Saturday, December 14th 2013
We had for a while planned to return to Birmingham and take friends to see the spanking new Birmingham Library. Today was the date chosen for this venture and on Thursday evening we sat down in front of the PC to book our train tickets. The train would depart from Marylebone station and take us to Moor Street in Birmingham. The train company would be Chiltern Railways.
Connecting to the Chiltern Railways Web site, we found a very wide range of ticket prices. This did not particularly surprise us as this is a common experience. The trick is to hunt around for cheaper tickets, if there are any left. The cheap tickets usually limit you to specific train times, and once you have made your choice, there are often restrictions on changing or cancelling your booking. We were buying tickets on behalf of our our friends also, and so cost was an important matter.
We spotted a limited number of journeys on which tickets could be bought for £12 one way. The rest were much more expensive, so we of course plumped for those. By the time we had discussed the journey starting time the picture had changed slightly so we hurried to place our order. Having done so, I made to print out the receipt and this took a little while because the printer was playing up. (Don’t they always?) Once that was done, we thought we could relax.
However, reading the receipt to make sure all was in order, I realized we had made a mistake. By concentrating on choosing the cheapest tickets, we had not paid enough attention to the actual train times. As a result, we had chosen trains with a gap of only 2 hours between arrival in Birmingham and departure from Birmingham back to London! I tried to change the booking but this proved difficult because, with the few cheap tickets remaining, there was very little room for manoeuvre. Instead, we thought of cancelling the trip altogether, only to be faced with the stern message “No refunds”! So we were stuck with it and the only choices were to abandon the trip (and waste the money) or go through with it.
On Friday, we discussed the position with our friends and in the end decided that we would go to Birmingham, despite having only two hours there. To maximize the available time, we would take a cab to the library and another one from the library back to the station. We had to organize the trip like a military operation because if we missed the train back, we would have to pay again and at the higher rate.
I won’t bother telling you what I think of railway companies who treat their customers like this, offering a few cheap tickets but hatching them about with conditions and prohibitions, as if they are somehow doing the customer a favour when it is the opposite way around. This is something the government needs to tackle once it has sorted out the energy suppliers and the mobile phone networks. (No, I don’t have any confidence that it will, either.)
We had arranged to meet at Marylebone Station, one of my favourite London stations. It was opened on the eve on the new century in 1899, when architects still had an aesthetic sense and an ability to match a building to its purpose. In the picture you can see the famous iron and glass canopy that connects the station to the hotel opposite it, allowing guests to cross from one to the other in the dry.
The hotel also opened in 1899 and bore the name The Great Central Hotel, less because of its geographical position than because the railway company was called the Great Central. Today it is a Landmark 5-star hotel and guests still cross under the canopy, often accompanied by a flunky pushing a trolley laden with their baggage. Fancy staying here? A room for the night will set you back just under £300 for the cheapest single, going up to over £1,000 for a suite. On top of that, don’t forget to count a generous tip for the gentleman in the bowler hat.
The hotel has an impressive clock tower, best seen from Marylebone Road. The clock is in working order too.
There seems to be a conspiracy to pronounce Marylebone as “marly bone”. Why? Is this laziness or illiteracy or what? The word has 4 syllables with the stress on the first: mA-ri-le-b’n. This mispronunciation seems to go along with the silly habit of calling trains “services”, as in “This is the 12:36 service to Birmingham”. No, it’s a train, and this is the 12:36 train to Birmingham. A service cannot transport people to Birmingham and nobody has ever heard of buying “service tickets”.
Inside the station, a quintet of brass instruments was playing Christmas carols. Despite the small size of the band, they managed a considerable volume of sound. Fortunately they played in tune and very well. They also took requests and were collecting for charity. I neglected to note their name, so if anyone knows, please let me know and I will update this account.
We wanted to be sure to catch our designated train so we reached the station in plenty of time and then had to wait. On our previous trip to Birmingham, we had had to stand part of the way because of the crowds taking this train to the Bicester Village shopping centre. As soon as the platform was announced, we rushed to the train to get seats.
On arrival near the library, the cab driver was anxious to get back into the queue at the cab rank, so he dropped up some yards from the library. At least this gave us an opportunity to see the library in all its splendour. There was a Christmas fair in progress in the square in front of the library and its centrepiece was a Ferris wheel.
I also photographed this monument nearby. The sculpture, made in bronze with a striking gold finish, is by William Bloye and was unveiled in 1956. It represents those pioneers of the industrial revolution, Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), James Watt (1736-1819) and William Murdoch (1754-1839). I am not sure whether the work has an official name but it is known as “The Golden Boys” and also – thanks to some wag – as “The Carpet Salesmen”.
Shaped like three rectangular boxes with a hat box on top, Birmingham Library is huge. You can gain some idea of is size by comparing it with the figures of people standing on the terrace. The ground floor is faced with glass so that the upper parts of the building seem almost to float in the air.
When we approached the Library’s entrance, we were met by the strange sight of people queueing to go in! The place is so popular with tourists and local visitors that the two entrances – the revolving door and the swing door for disabled access – are overwhelmed. How many other public libraries in Britain would wish to be so popular? All of them, I imagine…!
Our friends went off to explore the library while we visited an exhibition of photographs, though we did also go out onto the lower terrace briefly to enjoy the spectacular views. From here the Big Wheel and the other entertainments looked like toys.
The view of the square and the streets was like an architect’s model or perhaps a modern version of Gulliver’s Lilliput. The city looks completely different seen from this unusual angle. (There are more pictures of and from the library in A library in Birmingham.)
The photographic exhibition wasn’t very interesting and when we left, it was not yet time to meet up with our friends, so, as we had had a relatively light breakfast, we decided to have lunch. We looked around but found nothing we liked the look of until we ended up in the nearby International Convention Centre. We had had lunch in an Italian restaurant here on another occasion and decided to try our luck there again. This turned out to be a mistake!
Everything went well until we had finished our starters and were chatting amiably while awaiting the main course. Then Tigger looked at the clock and realized that we were supposed to meet our friends 13 minutes from now to take a cab back to the station! There was nothing for it but to call the waiter and ask whether they could pack our main course as a takeaway. They were happy to do this, but the wait was agonizing!
Eventually they emerged from the kitchen with a pizza in a box for me and pasta in a bag for Tigger. We then ran back to the library to meet our friends. We all went to the taxi rank and boarded a cab. At the station, thankfully, we had some time to spare so Tigger and I found a bench to sit on and proceeded to eat our interrupted lunch.
Once we had finished our respective pizza and pasta, Tigger bought coffee and cake as a consolation! I had time to take the above photo of Moor Street Station before we went aboard our train. This early 20th-century station is pleasantly “retro” in appearance (see A library in Birmingham for another picture) and the refurbishment has been done sensitively. If ever they remake the film of Brief Encounter, this would be a good place to use as the location!
Our train back to London started from this station so there we had no difficulty finding seats. The journey back was uneventful with three of us playing a collaborative game of Patience (or Solitaire, if you are American) on Tigger’s iPad!
Despite the rush and the anxiety (and eating cold pizza) it was a good day out and our friends did get a preliminary look at the splendid Birmingham Library. We are planning a rematch in March and this time we shall take more care over booking the train tickets…!