diamond geezer

 Wednesday, November 07, 2012

While we're doing Birmingham suburbs, fancy a trip to Smethwick? To the northwest of the city centre, on the way to West Bromwich and Wolverhampton, close to Premiership action at The Hawthorns. Again it's a structure over a canal we've come to see, though this time nothing so complicated as a threaded motorway junction. Welcome to Galton Bridge.



This record-breaking span was built by Thomas Telford in 1829. At the time it was the longest single-span bridge in the world, although at this stage of the Industrial Revolution that wasn't saying much. At 46 metres long you could walk across it in less than a minute, but far better to stop and have a peer over the side. The view's vertiginous, staring down into an entirely artificial chasm beneath. This is the Galton Valley, an earthwork carved long and deep by hundreds of navvies, creating a single level canal where previously had been a lengthy flight of locks. Telford's fresh cut removed a bottleneck between Birmingham and the Black Country, but created a gash in the landscape that needed to be crossed by a bridge. The narrow roadway would have been bustling in its day, and busier still when someone finally got round to inventing cars, but now it's barriered at one end and open only to cyclists and pedestrians.

The best view is from the railway station alongside, that's Smethwick Galton Bridge. This is very recent, opened in 1995 at the point where one railway line crosses a perpendicular railway deep below to create a Low Level/High Level interchange. The upper platforms cross the gap in parallel to Telford's span, again a very long way above the canal passing below. Now the mills and steam engines have departed it's a very green and pleasant valley, edging towards a slightly brown and orange valley at this time of year. Such an elegant crossing, gently arched with iron struts, and well deserving of its Grade I listing. It doesn't look quite so impressive squinting through a camera lens into direct sun, but that's the perils of a whistlestop tour of the West Midlands. If you ever have ten minutes between trains, it's worth a look.

I've barely been to Birmingham before, which is remiss of me. I was there at the weekend courtesy of London Midland who were offering dead cheap tickets to anywhere on their network (don't bother looking, the offer's over). Their trains from London take so long to get anywhere that there was barely any time to explore, but I saw several places very much in passing.
» New Street station: Sheesh this is unpleasant, isn't it? Umpteen gloomy under-mall platforms, each being rebuilt, but at a snail's pace.
» Moor Street station: Blimey, this is more rural than urban - revamped like a 1930s pastiche, complete with steam train stashed away on platform 5.
» Snow Hill station: The name suggests better than the reality, but at least it's not New Street.
» The Rotunda: The famous cylindrical tower was less tall than I was expecting, and not as imposing. I could imagine it fitting in well in Croydon.
» Selfridges: The curved exterior's astonishing, covered as it is with 15000 aluminium discs, and bulging out of the Bullring.
» Birmingham Cathedral: The Baroque centrepiece of the city, but you'd think it was a big parish church if you didn't know better.
» The skyline: Redbrick and blocky, with little to pierce the sky, this is an unexpectedly homogeneous-looking conurbation.
I so need to go back one day and do Birmingham properly.


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