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.


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