Posted in Highbridge on Saturday 23rd December 2006 at 7:05pm
So the transformation of the northern fringes of our little town begins...
The unannounced appearance of roadsigns indicating that works would close the junction of Church Street and Burnham Road from 2nd January 2007 for seven months sees the beginning of the project to build the new ASDA supermarket on the former bus garage site and adjoining lands. This will change the shape of Highbridge spatially, but will likely have an even more profound effect on how this part of town is perceived - particularly by visitors from nearby Burnham-on-Sea.
It's interesting to note that following news of the closure signage appearing, discussion on the (actually very good) burnham-on-sea.com website centred on the effects of the works on Burnham. How would people get out to the A38? Would traffic lights along Church Street delay journeys into Burnham? There was little or no discussion of how this work and its outcomes will affect the lives of Highbridge dwellers. There are few immutable laws where urban planning and development are considered, but one must govern the phenomenon seen in the 'Burnhamisation' of that part of Highbridge which extends along Burnham Road. Despite this route taking in access to the accursed Moorlands Estate, the ailing King Alfred Secondary School and a host of pockets of miserableness and gloom, there are forces at work to ensure that the relatively affluent natives are redesignated Burnham residents. I wonder if this stems from the unavoidable fact that for many of them, their final journey will be along this route to the Cemetary bordering the very junction in question here? Is the idea of living in Burnham but spending eternity in Highbridge too much for them to bear?
So the closure of Burnham's via dolorosa has stirred up a flurry of objections from short-termists. But what will the longer term effects be? Despite being a busy junction, the corner of Church Street and Burnham Road is a curiously ritualistic spot - the presence of the Church, War Memorial and Cemetary in close proximity make it a focus of religious and secular remembrance, and I wonder how the presence of one of ASDA's great white hangars will overshadow this use? The experience of entering Highbridge from the north will be altered too. Now, visitors approach via the sudden kink in the road to accommodate the Bristol Bridge Inn, before heading over the railway and into the town - for most it's a blink and you'll miss it flash past on their journey southwards, but for others it's home or work.
The benefits of the new store to the town are naturally apparent - employment, planning gain, resolution of road congestion and the benefits to nearby businesses abound. It will be curious to see how the community changes - will Burnham choose to acknowledge or to annex this part of Highbridge? Will ASDA dare to call this their 'Highbridge' store after all?
Posted in Railways on Friday 15th December 2006 at 10:38pm
It's not been a good week around here for rail users. Since the new timetable began on Monday, First Great Western have either suffered some rotten luck, or have fallen prey to an entirely predictable series of problems depending on your viewpoint. According to a letter published following a truly disastrous morning peak by Glenda Lamont, Director of Customer Services much of the difficulty was caused by maintenance contracts ending on the evening prior to the timetable change. As a result of this a number of defective units were returned to FGW, and despite heroic efforts staff were unable to prepare them for service. The resulting short formations and cancellations made local and national news as passengers were turned away from wedged trains.
The facts of the case are perhaps stranger. Indeed the contracts with Arriva Trains Wales at Canton and with EWS at St. Blazey did end on Sunday evening. However, FGW's new £8 million DMU maintenance facility at St. Phillips Marsh was not ready for use. Even more confusing given Ms Lamont's flak-dodging semi-apology was the decision to store a total of eight units of stock - four single-car Class 153s at the defunct Eastleigh works, and four two-car Class 158s at Reading. Despite these events being widely reported - at least in Railway circles, by midweek pictures of units lying dormant in Canton were shown on local news with varying reports of the fleet's availability claiming in some cases that as many as 132 of 138 units as available. Patently untrue at the time.
My own experiences varied. I arrived at Highbridge in driving rain on Monday to find the new 0740 1A09 Highbridge-Paddington waiting at the platform, buffet car invitingly open and only a scattered few locals on board the generous seven-car service. By the evening however, confusion and delay from the mornings cancellations was still causing problems, with Station Manager Melanie Harvey doing the rounds of Weston station, politely and calmly explaining that they really didn't have any idea what was happening, but everything was stopped at Yatton. A similarly confusing sequence later in the week where the 17:58, originally delayed for only a couple of minutes arrived and waited for a passing Cheltenham service. Nothing untoward there. However, fifteen minutes later we were still waiting at Weston with doors open and signal wedged at on. Rumour has it that the box had us as a Weston terminator, and only numerous 'phonecalls to control convinced them otherwise. If they were reading from FGWs error-peppered series of pocket timetables, this would of course be entirely understandable.
Regular readers will remember my high hopes for First back when the franchise began in April. Others will know that I hoped very much to promote and use local rail services more in my professional activities. I can't in all honesty do so after this week. It will take a lot to get the passengers who have abandoned the rails in droves back into trains. As a season ticket holder without a car, I'm a captive audience - condemned to see out the year. An uncomfortable thought at the back of my mind nags - perhaps First felt much more comfortable operating a bus service these past few weeks?
Posted in Railways on Sunday 10th December 2006 at 10:38pm
Finally, we're coming to the end of the three week long closure of the mainline here. There is still a weekend to go, but at least getting to work each day will be a little easier. Granted the new timetable makes getting home a little harder, but you can't I suppose, have everything! The replacement buses have been timely and reliable, so I can't complain much. Being unwell for a week or so, and exhausted by longer than usual days at work, I've not really spent as much time watching the works at the station as I might, but I managed to wander out over the past couple of days to watch the clean-up in progress.
Posted in Highbridge on Sunday 3rd December 2006 at 6:48pm
I haven't read much this past year. Somehow the changes at work and at home haven't left me time to devour printed matter like I once did. Another factor has been the mission I set out on, to begin to understand some of the theoretical and historical background behind the fiction I've enjoyed in the past few years. The sometimes dry and frustratingly elitist nature of this makes it hard to consume in anything but short bursts, but it has in someways been worthwhile. Oddly though it has shown that some of the stranger things we were getting up to around here back in the early 1990s - mainly in terms of music, and in particular the Traumatone project - had a strangely situationist twist to them. Thinking of the present, I find myself having lived a whole year back here in Highbridge. True to form, I've spent little time here in some ways, preferring to zip around the country as usual. But I'm aware of the constant change and redevelopment here in ways I wasn't when I lived elsewhere. There is a sense of tension in Highbridge which dates back to my earliest memories of the place. Back then, I understood it in its' Thatcher-era context as a poor relation of Burnham. Home to the unwanted and unmanageable elements of the community. The Moorlands Estate was famous only for topping suicide statistics at some grim nadir during the 1970s, and some areas of the ailing market town appeared to have lain untouched since the railway boom of the 19th Century. As industry and agriculture declined beside each other, Highbridge slid into what we saw as irreversible decay. It was the place where we were told we shouldn't go on summer bike rides. Highbridge was too far.
I suppose my reevaluation of Highbridge began when my sister moved to the Moorlands Estate. It still had it's problems, and the impressions I took from doorstepping during the 1997 Election campaign still seemed relevant in parts. But year by year, block by block, the housing and the surrounding areas appeared to be settling into quiet normality. The family names which used to strike terror into the heart of a King Alfred's schoolkid now referred to slightly portly men in their early thirties, wheeling double-buggies into town. My parents own move to a Highbridge address cemented this shift for me. I now had to take notice of Highbridge as a separate entity. Finally, last year I found myself moving here with a sense of positivity and contentment which I hadn't experienced in the preceding several years in Weston. Partly, this was down to feeling like part of a geographical community in ways I simply hadn't previously. Highbridge has a a fierce pride shown mainly in the overwhelming wish of many of its residents to shake of the ever-present 'and Burnham' from it's name. There is even a guerilla independence movement which whites-out our classier neighbour from the signboards on the A38 and other approaches to the town. But Highbridge is still changing - and mainly at the hands of Propertylink South West, a seemingly unstoppable development company which to its credit mops up brownfield sites and erases 'eyesores' overnight. Sadly, the resulting developments when they finally appear after seemingly interminable delays and lengthy construction periods, are rather characterless blocks of dwellings which seem to be planned with little thought to their effect on the environment, community or the creaking infrastructure of a town which has been dragged to it's knees by a Council keen on keeping our neighbouring town 'clean and tidy'.
Still feeling sick and longing for movement, I took a walk this evening to one of the more recent new zones. Disappearing under an archway beside our new convenience store I emerged in what will be a car park for the new flats. To my surprise and delight, a pair of rather old buildings have been restored as shop fronts. They must have been out of sight for some time, tucked away behind the building which previously occupied the area. It's unclear if they were originally shops, and it's going to be necessary to drag a longer-time resident away from the bar long enough to ask them. From here though, things deteriorate. The new blocks tower above the low, Victorian buildings of Market Street and are packed closely together in the sliver of land which was the course of the River Brue, diverted along a straight alignment south of here. A snake of road leads westwards from the development, up a steep bank to gain the main road south of the original bridge over the deleted river. The effect is to isolate the new blocks in a damp hollow. There is no way out to the nearby riverbank, though this may change when the contractors dump is removed from the site. Even then, there is I'm told an ancient dispute about land to the south of Market Terrace and Bertha Terrace which would likely prevent completion of the walkway along the river to the Railway Station. This isn't a comfortable spot, and despite what I imagine could be wonderful open views across the Somerset Levels, I'm reminded of the sense of claustrophobia and gloom which Moorlands once exuded. The planning errors of the post-war public housing era are being repeated by the private sector, and I can conjure up a bleak future view of this blighted enclosure with little effort. And still it continues, just a few metres from my home an old garage and filling station which had served for years as a few makeshift corrugated-iron shops (including the superbly named 'Millennium Kebab') has gone, the site cleared and the ancient fuel tanks finally excavated from the long covered forecourt. A new view from Church Street into the playing fields and beyond has opened - letting light and space into the busy street - but this will soon be enclosed by more blocks of housing built to meet quotas rather than to serve needs.
So, trudging back as it began to rain I proposed to myself the creation of the Highbridge Psychogeographical Association. It's just me now, but I'd welcome local historians who want to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future, or indeed speculative developers who want to re-anchor with the past. Highbridge has always been disputed territory - where industry met agriculture, where the brackish Severn tide meets the meandering Brue drain, where road met rails at an uneasy crossroads, where the same clock told three different times at once. Whichever of the clock faces you consult, it's high time to explore this curious and proud old town in new ways.
So should you see a portly figure in a parka snooping around your newly purchased buy-to-let investment, just think of me as a harmless but culturally alert neighbourhood watch scheme...
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.