Hamish Fulton walk at Curzon Park

I signed up for Hamish Fulton’s walk weeks ago, during a burst of research into walking artists in preparation for the SW festival. The walk was a joint event between Ikon Gallery and Fierce Festival and fell on Easter Sunday; also the last day of the Fierce festival. The walk was never described any more precisely than a “city centre walk, with Hamish Fulton”. We met in a drizzly Curzon Street Park, an expansive but empty post-industrial vista, best known now for being the proposed site of HS2. Many assumed this was merely the meeting place and we would soon march off through the city, possibly with an umbrella clutching Hamish drawing our attention to things of interest he’d observed in the city. I’m interested in what the “rules” or parameters are for a guided walk – what people’s expectations are if you announce there is going to be a walk in the city. These could be how long the walk will last, what the content will be, how much walking and how much talking to expect, price, distance, whether it will return to the starting point… Hamish confounded many walker’s expectations by announcing that the walk would last two hours and would be entirely within the confines of the space and specifically on a 150m raised “plateau” in the centre of the space. What’s more, we would not be walking far: we would choose a line on the plateau (cracks or gaps in the concrete, or lines left from the space’s previous life as a parcel depot) and follow that for it’s length.

The announcement coincided with a noticeable drop in temperature. Hamish clarified more conditions for the walk: we would each have our own line and wouldn’t be able to talk to each other. We couldn’t use phones (although I did set up a Twitter hashtag for the event). A gong would signal the start and end of the walk and the walk would last for exactly 2 hours: we would need to carefully pace our journey to end on time. Some people went home immediately, recognising they weren’t up for a walk like that. But around 75 people did decide they were going to do it, and of those only 5 had to stop due to cold or exhaustion. I think there was a sense of adventure amongst some (including myself) but also a feeling of gamely “may as well do it now” amongst many. Someone asked Hamish “Why are we doing this?” and, tellingly, “Are you going to do it too?”

Once on the platform, we saw the many lines we could choose: some only a few inches, if we so chose, or the longest possible which would be the entire length of the platform. People seemed to select quickly and mark their spot. Then the first gong sounded. My line was about 50 meters and crossed eight large concrete sections, which meant I needed to cover each in about 15 mins. I could see five people near my starting point. Some had books to read, one a Nintendo. Hamish hadn’t said DON’T play Nintendo, so it must have been OK. Over the first 30 mins, I established Twitter contact with one person who had also photographed her line. I recognised a white splodge in her picture and worked out that I would intersect her terminal point in about 10 minutes. There was a nice parallel with the real world: if I’m in town I might have arranged via Twitter to meet someone after they finished work at a specific point: this was a micro-society at work! After that I left Twitter alone to focus on the experience at hand.

It was interesting to find that once I had passed three other people walking at right angles to me, I felt more in the “wilds” of the plateau. Time also felt different: The last hour didn’t drag in any way despite the exposure to the cold. Perhaps because we knew our destination and ETA, and had chosen to do it, rather than, say, missing a train and being forced to find a way home on foot. There was a real sense of moving into “new” territory. I was looking closely at plant life growing in the cracks, rusty bits of metal, graffiti, oils spills, and the promise of a new pebble to kick around a few feet ahead was keenly anticipated. I was also aware of moving slowly into someone else’s territory at the end of the line. Nearby, I could see Hamish Fulton making his own very short walk. His stepping technique was different to mine: he was inching forward inch by inch: I was taking a step whenever it occurred to me to do it. At one point, motivated by nothing, I took four bold, quick steps. I could see across the people on the plateau a constant twitching motion as someone in the gathered stillness took another step. It was never wholly static. The event also had an audience: train passengers on the nearby rail link must have wondered what was happening if they looked out of their window. No explanation would seem to satisfy what they were seeing: 70 people standing in their own space in a deserted concrete landscape. Only art allows that to happen.

When the second gong sounded, I was still a few inches short of the destination. I didn’t feel any different (other than colder) or find I’d realised anything important, or even feel I’d reflected on anything significant. But was glad I’d done it: a rare and special to be part of something that is unlikely to happen again. I often suggest to people they stop and look at the city rather than walk past it at a fast pace – there are worthwhile things to see that you will miss by walking at all. Slow walking at this pace allows observation but requires a determination that goes beyond merely being interested in a space. But I’ll try it again for shorter intervals – I think slowing down is generally a very good idea.

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Lost Rivers of Birmingham

Some SW outings had to remain a secret: they were just too dangerous! Each time I’ve been on the Rea-side stroll, someone has slipped and either gone in the river or bruised themselves. I promised Birmingham Architecture Festival I’d show them some of the tunnels I felt sure formed the basis of David Rowan’s shadowy exhibition at Eastside Projects.

During its city centre phase, the river Rea is essentially a storm drain: most of it is culverted off underground, as the river is no use to industry. When it rains, the flow rate is monumental. Check it then at Mac or Floodgate Street – there are times when this sickly trickle is very healthy.

The factory water outlets feed into the Rea along its course and create a habitat for all sorts of bizarre looking water plants, mosses and assorted river flora. It also means its nearly impossible to walk along without slipping. The old trick is to bring a stick (plenty of detritus washes up here) and to build a “stepping stone” bridge with twigs and sticks across the algae at the slippy points. Don’t become comfortable. Be prepared to push through buddleia and for seeds to go down your neck. Footballs and frisbees wash up here: don’t play with them. All sorts of odd things wash up: I’m still puzzling over the meaning of a moses basket which contained a large magic set for a child. Everything I come up with is very sad. We dislodged it from a sand bar and sent it on its way.

There is an eerie forgotten quality here, stillness beyond that of a canal-side stroll. Many sections of the river are straight from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Factories back on to the river and occasionally a worker on a fag break will spot you, but not feel able to communicate. You not only shouldn’t be there, you can’t be there. There is no wildlife. I know of no other city that does this to its river – Birmingham’s surrogate river is the canal network that worked hard for its city over the centuries and now is earning its retirement, as are the Gas St Basin occupants and holidaying water travellers. But the river is the reason settlers chose this area, a thousand years ago. We owe it something… it saddens me to advise you do not go near it.

From Hubert Montague Crackanthorpe’s Vignettes (1896):

I have sat there and seen the winter days finish their short-spanned lives; and all the globes of light — crimson, emerald, and pallid yellow — start, one by one, out of the russet fog that creeps up the river. But I like the place best on these hot summer nights, when the sky hangs thick with stifled colour, and the stars shine small and shyly. Then the pulse of the city is hushed, and the scales of the water flicker golden and oily under the watching regiment of lamps.

The bridge clasps its gaunt arms tight from bank to bank, and the shuffle of a retreating figure sounds loud and alone in the quiet. There, if you wait long enough, you will hear the long wail of the siren, that seems to tell of the anguish of London till a train hurries to throttle its dying note, roaring and rushing, thundering and blazing through the night, tossing its white crests of smoke, charging across the bridge into the dark country beyond.

In the wan, lingering light of the winter afternoon, the parks stood all deserted, sluggishly drowsing, so it seemed, with their spacious distances muffled in greyness: colourless, fabulous, blurred. One by one, through the damp misty air, looked the tall, stark, lifeless elms. Overhead there lowered a turbid sky, heavy-charged with an unclean yellow, and amid their ugly patches of dank and rotting bracken, a little mare picked her way noiselessly. The rumour of life seemed hushed. There was only the vague listless rhythm of the creaking saddle.

The daylight faded. A shroud of ghostly mist enveloped the earth, and up from the vaporous distance crept slowly the evening darkness. A sullen glow throbs overhead: golden will-o’-the-wisps are threading their shadowy ribbons above golden trees, and the dull, distant rumour of feverish London waits on the still night air. The lights of Hyde Park Corner blaze like some monster, gilded constellation, shaming the dingy stars. And across the east, there flares a sky-sign, a gaudy crimson arabesque. And all the air hangs draped in the mysterious sumptuous splendour of a murky London night.

Digbeth Listening Walk – David Prior

A great mix of people gathered at the bronze bull in Birmingham on a sunny March Friday afternoon ready to utilise both our walking and listening skills.
This walk is an ear opening experience that gave us all a very different ‘view’ of Birmingham. Lead by composer David Prior (one half of Liminal, along with architect Frances Crow), we are encouraged to listen – really stop and listen – to the sounds surrounding us.

The first lesson we learn is that perhaps we hear the noise surrounding us because that’s what we expect e.g. cars and people, but what are we missing? On the first exercise stop outside Bullring, I noticed a can of drink being opened – a soft sound heard in possibly the noisiest part of Birmingham! Thereafter, David devised exercises to help us work out how high and how far the sounds we hear come from. Instruments are handed out to amplify the sound world: basic ear trumpets transform the environment and while the stethescopes are usually silent, when they work they really work.

Aside from our newly honed listening skills, we are treated to a slow walk through Birmingham’s markets and into the Fazeley Street area of Digbeth, streets we otherwise wouldn’t walk on without a specific purpose. The most treasured fact I learnt was how an “owl’s head is a spoffle”. “If you ever get a chance to poke an owl’s head…” suggested David, and went on to describe how the owl’s head is largely feathered, like a BBC fluffy outdoor microphone. If you are flying fast through the air but listening out for the mouse on the ground, your head needs to be a spoffle

David has an archetypal analogy for all the acoustic spaces we move through: Bullring was a canyon, St Martin’s a cavern, the indoor market a forest… other spaces were their own analogy: viaduct tunnels and open brushland. Walking through Birmingham without noticing all these sound conditions will now be impossible.

(Rickie Josen)

Brumicana

The 2012 Still Walking festival drew to a close on Sunday the 1st of April with Jon Bounds’ and Danny Smith’s Brumicana – Urban Myths and Memes. (My Flickr set is here.)

Starting from ‘the carpet salesmen’ statue, outside the House of Sport on Broad Street, Brumicana took us under the skin of the big, alive, people-eating monster; showing us the sorts of things you need to know in order to get to grips with a city. To survive it.

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

In fine fettle, Jon and Danny led us through statue confessions and favourite carparks to interesting rear-views of a couple of landmarks: the new library and a silent clocktower (we waited to hear the bongs, but none came).

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

We walked through narrow, bin-lined passages and heard tales of generosity before gathering atop the Queensway. Here I got distracted by a Rushmore-esque line-up of Danny, Jon, Ben and Ian-from-Flatpack. This seemed to be a fitting image with which to wrap up the programme:

Brumicana — Urban Myths and Memes

We urge you all to tame the concrete and the glass. Don’t just survive the city, but make it yours and thrive on it!

Birmingham’s Lost its Sparkle

Pelligrino sparkling mineral water has pretty much been the unofficial drink of the festival. I was on the radio earlier in the week and the presenter asked “What would you say was the one thing people could look at in the city and rethink their opinion of Birmingham. I wanted to name this brand of sparkling water but “bottled out” and instead suggested the rather flat: “looking up at our buildings”.

Pellegrino is available throughout the city, but bottled in Lombardy in Italy. No element of it is made in Birmingham. Yet I maintain that this is a true Brummie symbol. It’s certainly saved me on a few parched guided tours over the years.

It’s not because of where it’s from or how it was made, but rather the innovations it represents. Let me explain: Joseph Priestley was a C18th Birmingham scientist, teacher and minister who was perhaps best known as the discoverer of oxygen. Amongst his other discoveries was the means by which to create carbonated water. Later, in 1856, Alexander Parkes created the first thermoplastic on Newhall St. I draw your attention to the colours of the Pellegrino brand: green, blue and red. I’m not going to claim these were discovered in Birmingham but in 1799 Samuel Galton Jr, a member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, first wrote about the separation of white light into the primary colours.

In his 1998 BBC programme Heart By Pass, Jonathan Meades observes that Birmingham has always been about Italian: he shows a selection of university campaniles and Italianate towers around the city, its canals and highlights the famous interchange named after a pasta to prove it.

Priestly never made use of many of his discoveries: for him science was pure adventure, not a business. Others made it their business and he lost out on more than a few patents by inviting “friends” to view his discoveries at soirees at his home in Sparkbrook. These were the early days of science, and while there is big money to be made by pinching patents, at the time the real opportunities weren’t always obvious to those simply interested in exploration and discovery. I feel this is still the case with Birmingham: allowing others to take the glory or being reluctant to showcase its achievements.

"Have you considered a Skylight Filter on that lens, sir?"

I feel that as your train chugs into New Street, the first thing you see should be something that says “Birmingham: home of Oxygen”. A true and impressive claim, indeed beat that for a discovery! Instead of building a £2 billion new railway station to impress visitors, let’s simply highlight what already happened here: first car in the country, first pneumatic tyre, first crank engine, cotton wool, the kettle, horsepower, patent leather, fingerprinting, the first commercially available computer…At time of writing, the only thing we do celebrate is our exhibition trade (Bingley Hall, first exhibition centre, deliberately burnt down to make way for the ICC) and Home of Metal.

There are plenty of things in the city to look for and celebrate. Important things. Let’s find them and talk about them. Let’s brag about them!

Ben Waddington

for Still Walking, UK’s first Walking Festival