Nursing our fuzzy heads after last night’s excesses in Worcester, we make it back to Kidderminster on the trusty old 303, a powdery green banana each for breakfast helping us over the groggy hump. We’ve got half an hour to kill in Kiddy, so dawdle around the town centre to get a better handle on the place than we ever could have done in the ten second sprint around the bus station we had yesterday.
‘Whit dae ye think yer daein, ye big prick?’ blasts a lady in a Rangers top to her beau as we turn a corner by the Premier Inn, who despite the volume, is stood right next to him.
‘Aaaw, away tae fuck, man,’ is his grouchy response, accompanied by a dismissive air-waft of the left hand.
Judging by the Ferrari red skin on his bare chest and back, he clearly forgot to apply enough sun cream yesterday. Extreme sunburn and the threat of melanoma hold no fear whatsoever for this topless maverick though, and with his saggy pecs at the ready he’s already gunning for Round 2 on what promises to be another scorching day.
They aren’t the only Scots we see on our whistlestop tour. Four other people in national football team replica shirts are also stretching their legs, albeit without any of the rancour or dissident attitudes towards scorched epidermis of our original couple. There don’t appear to be any Scotland games on in the vicinity and the Bay City Rollers certainly aren’t playing a gig at the leisure centre, so maybe Kidderminster is the Worcestershire version of Corby. Thousands of families from north of the border upped sticks to work in the steel plants there in the middle chunk of the twentieth century, warping the local accent into an Anglo-Scottish gruel, and helping the town’s supermarkets shift more Irn-Bru than anywhere in the world south of Stranraer.
In a passage beside the Weavers Wharf shopping centre, an old man with a knobbly walking stick erupts into a stop motion belly laugh at a quip told by his younger companion. A full second elapses between each ‘ha’, and satisfied that he’s not in fact having a fit, we head back to the bus station. There, a column of ants is demolishing an ice cream dropped by the kerb. The insects have figured out a nifty way of not getting crushed, marching en masse beneath the crash railings to zero-in on their target. With hundreds of mandibles divvying up their sugary prize, they are well out of the way of clumsy clodhoppers which could otherwise crush their thoraxes at any given moment.
A sizeable queue has formed at our stand, and the 125 is so thronged by time we board that the only double seat left is on the back row.
‘Morning everybody,’ the final passenger to hop on calls out. Chuckling to himself as he shimmies down the aisle, he’s dressed in shades and a trilby, and would be able to pass as a member of Madness if it wasn’t for his loud choice of tropical shorts and besocked flipflops. The lady directly in front of us has already demolished two Blue Ribands and is making short work of the third one in her multipack by time we set off to slalom through Kidderminster’s roadworks on our way back out to Bewdley.
There are no traffic woes for us this time around, just the billowing contours of the A456 which is lined with elephantine houses and the deep green foliage of trees battling to keep the sun’s rays from melting the exposed tarmac. Our first stop is to let a worker off at the West Midlands Safari Park, which judging by the fibreglass model of a sauropod guarding the entrance, clearly hasn’t heeded the dire warnings of the various Jurassic Park films. That said, if I was forced to choose an animal to tear me limb from limb, I’d at least score some much-needed coolness points if I was to be disembowelled by a velociraptor or have my eyes pecked out by a pterodactyl. C’mon boffins, get sequencing that DNA and make my weird dreams come true.
We chug along, sandwiched between the heritage Severn Valley Railway and the banks of the river, which is awash with around thirty swans and dozens more cygnets, all honking their orders to an elderly couple who are dishing out a loaf of bread. This feeding frenzy offers safe passage to a flotilla of rowers, who can take their pick of the three navigable spans of Bewdley Bridge, which is one of Thomas Telford’s more modest early offerings, but has nonetheless withstood these tempestuous waters for over two-hundred-and-twenty years.
‘It’s a good-looking place this, isn’t it?’ swoons El for the second time in as many days, an opinion no doubt shared by a group of bikers who trundle slowly through on an array of loudly purring contraptions, including a trike which has two wheels ahead of the handlebars and appears to have been constructed backwards.
A fourth Blue Riband is efficiently dispensed with as we ascend beyond the static caravans of Riverside Holiday Park and glimpse sheltered properties with larger grounds than most public parks. There’s a signpost pointing towards Ye Olde New Inn, or The Paradox as locals hopefully call it, before sauntering through the Wyre Forest villages of Button Oak, Button Bridge, but sadly not Button Moon.
Forests make me uneasy. The way their canopies play tricks with the light is mesmerising when zipping through on a bus, and as much as I love almost all animals (barring rats, wasps and moths, of course), it always feels as though I’m trampling into a battleground. We’ve got a speck of woodland near our place, it’s not much more than a copse really, but while I was expecting a quiet, almost meditative atmosphere, if you stand still and let your ears adjust for a minute, there’s a cacophony. Birds are the chief culprits, calling, singing and arguing among the branches, but there’s an underlying din from insects, too, and probably worms. It’s almost as loud as being at a gig. I know that won’t be a revelation to many readers, but trees don’t often get a chance to cluster in inner city Manchester, so I’m usually reliant on Spring/Autumn/Winterwatch for my wildlife fix.
The bus pushes gently upwards, the crest of the hill revealing a panorama of golden yellows, earthy browns and greens rendered in a palette you’d normally expect to be reserved for royalty. The sky is an uninterrupted swathe of cornflower blue, and apart from a small cluster of buildings around the Eagle & Serpent pub, we barely pass any signs of civilisation for miles. We dip and swerve through tight lanes, fringed with ivy-choked trees and fields gearing up for harvest.
The tone shifts once we reach Highley, whose industrial heritage is signalled by a miniature colliery wheel as you enter the village. The final coal in the area was hauled to the surface fifty years ago, with the mine’s former site now reclaimed as the Severn Valley Country Park. Further acknowledgments to the past are dotted around, most obviously a stark statue of a miner stood inside a pit cage in the small main square. There is also The Highley Trail, which has strategically placed plaques commemorating former pitmen along its two-hour circuit, including the evocatively nicknamed trio of Joyful Clappers, Cider Biscuit and Dick the Devil.
I don’t have many friends who aren’t encumbered with a descriptive alternate moniker. My poker days were rich with them, whether it be based on a personality trait (Angry Chris, Dickhead Gordon), a physical impairment (Tony 1 Leg, Johnny Wheels) or a notable playing style (Rachel Big Balls, Captain Sensible), near enough everybody had one. Mine was Missus B, because – and I’m not making this up – my hair got in my eyes once.
With its rows of neat terraces, Highley feels immediately as though we’re on familiar territory, even if the swallows chasing each other between lampposts are exotic enough for us to know we are a long way from home. It’s all very familiar for the old lady in front of us, though, who polishes off her final Blue Riband, and with a final decrumbing at the corners of her mouth to cover her tracks, she’s off.
Normal bucolic service resumes as we gently lose altitude on the final stretch before Bridgnorth, passing the swish gates of Astbury Hall, the former home of ex-Judas Priest guitarist, KK Downing. When he wasn’t busy parading around in more leather than a herd of cows, he managed to design a championship-standard golf course among its 320-acre grounds. He fell in love with the sport while touring with Def Leppard in the 80s, and made a ritual of playing a round at the local club while out on the road, which I suppose beats doing a soundcheck. He put the estate onto the market in 2017 after it went into administration, offering up the rights to his royalties on more than one hundred Priest songs he co-wrote, estimated to bring in £300,000-£400,000 per year as part of the bargain. It is still closed for redevelopment.
Hemmed in by fronds of bracken and foxgloves, the road descends into Eardington, where we skirt the shell of its former railways station, which is littered with old machinery long surrendered to the march of rust. Plans are afoot to restore it to its former glory, i.e., a minor stop in the middle of nowhere on the Severn Valley line. The river reappears moments later at Knowlesands, as does Bridgnorth, its High Town materialising through the haze like Avalon itself. Its lower levels are packed with people in World War II getup enjoying one of the perennially popular demob days, even though a good ninety percent of the attendees are from a generation or two after hostilities ceased. They just enjoy getting dressed up and eating cakes laced with beetroot, basically.
Early impressions of Bridgnorth couldn’t be better. Tucked away in a quiet corner of Shropshire, it is slathered in higgledy-piggledy cottages, steep passageways, and a devotion to preservation which makes the entire place look like a living taxidermy experiment. The 125 deposits us next to a car boot sale, where an enthusiastic butcher tempts customers to his van via a headset mic with promises of ‘beautiful spatchcock chickens, fill your freezer for a tenner’. A sign on his truck apologises for facing in the opposite direction than usual, with the reassuring explanation that the sun was cooking his display. The mercury is north of 30°C now, and it’s clearly affecting his trade.
‘Do you want another one of those, love?’ he announces to the entire site. ‘Here you go, have another one on top of it as well.’
Eschewing warm meat, we scoff a punnet of strawberries instead.