Birmingham Gothic (neé Noir)

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 A young man, dishevelled and withdrawn, wandered over to our gathering, and seemed to want to join in with the conversation.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…

Writer James Kennedy was an embedded reporter on the Birmingham Noir tour. Look out for more of his essays throughout the festival.

Still Walking in Time Out

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

Getting in the Saddle for Radial Truths

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!

Radial Truths


Testing Testing

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!

Still Walking: the genesis

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!