The Still Walking thing is to reconsider various places and themes as tourist destinations and to create guided tours to explore them. The idea came after being bored once too often by official guided walks – listing every lord mayor the town has had, how many windows there are in the Town Hall – and thinking where I would take people if I was an official guide. What was “my” Birmingham? (and why were those guides “official”?)
Over the last year or so, I’ve been amazed by the popularity of Still Walking tours, with visits to underground tunnels, abandoned cinemas, remote wastelands and lost rivers selling out in a flash. It seems the guided tour needn’t be a threading together of civic bombast, historic dates and economic data. So much of our city seems to sit there waiting to be noticed and I think it’s all worth looking at and talking about.
This year’s microfest visits a couple of outlying spots, though if you live in Aston or Cradley Heath they are of course local. Rob Horrocks will be following in the footsteps of Black Sabbath and over in Cradley Heath, Fran Wilde will be walking the High Street. Fran is an artist who settled here recently and quickly became fascinated by the area’s history, atmosphere, traditions and clear difference to Birmingham and indeed anywhere else. I love that everyday experiences such as the local High Street on its busiest day can yield surprising moments, clear traces of history and some cracking stories. The first thing you notice are the chains: they’re everywhere in design like they once did in industry. A famous anchor, now at the bottom of the atlantic, had its origins here. Like most High Streets, Cradley Heath has been adversely affected economically but I discovered a robust independent force still present in the town, with many shops seeming like a museum of my childhood. Even the hulking presence of Tesco Express hasn’t yet finished off the fishmongers, model shops, seamstresses, cafés, bakers, sweetshops, ironmongers…
Fran’s tour simply visits what’s there, looks at some local history, talks to the locals and reports back. Cradley Heath is shown to be a compelling area, still having the outlook of a small industrial village with its own unique and celebrated identity. Tesco carefully mirrors the high street with its in-house selection of chemists, barbers and opticians but will never have the high street’s local newspaper office, Black Country souvenirs, local delicacies or delicious local ales on tap.
It’s worth making the short train journey and having a guide to hand affords a rare opportunity. Recommended to anyone who has yet to visit the Black Country and also to those that have!
Fran’s tour starts at Cradley Heath Train Station at 10am on Sat 1st June. Tickets cost £4 and must be booked in advance, which can be done here.