Still Walking in Time Out

The Still Walking festival gets a couple of paragraphs in today’s London Time Out:

Critics are quick to dismiss Birmingham as an architecturally unrewarding place to visit. It’s true that it has been built up, replanned and torn down more than almost any other place of comparable size in the country, but its compact centre, 2,000 listed buildings and the sheer ceaselessness of its regeneration make it an exciting place to walk. It’s like an urban planning experiment that got out of hand. Turn a corner and another dramatic vista opens up; scale and perspectives flip with every step. Brutalist concrete clamours for attention beside Blairite ‘regeneration’ developments: anything with an industrial legacy is fair game for redesignation. Skyscrapers spring up where they shouldn’t – and amid it all, Victorian remainders stand stoic.

The Still Walking festival, which runs March 15-April 1, is an example of the sort of independent happening that Birmingham does well. It’s organised by local artist and historian Ben Waddington, and features an esoteric set of guided walks around the city led by ‘historians, architects, artists, psychogeographers, dancers, storytellers and ramblers’, all keen to share their experiences of moving around Birmingham. ‘It came about after my Invisible Cinema tour for the Flatpack Festival [see Around Town below],’ says Waddington. ‘I began to think of the many ways and reasons people walk.’ Some of the highlights include Birmingham Noir, exploring ‘architectural grotesques and oddities in the business district’; Radial Truths, a cycling tour through the history of Birmingham cycle manufacture; and Brumicana, investigating the city’s urban myths.

You can read the whole article at http://www.timeout.com/travel/features/1175/a-fresh-look-at-birmingham

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Pulling out different frequencies

It would be fair to say that most of the Still Walking festival programme is biased towards the visual. There are, however, a few notable exceptions; one of these is the Digbeth Listening Walk led by Liminal.

Liminal are architect Frances Crow and sound artist and composer David Prior (David will be leading the Digbeth Listening Walk for us). They describe their work together as “exploring the relationship between sound, listening and the environment”.

I first became aware of their work after reading this enthusiastic blog post by Sam Underwood. In it he describes his experience of their work Organ of Corti.

There we go biasing the visual again! Fortunately Sam made a few field recordings and the Liminal website has some videos that convey a sense of how they work with shifting our attention onto the noises that surround us and also shifting the sounds themselves.

I’m liking the circularity of this, because when I think of the sounds of Digbeth, I am also reminded of Sam’s recent Sonic Graffiti project and these wonderfully atmospheric tracks made from field recordings around the area. These tracks are intended to be listened in the places whence they came, but here’s a taster:

[audio:http://www.stillwalking.org/media/SG01_MrUnderwood_Taxi.mp3%5D

I’ve experienced Digbeth late at night after visiting different events; in the early hours of the morning as I embark on my walking projects; during the day as I schlepp back home from the city centre and I’ve also sat in VIVID for hours on end listening to the drone of the buses going down Heath Mill Lane. Yet I still don’t really have a mental image (damn! there we go again!) of what Digbeth might sound like at 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon. Will all the metal bashers still be at it, or will the factories have emptied for the weekend? Too early for the Friday-night revellers I expect, maybe also for the commuters making their way homewards?

Whatever the soundscape turns out to be, I’m looking forward to being given the excuse – and a few more skills – to pause and take notice of it.

The Digbeth Listening Walk takes place on Friday the 30th of March, 3-4:30pm. Hear you there.

Getting into the Saddle for Radial Truths

Yesterday morning I met Chris Tomlinson of Birmingham Bike Foundry to check on progress with his cycling tour for the festival. Chris was finishing off a game of Bike Polo at Highgate Park’s Urban Cricket ground. Urban Cricket isn’t seen there so often but polo seems to be on the rise. So is cycling generally.

Radial Truths will be a three hour cycling tour exploring what’s left of Birmingham’s cycling industry, and in many cases, that’s an archeological exploration. This is Chris’s first guided tour, but cycling has long been an interest and in 2010 he co-founded Birmingham Bike Foundry to recycle, repair bikes and offer maintenance training. I’d never really looked at this side of Birmingham’s industrial history and was looking forward to finding out what he had in store on the trip.

One question I had for him: how had Birmingham turned from a bike industry leader to motor city in such a short period…and a relatively bike – unfriendly city at that? Chris explained how the Midlands bicycle industry responded to the public’s transportion needs…when motorbikes and cars became more affordable, cycle manufacture slowed down. It wasn’t that the factories “liked” cycling, rather that they could profit from supplying that demand. BSA, for example, moved from artillery through to bicycles (or “dicycles”) for the same reason. After the War, Birmingham reinvented itself as a car-centric city and the association with bicycles was largely lost. Giants like Aston’s Hercules disappeared almost overnight. Yet only a few years previously, the industry was still looking to shiny future…

I asked if there were any pre-war cycle routes so we could follow some historical routes, but as Chris gently explained, there were no cycle routes back then. Cars were the exception on most roads. The road was the cycle route. A young bike polo spectator overheard us and told his his grandfather had been employed by Hercules and he was enthusiastically researching the company’s history too. Could he come on the tour? I enjoy these moments!

Our first stop was the site of the once-enormous Ariel factory complex in Selly Oak. Even since I was last there in 2011 huge swathes of land have been cleared and rebuilt, including the aquaduct. So should this important cycling location be on the tour? I felt if we could identify one remaining trace, he should use it (I hate hearing the phrase “here once stood” on guided tours). Chris had heard a rumour that there was a plaque somewhere on the aquaduct, named Ariel Bridge after the factory. But there was no trace of anything – something Birmingham is very good at! We had to press on with the tour, with the ultimate destination of the mighty Hercules plant.

Find out how Chris got on with his exploration by booking a place on his tour. I promise, we did find something!

Radial Truths

mmm, maps: Still Walking start locations

Here at Still Walking, we love maps…

We’re particularly fond of this one: the starting locations for the events in our first festival programme.

That’s a pretty good spread across the centre of the city. We’re quite chuffed with that, considering it’s our first attempt!

It wouldn’t be a proper festival without a fringe though, but fear not! We’ve got it covered, thanks to Swanning Around Erdington and Radial Truths:

Swanning Around Erdington is a family-friendly promenade highlighting heritage and memories along the high street. Highly recommended if you like your theatre in small doses (groups are limited to 10, but the 30 minute tour will run four times during the afternoon.

By contrast, Radial Truths is a cycling expedition lasting approximately 3 hours that will range across the city taking in different sites relevant to cycle manufacturing in Birmingham. It begins in Stirchley at the Birmingham Bike Foundry.

So, these are our starting points… we hope you’ll join us to find out where they end up and what ground they cover en route.

Testing, testing

On Sunday I met Mark Wilson outside Snow Hill Station to walk through the testing stage of his guided tour for the festival. On Location visits the sites of famous TV and film locations around the city. Some are set in Birmingham, others merely using the city as a backdrop for somewhere else… and, tantalisingly, sometimes leaving evidence behind.

I assembled a small group of people to give the tour some volume, amongst them James Kennedy (who will be blogging about the festival) and Euan Ferguson (up from London to cover the Birmingham tourist experience for Time Out). We set off into a wintery Birmingham to be shown Mark’s discoveries. Mark is pretty much obsessed with BBC’s “sitcon” Hustle, which drew to a conclusion last week, and had followed filming around the city over the last few months via a network of Twitter based Hustle spotters.

I first met Mark a year ago on one of my own tours: Invisible Cinema for last year’s Flatpack Festival visited forgotten cinemas around the city. Mark took some great photos on the tour and linked me to them on Flickr. Checking his other pictures, it was clear that Mark had a great interest in Birmingham history.

I heard from him again a few weeks later: he’d done some thorough research into Birmingham TV and film locations recently, but how could he go about giving a guided tour of his own? What was the platform for doing that? It so happened that I was in the early stages of developing my own festival of guided walks and was keen to give him that opportunity.

Some months on, the tour was just about ready to be tested. And it was a complete success! We learnt many of the tricks of the industry for setting a scene, and how a TV programme is often a collage of locations. If you know the city, there can be a jarring moment when the drama unfolds under an improbable route: witness Cliff Richard’s short musical stroll from Victoria Square to Gas Street Basin in Take Me High, which seems to take in every Birmingham landmark over a mile radius. And, like an Alfred Hitchcock cameo, Mark himself somehow seemed to regularly be on the scene of filming. By the end it was too cold for Mark to even turn the pages of his notes so we found shelter with a hot drink at IKON gallery. Find out exactly what is on the tour by going on it yourself on Sunday 18 March (part of a joint Flatpack / Still Walking venture).

Euan liked it too – though I’d been clear about the tour still being in development. Well done Mark: your first ever guided tour and it’s being covered by Time Out!

Still Walking: the genesis

I came back from town this afternoon with a clutch of fliers, programmes and printed ephemera. One of my favourite pastimes is to lie on the sofa and leaf through these things with the diary and plan what I can actually see, what needs booking ahead, what clashes with the other thing happening at the other end of town. I brought back the first Fierce festival flier of the year, containing events already booked, talks I’d better get on and book and phrases I’ll never read again anywhere else (this year’s: “A sea of live local sausage dogs”). The programme reminded me that it is a year on from having the idea for a walking festival – it happened during Fierce.

Last year, Fierce fell on the same weekend as Flatpack. I was leading my Invisible Cinema tour – visiting abandoned or reused former cinema buildings around the city. Before the tour, I joined Kira O’Reilly’s Silent Walk – a performance piece in which a group are led in silence into the streets and allowed to find their own direction and leader. Both direction and leader constantly alter over the course of an hour. My usual role is tour guide, but here I held back to watch what was happening. The tour faltered twice – once to watch water bubbling through the pavement (a broken water main). No one seemed to want to leave. The second was outside the police station on Digbeth High Street… interesting.

After my research-driven tour, I thought about the very different approaches we each had for our tours – yet both were guided walks. I wondered if there was another direction I could take my tours, or what else counted as a guided tour. I began to think of many examples of walks people give, and take (and a year on, I haven’t stopped). Influenced by what was unfolding around me, I thought of a festival composed of all those walks. “Someone should organise that festival”, I thought lazily.

On the last day of the festival, I mentioned to Ian and Pip (the Flatpack directors) my musings – that I had been inspired by their efforts to create my own festival. This is perhaps the ultimate compliment – that through your creative efforts, others have been inspired to do their own. The earlier shadowy organiser had become me.

I’ve never been able to work out when exactly Fierce and Flatpack fall – something to do with full moons, I think. But this year they are separated by a couple of weeks, and Still Walking fits nicely into that gap. The sheer variety of forms and themes that a guided walk can take means it has been possible to group the tours according to the bread of the festival sandwich – Cinema History and Film / TV locations at the beginning for Flatpack and the more exploratory artist walks towards the Fierce end. And I hope you enjoy the filling!

The other booklet I brought back to peruse while lounging around was March’s IKON programme. No-one will see it but me probably, but there at the back amongst the IKON partners’ logos is a tiny black square with SW in it. That’s me! Still Walking is real, happening and out there, with a life of its own. I’d better try and catch it up!

Call for volunteers

We (Ben and Nikki) could very much do with a few extra pairs of hands to help the festival run smoothly!

If you’re excited about the Still Walking festival and can commit to a few hours either during or in the run up to the festival then we’d love to hear from you.

In particular we’re looking for help with the following things:

  • Distributing our printed programme to various venues around Birmingham (mostly the city centre).
  • Assisting with arrivals and general preparation at the start of each event.
  • Writing reviews of our events for our blog.
  • Writing reviews of recommended events for our blog.

If you’d like to help out then please fill in the form below to start the conversation on when you’re available and the sorts of things you’d like to help with. The form is also available here.

Hitting the ground running

Wow.

So the first thing we should say now we’ve got our corner of the internets sorted is a massive thank you to everyone who’s got behind the idea of Still Walking and given us so much enthusiasm, encouragement and support.

We very quickly filled up the listings for our festival with offers of walking tours of many different flavours. Approximately half of the Guides have done this sort of thing before, but for many of the people on our programme this will first or early steps.

One of the founding tenets of Still Walking is that everyone has a walk or a tour within them. Another is that we want Still Walking to be a supporting framework to help those walks become a reality. To this end we have been mentoring several of the Guides, working with them to develop their ideas, hobbies and obsessions into the events that we’d now like to share with you.

A special thank you and a nod of appreciation/encouragement to those who have taken the plunge with us.

We’d also like to say thanks to all those who have offered walks that we’re unfortunately not able to fit into our programme this time around. If the response we’ve had as Still Walking has been born over the last year or so is anything to go by, I’m sure there will be more festivals and events to follow in the future.

In the meantime though, we’re really proud and excited to bring you this, our first, festival.

Welcome to Still Walking.