Bike-less (its waiting for me to pick up the trail in Manchester again) and with time to spare, I decided to take a route less travelled by, at least by me. There is a little train that trundles – that is definitely the right word – across the middle of England from Birmingham to Stansted Airport. I became familiar with it while doing some work in Cambridge and used it to travel between there and the airport but the collection of smaller towns after that and their sheer variety evoked an interesting picture: the route links the brash coarseness of Stansted with its budget airlines to, well, the brash coarseness of Birmingham, but on the way takes in the ancient and modern centre of learning and high-tech that is Cambridge, the city of Ely with its equally ancient and magnificent cathedral and the quintessential English rural market town of Melton Mowbray, home of Stilton cheese and the pork pie.
I had cycled through some of this area a couple of days previously, and was also interested to see whether I got the same perspective: I had moved from a kind of reasonably well-off suburbia, through villages with a real rural feel – though to be truthful always with a sense that there were too many people, and far too much money, for it to be genuinely supported by a local economy – and slowly back into the dormitory towns of the industrial midlands.
The train was pretty full for most of the journey, though few of us seemed to travel the whole way – not surprising, as it is in fact quicker to travel from Birmingham to Cambridge via London. .For the first hour of so the train winds through dormitory towns, row upon row of terraced or semi-detached 1930s housing, with the occasional patch of farmland, as we pass Nuneaton and head for Leicester. After Leicester there are more clustered villages, open land with the occasional steeple on the horizon and far fewer housing estates – at least until Melton Mowbray, which to my slight surprise looked, from the train, bigger and more urbanised than I had expected.
By Ely, sadly, the watery winter sun had given up the unequal struggle and gone down: I couldn’t see the famous cathedral. One more sight left for next time. All in all a pleasant journey through a varied and fascinating part of England.