Impermanent Collection – review of The Temporary at ARTicle Gallery

The Temporary is an cross-media exhibition curated by Rachel Marsden at ARTicle Gallery that explores the notion of temporality and the transitory – particularly in an urban context.

The Midlands has seen a cluster of walking art exhibitions recently that seem to have been put on for the benefit of Still Walking: among them Walk On at Mac, Land Art at Mead Gallery and Walking Encyclopedia at AirSpace gallery. A recent addition to this growing collection is Rachel Marsden’s concise exhibition at ARTicle (in Margaret Street School of Art). While not specifically about walking, it certainly covers my favourite themes of moving through a city, looking for patterns and weighing up how we feel about our surroundings. It’s also being held in an often-overlooked public gallery, itself in a jewel of a building that many seem to forget about when characterising Birmingham’s  architecture.

A first sense of the exhibition is of an overwhelming, incomprehensible and uncontrollable Ultrametropolis that leaves its citizens baffled, blitzed and bamboozled, spluttering in its own dust cloud. What initially appears to be a far eastern focus (and knowing Rachel’s Shanghai connections) proves on closer inspection to be international phenomenon. Being constantly being wrong-footed by one’s own city is an experience much closer to home. Birmingham’s long-term unsentimental adhesion to its motto of ‘Forward!’ has variously left in its wake huge, useless viaducts, the demolition of unfinished high rises and campaigns to save iconic buildings scheduled to be razed less than 40 years after their creation. By know, we are used to it: right or wrong, that’s the character of the city. People know that if they return to Birmingham after several years’ absence, they won’t be able to find their way around – not even out of the station. But it’s not quite the same: Rachel knows she won’t be able to find her way round once familiar streets in Shanghai after just one year away. Something has gone wrong, or is at least worth examining. That exploration feels like it should be heavy, dispiriting and pessimestic but it is curiously liberating, spiritual and certainly sublime.

The exhibition is dominated by a large scale work occupying the entire width of the far wall: Lu Xinjian’s City DNA is a dense grid of symbols and shapes that reminds me of an urban planner’s figure ground map – the rendering of buildings as silhouettes and the removal of all other visual map information. The familiarity and character of the city map is changed utterly when see this. Other patterns can then present themselves and the results can be hypnotic, as is the case on this epic scale. Eventually, junctions, roads, rivers and contours present themselves from the seeming chaos and you might even guess which city this is. The exhibition is not wholly about visual art, and If your exploration is to be genuine, then it needs to be done across a variety of scales and media. IPods mounted on top of City DNA play you a selection of further musical and sounds that work as further investigations, and naturally there is a remix to download. Manchester band Part Wild Horses performed an newly commissioned work in the space on the opening night. Modular furniture by Li-En Yeung and Tom Vousden is scattered around the room and you are invited to reassemble it to suit your needs (as happened during the live act). It can be a precarious undertaking and you need to become part structural engineer to make sure your design doesn’t topple.

The remaining walls display the photographers’ work, scrambling and reassembling sizes, locations and even the photographers themselves, better revealing the themes of the exhibition. Some are apparent for their meaning, such as the former Shanghai residents returning to their homes, now rubble, being dwarfed by a wall of tower blocks behind them. Other images are more personal reflections; snapshots of disorientation. Elsewhere, in Cyril Galmiche’s ‘Pudong, Summer’ projection splits Shanghai’s business district into vertical strips, dividing the day up into equal but remixed zones. From nowhere, a boat floats across a band then disappears into another time wormhole. I’m reminded of the installations in last Spring’s mesmerising Metropolis at BM&G and want to see this piece at room height, and with a beanbag.

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Credit: Li Han, Hu Yan

The most affecting works are those by Li Han and Hu Yan, whose incredible work appears on the poster for the exhibition. Their intense, technical, isometric renderings cover not only the poster but page after page of what looks like a whole series of graphic novels. Every railing, pane of glass, brick, twig and leaf in the city is given the same minute scrutiny. After living with this reality for a few minutes, staggered by its precision and sheer bewildering scale, it becomes apparent that the scenes are populated by humans too, nearly invisible amongst the endless rows and grids of…stuff.

I bought the badge set and took home two of the beautiful posters. They were short lived, alas: I spilt tea over the first then mistakenly tore up the other to use as a shield for an iron on transfer.

The Temporary is on at ARTicle Gallery until 4 April then at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, Manchester from 17 April – 11 May 2014

www.thetemporary.org.uk

Vanessa Grasse ‘Movementscapes’, Juncture Dance Festival, Leeds

Movementscapes – Vanessa Grasse

Juncture Dance festival – Sun 9 March 2014

In a festival programme of largely stage based rhythmic movement, Vanessa Grasse’s Movementscapes stands out for being a two mile linear group walk, involving no dancing. The walk functions as a means for festival attendees to locate a remote venue in time for a screening and in doing so to experience Vanessa’s approach to moving through a space. What seems like it should be a simple activity actually prompts many moments of reflection, self awareness, experience of places and spaces and a greater understanding of the city’s natural rhythms. It also manages to do this largely in silence.

How many of the assembled group know exactly what’s in store? After a quick explanation of the event, we are advised not to take photos, nor talk to each other, or to use our phones (cue an urgent phone call being answered at the back of the group).

A familiar guided walk instruction is to cross the road at the prompt of the green man: banal yet also an opportunity to observe the rhythms of the city in action. The walk is prefaced by a split stance / eyes closed exercise which allows us to become gently aware of our own body sense. Not easy on the cobbled slope: I sense a few people other than myself tipping or wobbling. Vanessa invites us to become aware of a space a metre – or just over a metre – above our heads. Specifics like this subtly suggest there’s a precision to her invisible art that we should take seriously.

The first few minutes are spent getting to less busy, more open spots in the city. Our group is quite large and we are taking the Sunday shoppers of Leeds head on. At the first crossing, we are faced off by a family outing of adults and many princess-costumed girls. Our group splits neatly and seemingly automatically in two to accommodate the opposition within a central stream. This doesn’t usually happen, but our group now has ‘hive-mind’.

There’s a quiet grace in seeing her simply pick up a stick as if she’s alone and enjoying the first glorious Spring afternoon of the year. However, three separate entities are observing the moment: the public who occasionally become aware of the strangeness of the group: perhaps not from its size but from subtle clues such as our silence or the twigs clutched in our right hand. The group itself has been instructed to watch for Vanessa’s signals and are always keeping her in sight. The cue is often a ripple effect via others’ motions: from my usual rear position of any group, the cervine presence of Vanessa is often lost in the crowd. The event is being photographed too by a Juncture employee: it’s occasionally a jarring moment to feel aware of more than one of these greater eyes at once.

Walking past a railing, I don’t quite see if she taps the stick along it. The stick is in the right hand to do so. Those ahead of me don’t tap. I do. Those behind me do.

The ripple effect is the only way to follow the instruction of one exercise. We are now used to seeing Vanessa from behind but outside Broadcasting, she stops to face us. The usual guided tour cue is that we are now about to learn something but we know to turn round ourselves. The unvoiced instruction is to walk backwards into the area we have just observed, which we now cautiously do. Our guide is the peripheral awareness of the larger group. We assume we’ll know – more or less – where to stop. Vanessa then lies in the shadow of the monolithic edifice. Some who lie down do so wrongly: they are not looking up with the hulking tiered tower behind them and the difference in the experience is critical. I suspect I may have missed some of the subtle cues along the walk. Before I can get too comfortable, we are shifting again and now closely face the rusted iron surface of Broadcasting Place. The spectacle of many people doing this in a line must surely be comical for those encountering Movementscapes in action but individually this gesture of close wall-facing is saturated with associations and emotions from shameful to terrifying. Choosing to do this demonstrates a willingness to be viewed as a faceless outsider, and there is surely an element of hypnotism in Vanessa’s work. As an amateur geologist it’s occasionally necessary for me to get closer to building facades and it can be an incredibly self conscious activity – nobody looks at building materials so the only response from people is deep suspicion. Here, fortunately, we are in good company and it is the spectator of our group naughty-step that temporarily becomes the outsider.

The walk concludes and I feel I’ve been part of a rare and affecting experience. Being part of any group that is thinking alike, even by instruction, is (for me) a welcome moment. Having experienced it amongst mostly strangers, and wordlessly too makes the experience rarer still. It’s perhaps not the main focus of the walk but for me the most powerful. Also, that I barely talk about the event with anyone: I arrived late and have to leave immediately – the walk is all I have done in the city.

A guided walks as a means to join the dots can sometimes invite problems, especially where the dots are venues where other people’s art is happening. The guided tour in its purest form disregards convenient routes and landmarks to focus on the places that really need to be visited. I’m even slightly suspicious of circular routes – it just seems too convenient and I always sense there better places we didn’t visit for the sake of convenience. It is a joy then to discover the route takes in Vanessaesque spaces in abundance, and indeed it is those rhythms and spaces that make up our city. Since my first Movementscape last September I now see the possibilities of spaces everywhere.

Juncture Dance Festival runs in various locations around Leeds until Sat 15 March

www.juncturedance.com

http://vanessagrasse.wordpress.com/

 

I Was a Teenage Walking Artist – my visit to Walk On at Mac.

In October 1990 I’d just left home was studying sculpture at Wolverhampton Polytechnic. My first works were walking art pieces – although it would be years later that I’d discover the term and recognise where I fitted in. To establish myself in my new environment, I’d go for long walks in remote areas off the tow path, never quite sure whether I was rambling or trespassing. I encountered sculpture parks of twisted, rusting post-industrial residue that I found more deeply affecting than the minibus trips to Yorkshire I’d been on during my foundation course. It reminded me of a film I’d seen on Channel 4 a year or two previously: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (ask any walking artist what their favourite film is)

Walk On Review 1.png

I’d rearrange things in situ, then vex my tutors by announcing that my work for the term was located beside a series of disused M&B pubs six miles away. I was encouraged to instead photograph my sculptures or recreate them the studio. To my regret, I took their advice and it would be ten years or more before my efforts to guide people through these zones would naturally resurface. I’d quickly discovered the gulf between being in a location and creating a representation of that experience for an audience who probably wouldn’t ever see it. When I graduated, I didn’t become a sculptor but I did eventually become a tour guide. There is now no gulf of experience: I am sharing my understanding of the place by taking the audience there and we then talk about it. No need to report back to anyone – though I occasionally blog about it.

Good sculpture but terrible photography (and storage)

Good sculpture but terrible photography (and storage)

Great to see Walking Art in Birmingham on the ascendant! The Walk On exhibition at mac pleasingly spills into every part of the venue allowing many chance encounters (it also seems to move about between visits). For what seems like a unifying medium, the walking artists communicate in radically different ways and focus on different aspects of the event. Some visually represent the route as their art while others report back what they encountered. Others are naturally drawn to map making or the landscape itself and tap into a long established path of walking art.

Hamish Fulton is undiluted walking-as-art. What you find in the gallery is emphatically not the art itself but rather a no-nonsense report of key data from the event. Thus a map of Europe is criss-crossed with epic journeys which merely state the year each walk was undertaken. For him to reproduce the walk requires you to undertake the walk, whether that’s shuffling across a concrete dais in Eastside or ascending Everest. It’s an important foundation for any understanding of the practice: none of us experience the world in quite the same way. Fulton is committed to his cause but I sometimes feel I’d like to know what notes he made on those journeys.

Plan B take a similar approach, beautifully etching digital GPS information of their Berlin walks into perspex that say nothing about the experience or terrain. But within the mechanically etched filigree lines lies a human narrative – regular routes, familiar territory with the occasional foray into the unknown.

Sarah Cullen beautiful drawings do are perhaps plan B’s analogue equivalent. There is no mystery about her process: every aspect of the process is on show. A pencil hangs in a wooden box (intriguingly cut down from what looks like a woodcut print block) which is carried over varied terrains and marks the paper accordingly. We don’t know the geography or the route – we don’t need to. Yet the journeys are there to behold – exposing the fragile rhythmic evidence of a body moving through the landscape.

Simon Pope’s approach is perhaps the most ephemeral and fragile of all the works: a recording of a dialogue between two strangers who shared a journey into unfamilar territory to determine a common ground. Straightforward, yet art like this cuts right to the heart of the human walking experience.

Jeremy Ward takes the interface between bronze age hill figure art and walking art head on. The landscape at White Horse Hill in translated digitally into GPS contours and then again into a laboriously constructed card equivalent. The horse is nearly lost amongst it all. How to respond to something as affecting as being at the Uffington White Horse, connecting with the earliest landscape artists – and maybe earliest walking artists? Ward concludes that we’ll never know why the figure was created, being viewable only from above. Having visited this location recently, and having seen the horse from ground level from several miles away, I can’t draw the same conclusion. Intriguingly, it does disappear from view as you get close to it and only reappers once you are on top of it. I’d love to believe this was intentional.

Rachael Clewlow has a similarly methodical approach, recording in tiny, hand rendered lettering all the things she walks past, and at what time, whether that’s Homebase, a Londis or a roundabout. There are no notes in her notebook, it could easily have been taken from a trade directory. There’s the sense that there’s a code to be cracked to determine what her greater pattern was. Short of retracing her steps, we’ll never know – perhaps that’s the point: the gulf is too wide to ever report the experience accurately.

Perhaps because of my tour-guide background, my favourite works tend to be those by artists who share their en route discoveries and are less concerned with what shape the whole thing made.  Walkwalkwalk’s trails round east London treat ordinary objects found in the street with as much importance as an archaeological dig. They document fleeting encounters with people on flyposters which are then returned to the location. There’s a pleasing circular economy at work.

Richard Wentworth’s photos of the ordinary objects and arrangements he encounters whilst walking revel in the creativity, absurdity and sheer joy of the human condition. Gently inviting the audience to share our minds’ flawed interpretations of the world is a revealing, fragile and humbling business – and in Wentworth’s hands, very very funny.

Each visitor to the gallery will have their own experience of moving through it and different works will get their attention. Their conclusions will all be different. For me, the exhibition prompted the realisation that I steer away from prescriptive heritage industry ‘top-ten must-see’ tours as much as the dogmatic artistic statement that each walk is unique and recording the event is the lesser, even pointless, experience. Lying at various points within those two extremes are the Walk On artists and indeed the whole human experience of moving through the world, looking at it and wanting to say something about it.

Walk On runs at Midlands Art Centre until Sunday 30th March 2014

 

Buy the Catalogue!

 

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.

 

Walk the Middle Way

Last year, the fastest selling tour in the Still Walking festival was Joe Holyoak’s Walk the Queensway. At the time, it seemed unlikely that the ring road would attract that amount of interest, but it did and looking back it all makes sense. Everyone in Birmingham has an opinion on subways, car-parking, crossing the road and the dynamics and effect of the ring road on the city. It showed clearly that the format of a guided tour needn’t be about showcasing the highlights of the city and that people want to know about the urban planning process – even if that means witnessing the flip side of Birmingham’s bold post-war experiments.

There is a spirit of irony in choosing to walk the ring road too: this route is all about the car and the marginalisation of everything else. Certainly that means the pedestrian but also the environment, the local economy and ultimately the city itself. Zen Buddhists may also reflect on an unintentional double meaning in the term “Middle Way”.

This week, I met ring road aficionado Glen Stoker of Stoke’s Air Space gallery to walk around Birmingham’s Middle Ring Road. I’d never done it before and despite having maps and a fail-safe ‘keep going’ circular strategy for navigation we actually managed to get the route wrong. By the time we came full circle, it emerged we’d managed to skip a significant part of the full route. But this didn’t really matter as we both agreed that encountering and exploring new spaces was the real purpose of the journey.

The three hour journey allowed us to talk about our interests with occasional tangential excursions as we encountered places where we felt motivated to stop. It was intriguing to see what lay either side of the ring road and how that incision seemed to have shaped the city. Some of these areas I already knew and wanted to share with Glen (making this partially a guided tour) but most were places I had never visited before. Having the express intention of visiting these places over an afternoon seemed to make them more visible. Until today, if there had been another route to walk other than the noisy ring road I would usually do exactly that. It’s interesting to think about why exactly some parts of the city are rarely visited, even for the ardent walking explorer.

A particular highlight that afternoon was a leafy avenue of trees leading to a gated enclosure containing a variety of pipes and ducts emerging from the ground. A concourse of hexagonal moss mosaics led away from this installation. All of this was contained invisibly within the central reservation of the Middle Ring Road. When we reached Highgate, I was able to introduce Glen to the culverted section of Rea, at this point handily accessible by steps. I now include the Rea in a walk wherever possible because of the conversations it naturally leads to, but have by now stopped referring to it as a river.

Many sections were unwalkable. We crossed several times either through piqued interest but mostly through necessity. By the end (or what we thought was the end) we knew the city that bit better but also better understood each other’s approach to walking. Glen was interested that my approach to researching a guided tour starts with simply looking while on the move. As a maker, Glen usually maps the journey for further use or simply as an associated aspect of walking. I generally don’t do this. Neither of us were particularly interested in the ‘game’ aspect of walking for its own sake, but rather for its yields.

Find out more about Glen’s work at

http://www.airspacegallery.org/2007/


http://www.amatterofdeathandlife.blogspot.com

 

Car vs Pedestrian – review by James Kennedy

A number of us gathered outside the Pershore Street car park for what was going to be our guided tour of Birmingham’s car parks and subways. It’s common knowledge that people don’t come to car parks in these numbers, and in fact, it had been said that some people I had spoken to had been rather incredulous about why this particular walk would be of any interest whatsoever. This particular walk would fit in excellently with Still Walking’s re-mit, a tour taking in areas of the city that don’t get explored, that are far away from the generic guided tours of Birmingham that are on offer. Here we were going to see hidden art, take in panoramic views, get some exercise, and observe the city around us. There would be exploration, and darkness and possible danger. The programme advised that this walk may not be suitable for those of a nervous disposition.

We went into the Pershore Street car park, walking up the stairwell to Level 9. The building on the outside reminded me of Madin’s Central Library, an angular tower of Brutalist concrete, however, going up the tight stairwell, with its stone steps and claustrophobic white walls, I was reminded of the stairwells within the Library of Birmingham. Getting a sense of Birmingham’s future and past. All the while the familiar car park smell of old urine, both sweet and sour choked us as we slowly made our way up to the top.

Going through Level 9 and into an expansive open air car park, towering above the city, we were treated to a fantastic panoramic view of the Birmingham skyline; incorporating on the left more Brutalist facades; the Wholesalers Market, the Meat Market and the Cold Storage, visions of concrete and corrugated iron. The car park had been used for off-site art work curated by the Ikon Gallery, in particular for Oliver Beer’s “The Resonance Project” (2011) working with Ex Cathedra to turn the car park into a giant architectural instrument.

We went back down the stone steps and were told to look at the poem on Level 2 that had been scrawled onto the wall in black biro by what could only be described as a spurned lover; the writing spidery however easy to decipher, the author sitting or perhaps even lying down to cram his plea in the space.

“Show me you love me. Stop the hurt and pain. Then my darling you may have my name. PS If not satisfied, try and try again?”
The poet unknown, but filling the space with dread and confusion. Trying to think at what time this what written in this cold and unfeeling space, in what condition and mind-set, and what happened to the poet afterwards. Where they went, whether in the early hours, lunchtime, tea-time, or the dead of night, the streets rendered lonely, unfeeling and threatening due to unrequited love.
Outside, I noticed a large advertising hoarding proclaiming the re-birth of TSB. Another hoarding advertised the latest instalment in the series of the psycho-geography classic ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ Buses drove past advertising forthcoming ‘Diana’ biopic and disappeared around corners and vanished into subways.

Onto Bromsgrove Street, we made our way to The Arcadian’s car park, billed as ‘award-winning’ on their website. A quick look at the information behind this shows that the car park is under the APCOA banner, APCOA being the ‘UK’s leading provider of tailored parking solutions.’ No perverse odours of urine or sights of empty weed bags and medical syringes here, instead, a powerful aroma of fresh tarmac and new car smell, up-to-the-minute strip lighting and exact low ceilings. Everything clean and sterile, bringing us out into the ever-changing frontages with rhyming names (Iguana Bar, Arca Bar, Bar Risa, Oceanna etc.)

We exited left past Reflex and onto Hurst Street, the Birmingham Hippodrome behind us. The entrance of the Hippodrome has now been copied for the roof to the entrance of the Library of Birmingham, gold shining stars on a black background, giving a sense of a glitzy glamour. As we made our way to Thorp Street behind the theatre, cars went screeching past blasting out young peoples music. Those screeching around would probably go home, fire up Grand Theft Auto, and drive around another city, this time possibly with a bit more money, possibly some whores and definitely some heavy duty weaponry.

Past Chung Ying Gardens and the Stageside Bar, we came to the car park on Thorp Street, designed by Euro Car Parks. An outdoor car park, being neither dark and dingy or utopian-futuristic, this was considered to be “a nice place to park”, with its surrounding brickwork painted white and pink, and with ivy hanging on lattice work. Leaving the relative tranquillity of the Thorp Street car park, we passed another one of Birmingham’s many strip-joints, Scarlets, and went onto Horsefair Parade, greeted by legal high shops and takeaways advertising ‘mighty buckets for one.’
We were now going via Holloway Circus (est 1966) and made our entrance via the Scala Subway, it’s urine smells alarmingly sweet. This subway was created for pedestrians outed in favour of the car, and gave those currently sitting in the public garden area a panoramic view of the inner ring road. Today, observing the gridlocked traffic in this area were a party of cyclists politely eating fruit. In the middle, a piece of public art, a Pagoda , gifted by Wing Yip Plc, with the intention of indicating to the passer-by that this area we were in signified the gateway to the Chinese Quarter. The area was also decorated with a mural by Kenneth Budd which depicted the 1911 horsefair. This place also had the honour of being known as the Cliff Richard subway, as it appears in his ‘Take Me High’ film (1973), which is a firm favourite amongst Birmingham folk.

We emerged from the subway up to Suffolk Street under the Radisson building, and another bus advertising the ‘Diana’ biopic disappeared. The walkway had previously been an extension of the subway underneath the ring road, and had now been filled in, landscaped, and was now a public square, festooned with multi-coloured lights. This had been put in place to get visitors into a ‘Mailbox state-of-mind’ – ready to engage with expensive boutiques and places to eat, which in this case would be known as ‘eateries.’ To our right was the Brunel Street car park, which had been constructed as a transparent red cage, which manipulated the visions of depth for the onlooker.

Walking through Suffolk Street, we got to Arena Central, charmingly named as an ‘Enterprise Zone’ (EZ) and an ‘Inspirational Public Realm’ (IPR) A ‘contemporary’ 14 storey Holiday Inn Express Hotel was scheduled to be built, adding to the towering skyscrapers – looking up at these modern monoliths, one, if gathering enough speed, could run up them like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario and take off into the sky, nothing, in fact, that Grand Theft Auto could do. Exploring the car park below Arena Central, we found that it could really only be described as ‘Post-Apocalyptic’, with fenced off areas and structural issues. We saw what was behind this intriguing no-go-zone after a claustrophobic and tight climb up the stairwell which saw us under the shadow of Alpha Tower. As with Pershore Street car park, car parks and subways had been an influence on the Library of Birmingham, with what seemed to resemble a giant amphitheatre in the middle of the IPR – a would-be gladiatorial arena for those engaging with the EZ, for the while unused and littered with fag-ends and newspapers.

We continued along Fletchers Walk. Over the road we could see the infamous Snobs nightclub, a rites-of-passage for anybody living in Birmingham for an extended time, well-known for it’s 50p shots, sticky floors and excessively drunken drinkers, the name of the kebab shop next door, ‘Top Nosh’ grimly ironic. There was no pedestrian walkway to this glorious destination; however, a makeshift stepping stone had been placed next to the wall where pedestrians could engage in a quick game of ‘chicken’ to the other side to hopefully save their legs.
Past the back of the Birmingham Conservatoire, we saw a fine example of wild plant growth going up the side of the building. We were then led into a barely lit Concrete Zone (CZ), which would take us underneath Paradise Forum, into an arena which was described as being ‘an afterthought into where cars go’, a netherworld of skips, empty cages and hanging wires. A giggling couple ran across our party, possibly embarrassed that we had interrupted their potential lovemaking behind some bins. We came out behind College Subway, next to the back of Paradise Forum and the College of Food and Tourism. We stopped before the entrance to the yellow-tiled subway, where we could hear two people shouting in tongues. This subway was quite labyrinthine, with one exit cordoned off, and we were told that toilets had been up in subways when they were originally built to save people any embarrassment if they got lost and caught short. These toilets for some reason where all now sealed and out-of-bounds, the pervading smell suggesting that people were in fact still getting lost.

We went back on ourselves now, and walked up the steep steps to Paradise Place, an area with disused fountains and street drinkers in various states of disrepair. When the Birmingham Central Library is eventually demolished, it will be interesting to see what happens to this Forgotten Zone (FZ), seeing as it never was given chance to achieve its Full Potential. A logo for Birmingham City Council was stencilled onto an opposite wall, as we made our way behind the back of the old library onto Victoria Square, and onto Barwick Street, where we would be treated to a rare sight of a private car park.

This car park was used solely for the clients of the Royal Bank of Scotland, yet in all honesty, it was a far-cry from the award-winning APCOA car park, the walled hanging gardens of the Euro car park on Thorp Street or even the dystopia of the area under Arena Central. Instead, a simple concrete establishment, with yellow lines for spaces, neat and tidy, almost like a hotel for cars. Outside, two chefs looked at us baffled and confused.

To complete our journey, we walked straight down Livery Street, to get to the car park at Snow Hill. A short climb to just floor 3B, we arrived at our final superb view of the city, a bird-eye view of Hockley and the Jewellery Quarter in front of us, train tracks and an intricate maze of buildings peppered with graffiti. To our right, buildings in states of growth and half-built abandonment set against aloof glass super-structures. The car park here, we were told, should be seen as not just a practical space, but also having the potential for being a Creative Zone (CZ) – this tour underlining the fact that car park and subway design for the future will consider design and aesthetic, with considered access for events and creativity after the space has been used for its main purpose in the day. Of course, with the views of the city stretching out, the hoardings, the architecture, the graffiti, what we had in front of us was a great free museum and art gallery; and with the exploration of the hidden subways and Forgotten Zones, an interactive game for all pedestrians to play.

James Kennedy

 

Words on Buildings // Laira Piccinato

Buildings, graffiti, carvings, architecture, art, all stemming from the same concept – people feeling the need to make their mark on the planet in their frantic yet futile quest for immortality.

We stood outside St Pauls Church, built in 1776. Here we saw the beauty of the words etched onto the buildings, the beauty of the craft. This was an exercise in making us see. People’s initials were carved on the side of the church; hieroglyphics, engravings and markings, each with their own separate meanings, each with their own stories. Deep engravings had made throughout history to tagging, now not just with permanent markers but also with stones or anything else that came to hand. Along the church, you could see dates and picture when and where the markings were made – D.L. 1809. Z. 1950.
As a species we need to function because of words on buildings. Signage etched on buildings used to indicate jobs for life, materiality on signage. Signs aren’t so much created to be part of architectural design anymore, more so than not they are designed to be disposed of when the business undergoes a re-branding, or the business goes out of business to be replaced by another business.

We were going to look at the hoardings of Taylor and Challen Limited, a Jewellery Quarter based company. Taylor and Challen owned several businesses within the Jewellery Quarter, and each one we would see would have signage emblematic of the era in which the building was owned. We walked down Henrietta Street. Underneath our feet we were invited to look down, and saw that the pavement we were walking on had been supplied by Cakemore Bricks, a Black Country brickmaker, advertising their wares literally, on the street.
Some buildings derelict and unused, some turned into resident quarters or artist studios. On our right, the Derwent Foundry, lettering at the top of the building in yellow, the premises now converted into flats, however, the lettering had been preserved. Underneath an iron bridge, we were invited to touch the bricks and see the chalk marks that had been written on the walls by today’s employees.
Right onto Constitution Hill, we noticed a stained glass window had been covered over with a sign saying that the building was now being used as the Consulate to Pakistan. A door was open, so our party went in and looked inside. We could see that the sign revealed who had put the stained glass window there to advertise their business. It previously had been owned by Barker Brothers, a silversmithers in the Jewellery Quarter. ‘BB’ had also been carved, seemingly unprofessionally, into the wooden bannister.

Back onto the street, we observed the former H.B. Sale Building, designed in 1895 and 1896 for a die-sinker firm, now in a state of disrepair, and despite bearing a golden sign saying ‘China Village Restuarant’, was now actually operating as ‘Syriana’, a Syrian/Lebanese restaurant. Up Constitution Hill, we saw three more buildings built for Taylor & Challen premises, each echoing the typography fashions of the times, one was from 1910, and another featuring ceramic tiling built in 1938, showing that a good amount of money had been spent on this signage.

We went across a side road, which saw an old pub now in use as an off-licence, and then went onto Livery Street. A hoarding erected on our left showed the back of one of the Taylor & Challen premises, its lettering painted or whitewashed onto the brickwork in capital letters, in order to give absolute visibility to passing trains/trade. To our right, the Gothic Vaughton Works, now a backpackers’ hostel, the ‘Gold and Silversmiths’ cladding chipped-off.
Taking a right, we went back onto Cox Street and saw a new-build block of flats, Midland Court, in cast lettering rather than stonemasonry. Walking up Mary Street, away from St Paul’s Square, we saw Bloc, a boutique hotel made out of engineering brick designed by BPN Architects. The name of the hotel appeared three times – visible on the side of the building, above the main entrance, and written in the window. Looking closely, it seemed as though the lettering on the side of the building had been laser-cut out of the casting that was now in place over the door. Simple, but effective, especially in terms of being pleasing to the eye and also in terms of cost.

Going down a side road, making our way, we saw a building for T&J Hughes, a jewellery case manufacturers and patterners, which boasted superb a superbly carved drain. Going onto Vittoria Street, we saw the gothic Birmingham School of Jewellery, established in 1890, and acquired by the old Birmingham Polytechnic in 1989. Onto Warstone Lane, things appeared different. The roads opened up in front of us and suddenly we were bombarded with words and logos. Thin logos of Urban Coffee Company, Coral, Tesco and Subway, all instantly brand-recognisable, and threatening to date on an ephemeral basis, rather than with the classic signage on the establishments that we had seen on our journey.

As was pointed out, permanence wasn’t always a feature in the Victorian era – an old bank, now converted into a generic HSBC or Lloyds or Natwest, simply had ‘Bank (est 1836) carved into its side. As we concluded our walk down the road, we noticed that the buildings were being replaced by a clutch of small independent businesses and jewellers, occasionally branching out into bigger buildings such as Robinson & McEwan and A.J. Smith’s (a variety works.) Opposite Vertu, on the corner of Frederick Street, we saw the Thomas Fattorini Factory, a business established by 6th generation Italian immigrants. The sign stood out against the skyline, and to our right, we could still see the top of the Library of Birmingham, standing out proudly like a Belisha Beacon. I could have made my way home from there. I reckon actually, for the sake of this piece, I should have done.

James Kennedy

@jameskcentral

 

SOUNDkitchen // SOUNDwalk

I met Iain, Annie and James from SOUNDkitchen last week for a run through of their SOUNDwalk. Edgbaston reservoir lends itself well to a circular walk and an opportunity to reflect on a natural environment at the edge of the city. It’s no coincidence that a Buddhist Monastery is located nearby. The walk includes exercises to get the walkers into the spirit of listening to moments we’d usually overlook. It’s not easy – Iain references the background chatter in our minds, creating to do lists and stupid jokes in our (my) head. But we can train ourselves to focus – we never usually need to.

We have previously downloaded several tracks onto our iPods previously in the day and have been instructed not to listen to them until now. At key points, we are invited to press play and guess what we are listening to, from an up-close recording created earlier by the SOUNDkitchen team. There is always a clue nearby but the answer is often a complete surprise. Elsewhere, we listen to the live sounds of strategically placed microphones around (and in) the reservoir.

SOUNDkitchen provide a few more clues about the event below. About three tickets still remain so act quickly for this one! Tour starts at 5 30pm Friday 20th Sep (tomorrow) at Perrot’s Folly and lasts around 90 mins. We can provide an MP3 player if you happen not to have one. Book here.

Our walk offers an opportunity to engage in an active listening experience of the soundscape of the Edgbaston Reservoir and surrounding area. Aided by the use of sound technology we will augment your hearing ability to discover tiny hidden sounds, listen to distant locations and experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives.

The main purpose of our soundwalk is to encourage walkers to actively listen to their environment. Using some simple listening exercises we will guide participants to explore in detail the changing soundscape of the Edgbaston Reservoir, an important site for nature conservation and a popular urban leisure destination situated close to the city centre.

The walk will be punctuated with several augmented listening stations where, with the use of live microphones and pre-recorded audio tracks, walkers will be able to experience the environment from differing sonic perspectives. Come and hear sounds from under the water, be transported to a distant landmark, discover tiny hidden noises and open your ears to an aural wonderland.

Thanks to: Keith Wraight, Edgbaston Watersports; Rev. Matthew Tomlinson and the Choir of St Augustine’s Church; Jenny Middleton; Jim Harrison BCC Ranger Service

 

Ladypool Road Through Time // Balsall Heath Local History Society

Every town and region around Birmingham (and any city) has its own cluster of citizens who who are fascinated by how their surroundings all came to be. I think the longer you live in an area, the more questions you ask about it. That might be as simple is ‘where’s a good place to eat’, ‘is there a short cut to the bus stop?’ but eventually turns to ‘what exactly is that old octagonal turret opposite the Select N Save?’. Its easy to get sucked in and eventually become intrigued by everything. You become aware how alive the past is in a contemporary setting.

The various local history societies that form to research, discuss and share this info all have their own ways of presenting what they know. This may be a self published booklet, or the occasional guided tour and that’s where things get interesting with Balsall Heath Local History Society. Their approach is to fearlessly re-enact local stories and moments that you couldn’t possibly know about in full constume and with a very playful sense of drawing the audience into past. I don’t know of any other group in Birmingham who make the experience as fun and often daring as they do and its a thrill to host them for the first time in a Still Walking festival. Themes range from Wartime high drama to a board game inventor, whose creation initially didn’t cut the Mustard…

I’m always looking to connect new audiences to the various walks that run around the city and here’s your chance to do exactly that. Two tours run tomorrow (Sunday 22 Sept) at 11 45am and 2 15pm

Booking can be done here, or get in touch if you would prefer to pay on the day: hello@stillwalking.org

 

Drag and Drop // David Helbich

This morning I met David Helbich and Shila Anaraki for breakfast at Yumm, freshly in from Brussels, to discuss their event for Still Walking: ‘Drag and Drop’. The drag part refers to you being guided while the drop part means that at some point on the walk, you will be dropped off to await collection by the next passing group. What this allows is a still, reflective moment in a context that rarely happens: standing still in an urban context. I experimented with this on Wednesday (see my blog post) and I regularly find it surprising that literally doing nothing can create such a switch in our feeling and perception of the world. The Drag and Drop principle allows this fragile moment to take place under the carefully choreographed guidance of the two performers.

I’m very interested in the form of a guided tour, and what it means to be in the care of a guide for the duration of the walk. The information content should be accurate and engaging, but the group should cross the road carefully and not block the pavement en route, and many other facors apply. Because we nearly never are in a ‘guided tour’ situation, it’s easy to get it wrong while it happens. For this walk, the event deliberately introduces a stark moment, switching from a dynamic social group experience to an instant independent moment. In writing, that seems straightforward but the reality is that standing still is laden with expectations, anticipation and possibly even friction.

David and Shila are at this moment combing the city for a location for this walk and will be considerate to exactly how people will feel for the few minutes they will be static. For most of the next 24 hours they will be plotting the grid of streets, the route and the moments of exchange and all that it entails. It helps that David is a music composer, for this needs to be a precise experience. If you think you’ld like to experience this walk, please book here.

So where will all of this happen? Certainly somewhere in the city centre but the exact location will be announced later this afternoon (Friday) and if you book a ticket (which is free) you will tonight be emailed the location to meet. We’re expecting 20 – 30 people to be present, and before the two parties set out the procedure will be fully explained. Afterwards, you’ll be invited to comment and contribute to a discussion at a nearby café or bar.

Look forward to seeing you there!

 

Movementscapes // Vanessa Grasse

Vanessa Grasse is that rare breed: the Sicilian that moves to Leeds. I know of only four and Vanessa is the only movement artist amongst them. I absolutely love Leeds (and have never been to Sicily) and Vanessa’s movement across the earth’s surface to Yorkshire (and on Saturday, Birmingham) perhaps tells you that she is interested in urban spaces, and the rhythms and patterns that occur within them. A recurring them of the festival is ‘how do we feel about our space’ and Vanessa’s approach is perhaps the most hands-on of all. Her walk ‘Movementscapes’ is a series of placements and exercises that reveal the invisible rhythms and emotional connections of the city. How do you feel about the space behind Snow Hill Sation, and how do you move through it? It sounds like an unlikely (and unanswerable) question but Vanessa will provide a means to provide the answers. Birmingham Cathedral and the old Central Library are both en route.


Book now to find out. All the SW events end with a drink and a social moment and this particular one will have the best view of all ;o)

 

Wait, Look, Drag, Drop

In the week off between the festival weekends I’ve been keeping active with walking activities and adventures. There are always thrilling connections made during the Still Walking festival: people seeing the programme and getting in touch with their ideas. That does mean lots of emails in the morning but after those have been dealt with it’s great to get out and go for a walk (by now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise).

Today I investigated some secret tunnels in the city (more on that later in the week), photographed the William Bloye keystones at Steelhouse Lane Police Station (with nothing to report, other than “lovely keystones”) and stood still in Birmingham Cathedral grounds for around an hour.

I once stood there for 20 mins as an experiment, while thinking how to kill some time before an appointment. I was thinking which café or pub to go to then decided not to go anywhere, just continue to stand. I’d never done that before, and generally nobody does stand still for any length of time, unless they’re smoking or waiting for a bus. At the end of the ‘stand’ that time, my friend Brian passed by chance, looking disturbed. ‘What was wrong?’ Well, nothing: I actually enjoyed the experience and wanted to repeat it. One year on, I went back to spend 80 mins or so standing while the post-work crowds filtered past. What seems very simple (and possibly even a bit daft) actually turned out to have a lot going on. In brief, I came to feel that these were all people coming into my space, for a short time, and I felt very comfortable being there. I don’t think I’ve every looked at so many different faces at relatively close range in such a short time – that alone made the experience worthwhile, though its hard to say why exactly. I wondered if I would see someone I knew again – I did after 30 mins: Jerome from Birmingham International Film Society on his way to the final screening of the Chile 40 Years On festival… but too far to say hello to. I recognised someone who walked close to me but couldn’t remember why I knew her. For the entire duration, I would see a few puzzled micro-expressions, a few caught eyes but in this particular space no direct involvement from passers-by.

Towards the end something intriguing happened. Not everyone there was walking; there are many public benches in that space. Beyond the walkers, I became sensitive to who was resting, who was waiting and who really was doing nothing. There was a moment of high drama when a slightly melancholic elderly gentleman, who I thought was doing nothing, turned out to be waiting. He was met after 35 mins by a granddaughter with hugs, a bouquet of flowers and a stack of chemistry textbooks. Instantly my understanding of the situation was thwarted. Only I witnessed that short story, and now you know it happened too.

In the picture below, two people resting or waiting make it clear to each other that they want to have their own private space on the bench. There was another woman behind me who was resting or waiting too. After 45 minutes of being in that the space, the woman behind me and the man on the left in the picture stood and left together, gently and in silence. So why sit separately? After being so closely involved in the ‘story’, this was such an unexpected twist in the narrative I let out a cry of surprise. I suppose the point is, I would never have seen that moment had I not been watching that part of the city for an hour.

The final observation I made was that the whole experience had a very calming effect on me, though again not sure yet exactly why. While standing, I was peripherally chalking up a ‘to do’ list once I reached Urban Coffee but left the space feeling rested and ready to tackle it rather than anxious and overwhelmed.

The experience made me anticipate two Still Walking events. The first is happening tomorrow (Thursday 19 Sep) which is Francis Lowe’s ‘Free Seeing’ in Digbeth Which I introduced here:

The first Free See in Birmingham will take place in Digbeth on Thursday 19th of September. Participants should meet at 3.00pm outside the Fusion Centre of South and City College, High street Deritend, Digbeth, B5 6DY. Please come, this is open anyone with a keen eye, or those who want one.

The other event I anticipated today was David Helbich’s Drag and Drop. I took part in this in Brussels earlier in the year. In a previous blog I remark how many walking artists have their own take on the Silent Tour and David’s is perhaps the most ambitious I’ve yet encountered. David is also a composer and the principle of Drag and Drop is to create a tightly choreographed walking score around the streets of Birmingham. For you, that means joining one of two group leaders and following (in silence) until a point where you will be deposited to await collection by the next group of walkers. It’s an experience of extremes, from shared group movement to temporary individual contemplation and back again – but be assured that you will always be safe and in control of your environment. The whole thing will be devised, scored and rehearsed within two days and the location of the event will be announced by email the day before the event – but will be within striking distance of the city centre. At this point, that’s all I can tell you, other than you won’t often have the opportunity to experience a walk like this in Birmingham – which is largely the point of the Still Walking festival. Also, it is free!

 

Freeseeing and Night Photowalk: Two Events in the Fringe Festival

I first heard about Free Seeing through its originator: Mr Andy Spackman,[edit: oops, it seems Francis Lowe is the originator :s] a lecturer in Graphics at Coventry University. The concept was simple: think of ‘free running’ (aka Parkour) and replace ‘running’ with ‘seeing’. A clever move I thought, and rather easier than free running… but possibly less common. Francis Lowe invites and explains:

I created Free Seeing in response to the concept of ‘the found object’. Why not take it one step further and ‘find spaces’? We rarely take time to stop and really record what we see, so Free Seeing invites viewers to stop, look and really see.

Free Seeing is an audience-led initiative that allows audiences to find beauty, mood and pattern in the most unexpected and often ordinary of places. A Free Seeing event involves visiting sites in and around the country and encouraging audiences to find time to appreciate the visual value of spaces and places that have hitherto gone unnoticed.

Free Seeing is for everyone and can be experienced in any way. An audience member may choose to take a camera, a note-pad, a chair or even a picnic. Free Seeing lasts as little or as long as the audience want it to.

The first Free See in Birmingham will take place in Digbeth on Thursday 19th of September. Participants should meet at 3.00pm outside the Fusion Centre of South and City College, High street Deritend, Digbeth, B5 6DY.

We will take a fresh look at some of the hidden gems that exist within the nooks, crannies and man made environments of the area.

Bring a chair… some food… a flask… Whatever you want!

And on Wednesday: the Night Photo School Workshop with Pete Ashton

How do you take photographs when there isn’t much light? How do you deal with small bright streetlamps against a dark sky? What are the best settings for a long exposure? How can you build a light painting using movements of the city?

This workshop starts with a brief introduction to shooting at night, with and without a tripod, before spending 3 hours on the streets of Birmingham. Tripods are highly recommended though not essential.

This workshop was last run in December. Photos taken by participants are on the blog here.

We meet at the Symphony Hall Cafe Bar at 7.30pm then head out into the twilight from 8.00. The Cafe Bar is on your left as you enter the ICC from Centenary Square.

You can book here

This event is part of the Still Walking Festival Fringe. Thanks to THSH for letting us use the Cafe Bar for the class.

 

Let me know if you are hosting a walking event happening during the festival and I’ll promote them here. There a lot of walking going on in the city!

 

Still Walking is Go!

Announcing the launch of the third Still Walking festival! Ten new guided walks around Birmingham over the next ten days (mostly around the weekends) with various investigations / blogging / promoting other people’s walking events / generally wandering around in the week days between. Please do let us know if you got something interesting happening involving walking in your part of Birmingham, or even further afield.

Check the full programme though be warned that events are selling fast!

We’re calling the midweek events and activities the Still Walking Fringe: this is really just highlighting the events that are happening anyway. It seems people walk for all sorts of different reasons but it can be quite difficult to find out what’s happening where. For this outing of the festival, we’ll be going out of our way to find out what’s happening in Birmingham – the city people are calling “the City of Walking” ;O)

We’ll be blogging more about the Fringe over the next few days but some highlights are Pete Ashton’s Practical Psychogeography Workshop on Mon 16 September starting at 4 30pm – 9pm and Roland Kedge’s Glacial Boulder walk on Saturday 14th September (tomorrow!). For that walk, you need only turn up at the Great Stone Inn, Church Road, Northfield at 2pm. Roland will guide this three mile tour over approx 2 hours and round up the various glacial deposits that made their way from Wales during the last ice age. Free!

The festival proper kicks off this evening with Words on Buildings led by Birmingham Architecture Festival’s Laira Piccinato. The walk sold out some time ago but I’m going to see if she’ll lead another before it gets too wintery. Add yourself to the mailing list to be the first to find out: but in the meantime plenty of other tours are running. They’re all £4 and one is free.

But before then I’m going on a short walk to gear up for the events: a simple exercise to visit the nearest street to my home that I haven’t been to before. For me, that’s the mysterious sounding Pentos Drive near the river Cole. I’ll be joined by the noted Brummie nocturnal explorer Karen Strunks. Why do it? There’s probably nothing there but I think it’s good to expand your zone a bit occasionally.

A final note: launching a festival on Friday the Thirteenth may seem to be inviting trouble but luckily all the guides are paid up members of the Lucky Two Shoes League of Foot Freedom.

See you on the walks!

Ben Waddington

Festival Director

 

Silent Walking

The silent walk is a standard in the walking artist’s tool kit. It’s a great introduction to how effective live art can be and that it doesn’t always require a lot of preparation or even a budget.

The first one I went on was Kira O’Reilly’s Silent Walk which ran during Fierce Festival in 2011. She told me she’d adapted it from a Chicago performance group called Goat Island. The event was an aimless and leaderless wander as a group (or about 15 people) setting off from what was then VIVID’s space on Heath Mill Lane in Digbeth. Kira led the assembled group out of the door initially to give it momentum but after that it decided (without communicating) where it would go next and what it would stop to look at. An invisible group dynamic decides where to go next. Essentially, it was experiencing flocking behaviour in humans. I recall we stopped to look at a broken water main that was bubbling up through the pavement like a fountain, and the only time the the group stalled was outside the police station on Digbeth High Street. The group attracted a few glances but wasn’t regarded with suspicion – even by the police. There might be the occasional puzzled look as the group descended down an alley.

The second silent walk I went on involved walking round Chelsea with a similarly sized group, but this time gathered together by a large elastic band, about fifty feet long. This time the group did attract attention. People in the group took the instruction of silence as binding and questions, comments and interventions from the public outside the band were ignored. The wake of friction and confusion it left through the streets was almost as visible as ship churning up the ocean. There was separate dynamic within the group: who should support the band (it wasn’t attached to us) and how fast to walk, how to ensure everyone had enough space. At one point the group stopped and the two leaders left the band and set off in different directions. Who should we follow?

Each walking artist adds their own tweak to the game – and a slient walk should be a fun and intriguing expereince. Such a walk features in the Still Walking programme: Simone Kenyon’s Quiet Edges. It proceeds through some outlying streets around the Jewellery Quarter this afternoon, but this will not be about site-seeing. The locations will be unfamiliar to most. Simone will invite you to experience the city and the simple act of group walking in a way that may well be new to you. The first rule is “No Talking”. The second rule is lively discussion of exactly what you experienced in a warm, dry location with a drink after the event: I look forward to hearing your take on what happens!

Some tickets still available here.

 

Lost and Found // Iris Bertz

Still Walking sent roving reporter James Kennedy to cover the practice run-through of Iris Bertz’ walking tour of accidental art:

The trouble with being in a hurry to get somewhere is that as a pedestrian you don’t stop to look at your surroundings. It was iPod on and tunnel vision to the destination, a fifteen minute walk becoming ten. That morning, I walked from Bath Row, walking the length of Granville Street and onto Broad Street, and crossing the road into Oozells Square. Nothing really to see, a familiar walk through familiar territory, and besides, I wasn’t going to stop as I was late.

I stopped outside Ikon Gallery, which is where the walk was going to start. I looked briefly at the brief of today’s walk, led by Iris Bertz. In this walk, Iris would ‘explore the use of the accidental in art and focus on how it would be possible to see art everywhere.’ A psychedelic psychogeography; where accidents create multi-woven stories, challenging the city-dwellers perception of the mundane, challenging pre-conceptions and the imposed order of the city, making the city burst with colour and new-found beauty, instead of being a place to work, consume and go home.

Standing with the modern Royal Bank of Scotland building in front of me, I noticed a plaque on the floor underneath my feet. ‘Sculptures. Paul de Monchaux. Landscape Design. Townshend Landscape Artists.’ In front of me, a sitting area carved out of stone, a long bench, a seat with an archway over it, and two parallel rows of two seats. This was another aspect that the walk would cover – the lines blurred between what was art, what was furniture, and what was sculpture. Monchaux’s commission would play an accidental role in art, where the artistic became functional. Visions of artists and architects impressions of Brindleyplace (not ‘Brindley Place’) before it was re-designed in 1991. A utopian vision of multiculturalism, people coming and going, blurred faces and myriad fashions. ‘Exciting proposals for a high quality, mixed use development.’ Working, playing, engaging with the new designed spaces, here featuring ‘Sculptures’ by Paul de Monchaux, and ‘The Royal Bank of Scotland’ by The Sidell Gibson Partnership.

Behind me, the Ikon Gallery, formerly the Oozells Street School, refurbished and extended in 1997 by Levitt Bernstein Architects. When the walk started, we were told that we were going to see a very personal tour to Iris. This would not be a walk about truth or reality, instead, this would be an invitation to see how Iris saw. She recounted a tale of how, growing up in a small village with her artist mother, they were both stopped by a puzzled member of the community, who asked them what they were doing. ‘Photography’ they replied, to bafflement and bemusement. What on Earth were they seeing, that warranted them to stop and look in detail? On the front of Café Ikon, we were shown a dimpled window, which at first look seemed nothing out of the ordinary, but on closer inspection became an extended piece of art – an ear trumpet, where those inside the gallery could hear the outside. Without closer inspection and examination, this would have been rightly ignored. With new engagement – new possibilities.

We left Oozells Square, now facing Ken Shuttleworth’s The Cube, standing impressively, and as usual with Birmingham’s architectural decisions, gleefully controversially, against the skyline. Walking back to Broad Street, we walked past the Second Church of Christ Scientist Birmingham, as it is now known ‘Popworld’, (formerly ‘Flares.’) Crossing the road to the original Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham, which in 2002 went into receivership and re-emerged as The Rocket Club, at the time having the dubious honour of being Birmingham’s 12th strip joint. Above the gaudy façade of a woman with her mouth hanging open in a pseudo-provocative manner stood a series of five concrete panels designed by John Madin, which together mirrored the idea of a gallery exhibition. They seemed fossilised onto the building, calling comparisons with Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ (1993.)

Walking down Berkley Street, noises from generators mingled with the smell of curry spices. We were now engaged with Iris’ notion of the artist as walker. Now, we would see how artists within the city engage with the many blank canvases they find, canvases being the barricades, the fences and weather-beaten panels, the bricked up walls and any available space for the marker pen, the stone or the cans of spray paint. Here, on a metal door barricading a private area, which obviously said ‘don’t look at this, nothing to see here’ the artist known as sky had been, signing their name onto the middle of the door, the ‘s’ resembling a ‘5’ and the ‘Y’ underlining the ‘s’ and the ‘k’. To the side of this, an symbol of a dot and a dash, the morse code for ‘A’ stood inexplicably. However, our assumptions and readings, led by the artist, would create meaning. Behind the metal door, plants grew free wild and knotted and twisted, as with the brain of the artist looking at this free canvas, and being mildly irritated that they hadn’t bought their pencils and paints with them, and making a mental note to come back prepared.

Beyond this, a car park was shown to us. Not as a Martin-Parr-in-action, our attention drawn to the markings, cuts and cracks on the exit floor, which resembled abstract paintings, or maybe that the artist Doris Salcedo had been commissioned to re-create her ‘Shibboleth’ installation in Birmingham, after its success at the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. ‘Shibboleth’ was created to make engagers think ‘what was real and what was not’ much as we were thinking about these markings in front of us.

Turning around, our attention was drawn (note: we were not discovering these for ourselves yet) to a wire had been coiled in a too-perfect ring, and was hung on a hook in the centre of perfectly aligned windows. The sun was shining that day, and the roof’s shadow of the opposite building was halfway up the wall, an unexpected, accidental sun-dial.

Two arrows made out of gaffa tape were stuck onto the front of a door (sky had been here again as well.) Iris considered this as a piece of urban art. The arrows pointed to each other, one on each door. The question was, what were they there for? Inviting us to inspect this intervention made the familiar unfamiliar, and interfered with logic, common sense and intelligence. It also drew comparisons with the 1960s Arte Povera movement which makes art works out of cheap materials, and that of Vik Muniz’s photography and sculpture work with Brazilian catadores (garbage pickers.)
We were invited to touch the sandstone walls of the CBSO centre (by Associated Architects in 1997) and looked at the shadows which seemed to resemble crouching human figures, disturbingly like Hiroshima shadows. Gum flecks, wear and deterioration however, gave these shadows faces and expressions, and thankfully provided laughter to juxtapose against the worrying thoughts before.
Across the road, on a window of the apartment block Friday Bridge (architects unknown) was pointed out to us. A sticker vase containing sticker flowers in a window seemed innocuous enough, but Iris told us the vision reminded her of Holland and van Gogh’s ‘Tulips.’ The vase was also framed perfectly, with a blind pulled behind them, seemingly for us, the onlookers benefit rather than the exhibitors benefit.

Turning left onto Holliday Street, the sandstones were beginning to fade and distress, slowly losing their manufactured quality. This was a case of nature returning to what it was, turning its back on man. Under the aqueduct, water had eroded bricks, making nature the artist rather than man, resulting in canvases of ghosts and crying women.

A void faced us turning left onto Bridge Street. A building removed leaving a beautiful derelict space, an open wound, showing the back of the old Central studios. The Library of Birmingham (Francine Houben, very recently) took on a brazen, proud quality behind the rubble and the overgrowth. To our left, a derelict house, or what could have been a pub or a lockmaster’s house (with seeing, the possibilities are infinite) had been painted white, almost with the intention of blotting it out from view, in order to disguise its otherness. Boarded up windows and doors sealed the danger inside. Another nod to Whiteread’s fossilised ‘House.’ A standing stone behind the house offered us a look into the yard/garden/place of mystery and showed an overgrown mass of weeds and dead flowers, and a shack with a tin roof added more mystery to the proceedings. The Central Television Studios had been used themselves for the use of helping viewer’s imaginations – an Accident and Emergency sign made it resemble a hospital, not a television studio, and graffiti saying “Summer 2011: The clock is ticking” had been used on an edition of the post-apocalyptic drama Survivors (shown on BBC, not ITV.)

More post-apocalyptic drama abounded on the site of the James Brindley pub, closed since 2008. To get to the pub you have to walk down a cobbled path, and we were invited the look at tangled ivy, that, in an attempt at removal, had woven a printed tapestry underneath the pub. Not just underneath, some of the ivy had spiralled up into two columns, an artistic accident recalling the work of Patrick Dougherty. ‘Someone who has tried to kill nature has succeeding in creating a bit of art.’ Iris, an experienced tutor in willow sculpture, showed us the twisted stalactites of twisted ivy, a superb piece of lattice work covering over what was seen as a monument to James Brindley, unfortunately being represented as a weed-strewn mausoleum. The pub had once been a vibrant jazz-friendly venue but suffered severe leakage, closing its doors in 2008. Those wanting to stake a claim in the pub were advised that it was unviable and unworkable, and the pub reminded shut, despite many efforts to rejuvenate the courtyard area. From death sprung life; a guerrilla garden patch stood to our right, and the canal-dwellers had had decorated their narrowboats with vibrant colours and on one, a narrowboat/Land Rover hybrid stood out from the crowd, complete with a fibreglass crocodile perched nearby.

Over the cobbled bridge past the Canalside pub, we saw more examples of painting and framing, creating accidental art. A hole in the wall contained a drinker’s stash of a can of lager and a fag end, and a ripped sticker on a boarded up window resembled the canalside crocodile, presumably created in a fit of ego. Through an alleyway adorned with sticker art and tagging (particular attention drawn to the Birmingham and Wolverhampton artist ‘NFA’) we got onto Gas Street, where we saw a repetition of the gaffa tape urban art phenomenon (this time pointing upwards and diagonally left.) To its left, yet another blank canvas, with this time, a ledge in which the painter could arrange their paints.

Over the road, a cast iron sign with a Victorian, Gilliam / Python-esque gloved hand pointed inexplicably to Broad Street. We were told that this wasn’t sticker art, and in fact was made out of cast iron, expensive to create, so possibly created by an artist or a marketing company (or both) with money to burn. The new ITV studios to our left, with their latest corporate branding (something which my inner anorak and nobody else at all got very excited about in 2012) on their brickwork, and we made our return back to Broad Street.

In between Mooch Bar the Quayside office block and Risa Bar we saw what was considered to be a public sculpture. A drain, ring-fence off with gaffa tape strewn across it and exposed, dangling wire. Fag ends littered the floor, and on closer inspection the earth underneath our feet was seen to be rising up. Office workers standing around having a well-earned fag and a chat eyed us with bafflement and bemusement. “What are you doing” they said? “Seeing.” “Right.”

Discover Iris’s full itinerary by booking onto her tour here. Tickets are selling fast so please don’t miss out!

 

Tom Jones WALK*LOOK*DRAW*KNOW

The Still Walking motto is that everything is worth looking at. If you set out expecting to find interesting moments in the city, they will naturally present themselves to you, because they are there. Simple!

It is always a joyful moment to be shown a new way of seeing the city, and Tom Jones event for Still Walking does exactly that. Tom teaches drawing and as an ex fine art student I know the adage that drawing is proof of seeing. If you take up drawing, it’s actually seeing that you learn first, and what a discrepancy there is between what is there and what we usually record, whether that means draw, see or remember.

Tom’s event for Still Walking will lead a small group through a variety of places and landscapes in central Birmingham and introduce them to the techniques of seeing: at this point, drawing ability is not essential. But the group will be drawing: micro sketches in pencil on small index cards. The point is not to create finely rendered depictions of the city, but rather to respond to Tom’s observations and guidance on what to see and how to see it. Whilst doing the practice tour with Tom this week, there were not only many moments of encountering places I’d not spent any time looking at before, but entirely new ways of seeing it too. I don’t want to give anything away about this beautiful walk – and every moment was valuable – but Tom will be able to show you a selection of English holiday destinations not five minutes from Brindleyplace.

This September, the Still Walking Festival focuses on how artists see the world and move through it, and Tom’s tour comes recommended if you want to learn how to do that yourself. All drawing equipment is included. Places are very limited and the event is already selling well so make sure you book well in advance.

 

Short Stories

A few weeks ago the Rep theatre asked me to talk about my work for their Foundry programme for emerging theatre practioners. Thinking of myself as a theatre practitioner doesn’t come naturally but a critical aspect of developing a guided walk calls for the journalistic ability to spot a story and then tell it convincingly.

I feel there are vast unexplored vistas when using the guided tour format; a lost plateau between the Blue Badge data-delivery polished standard and the its-behind-you high camp of the ghost tour. Uncharted knowledge, opportunities for new dramatic approaches, content and audiences. Ideal for the Foundry workers to get their teeth into.

I often draw attention to the fact that our urban surroundings are there entirely by design and as such, everything has a story behind it. The layers of adaptions, remakes and human detritus are further chapters or twists to the original premise. I accept that many of these stories are not fully developed narratives and in the context that I work in, they are more usefully thought of as clues. The usual city walking tour can feel like a highlights-of-everything experience: the entire history of the city and the top ten moments of civic, cultural or economic success. That usually means visiting the Town Hall, naming the various Lord Mayors and (in Birmingham) talking about how they’ve done the canals up now. This approach misses the sub-plots of ordinary people which I feel are often more accurate flavour of the city. Threading these together, with the occasional reference to mighty moments in history, is what I do. You can think of the urban backdrop as a stage and the evidence left by people as the story being acted out on it. The evidence can be very subtle.

The basic idea was to walk around Centenary Square and talk about what was there.

One direct way of witnessing the past is to look for plaques. The earliest of Birmingham’s blue plaques are actually rectangular and bronze (such as the one on Baskerville House) and they tend to merge unnoticed into the urban fabric. More recent ones are circular, bold and blue. Birmingham plaques are characterised by referencing something that used to stand here or even “near here.” This phrase alone tells a story: one of a city that is in flux. Birmingham is cognisant of its past but can appear unsentimental about it, as befits a city with the motto Forward. Sometimes an entire building, such as the Gothic fantasy that was Josiah Mason College will receive a memorial in the form of a plaque, which will end up propped up in a window of an unused alley. Elsewhere, utterly unobserved, a CCTV camera spike is dedicated to the memory of a former Labour MP who survived IRA attacks and the harsh summer of 1976. Two plaques independently remember the local radio soap the Archers. Our group takes several steps along Broad Street’s Walk of Stars, sensing the difference between plaques that merely commemorate a local name and those which celebrate a significance of that spot. Revealing the emotional moments of the immediate environment is what this tour is about. (I later confess to the group that I had to google many of the stars).

At the Municipal Bank we encounter more archaeological evidence. Firstly, the architect Thomas Cecil Howitt has signed his building at the lower right: not common for an architect to do this, but there was a fashion for doing it in the 1930s and ‘50s, perhaps influenced by artists’ signatures on their masterpieces. The foundation stone was laid by HRH Prince George in 1933. Now largely forgotten, this wayward ancestor to the current Prince George endorsed morphine and cocaine use and sired a son with local romantic heroine Barbara Cartland (according to Barbara Cartland). His death in an aircrash during WWII is echoed by a row of bomb blast shrapnel damage and patches to the Portland stone across the lower part of the building. Bivalve shells appear in the stone too, representing life from prehistoric times. 500 million years of history.

Into Fletchers Walk: an intriguing place with a faux-mediaeval name (arrow maker) demonstrating the post-war predilection for underground public spaces. Brutal overspill from the Central Library. Shopping here has quietened in recent years, though Zagora is still doing well, and a window display advertises the bottled craft beers available at Post Office Vaults. Both come recommended by Still Walking. On Sundays this useful shortcut to Broad Street is sealed off as it is not civic space. The mall has its own wild flower meadow: in the compact vitality of the city, people require both moments of liveliness and quiet. Weeds reduce aggression. A few years ago Fletchers Walk was rebranded, seemingly stealing English Heritage’s logo in the process. This design, we can see, has been borrowed from the original floor tile layout. At this point, I challenge the group with an apparently Sherlockian mystery: the shop unit behind me is empty and the sign has since been taken down. I ask: “I want you tell me the name of the man who originally put the sign up.” It seems impossible to answer: how could that moment leave any evidence? There is no trace of writing on the shop front. Then the group notices that the space above the window is not blank: the surface undulates in a specific rhythm. Someone sees the letter K emerge… “it’s Karl!” While piping out the adhesive, Karl created a short-lived tribute to himself. The subsequent removal of the sign revealed his name once more, albeit in reverse, and perhaps a testament to his faith in the longevity of his business.

Next door is a gun and body armour shop: gunsmithery is a long-standing tradition in the city but always a surprise for me to see such shops in reality. While I talk about this, I notice two new faces in the group. I’m interested in this moment: members of the public have every right to exist where they want to in public space, so following a guided tour (even if it had been a ticketed one) is well within their rights. One of them looked familiar too: it sometime takes me a while to recognise a face out of context but I later remembered a Flatpack volunteer who had ably facilitated my Invisible Cinema tour a year or two ago. Great to run into him again, and for him to want to be involved.

I then took the group through an unmarked door into the space that exists beneath the former Central Library. I explained I had no motive here other than to experience a lost part of the city centre with its own specific atmosphere. Stalactites formed in the concrete ceiling overhead and vernacular signs and warnings were stenciled onto the concrete walls. Doorways led to long extinct civic departments. I included some local history here: a large space which was build as a bus station but never used. The sheer height is the clue, and the dormant escalator shafts still remain, to take a theoretical public into the beating heart of the library.

We pause at a ventilation shaft to the Anchor Exchange and then we’re back in Centenary Square. The space outside the library is, by design, a wild flower meadow. I’m always on the lookout for seating in public squares in the city: seated people observe their environment and talk to each other. Public seating is a rarity in city centre Birmingham (keep shopping, is the general idea). It’s difficult to see from here but the new public space seems to have a deck chair… albeit made out of flowers.

At this point the tour is done but no-one wants to leave. There are many observations, questions and comments. The walk hasn’t been like any previous experience of studying the narrative form. I usually experience at least one or two people sloping off midway through with an apology but today we ended nearly two hours later with a larger group than we set out with. Without any prompting, people wanted to get involved in Still Walking and further their walking experiences. 20 mins later I head off, thrilled with what might emerge from all this.

 

Lost Rivers of London 1: The Fleet

The lost rivers of Birmingham have merely been mislaid. Head to London for rivers that are truly buried.

Last year, I was given Tom Bolton’s wonderful book “London’s Lost Rivers” which describes the overland course above seven of London’s underground rivers. Each river has become lost by design: at some point during London’s growth, the need for new land has superseded the need for a river. The presence of the rivers can still be felt however. Bolton describes how the rivers have shaped the physical landscape and how town planners have capitalised on these contours (for example, a railway line will run through a valley). There is a cultural echo too, in building and street names, references to former bridges and banks and in public art. The river itself can occasionally be seen or heard through surface level grids and drains. The challenge as an urban walker is to discover and piece together the evidence.

The first lost river I knew about was the Fleet, running from Hampstead Heath through Kentish Town, Kings Cross, Farringdon and Blackfriars, at which point it empties into the Thames, so I decided to begin there. I invited a few friends to join me one sunny Sunday on an invisible riverside meander. The source of the Fleet is Whitestone Pond, near Hampstead Heath. This is London’s highest natural point and is marked by a trig point. It was a glorious day and beautiful electric blue damsel flies skittered above the surface of the water and bullrushes puffed yellow pollen in the breeze. As we consulted the map, a couple who were paddling in the pond asked where we were going. We explained were heading to the Thames, following the course of the Fleet. Learning that they were standing in the source really seemed to pique their imagination and there’s certainly an unquantifiable mystique about searching for underground rivers and seeing their influence.

The first mile or so of the river is above ground, in the form of stream flowing through a sequence of pools on the heath. Bolton charts the route to be as near as possible to the river and at some points that means pushing through brambles and overgrowth along a barely perceptible pathway. The real joy of walking the route is being given a reason to visit new places and make chance discoveries. The river has already set the route long before there was any city to walk through. The landscape and its contents take on a new significance through the filter of the lost rivers theme: a covered pool table at a caravan site seems to be making a poetic gesture. As the Heath ends, the river dips below ground through a grill and doesn’t re-emerge until the Thames.

At this point the guide book does something very interesting. Tom Bolton is clearly a Londophile and the walks are colourfully illustrated with local history, literary references and grisly crimes when the river passes by a significant site, such as the bullet hole riddled wall of a pub in Hampstead, the scene of the Ruth Ellis shooting. But because the river itself is determines the route, it means that large sections aren’t standard guidebook territory. The challenge then is to find something valuable in the available urban fabric and I feel there is always something to worth seeing or knowing about wherever you are: everything is evidence of something. On a guided tour, or a self guided tour, the world looks different. An internal switch has been set to “observe”, rather than the “destination” factory setting. Bolton annotates the backroad-zigzagging with relevant comments and unblenching observations.

Once back in the urban environment, the usually overlooked grids and vents in the road often afford a glimpse of the river and various utility installations hint at access to the underworld. An abandoned junkshop features a display of cobwebbed fishing tackle in the window, obviously after the fact but nicely fitting the theme. We passed the Fleet Primary School, Fleet Tandoori and Fleet Flats on Fleet Road – all named after the road primarily, but ultimately referencing the river. A local second hand bookshop shows a map of the Fleet in its window with a helpful YOU ARE HERE pointer, while depictions of the river through history appear in tiled murals and mosaics along the course. Tantalisingly, not all of these appear in the book, allowing river sleuths to make their own discoveries. We probably missed a lot.

The full route, including one false turn and recovery, took ten miles and a whole afternoon to complete. Once we reached Fleet Street, tremendously thirsty and completely wiped out, the Blackfriar became the ultimate destination, mere yards from the Thames. On a previous visit, I’d noticed access ladders that go from the path at Millennium Pier down to the river bank which I’d considered exploring but this will have to wait until next time.

There are six rivers remaining in the guide: a regular summer outing then, between now and 2019!

 

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…