Selly Oak: Discovering Traces
I led a very enjoyable Still Walking tour on Sunday for Art Soak: I stepped in at short notice to replace the scheduled local history run through. The timing was good: over the previous two days I had led the Subterraneans and Invisible Cinema tours for the Flatpack Festival and Discovering Traces now completed the trio of explorations.
There was heavy snowfall for all three tours. A large part of what I do involves widening the 21st Century gaze and by that I mean looking up and looking down at things. That weekend, looking up meant an arctic blast and face full of snow. Looking down revealed more snow. I arrived early and took a stroll round the University grounds, watching two snow vortexes whipping round Chancellor’s Court, beneath the huge campanile.
I introduced the tour to the eight hardy souls who had braved freezing conditions to meet at the University gates. I explained that they would almost certainly know the area better than I did, in fact I didn’t know anything about the history of Selly Oak. I’d even got the town wrong: this turned out to be Bournbrook. What I wanted to do was show my methods and approach to my subject. Namely, it all starts at street level and involves looking for interesting things. From experience, I know that most High Streets still contain plenty of traces, from old painted advertisements in gables to mosaic lettering in shop doorways. Once you expect to find something, it becomes easy to see. After the initial walk, you can then start thinking about what is is you have found, what it once meant and why it is still there. You can ask people about the buildings they live or work in. At a later stage, you can head to the library (if it’s open) and follow up your research there. But I never start there.
I started by talking about the heraldic meaning of the University of Birmingham Coat of Arms; I was always curious about the mermaid there, combing her hair. A passing ambulance’s siren provided the required sound effect for the subject. I introduced the group to Ordnance Survey Bench Marks, which appear throughout the city on buildings, walls and railway viaducts. The group were intrigued, and one man had actually been a surveyor in the 50s. “But how did I know it was there?” asked one gentleman. I didn’t know it was there, but I knew how to see it. It sounded like I was conveying something mysterious, but the reality of people’s passage down a familiar road is not to look at it. I liken it to going back along a stretch or road where you think you have dropped something. If you are expecting to find something valuable you will see the street differently.
One lady bemoaned a recent house demolition, removing from her life a favourite Victorian brick, stamped with the Diamond Jubilee dates. I’d seen plenty of these on Luton Road and was able to reunite her with missing brick, after we’d scraped off the snow from walls where I’d remembered seeing the bricks. The brick (actually a coping stone) was important because it helped date the building, gave an indication of then-contemporary events and also where the materials for the house were made (in 1897 bricks were still being made locally). I explained I was very interested in house names too, and had discovered a row of houses with a large terracotta crest with the name and date. The names began with trees (Elm, Birch and Ivy) then merged with girls’ names of yesteryear (Ida, Maud, Selina) and the row ended with a surprise: “George”. Was George the architect, and the girls daughters?
A highlight of the tour was an intact ornate lamp outside a former wine cellar: “Selly Grove Ale Stores”, a wonderful Victorian survivor. I guessed the building opposite was the associated pub, with its distinctive corner door and cellar, but some of the older members of the group remembered it being a shop. The tour had become a knowledge exchange…OK I got that one wrong! The tour also included a former bakery, now a car parts workshop, the lost river Bournbrook, ancient glass, a tiny house and a practicing saddler on Bristol Road. Once I’d earnt the group’s respect, I also talked about the recording studio used by ELO and Napalm Death (a former engineering shed) and the Chicken.com takeaway shop, whose name doesn’t connect in any way to the domain name chicken.com
The tour ended at the top of the hill with my favourite discovery of the tour: Selly Oak Water Pumping station. I had recognised the architecture was Italian inspired but could see no evidence of it ever being a church. This one I had to look up: I was thrilled to learn it was an industrial building by John Henry Chamberlain. Something Brum used to do very well was the inventive presentation of its industry. Since the construction of the Elan Valley aqueduct it hasn’t been used as water pumping engine, and the building now houses an electricity sub station. Of course, most of the locals knew this, but by the end all admitted they’d been introduced to several aspects of the town they’d never seen, even those who had lived there for decades and looked for such things.
I planned to end the tour at Selly Oak library, to mirror my belief that you should end your research there, not begin it. But it was getting colder and the allotted 90 minutes of walking had now elapsed. Looking is easy, but sustained looking can be tricky, as is remembering to do it at all. But on this afternoon, even a blanket of snow didn’t stop us.