Stourbridge Town branch line
Britain's shortest railway branch line is less than a mile long - officially only 1287 metres. It's been running since 1879, with a variety of types of rolling stock. It has an impressively regular service, much better than certain bits of the Underground. It's run by the only Train Operating Company ever to have scored a perfect 100% in its Public Performance Measure. But it's the train itself which'll make you go Oh My Goodness! What Is That? I mean, look at it.
This is a Class 139, or Parry People Mover, a railcar less than ten metres long, and a sort of cross between a train and a tram. It looks like something Thunderbirds might have deployed, but is actually a proper timetabled vehicle, and very environmentally friendly too. It uses flywheel storage to recapture energy from braking and then uses this for acceleration, topped up by a small LPG engine when necessary, because a perpetual motion vehicle would be technically impossible. This avoids the need for cables or powered rails, and allows the maximum space inside for actual passengers.
Passengers board at the back or at the front, depending on which way the vehicle is going, and pick a seat - there's even one up front facing the driver! It's quite spacious inside, with room for a few dozen people to stand if it's the rush hour, which it wasn't when I went, but I was impressed by how many passengers the service had attracted. I suspect the regular, frequent services helps. The line's only three minutes end to end, which allows a couple of minutes for the driver to walk to the other cab and for the guard to settle the passengers, and then off back again, and repeat six times an hour. A single track line is all that's needed.
The train exists to shuttle passengers between Stourbridge Town, in town, to Stourbridge Junction, on the main Birmingham to Kidderminster line. It's just far enough to be annoying on foot, and the ten minute frequency means it's always quicker to wait for the next train than to walk. Not a great deal happens on the trip, although there is ample time for the conductor to check your ticket. The downhill gradient out of Stourbridge Junction is on the steep side, and there have been a number of 'incidents' over the years, although none since the 139s took over in 2009. One straight section of track, with a couple of curves at each end, swiftly delivers.
I was really quite tempted to ride the line again, but then I'd have had to ride it one more time back to where I actually wanted to be, and I thought the conductor might be giving me strange looks by then. Instead I stepped off swiftly to allow the Stourbridge hordes to travel back the other way, and watched the tiny railcar depart round the bend round which it would reappear in not very many minutes time. I was damned impressed to see that the ticket office at Stourbridge Town is open for 64 hours a week, which serves the half million passengers a year better than we get in London. And yes, there are as-yet undelivered plans to introduce Parry People Movers on certain other short segregated sections of the UK rail network, and perhaps even one day to make new stretches of line viable. What's not to love? » The Stourbridge Line User Group (or SLUG for short)
The Stourbridge Heritage Trail starts off by apologising for "unsympathetic alterations and demolitions" and "the construction of the ring road", but a number of interesting old buildings survive, and the centre's anything but bland. The town hall's a Victorian pile (yes, redbrick and terracotta again), the parish church precedes the advent of industrialisation, and most of the characterful stuff is on the broad sweep of the High Street down to the river. The genuinely pretty bits of Stourbridge, I'm told, are some of the inner suburbs. Families tend not to get stabbed here very often.
The first steam locomotive to run commercially in the United States was built in Stourbridge, obviously, otherwise I wouldn't be mentioning it, plus it was called the Stourbridge Lion, so where else could it have come from? It was knocked together in 1829 at the ironworks by the canal, which still stands but has recently become a health centre. Canal Street has also survived, where yet another heritage trail can be followed along the cobbled street, past an understated arts centre in a sturdy old warehouse, past somewhere that does boat trips when the weather's better, and past a variety of increasingly tumbledown buildings. If you're ever in Baltimore, apparently you can see a few salvaged bits of the Black Country's pioneering engine in the B&O Railroad Museum. On the bend by the Coalbrookdale iron bridges I was amazed and very pleasantly surprised to spot Granny Buttons, the narrowboat owned by canal blogger Andrew Denny, with whom I've conversed a number of times over the years. Andrew no longer blogs - being Assistant News Editor of Waterways World keeps him busy enough - but you can keep up with his often Midlands-based canal adventures on Twitter.
It's about time I got round to mentioning glass. Stourbridge used to be world-famous for the production of glassware, thanks to an ideal location close to clay, lime and coal, and a concentration of highly skilled craftsmen. The skyline was once filled with tall brick cones used as chimneys, generally located beside the canal for water supply and for transport. Only one remains, at the Red House Glass Cone, and stands 100 feet tall with a diameter of 60 feet at the base, and contains an amazing two million bricks. It's possible to step inside and gawp up cathedral-like at the tiny hole in the roof, and occasionally to watch actual glass being actually made in the workshop at the back. Various gorgeous exhibits from the Stuart Crystal Glass Factory are on show - they engraved the glassware that went down with the Titanic - while numerous local artists have their stuff on sale, and for good measure there's a flight of fourteen locks out the back. Next year the White House Cone Museum of Glass will open on the opposite bank, to make a proper heritage cluster of it.
Another former glass factory has become the Webb Corbett Visitor Centre, which better gets across the skill and creativity required to make world-class glass on an industrial scale. Those pretty symmetrical patterns you see etched into tumblers, goblets and decanters don't simply appear, they were expertly cut, guided by lines drawn in pen on by marker-uppers. A more modern presence is the Ruskin Glass Centre, a fresh attempt to create a hub for 21st century glassware designers, engravers and enamellers, plus a college out the back to nurture new talent. With a hive of workshops and boutiques, plus an organic cafe at its heart, I was impressed how busy the place was. One of the remaining large-scale manufacturers has an outlet store up the road, and a couple of very retro antique shops somehow survive, presumably because it's still true that if it's glass you want, you come to Stourbridge. [8 photos]