Kong: Sculpture Island

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

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

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

Why so much affection, by proxy?



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

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


Kong was here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Lost Rivers of London 4: The Peck and the Earl’s Sluice.

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

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

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


Reservoir Temple (credit: John Clarkson)

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

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

The Peck

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


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

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


The Water Margin

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

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

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


First Prise (credit: John Clarkson)

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

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

Earl's Sluice

Halo Spaceboy (credit: Rob Gilbert)

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


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

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

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




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

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


 Silt puffins

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



Away haul away

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

IMG_0409 IMG_0410 IMG_0451

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


IMG_0615image-11 image-9 image-8image-1 image-5image-2 image-3 image-7image-6 image-4RingRoad3 RingRoad2