crowded little island.”  Like people all along the route, she doesn’t understand the need for HS2 and thinks existing public transport should be improved instead.   She tells me about a farm which will be affected at Drayton Bassett on the route up to Lichfield.  I don’t have time to walk that route on this trip, but I make a vague promise to her to come back and do it soon.

I finally enter Birmingham at Minworth, home to a massive sewage works, and then walk through Castle Vale.  This is another well kept 1960’s estate which has had a major regeneration programme.  It is spoilt only by its position right under the flight path of aircraft taking off from Birmingham Airport.  HS2 will run very close to the southern edge of the estate, but if it also brings more demand for flights with it then the whole of Castle Vale will notice the difference.

I’m into the last few miles of the walk now, and I’m starting to feel glad to be nearly there and sad that it will soon be over all at once.  Very confusing.  I walk past the Jaguar assembly plant to Fort Dunlop.  This iconic building, familiar to anyone who has ever driven up the M6, was in a rather sorry state for a few years but has now been thoroughly refurbished (pictured below).  Actually refurbished doesn’t really cover it.  The brick façade and the cast iron shell of the building are left, but everything else is new.  It’s a mix of offices and shops and I go in and ask the man on reception what he thinks of HS2.   Not surprisingly he is another supporter.  “But of course we get all the benefits and others get the disruption”, he said.

And that’s the point really.  If you live in Birmingham what is not to like about HS2?  You get the fastest train in the world coming to your city; there is hardly any environmental impact as the route follows an existing rail corridor all the way; and the (very substantial) funding shortfall is met by taxpayers from all over the country, not just those in Birmingham.  It’s a no-brainer frankly.

I walk on past the Bentley and Lamborghini showrooms and the huge Fort Retail Park, and cross under the M6 into a different world.  Washwood Heath is as overwhelmingly an Asian Muslim neighbourhood as Chelmsley Wood and Castle Vale were white ones.  A studious looking boy in traditional dress walks ahead of me with his little brother to the Madrassa, glancing slightly anxiously at a group of older boys in western clothes on the other side of the road.  Bookish boys are a potential target in any culture I guess.

They make it OK, and I carry on to the broken remains of the LDV Vans factory, currently being demolished.  This is where the HS2 rolling stock depot is proposed.  Across on the other side the Alstom site, where trains were last built in Birmingham, and which would also be used for the depot, lies idle too.  As with Old Oak Common in London, HS2 would bring this huge site back to life, and replace some of the lost jobs.  With its excellent rail access but indifferent road links it would be ideal for the depot. Quite a few homes might have to be demolished here to make way for it, but the only pedestrian I speak to lives in Erdington and knows nothing about it.

Past Washwood Heath I walk on through a mix of Council housing, small industrial sites, rail yards and derelict buildings until I finally reach Curzon Circle.  This east side of inner Birmingham is a marginal area that you just would not find so close to the centre of London.  It is very easy to see why the City fathers are so keen on HS2.  The terminus could be just the catalyst the area needs.  At the moment the historic Curzon Street station building sits unused like a redundant Greek temple in a sea of temporary car parks, boarded up pubs and cleared sites (pictured above).

Further into the city centre however, and property developers have been busy.  I can see the famous Beehive of Selfridges at the Bullring and the similarly named but otherwise utterly dissimilar brand new 20 storey apartment blocks of The Hive closer at hand (pictured below).  The HS2 station would be off the city centre, but only just.  If new development jumps a couple more blocks it will be right up to it.

This is journey’s end, and to celebrate I make for the Old Joint Stock opposite the Cathedral for a pint of London Pride.  This former bank was converted into a pub by London brewery Fullers a few years ago, a little piece of the capital in the heart of Birmingham.

I sit in the bar and size up the after work drinkers.  I want to talk to one last group of people before I finish.  But if a sweaty grey-haired man in shorts and walking boots came up to you in a city centre pub after work would you talk to him?  Well I’m pleased to say that Jo and Ross did.   They work in regeneration and have strong views about HS2.  “We shouldn’t let a few people complaining about the view stop this essential piece of infrastructure from being built”, said one.  “People in villages will object to anything.  In my parents’ village there was a petition to stop a field being used as allotments,” said the other.

For these young professionals in Birmingham HS2 could kick start our economy in the way that building the Hoover dam did for depression era America.  Objections are just so much Nimbyism.  Personally I’m not sure whether portraying the coalition government as a disciple of John Maynard Keynes makes it more likely that it will decide to build HS2, but there is no doubt in their minds.

So there you have it.  Birmingham loves HS2.  In the whole corridor back to the edge of London, from Water Orton to West Ruislip, from Chelmsley Wood to Chalfont St Giles, people are going through the economic case, the environmental case and the costs with a fine-toothed comb, raising queries and objections and campaigning furiously, but Birmingham knows what is good for it, and HS2 undoubtedly would be.

You can follow my route here.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Middle England

By the end of today I will be only a few miles from Meriden, the place recognised as the middle of England.  But first I have to walk there from Southam.  I go into a café in the market square to get some breakfast before setting out, and to see if attitudes to HS2 have changed.  They haven’t.  The small town is still too far away from a station for locals to see any benefit.  “I don’t see why it’s needed.  I heard on the news today that there aren’t enough midwives now with all the cuts.  That’s what we should be spending the money on, things that benefit everybody.”
In towns I sometimes find it hard to navigate using Ordnance Survey Maps.  They’re great for rural areas, but in town a street map would be more use to be honest.  As I walk out of Southam on this lovely summer’s day, with the cries of the swifts above me filling the air, I have just such an experience.  A small housing estate is being built on the site of the town’s sewage works, and I’m disorientated for a moment.  “Are you looking for the Holy Well?” asks a passer by.  I wasn’t, but when I look at the map I need to go right past it, so with her help I’m on my way.
The Holy Well duly found (there was no signboard there so I can’t tell you anything about it), I walk on across the hay meadows and horse paddocks.  Not much further on I’m confronted by another route finding puzzle. According to my map the path goes over a metal fence (no stile), across a track and then through what looks like a polo field, where a lot of building work is going on.  There’s a very dilapidated stile on that side, but no footpath sign.  I climb the fence to the track and stand wondering what to do.  Fortunately a man walking his dog comes to my aid.  “Since the new chap took over they’ve moved the path.  It’s about 400 yards down the track on the edge of the wood.”
I realise that my odyssey in deep countryside is coming to an end.  I’m re-entering urban fringe Britain, a world where the Ordnance Survey struggles to keep up with the pace of change.

Anyway the new path is well marked, and it takes me to the other side of the polo field at the point where HS2 will enter a tunnel under Ufton Woods.  Nearby I find a tiny cemetery, tucked away in the trees (pictured above).  Trains will roar past within a few yards of this spot, and as I stand there I feel really sad that the tranquillity of today would be lost.  It’s odd.  The dead won’t hear it.  I guess it is those who come to tend the graves that are in my thoughts.
I’m soon hit by more evidence that I’m back in touching distance of urban Britain.  In the distance I spot my first tower block for 70 miles.  From the map this must be an estate on the edge of Leamington Spa.  Not quite as exciting as seeing a sparrowhawk or a hare perhaps, but interesting all the same.
Then I cross the Grand Union Canal at the point where HS2 would do so (pictured below), and walk on up the towpath.  A passing bargee asks me if I’m going far.  When I tell him he asks “As an objector?”  Well I didn’t start out that way, but the truth is I’m not so sure now.  I don’t think anybody could walk the whole route of HS2 as I’m doing and not feel affected by the impact on so much tranquil countryside, and in some cases the loss of the homes and businesses of those who live there.

When I cross the line of the old Rugby to Leamington railway, now part of the Sustrans National Cycle Network, I’m into the West Midlands Green Belt, and more evidence of urban life.  The pub in Offchurch, where I stop for lunch, is not only open (unlike my experience the previous day) but was recently voted “National Pub Restaurant of the Year”.  This isn’t a village local.  Its target market is people coming out from Leamington and other nearby towns, and it’s bustling even on a Monday. 
I chat to a local in the pub, and he is as anti HS2 as anyone I’ve met.  “It’s ridiculous to build something which has to go in a dead straight line just for a few extra miles an hour.  It cuts through virtually every wood going round here.  Sacrifice a bit of speed and build it alongside the existing railway lines instead.”
I try the young woman serving at the bar, while she refills my local informant’s glass.  She lives in nearby Cubbington (a “hotbed” of objections he later tells me), but she’s never heard of HS2.  When I tell her it means you could go by train from Birmingham Airport to London in 40 minutes she thinks for a moment, during which I desperately try and stop him from telling her how to reply, and then says, “Could be handy.”  Hooray!  I’ve reached the point in my journey where some people at least can see the benefits.
I pass on through the “hotbed” of Cubbington, where there are indeed plenty of Stop HS2 signs, including the doom laden stricture “If you don’t object the Government will assume you agree with the plans”.  Cubbington clearly does not want politicians to be able to conclude that silence is assent.
Just before it reaches Kenilworth, HS2 will cross Stoneleigh Park showground on a viaduct.  I’m not sure that I can get through the showground on foot, so instead I decide to follow part of the Coventry Way, a 40 mile footpath which encircles the city, and rely on being able to look over the showground from the hill above Stoneleigh village.  The Coventry Way Association has been busy here, putting up notices showing how the footpaths will be severed by HS2.

My cunning plan doesn’t work.  Either there are too many trees, or I don’t look at the right time, but anyway I don’t see Stoneleigh Park.  However the village itself is delightful, full of Arden brick and half timber thatched cottages (pictured above), which I should imagine are very sought after by the more prosperous residents of Coventry and Birmingham.  And indeed maybe of London.  I’m amazed how many people seem to commute to London from Warwickshire by train.  From Rugby it’s only 50 minutes to Euston apparently – half the time that it takes from Aylesbury.  And with an annual season ticket costing around £7,000 I can see that the house price differential could make it good financial sense.
I walk into Kenilworth in the evening sunshine.  It’s as leafy, prosperous and “middle England” as you like.  In the morning I will get the chance to look around. 
I stay overnight with some friends who live nearby.  Margaret and Ian use trains a lot, but are sceptical about HS2.  The public roadshows come in for more criticism.  No one could answer any questions if it wasn’t part of the prepared spiel, they tell me.  They also wonder about existing services.  Chiltern and Virgin will still want to compete for passengers won’t they?  Will enough people be willing to pay more for a slightly faster service? 
Chiltern is a really interesting one.  Twenty years ago there were no services from Birmingham into Marylebone at all.  Gradually Chiltern Railways, courtesy of the most long-term rail franchise on the network, have improved the line, refurbished Moor St station, and from later this year will be able to do the journey in 98 minutes.  That isn’t that much slower than to Euston.  Their next project is to run through services from Oxford, by reopening a disused junction at Bicester.  And people seem to like Chiltern, with their old-fashioned standards of service and preserved Victorian stations.
The following morning is another still, mild summer’s day, and I get the chance to look round before I leave.  Old Kenilworth, next to the famous castle, is all Georgian brick houses and little shops, with the backdrop of the Abbey Fields and the Common.  The “newer” part, which grew up around the station, has a pleasant 1960’s shopping centre, a Waitrose, and a general air of genteel friendliness.
In fact the whole walk is taking on a pleasing symmetry.  I left London through the Buckinghamshire Green Belt, traversed 70 miles of countryside, and am now approaching Birmingham through the Warwickshire Green Belt.  And one end is the mirror image of the other.  Kenilworth, with its historic brick-built High Street and larger newer part, reminds me of Amersham.  In fact if the town burghers are thinking of any more town-twinning arrangements they could do worse:  “Kenilworth - twinned with Zell am Zee (or wherever)”.  “Kenilworth Stop HS2 – twinned with Amersham Stop HS2.”
As I walk on I try to make the other well-to-do villages of the Warwickshire Green Belt fit this model.  Balsall Common and Hampton in Arden might be the Chalfonts.  Berkswell, a very pretty place with its Norman sandstone church complete with crypt, and its nearby hall and lake, could perhaps be Little Missenden.  And arguably HS2 will be more intrusive here than in the Chilterns.  Much less of the line is in a cutting, and there are no tunnelled sections.  And for part of the route it will follow a disused railway line, now the Kenilworth Greenway (pictured below), which will be lost to local walkers, cyclists and horse riders as a result.

Just before I get to Hampton in Arden I come upon a young woman sketching by a pond, right on the route of HS2.  She discreetly closes her sketch book as I approach – it’s obviously not for public viewing – and I tell her about my walk and about HS2.  She’s home from University and has cycled out here from the edge of Coventry.  She has only the vaguest knowledge of the proposed line.  After some thought she gives me a similar answer to the one I got in Offchurch.  “40 minutes to London would be really convenient.  It just seems a shame that places like this have to go to do it”.
Yes – I’m right in the middle of Definitely Maybe Land now.  As I get to the top of Old Station Road in Hampton in Arden, home to some of the best bits of real estate I’ve seen on the whole walk, and part of a village where 94% of residents oppose HS2 according to a local poll, I cross from Green Belt to cityscape.  With my final day through Birmingham ahead, I wonder how much more the view of HS2 will change.

You can follow my route  here.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

The Empty Quarter

I get up to a dry, still morning for the longest day of my whole walk – nearly 20 miles from Sulgrave to Southam – and there really isn’t a lot in between.  Mandy, the landlady of the pub where I’ve been staying, offers to make me a sandwich in case I can’t find anywhere to buy lunch.  I’ve checked the map and I’ll pass a couple of pubs.  “I’ll find something,” I tell her.  In any case I’ve just had another excellent cooked breakfast.

This is horse country in a big way.  People in the pub had told me to look out for the eventing centre at Aston le Walls – a potential casualty of HS2, and as I walk out across the now familiar landscape of pasture and wheat fields I seem to see more people on horseback than anything else.

But the first place I had been told to look out for was Lower Thorpe.  Here, as HS2 sweeps across the valley on a viaduct, the little group of about five houses will all have to be demolished.  It’s a peaceful scene today, with the cows grazing, and the mother village of Thorpe Mandeville looking down from the top of the hill (pictured below).

One of the hazards of walking over farmland is electric fences.   Often there is a stile or safe place to cross, but sometimes there just isn’t.  Beyond Thorpe Mandeville one blocks the only opening into the field I have to cross.  It’s a spiral section of fence with an insulated handle at one end, but I can’t work out how to unhook it.  I ponder for a moment.  Should I jump it?  It’s a bit too high.  I decide to push the insulated end down with one hand, to make the whole fence low enough to step over.  Easy!  I’m soon across and on my way.  Or so I think.  Two paces later I’m pulled to a sudden stop.  Dammit!  The strap of my binoculars has hooked round the spiral of the fence.  I try to free it but it’s like that game where you try to move a disc along a piece of twisted wire without it buzzing.  Inevitably I lose.  Just as I free the binoculars I touch the fence…

Obviously there isn’t a small pile of charcoal in the Northamptonshire countryside as the only evidence I was ever there.  After all I’m here to write the blog.  My heart thumped for a few seconds, but after that I was fine.  Even so I decide to crawl under the next electric fence I come across.  Less dignified perhaps but more effective.

I continue across the horse gallops to Edgcote House.  This is a beautiful country seat, one of a select group of Grade 1 Listed Buildings (pictured below).  HS2 will cross its park, not more than 400 m from the main house, and a good bit nearer to Home Farm.  I’m shown where it will go by a horsewoman from the farm, after she has jumped down from her mount and put her tack back in the tack room.

“They’re quite happy for a railway to come right through here, but they’ve never let me put in double glazing because it’s a listed building”, she tells me.  The absurdity of the whole thing makes me laugh out loud.  It’s sad but funny too.  The little things are subject to massive levels of control, but when the big things come along…  Fortunately she laughs with me.  She still had a riding crop in her hand at the time.

As I stand at the top of the hill and look back to Edgcote and to Home Farm I realise that I’m actually quite angry, for the first time on the whole walk.  Angry that this outstandingly beautiful, historic and peaceful landscape could be ruined for ever.  At the same time I feel ashamed that it should be this bastion of privilege that has made me feel this way, rather than any impact on our more ordinary lives.  That’s a middle class Englishman for you I suppose, I think to myself.

I pass the pub at Chipping Walden, decide that it is too early for lunch, and press on across the old airfield to Aston le Walls.  Washbrook Farm eventing centre has a huge “Beware of Trains” banner produced by the local action group.  As far as I can see the line would run just beyond their cross country course.  I can imagine it might frighten the horses, but I don’t find anyone to ask.

The sky darkens as I near my planned lunch stop at Lower Boddington.  From a distance I can see that the Carpenters Arms is ominously quiet.  Disaster – it’s shut!  Just as the rain starts I find a small notice on the back entrance to the pub:  “Due to lack of demand we will no longer be open weekday lunchtimes”.  It’s 1.30. Yesterday I didn’t get any lunch until nearly 3 o’clock.  Today could be worse.  I check the map.  A one mile detour to Upper Boddington is my best option.  According to the map there is a Post Office (hopefully doubling as a small shop) and a pub.

It’s really raining hard now.  When I get to Upper Boddington the shop is no longer trading, but I find the pub.  I’m not sure the landlord is too impressed with a hiker in full waterproofs dripping on his floor, but when I tell him what I‘m doing, and why I’ve had to stray off the route he warms to me a little.  He’s wholly unconvinced about the case for HS2.  “Invest in the London commuter lines instead.  Enlarge the tunnels and put on double-deck trains.  That’s where all the demand is,” he tells me.

It really is quiet here.  The only other customers are an English couple now living in France who are staying at the pub while they make some business calls.  They can’t understand why HS2 will make so few stops.  “The Bullet train in Japan serves 32 stations,” they say. “Why can’t this?”

After an enormous plate of pasta I’m back on the road.  I’ve still got about ten miles to go and my left ankle has started to hurt quite a lot.  I’m really glad that I’m taking rest days – I’m not sure that I would be able to walk far tomorrow.  Still, at least it’s stopped raining.

Two miles on and I’m into Warwickshire.  The scenery doesn’t change, still the same rolling mixture of arable, pasture and small copses.  Local attitudes to HS2 don’t alter either.  I get to the Oxford Canal at the point where HS2 will cross it.  A huge sign “You are about to go under HS2” greets boaters with the news (pictured below).  And they aren’t suggesting it’s a cause for celebration.

Canals are a sedate means of getting about at the best of times, but even by their standards the Oxford Canal is the slow route.  The canal follows the contours of the land where possible, rather than using locks to change level, so it isn’t very direct.  I cross it half way along the stretch between Marston Doles and Claydon.  Ten lock-free canal miles, which with all the meanders only gets you five miles nearer your destination.  At narrow boat speed that is more than 100 times slower than HS2!

As I cross the flat pasture land by the canal I reach the gate into a field of bullocks.  I’ve passed through fields of horses, cows and sheep on this walk, even occasionally geese and goats, without incident.  This time something feels different.  The bullocks are approaching me before I am even through the gate.  They walk purposefully towards me, some are even trotting.  They get up quite a pace, only veering off at the last minute before galloping round to make another pass.  My nerve starts to fail me.  I go back towards the gate, and the bullocks follow. 

This is ridiculous, I think.  If they veered off the first time they’ll keep doing it.  They’re just inquisitive.  I turn round and walk firmly and decisively across their field.  Trotting bullocks pass in front and behind me, and then gallop off with wild eyes.  This is really quite alarming.  It’s as if a group of very large three year olds who don’t know their own strength want to play tag with me.  As they charge past me again a hare darts out from under the thundering hooves and dashes over to the safety of the hedgerow.  Oh for a turn of speed like that.

I’m very glad to get safely over the stile on the other side.  Once over it I turn round to look.  The bullocks are all crowded round the stile watching me intently (pictured below).  That was quite enough excitement for one day.

An hour later I’m on top of Windmill Hill looking down over Southam.  I had rather hoped that I would be able to see to Birmingham from here, but it is still too far away.  The cutting for HS2 will make a deep gash in the hill right where I stand, and when I come down into Ladbroke almost the first thing I see is a Stop HS2 sticker.  Somewhere along the way I left the stone country, as Ladbroke is a pretty brick village, but the attitudes still haven’t changed.

The last word from today belongs to the cab driver who took me into Leamington Spa to catch the train for home.  “For me it’s about fairness.  HS2 will be for the more affluent.  Round here they’ve cut the buses down to one every two hours, and pensioners rely on those buses.  British people value fairness.  The ones I talk to don’t think spending £30 billion on HS2 is right when we’re so short of money.”

I’ve finished my longest day, and will return next week for the final push into Birmingham.  There, finally, I am expecting to hear different views.

You can follow my route here .

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Lark Rise to Sulgrave

Forget the soapy Sunday night TV series.  Flora Thompson’s three books: Lark Rise, Over to Candleford and Candleford Green, provide probably the finest account of the lost rural life of ordinary people in southern England we have.  I need no better excuse to detour from the route of HS2 than to make a pilgrimage to the village where she worked in the post office.  I’ve never been here before, but I can already picture clearly the rolling wheat fields, the children running down the lane to school, and the big house in its park where Flora delivered the private bag of mail each day.
The post office and forge were in Fringford, about 2 miles from the route.  The big thatched limestone building is a private house now.  There’s a beautiful old AA sign on the front wall giving the distances to Brackley and Bicester (two towns which provided much of the material for Flora’s fictional town of Candleford).  There is no blue plaque.  In truth there is not much evidence of her or her world in Fringford today.  And that is only as it should be really.  She was in her sixties when she wrote the books, living far away in Devon, and the life she described was long gone.  They struck a deep chord in an England at war when they were published in the 1940’s, and they can still do so today. 

I go into the church.  There is a plaque on the wall in her memory (pictured above), newly installed after the success of the TV series, but that’s all.  I come out and follow the path to Shelswell Park.  The “big house” is gone now, but as I cross the park, among the cattle and sheep, it is easy to imagine the young Flora being engaged in conversation by a gamekeeper, and flattered, if a bit scared, by the attention.
I leave the park by the lodge gate and walk down the road back towards the route of HS2.  At a road junction I pass a signpost to Juniper.  As I look to the left I can just make out the small hamlet on the hill with the copse behind.  Juniper Hill, where Flora was born, is Lark Rise.  It’s too far off my route to visit today, but I’m glad the signpost reminded me to look.

Then I am back on the route of HS2 at Mixbury, where the line will leave the old Great Central and make its own way again.  I chat to people in the village.  They are some way away from it here – “maybe a kilometre”, a man tells me.  But he thinks the rumble of the trains will still affect them, and maybe the noise too.  MIxbury is a pretty place of identical Victorian model workers’ cottages (pictured above).  There isn’t much new development in the village, but a valiant attempt has been made to build three detached houses in the model cottage style.  As ever though, it hasn’t quite come off.  They look a bit like modern houses at a fancy dress party.
Beyond Mixbury I scramble up on the old Great Central embankment and stand at the spot where Bucks, Northants and Oxon meet.  This is pretty much half way in my journey, and as good a place as any to take stock:
I’m really enjoying the peace of rural southern England, and since leaving Aylesbury I’ve had plenty of it.  The route through the Chilterns was pretty of course, but nothing like as peaceful as these quiet rolling acres.   The people who live here value this tranquillity, and really struggle to understand the point of view of politicians and business leaders in London, Birmingham and Manchester, who see the opportunity for investment, jobs and greater prosperity.  The longer I spend here, the more I become in tune with their way of thinking.  That’s why walking through Birmingham is such an important part of my journey.  But I’m still 50 miles away from that…

The county boundary is a meandering thing here.  I’m now back in Bucks at Turweston.  At a point above the village, where the line will pass by in a deep cutting, a lady out walking her dog points out a house and stables which will have to be demolished.  “All that money spent on the house, and they’ve got all these lovely horses”, she says.  “And of course until a decision is made nobody can sell a house anywhere in the village”.
I’ve been putting off mentioning this, but I’ve got to do it some time.  The effect on the value of people’s property is often one of the first things they speak about.  There’s nothing new in this of course.  Ewan McColl picked up on it in 1964 in his “Moving On Song”, from the radio ballad “The Travelling People”.  And Samuel Pepys devoted pages of his diary for 1665 to the impact the digging of plague pits nearby would have on the rent he would get for his London properties.
Ok, I made that last one up, but an obsession with the value of our property is not a new thing, nor something we can easily dismiss as loved only by “Thatcher’s children”.  For some people it is of course all about the money, but I’m feeling in a generous spirit, and I think it is often about something deeper than that.  Something about wanting to know that we made the right decision buying that house, that all the hard work getting the extension done, putting the new kitchen in, wasn’t wasted.  Something about needing to be sure that a place so important to us is properly valued by the outside world.
And actually I’m not sure people in Turweston will notice HS2 much.  They’ve got the Brackley By Pass on the other side of them and it isn’t a quiet place today.  Very pretty, yes.  Quiet no.

I finally enter Northants properly at Brackley, a handsome town with a fine stone town hall and a wide market place (pictured above).  Although I’m in a new County, the opinions are no different.  I go into a shop to buy a sandwich and see the front page of the Brackley and Towcester Advertiser.  “HS2 - the fast track to noise and poverty” is the headline.
I’m also still firmly in arable country here.  I take a bridleway out of Brackley by the side of a bean crop.  Ten minutes later I realise I’m still walking past it.  I check the map.  The field is half a mile square!   Once I’m back home writing up the blog I look at the first series Ordnance Survey Map of the area.  The huge bean field was six smaller fields in 1891.  Today it just goes on and on.
The pretty limestone villages of Northamptonshire are no keener on HS2 than were the brick villages of Bucks.  In Greatworth I stop and speak to someone coming back from her allotment.  She tells me the whole village hates the idea.  She ridiculed the sound booth provided at the HS2 roadshow.  “The birdsong was louder than the train noise”, she told me.  “That can’t be right.” 

I stay overnight in nearby Sulgrave – as peaceful and pretty a place as many a Cotswold village, with its clematis covered limestone houses under their thatch (pictured above).  I’m nearer Birmingham than London now, but the talk in the pub is about commuting to the capital.  “Soon there will be a train from Banbury that only takes an hour.”  “You can drive to Milton Keynes easily and it’s only 35 minutes from there.”  Nobody sees the point of HS2, and everybody knows which homes, farms and businesses will be affected by it.  In the morning I will get the chance to see some of them…
You can follow my route here .

Friday, 22 July 2011

Great Central

For the next day and a half of my walk HS2 will follow the old Great Central Railway.  The Great Central was opened in 1899, the last main line to be built in the great railway age.  It closed in 1966.  Its purpose was to link the big northern cities to London with the fewest possible number of stops.  As a result it was built in open countryside away from towns and with few intermediate stations.  It was also built to a continental loading gauge to connect with a Channel Tunnel, already being proposed back then.
Is any of this starting to sound familiar at all?  Yes indeed.  A faster line connecting the major cities of Britain to each other and to the continent is not a new idea.  But the Great Central did provide some stopping services.  I have woken up with the idea that the solution to all the opposition would be an HS2 station in Aylesbury.  It would be a great asset to a town rapidly approaching 100,000 population which lies in the shadow of Oxford and Milton Keynes.   Surely it would be much easier to convince local people that the line was worth building if they got some benefit from it.
A quick hunt round on Google shows me that there would be “insufficient passenger demand”.  This seems a great shame.  Once HS2 is built it will take longer to get from Aylesbury to London by train than from Birmingham.  And at the moment you can’t travel north of Aylesbury by train at all.  Well let’s put it this way, not unless you’re rubbish you can’t, as I hope to see later in the day. 
Actually HS2 could improve local train services, even as it shoots past Aylesbury at 225 mph.  There are plans to reopen East-West lines currently closed to passenger services between Oxford, Aylesbury, Milton Keynes and Cambridge.  The problem is a lack of capacity on the three miles of the West Coast Main Line between Bletchley and Milton Keynes necessary to make the idea work.  Build HS2 and you free up the capacity you need.    Mind you this hasn’t offset the objections of Councils in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.  Indeed every single Council from the edge of London to Coventry is objecting to HS2.  Only those which actually get a station appear to support the plans.
HS2 will join the Great Central just north of the old Quainton Road station (pictured above), now the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre, and I have a few miles to walk before I get there.   I spent the night in Waddesdon, and after a lovely cooked breakfast I am up and out bright and early.  Waddesdon and Quainton Action group have been busy here and “Waddesdon says no to HS2” posters are liberally splashed around the village.  Helen, my landlady for the night, is concerned about the noise the railway would cause.  I’m not actually sure she would notice it in its cutting.  Waddesdon is on the A41 and in my opinion the HGVs rumbling through the village at all hours are more of a problem.
I walk over the fields, finding the point where the cutting would cross the footpath.  Having seen it I’m still confident HS2 won’t have a significant impact on Waddesdon.  The local wildlife might notice though.   In the space of a few fields I first disturb a lapwing, which flies around me shouting out her “peewit” call in as threatening a way as she can.  Then I spot a fox sitting in the sun in the next field.  He sees me too, and we watch each other intently for a full two minutes until he trots off into a copse.  Finally a sparrowhawk flies past, being mobbed by small birds which soon chase him off their manor.  While the fight over HS2 is being fought around them, the local inhabitants have their own daily battles.
Quainton sits under its hill, in the shadow of its great tower Windmill (pictured below), a picture postcard of village green, thatch and manor house.  I go into the village shop to get some food for the journey.  I’m not at all sure I will pass any more shops on my route today.  I ask the shopkeeper about HS2.  Everyone is against it.  His wife is on the organising committee.  He tells me about the Beacons – a line of bonfires lit by action groups all along the route.  Yet another great PR idea I must admit.  And it’s not just HS2 which bothers him.  The narrowing gap between the edge of an expanding Aylesbury and his own village is also a worry.
I can understand people here being confident that they can stop HS2.  After all, the politicians listened to them and abolished centrally imposed targets for building new homes.  They listened to the campaign groups in the marginal constituencies of west London and abandoned plans for the third runway at Heathrow.  Why shouldn’t they listen again? 
I have a nagging feeling that the Government may have made a political miscalculation here.  I can just imagine Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It exploding at the Transport Secretary’s special adviser “so which [beeping] idiot told the minister that this high speed line will be much more popular than the third runway?  Do the [beeping] math.  The runway affects 20 constituencies in west London, HS2 will affect about 100 [beeping] billion across the whole [beeping] country.”
And this nation-wide piece of infrastructure has truly spawned a nation-wide campaign group.  One of the campaigners offers to meet me at Quainton Road station and tells me more about how Stop HS2 works.  I had assumed it was a Chiltern-centric group, but I was quite wrong.  Local groups all along the route are affiliated, and the common branding and slogan give the campaign a really impressive consistency.  I realise I’ll be seeing a lot more of the same all the way to Warwickshire.
I’m particularly struck by her idea that we should be planning for how the next generation of business leaders will communicate rather than how the current one does it.  Facebook rather than face to face, if you like.  It’s an interesting point.  Of course the trouble is that we can’t foretell the future.  If we had taken that approach 50 years ago we would now be paying to rip out an expensively installed network of personal jet pack refuelling stations.
I’m starting to long to see a Yes to HS2 poster, to be honest, if only for some variety.  The nearest I get to a “Yes” today is in the Railway Centre.  “We like the idea because we like rail,” I’m told, “but it’s come about 40 years too late.  We’re way behind the rest of the world now”.  He is also concerned that the line will run through their overflow car park.  Hardly a ringing endorsement.
I make myself late by spending so long at the railway centre.  I march through the lanes and fields as quickly as I can, and before long an unexpected hill comes into view in the middle distance.  That isn’t on my map!  It soon dawns on me that it’s the huge mound of the Calvert landfill site (pictured above).   This area of former clay pits is slowly being filled with rubbish from London and elsewhere.  The five “binliner” trains serving the site each day are the only use now made of the line north of Aylesbury.   Each time I think I’ve really reached the edge of London I find I haven’t.  This giant compost heap at the bottom of London’s back garden is almost exactly half way to Birmingham.
I walk past the tip and the rail depot and come out by an estate of around 300 executive homes, which share their road access with the tip (pictured below).  This ten year old estate, in the middle of nowhere, and backing on to one of the largest tips in Britain, is a very peculiar sight.  It’s called Calvert Green.  According to their Parish Plan it has no shop, no school and no pub, only 7% of residents work within 5 miles of the place, and everyone is entirely reliant on cars to get anywhere.  Let’s just say I don’t think it will be featured in any good practice guide to creating sustainable communities.  Calvert is now proposed as the site for the HS2 infrastructure maintenance depot, which could create 250 jobs.  Somehow I doubt that these jobs will be the kind the residents of Calvert Green aspire to.
The last village before I reach Oxfordshire is Twyford.   Here the Great Central is but a meaty blow from the cricket pitch, the church and the nearest house.  Not surprisingly Stop HS2 posters are plentiful here.  It’s 45 years since pacific class locomotives thundered down this line and very few current parishioners will remember them drowning out the sermon on a Sunday morning. 
And then I leave the brick of Bucks behind and enter the limestone of Oxfordshire at Stratton Audley.  It is a bit of a detour, but I have an appointment to keep with Flora Thompson and some ascending skylarks…
You can follow this leg of my route here .