Thursday, 28 July 2011
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.