Trains and Automobiles

It’s an overcast, not-overly-warm February morning and I’m setting out to meet a friend for a stroll between two extremely different transport-related locations.

I choose to take the most direct route to our meeting point, which involves a trek along a main road.

Hi-vis-jacketed men in vans fly past on their way to appointments, while the many other, largely single-occupancy vehicles on the road likewise rush towards their next destination. It’s not quite the road to hell, but it’s not far off. The pedestrian is largely conspicuous by his or her absence in this realm of the motorised vehicle.

Still, there’s plenty to observe. Hand car wash operatives go about their business, a group of old folk measure out their remaining years with a 3-iron at the local golf course, the retail park swallows up a sizeable chunk of the local populace and the world in general goes about its weekday business. It’s nice to be amongst, yet detached from, all of this exhausting activity.

My pedestrian inferiority complex rears its exhaust fume-assailed head once again as I approach the car park of Asda Long Eaton and realise that there is no obvious path between where I’m standing – next to a mini-roundabout – and the store itself. A hop over a hedge and through some bushes quickly solves that particular problem and, after making grateful use of the Asda facilities, I settle down on a bench to await the arrival of my walking companion, who appears a few minutes later courtesy of one of the local bus services.

It’s what lies behind the Asda (an abbreviation of the words Asquith and Dairies following the merger of Asquith Supermarkets and Associated Dairies in 1965, fact fans) that concerns us.

We walk down the road that runs to one side of the supermarket and join a path that immediately and remarkably transfers us from town centre to edgeland. A multitude of abandoned pieces of railway infrastructure vie for our attention as we move forward, and before long we reach a footbridge that  leads to the other side of the adjacent railway tracks. The views from the footbridge are terrific (for tall people at least) and it’s here that we catch sight of our first port-of-call for the day – Toton Sidings.

In the 1950s, thanks largely to coal traffic, Toton Sidings was the largest railway marshalling yard in Europe (not to mention the third largest in the world). Times change, but although the yard is obviously a shadow of its former self, it’s still an impressive space, with a steady stream of railway-centred activity. Most interestingly, however, Toton Sidings will be the location for the East Midlands Hub station on the Leeds branch of the forthcoming HS2 rail line, which is due to be completed by 2033.

2033! It seems a long time away. By that point, government willing, I shall be on the cusp of retirement. Ah, what fine times they will be. Never mind the golf courses and retail parks. I shall be availing myself of the lovely, sleek HS2 trains on jaunts to London Euston (journey time from East Midlands Hub station 52 minutes), or perhaps Leeds (27) or Birmingham (20).

For now, though, it’s a peaceful scene that lies before us. An occasional freight train clanks and rumbles its way past as we descend from the footbridge, cross the River Erewash (noting the not-inconsiderable number of empty beer cans and sundry other alcohol containers abandoned in the vicinity) and make our way along the eastern perimeter of the sidings. There’s a steep, grassy embankment to our right, and we scramble our way up it, rewarded by a wonderful panoramic view of the Erewash Valley.

Once we’ve drunk our visual fill, we descend from the embankment and join a lane that leads away from the sidings towards Stapleford. More classic edgelands sights are ticked off – a breakers yard, a sewage treatment works – before we emerge onto the road that will lead us into the town centre.

Stapleford had a population of 15,241 at the time of the 2011 census. Everard L Guilford, writing in the 1927 edition of his guide to Nottinghamshire, was not impressed by the place, calling it ‘a very ugly manufacturing village’. It’s not the most affluent of areas, but it’s reasonably inoffensive these days, and, as we walk towards the town centre, there are plenty of people out and about.

We pass a Wetherspoon pub called The Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren. The good Admiral was born in Stapleford in 1753 and lived at Stapleford Hall (demolished in 1935). He served in the Royal Navy in the late 18th and early 19th century (including a stint on HMS Victory in 1779) and seems to have been a popular figure. There is another pub bearing his name (although omitting the ‘Admiral’) at Canning Circus in Nottingham and, a little further along the road here, we enter a small square and encounter a plaque that has been placed in the ground in his memory.

The square itself is properly named the Walter Parker VC Memorial Square, in honour of Lance Corporal Walter Richard Parker, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery in Gallipoli during the First World War. He died in 1936 and is buried locally.

There’s another commemorative plaque that I’m keen to see. This one is affixed to the wall of a former school (now a college) that the person in question attended. Arthur Mee (for it is he) was born in Stapleford in 1885 and the plaque describes him as a ‘Journalist and prolific author.’ The publications with which he is perhaps most associated are The Children’s Encyclopedia, The Children’s Newspaper and The King’s England, the latter a multi-volume series of guidebooks. In the Nottinghamshire volume of The King’s England (1938), under the entry for Stapleford, Mee is, perhaps understandably, somewhat less scathing than Guilford before him, commenting, ‘We come to it with amaze that half a century could bring about such change, for fifty years ago it was a quiet village. We leave it filled with wonder that in this world of change some things endure so long.’

Leaving the town behind, we head for our next destination, Stapleford Hill. I’d climbed it on a recent walk, but on this occasion I’m looking for a historical site on its northwest edge that I hadn’t had time to locate previously.

We pause for a while for refreshments, seating ourselves on a bench at the foot of the hill, admiring the Hemlock Stone behind us and reviewing our progress so far. The improvement in the weather that the forecasters had predicted a few days ago has failed to materialise – it’s still cool and overcast and there’s rain in the air.

Batteries suitably recharged, we commence the climb.

About halfway up, we decide to take slightly different paths. Just in time, I spot a couple of off-road cyclists at the top of the hill, about to commence their breakneck descent along the same path that my friend is following. A shout alerts him to the fact that he’s about to be banjaxed and he steps aside with a couple of seconds to spare.

Shortly afterwards, we reach the top of the hill, and, while we’re appreciating the views, the cyclists re-emerge from the undergrowth. ‘That was quick!’, I shout to one of the pair, who reveals that they’d only actually gone halfway down the hill before stopping, turning around and heading back to the summit.

Leaving this almost Sisyphean activity behind us, we descend the sylvan slopes on the other side of the hill and, when we reach the bottom, start rummaging around in the undergrowth in search of evidence of activities that took place here during the Second World War.

It was an information board I’d read on my previous visit to Stapleford Hill that had alerted me to the fact that the area we’re now standing in had once been used as a practice range by the Home Guard. The unit in question was the 3rd Nottinghamshire Division and they were responsible for defending the Beeston and Stapleford area.

The Home Guard was formed in 1940 – when it seemed that there was a real chance that Germany would invade England – with the aim of holding up any invading force for as long as possible. It was made up of volunteers (of whom there were over a million by the middle of the year) who were otherwise unable to serve in the military – for example, those who were too old or in ‘reserved’ occupations (jobs that were deemed crucial to the success of the war effort).

The Stapleford Hill Woodland Management Plan 2008-2013, produced for Broxtowe Borough Council, supplies the information that the area ‘contains several overgrown hollows which are craters formed when the local Home Guard used this area for hand grenade and mortar practice during World War II’. Sure enough, we’re soon discovering hollows aplenty and trying to summon up images of the quasi-military manoeuvres that were performed here. History beneath our feet.

It’s time to move on once again. After a short distance, a bridge leads us over the railway that connects Nottingham with the Erewash Valley Line and we find ourselves walking alongside the remains of part of the Nottingham Canal.

The Nottingham Canal once ran for 14.7 miles from the River Trent to Langley Mill, but the section from Lenton to Langley Mill was abandoned in 1937. Subsequent development along the former route of the canal means that it can never be restored to its former glory, but, to their credit, in 1977 Broxtowe Borough Council purchased a six mile stretch between Eastwood and Bramcote, with the aim of protecting it. Some sections of the canal (particularly those that are not in water) have reverted to nature to such an extent that it’s not immediately apparent that they once formed part of a waterway.

It’s not long before we come across the Grade II listed Swansea Bridge and, beneath it, a surviving pair of keep gates. As we survey this poignant relic of a less frenetic age, the nearby M1 supplies a discordant soundtrack.

We’re now nearing the end point of our walk. After leaving the canal behind, we skirt some farm buildings before emerging onto Nottingham Road. Turning right, we follow the road for a short distance before turning left onto Waterloo Lane, which leads us to our final destination – Trowell Services.

This is, admittedly, not the most orthodox means of visiting a service station.

Situated between Junctions 25 and 26 of the M1 and opened in 1967, Trowell Services is currently operated by Moto, having previously been owned by Mecca Leisure and Granada. It originally had a Robin Hood theme, the nearby Trowell Hall having functioned as a hostel for employees.

As a driver, should you have noted the ‘No access to motorway’ and ‘Authorised users and lodge guests only’ signs and carried on regardless, vehicle access from Waterloo Road to the services is controlled by automatic bollards – i.e. bollards of the type that retreat unnervingly into the road as you wait to move forward, leaving you with the uneasy feeling that they could re-emerge at any moment, impaling your car as it passes over them. The bollards currently seem to be stuck in ‘lowered’ mode, but, as pedestrians, this doesn’t concern us, and we cautiously make our way towards the main southbound services building, keeping our wits about us in order to avoid being crushed by passing lorries.

It’s late afternoon and, as we approach the main entrance and step inside, it’s obvious that the services are not at their busiest. Several people are dotted around the tables at Costa, but activity at the West Cornwall Pasty Co., Lucky Coin, Fone Bitz, Burger King and even WH Smith is conspicuous by its absence.

Before the walk, I’d spent an entertaining few minutes on the internet reading customer comments about the services at Trowell. Perhaps inevitably, some folk allow themselves to become rather worked up by their experiences before taking aim. A trucker notes, ‘Thanks Trowell for charging £3 for a shower. I am on £7.50 per hour. Truck drivers do a huge amount of hours and live in a box all week for little pay and now we have to live like tramps by not showering. Thanks moto for your support. I will now avoid all your services for food, parking and fuel. I was better treated in Afghanistan than in my own country.‘ Janet, meanwhile, seems to be casting aspersions upon the truckers themselves in no uncertain terms: ‘Please, douse the lorry park with disinfectant… The stench of urine was overwhelming.‘ The franchisees do not escape the wrath of the keyboard warriors either. One less-than-satisfied patron comments, ‘…marks and spencers is a very kind and polite company towards you, but burger king manager, bald head glasses i dont know who he is but he is very rude and desevrs [sic] to be sacked and slapped.

Before making a call on where to station ourselves as temporary observers-in-residence, we decide to cross the footbridge to the other side of the motorway. After we’ve climbed the steps up to the bridge, I glance through a window into a staff area and can see a mirror on a wall with a peremptory notice above it that says, ‘Are you a credit to yourself and MOTO?’

After pausing for a while to observe the passing traffic below us, we pass the multifaith room and descend into the more spacious environs of the northbound service area.

Competing for our attention here are Lucky Coin, WH Smith, Burger King, Costa, Greggs and Marks & Spencer Simply Food. I’ve got precisely £1.03 on me and I’m aware that my bank account contains the princely sum of 1p (I do not jest). Reluctant to take up my friend’s suggestion of trying my luck on the slot machines in Lucky Coin, I’m left with somewhat limited options and decide to plump for a carton of Ribena from Greggs – a snip at 99p, the transaction carried out in a predictably perfunctory fashion by the person behind the counter.

We sit down at a suitably discrete table and take in the scene around us.

Middle-aged businessmen and young families predominate amongst those who pass through, but it’s a balding gentleman wearing army fatigues featuring a red and blue flag patch who particularly grabs our attention. He looks mildly agitated. We speculate as to his background.

It occurs to me that this is, in many respects, a frustrating experience. The individuals, couples and families here seem inwardly-focussed, dwelling upon their own concerns. We’ll never know who they are, where they’re from, where they’re going or what their stories are. In a pub, we might strike up a conversation. Here – probably not.

It’s a disconcerting feeling, trying to be a fixed point in this place of transience.

I finish my Ribena and we retrace our steps back out into the gathering dark.