The Lost Rivers of Birmingham walk has been gestating for around five years. A few of the walks I’m involved with have their origins in semi-joking suggestions for walks, which then prove to be entirely viable. (“Pedestrian Vs Car” was another recent example of this).
I’ve long been aware of London’s now-famous forgotten rivers and have walked the above ground routes. The suggestion that this was possible in Birmingham was initially to tantalise people about their understanding of the city and what was possible. The title of the tour, and the suggestion you should bring waterproofs, appeared on 2008 printed promotional material along with the qualifying caveat ‘sold out’, but at that point there was no tour. Eventually it became apparent that Birmingham did have lost rivers (or at least, brooks and streams), mostly covered over and acting as sewers or storm drains or culverted and out of view from street level. Many are barely a trickle and viewing them requires a certain amount of scrambling over wasteland, peeping over walls and occasional intervention from local property owners or security staff.
Over the last few years, I’ve realised that the content of a guided tour need not be about impressive and magnificent sites (as in the classic notion of sightseeing) and that nearly everything is worthy of investigation. Even the meaningless dribbles of the Cuttle, Hobnail Brook and Griffin’s Brook afford a convincing reason to take a particular route through the metropolis. Obviously, the rivers aren’t as particular as we are about their progression through the city, being informed entirely by physical geography and gravity, or where we have forced them to flow.
The Lost Rivers tour met on the junction of River Street and Floodgate Street in Digbeth: referencing the here-invisible Rea. The Rea is the reason for Birmingham existing, affording its few original residents ready access to food (fish) and water. It hasn’t been useful for either living or industry for a long time (beyond being a drain) and has thus been ‘lost’ for over a century. The river can be viewed over a small bridge on Fazeley Street, a location that also reveals an access point in the form of a vertical metal ladder to the sloping and extremely slippery culvert below. Detritus caught in the rungs of the ladder signals the height to which the usually placid waters can rise: heavy rain quickly transforms this gentle ooze into an angry torrent. The riverside is surprisingly green with trees growing from silted up sand bars but everything that grows here has been brought by the river rather than landscaped.
This however, is not the beginning of the tour proper, which actually begins in Aston. A short train journey later, our small group heads down Thimble Mill Lane towards a rare surfacing of the Hockley Brook. Street names can often be entirely literal documents of the past: here there was once a mill that made thimbles. To power that factory, in a time when a household’s thimble would be in daily use, water needed to be flowing. It’s a simple and revealing exercise to chart the various ‘Mill’ and ‘Pool’ place names and street names with pre-steam metal working and the associated water courses. The Hockley Brook becomes visible for 20 feet, emerging from a tunnel beneath Midland Packaging Supplies on Cheston Lane, in the shadow of the Aston Manor brewing plant. As we watch the river doing nearly nothing, a grey wagtail zips out providing an unexpected flash of yellow. The river also surfaces on Holborn Hill at the lower end of an industrial estate off Long Acre, just about visible at the bottom of a deep culvert behind aluminium railings. An engineer clutching an adjustable spanner emerges from a shed to question our presence – presumably the river attracts few tourists. He is intrigued by our quest and pleased to finally learn the name of this waterway that has been in the background of his working life for years.
The next river encounter is a reaquaintance with the Rea as it heads north in parallel with the Birmingham and Fazeley canal. Before long, it joins the Tame at the logistical web of Spaghetti Junction. The motorist will know this interchange as a road network but it encompasses nearly every form of transport possible: railway, river, canal, pedestrian and cycling towing paths. It is a genuinely inhuman, baffling, sacked landscape. At this point individual exploration is encouraged of the various gravelly hillsides, frayed river banks, scrap metal s, cryptic iron doors, darkened underground shafts, stacked lattice-work construction components, decaying concrete stanchions, grassy aqueducts, zigzagging concrete ramps leading nowhere and intriguing personal ephemera abandoned in the shallow water of the Tame. Of course, all of this is watched over by a gigantic Lady Gaga billboard.
The role of the walker here is unclear. A local company has helpfully provided signs informing cyclists and pedestrians of the correct route through the entirely unlit darkened underpasses and there is the occasional directional clue attached to cages and railings. Many routes appear to be one-way, with signs denying access on the far side of gates through which we have exited the zone. At practically every point it feels hazardous and that we simply should not be there, not least when we encounter a memorial to a ‘fallen’ (murdered) policeman on the towpath. Despite this, there is clear evidence that the area is used for leisure with runners, cyclists and even anglers present. One man settles in the shadow of a fizzing electricity pylon to enjoy his cider. With all the distractions, we lose track of the Tame, which at some point dips beneath the surface to escape the horror.
Once we leave the interchange it is amazing how quickly the environment changes. The devastated landscape and bass rumble of traffic is immediately replaced by sports fields and tranquil woodland. A nearby lake in a park is populated by swans, coots and a tree-full of cormorants. A troop of Fly Agarics sit beneath the silver birches.
We pick up the path of the Tame further on and at Holford Park Industrial Estate we are even afforded our first untrammeled riverside walk – for a few meters – on Tameside Drive. We are now following the river as it flows naturally across the surface of the land, and the quest feels like it is done.
A number of us gathered outside the Pershore Street car park for what was going to be our guided tour of Birmingham’s car parks and subways. It’s common knowledge that people don’t come to car parks in these numbers, and in fact, it had been said that some people I had spoken to had been rather incredulous about why this particular walk would be of any interest whatsoever. This particular walk would fit in excellently with Still Walking’s re-mit, a tour taking in areas of the city that don’t get explored, that are far away from the generic guided tours of Birmingham that are on offer. Here we were going to see hidden art, take in panoramic views, get some exercise, and observe the city around us. There would be exploration, and darkness and possible danger. The programme advised that this walk may not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition.
We went into the Pershore Street car park, walking up the stairwell to Level 9. The building on the outside reminded me of Madin’s Central Library, an angular tower of Brutalist concrete, however, going up the tight stairwell, with its stone steps and claustrophobic white walls, I was reminded of the stairwells within the Library of Birmingham. Getting a sense of Birmingham’s future and past. All the while the familiar car park smell of old urine, both sweet and sour choked us as we slowly made our way up to the top.
Going through Level 9 and into an expansive open air car park, towering above the city, we were treated to a fantastic panoramic view of the Birmingham skyline; incorporating on the left more Brutalist facades; the Wholesalers Market, the Meat Market and the Cold Storage, visions of concrete and corrugated iron. The car park had been used for off-site art work curated by the Ikon Gallery, in particular for Oliver Beer’s “The Resonance Project” (2011) working with Ex Cathedra to turn the car park into a giant architectural instrument.
We went back down the stone steps and were told to look at the poem on Level 2 that had been scrawled onto the wall in black biro by what could only be described as a spurned lover; the writing spidery however easy to decipher, the author sitting or perhaps even lying down to cram his plea in the space.
“Show me you love me. Stop the hurt and pain. Then my darling you may have my name. PS If not satisfied, try and try again?”
The poet unknown, but filling the space with dread and confusion. Trying to think at what time this what written in this cold and unfeeling space, in what condition and mind-set, and what happened to the poet afterwards. Where they went, whether in the early hours, lunchtime, tea-time, or the dead of night, the streets rendered lonely, unfeeling and threatening due to unrequited love.
Outside, I noticed a large advertising hoarding proclaiming the re-birth of TSB. Another hoarding advertised the latest instalment in the series of the psycho-geography classic ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ Buses drove past advertising forthcoming ‘Diana’ biopic and disappeared around corners and vanished into subways.
Onto Bromsgrove Street, we made our way to The Arcadian’s car park, billed as ‘award-winning’ on their website. A quick look at the information behind this shows that the car park is under the APCOA banner, APCOA being the ‘UK’s leading provider of tailored parking solutions.’ No perverse odours of urine or sights of empty weed bags and medical syringes here, instead, a powerful aroma of fresh tarmac and new car smell, up-to-the-minute strip lighting and exact low ceilings. Everything clean and sterile, bringing us out into the ever-changing frontages with rhyming names (Iguana Bar, Arca Bar, Bar Risa, Oceanna etc.)
We exited left past Reflex and onto Hurst Street, the Birmingham Hippodrome behind us. The entrance of the Hippodrome has now been copied for the roof to the entrance of the Library of Birmingham, gold shining stars on a black background, giving a sense of a glitzy glamour. As we made our way to Thorp Street behind the theatre, cars went screeching past blasting out young peoples music. Those screeching around would probably go home, fire up Grand Theft Auto, and drive around another city, this time possibly with a bit more money, possibly some whores and definitely some heavy duty weaponry.
Past Chung Ying Gardens and the Stageside Bar, we came to the car park on Thorp Street, designed by Euro Car Parks. An outdoor car park, being neither dark and dingy or utopian-futuristic, this was considered to be “a nice place to park”, with its surrounding brickwork painted white and pink, and with ivy hanging on lattice work. Leaving the relative tranquillity of the Thorp Street car park, we passed another one of Birmingham’s many strip-joints, Scarlets, and went onto Horsefair Parade, greeted by legal high shops and takeaways advertising ‘mighty buckets for one.’
We were now going via Holloway Circus (est 1966) and made our entrance via the Scala Subway, it’s urine smells alarmingly sweet. This subway was created for pedestrians outed in favour of the car, and gave those currently sitting in the public garden area a panoramic view of the inner ring road. Today, observing the gridlocked traffic in this area were a party of cyclists politely eating fruit. In the middle, a piece of public art, a Pagoda , gifted by Wing Yip Plc, with the intention of indicating to the passer-by that this area we were in signified the gateway to the Chinese Quarter. The area was also decorated with a mural by Kenneth Budd which depicted the 1911 horsefair. This place also had the honour of being known as the Cliff Richard subway, as it appears in his ‘Take Me High’ film (1973), which is a firm favourite amongst Birmingham folk.
We emerged from the subway up to Suffolk Street under the Radisson building, and another bus advertising the ‘Diana’ biopic disappeared. The walkway had previously been an extension of the subway underneath the ring road, and had now been filled in, landscaped, and was now a public square, festooned with multi-coloured lights. This had been put in place to get visitors into a ‘Mailbox state-of-mind’ – ready to engage with expensive boutiques and places to eat, which in this case would be known as ‘eateries.’ To our right was the Brunel Street car park, which had been constructed as a transparent red cage, which manipulated the visions of depth for the onlooker.
Walking through Suffolk Street, we got to Arena Central, charmingly named as an ‘Enterprise Zone’ (EZ) and an ‘Inspirational Public Realm’ (IPR) A ‘contemporary’ 14 storey Holiday Inn Express Hotel was scheduled to be built, adding to the towering skyscrapers – looking up at these modern monoliths, one, if gathering enough speed, could run up them like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario and take off into the sky, nothing, in fact, that Grand Theft Auto could do. Exploring the car park below Arena Central, we found that it could really only be described as ‘Post-Apocalyptic’, with fenced off areas and structural issues. We saw what was behind this intriguing no-go-zone after a claustrophobic and tight climb up the stairwell which saw us under the shadow of Alpha Tower. As with Pershore Street car park, car parks and subways had been an influence on the Library of Birmingham, with what seemed to resemble a giant amphitheatre in the middle of the IPR – a would-be gladiatorial arena for those engaging with the EZ, for the while unused and littered with fag-ends and newspapers.
We continued along Fletchers Walk. Over the road we could see the infamous Snobs nightclub, a rites-of-passage for anybody living in Birmingham for an extended time, well-known for it’s 50p shots, sticky floors and excessively drunken drinkers, the name of the kebab shop next door, ‘Top Nosh’ grimly ironic. There was no pedestrian walkway to this glorious destination; however, a makeshift stepping stone had been placed next to the wall where pedestrians could engage in a quick game of ‘chicken’ to the other side to hopefully save their legs.
Past the back of the Birmingham Conservatoire, we saw a fine example of wild plant growth going up the side of the building. We were then led into a barely lit Concrete Zone (CZ), which would take us underneath Paradise Forum, into an arena which was described as being ‘an afterthought into where cars go’, a netherworld of skips, empty cages and hanging wires. A giggling couple ran across our party, possibly embarrassed that we had interrupted their potential lovemaking behind some bins. We came out behind College Subway, next to the back of Paradise Forum and the College of Food and Tourism. We stopped before the entrance to the yellow-tiled subway, where we could hear two people shouting in tongues. This subway was quite labyrinthine, with one exit cordoned off, and we were told that toilets had been up in subways when they were originally built to save people any embarrassment if they got lost and caught short. These toilets for some reason where all now sealed and out-of-bounds, the pervading smell suggesting that people were in fact still getting lost.
We went back on ourselves now, and walked up the steep steps to Paradise Place, an area with disused fountains and street drinkers in various states of disrepair. When the Birmingham Central Library is eventually demolished, it will be interesting to see what happens to this Forgotten Zone (FZ), seeing as it never was given chance to achieve its Full Potential. A logo for Birmingham City Council was stencilled onto an opposite wall, as we made our way behind the back of the old library onto Victoria Square, and onto Barwick Street, where we would be treated to a rare sight of a private car park.
This car park was used solely for the clients of the Royal Bank of Scotland, yet in all honesty, it was a far-cry from the award-winning APCOA car park, the walled hanging gardens of the Euro car park on Thorp Street or even the dystopia of the area under Arena Central. Instead, a simple concrete establishment, with yellow lines for spaces, neat and tidy, almost like a hotel for cars. Outside, two chefs looked at us baffled and confused.
To complete our journey, we walked straight down Livery Street, to get to the car park at Snow Hill. A short climb to just floor 3B, we arrived at our final superb view of the city, a bird-eye view of Hockley and the Jewellery Quarter in front of us, train tracks and an intricate maze of buildings peppered with graffiti. To our right, buildings in states of growth and half-built abandonment set against aloof glass super-structures. The car park here, we were told, should be seen as not just a practical space, but also having the potential for being a Creative Zone (CZ) – this tour underlining the fact that car park and subway design for the future will consider design and aesthetic, with considered access for events and creativity after the space has been used for its main purpose in the day. Of course, with the views of the city stretching out, the hoardings, the architecture, the graffiti, what we had in front of us was a great free museum and art gallery; and with the exploration of the hidden subways and Forgotten Zones, an interactive game for all pedestrians to play.
Last year, the fastest selling tour in the Still Walking festival was Joe Holyoak’s Walk the Queensway. At the time, it seemed unlikely that the ring road would attract that amount of interest, but it did and looking back it all makes sense. Everyone in Birmingham has an opinion on subways, car-parking, crossing the road and the dynamics and effect of the ring road on the city. It showed clearly that the format of a guided tour needn’t be about showcasing the highlights of the city and that people want to know about the urban planning process – even if that means witnessing the flip side of Birmingham’s bold post-war experiments.
There is a spirit of irony in choosing to walk the ring road too: this route is all about the car and the marginalisation of everything else. Certainly that means the pedestrian but also the environment, the local economy and ultimately the city itself. Zen Buddhists may also reflect on an unintentional double meaning in the term “Middle Way”.
This week, I met ring road aficionado Glen Stoker of Stoke’s Air Space gallery to walk around Birmingham’s Middle Ring Road. I’d never done it before and despite having maps and a fail-safe ‘keep going’ circular strategy for navigation we actually managed to get the route wrong. By the time we came full circle, it emerged we’d managed to skip a significant part of the full route. But this didn’t really matter as we both agreed that encountering and exploring new spaces was the real purpose of the journey.
The three hour journey allowed us to talk about our interests with occasional tangential excursions as we encountered places where we felt motivated to stop. It was intriguing to see what lay either side of the ring road and how that incision seemed to have shaped the city. Some of these areas I already knew and wanted to share with Glen (making this partially a guided tour) but most were places I had never visited before. Having the express intention of visiting these places over an afternoon seemed to make them more visible. Until today, if there had been another route to walk other than the noisy ring road I would usually do exactly that. It’s interesting to think about why exactly some parts of the city are rarely visited, even for the ardent walking explorer.
A particular highlight that afternoon was a leafy avenue of trees leading to a gated enclosure containing a variety of pipes and ducts emerging from the ground. A concourse of hexagonal moss mosaics led away from this installation. All of this was contained invisibly within the central reservation of the Middle Ring Road. When we reached Highgate, I was able to introduce Glen to the culverted section of Rea, at this point handily accessible by steps. I now include the Rea in a walk wherever possible because of the conversations it naturally leads to, but have by now stopped referring to it as a river.
Many sections were unwalkable. We crossed several times either through piqued interest but mostly through necessity. By the end (or what we thought was the end) we knew the city that bit better but also better understood each other’s approach to walking. Glen was interested that my approach to researching a guided tour starts with simply looking while on the move. As a maker, Glen usually maps the journey for further use or simply as an associated aspect of walking. I generally don’t do this. Neither of us were particularly interested in the ‘game’ aspect of walking for its own sake, but rather for its yields.
Find out more about Glen’s work at
Every town and region around Birmingham (and any city) has its own cluster of citizens who who are fascinated by how their surroundings all came to be. I think the longer you live in an area, the more questions you ask about it. That might be as simple is ‘where’s a good place to eat’, ‘is there a short cut to the bus stop?’ but eventually turns to ‘what exactly is that old octagonal turret opposite the Select N Save?’. Its easy to get sucked in and eventually become intrigued by everything. You become aware how alive the past is in a contemporary setting.
The various local history societies that form to research, discuss and share this info all have their own ways of presenting what they know. This may be a self published booklet, or the occasional guided tour and that’s where things get interesting with Balsall Heath Local History Society. Their approach is to fearlessly re-enact local stories and moments that you couldn’t possibly know about in full constume and with a very playful sense of drawing the audience into past. I don’t know of any other group in Birmingham who make the experience as fun and often daring as they do and its a thrill to host them for the first time in a Still Walking festival. Themes range from Wartime high drama to a board game inventor, whose creation initially didn’t cut the Mustard…
I’m always looking to connect new audiences to the various walks that run around the city and here’s your chance to do exactly that. Two tours run tomorrow (Sunday 22 Sept) at 11 45am and 2 15pm
Booking can be done here, or get in touch if you would prefer to pay on the day: email@example.com
This morning I met David Helbich and Shila Anaraki for breakfast at Yumm, freshly in from Brussels, to discuss their event for Still Walking: ‘Drag and Drop’. The drag part refers to you being guided while the drop part means that at some point on the walk, you will be dropped off to await collection by the next passing group. What this allows is a still, reflective moment in a context that rarely happens: standing still in an urban context. I experimented with this on Wednesday (see my blog post) and I regularly find it surprising that literally doing nothing can create such a switch in our feeling and perception of the world. The Drag and Drop principle allows this fragile moment to take place under the carefully choreographed guidance of the two performers.
I’m very interested in the form of a guided tour, and what it means to be in the care of a guide for the duration of the walk. The information content should be accurate and engaging, but the group should cross the road carefully and not block the pavement en route, and many other facors apply. Because we nearly never are in a ‘guided tour’ situation, it’s easy to get it wrong while it happens. For this walk, the event deliberately introduces a stark moment, switching from a dynamic social group experience to an instant independent moment. In writing, that seems straightforward but the reality is that standing still is laden with expectations, anticipation and possibly even friction.
David and Shila are at this moment combing the city for a location for this walk and will be considerate to exactly how people will feel for the few minutes they will be static. For most of the next 24 hours they will be plotting the grid of streets, the route and the moments of exchange and all that it entails. It helps that David is a music composer, for this needs to be a precise experience. If you think you’ld like to experience this walk, please book here.
So where will all of this happen? Certainly somewhere in the city centre but the exact location will be announced later this afternoon (Friday) and if you book a ticket (which is free) you will tonight be emailed the location to meet. We’re expecting 20 – 30 people to be present, and before the two parties set out the procedure will be fully explained. Afterwards, you’ll be invited to comment and contribute to a discussion at a nearby café or bar.
Look forward to seeing you there!
Vanessa Grasse is that rare breed: the Sicilian that moves to Leeds. I know of only four and Vanessa is the only movement artist amongst them. I absolutely love Leeds (and have never been to Sicily) and Vanessa’s movement across the earth’s surface to Yorkshire (and on Saturday, Birmingham) perhaps tells you that she is interested in urban spaces, and the rhythms and patterns that occur within them. A recurring them of the festival is ‘how do we feel about our space’ and Vanessa’s approach is perhaps the most hands-on of all. Her walk ‘Movementscapes’ is a series of placements and exercises that reveal the invisible rhythms and emotional connections of the city. How do you feel about the space behind Snow Hill Sation, and how do you move through it? It sounds like an unlikely (and unanswerable) question but Vanessa will provide a means to provide the answers. Birmingham Cathedral and the old Central Library are both en route.
Book now to find out. All the SW events end with a drink and a social moment and this particular one will have the best view of all ;o)
I met Iain, Annie and James from SOUNDkitchen last week for a run through of their SOUNDwalk. Edgbaston reservoir lends itself well to a circular walk and an opportunity to reflect on a natural environment at the edge of the city. It’s no coincidence that a Buddhist Monastery is located nearby. The walk includes exercises to get the walkers into the spirit of listening to moments we’d usually overlook. It’s not easy – Iain references the background chatter in our minds, creating to do lists and stupid jokes in our (my) head. But we can train ourselves to focus – we never usually need to.
We have previously downloaded several tracks onto our iPods previously in the day and have been instructed not to listen to them until now. At key points, we are invited to press play and guess what we are listening to, from an up-close recording created earlier by the SOUNDkitchen team. There is always a clue nearby but the answer is often a complete surprise. Elsewhere, we listen to the live sounds of strategically placed microphones around (and in) the reservoir.
SOUNDkitchen provide a few more clues about the event below. About three tickets still remain so act quickly for this one! Tour starts at 5 30pm Friday 20th Sep (tomorrow) at Perrot’s Folly and lasts around 90 mins. We can provide an MP3 player if you happen not to have one. Book here.
Our walk offers an opportunity to engage in an active listening experience of the soundscape of the Edgbaston Reservoir and surrounding area. Aided by the use of sound technology we will augment your hearing ability to discover tiny hidden sounds, listen to distant locations and experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives.
The main purpose of our soundwalk is to encourage walkers to actively listen to their environment. Using some simple listening exercises we will guide participants to explore in detail the changing soundscape of the Edgbaston Reservoir, an important site for nature conservation and a popular urban leisure destination situated close to the city centre.
The walk will be punctuated with several augmented listening stations where, with the use of live microphones and pre-recorded audio tracks, walkers will be able to experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives. Come and hear sounds from under the water, be transported to a distant landmark, discover tiny hidden noises and open your ears to an aural wonderland.
Thanks to: Keith Wraight, Edgbaston Watersports; Rev. Matthew Tomlinson and the Choir of St Augustine’s Church; Jenny Middleton; Jim Harrison BCC Ranger Service
In the week off between the festival weekends I’ve been keeping active with walking activities and adventures. There are always thrilling connections made during the Still Walking festival: people seeing the programme and getting in touch with their ideas. That does mean lots of emails in the morning but after those have been dealt with it’s great to get out and go for a walk (by now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise).
Today I investigated some secret tunnels in the city (more on that later in the week), photographed the William Bloye keystones at Steelhouse Lane Police Station (with nothing to report, other than “lovely keystones”) and stood still in Birmingham Cathedral grounds for around an hour.
I once stood there for 20 mins as an experiment, while thinking how to kill some time before an appointment. I was thinking which café or pub to go to then decided not to go anywhere, just continue to stand. I’d never done that before, and generally nobody does stand still for any length of time, unless they’re smoking or waiting for a bus. At the end of the ‘stand’ that time, my friend Brian passed by chance, looking disturbed. ‘What was wrong?’ Well, nothing: I actually enjoyed the experience and wanted to repeat it. One year on, I went back to spend 80 mins or so standing while the post-work crowds filtered past. What seems very simple (and possibly even a bit daft) actually turned out to have a lot going on. In brief, I came to feel that these were all people coming into my space, for a short time, and I felt very comfortable being there. I don’t think I’ve every looked at so many different faces at relatively close range in such a short time – that alone made the experience worthwhile, though its hard to say why exactly. I wondered if I would see someone I knew again – I did after 30 mins: Jerome from Birmingham International Film Society on his way to the final screening of the Chile 40 Years On festival… but too far to say hello to. I recognised someone who walked close to me but couldn’t remember why I knew her. For the entire duration, I would see a few puzzled micro-expressions, a few caught eyes but in this particular space no direct involvement from passers-by.
Towards the end something intriguing happened. Not everyone there was walking; there are many public benches in that space. Beyond the walkers, I became sensitive to who was resting, who was waiting and who really was doing nothing. There was a moment of high drama when a slightly melancholic elderly gentleman, who I thought was doing nothing, turned out to be waiting. He was met after 35 mins by a granddaughter with hugs, a bouquet of flowers and a stack of chemistry textbooks. Instantly my understanding of the situation was thwarted. Only I witnessed that short story, and now you know it happened too.
In the picture below, two people resting or waiting make it clear to each other that they want to have their own private space on the bench. There was another woman behind me who was resting or waiting too. After 45 minutes of being in that the space, the woman behind me and the man on the left in the picture stood and left together, gently and in silence. So why sit separately? After being so closely involved in the ‘story’, this was such an unexpected twist in the narrative I let out a cry of surprise. I suppose the point is, I would never have seen that moment had I not been watching that part of the city for an hour.
The final observation I made was that the whole experience had a very calming effect on me, though again not sure yet exactly why. While standing, I was peripherally chalking up a ‘to do’ list once I reached Urban Coffee but left the space feeling rested and ready to tackle it rather than anxious and overwhelmed.
The experience made me anticipate two Still Walking events. The first is happening tomorrow (Thursday 19 Sep) which is Francis Lowe’s ‘Free Seeing’ in Digbeth Which I introduced here:
The first Free See in Birmingham will take place in Digbeth on Thursday 19th of September. Participants should meet at 3.00pm outside the Fusion Centre of South and City College, High street Deritend, Digbeth, B5 6DY. Please come, this is open anyone with a keen eye, or those who want one.
The other event I anticipated today was David Helbich’s Drag and Drop. I took part in this in Brussels earlier in the year. In a previous blog I remark how many walking artists have their own take on the Silent Tour and David’s is perhaps the most ambitious I’ve yet encountered. David is also a composer and the principle of Drag and Drop is to create a tightly choreographed walking score around the streets of Birmingham. For you, that means joining one of two group leaders and following (in silence) until a point where you will be deposited to await collection by the next group of walkers. It’s an experience of extremes, from shared group movement to temporary individual contemplation and back again – but be assured that you will always be safe and in control of your environment. The whole thing will be devised, scored and rehearsed within two days and the location of the event will be announced by email the day before the event – but will be within striking distance of the city centre. At this point, that’s all I can tell you, other than you won’t often have the opportunity to experience a walk like this in Birmingham – which is largely the point of the Still Walking festival. Also, it is free!
I first heard about Free Seeing through its originator:
Mr Andy Spackman,[edit: oops, it seems Francis Lowe is the originator :s] a lecturer in Graphics at Coventry University. The concept was simple: think of ‘free running’ (aka Parkour) and replace ‘running’ with ‘seeing’. A clever move I thought, and rather easier than free running… but possibly less common. Francis Lowe invites and explains:
I created Free Seeing in response to the concept of ‘the found object’. Why not take it one step further and ‘find spaces’? We rarely take time to stop and really record what we see, so Free Seeing invites viewers to stop, look and really see.
Free Seeing is an audience-led initiative that allows audiences to find beauty, mood and pattern in the most unexpected and often ordinary of places. A Free Seeing event involves visiting sites in and around the country and encouraging audiences to find time to appreciate the visual value of spaces and places that have hitherto gone unnoticed.
Free Seeing is for everyone and can be experienced in any way. An audience member may choose to take a camera, a note-pad, a chair or even a picnic. Free Seeing lasts as little or as long as the audience want it to.
The first Free See in Birmingham will take place in Digbeth on Thursday 19th of September. Participants should meet at 3.00pm outside the Fusion Centre of South and City College, High street Deritend, Digbeth, B5 6DY.
We will take a fresh look at some of the hidden gems that exist within the nooks, crannies and man made environments of the area.
Bring a chair… some food… a flask… Whatever you want!
And on Wednesday: the Night Photo School Workshop with Pete Ashton
How do you take photographs when there isn’t much light? How do you deal with small bright streetlamps against a dark sky? What are the best settings for a long exposure? How can you build a light painting using movements of the city?
This workshop starts with a brief introduction to shooting at night, with and without a tripod, before spending 3 hours on the streets of Birmingham. Tripods are highly recommended though not essential.
This workshop was last run in December. Photos taken by participants are on the blog here.
We meet at the Symphony Hall Cafe Bar at 7.30pm then head out into the twilight from 8.00. The Cafe Bar is on your left as you enter the ICC from Centenary Square.
You can book here
This event is part of the Still Walking Festival Fringe. Thanks to THSH for letting us use the Cafe Bar for the class.
Let me know if you are hosting a walking event happening during the festival and I’ll promote them here. There a lot of walking going on in the city!
Buildings, graffiti, carvings, architecture, art, all stemming from the same concept – people feeling the need to make their mark on the planet in their frantic yet futile quest for immortality.
We stood outside St Pauls Church, built in 1776. Here we saw the beauty of the words etched onto the buildings, the beauty of the craft. This was an exercise in making us see. People’s initials were carved on the side of the church; hieroglyphics, engravings and markings, each with their own separate meanings, each with their own stories. Deep engravings had made throughout history to tagging, now not just with permanent markers but also with stones or anything else that came to hand. Along the church, you could see dates and picture when and where the markings were made – D.L. 1809. Z. 1950.
As a species we need to function because of words on buildings. Signage etched on buildings used to indicate jobs for life, materiality on signage. Signs aren’t so much created to be part of architectural design anymore, more so than not they are designed to be disposed of when the business undergoes a re-branding, or the business goes out of business to be replaced by another business.
We were going to look at the hoardings of Taylor and Challen Limited, a Jewellery Quarter based company. Taylor and Challen owned several businesses within the Jewellery Quarter, and each one we would see would have signage emblematic of the era in which the building was owned. We walked down Henrietta Street. Underneath our feet we were invited to look down, and saw that the pavement we were walking on had been supplied by Cakemore Bricks, a Black Country brickmaker, advertising their wares literally, on the street.
Some buildings derelict and unused, some turned into resident quarters or artist studios. On our right, the Derwent Foundry, lettering at the top of the building in yellow, the premises now converted into flats, however, the lettering had been preserved. Underneath an iron bridge, we were invited to touch the bricks and see the chalk marks that had been written on the walls by today’s employees.
Right onto Constitution Hill, we noticed a stained glass window had been covered over with a sign saying that the building was now being used as the Consulate to Pakistan. A door was open, so our party went in and looked inside. We could see that the sign revealed who had put the stained glass window there to advertise their business. It previously had been owned by Barker Brothers, a silversmithers in the Jewellery Quarter. ‘BB’ had also been carved, seemingly unprofessionally, into the wooden bannister.
Back onto the street, we observed the former H.B. Sale Building, designed in 1895 and 1896 for a die-sinker firm, now in a state of disrepair, and despite bearing a golden sign saying ‘China Village Restuarant’, was now actually operating as ‘Syriana’, a Syrian/Lebanese restaurant. Up Constitution Hill, we saw three more buildings built for Taylor & Challen premises, each echoing the typography fashions of the times, one was from 1910, and another featuring ceramic tiling built in 1938, showing that a good amount of money had been spent on this signage.
We went across a side road, which saw an old pub now in use as an off-licence, and then went onto Livery Street. A hoarding erected on our left showed the back of one of the Taylor & Challen premises, its lettering painted or whitewashed onto the brickwork in capital letters, in order to give absolute visibility to passing trains/trade. To our right, the Gothic Vaughton Works, now a backpackers’ hostel, the ‘Gold and Silversmiths’ cladding chipped-off.
Taking a right, we went back onto Cox Street and saw a new-build block of flats, Midland Court, in cast lettering rather than stonemasonry. Walking up Mary Street, away from St Paul’s Square, we saw Bloc, a boutique hotel made out of engineering brick designed by BPN Architects. The name of the hotel appeared three times – visible on the side of the building, above the main entrance, and written in the window. Looking closely, it seemed as though the lettering on the side of the building had been laser-cut out of the casting that was now in place over the door. Simple, but effective, especially in terms of being pleasing to the eye and also in terms of cost.
Going down a side road, making our way, we saw a building for T&J Hughes, a jewellery case manufacturers and patterners, which boasted superb a superbly carved drain. Going onto Vittoria Street, we saw the gothic Birmingham School of Jewellery, established in 1890, and acquired by the old Birmingham Polytechnic in 1989. Onto Warstone Lane, things appeared different. The roads opened up in front of us and suddenly we were bombarded with words and logos. Thin logos of Urban Coffee Company, Coral, Tesco and Subway, all instantly brand-recognisable, and threatening to date on an ephemeral basis, rather than with the classic signage on the establishments that we had seen on our journey.
As was pointed out, permanence wasn’t always a feature in the Victorian era – an old bank, now converted into a generic HSBC or Lloyds or Natwest, simply had ‘Bank (est 1836) carved into its side. As we concluded our walk down the road, we noticed that the buildings were being replaced by a clutch of small independent businesses and jewellers, occasionally branching out into bigger buildings such as Robinson & McEwan and A.J. Smith’s (a variety works.) Opposite Vertu, on the corner of Frederick Street, we saw the Thomas Fattorini Factory, a business established by 6th generation Italian immigrants. The sign stood out against the skyline, and to our right, we could still see the top of the Library of Birmingham, standing out proudly like a Belisha Beacon. I could have made my way home from there. I reckon actually, for the sake of this piece, I should have done.
The Silent Walk
The silent walk is a standard in the walking artist’s tool kit. It’s a great introduction to how effective live art can be and that it doesn’t always require a lot of preparation or even a budget.
The first one I went on was Kira O’Reilly’s Silent Walk which ran during Fierce Festival in 2011. She told me she’d adapted it from a Chicago performance group called Goat Island. The event was an aimless and leaderless wander as a group (or about 15 people) setting off from what was then VIVID’s space on Heath Mill Lane in Digbeth. Kira led the assembled group out of the door initially to give it momentum but after that it decided (without communicating) where it would go next and what it would stop to look at. An invisible group dynamic decides where to go next. Essentially, it was experiencing flocking behaviour in humans. I recall we stopped to look at a broken water main that was bubbling up through the pavement like a fountain, and the only time the the group stalled was outside the police station on Digbeth High Street. The group attracted a few glances but wasn’t regarded with suspicion – even by the police. There might be the occasional puzzled look as the group descended down an alley.
The second silent walk I went on involved walking round Chelsea with a similarly sized group, but this time gathered together by a large elastic band, about fifty feet long. This time the group did attract attention. People in the group took the instruction of silence as binding and questions, comments and interventions from the public outside the band were ignored. The wake of friction and confusion it left through the streets was almost as visible as ship churning up the ocean. There was separate dynamic within the group: who should support the band (it wasn’t attached to us) and how fast to walk, how to ensure everyone had enough space. At one point the group stopped and the two leaders left the band and set off in different directions. Who should we follow?
Each walking artist adds their own tweak to the game – and a slient walk should be a fun and intriguing expereince. Such a walk features in the Still Walking programme: Simone Kenyon’s Quiet Edges. It proceeds through some outlying streets around the Jewellery Quarter this afternoon, but this will not be about site-seeing. The locations will be unfamiliar to most. Simone will invite you to experience the city and the simple act of group walking in a way that may well be new to you. The first rule is “No Talking”. The second rule is lively discussion of exactly what you experienced in a warm, dry location with a drink after the event: I look forward to hearing your take on what happens!
Some tickets still available here.
Announcing the launch of the third Still Walking festival! Ten new guided walks around Birmingham over the next ten days (mostly around the weekends) with various investigations / blogging / promoting other people’s walking events / generally wandering around in the week days between. Please do let us know if you got something interesting happening involving walking in your part of Birmingham, or even further afield.
Check the full programme though be warned that events are selling fast!
We’re calling the midweek events and activities the Still Walking Fringe: this is really just highlighting the events that are happening anyway. It seems people walk for all sorts of different reasons but it can be quite difficult to find out what’s happening where. For this outing of the festival, we’ll be going out of our way to find out what’s happening in Birmingham – the city people are calling “the City of Walking” ;O)
We’ll be blogging more about the Fringe over the next few days but some highlights are Pete Ashton’s Practical Psychogeography Workshop on Mon 16 September starting at 4 30pm – 9pm and Roland Kedge’s Glacial Boulder walk on Saturday 14th September (tomorrow!). For that walk, you need only turn up at the Great Stone Inn, Church Road, Northfield at 2pm. Roland will guide this three mile tour over approx 2 hours and round up the various glacial deposits that made their way from Wales during the last ice age. Free!
The festival proper kicks off this evening with Words on Buildings led by Birmingham Architecture Festival’s Laira Piccinato. The walk sold out some time ago but I’m going to see if she’ll lead another before it gets too wintery. Add yourself to the mailing list to be the first to find out: but in the meantime plenty of other tours are running. They’re all £4 and one is free.
But before then I’m going on a short walk to gear up for the events: a simple exercise to visit the nearest street to my home that I haven’t been to before. For me, that’s the mysterious sounding Pentos Drive near the river Cole. I’ll be joined by the noted Brummie nocturnal explorer Karen Strunks. Why do it? There’s probably nothing there but I think it’s good to expand your zone a bit occasionally.
A final note: launching a festival on Friday the Thirteenth may seem to be inviting trouble but luckily all the guides are paid up members of the Lucky Two Shoes League of Foot Freedom.
See you on the walks!
Still Walking sent rogue reporter James Kennedy to cover the practice run-through of Iris Bertz’ walking tour of accidental art:
The trouble with being in a hurry to get somewhere is that as a pedestrian you don’t stop to look at your surroundings. It was iPod on and tunnel vision to the destination, a fifteen minute walk becoming ten. That morning, I walked from Bath Row, walking the length of Granville Street and onto Broad Street, and crossing the road into Oozells Square. Nothing really to see, a familiar walk through familiar territory, and besides, I wasn’t going to stop as I was late.
I stopped outside Ikon Gallery, which is where the walk was going to start. I looked briefly at the brief of today’s walk, led by Iris Bertz. In this walk, Iris would ‘explore the use of the accidental in art and focus on how it would be possible to see art everywhere.’ A psychedelic psychogeography; where accidents create multi-woven stories, challenging the city-dwellers perception of the mundane, challenging pre-conceptions and the imposed order of the city, making the city burst with colour and new-found beauty, instead of being a place to work, consume and go home.
Standing with the modern Royal Bank of Scotland building in front of me, I noticed a plaque on the floor underneath my feet. ‘Sculptures. Paul de Monchaux. Landscape Design. Townshend Landscape Artists.’ In front of me, a sitting area carved out of stone, a long bench, a seat with an archway over it, and two parallel rows of two seats. This was another aspect that the walk would cover – the lines blurred between what was art, what was furniture, and what was sculpture. Monchaux’s commission would play an accidental role in art, where the artistic became functional. Visions of artists and architects impressions of Brindleyplace (not ‘Brindley Place’) before it was re-designed in 1991. A utopian vision of multiculturalism, people coming and going, blurred faces and myriad fashions. ‘Exciting proposals for a high quality, mixed use development.’ Working, playing, engaging with the new designed spaces, here featuring ‘Sculptures’ by Paul de Monchaux, and ‘The Royal Bank of Scotland’ by The Sidell Gibson Partnership.
Behind me, the Ikon Gallery, formerly the Oozells Street School, refurbished and extended in 1997 by Levitt Bernstein Architects. When the walk started, we were told that we were going to see a very personal tour to Iris. This would not be a walk about truth or reality, instead, this would be an invitation to see how Iris saw. She recounted a tale of how, growing up in a small village with her artist mother, they were both stopped by a puzzled member of the community, who asked them what they were doing. ‘Photography’ they replied, to bafflement and bemusement. What on Earth were they seeing, that warranted them to stop and look in detail? On the front of Café Ikon, we were shown a dimpled window, which at first look seemed nothing out of the ordinary, but on closer inspection became an extended piece of art – an ear trumpet, where those inside the gallery could hear the outside. Without closer inspection and examination, this would have been rightly ignored. With new engagement – new possibilities.
We left Oozells Square, now facing Ken Shuttleworth’s The Cube, standing impressively, and as usual with Birmingham’s architectural decisions, gleefully controversially, against the skyline. Walking back to Broad Street, we walked past the Second Church of Christ Scientist Birmingham, as it is now known ‘Popworld’, (formerly ‘Flares.’) Crossing the road to the original Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham, which in 2002 went into receivership and re-emerged as The Rocket Club, at the time having the dubious honour of being Birmingham’s 12th strip joint. Above the gaudy façade of a woman with her mouth hanging open in a pseudo-provocative manner stood a series of five concrete panels designed by John Madin, which together mirrored the idea of a gallery exhibition. They seemed fossilised onto the building, calling comparisons with Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ (1993.)
Walking down Berkley Street, noises from generators mingled with the smell of curry spices. We were now engaged with Iris’ notion of the artist as walker. Now, we would see how artists within the city engage with the many blank canvases they find, canvases being the barricades, the fences and weather-beaten panels, the bricked up walls and any available space for the marker pen, the stone or the cans of spray paint. Here, on a metal door barricading a private area, which obviously said ‘don’t look at this, nothing to see here’ the artist known as sky had been, signing their name onto the middle of the door, the ‘s’ resembling a ‘5’ and the ‘Y’ underlining the ‘s’ and the ‘k’. To the side of this, an symbol of a dot and a dash, the morse code for ‘A’ stood inexplicably. However, our assumptions and readings, led by the artist, would create meaning. Behind the metal door, plants grew free wild and knotted and twisted, as with the brain of the artist looking at this free canvas, and being mildly irritated that they hadn’t bought their pencils and paints with them, and making a mental note to come back prepared.
Beyond this, a car park was shown to us. Not as a Martin-Parr-in-action, our attention drawn to the markings, cuts and cracks on the exit floor, which resembled abstract paintings, or maybe that the artist Doris Salcedo had been commissioned to re-create her ‘Shibboleth’ installation in Birmingham, after its success at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. ‘Shibboleth’ was created to make engagers think ‘what was real and what was not’ much as we were thinking about these markings in front of us.
Turning around, our attention was drawn (note: we were not discovering these for ourselves yet) to a wire had been coiled in a too-perfect ring, and was hung on a hook in the centre of perfectly aligned windows. The sun was shining that day, and the roof’s shadow of the opposite building was halfway up the wall, an unexpected, accidental sun-dial.
Two arrows made out of gaffa tape were stuck onto the front of a door (sky had been here again as well.) Iris considered this as a piece of urban art. The arrows pointed to each other, one on each door. The question was, what were they there for? Inviting us to inspect this intervention made the familiar unfamiliar, and interfered with logic, common sense and intelligence. It also drew comparisons with the 1960s Arte Povera movement which makes art works out of cheap materials, and that of Vik Muniz’s photography and sculpture work with Brazilian catadores (garbage pickers.)
We were invited to touch the sandstone walls of the CBSO centre (by Associated Architects in 1997) and looked at the shadows which seemed to resemble crouching human figures, disturbingly like Hiroshima shadows. Gum flecks, wear and deterioration however, gave these shadows faces and expressions, and thankfully provided laughter to juxtapose against the worrying thoughts before.
Across the road, on a window of the apartment block Friday Bridge (architects unknown) was pointed out to us. A sticker vase containing sticker flowers in a window seemed innocuous enough, but Iris told us the vision reminded her of Holland and van Gogh’s ‘Tulips.’ The vase was also framed perfectly, with a blind pulled behind them, seemingly for us, the onlookers benefit rather than the exhibitors benefit.
Turning left onto Holliday Street, the sandstones were beginning to fade and distress, slowly losing their manufactured quality. This was a case of nature returning to what it was, turning its back on man. Under the aqueduct, water had eroded bricks, making nature the artist rather than man, resulting in canvases of ghosts and crying women.
A void faced us turning left onto Bridge Street. A building removed leaving a beautiful derelict space, an open wound, showing the back of the old Central studios. The Library of Birmingham (Francine Houben, very recently) took on a brazen, proud quality behind the rubble and the overgrowth. To our left, a derelict house, or what could have been a pub or a lockmaster’s house (with seeing, the possibilities are infinite) had been painted white, almost with the intention of blotting it out from view, in order to disguise its otherness. Boarded up windows and doors sealed the danger inside. Another nod to Whiteread’s fossilised ‘House.’ A standing stone behind the house offered us a look into the yard/garden/place of mystery and showed an overgrown mass of weeds and dead flowers, and a shack with a tin roof added more mystery to the proceedings. The Central Television Studios had been used themselves for the use of helping viewer’s imaginations – an Accident and Emergency sign made it resemble a hospital, not a television studio, and graffiti saying “Summer 2011: The clock is ticking” had been used on an edition of the post-apocalyptic drama Survivors (shown on BBC, not ITV.)
More post-apocalyptic drama abounded on the site of the James Brindley pub, closed since 2008. To get to the pub you have to walk down a cobbled path, and we were invited the look at tangled ivy, that, in an attempt at removal, had woven a printed tapestry underneath the pub. Not just underneath, some of the ivy had spiralled up into two columns, an artistic accident recalling the work of Patrick Dougherty. ‘Someone who has tried to kill nature has succeeding in creating a bit of art.’ Iris, an experienced tutor in willow sculpture, showed us the twisted stalactites of twisted ivy, a superb piece of lattice work covering over what was seen as a monument to James Brindley, unfortunately being represented as a weed-strewn mausoleum. The pub had once been a vibrant jazz-friendly venue but suffered severe leakage, closing its doors in 2008. Those wanting to stake a claim in the pub were advised that it was unviable and unworkable, and the pub reminded shut, despite many efforts to rejuvenate the courtyard area. From death sprung life; a guerrilla garden patch stood to our right, and the canal-dwellers had had decorated their narrowboats with vibrant colours and on one, a narrowboat/Land Rover hybrid stood out from the crowd, complete with a fibreglass crocodile perched nearby.
Over the cobbled bridge past the Canalside pub, we saw more examples of painting and framing, creating accidental art. A hole in the wall contained a drinker’s stash of a can of lager and a fag end, and a ripped sticker on a boarded up window resembled the canalside crocodile, presumably created in a fit of ego. Through an alleyway adorned with sticker art and tagging (particular attention drawn to the Birmingham and Wolverhampton artist ‘NFA’) we got onto Gas Street, where we saw a repetition of the gaffa tape urban art phenomenon (this time pointing upwards and diagonally left.) To its left, yet another blank canvas, with this time, a ledge in which the painter could arrange their paints.
Over the road, a cast iron sign with a Victorian, Gilliam / Python-esque gloved hand pointed inexplicably to Broad Street. We were told that this wasn’t sticker art, and in fact was made out of cast iron, expensive to create, so possibly created by an artist or a marketing company (or both) with money to burn. The new ITV studios to our left, with their latest corporate branding (something which my inner anorak and nobody else at all got very excited about in 2012) on their brickwork, and we made our return back to Broad Street.
In between Mooch Bar the Quayside office block and Risa Bar we saw what was considered to be a public sculpture. A drain, ring-fence off with gaffa tape strewn across it and exposed, dangling wire. Fag ends littered the floor, and on closer inspection the earth underneath our feet was seen to be rising up. Office workers standing around having a well-earned fag and a chat eyed us with bafflement and bemusement. “What are you doing” they said? “Seeing.” “Right.”
Discover Iris’s full itinerary by booking onto her tour here. Tickets are selling fast so please don’t miss out!
Tom Jones WALK*LOOK*DRAW*KNOW
The Still Walking motto is that everything is worth looking at. If you set out expecting to find interesting moments in the city, they will naturally present themselves to you, because they are there. Simple!
It is always a joyful moment to be shown a new way of seeing the city, and Tom Jones event for Still Walking does exactly that. Tom teaches drawing and as an ex fine art student I know the adage that drawing is proof of seeing. If you take up drawing, it’s actually seeing that you learn first, and what a discrepancy there is between what is there and what we usually record, whether that means draw, see or remember.
Tom’s event for Still Walking will lead a small group through a variety of places and landscapes in central Birmingham and introduce them to the techniques of seeing: at this point, drawing ability is not essential. But the group will be drawing: micro sketches in pencil on small index cards. The point is not to create finely rendered depictions of the city, but rather to respond to Tom’s observations and guidance on what to see and how to see it. Whilst doing the practice tour with Tom this week, there were not only many moments of encountering places I’d not spent any time looking at before, but entirely new ways of seeing it too. I don’t want to give anything away about this beautiful walk – and every moment was valuable – but Tom will be able to show you a selection of English holiday destinations not five minutes from Brindleyplace.
This September, the Still Walking Festival focuses on how artists see the world and move through it, and Tom’s tour comes recommended if you want to learn how to do that yourself. All drawing equipment is included. Places are very limited and the event is already selling well so make sure you book well in advance.
A few weeks ago the Rep theatre asked me to talk about my work for their Foundry programme for emerging theatre practioners. Thinking of myself as a theatre practitioner doesn’t come naturally but a critical aspect of developing a guided walk calls for the journalistic ability to spot a story and then tell it convincingly.
I feel there are vast unexplored vistas when using the guided tour format; a lost plateau between the Blue Badge data-delivery polished standard and the its-behind-you high camp of the ghost tour. Uncharted knowledge, opportunities for new dramatic approaches, content and audiences. Ideal for the Foundry workers to get their teeth into.
I often draw attention to the fact that our urban surroundings are there entirely by design and as such, everything has a story behind it. The layers of adaptions, remakes and human detritus are further chapters or twists to the original premise. I accept that many of these stories are not fully developed narratives and in the context that I work in, they are more usefully thought of as clues. The usual city walking tour can feel like a highlights-of-everything experience: the entire history of the city and the top ten moments of civic, cultural or economic success. That usually means visiting the Town Hall, naming the various Lord Mayors and (in Birmingham) talking about how they’ve done the canals up now. This approach misses the sub-plots of ordinary people which I feel are often more accurate flavour of the city. Threading these together, with the occasional reference to mighty moments in history, is what I do. You can think of the urban backdrop as a stage and the evidence left by people as the story being acted out on it. The evidence can be very subtle.
The basic idea was to walk around Centenary Square and talk about what was there.
One direct way of witnessing the past is to look for plaques. The earliest of Birmingham’s blue plaques are actually rectangular and bronze (such as the one on Baskerville House) and they tend to merge unnoticed into the urban fabric. More recent ones are circular, bold and blue. Birmingham plaques are characterised by referencing something that used to stand here or even “near here.” This phrase alone tells a story: one of a city that is in flux. Birmingham is cognisant of its past but can appear unsentimental about it, as befits a city with the motto Forward. Sometimes an entire building, such as the Gothic fantasy that was Josiah Mason College will receive a memorial in the form of a plaque, which will end up propped up in a window of an unused alley. Elsewhere, utterly unobserved, a CCTV camera spike is dedicated to the memory of a former Labour MP who survived IRA attacks and the harsh summer of 1976. Two plaques independently remember the local radio soap the Archers. Our group takes several steps along Broad Street’s Walk of Stars, sensing the difference between plaques that merely commemorate a local name and those which celebrate a significance of that spot. Revealing the emotional moments of the immediate environment is what this tour is about. (I later confess to the group that I had to google many of the stars).
At the Municipal Bank we encounter more archaeological evidence. Firstly, the architect Thomas Cecil Howitt has signed his building at the lower right: not common for an architect to do this, but there was a fashion for doing it in the 1930s and ‘50s, perhaps influenced by artists’ signatures on their masterpieces. The foundation stone was laid by HRH Prince George in 1933. Now largely forgotten, this wayward ancestor to the current Prince George endorsed morphine and cocaine use and sired a son with local romantic heroine Barbara Cartland (according to Barbara Cartland). His death in an aircrash during WWII is echoed by a row of bomb blast shrapnel damage and patches to the Portland stone across the lower part of the building. Bivalve shells appear in the stone too, representing life from prehistoric times. 500 million years of history.
Into Fletchers Walk: an intriguing place with a faux-mediaeval name (arrow maker) demonstrating the post-war predilection for underground public spaces. Brutal overspill from the Central Library. Shopping here has quietened in recent years, though Zagora is still doing well, and a window display advertises the bottled craft beers available at Post Office Vaults. Both come recommended by Still Walking. On Sundays this useful shortcut to Broad Street is sealed off as it is not civic space. The mall has its own wild flower meadow: in the compact vitality of the city, people require both moments of liveliness and quiet. Weeds reduce aggression. A few years ago Fletchers Walk was rebranded, seemingly stealing English Heritage’s logo in the process. This design, we can see, has been borrowed from the original floor tile layout. At this point, I challenge the group with an apparently Sherlockian mystery: the shop unit behind me is empty and the sign has since been taken down. I ask: “I want you tell me the name of the man who originally put the sign up.” It seems impossible to answer: how could that moment leave any evidence? There is no trace of writing on the shop front. Then the group notices that the space above the window is not blank: the surface undulates in a specific rhythm. Someone sees the letter K emerge… “it’s Karl!” While piping out the adhesive, Karl created a short-lived tribute to himself. The subsequent removal of the sign revealed his name once more, albeit in reverse, and perhaps a testament to his faith in the longevity of his business.
Next door is a gun and body armour shop: gunsmithery is a long-standing tradition in the city but always a surprise for me to see such shops in reality. While I talk about this, I notice two new faces in the group. I’m interested in this moment: members of the public have every right to exist where they want to in public space, so following a guided tour (even if it had been a ticketed one) is well within their rights. One of them looked familiar too: it sometime takes me a while to recognise a face out of context but I later remembered a Flatpack volunteer who had ably facilitated my Invisible Cinema tour a year or two ago. Great to run into him again, and for him to want to be involved.
I then took the group through an unmarked door into the space that exists beneath the former Central Library. I explained I had no motive here other than to experience a lost part of the city centre with its own specific atmosphere. Stalactites formed in the concrete ceiling overhead and vernacular signs and warnings were stenciled onto the concrete walls. Doorways led to long extinct civic departments. I included some local history here: a large space which was build as a bus station but never used. The sheer height is the clue, and the dormant escalator shafts still remain, to take a theoretical public into the beating heart of the library.
We pause at a ventilation shaft to the Anchor Exchange and then we’re back in Centenary Square. The space outside the library is, by design, a wild flower meadow. I’m always on the lookout for seating in public squares in the city: seated people observe their environment and talk to each other. Public seating is a rarity in city centre Birmingham (keep shopping, is the general idea). It’s difficult to see from here but the new public space seems to have a deck chair… albeit made out of flowers.
At this point the tour is done but no-one wants to leave. There are many observations, questions and comments. The walk hasn’t been like any previous experience of studying the narrative form. I usually experience at least one or two people sloping off midway through with an apology but today we ended nearly two hours later with a larger group than we set out with. Without any prompting, people wanted to get involved in Still Walking and further their walking experiences. 20 mins later I head off, thrilled with what might emerge from all this.
Lost Rivers of London 1: The Fleet
The lost rivers of Birmingham have merely been mislaid. Head to London for rivers that are truly buried.
Last year, I was given Tom Bolton’s wonderful book “London’s Lost Rivers” which describes the overland course above seven of London’s underground rivers. Each river has become lost by design: at some point during London’s growth, the need for new land has superseded the need for a river. The presence of the rivers can still be felt however. Bolton describes how the rivers have shaped the physical landscape and how town planners have capitalised on these contours (for example, a railway line will run through a valley). There is a cultural echo too, in building and street names, references to former bridges and banks and in public art. The river itself can occasionally be seen or heard through surface level grids and drains. The challenge as an urban walker is to discover and piece together the evidence.
The first lost river I knew about was the Fleet, running from Hampstead Heath through Kentish Town, Kings Cross, Farringdon and Blackfriars, at which point it empties into the Thames, so I decided to begin there. I invited a few friends to join me one sunny Sunday on an invisible riverside meander. The source of the Fleet is Whitestone Pond, near Hampstead Heath. This is London’s highest natural point and is marked by a trig point. It was a glorious day and beautiful electric blue damsel flies skittered above the surface of the water and bullrushes puffed yellow pollen in the breeze. As we consulted the map, a couple who were paddling in the pond asked where we were going. We explained were heading to the Thames, following the course of the Fleet. Learning that they were standing in the source really seemed to pique their imagination and there’s certainly an unquantifiable mystique about searching for underground rivers and seeing their influence.
The first mile or so of the river is above ground, in the form of stream flowing through a sequence of pools on the heath. Bolton charts the route to be as near as possible to the river and at some points that means pushing through brambles and overgrowth along a barely perceptible pathway. The real joy of walking the route is being given a reason to visit new places and make chance discoveries. The river has already set the route long before there was any city to walk through. The landscape and its contents take on a new significance through the filter of the lost rivers theme: a covered pool table at a caravan site seems to be making a poetic gesture. As the Heath ends, the river dips below ground through a grill and doesn’t re-emerge until the Thames.
At this point the guide book does something very interesting. Tom Bolton is clearly a Londophile and the walks are colourfully illustrated with local history, literary references and grisly crimes when the river passes by a significant site, such as the bullet hole riddled wall of a pub in Hampstead, the scene of the Ruth Ellis shooting. But because the river itself is determines the route, it means that large sections aren’t standard guidebook territory. The challenge then is to find something valuable in the available urban fabric and I feel there is always something to worth seeing or knowing about wherever you are: everything is evidence of something. On a guided tour, or a self guided tour, the world looks different. An internal switch has been set to “observe”, rather than the “destination” factory setting. Bolton annotates the backroad-zigzagging with relevant comments and unblenching observations.
Once back in the urban environment, the usually overlooked grids and vents in the road often afford a glimpse of the river and various utility installations hint at access to the underworld. An abandoned junkshop features a display of cobwebbed fishing tackle in the window, obviously after the fact but nicely fitting the theme. We passed the Fleet Primary School, Fleet Tandoori and Fleet Flats on Fleet Road – all named after the road primarily, but ultimately referencing the river. A local second hand bookshop shows a map of the Fleet in its window with a helpful YOU ARE HERE pointer, while depictions of the river through history appear in tiled murals and mosaics along the course. Tantalisingly, not all of these appear in the book, allowing river sleuths to make their own discoveries. We probably missed a lot.
The full route, including one false turn and recovery, took ten miles and a whole afternoon to complete. Once we reached Fleet Street, tremendously thirsty and completely wiped out, the Blackfriar became the ultimate destination, mere yards from the Thames. On a previous visit, I’d noticed access ladders that go from the path at Millennium Pier down to the river bank which I’d considered exploring but this will have to wait until next time.
There are six rivers remaining in the guide: a regular summer outing then, between now and 2019!
Still Walking asked writer James Kennedy if he would write a few words on this morning’s tour by Fran Wilde…
Saturday morning. I passed few people on my walk to Moor Street Station, passing only by those who’d come in for a spot of overtime, dressed scantily so they could lose their jackets at lunchtime and go for a drink and a nice sit-down in one of the public parks or bars. It was still early, not just gone 8. The Saturday shoppers wouldn’t be here for a while. If they were going to do anything, they’d stay in their own districts and perhaps brave the queues later. Today, I was going to indulge in a bit of district tourism. I would be going from my end of B15 – Lee Bank, Edgbaston, to B64 – Cradley Heath, Sandwell. I’d be seeing what the locals of Cradley Heath get up to on a Saturday morning. I’d be making new experiences out of their usual everyday routine, seeing the shops, the pubs, the areas of local interest, for the first time.
I was doing this because of the Still Walking festival. I’d written for the Still Walking festival before, exploring Birmingham’s Gothic architecture and its history of cinema venues, yet this was all in the centre of Birmingham where I have lived for the last few years. Still Walking was taking advantage of 2013’s good weather, and had curated a short micro-festival, including this walk entitled “Walk the High Street, Cradley Heath.” The idea of walking a high street would fit the re-mit of Still Walking exactly, the festival’s founder, historian Ben Waddington (B13, Moseley) says; “I love that everyday experiences such as the local High Street on its busiest day can yield surprising moments, clear traces of history and some cracking stories.” My only knowledge of Cradley Heath was only the excellent Hollybush Arts Venue on Newtown Lane, and that would be walking from the station with the express interest of going there in the early evening and coming back in the dark small hours. No time for exploration. Today would be different.
Meeting Ben at Moor Street at 0845, we got the 0855 in the direction of Kidderminster (still not been there yet.) If I’d been going to London Marylebone, I would have faced forwards, to get a view of the graffiti and the many flats as I approached the familiar sights I wanted to see. As chance would have it, we sat so we seemed to be going backwards, seeing things in retrospective. No anticipation, no pre-conceived ideas. Everything would already exist as we propelled backwards. Past the Jewellery Quarter and The Hawthorns, and further into Smethwick Galton Bridge the train banks rose on either side, making our journey seem like the final battle at the end of Star Wars, zooming through a green trench at hyperspeed. Langley Green and Beyond the Infinite. Down the corridor, a poster for the Severn Valley Railway implored us to ‘step back in time’ with their VE Day celebration, to its side, a poster for London Midland’s new smartcard, The Key, which promised us that we could ‘unlock the future.’ The green trenches subsided, giving us glimpses of houses in suburbia, their inhabitants waking up to Saturday, the houses getting bigger and smaller, cul-de-sacs, avenues, A-Roads. Into Rowley Regis, the trench rose up again, until we entered a long dark tunnel which took us as far as Old Hill station. The train drew parallel with the Dudley Canal, before being faced with the green trench again, which rose up around our peripheral before subsiding, leaving us flying above the houses and then back down into the factories and industrial units. We were now in Cradley Heath.
We met with local artist Fran Wilde, who would be leading the walk into Cradley Heath. She was standing in front of wedding parties and groups of men in shirts ready for a day out. Apologies were made for a local councillor who sadly couldn’t make the walk because of an ill dog, and we were holding our breath for the Sandwell Walking Officer and the owner of the Hollybush Arts Centre. Walking up the concrete steps (black walls, green borders) to the street opposite a level crossing, Fran showed us a photo that would get us thinking about the changing landscape of Cradley Heath. When and where was the photo taken, what era, and what was missing? We could see a level crossing, and Ben identified a car in the picture as being a 1976 make of Ford. Looking at the photo, we were able to contrast what was then, as with what was now. Chain-making factories, chain-making being the industrial skill attributed to Cradley Heath, were now car parks. The building to the railway station was modern, but had been born from a disused bus depot. There were now queues of people outside the station. People with heavily inked arms, showing constellations and galaxies, to surely provide a map home once they had finished their day out across the infinite.
More people joined our group, including a couple who were holidaying in Birmingham from Kent, who had read about Still Walking on the web. They enthused about their stay in Birmingham, taking in jazz quartets in the Symphony Hall and flautists at the Cathedral, the Universe of Sound exhibition at the Municipal Bank, and hopefully Rob Horrocks’ ‘Crossroads of Sabbath’ walk on Sunday in Aston (see the Still Walking website for more details!) They were walking guides themselves, and told us about the Wye Food Festival in Kent, where they would be hosting the ‘Apples and Pears’ walk on the 20th of June.
A countdown to 10, and our journey to the centre of Cradley Heath was about to start. Road safety precautions were advised (part of the walking experience is waiting for the green man to come on) and we dutifully turned right up the hill from the station, left at the zebra crossing, left again, then we headed up the hill with the car park/chain-making factory on our left. Our first stop was revealed to be the Mary MacArthur Gardens, named after a trade unionist and women’s rights campaigner who came down from Scotland to help with the strike. The gardens used to be a tip, before they were levelled into playing fields and sheltered accommodation. Ring-fenced by chains, which appear everywhere throughout the town, throughout logos, railings, and art, was a sculpture made by Walsall born artist Luke Perry of Mary MacArthur. The sculptures use of chains would signify a metaphor for the uniting of the people. Behind the sculpture stood the people, carrying slogans decrying the penny-squeezing middle men who they were fighting against; “Locked out for 2 ½ d.” “Support sweated labour.” “Stand for something.” This unification resulted in 30,000 people turning up in Cradley Heath High Street, so much that the street fell in near Griffiths’ family-run pawnbrokers on the High Street with the sheer power of the united people’s defiance.
We walked on up the hill, past a Lidl and up and down the slopes of the park, formerly Slag Heaps, of which we could stand on and admire the vista behind us, seeing a mixture of independent shops and businesses, from Cutting and Welding shops, to old cinemas, tattoo parlours and fish and chip shops. Crossing over the road, we got to The Five Ways Island, which saw the roads splitting off into various streets, to our right, an old chapel had been demolished to make way for a hand car wash. Turning left onto the High Street, we were now invited to enjoy a myriad of independent shops, including Scriven and Thornton’s (est. 1972.) Inside, shoppers could buy hand-raised pies, kidneys, liver, shins and knuckles, in fact, if you were vegetarian it would have been your idea of hell – however, you would still have to admire the fact that this was not pre-packaged production line fodder, but at least had been shown care and decency, love and respect for the animal. Scriven and Thornton’s seemed to be a true original independent, and we would see more of it’s like on our travels.
The pavement widened and turned into a semblance of a square, offering a betting shop, an amusement arcade and bakers. This was the site where the street had fallen in due to the feet of the 30,000 united people, who were conspicuous by their absence. We crossed over the road and got to the Big Market, which reminded me of the old Swan Market in Yardley, and sadly, a much, much scaled down version of the Rag Market in Birmingham. We were told that in the 1970s, stalls as F Bonser & Sons, were twelve deep. Niche shops, such as the impressive sweet stall, featuring lovingly sourced sweets still got their share of enthusiasts and regulars, but today, because of high rates, Tesco’s and the ease and amount of choice presented in the Westfield Shopping Centre at Merry Hill had seen time-strapped shoppers disappearing, and the Big Market was rumoured for closure, to be replaced for re-generation and gentrification. A clothes rail with ladies’ bras stood in front of an empty counter which previously would have sold meat and/or fish, today, the stainless steel slabs were empty, and the bras hung untouched. Outside the indoor market, evocative marker penned adverts on coloured card (‘New Boots and Panties!!’ I mused to myself) boasted of hot pork cobs, Friday specials and ‘best ham’, and blackboard sandwich boards were placed outside these shops, which seemed to be doing slightly better than the ones in the market. The rates were too high indoors. It was cheaper on the actual high street itself.
On some of the empty high street shops, there were reproduced photographs of the bygone era, advertising the Black Country Living Museum, and, on the frontage of ‘Drapers’ which had been established in 1880, now closed, had a fake painted frontage which gave the impression of the building being used as a thriving bookshop, an idea which had been thought of as a good one by the local council. Instead, our attention was drawn to the carved inscription “The Louvre” – the architecture inspiring us to look up and use our imagination rather than the cheap display that was in front of us. However, Cradley Heath had a lot to boast about – a regionally important dentist’s practice with up-to-the-minute equipment was next to the artificial frontage of ‘Drapers’ and over the road was a selection of excellent independent and specialised shops which had moved on from the increasing rates of the Big Market and were now thriving on the High Street. ‘Patricia Ann Textiles’, ‘Brewmonkey’ (a homebrew suppliers), Marva’s (Lingerie*Cosmetics*Jewellery) and the Central Café faced the local Wetherspoons pub and the Tesco’s car park, trying to appeal those to walk a bit further down the High Street. The Tesco’s had been an old industrial site, and in 2007, Luke Perry had received £50,000 from the retailers to build a monument in reverence to the borough’s industrial heritage, which stands 26 feet tall as a permanent reminder to residents of Cradley Heath of their past and heritage.
We walked past Queen Street (in-between Prince Street and King Street) past a Lloyds Bank, ‘Floormaster Carpets; and a barber’s called ‘X-Treme Cutz’, letters spelt out in blood-dripping cut-throat razors, also specialising in ‘Crazy Colours’ and ‘OAP special rates.’ The intriguingly named and fronted ‘Eden’ (white background, black lettering) was shut, but its mystery was revealed to me by one of our group – ‘Eden’ is a beauticians. Two churches stood in front of us, Saint Luke’s Cradley Heath (160 glorious years boasted a billboard, however there are plans to have it demolished) and a Baptist Church, grade 1 listed with scaffolding around it. We walked into the graveyard at Saint Luke’s for a breather before continuing with the final leg of our journey (opposite ‘Fishing Tackle’ and ‘Sizzling Balti.’) Fran showed us a map of the area, and also passed around quotes from Cradley Heath locals about the potential of the area. The quotes were positive, showing a community wanting to get together and talk and be proud, a dislike of the ‘fake/virtual shop’ frontages, and acceptance of some decline, but enthusiasm for the future, with Cradley Heath’s history as it’s backbone.
On Reddal Hill Road, going past an intriguing variety of businesses including DP Ironcraft, a property developers, ‘Clothing Attractions’ and John Jones Footwear (est.1877) and a new library, Over the road is the Sandwell Liberal Club, with another public art sculpture entitled ‘Daisy Chain’, created by artist and blacksmith Ian Moran in 2006. Moran was also responsible for creating the 19ft ‘The Foghorn’, the centrepiece of West Bromwich’s based arts organisation Multistory’s ‘Forging Links’ project which was unveiled at 2011’s Sandwell Arts Festival.
Finally Fran took us into a shop called ‘TeeT Shirts’ which refers to itself as ‘The Home of Black Country T-Shirts and Gifts’ – a vibrant and colourful interior showed off the company’s ethos – to promote the district in a modern and celebratory way. We listened to the shop’s owner Stephen Pitts talk about the history of the shop, from its origins in the bedroom of his parents’ house, to scribbling down ideas in the pub with his business partner Warren Pitts, and finally progressing to a workshop in his friend’s garage. The breakthrough moment for ‘TeeT Shirts’ came as a revelatory moment, when a tornado appeared in Cradley Heath in 2009. Looking back, they realised that the tornado was a beacon of where the business was going to be – on top of Reddal Hill Road. A t-shirt was designed with the slogan ‘I survived the Cradley Heath tornado’ and soon, more business was coming in. At the time, Stephen and Warren could only print black lettering on white t-shirts, but they found that they soon needed to increase their expertise in the print-making industry! They created more designs and embraced social media of promoting their business – using MySpace and Facebook, and even writing songs such as ‘Black Country Alphabet’ which became a hit on YouTube (over 250,000 hits and country.) That year they were invited to appear on BBC Radio WM’s Christmas Show hosted by Ed Doolan at the Symphony Hall, but had to turn down the chance to perform due to the amount of business they were getting, now creating bespoke designs, mugs, and posters, anything that is to do with keeping the humour of the Black Country alive. Books by local artists and writers were sold behind the counter, and there seemed a constant invitation to view the shop itself as a gallery, as an exhibition.
Stephen told us that from its humble beginnings, ‘TeeT Shirts’ now takes business from overseas and designs have reached as far as Australia, Canada, the USA and Uganda. He is particularly proud of the fact that 2 hours of a working wage can be spent on a t-shirt that the company has designed and created, and that people are excited about the business and are proud of a company that celebrates its heritage. On leaving the shop, we all had a feeling that such independent businesses are a portent of how the high street is going to survive in the 21st century, with imagination and a new way of presenting business to its customers. One foot in the past, the other in the future. I left Cradley Heath add got the train back to Birmingham Snow Hill (facing forward) in the afternoon, and have spent the best part of the day finishing this piece off, inspired again by the journey into foreign and alien lands. I’ve been to Walsall. I’ve been to Smethwick, Oldbury Stourbridge and Lye. I’ve now been to Cradley Heath. I’m thinking Kidderminster may be the next stop, as apparently there’s a thriving music scene over there.
However I can’t go to Aston tomorrow for Rob Horrocks’ Crossroads of Sabbath walking tour as it’s my Mum’s birthday and I’m going to Tanworth-in-Arden. Maybe some other time…
BAF2013 ran last weekend: four days of celebrating Birmingham’s beautiful (or blasted) buildings in glorious sunshine, narrowly avoiding the drizzle and hail that has characterised the season so far. Kick yourself if you didn’t manage to attend any of the films, workshops, exhibitions or guided tours… or better still make sure you attend next time.
Perhaps this first outing of the festival will go some way towards laying to rest the myth that Birmingham’s buildings are a bore. I hear this claim a lot – from residents as often as strangers to the city. When pressed, they describe the slick, commercial spaces or the run down parts of town but seem not to know about the beautiful terracotta wonders, sandstone castles, mediaeval manors, decorative high-scapes or gothic industrial buildings of the city. We only ever see anything because we’ve been shown or because we found out for ourselves – if we’re not expecting to find anything, we probably won’t go looking.
“Take a Second Look” is the festival’s canny motto, and perhaps for many it was even “Take a First Look”.
For me, a festival highlight was the Re-awakening Lea Village tour by George Chiswell. For many Brummies, this is the station of Lea Hall, on the slow train back from London. For George, it is the home he has lived in for 74 years. Over that time, he has watched it alter beyond recognition. Lea Village is directly on the flightpath to Elmdon Airport and the tour was regularly punctuated by low flying 747s. George has never flown, and was perhaps the only local to still look up each time something huge soared overhead… perhaps a reflex learnt in wartime. I hadn’t been to Lea Village before and I’m always keen to explore unfamiliar neighbourhoods, looking for traces of the past. But despite its mediaeval origins, Lea Village has changed utterly. I’m always wary of creating a guided tour that is entirely about what used to be there, with nothing visible to still connect to it. Other than exercise, it may as well be a slideshow. Sometimes even a street name or a boundary hedge can be enough to open an aperture into the past; one that can be even more resonant than a perfectly preserved Georgian Square.
On Re-awakening Lea Village, George’s village was invisible but for his lucid recollections of school sports days, sweet selling scams and post-war rebuilding programmes. But something unexpected was happening all around: the village was manifestly still there in the people who would stop to say hello to George (he seemed to know everyone by name); the village bobbies astride mountain bikes, keeping the quad-biking duo in check with a well-aimed nod, and a well-attended village green fete, complete with revolving maypole and potter’s wheel. The local councillor and his daughter were also amongst our small group of walkers. I don’t like to isolate an area’s past from what is happening there now, and try to make visible this link visible. Making the village visible, past and present, worked effortlessly and as such was a triumph.
The village ambience, and local constabulary, came off worse in that evening’s screening of You’ve Been Trumped: the story of Scottish Highlanders being squeezed out of their homes and lives by the
evil golf tyrant tycoon Donald Trump as he seeks to build the world’s best (= most expensive) golf course. Dunes were bulldozed, electricity was cut and tears were shed – on screen and in the audience. The film clearly demonstrated the true cost of this billion dollar development.
My favourite event of the festival was the Wild Walls tour by Ellen Pisolkar. A small group gathered on the green side of Saint Martins in the Bullring, where they were equipped with tiny lenses, instructed not to eat anything and then set off into the city’s mossy underworld. I marvel at how people see the world differently, and BAF has seen witnessed people being introduced to the various layers of the urban fabric: buildings, ornamentation, construction materials and, here, microworlds. We could have spent the entire afternoon exploring just the first car park we encountered: a levelled industrial area on Park Street. Any number of curious plants thrived amongst the rubble and empty Frosty Jacks bottles. Gesturing across the devastated landscape, Ellen made a bold challenge: “Is there a plant here you would like to know about?” – certainly she knows her stuff. Occasionally she would cross the road or double back, having spotted something that wasn’t there just a few weeks ago, including species new to the island. Many plants proved to be edible such as the omnipresent nettle, others seriously poisonous like the hemlock adjoining the new city park. Others went unrecognised: perhaps a new hybrid? Everywhere, unnoticed, tiny copses of trees pushed up through roadside crofts. I had fun with my tiny lens: propped in front of my iPhone camera, an Instagram-like filter framed the minuscule forms.
This tour is unique in the sense that each time it runs, different plants are in season. Wild Walls runs a second time for Still Walking on Sun 2 June.
I attended as many events as I could and led two tours myself. I’d crammed for the John Henry Chamberlain tour, expounding his Civic Gospel approach, having been granted rare public access granted to the postcard-shy School of Art on Margaret Street. In Material World I gathered and shared my favourite pebbles, ironwork, concrete, plastic sheeting, fibre-optic, fossils, bricks and sandstone. The pinhole camera workshop output was exhibited at 6/8 Cafe – some extra-ordinary result for such lo-tech equipment. Later, relaxing in BAF’s Rotunda penthouse, a chance to see the city as a whole as the traffic hummed and the sun dipped behind the Nat West tower.
Here’s looking forward to a second chance to look again!
Today’s guest blog is by Capsule’s Sarah Lafford:
Pose outside the Chelsea Hotel a la Patti Smith, visit the home of underground punk, CBGBs, or go to the ‘most famous club in the world’, the Cavern Club. Paying homage to the music we love should surely be an opportunity to display a certain level of coolness. Not so much if you’re a Black Sabbath fan. I don’t think it’s too brazen to state that Sabbath are perhaps Birmingham’s biggest cultural export: the originators of Heavy Metal, they’re adored globally. But the most celebrated music venue from the band’s early days, Mothers in Erdington (John Peel’s favourite club) is long gone, and the four lads from Aston certainly didn’t hang out with beat poets and literary heroes in cool coffee shops and bars. We’re lacking a hip hangout in which to pay homage.
Rob Horrocks’ Crossroads of Sabbath walk through residential Aston might sound an unconventional homage to one of the biggest bands in the world, but it’s perfectly fitting.
Sabbath’s sound is inextricably linked to their upbringing in post-war Aston, and their work in the ‘metal bashing’ industries that dominated the Aston landscape in the 1960s. During the Crossroads of Sabbath we can retrace their footsteps, from their childhood homes, schools and factory jobs with ease, as it becomes clear that not a lot has altered in the area.
After working closely with Rob on Home of Metal I was fortunate enough to be invited on a rehearsal of Crossroads of Sabbath. A small group of us (I should stress, fans and non fans alike) enjoyed the exercise of casting our minds back to our own childhoods. Crucial for me was the exploration of an area quite unfamiliar to me, yet a mere stone’s throw away from the city centre.
I shan’t give too much away, but I’ll share a highlight. Before Ozzy was one of the biggest rock (and reality TV) stars in the world, he was a pretty unsuccessful criminal. Rob shows us the shop he attempted to burgle (which is behind his own house), and the pretty painful looking measures people put in place to attempt to keep the likes of Ozzy off their property!
Crossroads of Sabbath runs on Sunday (naturally) 2nd June at 12pm and tickets can be bought here.
The Still Walking thing is to reconsider various places and themes as tourist destinations and to create guided tours to explore them. The idea came after being bored once too often by official guided walks – listing every lord mayor the town has had, how many windows there are in the Town Hall – and thinking where I would take people if I was an official guide. What was “my” Birmingham? (and why were those guides “official”?)
Over the last year or so, I’ve been amazed by the popularity of Still Walking tours, with visits to underground tunnels, abandoned cinemas, remote wastelands and lost rivers selling out in a flash. It seems the guided tour needn’t be a threading together of civic bombast, historic dates and economic data. So much of our city seems to sit there waiting to be noticed and I think it’s all worth looking at and talking about.
This year’s microfest visits a couple of outlying spots, though if you live in Aston or Cradley Heath they are of course local. Rob Horrocks will be following in the footsteps of Black Sabbath and over in Cradley Heath, Fran Wilde will be walking the High Street. Fran is an artist who settled here recently and quickly became fascinated by the area’s history, atmosphere, traditions and clear difference to Birmingham and indeed anywhere else. I love that everyday experiences such as the local High Street on its busiest day can yield surprising moments, clear traces of history and some cracking stories. The first thing you notice are the chains: they’re everywhere in design like they once did in industry. A famous anchor, now at the bottom of the atlantic, had its origins here. Like most High Streets, Cradley Heath has been adversely affected economically but I discovered a robust independent force still present in the town, with many shops seeming like a museum of my childhood. Even the hulking presence of Tesco Express hasn’t yet finished off the fishmongers, model shops, seamstresses, cafés, bakers, sweetshops, ironmongers…
Fran’s tour simply visits what’s there, looks at some local history, talks to the locals and reports back. Cradley Heath is shown to be a compelling area, still having the outlook of a small industrial village with its own unique and celebrated identity. Tesco carefully mirrors the high street with its in-house selection of chemists, barbers and opticians but will never have the high street’s local newspaper office, Black Country souvenirs, local delicacies or delicious local ales on tap.
It’s worth making the short train journey and having a guide to hand affords a rare opportunity. Recommended to anyone who has yet to visit the Black Country and also to those that have!
Fran’s tour starts at Cradley Heath Train Station at 10am on Sat 1st June. Tickets cost £4 and must be booked in advance, which can be done here.
Looking at Victorian Architecture can be like seeing evidence from an ancient civilisation, one far in advance of our own. Their buildings were designed to allow adaption and extension without spoiling an intrinsic harmony, but so often when we do, it is with an insensitive eye and clumsy hand. The new bricks don’t quite match in size or colour, ornamentation is courser, tiles and glazes duller and flatter. A gothic window may be filled in like an eyepatch, or a new entrance cut through a wall with none of the theatre or sense of occasion beloved by the Victorians.
It’s fun to watch tastes in architecture come and go, almost like watching a carousel. Arts and crafts touches are almost tidal in their acceptance and rejection. Times of austerity can have an effect on design but we have never quite ever dared to revisit the outrageous opulence of the 1890s. But we can reappraise our take on it: a tiled surprise beneath the hall carpet or intricate wood work laying dormant below a thin veneer of plywood.
I’ve always loved witnessing the playfulness that Victorian designers had, the fun the architects had is more obvious than any time before or since. I love seeing their treatment of factories and warehouses: many times presenting them as palaces or civic buildings. The Tolkien-inspiring Waterworks tower in Edgbaston is essentially a chimney disguised as an richly ornamented Italianate tower. Sometimes these disguises are to appease the residents of well-to-do areas but often it is for the fun of designing something wonderful. John Henry Chamberlain (who designed the waterworks tower) is surely the most flamboyant of Birmingham’s Victorian architects, continually surpassing his own benchmarks of decorative design, whether for industrial works, hospitals, churches or homes.
I was very pleased to be commissioned by Birmingham Architecture Festival to create a guided tour about Chamberlain. I regularly meet people (including residents) who express surprise that Birmingham can yield an architecture tour, yet the streets I walk down in the city centre are lined with astonishing work of a calibre to rival any other English city. And not lone examples, but entire blocks of beautiful brick and moulded terracotta. The Birmingham I picture is rich and red. We have been fortunate to be granted access to Margaret Street School of Art and visitors will see the careful detail present at every level, from stair posts to hand-shaped bricks to light wells. The tour will end at Ikon gallery and indeed take in all the Chamberlain work in the city centre.
Two tours are running at 3pm that afternoon (Sun 26th May) : Joe Holyoak will lead Architectura Victoriana: Brick and portray Chamberlain through an architect’s eyes, I will lead Architectura Victoriana: Art from the perspective of an artist. Tickets are free but must be reserved in advance from Ikon.
There’s something of Sherlock Holmes about Neil Holland’s tour for Still Walking: Hidden in Plain Sight – The Sculpture of William Bloye. Bloye is surely Birmingham’s most prolific sculptor and the city centre contains dozens of examples of his work. But few among us would be able to identify his work if prompted. How is it we have largely forgotten one of the city’s great artists, who for three decades in the twentieth century was a highly sought after sculptor? Neil was hired by Still Walking to investigate the mystery.
Being personally introduced to Bloye’s work, as I was a few weeks ago by Neil, certainly helped throw light on this enduring enigma. I was able to join the dots between the work I knew about (Queen Victoria, the Golden Boys) and the curious figures I’d spotted peering down from plaques and elevated positions around the city. Bloye’s work appears across the city as sculptures in public squares, private courtyards, commemorative plaques and foundation stones, decorative panels, architectural embellishments and even bas-relief signs for insurance companies and pubs. Perhaps the sheer range makes it difficult to recognise as the work of one man.
Yet his style, once you start to recognise it, is certainly distinctive. Stylised, streamlined and slightly cartoon-like but with real depth, fluidity and rhythm. The ball of a thumb is carved as richly and as memorably as a face. Some of Bloye’s work is not really in plain sight at all: exquisitely rendered panels in the upper reaches of buildings are at a level noticed only by window cleaners. My feeling is that people used to do a lot more looking around them, and maybe that’s why we don’t see this sort of decoration on buildings anymore.
There’s a joyful moment in recognising a pattern – we’re always looking to make sense of our world. Hidden in Plain Sight not only highlights Bloye’s wonderful sculptures but also provides this sense of having a veil lifted from the world, that we’ve been fortunate to glimpse something valuable that was there all along. Neil leaves plenty more still to be discovered.
The tour runs at 5 30pm on Friday 31st May. Meet at the Golden Boys sculpture on Broad Street, opposite Centenary Square. Tickets are selling well but for the moment can still be bought here.
I like to introduce some of my guided walks with the observation that every square foot of our built environment is there deliberately. Someone has drawn, designed and created all of it (not the same person). It all has a job to do and the right – or adequate – materials have been chosen for the job.
It’s an obvious truth but one that’s so close to our everyday experience that it’s not always recognised. As a mental exercise, I also ask: how far do we have to go to escape the designed world? An area that exists in its unadapted, wild state? The countryside is something of an illusion of nature, largely created for agriculture. Woods and forests too are usually fenced off and manicured to a degree. Even rivers (especially the Rae) are culverted, re-routed and maintained.
Devising the Material World guided tour for Birmingham Architecture Festival gave me an opportunity to explore this one aspect of architecture: the changing use of building material over the years, and the reasons those materials were chosen. I wanted to ask why we rarely used our own local stone but would ship in expensive granites and marbles from around the world, if they had the right look. Architecture is prone to the same changing fashions as our garments: what seems current today can seem dated the next – and charmingly retro and worthy of preservation in the future. Fashions can also depend on availability: terracotta fell out of favour in the twentieth century as tastes for Victorian opulence waned – but also because huge projects like Victorian Law Courts seriously depleted the stock. Timber framed buildings are a rarity in Birmingham and when bricks became the dominant building material, wonky, draughty timber framed building became quickly embarrassing and old fashioned. I think of Birmingham as a “brick city”, but the brick kilns were being fired by the very woods that once provided timber for housing. There was no way to go back, even if we’d wanted to. Today, the city centre is entirely devoid of any timber buildings and those that remain anywhere are listed and command a high price for their cramped, unadaptable interiors.
Meanwhile brick has become a largely decorative feature, no longer structurally supportive in most buildings, but merely forming a “curtain wall” draped over a steel frame. The concrete revolution of the 60s dropped this pretense, with bold new shapes, structures and surfaces. On closer examination, these often revealed gentler pastel shaded pebbles and quartz added to the mix. Concrete had its fans and there will surely one day be the museum of the last concrete building in the city. And several decades on, concrete’s antithesis, the reflective glass skyscraper, still seems to be a classic theme.
I love the fact that buildings won’t stay still, seemingly as whimsical, vain, fashion-conscious and irrational as their human inhabitants. The uniform, logical city of Utopian vision is still, thankfully, a long way off.
Material World runs as part of Birmingham Architecture Festival on Monday 27th May (a bank holiday!) at 3pm. Places are limited and tickets can be bought in advance, which can be done via this link
Still Walking returns with a short programme of events to start the summer. What do Black Sabbath, Moss, The Golden Boys and Cradley Heath have in common? Possibly nothing, other than they’re all on the bill between Fri 31st May and Sun 2nd June (although do let us know if you think of a connection).
The festival is twinning with the mighty Birmingham Architecture Festival 2013, who unmistakeably share the eclectic Still Walking outlook: check their amazing programme of derelict buildings tours, pinhole camera workshops, architecture themed screenings, talks and events all celebrating the people, places and buildings of Birmingham. You may even like to back their Kickstarter project to help them on their way.
There certainly seems to be no end of subjects for guided tours in the city: this year we’ve been underground with Flatpack, lost in Selly Oak with Arts Soak and looking hard for Invisible Architecture with Birmingham Museum and Gallery. We’re planning even more events all the time so keep in touch with us on Twitter and with our mailing list and you’ll be the first to find out. Events can sell very quickly, so if there’s something you like the sound of, make sure you snap up a ticket now.
Director, Still Walking
Yesterday I joined Laira and Ellen to walk through the moss tour which forms part of the Birmingham Architecture Festival. I’d been excited about the tour since I heard about it a year ago: it seemed to exemplify what the Still Walking festival is all about. There’s no curatorial policy as such, but the festival delights in revealing hidden layers of the everyday world – things most of us would walk past but to some are a moment of joy.
Watching Ellen discover tiny trees, once-rare lichens, poisonous herbs and explain the nature of the algae and mosses that often cover buildings, walls and urban surfaces was a thing of wonder. It was especially moving to see her discovering flora thriving in litter, dumped Shortlist newspapers and worse among Birmingham’s various crofts and wastelands. A crop of poppies poetically grew up around someone’s dumped works, but Ellen didn’t see any of this, she was too excited about the world she was showing us, and we were too.
At the church, we marvelled at how the algae and lichen used the foliate carved stone features as their substrate, rather than vertical bricks. Ferns grew from the tops of walls unnoticed as toadflax scaled the wall from below. Lichens grew happily on stones, daily trampled underfoot. Edible salad was everywhere it seemed, and round the year too. Why don’t we know any of this? Some cultures do as standard, it seems, and Ellen certainly knew the subject inside out. Not only the plants but their history, introduction, use and folklore. Everything was delicately connected and had a story. The moss walk was a voyage into the microverse but also a glimpse back the the earliest days of life on earth…many species of these “primitive” plants haven’t needed to adapt for millions of years. To me that sounds advanced!
A guided tour can changed your outlook of the world forever yet usually only costs a fiver or so. This one comes highly recommended but has very limited places. Wild Walls runs on Sunday 2nd June at 3pm, starting at St Martins in the Bullring. Book now! Magnifying lenses will be provided but the sensible footwear is up to you.
Selly Oak: Discovering Traces
I led a very enjoyable Still Walking tour on Sunday for Art Soak: I stepped in at short notice to replace the scheduled local history run through. The timing was good: over the previous two days I had led the Subterraneans and Invisible Cinema tours for the Flatpack Festival and Discovering Traces now completed the trio of explorations.
There was heavy snowfall for all three tours. A large part of what I do involves widening the 21st Century gaze and by that I mean looking up and looking down at things. That weekend, looking up meant an arctic blast and face full of snow. Looking down revealed more snow. I arrived early and took a stroll round the University grounds, watching two snow vortexes whipping round Chancellor’s Court, beneath the huge campanile.
I introduced the tour to the eight hardy souls who had braved freezing conditions to meet at the University gates. I explained that they would almost certainly know the area better than I did, in fact I didn’t know anything about the history of Selly Oak. I’d even got the town wrong: this turned out to be Bournbrook. What I wanted to do was show my methods and approach to my subject. Namely, it all starts at street level and involves looking for interesting things. From experience, I know that most High Streets still contain plenty of traces, from old painted advertisements in gables to mosaic lettering in shop doorways. Once you expect to find something, it becomes easy to see. After the initial walk, you can then start thinking about what is is you have found, what it once meant and why it is still there. You can ask people about the buildings they live or work in. At a later stage, you can head to the library (if it’s open) and follow up your research there. But I never start there.
I started by talking about the heraldic meaning of the University of Birmingham Coat of Arms; I was always curious about the mermaid there, combing her hair. A passing ambulance’s siren provided the required sound effect for the subject. I introduced the group to Ordnance Survey Bench Marks, which appear throughout the city on buildings, walls and railway viaducts. The group were intrigued, and one man had actually been a surveyor in the 50s. “But how did I know it was there?” asked one gentleman. I didn’t know it was there, but I knew how to see it. It sounded like I was conveying something mysterious, but the reality of people’s passage down a familiar road is not to look at it. I liken it to going back along a stretch or road where you think you have dropped something. If you are expecting to find something valuable you will see the street differently.
One lady bemoaned a recent house demolition, removing from her life a favourite Victorian brick, stamped with the Diamond Jubilee dates. I’d seen plenty of these on Luton Road and was able to reunite her with missing brick, after we’d scraped off the snow from walls where I’d remembered seeing the bricks. The brick (actually a coping stone) was important because it helped date the building, gave an indication of then-contemporary events and also where the materials for the house were made (in 1897 bricks were still being made locally). I explained I was very interested in house names too, and had discovered a row of houses with a large terracotta crest with the name and date. The names began with trees (Elm, Birch and Ivy) then merged with girls’ names of yesteryear (Ida, Maud, Selina) and the row ended with a surprise: “George”. Was George the architect, and the girls daughters?
A highlight of the tour was an intact ornate lamp outside a former wine cellar: “Selly Grove Ale Stores”, a wonderful Victorian survivor. I guessed the building opposite was the associated pub, with its distinctive corner door and cellar, but some of the older members of the group remembered it being a shop. The tour had become a knowledge exchange…OK I got that one wrong! The tour also included a former bakery, now a car parts workshop, the lost river Bournbrook, ancient glass, a tiny house and a practicing saddler on Bristol Road. Once I’d earnt the group’s respect, I also talked about the recording studio used by ELO and Napalm Death (a former engineering shed) and the Chicken.com takeaway shop, whose name doesn’t connect in any way to the domain name chicken.com
The tour ended at the top of the hill with my favourite discovery of the tour: Selly Oak Water Pumping station. I had recognised the architecture was Italian inspired but could see no evidence of it ever being a church. This one I had to look up: I was thrilled to learn it was an industrial building by John Henry Chamberlain. Something Brum used to do very well was the inventive presentation of its industry. Since the construction of the Elan Valley aqueduct it hasn’t been used as water pumping engine, and the building now houses an electricity sub station. Of course, most of the locals knew this, but by the end all admitted they’d been introduced to several aspects of the town they’d never seen, even those who had lived there for decades and looked for such things.
I planned to end the tour at Selly Oak library, to mirror my belief that you should end your research there, not begin it. But it was getting colder and the allotted 90 minutes of walking had now elapsed. Looking is easy, but sustained looking can be tricky, as is remembering to do it at all. But on this afternoon, even a blanket of snow didn’t stop us.
This is a walk I’ve wanted to do for a while; or rather a destination I’ve wanted to get to, which on this occasion meant a long walk. The Uffington White Horse is by far the oldest of England’s hill figures, all the others are by comparison modern. Uffington’s white mare is about 3000 years old – compare that with the Cerne Abbas giant, which has the “feel” of something ancient but is probably 16th century. Practically every other hill figure is younger than this, making Uffington “the one”, by a long chalk.
I hadn’t intended to make the journey a pilgrimage; the plan was to take the train as near as I could, walk the rest of the way and back and then return to Oxford. It turns out there isn’t a train station for miles and the nearest bus drops off about five miles away. After an hour or so of working out the bus routes, bus timetable, bus stops and bus fare I realised I could still do the walk and get back in time for my evening event…just. The layers of complexity in getting there galvanised the realisation that I really wanted to see it.
My interest in the horse has been incremental. I knew about it as a child, during a “stonehenge” phase when I was ten. I remember 10 years ago, Channel 4 painted a huge Big Brother logo in the field behind it to advertise their well-loved series. I felt sure it was a computer graphic when I first saw it, as that would surely be quicker, cheaper and wouldn’t desecrate the site. It turned out they had sprayed paint onto the grass to create the effect. “Wait til English Heritage find out!” I thought naively; but it transpired English Heritage had taken a £2k bung from C4 to allow the ad to be painted. It felt then that something was wrong with the situation. What exactly was English Heritage’s role in safeguarding the monument? At that time, I wasn’t especially interested in history and didn’t attempt to get to the bottom of it.
A similar thing happened last year: Irish bookies Paddy Power staked out white polythene lines to the horse to create a jockey; an advert for their company around the time of the Cheltenham races. The advert, apart from committing the crime of not even being an original idea, didn’t seek permission from EH, who were outraged by the desecration. This time I tried to articulate my dissatisfaction: how would it be taken if I chalked a huge ad for Still Walking on the wall of Birmingham Cathedral, or of my local mosque? “Don’t worry, it will come off, and I’ll stick a tenner in the cannister. No harm done.” It would be an outrageous act, of course and would only damage the brand. How can “temporary” ever mean “acceptible”? I’m not sure how Big Brother fans felt about it, or Paddy Power punters, but there must be thousands who saw the images for whom the act did not feel right, regardless of religious persuasion. I think the neopagans specifically were unhappy about the religious aspects of the desecrations (and various other hill figure guerilla billboard campaigns since) but I think the root of my concern was in the sheer length of time this drawing has been there. It has to be maintained regularly and has been recut several times over the years, but it’s the fact it links us to the bronze age that I feel is the significant thing here. This horse was old when Jesus was doing his thing. It’s an unbroken link to our early ancestors.
So, I decided to visit it.
My first surprise was that Oxford Tourist Office hadn’t heard of it, or of Uffington (or able to help get me there). Uffington is about 12 miles from Oxford, true, but the area between it and Oxford is called the Vale of White Horse. In Abingdon, for example, which is about five miles from Oxford, the horse appears constantly on menus, teatowels, carparks, &c. Clearly it wasn’t enquired about often enough to provoke the response “it’s far, and it’s hard to get to”. Once I’d worked out the route, I was committed to a solid afternoon’s march. My first blunder was to leave my hat behind on the bus: the driver drove straight through the town I wanted to stop at and I scurried to the front, sans hat when I saw we were hurtling away from Farington. It was a cold day too. Within a quarter of a mile, I had turned my scarf into a makeshift turban.
I tried to get off the busy A road as quickly as possible. A sign indicated “footpath”, which I took. This turned into a bridle path, OK to walk on as a pedestrian, but usually chewed up by hooves, and today frozen solid. There was no challenge in locating the White Horse – it was instantly visible on a distant hill. Nice to not have to check the map at any point. Once off the bridle path, I encountered a mysterious ice pool by the roadside. The pool itself wasn’t frozen, but the splashed water created by passing cars was being frozen, in an intricate icicle arrangement on the verge and in surrounding bushes. Beautiful; but no real mystery: the mud in the puddle was keeping it from freezing and the action of splashing filtered out the suspended bits from the water. Nevertheless, a first.
Further up the road, in the tiny village of Fernham, I found a black hat sitting on a wall waiting for someone to find it. Good: it was beginning to snow.
The next village was Uffington: pretty, though not much there beyond than a Tom Brown School Days museum and some thatched cottages. George Orwell is buried nearby apparently. There are plenty of tiny villages like this throughout Oxfordshire, with just a pub and a post office. None here were doing the tourist thing: no postcards, t shirts, calendars or fridge magnets to be seen anywhere on the entire journey. The only concession to passing tourist trade was a jam stand with an honesty box outside a large home a mile or so from the White Horse, but unbranded with any obvious association. There were certainly horses here: many passed on foot, lived in fields or rattled by in giant horseboxes. Stables, riding schools… certainly this is the Vale of the Horse.
As you near the horse, it disappears. It is more a landmark from a distance than created to decorate the area. In the last mile of approach it isn’t until you are at its tail that you can see it again. Access by foot takes you to Dragon’s Hill, a mysterious viewing platform with a flat top below White Horse Hill. From here, you can make out some details of the figure, but it isn’t very clear. There is an area of exposed chalk here: the legend is that here St George slayed the dragon and the blood of the dragon killed the grass off.. forever! The last stage is steep and challenging. Sheep are all around. When you get to the horse, you first encounter its long tail, and it seems you have found a footpath. A small cordon has been put up, presumably to demonstrate you have now reached the horse: don’t walk on it. You still can’t see it all at once, you need to assemble its strange, disassociated shapes in your mind. The head has a strange beak.
There are many theories about the origins of the horse, and why it looks the way it does. One interesting theory is that the marks are recut as a horse figure from chalk exposed by land slippage. When you are on top of it, the lines do seem to sit on top of a succession of level steps in the landscape. But there is also evidence that the horse looked very different in even recent history. Sketches made in the last 200 years show significant differences, and it is clear that the various recuts over the years have created a kind of slo-mo animated movie, or chinese whispers. The prehistoric feel of the design is possibly just a result of successive well-intentioned but inaccurate retracings. Over three thousand years of constant weeding, it can’t be the same horse – merely maintain some degree of horseness. Some people don’t even accept it is a horse – it’s long tail and whiskers looks more like a cat or dog.
The actual chalk is regularly replenished by the locals, ground up and poured into troughs. A sign says don’t walk on the horse, but the dust is spread everywhere, by illiterate dogs. I picked up an empty can of Strongbow, and a packet of pickled onion Monster Munch, more as an anticipated duty rather than in outrage. The temperature dropped noticably, and the batteries of both of my cameras failed. While gazing out from the hill across Oxfordshire, I realised that the locals don’t want people to come and visit… local meaning Oxford. While I was there, the horse was visited by a slow but steady stream of visitors, mostly by car but also many cyclists. Most didn’t stay long, as if they visited regularly. The site certainly does feel important, but also very fragile. A horse postcard or guide book in the tourist office, or a bus link, would mean more displaced chalk, more motorists speeding through the tiny villages and more crisp packets on the site. The village doesn’t need the revenue: everyone there is already wealthy. There is only something to lose by increasing the flow of visitors. Perhaps the difficulty in accessing it naturally filters out the tourist deemed unworthy of visiting.
The street I’m most familiar with in the world is Forest Road, in Moseley, Birmingham. I’ve been walking up and down it since 1994, possibly more times now than the street I grew up in. I think if you pace a street enough times, it becomes yours – your patch. This comes incrementally; when you devise short cuts to the bus stop, when you know if there is still time to get to the off licence, and when you can give directions to April Croft (Cul de Sac) when someone asks. In later years, you will refer to landmark pubs by their former name, confusing your new visitors. The towers, cupolas and crenellations of Forest Road and Woodbridge Road are a clue to the area’s wealthy past: these are the homes of Birmingham’s professionals in Victorian times.
My end of Forest Road is flanked by two towers: the opulent but decaying splendour of a rich terracotta house on the left, and a beautifully tiled tower without an apex on the right. Strictly speaking (and despite my punny title), these aren’t turrets, rising as they do from ground level, rather than sprouting from the building itself. Several of the terracotta house’s garden features have been jostled by the shifting soil over the years, and some coping stones lost. In 2005 an F2 tornado further bashed the rooftops of Moseley, and you can see the patched up roofline. The street sign on the right has been adapted (unofficially) by a local artist to include a forest motif in green. The octagonal towers and large windows behind the hedge offer an ideal spot to paint. I’m going to make an audacious claim at this point: the Forest in question is actually the Forest of Arden, which at one time stretched from Warwickshire to Kings Norton.
You could spend the entire walk down this road gazing at the upper reaches of the houses: every inch is considered and expensive. There are many architects involved in creating the street, each with their own style. Gables are enriched with shaped brick dragons, decorative brick courses and the exquisitely moulded, rich, red terracotta Birmingham is famous for. In most cases the bricks have withstood time (and tornado).
Individual bricks are worth your consideration too: when you get to this modular level, you know your street well! B W Blades was a West Bromich brickyard’s founder, a Mr. Brownlow William Blades. This is also what I’d call my street gang, were I to form one.
Ornate stonework exists along the length of the street, as with these carved corbells (a supporting architectural element) and bosses (the leafy, cabbage-like things). Another feature of the street is the later subdivision into flats, and resulting wealth of unnamed bell options on arrival at an address.
At Anderton Park Road, two more towers. The half-timbered look, fashionable for the day, have a Bavarian feel: coloured timbers in unusual patterns.
Two stone gate posts for Milton Grange, a former children’s home. The Grange no longer exists, but the name is just visible in the stone.
On the far side of Church Road, nearly buried in the holly, is more stone lettering: Moseley School. This was Arnold School, a private school for wealthy local kids. At some point after the school’s closure, someone has tried to fill the V cut letters with mortar. Beneath this, in coloured chalk, PITY EROL. This seemingly weatherproof sentiment appeared several years ago, part of a long-term, sustainable graffiti campaign centered around the railway bridge. The bridge currently has just one graffito: NO.
A wonderful doorcase: a lot of theatre and pride in simply entering your house back then. I remember walking behind an elderly man on the other side of the road who pointed one (quite grand) house out to his companion and said “that used to be a chimney sweep’s house”. He was either plain wrong, or this folk memory attests to the briskness of trade for the humble chimney sweep back.
Opposite the school, false window recesses complete with stone sills. The suggestion of windows make an otherwise bleak wall – possibly considered too close to the road – more friendly to the eye.
At this point, Forest Road becomes Woodbridge Road. The Patrick Kavanagh bar is my nearest pub. It looks great: ornate windows, multicoloured brick and Lombardic Romanesque style. I think the Irish poet PK looks like Larry David, who I like too. But the beer is rubbish and I never go.
I only spotted this Ghost Sign (lost painted advert) a few years ago, despite actively looking out for them. It’s in the alley behind the pub, and seems to say Chatwins, Trafalgar Inn (the former name of PK’s) and other letters I can’t read. A long time ago there was an ice rink back here. Outside the pub too are the dishevelled pipes that would once take beer around the pub…I sincerely hope they are “former”.
The long running bakery Luker’s finally closed a few years ago. The shop front is boarded up and painted (during Moseley in Bloom) with fauna and flora. The baguettes are still there on the sign above, as is the “Online Gaming” sign further back – too difficult to take these extinct business signs down. Ghost signs of a modern kind. Not long after completion, I saw an elderly asian woman plant a kiss via her fingers on the painted fox. Fascinated, I asked what the fox meant to her…did she like foxes? Yes, she said, she liked foxes.
Journey’s end: the final tower. The original parapet has been altered in the late C20th to a squat, octagonal layer, echoing the tiled house at the beginning. I remember seeing an old photo showing a wrought iron structure there. A dead off-licence below, and some ugly tiling. On closer examination this isn’t a tower at all but rather a scroll leading smoothly into the row of shops to the right. Not common!
I suspect Woodbridge Rd and Forest Rd still have secrets to reveal to me – and there are almost certainly features like this near you too. Why not go for a walk later and take a look?
When you know a place well, it’s a thrill to encounter a new detail or place you’ve overlooked. The discovery has a dreamlike quality – exactly how did it elude your notice all this time? It’s the stuff of secret gardens and fairy tales.
On Islington Row near Five Ways lies an abandoned Jewish Cemetery. It was known as Beth Olom which is Hebrew for “City of the Dead”. The walled plot of land is bordered by canal, railway and dual carriageway and is now essentially inaccessible woodland (though with excellent transport links). I’d heard about the cemetery earlier in the year and decided to pin point its location on a Sunday afternoon urban stroll last weekend, and to see if it was in any way accessible. I’d probably passed it unnoticed 20 times or more.
Five Ways station is the nearest landmark and we headed there to see if the view from the bridge afforded any clues. It seemed not, so Laira suggested asking the staff if they knew about the lost cemetery. “They won’t know,” I thought, and said aloud. But the ticket seller did know and gave us directions. A valuable lesson – it’s worth asking locally, if you want local knowledge, especially of someone in their advanced years.
The bridge spans canal and railway, and from a vantage opposite the station you can see down into a long strip of land. On first glance, this seems to be woodland, But to the right of the plot a box-like headstone emerges from the ground. On the left is a sealed-off doorway to a metal staircase, topped with a spiked rail. Climbing it is not recommended; it’s a sheer drop of 50 feet or so. We went in so you don’t have to do. In fact, I didn’t go in: Laira went over because my left arm doesn’t work at the moment and someone had to look after the bags.
I directed her explorations from my arial position by pointing to peripheral headstones and shouting. It seems nearly everything has been removed but there are one or two headstones still standing, as well as fragments of headstones. Silver birch trees and rampant ground flora have grown since its closure in 1869, so it isn’t immediately clear what remains.
Online, the British Jewry site records those interred here. The entry with the greatest amount of text relates to Simon King Marks, Chairman of the Burial Board. Mark’s wife Elizabeth is also buried here but beside the ashes of her husband – so maybe this is a monument rather than a tombstone. If so, it was merely erected a year before the closure of the cemetery and left behind when the others were moved to Witton Cemetery. A testament to the growth of the railways and a rapidly changing city.
September 30, 1868
Erected (a Monument) by the Congregation in remembrance of the zealous and pious services of Simon King Marks, September 30, 1868. Aged 68. During life his services were ever devoted to the cause of humanity. He fulfilled every important office in this community, and for a period of thirteen years charitably discharged his duties as Chairman of the Burial Board.
March 26, 1873
Here, besides the ashes of her beloved husband, Simon King Marks, lie the mortal remains of Elizabeth Marks, March 26, 1873. Aged 83.
I signed up for Hamish Fulton’s walk weeks ago, during a burst of research into walking artists in preparation for the SW festival. The walk was a joint event between Ikon Gallery and Fierce Festival and fell on Easter Sunday; also the last day of the Fierce festival. The walk was never described any more precisely than a “city centre walk, with Hamish Fulton”. We met in a drizzly Curzon Street Park, an expansive but empty post-industrial vista, best known now for being the proposed site of HS2. Many assumed this was merely the meeting place and we would soon march off through the city, possibly with an umbrella clutching Hamish drawing our attention to things of interest he’d observed in the city. I’m interested in what the “rules” or parameters are for a guided walk – what people’s expectations are if you announce there is going to be a walk in the city. These could be how long the walk will last, what the content will be, how much walking and how much talking to expect, price, distance, whether it will return to the starting point… Hamish confounded many walker’s expectations by announcing that the walk would last two hours and would be entirely within the confines of the space and specifically on a 150m raised “plateau” in the centre of the space. What’s more, we would not be walking far: we would choose a line on the plateau (cracks or gaps in the concrete, or lines left from the space’s previous life as a parcel depot) and follow that for it’s length.
The announcement coincided with a noticeable drop in temperature. Hamish clarified more conditions for the walk: we would each have our own line and wouldn’t be able to talk to each other. We couldn’t use phones (although I did set up a Twitter hashtag for the event). A gong would signal the start and end of the walk and the walk would last for exactly 2 hours: we would need to carefully pace our journey to end on time. Some people went home immediately, recognising they weren’t up for a walk like that. But around 75 people did decide they were going to do it, and of those only 5 had to stop due to cold or exhaustion. I think there was a sense of adventure amongst some (including myself) but also a feeling of gamely “may as well do it now” amongst many. Someone asked Hamish “Why are we doing this?” and, tellingly, “Are you going to do it too?”
Once on the platform, we saw the many lines we could choose: some only a few inches, if we so chose, or the longest possible which would be the entire length of the platform. People seemed to select quickly and mark their spot. Then the first gong sounded. My line was about 50 meters and crossed eight large concrete sections, which meant I needed to cover each in about 15 mins. I could see five people near my starting point. Some had books to read, one a Nintendo. Hamish hadn’t said DON’T play Nintendo, so it must have been OK. Over the first 30 mins, I established Twitter contact with one person who had also photographed her line. I recognised a white splodge in her picture and worked out that I would intersect her terminal point in about 10 minutes. There was a nice parallel with the real world: if I’m in town I might have arranged via Twitter to meet someone after they finished work at a specific point: this was a micro-society at work! After that I left Twitter alone to focus on the experience at hand.
It was interesting to find that once I had passed three other people walking at right angles to me, I felt more in the “wilds” of the plateau. Time also felt different: The last hour didn’t drag in any way despite the exposure to the cold. Perhaps because we knew our destination and ETA, and had chosen to do it, rather than, say, missing a train and being forced to find a way home on foot. There was a real sense of moving into “new” territory. I was looking closely at plant life growing in the cracks, rusty bits of metal, graffiti, oils spills, and the promise of a new pebble to kick around a few feet ahead was keenly anticipated. I was also aware of moving slowly into someone else’s territory at the end of the line. Nearby, I could see Hamish Fulton making his own very short walk. His stepping technique was different to mine: he was inching forward inch by inch: I was taking a step whenever it occurred to me to do it. At one point, motivated by nothing, I took four bold, quick steps. I could see across the people on the plateau a constant twitching motion as someone in the gathered stillness took another step. It was never wholly static. The event also had an audience: train passengers on the nearby rail link must have wondered what was happening if they looked out of their window. No explanation would seem to satisfy what they were seeing: 70 people standing in their own space in a deserted concrete landscape. Only art allows that to happen.
When the second gong sounded, I was still a few inches short of the destination. I didn’t feel any different (other than colder) or find I’d realised anything important, or even feel I’d reflected on anything significant. But was glad I’d done it: a rare and special to be part of something that is unlikely to happen again. I often suggest to people they stop and look at the city rather than walk past it at a fast pace – there are worthwhile things to see that you will miss by walking at all. Slow walking at this pace allows observation but requires a determination that goes beyond merely being interested in a space. But I’ll try it again for shorter intervals – I think slowing down is generally a very good idea.
Some SW outings had to remain a secret: they were just too dangerous! Each time I’ve been on the Rea-side stroll, someone has slipped and either gone in the river or bruised themselves. I promised Birmingham Architecture Festival I’d show them some of the tunnels I felt sure formed the basis of David Rowan’s shadowy exhibition at Eastside Projects.
During its city centre phase, the river Rea is essentially a storm drain: most of it is culverted off underground, as the river is no use to industry. When it rains, the flow rate is monumental. Check it then at Mac or Floodgate Street – there are times when this sickly trickle is very healthy.
The factory water outlets feed into the Rea along its course and create a habitat for all sorts of bizarre looking water plants, mosses and assorted river flora. It also means its nearly impossible to walk along without slipping. The old trick is to bring a stick (plenty of detritus washes up here) and to build a “stepping stone” bridge with twigs and sticks across the algae at the slippy points. Don’t become comfortable. Be prepared to push through buddleia and for seeds to go down your neck. Footballs and frisbees wash up here: don’t play with them. All sorts of odd things wash up: I’m still puzzling over the meaning of a moses basket which contained a large magic set for a child. Everything I come up with is very sad. We dislodged it from a sand bar and sent it on its way.
There is an eerie forgotten quality here, stillness beyond that of a canal-side stroll. Many sections of the river are straight from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Factories back on to the river and occasionally a worker on a fag break will spot you, but not feel able to communicate. You not only shouldn’t be there, you can’t be there. There is no wildlife. I know of no other city that does this to its river – Birmingham’s surrogate river is the canal network that worked hard for its city over the centuries and now is earning its retirement, as are the Gas St Basin occupants and holidaying water travellers. But the river is the reason settlers chose this area, a thousand years ago. We owe it something… it saddens me to advise you do not go near it.
From Hubert Montague Crackanthorpe’s Vignettes (1896):
I have sat there and seen the winter days finish their short-spanned lives; and all the globes of light — crimson, emerald, and pallid yellow — start, one by one, out of the russet fog that creeps up the river. But I like the place best on these hot summer nights, when the sky hangs thick with stifled colour, and the stars shine small and shyly. Then the pulse of the city is hushed, and the scales of the water flicker golden and oily under the watching regiment of lamps.
The bridge clasps its gaunt arms tight from bank to bank, and the shuffle of a retreating figure sounds loud and alone in the quiet. There, if you wait long enough, you will hear the long wail of the siren, that seems to tell of the anguish of London till a train hurries to throttle its dying note, roaring and rushing, thundering and blazing through the night, tossing its white crests of smoke, charging across the bridge into the dark country beyond.
In the wan, lingering light of the winter afternoon, the parks stood all deserted, sluggishly drowsing, so it seemed, with their spacious distances muffled in greyness: colourless, fabulous, blurred. One by one, through the damp misty air, looked the tall, stark, lifeless elms. Overhead there lowered a turbid sky, heavy-charged with an unclean yellow, and amid their ugly patches of dank and rotting bracken, a little mare picked her way noiselessly. The rumour of life seemed hushed. There was only the vague listless rhythm of the creaking saddle.
The daylight faded. A shroud of ghostly mist enveloped the earth, and up from the vaporous distance crept slowly the evening darkness. A sullen glow throbs overhead: golden will-o’-the-wisps are threading their shadowy ribbons above golden trees, and the dull, distant rumour of feverish London waits on the still night air. The lights of Hyde Park Corner blaze like some monster, gilded constellation, shaming the dingy stars. And across the east, there flares a sky-sign, a gaudy crimson arabesque. And all the air hangs draped in the mysterious sumptuous splendour of a murky London night.
A great mix of people gathered at the bronze bull in Birmingham on a sunny March Friday afternoon ready to utilise both our walking and listening skills.
This walk is an ear opening experience that gave us all a very different ‘view’ of Birmingham. Lead by composer David Prior (one half of Liminal, along with architect Frances Crow), we are encouraged to listen – really stop and listen – to the sounds surrounding us.
The first lesson we learn is that perhaps we hear the noise surrounding us because that’s what we expect e.g. cars and people, but what are we missing? On the first exercise stop outside Bullring, I noticed a can of drink being opened – a soft sound heard in possibly the noisiest part of Birmingham! Thereafter, David devised exercises to help us work out how high and how far the sounds we hear come from. Instruments are handed out to amplify the sound world: basic ear trumpets transform the environment and while the stethescopes are usually silent, when they work they really work.
Aside from our newly honed listening skills, we are treated to a slow walk through Birmingham’s markets and into the Fazeley Street area of Digbeth, streets we otherwise wouldn’t walk on without a specific purpose. The most treasured fact I learnt was how an “owl’s head is a spoffle”. “If you ever get a chance to poke an owl’s head…” suggested David, and went on to describe how the owl’s head is largely feathered, like a BBC fluffy outdoor microphone. If you are flying fast through the air but listening out for the mouse on the ground, your head needs to be a spoffle
David has an archetypal analogy for all the acoustic spaces we move through: Bullring was a canyon, St Martin’s a cavern, the indoor market a forest… other spaces were their own analogy: viaduct tunnels and open brushland. Walking through Birmingham without noticing all these sound conditions will now be impossible.
Starting from ‘the carpet salesmen’ statue, outside the House of Sport on Broad Street, Brumicana took us under the skin of the big, alive, people-eating monster; showing us the sorts of things you need to know in order to get to grips with a city. To survive it.
In fine fettle, Jon and Danny led us through statue confessions and favourite carparks to interesting rear-views of a couple of landmarks: the new library and a silent clocktower (we waited to hear the bongs, but none came).
We walked through narrow, bin-lined passages and heard tales of generosity before gathering atop the Queensway. Here I got distracted by a Rushmore-esque line-up of Danny, Jon, Ben and Ian-from-Flatpack. This seemed to be a fitting image with which to wrap up the programme:
We urge you all to tame the concrete and the glass. Don’t just survive the city, but make it yours and thrive on it!
Pelligrino sparkling mineral water has pretty much been the unofficial drink of the festival. I was on the radio earlier in the week and the presenter asked “What would you say was the one thing people could look at in the city and rethink their opinion of Birmingham. I wanted to name this brand of sparkling water but “bottled out” and instead suggested the rather flat: “looking up at our buildings”.
Pellegrino is available throughout the city, but bottled in Lombardy in Italy. No element of it is made in Birmingham. Yet I maintain that this is a true Brummie symbol. It’s certainly saved me on a few parched guided tours over the years.
It’s not because of where it’s from or how it was made, but rather the innovations it represents. Let me explain: Joseph Priestley was a C18th Birmingham scientist, teacher and minister who was perhaps best known as the discoverer of oxygen. Amongst his other discoveries was the means by which to create carbonated water. Later, in 1856, Alexander Parkes created the first thermoplastic on Newhall St. I draw your attention to the colours of the Pellegrino brand: green, blue and red. I’m not going to claim these were discovered in Birmingham but in 1799 Samuel Galton Jr, a member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, first wrote about the separation of white light into the primary colours.
In his 1998 BBC programme Heart By Pass, Jonathan Meades observes that Birmingham has always been about Italian: he shows a selection of university campaniles and Italianate towers around the city, its canals and highlights the famous interchange named after a pasta to prove it.
Priestly never made use of many of his discoveries: for him science was pure adventure, not a business. Others made it their business and he lost out on more than a few patents by inviting “friends” to view his discoveries at soirees at his home in Sparkbrook. These were the early days of science, and while there is big money to be made by pinching patents, at the time the real opportunities weren’t always obvious to those simply interested in exploration and discovery. I feel this is still the case with Birmingham: allowing others to take the glory or being reluctant to showcase its achievements.
I feel that as your train chugs into New Street, the first thing you see should be something that says “Birmingham: home of Oxygen”. A true and impressive claim, indeed beat that for a discovery! Instead of building a £2 billion new railway station to impress visitors, let’s simply highlight what already happened here: first car in the country, first pneumatic tyre, first crank engine, cotton wool, the kettle, horsepower, patent leather, fingerprinting, the first commercially available computer…At time of writing, the only thing we do celebrate is our exhibition trade (Bingley Hall, first exhibition centre, deliberately burnt down to make way for the ICC) and Home of Metal.
There are plenty of things in the city to look for and celebrate. Important things. Let’s find them and talk about them. Let’s brag about them!
for Still Walking, UK’s first Walking Festival
Our guest blogger today is Colin Lorne
Walk the Queensway // Joe Holyoak
Proudly designed for the efficiency of the car, Birmingham’s ‘Concrete Collar’ ring road is arguably the city’s most distinctive and disruptive urban feature, having discouraged pedestrians for almost half a century. Forcing walkers to cross below the car through subways, the Queensway literally and strategically places the car above pedestrians, continuing to exert its effects on the city today. Walking the Queensway, then, was both subversive and novel.
Led by architect and urban designer, Joe Holyoak, the tour started at Great Charles Street, a road which existed prior to the Queensway’s construction and one of the first attempts at creating a pedestrian crossing at street level over the ring road. Just metres down the road, Joe highlighted how the impermeable eight-lane carriageway has halted much expansion of the city towards the Jewellery Quarter. Looking down the hill, I wondered just how much busier the Jewellery Quarter could be if such a barrier to pedestrians didn’t exist. Joe discussed how the subways had all been distinctively named, denoting the original intensions of the subways to have a sense of place, although, few would argue that this was ever achieved. Following the road down to St. Chad’s, Joe spoke of how the road system came to dominate the urban landscape, destroying the city’s previous streets (although St. Chad’s Cathedral remains, now awkwardly positioned on its own at a noisy road junction which has struggled to improve the pedestrian crossing).
Picking up additional members whilst walking, the tour carried on through to the redevelopment at the new Masshouse Queensway section up to the Bullring which saw a break in the ring road and finally to Norfolk House on the Smallbrook Queensway (which has had its larger subway filled in) Notably, the buildings along this section follow the flow of the road with shops being located along the street front unlike other buildings on the ring road which hold no conversation with the surrounding urban environment.
In accepting the dubious honour of having a carriageway named after her, The Queen made the mistake of namely the entire ring road the Queensway. Through walking around the Queensway, we discussed the greater mistake of removing the pedestrian from the street, and how costly attempts are being made to rectify previous urban decisions. But Brum was motor city and we shouldn’t shy away from the innovations in our city’s history, however things turned out. The Lanchester brother’s built the country’s first car here. The first house with a garage was built in Birmingham, and it turns out the first one way street was in Birmingham too. A guided tour doesn’t have to be a celebration of a city, and it’s great to hear the real story of a city changing its mind on this scale.
Written in Concrete was my personal reflection on concrete in Birmingham. Something I realised a while back formed the basis of the tour: it was the myth that “they” knocked down all the beautiful old buildings in Birmingham and replaced them with concrete. The reality is that the Victorians tore down Georgian Birmingham (almost entirely) and that Victorian Birmingham is still there. The city was a major target during WWII and we rebuilt the damaged parts of the city to reflect images of wartime defence: robust, uncompromising concrete edifices that could withstand attack, if it ever came to it. Or look like it could. But we left the brick and terracotta alone for the most part.
That attack came quite soon and was unforgiving and relentless. Concrete’s critics didn’t draw a distinction between the thoughtful, unforgettable designs of John Madin, Richard Seifert and Ian Fraser and meaningless pebble dashed expanses constructed on the cheap. “Moron-made cities,’ was the memorable review in the architecture press in the 50s of the Brutalist style. Brutalism was probably too much too soon; a reaction to the horrors and devastation of war, and with nearly nothing prefiguring it. I see it as part of a greater movement at that time to shake things up and express something monumental but human. The Angry Young Men of British literature and theatre, abstract expressionism in art and Elvis Presley in music. Only the Brutalists were there first!
It’s actually quite hard to find the kind of concrete vistas people see when they think of Birmingham – people who haven’t visited the city for a while, or ever. When looking for a backdrop for publicity photos, it was hard enough to find anything I could just stand in front of. It takes a while to get used to a new building or style of architecture – longer than deciding if you like your new boots. A generation isn’t enough, but some classic examples of C20th design are being taken down already only to be replaced with something forgettable, and worse – cheap looking. Planners today are embarrassed by concrete the way the planners of the 50s saw Victorian opulence as desperately old fashioned. The Victorians didn’t have time for the boring Georgians. What looks like a Georgian facade is often a plastered- or bricked-up timber framed building, hidden to appear more fashionable…the Georgian’s winced at houses made of wood. The timber framed buildings are now highly sought after properties and go for a fortune; restoration programmes spend millions saving the few remaining examples.
The city becomes its own museum – where else are you going to put a building? (Actually you could take it to Avoncroft) …if you wait long enough, everything qualifies. I think of the fascinating glimpses into the past seen in old buildings: names etched on the window with a diamond ring, or initials carved into the stone walls. Eventually even graffiti becomes a historical trace. I worked in Central Library for years and really became fond of it during that time. It was always boiling hot whatever the weather, because its stacks’ expansion space had been leased out to offices and the air didn’t move around freely anymore. Central Library’s original architect John Madin was brought in to suggest a solution. “Remove the extra offices,” was his brutal (but truthful) response. One stated reason for the library being demolished is that it has run out of room for books. Central Librarians are currently being asked to discard ever more books so everything will fit into the new building. It doesn’t have enough shelf space before it has even opened – “moron-made libraries”. I met Madin last year at the launch of his biography by Alan Clawley. He wouldn’t comment on his buildings being torn down, but was animated in his disgust at the Paradise Forum commercial insertion into his building. For a long time the Central Library didn’t carry a sign to identify it – McDonalds was the only visible brand on the building. The manager at Paradise Forum Wetherspoons once asked me where I worked. “In the reference library,” I replied. “Where’s that?” he replied. “It’s there, ” I said, pointing up. “The roof!”
I decided I wanted to pay my respects to John’s passing late last year. Inspired by that year’s peaceful anti-capitalist protest occupations, I decided to invite my group to a quiet, solemn moment at the bar of Wetherspoon’s at the end of the tour. I didn’t want to alarm the staff and felt a minute would be enough time to stand there and gentlymake our point. The gesture went unnoticed, and if you’ve ever tried to get served at that bar, you may appreciate why that was. We quietly left.
Elvis has left the building.
So, another packed weekend of exploring the lesser visited parts of Brum horizons is over. Hope you learnt something interesting, saw something new and did something you want to do again.
Radial Truths set off from deepest Stirchley on Friday, with cyclist gathering from far afield to visit some to visit some of the former foundries of Brum bikes. The tour rides again on Sun 1 April, but this time Bike Foundry are organising it all and you can contact them about tickets.
…and more pix at our Stillwalkers Flickr site!
Yesterday, inquisitive Still Walkers gathered in sunny Brindleyplace to give their eyes a rest and give their other senses a chance to experience their surroundings.
Under the careful watch of Usha M, we noticed the change in temperature as we walked in and out of the shadows; became aware of the smell of the chlorinated water; felt the hum of the ventilation systems; listened to the sculptures and gently inched up and down steps.
I’ll let the photos do the talking…
Thanks to Usha, Brindleyplace and everyone who took part. The rest of the photos are here on Flickr.
One piece of admin I have enjoyed during the festival is adding the Sold Out! stamp to the programme schedule. It’s a great measure of the success of your idea, even before a review has been written. But perhaps it can seem too successful, as people regularly tell me they wanted to buy tickets but that everything has now sold out. Not so! There are still some great events that you can come to over the next two weekends. Here are two coming up soon.
I met Kerrie Reading at the Second International Research Forum on Guided Tours in Plymouth a year ago. There was a surprising mix of backgrounds at the conference: academics, artists, historians and even some tour guides. It was a great experience and if we ever do Still Talking: the conference of Blah Bah Blah I hope it will be as diverse as that conference was. Kerrie was a theatre practitioner with an interest in history and a recent graduate of the University of Birmingham. I told her about the festival. Was she interested in taking part? Yes she was! She told me about her work, which I recall involved children on a treasure trail being able to pick up objects from the ground – something they want to do but are always told is bad! I knew I wanted something like this in Still Walking – the festival is about being as inquisitive and exploratory as children naturally are.
Kerrie’s tour represented everything I wanted the festival to be about – it was in an unusual location (one of only two tours NOT in the city centre), embraced children and families, it looked at the history of the area and presented all that in an unexpected form. Until that point, I hadn’t known about theatre “promenades” – which is what this is.
You can still buy tickets for Swanning around Erdington at 3pm and 4pm on Sun 25th March
Usha M is a movement artist based in Nottingham who I met in the Elan Valley last year. She is part of a dance duo called http://www.rundance.org/ along with Penny A although perhaps “dance” isn’t the word – it is one element in a mix that involves running, dance (obviously) but also spacial awareness, exploration and something close to parkour or free running. It sounded exhausting (and is) but I knew I wanted it in the festival. On this occasion it wasn’t to be, but Usha offered a gentler option of her own devising: Eyes at Rest. At first it sounded terrifying – blindfolded exploration of Brindleyplace. How would I market it? Just thinking about the risk assessments involved made me shiver. But I realised that this meant it should go in: if something was challenging my idea of a safe walk then I needed to include it in the festival. (The walk IS safe, I assure you – everyone has a seeing partner and the risk assessments are now – finally – all complete). I tried it with Usha a few weeks back and was amazed at how the world feels when you let go and experience trust, gradients, water, heightened background senses and Brindleyplace’s amazing chiming clock, which I’d never bothered to listen to before.
Tickets still remain for Eyes at Rest on Sat 24th March at 11am and 2pm.
Because of the celebration of the city last night, I was running a bit late. After last night, the openings of the new exhibitions at Eastside Projects and Grand Union, the superb Bring Your Own Beamer at Vivid event, and the first in the series of the always great Outer Sight events at The Edge had left some of us a bit worse for wear. Because of this, psychogeography, the derive, and the flaneuring that makes the urban explorer had to go for a burton, and I got a lift in the car to the vicinity of Digbeth High Street. However, the Universe was on my side, and as we pulled up to the traffic lights opposite the Old Crown, the oldest inn in Birmingham, I saw Ben Waddington crossing the road. I said my goodbyes, and got out to meet him, and looking at our watches, we decreed that we’d have enough time for Eggs Benedict and freshly squeezed orange juice at a hostelry that will remain nameless. Of course I didn’t have that 500ml can of Irn Bru and a Tracker Bar, what on earth are you thinking?
The tour was due to start in Pickford Street in Digbeth, in the shadow of the old site of the Typhoo factory, next to industrial complexes, colleges and behind us, the Custard Factory. Today the Still Walking festival was hosting a walk entitled ‘Shaping Cinema’. After last night, the city of Birmingham was now singing its own praises and celebrating its history, and this was being reflected within the ethos of the Still Walking programme as Ben noted, “the sheer excitement you can get by having a passion about the world around you.” He introduced us to the leader of todays walk, Martin Parretti , who was going to introduce us to the founding fathers of cinema design and architecture within the city. He was going to tell us the story of how Oscar Deutsch, Harry Weedon, Victor Saville and Michael Balcon shaped the way in which Brummies were able to engage in the burgeoning world of cinema in the early 20th century, and experience the world around them as never before.
Parretti started by recounting the life of Harry Weedon who had schooled at the old King Edwards school on New Street. After being de-mobbed from the First World War, he moved to Leamington Spa, and after a scandalous double divorce moved back to Birmingham, where he picked up on his love of architecture and design. He met Oscar Deutsch, who came from a family of scrap metal dealers. Weedon’s passion for architecture and his innovative designs motivated Deutsch to think about the cinema business; not to make films, but to show them to the public. The first cinema that Weedon designed was in partnership with the Mendelson Brothers, a firm of grocers. On seeing the success of the venture, Wedon realised that this new fad was here to stay, and a further cinema was built in Perry Barr, the first to carry the Odeon logo. On seeing Weedon’s designs, Deutsch commented that “This is the template of what the cinema is going to be.” Deutsch wanted the world to fall in love with cinema; Weedon wanted the world to fall in love with the design and architecture of buildings. In doing this, the two not only were going to shape the way in which we saw the city, but also in the way we saw ourselves.
We went up Bordesely Street, past the M.Latif and Sons wholesalers and units operating from the cluster of lock-ups. Carpet warehouses which tinny bhangra sounds, and signs boasting of pub sandwich delivery services, and Italian car specialists. We got on to Shaw’s Passage, slipping and twisting eager ankles on its cobbled streets, averting our eyes from the Taboo Cinema Club which was emphatically not part of Martin’s tour. Making our way onto Park Street, just left of the tattoo parlour, we saw the familiar sight of the Selfridges building, and the Bull Ring Tavern. Looking up, I saw another in the series of the ‘there’s a rumour…’ tags that have adorned the city over the last few months, this time, up a staircase on a side door that led into a back room of the old Royal George pub which had been closed for a good few years now. But after navigating the urban motorway and getting safely to the other side of the road, on the new Spiceal Street, we discovered that the Royal George venue in fact had a previous life as the Coutts Music Hall, which had a reputation as one of the rougher music halls; indeed, the senior manager had been murdered on stage during a performance. However, in 1910, this had been converted into a silent cinema called the Bull Ring, later, it would turn into the much missed Royal George pub, which had been the host to many delightfully sweaty gigs later on in the century, before being closed due to a discrepancy in the licensing laws, for want of a better phrase.
Our group made its way up through the Bull Ring, into the path of a multitude of Saturday shoppers. To our left, New Street and to our right, the site of the first News Theatre in Birmingham. As we looked on at the site, now a Card Factory, we were told News Theatres were of a time that didn’t have 24 hour rolling news or 3G access. A News Theatre was dedicated to showing just that, news, and other cinemas were designed for particular niche programming, including cartoon theatres, which in modern society could now easily be found on Nickelodeon, not with the bother of having to go out to the Odeon, which is where we were headed next. As we walked onto busy New Street, a giant hoarding above us showed adverts flickering slogans for smartphones. “It’s a wonder ful world. Explore it.”
The Odeon was an old favourite of mine. In the 80s I remember seeing the likes of Ghostbusters and Back to the Future again and again. These days, I was often tempted to go in there and catch the latest blockbuster, my brain racing with the smell of popcorn and nachos, loud arcade machines and a choice of eight or more screens. Not so when it was the Paramount Theatre, a high art deco theatre, that could house 3000 people. Unsympathetic development had now reduced this once proud theatre into a sticky floored multiplex, and we moved swiftly on through New Street, and into the opulent arcade of the Burlington Hotel (with Bacchus Bar underneath.) This was where Saville and Balcon, boyhood friends, had embarked on their first major venture, with a young Alfred Hitchcock as assistant director. Later, Balcon would shape the world of English cinema with Ealing films, and was a close ally of J. Arthur Rank.
Up Bennetts Hill, we stood opposite the offices of Oscar Deutsch. 21 Bennetts Hill, next to a building draped in scaffolding, and a taxi running its engine. Deutsch died in 1941 at a young age, but in his time he had overseen the opening of 250 cinemas in 10 years, with Odeon (Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation) opening on average 3 new cinemas per week. Going back down Bennetts Hill we got to the next arcade, and our final part of our journey on New Street, Piccadilly Arcade, now home to jewellers and bespoke clothes designers. We were in fact, standing where seats used to be in the Piccadilly cinema. To get to our next destination, the site of the Scala on John Bright Street, we would have to now clamber over seats with hushed excuse mes and thankyous, and right through the screen on to Victoria Square, a Technicolor yawn of beeping cars and fast food outlets.
The Scala cinema, an impressive building, was now closed. After closing as a cinema the building had been used for more disreputable purposes, more recently, a gentlemen’s club, and even worse, club DNA in the early millennium. Scala cinemas however, had always been ahead of the game, and were the first to feature a curtain stage, and the first cinema to show ‘talkies.’ One of the group commented that it had also been fitted with the ‘Sensurround’ gimmick in the 70s, which had been used in disaster movies such as ‘Earthquake’ and ‘Rollercoaster’ where seats would shake in time to the special effects on screen, using early 4D technology, which may or may not re-surface in the years to come in the cinema experience.
The penultimate part of our tour was up the steep Gough Street, and we were faced with the synagogue where the four shapers of cinema in Birmingham worshipped as children. This synagogue, this place of worship, obviously had played a critical role in the way in which Birmingham shaped its involvement with cinema. And later in life, Harry Weedon had re-paid his debt to this temple, and built an extension to the back of it. Leaving this site, we walked back down Hinckley Street, and took in an impressive scope of the city, cars zooming back and forth, pedestrians going about their business, all watched under our eye. We finished our tour at the back of the Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the country. The cinema had opened in 1909, and, like others that we had visited and been told about that day, had been through many changes throughout the years, but, despite changes to the programme and what films it showed, was still the same as it had been, a cinema. In fact, it was showing the next part of the Still Walking programme, a film called Patience (After Sebold) which I wasn’t going to be able to see, as I had to go into Selfridges, and then back up to Cheapside to The Edge. After that i’d go back to the Bull Ring, then to the Anchor, then back up Cheapside to PST, then back up Bath Row. The pavements are being well trodden. It is the time of the Still Walking festival after all.
The morning fog had cleared, but now, we were shrouded in the late afternoon fug from the car exhausts. Those who were attending huddled together, chins in jackets, attempting to warm themselves against the chill air. The Colmore Business District was thriving with those escaping for the day, to get buses. As we stood under 23 Whitehall Chambers at our muster point, next to Crockett and Jones, shoemakers of Northampton, people weaved past us, impatient to get their buses back to the suburbs, to seek sanctuary away from Town.
The tour ‘Birmingham Gothic’ was led by Ben Waddington, the curator of the Still Walking festival. The ‘Noir’ angle to the festival had now been dropped, and we would be concentrating solely on the architecture, the gargoyles, the grotesques, and the strange goings on throughout history. The tour would have a linearity; we would start architecture with roots in the pre-pagan and go into modern-day Christianity. As we went to our first destination, seagulls squawked over the noise of bass bins and buses. The air was thick with the cloying smell of exhaust fumes and hastily smoked roll-ups.
Under Birmingham Cathedral, we were told that the designs that we would see would be by design, or choice. What, Ben asked, inspired these choices that we saw? Over the cathedral, we saw a Pagan symbol, that of a green man – the animal, plant and man hybrid favoured by worshippers of that faith. Could the cathedral have taken the existing masonry and used it as a way to ease the new religion in? A young man, dishevelled and withdrawn, wandered over to our gathering, and seemed to want to join in with the conversation. Ben directed our attention to what stood behind us as he attempted to remonstrate with the young man, to an obelisk. There was a story, in 2006 a lady, a librarian in Harborne, was coming through Pigeon Park on her way home. The clouds appeared, and it was beginning to rain. She put her umbrella up, and noticed that the bus stop she wanted wasn’t there. The railings, cordoning off the park from the pavement weren’t there. How selfish of the council, she thought, and blinking, they came back into view. She looked up to fix her umbrella into place. And then she realised something was up.
We were on our way to see examples of the horned god next. Later on, Ben promised, we would see Lucifer. The young man looked to try and address us again, but he was held off. As we walked away, I looked back. He seemed pre-occupied. In amidst the commuters going back and forth to their respective bus stops, he stood still, eyes pointed to the floor.
We walked behind Cherry Street and onto New Street. A pause of relief. Surely if there are Pagan entities, or grotesques or demons about we wouldn’t see them on the high street? We were now outside Waterstones on New Street, formerly a bank. Faces amongst medallions and discs. A horned God greeting you as you came to make your deposit to your bank, now, peering down daily, at those wishing to buy books, a meeting place, a gathering. Looking down at us. We walked up Corporation Street, to the City Arcade. The three double espressos I had earlier began to wear off, leaving me with a tired sense of anxiety and paranoia. The dark was setting in, cars passed with streetlights on, youths gathered on the streets, coming back from schools and colleges. “Weird ones, f***ing weird ones. A nightmare” I could hear one saying to his friend. Maybe they’d have been looking up, looking closer.
We were invited to consider the devil opposite the Gregg’s on Union Street. If you were asked to draw the devil, Ben said, you’d draw horns, pointy ears, and a beard. It was in fact this that we were now faced with. Not the description in Revelations 13, a leopard with a lions mouth, or a talking lamb, but our very image of the devil that we were so familiar with, and had learnt since we were children. The image in fact was of Pan, Ben said, which had been constructed in an attempt to demonise the old Pagan God. We’d see Lucifer again at the end of the tour, and we walked on, back up to Pigeon Park. Grotesques greeted us, crawling down the walls of the insurance company next to the Caffe Nero. The architects would have designed this, possibly as a bit of fun, preferring the world of monsters and gargoyles rather than simple foliage. Dispelling the myth that gargoyles were there to scare away the devil, in fact, the devil would probably feel right at home here, in the building where the insurers were.
Two headless birds flanked the Royal Bank of Scotland cashpoint. They had been so finely carved originally, that water had got into the building. This had obviously been a nuisance, so the birds were ordered to be decapitated, their necks now buried within the stone, with plinths now jutting out crudely above those wishing to make their instant no-fuss transactions.
And again, I was circling around the Colmore Business District. This must have been for the third or fourth time that day. Dante’s inferno, walking within gluttony and greed. Tired and weary, outside Hotel du Vin, seeing wolves (or was it Cerberus?), snarling gryphons and knotted foliage spiralling all around. A girl came up to our throng and asked us; “What you lot looking at?” “Well, look at that. There’s an owl, a face, a wolf.” “Oh my God. Oh my God. That’s freaky.” With that, she disappeared, going past the gaping fish mouths chiselled over Clarke Wilmott solicitors.
On our way to Louise Ryland House, we passed a plaque dedicated to the surrealist inventor Conroy Maddox. The inscription read:
“The work of surrealism can never be conclusive. It is more of exploration, a journey, a struggle.”
Around the council building we gathered, looking at the Edwardian architecture. Heads of lions and foliage. The council workers walked out of their doors, briefly surprised at us waiting outside (we had considerably grown in numbers) and went on their way, to the bus stops on Colmore Row. Hopefully they’d be there.
We were nearly on our meeting to see Lucifer. But before we did, we passed the dirty chest clinic building on Great Charles Street Queensway. A man with arms outstretched, one hand holding a dish, with a snake feeding from the dish, and in the other hand, a hammer. The world of the medical profession, said Ben, a world that we are only trying to understand.
Our procession went through Paradise Place, a grimy, cavernous alleyway, through Congreve Passage, and then back onto Victoria Square, where there was a demonstration occurring with people bearing candles. But we were the ones who were going to greet Lucifer. A dim light in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery window. This is where he lay. We slowly walked up the stone steps to the entrance. Shut. Ben knocked, once, twice. On the third time, a lady, her face obscured by curls, bent over with a dowager’s hump slowly opened the door. She let us in cautiously, but Ben assured us that we wouldn’t be long. Up the stairs, where Lucifer stood.
And as soon as we were on the first floor, we were greeted with his presence. The depiction of the fallen angel, the one who was too big for his status in Heaven, cast down to Hell, or perhaps even amongst us on Earth. And the artist who had created this had been told that his statue wasn’t wanted in the V&A, but sure enough, we’d have it in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. But Ben reassured us that if we believed in these demons that have been carved for us around the city, that they would manifest themselves in our daily being. As we walked down the stairs, he said that there was nothing, absolutely nothing to worry about. And for the while, we believed him. The lady with the dowager’s hump stood next to the door on our way out. She no longer had the strength to hold the door open. She had been in the museum too long with him upstairs. A spent force. And as we all said our goodbyes and thanked Ben for the trip, I made my way down to Café Blend, and on onto the Electric. Into the Abyss…
Here at Still Walking, we love maps…
Have you seen these ones by Mark Wilson?
View Hustle Series 8 Episode 6 in a larger map
Still Walking celebrates (amongst other things) meticulous research and seeing your surroundings in a new way and Mark’s maps are a prime example of this. If you click on the location markers in the map above (there are quite a few of them – they may take a while to load) you will find yourself in Birmingham-as-London.
Mark’s spent a lot of time on the trail of the BBC drama Hustle and the many locations around Birmingham that were used as stunt doubles for the capital city: here is an article from the Sunday Mercury, another from the Radio Times and his collections of maps and photos.
Hustle was just the beginning though: Mark has gone on to research other films and TV programmes that have used locations around the city.
Mark gets behind the scenes of the TV industry and shares trade secrets and some of the improvised approaches of the TV crews he has encountered. This walking tour has many tales of con artists, soap queens, musical legends, game show kings and even throws in a phantom flan flinger for good measure.
If you’re quick, you can get one of the few remaining tickets for Mark’s tours (there are two different ones to choose from) this Sunday. Ben’s already been on the dress rehearsal and it seems to have gone down very well with Time Out reporter Euan Ferguson judging by his review.
On Location is one of three tours that Still Walking is running this year in conjunction with the amazing Flatpack film festival. The Birmingham Noir and Shaping Cinema tours have both already sold out, but walking fans may also enjoy Patience (After Sebald) and Made in Wolverhampton from the Flatpack programme:
MADE IN WOLVERHAMPTON
(Dir: Adam Kossoff, UK 2011, 74 mins)
Friday 16 March, 5.45pm at the Custard Factory theatre
Framed as a letter from the narrator to his girlfriend in Cuba, Made in Wolverhampton is a quizzical ramble around the city’s margins with a combination of locked-off photography and super-dry voiceover recalling the work of Patrick Keiller. Hunting for ‘after-images of the industrial revolution’, the film builds up layers of observation, history and quotation to engaging effect, throwing Norton bikes, Che Guevara, Poundland, Galileo and roundabout-dweller Josef Stawinoga into the mix. In his day-job Kossoff teaches Film and Video at the School of Art and Design in Wolverhampton, and coincidentally we’ll also be showing a short made by one of his former students. LUV’IN THE BLACK COUNTRY (dir: Matthew E. Carter) is built around five tales of love on the canals.
PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD)
(Dir: Grant Gee, UK 2011, 84 mins)
Saturday 17 March, 1pm at the Electric
Despite the autobiographical undercurrent of Rings of Saturn, Vertigo and Austerlitz, the writer behind them has always been something of a mysterious figure, so it’s fascinating to see a picture of WG Sebald start to emerge as this documentary progresses. Interviewing acolytes and friends (including Marina Warner, Andrew Motion and Tacita Dean) as well as retracing the walk around coastal Suffolk which inspired Rings of Saturn, the film’s layered approach does a great job of reflecting Sebald’s own discursive and often dark turn of mind.
Both screenings are £7/£5, booking via www.flatpackfestival.org.uk or Ticketsellers on 0844 870 0000.
I was thrilled when I heard that Marty Taylor had been approached to lead an event for the festival: not a professional guide, but someone with a great sense of humour who could offer an interesting and entertaining personal perspective on Birmingham.
When his proposal came back, it totally blew all our expectations out of the water…
We thought he could share some affection for the city he grew up in.
He gave us love!
We thought we’d go easy on him and keep the numbers down for his first tour-guide gig.
He gave us a procession!
We thought we were getting Marty Taylor.
We got Sas & Marty Taylor and Big Brum Love!
The Big Brum Love tour will do what it says on the tin: a massive celebration of love (for all things) taking place in the city centre from 1pm on Saturday March 31st.
To make sure we nail the big bit though, we’re going to need your help…
We want to gather as many people as possible to take part in this (free) happening, so come along and join us for a dollop of love, affection and general bonhomie.
There’ll be a range of activities going on for those who are feeling expressive, but it’s totally fine to get involved with these as much or as little as you like. The main thing is we want you to come and walk with us. The streets of Birmingham have seen a few protests in recent months, can we now fill them with a celebration?
Show us your positive vibes!
As I mentioned earlier, the event is free. You won’t need a ticket for this one, however we are asking for you to add your name to this eventbrite registration to help the planning side of things. All ages welcome.
Bringing yourself is the important thing, but if you can also bring along an instrument to play that would be rather marvellous and help add to the Big Brum Love atmosphere!
Sas & Marty have set up a Big Brum love blog and Twitter account, so link up to those for updates etc. In the meantime, please mark the 31st in your diary and help spread the word. Birmingham Needs Yow.
That the local government’s website has the tag line “Building a bigger, better, brighter Corby” might confirm your suspicions about this ex steel-working town. However, as we drove around the area, James was able to relate a non-stop series of facts, anecdotes, tales and legends about the landscape and the people who have lived and worked there.
I’m fascinated by how these stories get passed on. Some are experienced directly, others may be retold to make conversation between parent and child whilst out walking the dog. It sounds like the gamekeeper would be a good person to sit around a campfire with, too!
I grew up in the New Forest, and I’ve absorbed something of the stories of the kings, the ghostly nurses and the World War bombs. However, looking at the programme for the Still Walking festival has brought home to me how little I know about the city and culture of Birmingham – even though I have lived and worked here for [...counts on fingers...] 15 years now.
I came here to study at university, and my experience of the city has been pretty much limited to the South West sector between Bristol and Alcester Roads. I’ve never been to Marston or Bordesley Greens; Perry Common remains a mystery to me; Handsworth and Nechells – places I’ve heard mention of on the news; Smethwick I would have to look up on a map…
I think this is why I’m intrigued by Kerrie Reading’s event Swanning Around Erdington.
Kerrie has been meeting with Erdingtonites (Erdingtonians?) to pool their collective knowledge. Taking Erdington High Street as the starting point, Swanning Around Erdington will be a trail through people’s memories and thoughts about the town. Kerrie’s interested in how people and their collective stories help shape a place and Swanning Around Erdington forms part of a much larger body of research investigating how communities engage with their town/city. Buy your tickets for the family-friendly performance and a taster of the stories she’s gathered.
I originally started this post pondering “where is the local history?”, but I think maybe the question I really want to get at is how local history is transmitted and what micro-histories people want to share. I’m not so much getting at the sort of things that make it to the history books, but the more personal histories, the stuff that’s significant either on a local scale or maybe even to one or two people. Individual perspectives. Mass observation day diary type stuff.
So, here’s the challenge:
I know nothing about Erdington. I don’t think I have ever been there.
What can you tell me about Erdington – the Erdington you have experienced?
I’m now handing the comments section over to you… Teach me about Erdington, please!
Look Around You 2
My earlier post recommended seeing your city afresh by not having a destination. All sorts of things pop out of the stonework when you start looking for them … just try it!
Imagine taking your urban ramble again, but this time just using your other senses. A friend (and you need to trust this person!) has blindfolded you and is allowing you to wander according to sounds you hear, smells, tactile sensations and (not recommended) by taste. There are other senses too – temperature, balance, direction… we rely on a lot to get us about. The city takes on a different shape and atmosphere and seems to be offering more information to deal with, not less.
Usha M’s walk for the Still Walking festival takes a look at – or rather experiences – these senses. Usha is a movement artist and themes of awareness, balance and sense have always been at the core of her work. Brindleyplace have kindly allowed their meticulously kempt arena to play host to Usha’s explorations.
So what to expect? Those signing up should be willing to be blindfolded and will be led through manoeuvres to tease out our often overlooked reliance on our extra senses. It is sensory deprivation, but instead of floating in a tank of water, you are actually roaming free (guides will be on hand for each participant so you don’t actually end up floating in the water). Usha says she is always struck by the quick shift from nervous anticipation to joyous curiosity she sees in people when she holds these events, and how it affects them long after the event has finished.
Don’t miss anything – buy your ticket today!
When programming the festival, I knew I wanted to push the usual definition of the term “guided tour”. I wanted the programme to reflect the diversity of people I had encountered during the past year, only a few of whom would think of themselves as tour guides. My personal moment of epiphany was during Kira O’Reilly’s Silent Tour from last year’s Fierce festival. Guided walks didn’t have to be about learning new facts, or even involve talking to people. They didn’t even always need a guide.
I wanted the walks in the festival to be genuinely diverse; to include local histories, but to look beyond – the festival is all about exploring. I began to look at the world of the walking artist and discovered many artists who incorporated some aspect of walking and the landscape into their work, but who would shy away from the term “landscape artist”. The timing of the festival has enjoyed some happy coincidences which have helped convince me that I was heading in the right direction. One of these was the IKON gallery’s exhibition of the art of Hamish Fulton (on now until 29th April).
Hamish Fulton sees his lengthy marches across the world as being his art form. He doesn’t alter the landscape in anyway way, or leave anything behind. The art is the walk itself. What he exhibits in the gallery isn’t the actual event, nor even a thorough documentation of his voyage. We are presented with information about the date and location of his walks, and short factual statements (such as “no paths”) in a huge, bold typographic layout that reminds me of the road signs he must regularly encounter on his journeys. Those signs have to convey their meaning quickly and efficiently.
Looking around the exhibition I had the feeling you get when rain lashes against the window from the safety of your warm living room. Hamish’s walks are often epic lengths and sometimes crossover into mountain climbing – gentle strolls these are not. One work from August 2000 shouts what Fulton’s world was reduced to that day: “BRAIN HEART LUNGS”, with the tiny annotation: “climb to the summit of Cho Oyu… without supplementary oxygen”. Spending more time with the huge wall pieces reveals subtleties – words are often to a specific letter-count and have a measured rhythm. Poetry from a man conserving his energy.
Hamish leads a city centre walk on Sun 8 April in connection with Fierce Festival
Hamish talks about his work on Sat 7 April at IKON- places for both events are free but booking from IKON is essential.
Hamish Fulton – IKON Gallery until 29th April
The IKON are also teaming up with Northfield EcoCentre for a River Rea exploration on Sat 17 March
Ben went in to the BBC studios today and spoke with Carl Chinn on Radio WM about guided tours, walking experiences and how the Still Walking festival came about.
You can listen to Ben and Carl by using the player below, or you can right-click on the link and download it.
Several weeks ago, Ben was out looking for snails (ask him about it one day) and he stumbled across this view:
It was exactly the place he’d intended to go to, but he was completely taken aback by the presence of the stones and the distant city centre towers behind them.
Since then we’ve been curious about these surprising vistas of the city: those unexpected views that show a different face of Birmingham. Sometimes even making it look like somewhere else.
Here’s an example from my own collection. Again a view towards the city centre; this time from the top of a roof in Digbeth.
I think it’s the gulls and something in the graininess of the sky that makes this a surprising vista for me. This Birmingham feels like a coastal American city.
Does Birmingham-as-elsewhere only happen at sunset? Does it require a little red-sky magic to make it happen?
We’d love to see any photos you have of Birmingham’s familiar skylines and landmarks glimpsed in such a way that make you feel you are no longer in Brum: slivers of landmarks from odd angles; views of the city that jar with expectations…
Update: red-sky magic not required!
While researching my tours for the festival this week, I realised that as much as I think I know the streets of Brum, I always find something new when I start looking again. One thing we rarely do when we’re in the city is stand still and look at it (unless maybe you are smoking in a doorway or waiting for a bus). Why would we? We’re trying to get somewhere. And if we are on the move, we are traffic and have to keep an eye on the road, not the horizon.
Yesterday I spent two hours looking at modernist design in the city and last week it was stone and terracotta architectural oddities. Some of the best examples I found were between the places I was heading to. I generally keep an eye open for stuff around the city, but deliberately setting out to look for it, with no other intention or destination, really yields rewards.
I think all the guides in the festival have done the same with their own particular interest. Usha might miss the Central Library but be acutely aware of the slopes and curves of Chamberlain Square. Mark may only have noticed Queen’s College’s weird bats and gargoyles if they appeared as a backdrop in BBC’s Hustle.
The idea that we all occupy our own worlds of experience is fascinating. The thing to do, of course, is invite people in and shown them round.
Still Walking isn’t afraid to visit the grittier side of town if there’s something interesting to be found there. Gez Marshall has been combing the back streets of Digbeth for the last few months in search of indigenous lettering – that is, signs created by the company itself, almost always by someone untrained in the graphic arts. Her interest ranges from the metal letters cut and shaped by the factory itself to signs painted on walls which are closer to graffiti than corporate branding. In between lie some visually arresting example of graphic naivety which are spectacular by NOT knowing the rules they are breaking. The letters tell the story of how we think about alphabets, accidentally create our own fonts and are a glimpse into how people think.
They also tell the story of Birmingham. Gez has unearthed examples stretching back a century or more and they chart the changes in local industry and the character of the area. It’s the local angle that she’s going for: she wants to find out if Birmingham lettering when taken as a whole, can show Birmingham has a local typographical “accent” (the DNA of the tour’s title). Her work reminds me of a naturalist returning with specimens in jars and carefully noting the differences in size, colour, origin and material. It’s also a living habitat: a fan of lost type and “ghost signs” myself, I feel the loss when something I’ve come to enjoy seeing on a regular walk disappears. The research is all part of Gez’s PhD project. and she also has a blog.
You can do some font field work yourself on her tour for Still Walking here.
The Still Walking festival gets a couple of paragraphs in today’s London Time Out:
Critics are quick to dismiss Birmingham as an architecturally unrewarding place to visit. It’s true that it has been built up, replanned and torn down more than almost any other place of comparable size in the country, but its compact centre, 2,000 listed buildings and the sheer ceaselessness of its regeneration make it an exciting place to walk. It’s like an urban planning experiment that got out of hand. Turn a corner and another dramatic vista opens up; scale and perspectives flip with every step. Brutalist concrete clamours for attention beside Blairite ‘regeneration’ developments: anything with an industrial legacy is fair game for redesignation. Skyscrapers spring up where they shouldn’t – and amid it all, Victorian remainders stand stoic.
The Still Walking festival, which runs March 15-April 1, is an example of the sort of independent happening that Birmingham does well. It’s organised by local artist and historian Ben Waddington, and features an esoteric set of guided walks around the city led by ‘historians, architects, artists, psychogeographers, dancers, storytellers and ramblers’, all keen to share their experiences of moving around Birmingham. ‘It came about after my Invisible Cinema tour for the Flatpack Festival [see Around Town below],’ says Waddington. ‘I began to think of the many ways and reasons people walk.’ Some of the highlights include Birmingham Noir, exploring ‘architectural grotesques and oddities in the business district’; Radial Truths, a cycling tour through the history of Birmingham cycle manufacture; and Brumicana, investigating the city’s urban myths.
You can read the whole article at http://www.timeout.com/travel/features/1175/a-fresh-look-at-birmingham
It would be fair to say that most of the Still Walking festival programme is biased towards the visual. There are, however, a few notable exceptions; one of these is the Digbeth Listening Walk led by Liminal.
Liminal are architect Frances Crow and sound artist and composer David Prior (David will be leading the Digbeth Listening Walk for us). They describe their work together as “exploring the relationship between sound, listening and the environment”.
There we go biasing the visual again! Fortunately Sam made a few field recordings and the Liminal website has some videos that convey a sense of how they work with shifting our attention onto the noises that surround us and also shifting the sounds themselves.
I’m liking the circularity of this, because when I think of the sounds of Digbeth, I am also reminded of Sam’s recent Sonic Graffiti project and these wonderfully atmospheric tracks made from field recordings around the area. These tracks are intended to be listened in the places whence they came, but here’s a taster:
I’ve experienced Digbeth late at night after visiting different events; in the early hours of the morning as I embark on my walking projects; during the day as I schlepp back home from the city centre and I’ve also sat in VIVID for hours on end listening to the drone of the buses going down Heath Mill Lane. Yet I still don’t really have a mental image (damn! there we go again!) of what Digbeth might sound like at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon. Will all the metal bashers still be at it, or will the factories have emptied for the weekend? Too early for the Friday-night revellers I expect, maybe also for the commuters making their way homewards?
Whatever the soundscape turns out to be, I’m looking forward to being given the excuse – and a few more skills – to pause and take notice of it.
The Digbeth Listening Walk takes place on Friday the 30th of March, 3-4:30pm. Hear you there.
Yesterday morning I met Chris Tomlinson of Birmingham Bike Foundry to check on progress with his cycling tour for the festival. Chris was finishing off a game of Bike Polo at Highgate Park’s Urban Cricket ground. Urban Cricket isn’t seen there so often but polo seems to be on the rise. So is cycling generally.
Radial Truths will be a three hour cycling tour exploring what’s left of Birmingham’s cycling industry, and in many cases, that’s an archeological exploration. This is Chris’s first guided tour, but cycling has long been an interest and in 2010 he co-founded Birmingham Bike Foundry to recycle, repair bikes and offer maintenance training. I’d never really looked at this side of Birmingham’s industrial history and was looking forward to finding out what he had in store on the trip.
One question I had for him: how had Birmingham turned from a bike industry leader to motor city in such a short period…and a relatively bike – unfriendly city at that? Chris explained how the Midlands bicycle industry responded to the public’s transportion needs…when motorbikes and cars became more affordable, cycle manufacture slowed down. It wasn’t that the factories “liked” cycling, rather that they could profit from supplying that demand. BSA, for example, moved from artillery through to bicycles (or “dicycles”) for the same reason. After the War, Birmingham reinvented itself as a car-centric city and the association with bicycles was largely lost. Giants like Aston’s Hercules disappeared almost overnight. Yet only a few years previously, the industry was still looking to shiny future…
I asked if there were any pre-war cycle routes so we could follow some historical routes, but as Chris gently explained, there were no cycle routes back then. Cars were the exception on most roads. The road was the cycle route. A young bike polo spectator overheard us and told his his grandfather had been employed by Hercules and he was enthusiastically researching the company’s history too. Could he come on the tour? I enjoy these moments!
Our first stop was the site of the once-enormous Ariel factory complex in Selly Oak. Even since I was last there in 2011 huge swathes of land have been cleared and rebuilt, including the aquaduct. So should this important cycling location be on the tour? I felt if we could identify one remaining trace, he should use it (I hate hearing the phrase “here once stood” on guided tours). Chris had heard a rumour that there was a plaque somewhere on the aquaduct, named Ariel Bridge after the factory. But there was no trace of anything – something Birmingham is very good at! We had to press on with the tour, with the ultimate destination of the mighty Hercules plant.
Find out how Chris got on with his exploration by booking a place on his tour. I promise, we did find something!
Here at Still Walking, we love maps…
We’re particularly fond of this one: the starting locations for the events in our first festival programme.
View Still Walking 2012, event starting locations in a larger map
That’s a pretty good spread across the centre of the city. We’re quite chuffed with that, considering it’s our first attempt!
View Still Walking 2012, event starting locations in a larger map
Swanning Around Erdington is a family-friendly promenade highlighting heritage and memories along the high street. Highly recommended if you like your theatre in small doses (groups are limited to 10, but the 30 minute tour will run four times during the afternoon.
By contrast, Radial Truths is a cycling expedition lasting approximately 3 hours that will range across the city taking in different sites relevant to cycle manufacturing in Birmingham. It begins in Stirchley at the Birmingham Bike Foundry.
So, these are our starting points… we hope you’ll join us to find out where they end up and what ground they cover en route.
On Sunday I met Mark Wilson outside Snow Hill Station to walk through the testing stage of his guided tour for the festival. On Location visits the sites of famous TV and film locations around the city. Some are set in Birmingham, others merely using the city as a backdrop for somewhere else… and, tantalisingly, sometimes leaving evidence behind.
I assembled a small group of people to give the tour some volume, amongst them James Kennedy (who will be blogging about the festival) and Euan Ferguson (up from London to cover the Birmingham tourist experience for Time Out). We set off into a wintery Birmingham to be shown Mark’s discoveries. Mark is pretty much obsessed with BBC’s “sitcon” Hustle, which drew to a conclusion last week, and had followed filming around the city over the last few months via a network of Twitter based Hustle spotters.
I first met Mark a year ago on one of my own tours: Invisible Cinema for last year’s Flatpack Festival visited forgotten cinemas around the city. Mark took some great photos on the tour and linked me to them on Flickr. Checking his other pictures, it was clear that Mark had a great interest in Birmingham history.
I heard from him again a few weeks later: he’d done some thorough research into Birmingham TV and film locations recently, but how could he go about giving a guided tour of his own? What was the platform for doing that? It so happened that I was in the early stages of developing my own festival of guided walks and was keen to give him that opportunity.
Some months on, the tour was just about ready to be tested. And it was a complete success! We learnt many of the tricks of the industry for setting a scene, and how a TV programme is often a collage of locations. If you know the city, there can be a jarring moment when the drama unfolds under an improbable route: witness Cliff Richard’s short musical stroll from Victoria Square to Gas Street Basin in Take Me High, which seems to take in every Birmingham landmark over a mile radius. And, like an Alfred Hitchcock cameo, Mark himself somehow seemed to regularly be on the scene of filming. By the end it was too cold for Mark to even turn the pages of his notes so we found shelter with a hot drink at IKON gallery. Find out exactly what is on the tour by going on it yourself on Sunday 18 March (part of a joint Flatpack / Still Walking venture).
Euan liked it too – though I’d been clear about the tour still being in development. Well done Mark: your first ever guided tour and it’s being covered by Time Out!
I came back from town this afternoon with a clutch of fliers, programmes and printed ephemera. One of my favourite pastimes is to lie on the sofa and leaf through these things with the diary and plan what I can actually see, what needs booking ahead, what clashes with the other thing happening at the other end of town. I brought back the first Fierce festival flier of the year, containing events already booked, talks I’d better get on and book and phrases I’ll never read again anywhere else (this year’s: “A sea of live local sausage dogs”). The programme reminded me that it is a year on from having the idea for a walking festival – it happened during Fierce.
Last year, Fierce fell on the same weekend as Flatpack. I was leading my Invisible Cinema tour – visiting abandoned or reused former cinema buildings around the city. Before the tour, I joined Kira O’Reilly’s Silent Walk – a performance piece in which a group are led in silence into the streets and allowed to find their own direction and leader. Both direction and leader constantly alter over the course of an hour. My usual role is tour guide, but here I held back to watch what was happening. The tour faltered twice – once to watch water bubbling through the pavement (a broken water main). No one seemed to want to leave. The second was outside the police station on Digbeth High Street… interesting.
After my research-driven tour, I thought about the very different approaches we each had for our tours – yet both were guided walks. I wondered if there was another direction I could take my tours, or what else counted as a guided tour. I began to think of many examples of walks people give, and take (and a year on, I haven’t stopped). Influenced by what was unfolding around me, I thought of a festival composed of all those walks. “Someone should organise that festival”, I thought lazily.
On the last day of the festival, I mentioned to Ian and Pip (the Flatpack directors) my musings – that I had been inspired by their efforts to create my own festival. This is perhaps the ultimate compliment – that through your creative efforts, others have been inspired to do their own. The earlier shadowy organiser had become me.
I’ve never been able to work out when exactly Fierce and Flatpack fall – something to do with full moons, I think. But this year they are separated by a couple of weeks, and Still Walking fits nicely into that gap. The sheer variety of forms and themes that a guided walk can take means it has been possible to group the tours according to the bread of the festival sandwich – Cinema History and Film / TV locations at the beginning for Flatpack and the more exploratory artist walks towards the Fierce end. And I hope you enjoy the filling!
The other booklet I brought back to peruse while lounging around was March’s IKON programme. No-one will see it but me probably, but there at the back amongst the IKON partners’ logos is a tiny black square with SW in it. That’s me! Still Walking is real, happening and out there, with a life of its own. I’d better try and catch it up!
We (Ben and Nikki) could very much do with a few extra pairs of hands to help the festival run smoothly!
If you’re excited about the Still Walking festival and can commit to a few hours either during or in the run up to the festival then we’d love to hear from you.
In particular we’re looking for help with the following things:
If you’d like to help out then please fill in the form below to start the conversation on when you’re available and the sorts of things you’d like to help with. The form is also available here.
So the first thing we should say now we’ve got our corner of the internets sorted is a massive thank you to everyone who’s got behind the idea of Still Walking and given us so much enthusiasm, encouragement and support.
We very quickly filled up the listings for our festival with offers of walking tours of many different flavours. Approximately half of the Guides have done this sort of thing before, but for many of the people on our programme this will first or early steps.
One of the founding tenets of Still Walking is that everyone has a walk or a tour within them. Another is that we want Still Walking to be a supporting framework to help those walks become a reality. To this end we have been mentoring several of the Guides, working with them to develop their ideas, hobbies and obsessions into the events that we’d now like to share with you.
A special thank you and a nod of appreciation/encouragement to those who have taken the plunge with us.
We’d also like to say thanks to all those who have offered walks that we’re unfortunately not able to fit into our programme this time around. If the response we’ve had as Still Walking has been born over the last year or so is anything to go by, I’m sure there will be more festivals and events to follow in the future.
In the meantime though, we’re really proud and excited to bring you this, our first, festival.
Welcome to Still Walking.