Blog the High Street: Cradley Heath

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…