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

‘Brilliant and insightful’

‘We’re going to get arrested’

‘This is definitely a like a religion’.

‘How do I convert to Free Seeing?’  

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

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

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

Platform 1

Platform 1

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

Owl be back

Owl be back

We take the opportunity for the group, now warmed up, to test out a fringe theory: can people sense when they are being stared at? A seated newspaper reader is selected and the 15-strong group watch him intently. While we don’t manage to rouse him from his studies, we greatly perturb the group of teens on the next bench. Passers-by voluntarily join the group stare – without any coercion it seems to them to be something worth doing.

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

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

Mat or shiny

Mat or shiny

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

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

Naturally, the workshop is free! Book below.

'The Crow'

‘The Crow’

Shopping for Simulacra with Matt Westbrook

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

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

Margaret st gates owlIMG_9988Drainpipe Owl UoB building site owl Post Office Owl  LackyOwl  IMG_9960 IMG_9900 IMG_9892 IMG_9860 IMG_0043 Bmag marble Owl

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

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

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

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

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

Lost Rivers of Bradford – Cottingley Beck

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

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

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

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

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

Loser Beck

Loser Beck

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

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

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

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

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

Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire

Welcome to...

Welcome to…

Fairy liquid

Fairy liquid

Soapy water

Soapy water

Fairyland gateway

Tale gate

Lost Rivers of London 3: the Westbourne

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

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

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

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

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

Decorative arches

Arch nemesis

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

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

You don't miss the water

You don’t miss the water


Po-mo no-no

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

Hatching a plan

Hatching a plan

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

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

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

Jane and the City: Jane’s Walks Come to Brum.

Jane and the City: Jane’s Walks Come to Brum.

I learnt about Jane’s Walk about two years ago: citizen-led guided tours that anyone who cares about their locale can lead. Jane being Jane Jacobs, influential US town planner and author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The tours are an international memorial to perpetuate her life’s values, all happening over one weekend. Alan Bain of JMP introduced me to Jane’s Walks and on closer inspection, they very closely paralleled Still Walking in many aspects. The key one being: arranging a temporary outdoor forum for discussing our surroundings and how they affect us.

It’s interesting to see which cities have a programme: it’s not always those which have an active tourist guided tour presence. In the UK, York, Cambridge, Oxford and Edinburgh have yet to run one but Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry and Stoke all feature prominently. Obviously, these walks are for doing something other than sight seeing.

The idea behind my walk along Bristol Road / Street was to experience at walking pace an arterial road more usually experienced by bus or car. Would there be anything worth visiting? Several people showed up after work on Friday to find out.

The moments which intrigued the group were unexpected. We debated for 10 minutes why the Ethiopian restaurant was called Shamrock: was it a sign of ethnic integration? Were there shamrocks in Ethiopia and were they lucky / edible? Two members of the group volunteered to dine there soon and report back. Another restaurant sign mystery appeared later: why was the drive-thru McDonalds sign a) green and b) tiny to the point of unreadable? There were more questions than answers. Two of the group lived nearby and were the only people present who had walked the full length of the road. This couple remembered the Superprix in the 1980s – a trace of which was still visible, spelling out ‘Birmingham’ in crocus greenery. In the private housing estate, we looked at some amazing sculptural details: goblins appeared to be offering a pig to a prone figure. Easter Island heads loomed over the entrances to the 15 blocks. We were joined by a member of the residents’ committee, curious about our curiosity, and able to provide details I hadn’t googled before setting out. Our final destination was a large but empty hotel. It advertised a fishing lake and beer garden, both of which would have been welcome in this ‘dry’ residential area. When I left the walk, several of the group appeared to be working out how to break in to investigate further.

Flowers for Drivers

Flowers for Drivers

The Saturday morning walk was another ‘long street’ showcase, led by Dr Dave Richardson. Dave works with the My Route project – highlighting the history and heritage of the first few miles of Stratford Road. A compact group gathered to find out more. The route instantly took us to unfamiliar territory: the former James Bicycle Factory – a well preserved Victorian delight in Lombardic Romanesque style. The famous Vale-Onslow motorcycle shop was next: the scaffolding and greenery in the brickwork suggested it was long closed but surprisingly it was still trading. Like the Diskery we visited yesterday, this shop had at some unnoticed point become a museum to itself. Similarly, the last stand of the Irish community in the area is represented by Bourke’s grocers. Its crucifixes, sacks of Irish potatoes (Rooster, Kerrs Pink and Golden Wonder) feel like carefully curated exhibits. What became apparent on this walk is how much I’d missed in the past – and I’m usually on the look-out for these details. I’d even combed the street with David earlier in the year. But being in a group, observing and talking seems to make features pop out of the urban fabric, and their meaning more apparent. Our walk ended at the Antelope – a beautiful Arts and Crafts former pub with a huge William Bloye relief panel of an Antelope. The building is now Hajees Spices, which whilst resolutely ‘dry’ still recognises and preserves the beauty of the pub’s decoration and ornate M&B lettering. No single moment better characterises the social changes at work in the area.

Doctor Foot

Doctor Foot

On Sunday morning, Fin Skillen introduced us to the world of the Cycle Courier. The courier needs to know the city inside out but in a different way to taxi drivers’ (erstwhile) knowledge of street names. Short cuts, near misses and road network savviness in a city designed specifically for cars are all essential components. Fin explained the routes he took were against the clock and needed to avoid red lights whenever possible. During multi-drops, joining the dots meant understanding that shortest wasn’t necessarily quickest, required keeping gravity on your side and knowing where to chain up in safety. Fin showed us many snipped padlocks and wholly removed Sheffield stands – indices of where to avoid locking up. Cycling all day means a ferocious calorie burn and knowing where the cheap sandwiches are is critical. Samples and street-distributed freebies are common once you know where to go – our group were treated to the taste of new banana flavour Soreen, handed out in Centenary Square to the 10k race runners. This also proved to be a history walk: in the three years since he last worked as a courier, the city has changed significantly and many of Fin’s short cuts no longer are possible. Even taking a few days away from the fervent urban upheaval is enough to put you at a disadvantage.

A single malt

A single malt

Lost and Found: Sport and the City on Monday was Alan Bain’s walk of the lost sports fields of Bearwood – a curious cluster of these appearing along City Road. Alan played on many of these fields just 15 years ago but it must have felt more like 50 to see so many of them grown over and sealed off. Our first field was the Avery Sports Ground on City Road, a recreation ground originally created for employees of Avery weighing scales manufacturers. It’s been unused since 1979 1995 with no evidence of its imminent future reuse. The scale is epic and there’s a real atmosphere of loss and lost opportunity on tennis courts, cricket pitches and football fields still visible beneath the growth. Apart from the obligatory blue bottle of Frosty Jack at the gate, there is little evidence that anyone in using the space in any way. Another clue is the notice served up by GRC Bailiffs a year ago advising on horses that had been detained on the land.

Our next lost grounds has been built over completely. David Wilson Homes have convincingly recreated a village of six bedroom houses over the former sports ground: ‘Lordswood Gardens, Harborne’ (although we are still in Bearwood). Some space has been preserved as a village green effect and meadow. The national shortfall in new houses means sports ground become the equivalent of inner city green belt. We visit two other sites: a cricket field formerly belonging to the M&B’s Cape Hill Brewery in a transitional phase, and a football field overgrown but with goal posts and floodlights still standing. Street names reflect the M&B logo: Stag Road, Antler Way, Roebuck Road.

Avery Fields

Lost home game

The final walk on Monday afternoon is more a survey of how street furniture has been adapted to confound skateboarders in Eastside City Park. Since the closure of the ramp at the Custard Factory in February, this is the skaters’ last refuge in the city. Even before the park officially opened, the skaters had been in and were waxing down the steps stone edges for their tricks. For this event I had invited Mark Preston from Ideal Skates to lead a brief walk around the area and show how various extra bits of metal were being added to the stone work. I’d spotted the metal knobs appearing but had missed a more subtle feature: lengths of metal inserted between stone slabs to deliberately scupper small hard wheels’ progress. Other park users hadn’t missed them: there were a few pedestrian stumbles from time to time. It appeared that skaters merely adapt their technique to the new obstacles. I had heard about tools created to remove the knobs and Mark confirms he’d previously discovered knobs which would simply pull out and could be replaced neatly after use.

Whatever your take on skating, there are many who come specifically to the park to watch their tricks and who may stay on in the area to do something else, economically. One problem in the park is litter. We’d previously identified the positioning of a large litter bin at the end of a low-level wall as a deliberate effort to thwart skaters jumping off the end. A chance encounter with a park committee member revealed the positioning was accidental – it was merely to make depositing litter in it more likely. The true situation is that the young skaters hate the bin and won’t use it to protest its presence. This Jane’s Walk revealed the subtle and unknowable rhythms, rules and intentions of city space and how making them overlap by public forum, even on a small informal scale can yield beneficial results.

Park Life

Park life

A Wray of Light

A few weeks ago I had an extended mooch around the Christopher Wray building on Bartholomew Row – this you may remember was the lighting shop not far from Masshouse Circus that closed about ten years ago. Everything that once may have served as a landmark in that area (Rosa’s Café, Los Canarios restaurant, The Railway [pub]) has now gone and its current geo-markers (Millennium Point, Hotel La Tour, Eastside City Park, BCU Parkside) have all appeared in the last few years.

For all it’s modern context, it turns out the Christopher Wray building is perhaps the oldest in the city centre. Or rather part of it is, as this industrial complex has been extended for different purposes over nearly three centuries. Whilst browsing the glitzy chandeliers and uplighters back in 1998, I hadn’t realised that this was more than merely a sales outlet: all the elements for the various lights fixtures were actually being cast and pressed out the back in workshops and in the basement foundry. That metal casting tradition stretches back to the earliest days of the building, developed by the brass founder, William Bache in 1749.

For Birmingham, especially the city centre, 1749 is ancient. There’s really only St Philips that predates it, and a few C17 timbers in the Fox and Grapes. It’s worth getting excited about – especially knowing that (unlike the fox and Grapes) this building will have a life beyond the HS2 developments.

Over the years, the workshops here have been used by pearl button makers, tinners, millstone makers, cabinet makers and engravers. Additionally, most of the properties would also have had their own brewhouse and the complex was developed in the C19 by a ginger beer maker. The buildings later formed the epicentre of the Italian Quarter, offering accommodation for Italian immigrants. Rosa’s café, demolished in 2009, represented the last stand of a long established Italian connection.

There are two surviving townhouses from an initial row of 19 house on what was then called Carrow Fields: 9 and 10 still remain, albeit in a much altered form. When compared to the Georgian elegance of many C18 Hockley survivors, this is pure Digbeth: chopped up, modified for work, bashed around. It’s actually this factor, the uniquely-surviving industrialisation of a domestic townhouse plot that has led to its being listed. The actual shop floor of Christopher Wray is a modern creation, little more than a lean-to shack, but I sensed there was more to be discovered behind the crumbling brick facade of the domestic dwellings. Property developer Simon Linford agreed to show me around.

In what is now the site office (for the building is on the verge of being redeveloped by Linford’s) I discovered the number plate from Christopher Wray’s Merc, propped up on a mantel piece: L11 GHT. Later investigation reveals him to be a showman from the beginning: an established magician, stage performer and occasional Doctor Who actor. In the name of research, I watched the entirety of the Pertwee era Sea Devils to watch Wray (briefly) in action. The bric-a-brac he assembled for theatre props were later sold on at a market stall, the beginnings of his lighting empire. Sadly, Simon revealed that he had died just a few weeks earlier.

The buildings are in pretty bad shape and there are several places upstairs where it simply isn’t safe to walk. In many places, the rain has entered the building unchecked. The plot is extensive, and at every turn there is evidence of its former use. Boxes of lighting fixtures are piled up everywhere, hanging from wall mounts and flowing out of drawers. The stencilled wooden storage boxes look familiar: Simon confirms that the provisions shelving that I’ve seen in Lewis’s deli in Moseley originated as recycled ammo storage sourced by Wray in the 70s, sold on via eBay. In the domestic areas, patterned wallpaper show the changing fashions of the years. The labyrinthine basement areas extend some way under the street itself. Check out the recent Birmingham Post Hidden Spaces supplement for a more comprehensive description of the interior…and indeed better photos.

What’s fascinating here is that it’s possible to go back to regency Birmingham in the city centre – but no-one knows it’s here. It’s invisible. Even the ultra-rigorous Pevsner Architectural Guide to Birmingham misses it. While pub landlords know the value in staking ‘oldest’ claims – however dubious the claim – the city manages to miss a trick here. This is odd for an industrial city that could widely be celebrating its creative industrial and scientific past (like Manchester does). However, it’s a thrill to have found it and exciting to think what Winford will end up doing with the place, given its listed status. Rumour is that the workshops and ateliers will have a creative output once again…

Let there be LII GHT

Let there be LII GHT

Beneath the City

Beneath the City

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Wray's a laugh

Wray’s a laugh

Tunnel Vision – Walking the Inner Ring Road Tunnels

The Ring Road tunnels opened again today after six weeks of closure and the city’s petrol powered traffic can once again circulate at will – at least until 10pm when the curfew sounds.

Earlier in the year, friend-of-the-festival Roxie Collins suggested an excellent walk: a night-time pedestrian stroll through the tunnels. If approved, it would be a rare opportunity to walk in the usually exclusive domain of the motor car. Roxie is a fan of car parks and car spaces in general and her tour for the festival year visited the city’s landmark car parks and subways. Going by the quick take up of tickets, many others were too. I thought I’d try to arrange it, thinking how long it might be before another opportunity to do this (safely) came around. The earliest Still Walking festival featured a walk led by Joe Holyoak, talking about the Inner Ring Road from a planner’s perspective – a walk that stopped short of entering the tunnels themselves. This would be an elegant way to complete that missing section. Indeed the festival has a recurring obsession with the ring road: in March this year, Glen Stoker accompanied a dozen people around the Middle Ring Road. And in 2017, the festival will feature an epic trek around the outer ring road…

My email efforts to contact the BCC tunnels boss or head of tourism at Amey led nowhere unfortunately, even though I pitched the benefits of having a public access event to offset the inconvenience of tunnel closure. However, a week later an email arrived from a colleague: Amey were now advertising a guided walk by Construction Manager Kevan Lambe. Anyone was welcome so long as they had full PPE ie., hard hats, hi-viz and work boots. I signed up immediately and scrambled some kit together.

Two weeks later I was sitting in a container office near Spaghetti Junction, receiving the H&S training, evacuation procedure, general tunnel tips and tricks and most interestingly for me a slide show of Queensway history (also called Tunnel Vision) and tunnel facts and figures. During Kevan’s presentation, the assembled group learnt that the concept of the Ring Road dates back to 1944, while the country was still at war. There are times when you have to respect that kind of commitment to the Forward motto. Likewise the 1971 launch date, which came six years ahead of schedule. And everyone knows the Queen’s blunder in naming the jewelled  carriageway…

Some intriguing details emerged before we set off to explore: when the tunnels closed last year, people tended to stay on longer in the city after work, shopping or heading to restaurants and bars having left the car at home. Businesses reported an increased turnover, which was maintained even after the tunnels reopened. Kevan also detailed the various work being carried out in the tunnels: new LED lighting that varies in intensity throughout the day, actually becoming dimmer at night to minimise the contrast from driving from darkness into an illuminated environment. Ventillation and fireproofing is improved and there is now support for emergency services radio communications. Video cameras automatically detect incidents or collisions and email the relevant personnel and switch on an in-tunnel voice alarm / public PA system. Leaks have been fixed.

The feeling of walking in the tunnels is very much that you shouldn’t be there. Not from a permission perspective but rather that walking in the spaces I’ve previously watched thousands of cars zipping through just plain feels dangerous. When driving through previously, I’ve noticed doors on the left hand wall leading somewhere… on this walk we entered such a door, ascended a spiral staircase into a cavernous plant room, with vents opening up to the carriageways below. All along the tunnel, on cherry pickers and magic carpets men work through the night on overhead gantries and fixtures. An occasional beeping means such a platform is descending and we need to watch out. Former access gates from the surface have been sealed off, being infiltrated by the curious while the tunnels are closed. Bags of fireproofing powder lie in piles, waiting to be sprayed onto the surfaces. We’re in there for around an hour, with a full commentary on every aspect – details usually missed completely by motorists as they whizz beneath the city in a matter of minutes.

The final pix courtesy of Andrew Kulman – follow his Twitter stream of 60s /70s Brumicana @AndrewKulman


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Why Waylosing?

Bill Aitchison on the Waylosing walk: it sold out in a few days but we hope to rerun it later in the year in conjunction with the wayfinding tour.


The idea of leading a waylosing walk may sound a little perverse but it not just a joke, for it comes from the solid principle that if you never go out of your way you never discover new places. I’m aware the terms ‘losing your way’ or ‘being lost’ have negative connotations, they sound like a problem, like a lack of something, but these states almost never exist in an absolute form, we almost always have some idea of where we are: which country, city and neighbourhood we’re in. Even Christopher Columbus landing on and ‘discovering’ the the Americas, which he mistook for Japan and China, was not completely lost. He knew he was five weeks sail west of Europe.

I’m not planning anything quite so ambitious as this for the voyage on the 2nd August in Birmingham with Still Walking. More modestly, I’d like to share some techniques and ideas which I use to put myself off my habitual tracks. This walk will therefore not follow a predefined route that pushes us ever further into obscurity, the route will instead be decided in the moment depending on who is taking the walk, which areas we are unfamiliar with and what we find. In this way it will be about the process of waylosing, the decisions we have to make and how we can make sense of the journey. Since most of us on the walk will know the city to a greater or lesser extent, the chances are we will not be well and truly lost but we might well come across a few unfamiliar streets, talk about what we find, what it means to not know where you are and not know where you are going. 

I’m excited that this walk has been paired with a wayfinding walk as I see the two of them as dealing with very similar issues. I did some waylosing experiments in Beijing recently, as it is easier to get lost in a foreign country, and I found I had to think a lot about how we navigate and find our way. It was necessary, for example, to choose the right area to get lost in, to locate landmarks in order to lose them and to keep a detailed mental map in order to know when it had been irreparably mangled. Like the unruly younger sibling then, this waylosing walk is cut from a similar cloth but attempts to know the rules only in order to break them.

Finally on a practical note, the walk is going to take some time and we will try to include a stop for light refreshment on the way, though obviously that depends on where we end up. There will be quite a bit of walking involved, so dress appropriately, and the plan is to find our way back into Birmingham City Centre by 6PM at the latest. You can bring phones but using their map function is absolutely forbidden!  

Bill Aitchison

Bill Aitchison

Thanks Bill; I’m secretly hoping we do find some lost continents.

You can read more about Bill’s other events over at his blog.

Sights in Motion – a Pedal Powered Invisible Cinema – the reviews are in!

Last night at the Magic Cinema screening at Ort Café I asked Alan Fair (Small Heath-born cinephile and former MAC film programmer) to cobble together some notes about Saturday’s bike ride around the old picture palaces of Brum. Here’s his amazing essay less than a day later:


Alhambra, Essoldo, Tivoli, Rialto, these are names for the mouth to conjure with, as a child these words were the closest I came to exotica, these were words that ended in vowels that weren’t ‘e’ ferchristsake!

Of course and more importantly these names were the abracadabra that allowed me to see all those things and places and people that weren’t in the quotidian world of inner city Birmingham. Picture Palaces was such a wonderful term and it rang as true to my experience as did the dreams I woke from on summer mornings. The cinema names not only conjured the Mediterranean, the Moorish citadels of the Spanish plains there was also those reminders of closer to home but still no less exotic for these names revealed the class nature of British history, the grandiose harkening back to medieval times; The Grange, The Coronet, The Manor, those dreamy distant images rendered hyperbolic in the comic books I would read. Alas all it appears is lost, like the flickering shadows on the screen and the blue smoke paisley patterns written in the air above my head as the brilliant light of the projector was rendered palpable by the luscious lips of Rhonda Fleming, the impossible masculinity of Victor Mature. Open mouthed I saw in those brief gaps in the soot laden street of Birmingham 10 as the way to the stars, the sweeping staircase of the Grange unfurled onto Coventry road and beckoned me up just as David Niven was beseeched upwards to share a space with the demigods of European thought.

So mostly the names have gone, but thankfully not the memories or the architecture of those oneiric forms, saved but transformed by the changing moods and cheapening desires of the marketplace, where now not dreams but plastic buckets and paint and occasionally and more appropriately these buildings are still places of social gathering and community. It was armed with this arcane knowledge of what was called “Sights in Motion: A pedal-powered invisible cinema” that a group of us, signed up already to the inherent philosophy of the wonderful ‘Still Walking Festival’, embarked on a peripatetic pilgrimage pursuing these transformed halls of memory.



The mistake made by all urbanists is to consider the private automobile (…) essentially as a means of transportation. Such a misconception is a major expression of a notion of happiness that developed capitalism tends to spread throughout society. The automobile is the centerpiece of this general propaganda, both as sovereign good of an alienated life and as essential product of the capitalist market.  (Guy Debord, “Situationist theses on traffic” 1959)

What became clear as we pushed off was that such a quest but not just the journey into nostalgia of a couple of old folks but was rather a wonderful pathway to the past in the present, a group of seekers buoyed by pneumatic tires and enthusiasm, men and women young and old and all sharing the common complaints of backsides on leather seats and the joys of cycling in the inner city, urban explorers reaching the euphoria common to those in tandem with each other’s thoughts. The first cinemas we came across, in Stirchley, had now been transformed into workshops, this became a theme of the trip, the city once known as “the workshop of the world” had rediscovered its heritage in the abandoned dreams of years gone by. Armed with the knowledge of our leader (literally) we began, as all travelers must, to discern these hard (crumbling?) facts of transition and history.

We must replace travel as an adjunct to work with travel as pleasure. (Guy Debord.1959 Ibid)

As the earth began to move beneath the sun’s warmth so to we moved across the built environment, also involved in our small way with a transformation. I wondered as we wandered how many people back in the thirties and forties had traveled to their local cinemas by means of a bicycle, how many patrons pushed forward on pedals while puffing on Woodbines and Park Drives, eager to catch the charismatic fallout from Errol Flynn, from Paul Robeson, from the transcendent Bette Davies? Through Small Heath and Greet, through Alum Rock  and Washwood Heath, we dawdled alongside impossibly grand edifices, The Capitol, watched over with benign warmth by the patrons of the Muslim Community centre, who told us with glee about visiting the cinema in “the old days” to catch the antics of Bruce Lee, then further on to Malik & Sons Cash and Carry, still delightful in deep azure and startling white, the fascisti (sic)emblems picked out perfectly in their stucco rendition of imperial (another name often given to cinemas) Rome.

Even if during a transitional period, we temporarily accept a rigid division between zones of work and residence, we should at least envisage a third sphere, that of life itself (the sphere of freedom, of leisure – the truth of life)Unitary urbanism acknowledges no boundaries; it aims to form a unitary human milieu in which separations such as work/pleasure or public/private will finally be dissolved. But before this, the minimum action of unitary urbanism is to extend the terrain of play to all desirable constructions. This terrain will be at the level of complexity of an old city.  (Guy Debord 1959 ibid)

What seemed, at first, like the ruins of the dream life of angels  quickly became a celebration of the dynamics of the city, as our group of seekers learned to find, so did we begin to enjoy the city captured through the screens of our own desires, to re-map the city as an environment for sharing rather than dividing up. The lines of our drift through Birmingham’s car city presumptions made new byways of discovery, by ways that cyclists and pedestrians learn to re insert themselves into the urban environment where, what was clear to us was, we can once again celebrate the city as a place for people.

Thanks to all on the “Invisible Cinema” trek, it really was a day to cherish.


Photo: Mark Wilson

Photo: Mark Wilson

Alan Fair

Lost Rivers of London 2: The Neckinger

The Neckinger is an odd river, both flowing out of and back into the Thames, making an island of an area south of the river currently occupied by South Bank, that for a while was called Jacob Island. The river has completely been built over – qualifying it as ‘lost’ and is the second such river of London along which I have invited people to follow the course. The idea is that there’s plenty of clues of the missing river and simply it’s fun to look for them. Where they don’t appear plentifully, there are other surface details to be intrigued by.

This year, we’d increased out number by personal recommendation from those who attended previously. I sense there’s a real thirst for group observation, with no real agenda of what’s worth noticing. Explanations of curiosities are approached by layered comment and observation. Perhaps we don’t get to the bottom of a ‘mystery’ but the shared experience of suggesting explanations, regardless of background – is a very satisfying experience.

The routes are all determined by Tom Bolton in his book London’s Lost Rivers. A few weeks ago, one of our river walkers pointed out that Tom was now marketing his own river walks. Ours are all-invite only (or by recommendation), done for the sheer fun of seeing what we encounter along the way and seeing who turns up for the event and the ad hoc ‘conference’ afterwards. I feel that at some point over the next five years, our paths will cross…

Neckinger where it enters Thames

Thames level

The premise of the book is that it charts the route of the river, suggesting evidence such as street names, landscape geography, public art and the occasional glimpse of the river itself. Where there is nothing to report, Tom comments on the history of the buildings, especially when there is a literary connection or grisly crime. I decided after last year’s Fleet trip to drop reading aloud most of these comments when we noticed that there were all sorts of bits of river evidence to be found that wasn’t being reported in the book. This may well reflect the publisher’s influence rather than Tom’s observations and I accept there is a finite market for people who want to peer into grids in the middle of the road. But for me, the walks are supposed to be about rivers rather than Marlowe’s bar brawls. As such, a lot of the walk was spent walking over the area we knew the river to be, where this was possible, looking for grids that may reveal the Neckinger. There is a real moment of intrigue when these usually ignorable grates afford an aperture into that lost watery world, like glimpsing a phantom.

For whatever reason, the Neckinger is largely invisible in any form, even climbing down to the banks of the Thames doesn’t reveal the outlet. There’s some evidence in the street levels and names of a river bank, then at the half-way point our discovery of the river window grid. There’s plenty else to keep us occupied, personal favourites being a fortress-like school wall composed of previous rubbled walls and a cluster of houses with a bizarre outline that hints at their mediaeval origins. Finally we finally see our river named in the Neckinger Estate where an archway into a block of flats seems to deliberately straddle the underground river, according to Tom’s map. We’d have missed all of these delightful moments in our usual movements through this city, and only one of these is actually in the book. Pub breaks are determined by occasional, rainfall – seems right.

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At the end of the walk, at St Saviours Dock, we finally see the Neckinger snaking over mudflats and back into the Thames. Stats show our speed was a leisurely 1 mile an hour. On the other side of the rive, wholly unnoticed by our party, the first stage of the Tour de France was entering the city.



Photos by Helen Frosi ‘cept the one above.





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