Travel in the 21st Century

Today I had an adventure in Birmingham.

I’m having a few days off work this week, and decided to spend one of them visiting a friend I haven’t seen for over a year. This friend — let’s call him G — lives in Stirchley, in a part of Birmingham I had absolutely no knowledge of. (To be honest, that includes most of Birmingham outside of the very centre.)

We arranged that I’d come and see him today, unless he was working — always a strong possibility as he does some supply teaching. We swap mobile phone numbers, and I decide to find out how to get to his house by public transport.

The public transport bit was easy — feed the two postcodes into the Traveline website (I wish that name had two Ls!), tell them when I wish to arrive, and up comes an itinery. Magic! (They even tell me how to walk to Shrewsbury railway station, which I hardly need to know, but at least they are thoroughly door-to-door.) I’m told where to board the bus by Birmingham New Street Station, it’s a number 47, and where to get off it. Also how to walk from there to my destination. Excellent.

Over to Google for a map. Again, that’s easy — they’ll even show me the approximate position of that house number in a long road. Having printed out my map, I notice that Street View is enabled for this road, and decide to familiarise myself with the place I’m going to. I’m amazed how clear it is — I can count houses from those with largish house numbers, and soon locate G’s house. To my surprise, I notice I’ve also located G himself, standing outside it. Quite recognisable, despite slightly blurred features.

Amazed by what this new technology can do to take the guesswork and mystery out of a journey, I follow the later part of the 47 bus route, familiarising myself with the look of the place where I need to ring the bell. A couple of trips along Stirchley’s shopping street gives me confidence that I won’t miss the stop.  

I’m half-expecting a phone message or an email to cancel my visit. (There’s probably a 50/50 chance. ) But nine am this morning comes without a word, so I set off on my adventure. The train is a bit crowded, but it’s on time, and soon I’m coming out of New Street and turning into Stephenson Street with a confident air. Play hunt the bus stop, and find it clearly labelled. In less than ten minutes, I am on the bus.

I look out of the window until suddenly the scenery becomes weirdly familiar — it’s a strange, dreamlike, feeling of dèja vu, seeing these roads where I’ve never been before and yet partially recognising them. I saw them a couple of days ago, but as they were last year: sudden changes have taken place. It’s disconcerting, but also reassuring — there’s the place with the carpets outside, oh, there’s scaffolding on that building, there’s that tool-hire shop…. (Stirchley seems to be filled with DIY shops and second-hand furniture stores: rows of cheap bookcases and odd chairs out on the pavement.) There’s the stop I need looming up ahead. Ding!

The easy dreamlike state continues as I walk down the pseudo-familiar road to my friend’s house. A fair walk, but I’m so bemused by the intermingling of the strange and the known that I hardly notice the distance. The house looks right, the correct number is on the door. I knock.

A total stranger answers. I am utterly thrown for a moment. “I’m sorry, I may have the wrong house,” I say, and tell him who I’m looking for.”

“No, this is the right house, but he’s not here at the moment, he’s working today.”

“Oh! He was supposed to let me know if he was going to be working….”

“That sounds like G! Do you want me to give him a message?”

“It’s okay, I’ll text him.”

Walking back to Stirchley and the bus to Birmingham, I was vastly amused at how easy 21st Century technology can make travelling to a strange place — and how little it can do about human nature.

I got an apologetic text from G and we spoke on the phone. All is explained and forgiven. Not that I was angry or anything, I had had fun getting there and enjoyed a couple of hours in the city centre, spending time and too much money in tempting shops and the markets, having a very tasty soup for lunch, in Eat, and generally looking around. And then I went home, tired but happy, to really familar parts and a nice cup of tea. 

It wasn’t quite the day I expected to have, but it was a good day.

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2 Responses to “Travel in the 21st Century”

  1. What an excellent idea to use Google street view to familiarise yourself with the bus route. I’m always wary of taking buses in strange places because I’m afraid that I’ll go past the stop.

  2. suetortoise Says:

    It worked extremely well — a very easy solution to the problem of recognising the bus stop. Of course, not very much of Britain is on Street View yet. I wonder what other uses we will find for it in due course?

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