For ages New Street has been an embarrassment to Birmingham, just not giving the sort of welcome that a bustling european city of culture should. Yep, ever since they started putting a new shopping centre on top, where the car park was, it’s been a nightmare. But soon, very soon, at the end of Super September, the second city will finally get the train station it deserves: one that’s overcrowded but has a John Lewis on the top.
To celebrate his arrival here, John Lewis himself has made a movie about his kind of town. It’s a town where everybody is a young professional or something much more upscale and aspirational, like a guy who runs a sandwich shop. It’s a town where everybody wants to sleep in 100% Egyptian cotton.
To thank Mr Lewis we’d like to make him a film too but just like the Evening Mail, all of our people work way outside of the city core — at an industrial estate on the Holford Drive of the imagination — and so we can’t get to New Street to capture the shots we need.
Can you help? This is the script for our film. If you are travelling through New Street today please try to capture a few five second videos of what you see, and we will edit them together tonight (hold your phone in landscape, please).
I didn’t really visit New Street Station very much as a kid. For a start we didn’t go into town that often, and when we did the train was very much more expensive than the bus. The buses, at least for a time, were 2p to anywhere*. There were lots of muggings on the trains in those days and they were very much grottier than the buses. I can still smell the mixture of piss and ripped seat foam that permeated the Walsall to Birmingham line. I don’t think many of my generation have ever got back into using the local trains. New Street Station became a place for longer trips—one I’d still get the bus to get to from Great Barr.
The odd day trip, most memorably to an all-but closed Llandudno—”Change at Crewe” the guard bellowed as we got on the wrong train back—and then as I got older travel to gigs, friends and festivals all over the country. The staff were always helpful, even if the place was dark and the WH Smith’s was expensive. On my first visit to the Glastonbury festival, my two mates and I queued up at the ticket office with not a single clue between us where the place was, nor the train station we’d need to get to. They found out, gave us tickets, and charged us about 30 quid. A lot for the pleasure of standing up all the way there and back but some things don’t change. Except of course all the money now goes to Richard Branson.
For a while I’d feel a lift of spirits as I descended the escalators from the Bull Ring. And along with that a desire to touch the advert for whatever local radio station was pushing its dire breakfast show as footballers do leaving the tunnel at Anfield. Now I live in another town it’s just a point on route. But let me tell you about the time I kipped overnight at New Street.
With considerable local fanfare, the new New Street Station opened to the public this week. The re-development is still only at the halfway stage but the changes visible so far have already made a surprising and positive impact on the layout of the city. I experienced this first hand on Monday morning when I got off the bus in front of the old main entrance (which is now a building site), and strolled down the new walkway for a quick nose around before heading north on another bus.
I expected the short walkway to deliver me inside the new station concourse, but as I neared the other end I noticed sunlight and buildings. When I eventually emerged on what I discovered to be Stephenson Street I stopped, genuinely amazed. Up until this point it had never occurred to me that the New Street entrance and the bottom of ‘the ramp’ were so close together, or even on the same level. The layout of the city as I’ve known it all my life had changed.
According to a friend of mine, who in a previous life was travel correspondent on The Birmingham Post, architects and council officials had been saying for many years that the New Street building was a barrier to pedestrian movement in the city. The appearance of this walkway absolutely proves their point.
I was suddenly filled with Brummie pride and in a moment I became convinced that we might finally get a train station that does the very thing that the old New Street had so miserably failed at: provide a decent first impression of the city. Having not previously paid much attention to the development (I’m not a train user, I’m a bus kid) I immediately became a convert and a supporter of the project, and that was a tremendous feeling to have at 8am on a Monday morning. Prior to this mind-bending trip through a wormhole the most exciting thing to ever happen to me at New Street Station was when I became close personal friends with Hollywood actor Luke Wilson.
Every town has a rallying point. Growing up in Guernsey it was “outside Boots”. Perfectly located at the intersection of the three main pedestrian streets (and a killer flight of steps from the sea front), and with good drop off points, Boots was the rendezvous for all my teenage adventures, shopping trips and, well, rendezvous (nudge, nudge). In Birmingham, for me, it was the New Street station Burger King.
Perfectly located at the intersection between two sets of entrance doors and the platforms (and a killer escalator ride from the Pallasades Shopping Centre), and with the added advantage of selling chips, Burger King was the kick off spot for most of my City Centre expeditions.
So where will I meet now that New Street has changed? One of the downsides of rejecting any sense of being a ‘hyperlocal blog’ is that we no longer get invited to the opening of envelopes across Birmingham: we’ve not been inside and so I can’t tell you where the new rally point will be. This is, of course, as it should be. Over the next few months we’ll begin to redraw our social map and we’ll all collectively learn the new New Street. Many rendezvous points will be attempted and slowly one will emerge as the repeated favourite. We’ll test this place out and wear it until it feels comfortable and then folksonomically we agree where the optimal meeting point is.
A new meme will be born – I’ll meet you there at two.
It was a shocking moment when after nineteen years of living in Birmingham I realised it will never be finished. The building work will never be done, some part will always be being demolished for another part to be built fresh: no one will ever take a step back, with their hands on their hips, and turn around with a ‘TA-DAA’. The ubiquitous cranes will always be part of the skyline, they’re not visitors they’re residents.
Cities are the bodies of our collective souls, and like bodies they change, regenerate, and can be easily marred. Ever see Ground Zero from up high? It looks like a fuck-awful scar across the face of pretty girl.
The Queens Drive staircase is an access staircase that travels from the bottom of Station Street up to the passageway that connects the Pallasades to the Bull Ring, with an exit to New Street station halfway up. And it’s to be closed soon.