From the vaults: Into The City (08/08/2010)

There have been those I’ve enjoyed and would return to again and again; others I would happily live out my days and never once set foot in the place. It’s cities, I’m talking about.

Birmingham is a 30-minute train ride away; as journeys go it’s as good an example as you’ll find of public transport being the best option. Brum is a frequently and unfairly maligned place: the concrete jungle days are thankfully a thing of the past; only the long overdue remodelling of the hideous New Street Station is needed for the city centre transformation to be largely completed. Where Birmingham suffers, and will inevitably continue to suffer, is in the absence of any natural landscape: there is no river, no estuary or view of nearby hills to offer drama or enhancement in the way that the Clyde complements Glasgow, the Avon gorge dramatises Bristol, or any number of natural elements contribute towards making Edinburgh what Edinburgh, uniquely, is.

But if I’m forced to confront the daunting concept of entering shops then I’ll take a bustling city over a desensitised, hermetically sealed, out-of-town mall – even in the most inclement of weather; and the journey, by train, helps to make the whole experience a little more interesting.

Despite following a line which could scarcely be more urban, the trackside fringes are surprisingly wild. Not wild in the way that the Monadhliath is wild, or the Migneint; but wild in the sense of unkempt, neglected, left to the devices of those species adept at swift and burgeoning colonisation. Fox families move confidently in full view of station platforms; badger setts undercut the embankments; sparrowhawk and kestrel hunt a varied and plentiful diet among the buddleia and ground elder. Consume it too; undisturbed by anything other than the passing trains, to which they have become well accustomed. There’s more moving than just passengers and freight along these half secret conduits; buried in cuttings, hidden beyond garden fences.

Inevitably the wildlife shares its living space with the discarded evidence of human proximity – mattresses, plastic drums, bin-liners containing things we can only imagine. Detritus accumulating in a way which would have been impossible in the days of steam, when impromptu cinder fires regularly purged the embankments; admittedly to a somewhat random schedule and with indiscriminate consequences.

Although I suspect that back then less was jettisoned and more was mended.


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