From London to Birmingham: walking the line of HS2
Originally published in The Independent, December 2014.
Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot is published by Influx Press, April 2017. Pre-order your copy here.
“Look at Lord Patten. Now there’s the face of a true Anglo-Saxon. Lord Risby, on the other hand: that’s a very Norman-looking face.” Sitting outside a pub in north Buckinghamshire, waiting in the rain for it to open, I’ve got chatting to a man called Neil and his wife Claire. Inside we drink sugary coffee while discussing medieval physiognomy and the etymology of English place names. “You can go right back to Alfred’s battles against the Danes,” says Neil. “It’s all still there in people’s faces.” Claire nods in agreement.
Every conceivable interior surface is strewn with silvery fake cobwebs. Life-size mannequins of witches and zombies lurch from dark corners. It’s eight days after Halloween. We’re the only people in the pub.
What am I doing here? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot over the course of the past week or so, since I started walking from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of HS2. At the same time as the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill Select Committee (Commons) has been hearing the case for and against the controversial, multibillion-pound infrastructure project, I’ve been exploring the landscape of the route itself, and meeting local people along the way. In total it should take 10 days. At least that was the plan.
My journey begins at Euston station, 8am. There are plenty of strange looks as I set off, rucksack on and walking stick in hand, in November’s crisp sun. Through the nearby housing estates now scheduled for demolition, through proud, prosperous Primrose Hill, out into the suburbia of Betjeman and beyond. Over the ensuing days I walk over golf courses, past Conservative clubs, through garden villages and industrial estates, all the while trying to visualise the passing presence of a high-speed train. I spot a kingfisher streaking along the Misbourne from Middlesex into Buckinghamshire. I walk through the rolling Chilterns, cross its fields and motorways. I walk among ancient woodlands, over battlefields and along disused railways. I give thanks for the village pub, and the village shop. I startle foxes and pheasants, steer well clear of fearsome horned farm animals. I get very wet, and very lost.
But above of all, I meet people. In London, I stick out like a sore thumb: “Are you a wildlife photographer?” I’m asked at 7am in a Ruislip newsagent. At least I must look the part, I think to myself, having spent a sleepless night among a cluster of trees in Perivale. In the suburbs I’m eyed with suspicion. But out in the countryside I feel less ridiculous, and my enormous backpack makes starting conversations easy. “Sisyphus,” I’m christened by two old-timers in a pub outside Chalfont St Peter. “You need a lift?” asks a sympathetic lorry driver near Steeple Claydon. I’m still not entirely sure why I said no.
Of all the people I meet, Neil and Claire on day five are the first who are pro-HS2. “Osborne’s plan for connecting the northern cities is brilliant,” says Claire, “but it wouldn’t make sense without HS2. It’s progress! I think it’s a fantastic thing.”
They are the few. Even those in favour of the concept accept that HS2 Ltd have failed to win over hearts and minds. “There’s been a lot of hype in the media,” says Adrian Aylward, commercial manager of Buckinghamshire Railway Centre. I’ve just trudged through three ploughed field in the rain and we sit in his office drinking sugary coffee. “HS2 haven’t put their case across very well,” he says. Having attempted to deal with the company’s PR department, I can only agree with him. The majority response in villages up and down the line is anger. It’s had time to cool since the project was first announced back in 2010, and to harden. Very few believe that the economic case for HS2 stacks up, and many are concerned by the expenditure of at least £50bn in a time of widespread austerity. For some it’s a question of house prices; for others it’s primarily an environmental issue. But above all there is a sense of betrayal.
Jenny Waller, a retired NHS speech therapy manager, can still remember the moment she heard about the project – at a meeting for a local conservation society. “To propose this in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty like the Chilterns is simply scandalous,” she says as we sit in the garden of a roadside pub. “There will be seven to eight years of mess, and this valley will be a building site. It will take 20 years to recover and we won’t be alive to see it.”
This is a viewpoint shared by several of those I meet – none more movingly than Pauline Hughes in Bascote Heath, Warwickshire. It is two days after she and her husband John, a retired physicist, appeared on the BBC’s Inside Out and admitted that the strain had driven them to consider assisted suicide. That programme was the first time either of them had known about the extent of the other’s feelings. “It’s not something you willingly do: expose your frailties to the public at large,” Pauline says. “I didn’t want to go to my doctor or have anti-depressants or counselling. No amount of talking to doctors is going to solve the problem. The problem is HS2. Our lives are blighted; not just our homes.”
For the Government, the electoral implications could be significant. “Our dealings with government and HS2 Ltd have destroyed any faith we may have had,” says Pauline. “They lie and they dissemble. It is government by the few for the few. They take no notice of ordinary people like us at all.” It’s the kind of language usually associated with student protests, not with the retirees of the Tory heartlands.
This is the story right along the route. People feel cheated by mainstream politics, and are now looking to what they think is an alternative. Where there are disaffected Conservatives, there is Ukip. “The one thing that will stop HS2 is votes,” says Jenny, “and people are prepared to use that sanction. Several people here will vote Ukip at the next general election.”
Caroline Spelman, Conservative MP for Meriden, “has failed us miserably” according to a woman near Solihull. Jeremy Wright, Conservative MP for Kenilworth and Southam, has, I’m told, lost every vote in Southam. “Ukip is sweeping through this area,” says retired chartered engineer and senior manager in the electrical industry, Dan Mitchell, from Bascote Heath.
The week before I meet him, Dan was acting as the official guide for the Transport Select Committee as they sought to find out more about the impact on his local area. As a great spotted woodpecker lands in his back garden, Dan describes a succession of problems, from inaccurate minute-keeping to unaccountable decisions, misleading figures and engineers with no rail experience: “Every single detail at every single meeting is a problem,” he says. In addition, “there is no design brief and no research budget. The engineers have been told to connect London to Birmingham with a straight line, not to design it.” Even more worrying are Dan’s calculations of HS2’s impact on the national grid. The use of single-phase trains will, he says, imbalance the whole network and could require the building of a whole new power station. HS2 declined to comment on this.
Time and again, the people I meet accuse HS2 Ltd of a severe lack of detailed, local knowledge. In some places the result is the destruction of whole communities. The Northamptonshire hamlet of Lower Thorpe, for example, contains just five houses. Two are being bought by HS2 Ltd; a further two demolished. The remaining home-owner cannot yet agree terms: she will be totally isolated. Further north, churchwarden Chris Philp tells me about the effect on the villages of Berkswell and Balsall Common, which to all intents and purposes operate as a single entity but will be cut in half by a road closure during the construction phase. “It will collapse a vibrant community,” she says, “and what is Britain about if not community?”
In other places, the result is upheaval. Outside the little Northamptonshire village of Aston-le-Walls, where the British eventing team practice, I meet up with retired IT project manager Andrew Bodman (another Select Committee guide). Andrew takes me to a narrow country lane down which HS2 Ltd propose to drive 40-tonne HGVs to and from a construction camp near Chipping Warden – up to 2,000 per day. These lorries, he tells me, are 2.9 metres wide (including wing mirrors). The lane is just three metres across. He’s measured it.
This is one of the issues that emerge most clearly over the course of the walk: the discrepancy between what is on the map and the actual, real experience. It’s all too easy to sit in an office in London and draw a straight line on a map. I know, because that’s what I have done in planning my own walk.
That, I realise, is why I am doing this: because the map can only tell us so much. “It’s generally accepted that walking a route makes it authentic,” says Neil, back in the pub of eternal Halloween. “Walking is a chance to feel the landscape and really talk to people.” Certainly, this is the rationale that has underpinned the long tradition of artists and writers for whom walking was such an important activity, from the Romantic poets to contemporary figures like Richard Long or Iain Sinclair.
Today a slew of nature writers are getting out their hiking boots to write about previously overlooked aspects of the British landscape. “Once off the beaten track, so-called edgelands are now where the literary action is,” writes cultural geographer Stephen Daniels. It’s a stark contrast to the peace and quiet and “unspoilt” views valued by so many of those I meet. For them HS2 is a blight on a mythically unsullied English landscape.
On day four, way behind schedule, I find myself stuck on an overgrown half-path between a nature reserve and a landfill site. The sun slides down a sky of azure and yellow behind the rising hulk of a new incinerator. The foreground is punctuated by waist-high valves, each of which periodically lets off a loud fart, releasing gas build-up from the detritus buried in the earth below. Red kites wheel overhead. On the map this is nothing but a blank expanse of landfill. Horribly lost near Calvert Green, I’ve struck psychogeography gold.
But this gap between the map and the actual walk causes problems too. On the outskirts of London I get stuck down suburban cul-de-sacs. Near Aylesbury, I have to find another spot to pitch my tent; the one I’d identified in advance turns out to be inaccessible behind the high stone walls of a private estate. Nowhere do maps mention how poorly certain farmers maintain footpaths across their land, or how terrifying certain horses can be when you dare to venture into their field.
It is, in part, my poor preparation – and my poor map-reading – that makes this journey so increasingly difficult. By day seven, I’ve developed an excruciating pain in my left knee. I later discover it’s called iliotibial band friction syndrome. It’s not as serious as it sounds, but it’s painful enough for me to have to abandon the walk. I’m forced to complete the last section of the route in the cars of local campaigners.
Many of them feel HS2 is now inevitable. Some still hold out hope. What will the future hold? Maybe one day Birmingham will become the economic powerhouse that we’ve all been promised. Maybe HS2 will go the same way as all those branch-lines I cross along the way: now tree-filled valleys, or gentle, snaking, hedge-bound mounds. On the map all disused railways look the same. No journey is quite as simple as it looks. Like HS2, I have tried to draw a straight line through a map and follow it. I, at least, have failed.
Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on foot is published by Influx Press, April 2017. Pre-order your copy here.