Knot Working

The city becomes invisible to those that know it well. If you know your way around, there’s no need to really look at it. Those who live and work in Birmingham usually have no need to refer to the wayfinding signs, but given the last eight years or so of Civic upheaval, their function has become more in demand. 

The chrome spike signposts appeared about 20 years ago against a high-profile declaration of providing CCTV for safety and security of citizens, as well as pointing at key parts of the city. They were overtaken and updated in 2011 by the iPhone 4-esque totems provided by Interconnect, but bits of them are still in place, scattered like broken headstones, missing arms and cameras.

For some reason, I started paying attention to the one in Victoria Square a few weeks ago. I’d just been looking at the ‘Town and Country’ ghost sign recently revealed on the iron shutter of a shop at the top of new street - perhaps I still had my ‘urban revelation’ glasses on as I strolled past on the way to the Francis Alÿs exhibition at Ikon.

 What's the Point?

What's the Point?



The signpost looked unusually scruffy, even in the context of a civic centre that is essentially a building site. The clear plastic weather-proofing over the signs is badly perished and peeling. The post itself looks like it was recently hit by something heavy, and now lists dramatically, like its former square companion the Iron: Man. Closer inspection reveals that many of the destinations the arms point to are no longer there, making its primary function redundant.
Most recently gone are the School of Music and Fletcher’s Walk. The School of Food dropped the Tourism & Creative Studies bit some time ago too. Central Library closed in 2013. The Visitor Information centre that once stood on the corner of Waterloo Street and Colmore Row has surely been closed for ten years or more (the city no longer has one at all).
One arm has been updated: white spray paint covers one destination, which on closer inspection turns out to be ‘Jewellery Quarter’. That’s still there!

At some point the Museum and Art Gallery have used the signpost as a beacon for their fluctuating entrances, with black and white chevrons pointing the way. It looks to me like this large sticker accidentally covered a sensor or secret camera at the top, below the New Street Station arm, then was covered back up with insulation tape, now hanging off untidily.

My first thoughts were: has this sign recently been uncovered somehow, like the iron shop shutters? A blast from the past, albeit a much more recent one? But no, this sign post hasn’t moved since the 90s, other than by a few degrees to the right.

Without getting into the meta-semantics of what this sign signifies, it feels like it is causing more problems than solutions. How many visitors have gone in search of Tourist Information or assumed the Jewellery Quarter is inaccessible? Doesn’t Birmingham want to look after its new residents, tourists and indeed refugees? What has gone wrong?

At some point in the last couple of generations, we have lost the ability to see ourselves from the outside, like a work desk that gets steadily more chaotic and untidy. WE know our way around by now and … hasn’t it always been like that?

Ben Waddington’s walk for Ikon Gallery - Knot Working - responds to themes of illegibility in urban design, invisible boundaries and the erosion of Civic Space in Birmingham and takes place on Saturday 11 August at 1pm. Advance bookings only at Francis Alÿs’s exhibition Knots’n Dust is on until September the 9th.

Kong: Sculpture Island

The Birmingham Post ran an article last November on the back of an ‘Elvis Live on Screen’ roadshow that was about to roll into town, hosted by Priscilla Presley. Famously, Elvis never played in the UK but, surmised arts correspondent Graham Young, had he come to Birmingham during a key interval in 1972, he could have met the city’s own ‘King’ – namely Nicholas Monro’s King Kong sculpture in Manzoni Gardens. Priscilla must have been baffled but diplomatically agreed that it could indeed have happened. Further, ‘Elvis may even have visited your Bullring.’ As a piece of journalism it was drivel, made worse by missing the opportunity to report on a key event happening beyond Birmingham’s borders that week. Outside the Henry Moor Institute in Leeds, King Kong was going public after a forty year period of retreat.

Young’s hypothetical meeting highlighted the enduring and unshakeable fascination that the citizens of Birmingham have with the sculpture, decades after its removal. His was a game of conjecture and freeform nostalgic word association, being played to squeeze a further drop of cultural value from the work, which many perceive as being unduly cut short when it was uninstalled a mere six months after its arrival. ‘What might have been, had these two legends only lived a little longer?’

No other example of Birmingham’s public art works has been subject to the same degree of anecdote, speculation, false memory, hand-wringing nostalgia, campaign for return or shoddy research. The sense of loss seems out of all proportion to the immediately apparent artistic value of the work. Further, the phenomenon is not confined to those who were resident in the city at the time: new comers become absorbed into the myth. In the last few weeks I’ve spotted its likeness in promotions for a comedy club, satirical cartoons, store promotion and now in two separate exhibitions, one wholly devoted to the sculpture. It is as if it were still a current landmark, in a way that happens regularly for Gormley’s Angel of the North.

Why so much affection, by proxy?

 King of the Castle

King of the Castle

In November last year, I met Kong for the first time, towering outside Henry Moore Institute. Looking for it on The Headrow, on the walk up from the station had the same sense of anticipation as seeing truly spectacular works such as the Uffington White Horse or the Avebury stone circle, or on holiday as a child, spotting the sea for the first time from the car. It’s a jarring moment to spot him through the Christmas funfair rides in the square outside. Seeing Kong back in a city setting, in broad daylight feels like he has been torn directly from the realm of fantasy, mirroring his cinematic counterpart who was forcibly removed from Skull Island to be enslaved in New York. Like the movie Kong, his fibreglass frame is scarred by unknown forces (arm crushed by a reversing works lorry? Scalped by a T Rex?) His hands and feet are more subtly rendered than is apparent in photos. He is sexless. His presence is having a powerful lunchtime effect on the selfie hunter generation.

I’d tried to meet previously, while on an accidental holiday in Cumbria a while ago. I’d noticed the  roadsigns to Penrith and made the connection to the sculpture’s current location, despite peripherally thinking Penrith was in Wales. How hard would it be to find him? The ‘in-the-know’ locational statement to claim for him was ‘lying on his back in a car park (or market) in Penrith’. Google maps confirmed this, his form visible on a railway embankment. He was no longer supine – and his broad shoulders were now white. His role at the market was as a meeting point for ‘lost granddads’. However, on arrival at the market he was nowhere to be seen.

 Kong was Here

Kong was Here

Despite knowing his position was intended as a landmark, I scoured the outer reaches of the car park on foot for clues, but Kong remained a step ahead. Back in the realm of wifi, I discovered at leisure more recent images of Kong which placed him in a more rural setting than the market. This proved to be the garden of current guardian Lesley Maby… address not given.

A few months later I attended the Art Walk guided tour in Birmingham, which promised the current low-down on Kong’s whereabouts, and other public art insider knowledge. However, the two guides were afflicted by the same creeping mythologising that affects the whole story. Thus both the given original and current location of the sculpture were wrong and one guide remembered the sculpture as being bright purple. In 2017, placing where Manzoni Gardens actually was requires careful lining up of the few extant buildings and overlaying maps past and present. It seems right to place the exact location of the statue as somewhere beneath Footasylum in the west wing of the current Bullring. Curiously I’ve seen the colour miscall from other sources, most likely due to successively degrading reproductions of an original 1970s colour photograph. Kong was most certainly slate grey.

Peripherally, the Kong researcher will know that the figure has changed colour many times and worn many costumes, but the Art Walk demonstrated that Google and Wiki were now our default post-truth authorities, bolstered by folk-knowledge and our own hazy recollections. So to what source should the rigorous researcher turn? For the longest time, the dependable standard reference tool for West Midlands public art information was George Noszlopy’s Public Sculpture of Birmingham, published by the University of Liverpool.

However, about Kong, it is plain wrong. After being traced to Edinburgh in the 1990s, the sculpture is reported to have been ‘destroyed’. This slip is almost certainly down to the researchers reporting someone else’s ‘last I heard’ misrememberings and in the context of a University Press publication, it lends a gilded red herring to the legend. A recent New York Review of Books article on the exhibition gives the sculptor’s name as ‘Michael’ Monro, suggesting that the accepted larger function of the art work is now a deliberate effort to steer the subject into fantasy.

Inside the gallery, in the company of creator Nicholas Munro, owner Lesley Maby and the latter-day ‘Carl Denham’ Derek Horton, the various threads of the story overlap again, many meeting for the first time. Derek is the reason that Kong – and not a maquette – is here and not still cemented in place in Lesley’s back garden. His long term obsession with the sculpture has spawned its own The King and I show at & Model Gallery, across the road from Henry Moore. Listening to his accounts of its removal by digger, crane and lorry, Lesley’s insistence that he be given a new coat of paint for his comeback show and assorted chapters in the chronicles of Kong is fascinating, and all outside the remit of the exhibition. Lesley is happy to fill in the gaps too. At some point, the sculpture in its domestic setting became a memorial for her late husband. For most of its life, Kong has been the calling card, mascot, sidekick and brand mark of Nigel Maby, and his story, the one that’s most closely connected to an ownership of Kong, still remains to be told.

The fuller story of Kong is not its brief life as public art but rather all the identities and functions it has had since then. Of its 45 years of existence, only during its first six months was it intended as art. It feels like an experiment in understanding what art does, by setting the same object in different social conditions. In the setting of an art gallery, and the resultant conversations, several mysteries become clearer. A Hollywood legend such as King Kong, with 40 years in the public consciousness was always going to be popular. For the public to be told that this creation that the whole family was enjoying was in fact art – Pop Art – would have been received with surprise and delight. Children in the otherwise bland Manzoni Gardens would have had a moment of thinking ‘why is this here?’, only to be snatched away a few months later. It would appear in ever more remote locations around the city before disappearing for good. Derek announces to the gathered crowd that he is once such child – at 16 he saw the sculpture and felt that if this could be art, then he could be an artist. It’s surely every artist’s unspoken intention – to quietly hand on the torch. Nicholas is intrigued by all the attention, and almost apologetically has to say that none of the impact was intended, none of it had any deeper meaning. It was Pop Art. These days he’s a scientist and is in town to give a paper on anti-gravity to the University.

Outside another experiment is underway: for three months, Kong is meeting the citizens of a new city and a new generation of children. Certainly he will be more comprehensively documented than in 1972, and factoring all the social media Likes, Faves and Retweets, perhaps he will have an even wider audience than his time in Birmingham. Then he will again disappear. How will the children of Leeds remember him?

City Sculpture Projects 1972 is on at Henry Moore Institute until Sunday 19 Feb 2017

The King and I is on at & Model Gallery until 19 February 2017

Kong: Skull Island opens on Fri 10 March at selected theatres

Shrek ride.png

Lost Rivers of London 4: The Peck (and Earl’s Sluice)

An epic 12 mile, two-river walk for the mid-point of the London’s Lost Rivers series of walks. The general idea is to programme the various Lost River walks in Tom Bolton’s book over seven annual outings to make the 100 or so miles covered more manageable. This July we met in Peckham Rye Park to follow the course of the Peck to an indistinct spot where it joins the Earl’s Sluice and then flows into the Thames via Surrey Quays, then to follow the Earl’s Sluice back to its source.

This was the first time we’d walked a river’s length in reverse – it was simply to reduce the already lengthy journey. The book suggests choosing either / or but we knew we wanted to do both! As it turned out, there was nearly no trace of the Earl’s Sluice either in it’s watery form or by its impact on the landscape.

The source of the Peck is an elevated wooded spot with an excellent view of the valley the water course takes. A concrete platform at the hill’s peak is revealed to be a First World War anti-Zeppelin gun placement, an East India Company telegraph beacon and an Admiralty beacon used during the Napoleonic wars – indeed the dais reveals traces of more recent fires too. Another nearby landmark: an oak tree that may or may not have had a royal stand near it (I always find it fascinating to see what info people feel is recording on plaques). We also discover some exceptionally solid looking iron boundary markers: ‘Camberwell’ with the first few letters covered by an advancing soil line.

 Reservoir Temple (credit: John Clarkson)

Reservoir Temple (credit: John Clarkson)

Following the valley and looking for river clues of any sort puts us in a heightened awareness state – suddenly everything is worth looking at and we note the abundance of exotic tree species in this part of south London: fig trees seem especially common. At the foot of the hill we enter the park and the Peck (as in Peckham) is revealed. It’s a trickle rather than a river, and surely only on view at all here for aesthetic purposes, and we don’t see it again on our journey. A rustic bridge in the park makes best use of the river’s fleeting presence.

It is next possible to detect the river on a stretch of meadow : an unmown grassy island ahead signals two iron manhole covers, one of which (‘Silent Knight’) reveals the sound of the river’s flow. For this you need to be lying on the grass with your ear to the plate – it’s actually very soothing and as the day warms up, approaching noon, it is tempting to stay in the meadow for a while.

 ‘A Grate Day Out’ (credit: Rob Gilbert)

‘A Grate Day Out’ (credit: Rob Gilbert)

Several other local history elements punctuate the next few miles through Peckham before there is another river clue. Already the book (published in 2011) is slightly out of date, as you would expect with a dynamic cityscape. We have to double back after being promised a street bearing the most overhead viaducts in London, each more oppressive looking than the last. There’s moment of horror when it seems that a row of early C18 houses mentioned in the book may have been demolished to make way for a gigantic housing development – but no, they are safe around the corner just visible above the hoarding. Being turned into apartments can be a good sign: the spec means the developer will have to do good job of restoring the buildings.

We also find more of the super solid boundary markers: looks like we walked the length of Camberwell.

 The Water Margin

The Water Margin

It’s an industrial landscape alright: viaducts are plentiful and their arches form the basis of a sub economy of small businesses and – in one district – evangelical churches. I want to find the River of Life Centre but like the best lost rivers it remains unseen. Best name: Christ Apostolic Church Surrey Docks District. …something defining the character of the area by embracing the docks in the name. Nothing references the Peck itself other than Peckham itself, which means simply ‘village by the Peck’. Various sauce and Pickle factories of old once occupied the railway arches.

One last glimpse of the river’s existence as it bridges a railway line, a seemingly colour-coded light blue conduit this one beneath ground level. We’ve seen this before when the Westbourne is piped through Sloan Square tube and the gauge looks similar: members of the group spot it before I officially am able to ID it in the book. We’re learning! At some point though, the river became the Earl’s Sluice.

Gradually there are more and more references to Quays, Wharfs and Docks, variously in Churches, Cafés and Newsagents and we approach our designated rest area: the Wobbly Wobbly Pub, floating in Greenland Dock. Sadly it seems this pirate ship of a pub closed just a few days earlier, so its a challenge for our various apps to find the nearest open pub on land. All our nearby options have a Whale or Moby Dick theme and provide a clue to what exactly Greenland was exporting.

 First Prise (credit: John Clarkson)

First Prise (credit: John Clarkson)

We join another contingent of our group and – after refreshments – head out to the source of the Earl’s Sluice – the only river on our longer seven year itinerary named after a river’s artificial use as a drain channel. It provides proof that the Lost River walks are not about sight seeing (though there are many intriguing encounters) – the river is only evidenced by a return visit to the blue conduit and indeed around a third of the route is along the very noisy Albany Road. After a long period of sirens and relentless traffic we abandon the option of walking ‘quite near to’ the invisible river and go to nearby Burgess park for ice creams and a more tranquil setting.

So, no ‘Earl’s Sluice Bakery’ on this stretch, but there’s plenty to keep us occupied: tall green stink pipes, a completely unexpected urban stables, David Bowie’s 1960s rehearsal space provides the single moment of glam and most amazing of all, a dramatic sun halo arcing round the sun high in the summer sky. ‘What are you all looking at?’ asks a woman of our sky-searching group. I offer her my sun glasses to take a look. Its a great spot – would we have seen it if we weren’t so environmentally alert in our hunt for clues?

 Halo Spaceboy (credit: Rob Gilbert)

Halo Spaceboy (credit: Rob Gilbert)

The sluice is finally visible in Ruskin Park, where it has its origin and we have our end, sun scorched and exhausted from a day’s unglamorous touring. This is home territory for one of our group so it is short work to head to the nearest pub once we’ve witnessed the pool and speculative discussion about 2019’s final lost river walk – current mood suggests we make it a short one ;o)


Last week I went Mudlarking for the first time. I’d known about this curious riverside activity for a while but had never got further than thinking: ‘I wonder how they get down there’, and following one of them on Twitter.

Maybe twenty years of living in a city without a river has made me treat real ones (rivers not cities) with near mythological reverence – I deliberately seek out the courses of ‘lost’ rivers when visiting London and even finding the Thames from London Bridge usually involves several wrong turns, elevation miscues and back alley shuffling. From one point on my most recent ‘lost Thames’ re-orientation, I saw a sealed-off set of concrete steps leading down to the river bank itself; once I reached the walkway I found there was no easy way in.

Soooo… how did people find their way down to the riverbank? I decided now was the time to find out. I kept an eye open for entry points while walking and – hardly a mystery – it turned out there were several openable gates that reveal steps leading down to the river. A few people were using the steps as extra seating and then – at river level – there were the Mudlarkers themselves. Instantly it felt like entering another world – one which was happily unfolding on its own terms independently of anything else going on at surface level. I saw five or six people there, each with their own Mudlarking motives. One elderly pair had collected a selection of (yellow) brick pebbles which they were juggling to carry while another woman washed off her find in a trickle of water coming from a Bankside outlet pipe. Further on. a man lay on his side, gently scraping away from a plateau of mud that rose from the surrounding shale. A huge wooden sign mounted on the river wall reads BANKSIDE, completely covered in dripping river greenery and criss-crossed with chains weighted with stones.



I made my way slowly through this new landscape, gazing no more than a few feet in front of me. Not sure what I was looking for. I’d read recently about someone regularly finding bullets and even a (live?) wartime grenade so I fixed on looking for some UXB ordnance. There were plenty of shattered pottery fragments amongst the pebbles, much of it clearly C18 and C19th, and some rough looking, mustardy glazed C17 candidates. Some have the occasional tantalising piece of text or image – unsolvable jigsaws. There were any amount of shattered clay pipe stems and bowls. Animal bones and teeth. It seemed bizarre that stuff so old, even rubbish, is all still here, churning for centuries, the uncurated museum of human detritus.

People in this shoreside realm seemed content to exist independently – people don’t come here to socialise. No-one challenged me or even seemed to notice I was there. After I’d covered 100 yards (in nearly 30 minutes) an older gentleman asked if I’d had any luck? Maybe my exceptionally slow shuffle suggested I was an expert. ‘Just browsing,’ I responded, nonsensically. I doubt my lovely yellow brick pebbles would have registered as significant finds with him.

 Silt Puffins

Silt Puffins

Most of the things I collected on the short walk I threw back – I’d gathered them for the experience. A few I keep: the yellow brick pebbles and a small selection of tiles pieces and pipe sections, confident this haul would compare closely with those of most first-timers. But I felt thrilled with my finds, far more valuable than any of the tat on sale in the Tate Modern gift shop (where I was now emerging). The nature of the tides means there is new stock in twice a day and I feel certain I’ll return for further browsing the next time I manage to find the Thames.

 Away haul away

Away haul away

How to Be a Free Seer // walk and workshop for Birmingham Weekender


‘Brilliant and insightful’

‘We’re going to get arrested’

‘How do I convert to Free Seeing?’  

Today’s Free Seeing walk had the feel of accidentally cracking open the universe and glimpsing the inner workings of its invisible interior. Still Walking events have had some great responses from guides simply sharing their view of the world but this was the first time a group has said they felt they were ‘changing’ or that by merely looking they were doing something that could get them arrested. Fascinating to think that the act of looking can invoke such a response.

Francis’s background is in film making and animation and his language in describing the urban fabric and our ways of seeing it borrows from a film makers lexicon. Our movement while walking through the city streets is described with pans, tracking shots and reveals. Beyond the transposition of techniques from screen to the real world are a host of games and experiments that engage the curious and willing free seer.

Free Seeing at Grand Central Station met outside Cherry Reds on John Bright Street but immediately wrong footed participants (and myself) by walking through the Birmingham Weekender festival crowds, Grand Central shoppers and Rugby world cup fans to a car park on Livery Street. Here the traces of Snow Hill Station’s grand former entrance still stands, an impressive gateway in glazed brick and terracotta, with rich ornamentation and ships in full sail but conspicuously bricked up in recent years and out of use – an instantly rebuffed invitation. A half-hearted preservation out of a vague sense of civic duty. An ugly large hole has been sliced through the beautiful glazed bricks which reminded Francis of the hole cut in the basement wall of the recent daring bank vault heist. Brutal, precise but presumably necessary to for someone to do. This old doorway was the portal to the Free Seeing walk: sight seeing of sorts but in order to see what was beyond this door (and to understand free seeing) we needed to be creative. To view beyond the wall, we ascended the bunker-like concrete stairs and emerged at a walkway at an upper level. The revelation of what lies beyond the doorway from above is banal – no secret garden or Narnia here just the meaningless, invisible inner stylings of the car park’s edge lands. But the act of being curious and planning a means of discovery is the real revelation. No-one was ever meant to see this space and as such is the ideal way to begin the tour. Next door, the overhanging mirrored surface of a building unintentionally reflects the rubbish accruing in a open topped buttress – what may have seemed dynamic and beguiling by the architect perhaps needed greater fore-thought. This is free seeing in one of its many forms – seeing inside the design intentions of the city and suggesting edits.

 Platform 1

Platform 1

The next destination is a sight seeing tour staple: St Phillips cathedral. In all the guided tours I’ve been on, no-one has really explained how to look at buildings the way the architect intended. It’s not difficult, but it helps to have a guide to take observers beyond the process of merely identifying buildings for navigation means. The front of the cathedral invites the eye to move upward through tiers of decorative symmetry including the (then) fashionable rococo warping of normally straight lines into sweeping concave curves. Our eye is not allowed to stay still, but its movement is carefully directed by the architect. Francis’s free seeing technique is to be aware of these intentions and to contemplate it all from a horizontal position. Yoga mats are provided and the free seers lie in formation to get the ideal vantage – just you, the sky and the elevation. No neck ache from craning and the free seers relax into it it’s what this game is about: treating yourself, and the position of the eyes in your skull, as a flexible apparatus. Not being satisfied with the factory settings. A further wrinkle involves looking at the elevation as it is reflected in the back of a reflective owl sculpture set away from the building. A queue of free seers sit in position in front of the owl (there is only one vantage possible) to the fascination and bemusement of those in the church yard, and indeed it looks like a religious act of supplication. From their perspective, no explanation of this activity is possible.


 Owl Be Back

Owl Be Back


Members of the group quickly adapt the techniques and volunteer ‘free sees’ as we move through the city. A gap between buildings reveals a sliver of the remote Cube, iced with a line of foliage, counterpointed by the Victoria’s C19th self surety and the framing anonymity of 1960s Birmingham Metropolita. This scene appears to have a title too: an advertising billboard reads ‘Nothing Artificial Makes It In’.


Naturally, we take in the reflective steel cladding of the new New Street station. I feel this building is the architect’s solution to the impossible task of sensitively responding to the environment here – the many ‘news’ of New St. There is no unified townscape, just a city cycling through styles, endless alterations, featureless brickscape, and brutalist expanses. The only way for this building to land comfortably here is to literally reflect its surrounding as a distorting hall of mirrors, throwing the buildings into fractured disarray while casting delicate rippling arcs of sunlight across the scarred urban surface. For the mobile free seer, it allows Inception-like overhead self-viewing in triplicate, a ‘free selfie’, backed by the city folding in on itself. This surely will become the TV or filmic establishing shot – you have now arrived in Birmingham. We note the absence, after even a few days of their arrival, of two plane trees positioned near the Eye Screen – it takes a free seer to be that tuned into the environment.


 Mat or Shiny?

Mat or Shiny?

Mat or shiny

Inside Grand Central’s concourse, we reflect on the subject of watching, surveillance and the omnipresent CCTV camera. From one spot, we count 37 ceiling and wall mounted cameras in a 360 degree group pan. Our attract the attention of the station staff – can they be of assistance? ‘No thanks, just looking around’.

The walk is followed (after a break in the busy bar beneath the Evil Eye) by a free seeing workshop that devotes more time and considered practice into some of the techniques. It too is a success and allows a deeper understanding of the technique. Indeed Francis will lead one more of these workshops before the festival ends. Please join us at the foot of the grand staircase, Grand Central at 3pm on Sunday 27th September – we’ll be the ones with the yoga mats.

Naturally, the workshop is free! Book below.

 ‘The Crow’

‘The Crow’


‘The Crow’


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Shaping Cinema


Shopping for Simulacra with Matt Westbrook

Matt Westbrook has been spotting owls around the city over the last few weeks – as have many Birmingham residents. But Matt’s owls are different to those appearing in the Big Hoot – they’re camouflaged against the fabric of buildings, nestling in the background, waiting for someone to notice they are there. Matt is leading a walk on Sun 27 Sept which rounds up various animal forms around the city centre: owls, fish and a selection of other wildlife. To find out Matt’s techniques and start spotting such simulacra yourself, sign up for the tour here.

A selection of Matt’s owls appear below – some are less shy than others and it sometimes takes a moment for them to reveal themselves fully. Matt is also producing a free postcard pack of his favourites – let us know if you are interested.

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think it started in Tate Modern, whilst attempting to wander nonchalantly around ‘Poetry and Dream’ I was asked by a couple to take their photo. A bit awoken from my own thoughts and unprepared for what was to come I agreed but then immediately realised we were in front of Joseph Beuys’s ‘The Pack’, an installation of 24 sledges with blankets rolled up emerging from the back of a vintage VW camper van.

My heart sank.
As they both began gooning for the camera in some sort of Pepsi Max pose, holding their hands in a VW hand signal, I paused and lowered the camera (it was an actual camera then not the now proliferate camera phone) and stared bewilderedly at them.  ‘Really?’ I telepathically communicated. They stayed in pose and beckoned me to press the button.

Aware that I was now part of my own art gallery conveyor belt installation, with people almost queuing to get past, I shook my head and took the quickest of shots.

I was reminded of this incident recently whilst walking through Birmingham when I was asked to photograph a family in front of a multi-coloured owl, positioned close to an arts and crafts building full of detail and history.

It got me thinking about the whole experience of photographing yourself in front of artworks, celebrities, shiny ostentatious buildings and now owls, prompting me to find something else…

Lost Rivers of Bradford – Cottingley Beck

Another lost river opportunity presented itself on a recent trip to Saltaire in West Yorkshire. I booked into a roadside hotel near Cottingley – a familiar from my The Unexplained reading days. There, in 1920, two cousins snipped pictures of fairies from a magazine, propped them up near a brook and photographed them as a joke. The results were accepted as genuine by adults and by the time the journos got hold of the pix, no backtracking was possible for the young girls. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s endorsement delivered the story directly into folklore for the next 60 years or so. Only when elderly did the culprits confess the caper.

This story is not really one of ‘are fairies real?’ but rather ‘why did people accept them?’ There is a contemporary parallel with modern meme / fave / like / please RT culture, with young photoshop whizzes tapping into our wooliest hopes and our darkest fears: see for reference the various post 9/11 smoke plume-dwelling demons. In the post Great War trauma, perhaps we needed something from a more innocent time to believe in again; Elsie and Frances were offering exactly that. The war itself quickly created more lost loved ones than Europe had ever experienced – their families all potential clients for the unscrupulous spiritualists of the day. Conan Doyle was one such customer. His endorsement may seem out of place given what we know about his most famous creation but we should remember that Sherlock was exactly that – a fictional character.

Interestingly, one of the Cottingley Fairies’ most vocal opponents was another Birmingham resident: John Francis Hall-Edwards – early adopter of X rays and all-round photographic expert.

I wanted to see the brook as it looked now and find what evidence there was of the fairies today. I mean, of course, evidence of their cultural resonance on the village’s fabric… though I was keeping an open mind.

The immediate problem was finding the location of Elsie’s house and the brook (or beck) behind it. Many sources quote the famous story but I could find only one local history website that included pictures of Elsie’s house. That site advises we respect the current owner’s privacy and helps us to do this by not revealing the address. However, Cottingley is small enough to allow the ardent sleuth to discover it by perseverance. Channelling the spirit of Holmes, I set out to determine the exact location that the fairy cut outs were made. The brook is too minor to appear on Google Maps’ waterways but an OS map I happened to have with me revealed the watery flow behind a series of houses. The pictures are described as being taken in the woods at the bottom of the garden (and perhaps this location gave rise to that particular fairy-realm phrase?) In the house photograph I could make out the door number, and reflected in the window, part of a street sign opposite: ‘N STREET’. Only one street on the map matches, and Google street view confirms that this is indeed the right place.

 Loser Beck

Loser Beck

The brook itself is first visible flowing through a concrete culvert off the dual carriageway. It is an unpromising start to this mysterious watercourse but immediately behind this is a flavour of those Edwardian years: dense woodland and a gently babbling rivulet snaking through the dark trees. Access looks unlikely. The first sign of Cottingley village is a ground level stone carved with the town’s name obscured by flowers… the next sign is buried in tree foliage. For a moment, it feels like Cottingley may have something to hide. But the next sign I see is for Cottingley Tires and with this prosaic roadside garage the illusion of mystery evaporates. Near here is the hospital, whose gates are adorned with silhouettes of the famous dancing fairy picture. The next clue references the brook, flowing beneath the road and behind a row of stone cottages. ‘Beckside Fisheries’ is the name: the local chip shop isn’t a ‘fishery’ but it does confirm that there is indeed a brook at the back. The house next door is (or was) called Brookside, just visible in faded painted letters. Various access points to the beck present themselves but I have no intention of trespassing or even appearing to be sight seeing. I wonder how many oddball tourists have made there way here over the years – the locals must surely learn to recognise such outsiders quickly. I try to look like I’m visiting an auntie on a nearby lane – a subtle but real skill. I can see that a metal fence has been erected along the line of low millstone grit walls – it looks like a recent, deliberate effort to keep people out of the beck. A cottage here is quietly named Fairy Dell, as is a nearby (post 1920) street.

The house itself is up for sale but otherwise unmarked. Further up from the cottage is a bridge crossing the brook, which is just visible through the depths of the dark woodland. A small boy plays alone on the steep grassy bank – in a small village such as this one can’t always find a play mate. By this point I’ve run out of village and head back to the hotel (via auntie’s). Later I go back online to look for the house for sale. Tepilo don’t miss a trick and make a big deal of the historic significance of the house, even leaving the mystery open for potential buyers.

Despite the confession in her twilight years, Frances Griffiths added another twist to the story when she insisted that although the photos were faked, they did really see fairies at the beck. Furthermore she maintained that one of the of the photographs did in fact capture real fairies in the background, their faces hidden amongst the grass.

I’m quietly pleased that Cottingley doesn’t ‘sell’ the fairies, but if you know what to look for, their presence can still be detected.

‘This agency stands flat-footed upon the ground, and there it must remain. The world is big enough for us. No ghosts need apply.’

Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

 Welcome to

Welcome to

 Tale Gate

Tale Gate

 Fairy Liquid

Fairy Liquid

 Soap and Water

Soap and Water











Lost Rivers of London 3: the Westbourne

The Westbourne is the third of seven underground rivers in London whose above-ground course we have been following on annual excursions.

The source of the Westbourne took us back to the source of the Fleet, as explored in 2013: a dew pond in Hampstead Heath which also represents London’s highest point. This time I took the trouble to look up what a dew pond was rather than merely thinking ‘hm, dew!’ and leaving it at that. The lost rivers walks are intended to instil a sense of curiosity about the environment in the walkers…. by this point it’s working! (a dew pond is an artificial depression at the top of a hill made to collect ‘dew’ or more likely, rainwater).

Each river’s character is subtly different. The Westbourne proved to be the most elusive so far – we didn’t see it from ground level at any point, while the Fleet and the Neckinger occasionally revealed themselves. The dew pond apparently doesn’t count, and at this early stage all we had to go on was the shape of a valley and some reeds at the foot of a dip in the land revealing a watery presence. Residential gardens are described as being mossy and clayy, the book’s author pointing a finger at the river for this.

I like the experience of getting to know Tom’s character through these annual excursions. The walks we undertake are at once Tom’s published river walk, witnessing the changing nature of the landscape even since 2011, speculation about the publisher’s requirements for the book’s content, and seeing what is left out as much as what is included in the text. My favourite aspect of the walks is our group’s own responses and discoveries – my take is that this is why we are here. An early moment is spotting the name ‘Welbeck’ on a building: it’s clue for our greater consideration, rather than evidence of someone responding to the river’s existence. A watery term emerges a few hundred yards later: ‘Solent’ Way. The Solent is a strait rather than a river and its appearance may well be accidental. But it’s the moment of feeling that you may be reading / decoding someone’s hidden intentions that is the thrill of London’s Lost Rivers.

One such moment occurs at a right turn into an alley: decorative arches in a wall mark the presence of the underground river – ‘either by intention or accident’. The phrase splits the whole project apart: what are we actually doing here? As the ‘guide’ I’m happy to look for material myself and weigh up what it might mean, using the book as a prompt rather than a comprehensive authority. I’m happy for Tom Bolton to share his observations too rather than announce he is a river authority. I seemingly inconsequential feature such as these brick arches would be nearly impossible to trace or research the real intention of. Would we want that info to be included anyway?  Certainly the publisher wouldn’t. It’s worth mentioning at this point that I skip most of Tom’s interstitial theatre history / crime site inclusions in the book – we’re really just here for the river. Occasionally I feed one to the group when there’s more than a quarter mile between grids in the pavement or effluvial valley evidence in the street layout.

 Arch Nemesis

Arch Nemesis

 You don't miss your water

You don't miss your water


Something else became apparent this year too, a clearer understanding of the purpose of the walks and how they sit within the wider practice of guided tours. I’d recognised that by dropping sight-seeing as an intention for looking at our surroundings, it allowed the group to focus on the ‘invisible’ aspects of our world. This could include the shape of geographical landscape, or shop, place and street names, drains and manhole covers and more. The format of Lost Rivers allows something else interesting to happen: essentially I’m acting as a very sketchy guide for the event by doing no preparation at all beyond bringing Tom Bolton’s guide book London’s Lost Rivers. I’m at once tracing the route, skimming the text for river related information and only occasionally looking up for evidence of the river’s presence – at this point I usually take the group the wrong way and miss key bits of the rout as it appears in print. The task of observer falls to the group. We suspect that Tom leaves some aspects of the river to be discovered by the dedicated walker – a reward for exploring from beyond their armchair. In the absence of a reliable guide, i.e. me, the group are encouraged to (and basically need to) sharpen their observational and interpretative skills to benefit from the walk. In some contexts this would be unacceptable behaviour from the guide but in this context it worked quite well. I’m merely inviting people to come with me as I negotiate the book and the unfamiliar city and I enjoy the feeling of being a group member of my own tour. That said, I think next year I’ll at least become familiar with the route we are supposed to take: this time absence of street name markers was incredibly frustrating.

At one point, I get the map wrong and lead the group along a street-too-far. It reveals the crazy PoMo architecture of Netherwood Day Centre but also means we come across some run-off water flowing across the pavement from a down hill section of the local landscape. Should we call this the Westbourne (or the Kilburn, as the river occasionally changes its name)? All rivers are essentially run off. We’d earlier consider the scale at which a stream became a river (there was no obvious answer).

 Po-mo no-no

Po-mo no-no

 Hatching a Plan

Hatching a Plan

There are two moments that haven’t appeared previously with our river pursuits. The first is outside a disused pub called the Bird in the Hand our attention is drawn to a battered hatch in the pavement, since replaced by a new cover. An enterprising member of out group recruits a nearby washing machine delivery man to loan him a screwdriver to open the hatch. With a group lifting effort, it’s surprisingly easy work. A brick lined shaft to a lower level is revealed along with a vertical metal ladder and an overwhelming pong of sewer. None of the group is brave (or stupid) enough to descent the 20 feet or so to the river’s edge, although it is clearly audible from street level. While we’ve encountered these access points before, this is the first time we’ve actually opened one up.

The second new encounter is the treatment of the Westbourne as it passes an unavoidable underground space: the District Line as it arrives at Sloan Square. Here, just above platform level, the river is channeled through a four foot diameter iron pipe. It is not obvious without the guide but we are at our nearest yet to this mysterious river. At an earlier juncture, we stop at Hyde Park for ice creams. Behind us is the Serpentine pond – seemingly an extension of the Westbourne. Indeed we look for the grate through which the Westbourne flows into the pool (as with the Fleet). There is none, as the river bypasses the pool. Underground pipes quarantine the stinky flow hygienically and aesthetically through the park.

Another phenomenon is the discovery nature of the changing city, more obvious with each annual excursion. Some of the back roads travelled by Bolton mean that it can be hard to use a handy landmark to show you are indeed on the right track. Grassy banks are mown and a car park barrier described as being red and white in 2011 has since had a slick, black makeover. A distinctive tiled pub included as a bonus feature of the river walk has been since been smashed (illegally) by a property developer. How might this travelogue read in 2051?

By the end, we are exhausted, blistered and walking for the sake of completion. I am reprimanded as to what I left out of the crime / dark local history sites: Judy Garland’s deathbed location is missed especially. Various blisters and sore feet are nursed – this was a longer walk than we expected. We also somehow miss the river flowing into the Thames – the only glimpse we would have caught of the water itself. Somehow this feels the correct outcome for the most illusive lost river yet.

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!