Lost Rivers of Birmingham

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.