Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Of Trams and Prams


It's great to be on the move again after a day spent trundling around Birmingham on old buses. The fact that it's raining heavily for the first time in months puts a bit of a crimp in my enthusiasm, but I'm damp rather than downhearted.

First stop of the day was Snow Hill Station in Birmingham's city centre to catch a tram to Wolverhampton. Last time I visited Birmingham the tram hadn't even been thought of, so I was keen to take a closer look. It's everything you'd expect from a modern tram – smooth, comfortable and very, very quick. Much of the line appears to be along the track bed of disused railway lines, so with no traffic or pedestrians to get in the way, the drivers can really put their foot down.

Quite a lot of the line has a smooth, tarmac-ed cycle way running right alongside it, which I must say seems like a very good idea. Extra sustainability Brownie points for someone, clearly.

Having looked around Snow Hill for a ticket machine a la Tyne and Wear Metro, a fellow passenger helpfully informed me that you actually buy your ticket on the tram. Like, from a conductor. Remember them? No, me neither...

Only when our tram reached Wolverhampton city centre did we leave the sheltered confines of the disused railway lines and took to the road, but there didn't seem to be any slackening in our pace until we drew up at the terminus in the city centre.

I rather like Wolverhampton, though I confess that I only had 10 minutes or so to look around. Its busy centre is graced by a range of architectural styles (apart from 1960's Brutalist, I'm relieved to say), it feels comfortable and there is little that is overbearing to jars the eye. I'd liked to have explored it further but had to be content to looking at its art gallery and other fine civic buildings from the window of the 890 to Bridgnorth.

The bus quickly filled with elderly, white-haired ladies all chatting amicably – little did they realise the apparent mortal danger we were all facing. I mean, why else would you fit a glass escape hatch (with a hammer in a glass case to smash it with) into the roof of the bus (yes, the roof) if you didn't expect it to topple over and crash at splinteringly high speed onto its side. I mean, exactly what kind of ride was this to be, for heaven's sake?

I also noticed that there were no less than 4 separate CCTV cameras fitted to the inside of what was a fairly modest single decker bus, which seemed a little excessive, if not downright paranoid. Still, it meant that if one of the old ladies was to launch a brutal and unprovoked attack on me, we'd have the whole incident covered on video from every angle.

Within minutes we were out on the Bridgnorth Road gobbling up the miles at a rate which began to explain the presence of the emergency exit in the roof. The countryside was veiled in mist which was coloured golden by the fields of flowering rape across the landscape.

I got off just as the bus was about the cross the River Severn and begin its long pull up the hill into Bridgnorth. I had decided to take a more direct route straight up the near-vertical cliffs of the Severn Gorge by means of the Bridgnorth Cliff Railway. Two ancient-looking carriages – resembling a cross between a vintage bus and an old Silver Cross pram from the 1950's - pendulum-ed up and down the 45 degree slope connecting the main town centre with its riverside.

Technically, it's a funicular railway and one of about 14 currently operating in the UK. However, this is the only one as far as I can discover which is not there purely for tourists or holiday-makers – it's a proper piece e of public transport and therefore worth including in my journey.

Bridgnorth probably doesn't look its best in the rain... but it still looks pretty damned gorgeous. Elizabethan, Georgian, Victorian, it's all here but it's become blended in a way that is impressively easy on the eye.

I left Bridgnorth at speed on the 99 to Telford. This is big countryside, with great expanses of steep pasture dotted with giant oaks, rolling tree-topped hills and winding roads. We were soon dropping back down into the Severn Valley to Coalbrookdale and Ironbridge, the very crucible of the industrial revolution and an area with a fascinating history. I'd liked to have stopped to visit its many museums but I had to get to Telford for my bus to tonight's overnight stop-over, Shrewsbury.

Telford probably doesn't look its best in the rain. Unfortunately, it wasn't raining and it looked, if anything, worse. Telford is a new town, with all that implies. Its town centre is a shopping mall. I looked. I then took the first bus out of there.

The bus to Shrewsbury gave me another look at Ironbridge before clambering out of the valley further up stream hard by the distressing ugly Ironbridge Power Station. Why, oh why do they do these things?

Because, power stations apart, the views just keeps getting better. Our road takes us past flat meadows strewn with buttercups, with green hills rising all around us, their tops crusted with trees. One minute we are diving through deep woodland, the next we are breaking out into high upland fields, with tremendous views and bright sudden glimpses of hills in the distance – is it the Welsh Border?

We arrive in Shrewsbury over the English Bridge, and everything looks perfectly English – Elizabethan timber-framed buildings, cobbled winding streets, elegant Georgian terraces, the romantically-ruined castle above the river, Greggs the Bakers – but I have a feeling it's going to be a lot less English tomorrow.

For tomorrow I venture over the brooder into Wales to try out what appear to be agonisingly infrequent rural buses. Wish me luck...

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