One of the things I’ve wrestled with during and post-sabbatical is that I’m a generalist. I’m interested in many things. Here are a few of them, not including family and friends, who deserve another big pocket of time:
…art, rabbits, Stirchley, writing, photography, diary mining, bushcraft, animal tracking, composting, ballet fitness, collage, reading, ukulele, walking, ASMR, sunrises and sunsets, trips away, dementia befriending, the politics of data, the practicalities of privacy, tai chi, surfing, bodyboarding, diving, ageing, stargazing, snowshoeing, drawing, publishing, origami, MOOCs…
The list goes on and on…
Often I get temporarily obsessed by some solo female traveller/adventurer or global photojournalist or fit-at-50 Instagrammer (cue another list:
@corinneredfern, @smillieonsea, @jasonflorio, @megan_hine, @missholldoll, @victorilou, @womenandwaves, @jannerobinson, @goodbyecroptop, @baddiewinkle and @nickheyward – yes, the Haircut One Hundred dude, who has muscles and a nice life, although he’s no @renner4real or @samneilltheprop.
I guess these are the new media models we aspire to (or rather fail to live up to). I get inspired but then feel limited because hiking, photographing, adventuring or just looking Instafabulous is their singular focus. There’s no room for anything off-brand. Choosing one thing to be, no matter how fab, means saying no to the wild panorama of other things in the scene, my scene.
And so I desperately try to find connections and overlaps between my peculiar combo of interests just so I don’t go mad. I’ve taken to whiteboarding my life just to get it out of my head, print it off and then rub it all out.
I think feeling overwhelmed is due to the inability to make some hard decisions about what to do first. As my sister points out, it’s good to have choices. It’s also good to make them.
The past few months have felt like receiving a year’s total of work and having to sort it into something I can get my head around. Where to start?
A word came to me while swamped in the interests mire: SEASONS.
‘Seasons’ is a looser, more easygoing and less worky word than priorities or commitments. Like some longhaired hippie supervisor, a seasonal focus allows me a time to write and a time to create (my two main conflicts at present), and these gently overlay the daily necessities of health, fitness and meeting financial commitments.
So I decided to spent the summer season writing and the autumn season on art stuff (I’m calling it pre-art).
Of course, as soon as I decided to put writing first, I met with my art mentor (yes, I have an awesome art mentor) – and she rooted out some really interested ideas.
So, I’ve now got a few backburner art tasks to break up writing season. And I’ll likely do some editing and proofreading and learning about e-publishing when art season starts in the autumn.
My plan may not be Instagram-sexy but it’s a pressure drop.
I’m a walker not a climber but high on Gwen Moffat’s autobiography Space Below My Feet, the mountains of Snowdonia beckoned and at Easter we headed for Birmingham-on-Sea: Barmouth.
You know that moment at the start of a walk? When you aren’t really planning on anything more than just going just a bit of the way? Perhaps just up to the viewpoint and then turn back because you haven’t got any sandwiches or a coat, because the peaks belong to the Berghausers and the sheep?
That. That was the plan when we pulled into Dôl Idris Car Park, starting point of the Minffordd Path for the Cader Idris climb/walk, the steepest route up Wales’ second highest peak. There was no way we were fit enough or prepared for a proper hike.
While Pete took photos of lichen and waterfalls, however, I carried on up the stone steps of the wooded gorge.
I had rediscovered walking quite recently on my sabbatical break in 2016, around the houses and streets and canals of Brum. And this reminded me of a pilgrimage trek up Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka, 20 years ago, when it was one long staircase to the summit and the smell of embrocation cream filled the air at junctions as Buddhist pilgrims stopped to massage cramped calves.
I’ll just get above the tree line, I thought; see if I can get into a good position to see a low-flying jet along the Mach Loop. (That morning we’d climbed up a gusty mountainside at Mach Bwlch but to no avail. Spotting them is pure luck as there is no timetable.)
I was alone. But a family of Russians was walking just ahead – parents, teens and children. They carried on, so I did too.
The ground levelled out above the tree line and contoured round the grassy hill into a large open valley surrounded by a horsehoe of steep slopes. It was hard to tell which was Cader Idris’s peak of 2930ft.
At this point I asked a returning walker how far it was to Llyn Cau, the lake below the summit and he said about an hour. With barely a bar of signal, I texted Pete to say I was going for it.
The hour rolled round but there was no sign of the lake. The legs started to go as the path rose ever upwards. I was so hot with exertion, all I wanted to do was jump in that damn lake. I literally inched my way onwards, getting tireder with each step but knowing I must be close. Around every turn and over every bluff I expected to see it but there was just more path.
And then there it was – suddenly a huge, dark, sparkling lake. A turning point. Most walkers carried on to the ridge so I had it to myself, barring a couple who collapsed immediately at the edge so it was no bother to walk a few minutes further on to my own triumphant flop by the water’s edge.
I should have gone for a wild swim; I was hot enough even in the cold mountain air. But, worried that Pete was getting worried – I’d been gone two hours – I stripped off my walking boots to enjoy a paddle and some recovery time.
Of course, there were some posed ‘adventure style’ selfies with the peak of Wales’ second highest mountain behind me. (Actually I got totally the wrong peak lined up – the photos are of a high ridge with the summit further along. Perspective from below a near vertical wall can be pretty screwy.)
Peaceful moment of reflection. Happiness that I could still walk that far and high. Astonishment at the fearsome landscape. Looking around, and across Snowdonia’s misty gradations, there was no doubt I’d climbed above the Faraway Tree into a magnificent other-world where the mountain is in charge of your destiny.
The danger signs at the seemingly tame start seemed perfectly reasonable now, warning of the risk of getting disoriented in bad weather and walking off the edge into oblivion.
Most accidents tend to happen on the way down, however – tiredness, lack of concentration, adrenaline drop maybe. Several times I nearly twisted my ankle as I skipped down the mountain for an hour’s fast descent. Running downhill is easier on the knees and muscles than walking slowly and carefully but probably not recommended.
Back at the car, I knocked on the window – Pete was just waking up from a long nap, not mad with worry about ‘the wife’. Which, frankly, was a relief. Wish I’d swum now.
Under cover of the woodland a jet plane rumbled in the distance and we glimpsed the outline of a transport plane as it flew directly over the canopy. I felt elated. This was my reward for inadvertently climbing a mountain.
That and, as is the British way, a pot of tea and a scone in nearby Tal-y-llyn, looking back up in wonder at the mountains of Southern Snowdonia and thinking: ‘Yes! I’ve been up there.’
Stirchley High Street Stories was a community photography project which ran from March to June 2019. Last night it launched its popup exhibition and newspaper at Artefact in Stirchley. The gallery runs to Saturday, with a print run of 100 newspapers for visitors to view or take away.
The project was organised by Ghost Streets CIC led by Tracey Thorne and funded by the National Lottery Community Fund. A group of volunteers met three times for photowalks along Stirchley high street, from Fordhouse Lane to Bournville Lane junction. We attended a workshop run by Photo School on how to tell stories with photographs. Then we each chose a theme or story to focus on.
First I collected colour in the form of Stirchley’s shutters (which made a vertical grid on the back cover). But post-workshop I decided to get a different perspective and take a ‘camera dog’ for a walk down the high street – essentially a GoPro on a monopod.
I’m really pleased with the results. The wide angles and foot-high shooting position were perfect. I decided to process them in black and white because that’s how we used to think dogs saw the world. Apparently they do have some colour vision and see the world as basically yellow, blue, and grey (no red or green).
Other themes from the rest of the team include: curry houses, Hunts Road junction, Browell’s tobacconist, Stirchley swatches, shopfronts, things for sale, uncommon places, and fusions and tensions (with some lovely poetic captions from P-Bantz, aka Phil Banting).
A selection of photos is on Stirchleyhighstreet.tumblr.com and under the Instagram hashtag #stirchleyhighstreet. Here are some of my A Dog’s Eye View photo stories, including new ones not in the newspaper.
Final thoughts on ‘what next’ after the scroll…
Hopefully there will be a followup from this. Stirchley is changing massively at the moment and already the high street looks different with the Wild Cat reopening and others due to follow. See:
With everything in flux and several wastelands awaiting development, it would be great to have an Issue 2 next year at the least.
Personally I’m hoping for more multimedia stories, using video and audio – to create a living record of the transition and the community that is creating that change. A ‘Humans of Stirchley’ piece maybe, to bring the high street to life for future generations.
Who wants to be videoed or photographed/interviewed so I can practise my storytelling/photojournalism?
Or I might start to take my interest in Stirchley in new direction. I’ve enjoyed getting back to photography and taking a more artistic approach to my local area.
As someone with an ongoing interest in Stirchley’s development and being part of SuperStirchley’s Lidl campaign, I have submitted my comments (once a-bloody-gain) on the outline plans for Stirchley retail park. Please feel free to borrow and reword if you agree with any of them.
Here we go again – will you listen to Stirchley community’s comments this time or ignore as previously? Will you be too scared to push back against Seven Capital and large-scale developers with unsuitable plans for fear of expensive legal appeals, as you did with Lidl? We are relying on you but we will be watching. You should know that Seven Capital has not, as it claims on its material, sought out engagement with local stakeholders; it has arranged but then cancelled an appearance at a Forum meeting. It says a lot about how much they care what they put into this space which may have a huge effect on Stirchley high street.
Here are my concerns:
Impact on community facilities – Yes to the gym. It’s the least you can do after we lost one to Lidl’s aggressive landbanking. Yes to more things that help the national agenda against obesity and costly health issues. But can it be a council one to offer affordable health benefits. We want a Northfield gym/pool to replace the Fitness First and the old baths (especially now Tiverton has closed). The University pool is great but wait-listed.
Community facilities – No to a drive-through. We need to give young people proper facilities to use. We deserve replacement of both the indoor bowls, which decamped to Kings Heath thanks to Tesco, and the bowling alley we lost in the Lidl debacle. We deserve to get our assets of community value back.
Intensity of development re supermarket density. Give us yet another supermarket if you must, despite that fact there are existing in the area and many others within easy reach. But make it a Clean Kilo with no plastic impacts, or something that won’t kill off the Coop in a race to the bottom on prices. Some people find the Coop expensive but others value Stirchley’s Coop for their ethics and support of community projects, and their historic legacy of being on this site for a century.
Design and appearance – a plea for better architecture than that which is proposed. The site is next to the historic British Oak and community church, and brick terraces. A modern drive-through and supermarket next to it is not in keeping with the aesthetic and some of the buildings that were demolished on that strip. Stirchley high street shops are predominantly brick-built, individual units offering businesses that can react to community needs – such as, double use as co-working spaces, offering activity-based clubs (carving, drawing, meeting spaces) that build community. More of these and less of the big single-use retail monoliths with grey frontages that are born to die in a future of online shopping or provide a hiding place for crime (such as the nearby Farmfoods development). Look at the research into how retail parks must change to adapt to future high street needs. There is an opportunity here that the community wants you to consider – not just design and form but future function.
Loss of view/access – Give us our road back so the community can see through the estate and flow from the park through to Stirchley once again.
Traffic / highway matters– Give people a reason to visit on foot – people have suggested a plinth for changing artworks, or other public art that would fit with Stirchley’s unique and creative character. The triangle of land opposite the Oak needs to be open space with access (traffic crossings or even pedestrianisation as suggested in previous plans). This would fit with…
Clean air promises (highway matters) – live up to them by creating cycle routes through that will connect the Rea Cycle Route and potentially a route up to the new Bristol Road cycle route. Add planting and trees – there were trees before by the Working Man’s Club. Make car parks freely available for use by high street shoppers, to increase footfall and keep cars off the high street.
Highway matters – we are already clogged and a pinch point for an access to a retail park. Supermarkets and drive-ins encourage more cars and will just add to the problem. People are shopping online more and more and cars are polluting and create health issues. Give a parking space for those who have to drive but don’t actively encourage cars to drive to Stirchley.
Comments are here but there are also active conversations on Stirchley’s Facebook and on Twitter generally.
Just back from a five-mile guided walk around the Clent Hills to see large swathes of English bluebells – a darker, more delicate and aromatic flower than the invasive Spanish bluebell that has taken over my own back garden and which I pluck out, to no avail.
Adrian, our National Trust guide, told us that around half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK – they grow well in our relatively cool spring climate, and are under threat from climate change. The warmth favours the Spanish bluebell, however: a wider leafed, sturdier, lighter plant, which is edging out the now protected native bluebell. Unfortunately, we found a small patch of Spanish bluebell on the trail, which is worrying. Hopefully Clent’s volunteer conservationists can get right on it and root them out.
The three-hour guided walk was a test of stamina, down the hill from the National Trust’s Nimmings Road café, up and over stiles, and into Uffmoor Wood for the first close-up view of a classic carpet of woodland bluebells.
We were instructed that bluebells can take years to recover well from footfall damage so we had to be careful where we walked and not trample them. It is also against the law to intentionally pick, uproot or destroy bluebells. Adrian told us some of the fairy lore around bluebells but perhaps that is more for the kids, or maybe a way to keep them off these delicate plants.
Sadly, two older ladies in the group had to turn back at this point as the stiles were difficult and the walk relatively pacey. Inclusion is hard but it was a wise move to turn back as I’m certain they really would have struggled on the terrain ahead if they’d continued.
We emerged from the wood and turned back across Penorchard Meadows Nature Reserve where three horses were at pasture in one of the largest remaining areas of semi-natural grassland in Worcestershire. The white horse (auspicious for success and good luck allegedly) came over for a nuzzle. It was a lovely English pastoral scene. A little further on, wild garlic was growing down by the stream, fragrant and in full flower.
I learnt only recently that you can cook wild garlic – apparently it’s particularly nice in a mushroom risotto and more mellow flavoured than traditional garlic. Both the leaves and flowers are edible but you have to be careful not to confuse it with poisonous Lily of the Valley, which is resembles before it flowers. Walk leader Adrian also suggested some recipes such as including it in a wild garlic pesto.
Next we came to the spring and church of St Kenelm, who was martyred on the site in the year 820. Said to be a place of healing, people had tied bits of cloth with name dedications to a sacred tree (well, a hawthorn but needs must) in the hope of a blessing. I haven’t seen this done since finding one of the slopes of Glastonbury Tor in 1999. It feels like something that probably harks back hundreds or even thousands of years.
The long walk back up Walton Hill saw off a few more walkers suffering sore knees and tiredness; there was a shorter option back to base from there. The views to Birmingham and Brierley Hill were misty and grey but the sun was finally about to come out.
There are bluebells in many areas across the Clent Hills, but the best was yet to come. As the path steepened into a climb up into the woodland on Walton Hill, I don’t think I’ve ever taken such good shots of bluebell woods.
I’ll also remember this section for one lady picking up discarded plastic bags containing dog poo. I remember so many ‘pick up your litter’ campaigns when I was growing up, maybe it’s time for another national campaign to remind people? Even using a stick to flick the mess off the walking path would be better than leaving non-biodegradable plastic all along the trail.
This same lady was a long distance walker who had walked the whole 630 miles of the South West Coastal Path. She and another litter-picking chap gave me lots of advice about my own plans to do walk there later this year: build in breaks, alternate long and short walks, check the last bus times back, etc. The sociable aspect of these walks is a draw for many.
By the end, I had slowed to be the last walker in the line, the final push up the hill turning my legs to jelly.
Clent did have a final surprise in store, though: the unusual sight of bluebells growing out in the open. Usually they grow in cool shade but I think these patches of open hillside behind the Four Stones atop Clent had just had bracken removed. Bluebell colonies take five to seven years from seed to flower so this purple carpet may not survive in future – but they are here now, and look stunning.
This was a lovely (if occasionally testing) walk with great views of the great English bluebell – also poetically known as Cuckoo’s Boots, Wood Hyacinth, Lady’s Nightcap and Witches’ Thimbles – and we enjoyed informative guiding at the bargain price of just £2.50.
Recently I’ve enrolled as a volunteer at Clent Hills to learn bushcraft skills and help at corporate team days (more on that in a future post), so it was good to be back on the hills.
The bluebells should be there for another week or two, maybe til mid-May, so get up there for some purple haze before everything fades to green once more.
Having been a member of Stirchley Collage Club for the past year and with some pieces shown in a couple of open call shows, I’m both pleased and proud to announce that I’ll be part of Birmingham Collage Collective’s first exhibition opening next week.
I’ll be joining a bunch of talented analogue collage artists – including Adam Wynn (@ripitup_startagain), who started the collective, and Mark Murphy (@moif_collage), who helped put the show together. Other collage artists showing their work include:
The exhibition launch is from 6pm next Friday 26 April in Studio 4 Gallery at our favourite framers – The Framers – in Digbeth, and sponsored by Old Blue Last Beer. The show will run until Saturday 11 May, alongside Digbeth First Friday and the Flatpack Film Festival, which takes place in and around the Custard Factory.
Want to join in? There will also be a collage workshop to coincide with World Collage Day from 4-7pm on Saturday 11 May. Book early, it’s already looking busy and many of the artists will be attending.
I think I will have two CLIPS up on the wall:
When in Birmingham / 2018 Eyelines and Skylines / 2017
More collage and works in progress are posted to my collage Instagram: @editoriat.
This year I’ve been trying to form better habits through what I jokingly refer to as my ‘Analogue Columns Lifestyle Planner Tool’ – basically a daily set of columns in a notebook for ticking off stuff I want to do more/less of. Most things have been going pretty well – apart from the digital detox column. It was just way too easy to ignore Screentime warning limits on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram apps.
Until this week – I had a breakthrough. A moment of empowerment and action that has been a long time coming.
One of the lines in it was about how we all hate being on Facebook but can’t quit it because of FOMO (fear of missing out). Who wants to be in that resentment-filled situation of not being able to leave?
But it’s so true. My own FB addiction is based on social glue, comment witticisms, creating diary-style timehop memories and social calendar notifications (and some work stuff). Which is fine but it also sucks me in beyond this as I scroll the newsfeed and feel compelled to comment or click ‘Like’ a few times a day (hundreds or thousands of interactions a year), each taking a moment that also adds up.
In fact, according to my Screentime stats, the whole scroll and respond is adding up to an astonishing eight days a year, and that’s just on my Facebook phone app. If I add in all my other phone interactions, including calls and text messages, it multiples to around six weeks a year. SIX WEEKS!
And, the thing that galls, of course, is that this time and information has value. Ultimately I am the product for FB. Each interaction is building up my profile for FB advertisers and I have now handed over more than a decade of details about my life and thoughts for FB to sell on. I think we all deserve a cut of these ad profits. The free service is no longer a fair price for users.
So I’ve done three things to contain Facebook without losing out on the things I like. They took a few minutes to do but should make a massive difference.
I went through all the privacy settings, disabling Facebook’s app platform and turning off all the default ‘on’ stuff.
I deleted my phone apps for Twitter and Facebook. This was the big one. Firstly, a lot more tracking can happen through phone apps. Secondly, the phone is always there in my pocket and is just too easy a temptation, like how biscuits start calling when you pour a tea.
I moved Facebook on to Firefox browser and put it in an extension called Facebook Container to essentially neutralise its data hoovering powers. The extension “isolates your identity into a separate container and makes it harder for Facebook to track your activity on other websites via third-party cookies”. Mozilla does not collect data from this – it only knows the number of times the extension is installed or removed. So all those Like buttons on pages around the internet won’t now track my browsing, which feels very freeing.
There are other tricks – Chrome users can get their FB feed replaced by an inspirational quote, for example. But I’m kind of interested to see how my newsfeed changes based on my detox. And I like to see friend’s news. And I don’t want to use Google’s Chrome.
So how about the monetary aspect of getting some of the financial value of my data for myself?
After being part of The Glass Room in London in 2017, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of selling my data to advertisers.
This is not a new idea but this week I’ve been inspired by Jean Guerrero’s article in Wired on how maybe we are all targeted individuals and what this is leading to.
Towards the end of this long read, she talks about Jaron Lanier’s idea that:
“we should demand payments for data that companies collect from us. He envisions a world in which we are compensated for every profitable datum we provide, with payments proportionate to the profit they produce. He argues that such a world—in which we value the humans behind data as much as the data themselves—would lead to a new era of economic prosperity, equality, and freedom.”
Who couldn’t do with some of that?
At the moment it’s only an option to restrict access or quit the platform. A container for my personal data and Facebook interactions seems a good first step towards pushing back and sends a message to FB (which still holds all my past data, even if it is less useful from now on).
But why not offer us the option to be both the product and the customer?
I guess because we all give ourselves too freely for Facebook to offer us any other deal; we don’t value our data and often have a ‘who cares?’ attitude to posting on these services.
But if users could have customisable permissions and data access for a price, what then? I would love to reverse the Facebook business model and target advertisers willing to pay for access to my demographic. Might this not be something FB could monetise, too? After all, they are a data broker – and surely that can work both ways.
Ukulele groups – they ain’t pretty but they are pretty entertaining.
Nine years ago this week I went to the very first Moselele, set up by Daz Wright “for people who live in or can be bothered to travel to Moseley in Birmingham”. Since there, there have been (*does vague maths*) 200-plus pub sessions for the players and a ton of public performances at festivals, charity events, summer singalongs, Halloween nights, Christmas light switch-ons, the golden Jubilee, Acorns Children’s Hospice and several weddings, including my own (featured pic).
I don’t remember much about that inaugural session apart from it was held in an officey co-working space, there were less than 10 people there, singing was hesitant and Eight Days A Week by The Beatles was the crowning glory of the night. When I say crowning glory, here’s an actual recording of that first early success posted by fellow ukenaut Ian (or click image below to go to link).
We got *slightly* better when we moved to the pub…
Things were still pretty rudimentary but it was a whole lot of laughs getting it wrong and Paul’s Living on a Prayer kazoo solo (in medley video) is positively audacious.
By 2013, we’d moved to our main home at the Prince. Singers with big diaphragms had arrived and made all the difference to how exactly we murdered famous songs of yore. This was amplified by the fact that those who were uncertain of tone were now free to unleash their inner rock stars, safe in the knowledge that they wouldn’t be ridiculed (much).
Big songs with a ‘five-uke’ difficulty were attempted and mastered. Instruments were swapped mid-song. Plectrums were hidden in instruments or dropped into full pints. Drunken ideas were brought to fruition – and never spoken of again. Christmas was becoming a thing to look forward to again.
T-shirts were made with slogans like ‘Ukes, Beers & Counting’ and ‘Starts at 8 and goes up to 11’ and many more. A Moselele uke – the Bambookelele – was launched.
Things escalated even further when hundreds of people started joining in at the twice-yearly singalongs.
And winter (with Snowselele now signalling the official start of Christmas)…
Sometimes you couldn’t hear us playing for the crowds (thankfully, we now have Stephen on bass and James on drums to hold it all together for everyone).
And so the years went by. Friends were made and are still being made. We often celebrate each other’s life events – big birthdays, weddings, shed destructions and removals. It’s been quite the journey, and not just musically as you can hear, er, here.
On Thursday I attended its 9th birthday party along with 30-40 others in the usual back room of the Prince of Wales in Moseley. We played the best of each of the 10 songbooks, three songs each – essentially Moselele’s greatest hits. (Daz has built up quite the song collection on the Moselele website.) Big thanks to Daz and all who work on the new songbook each year for keeping things fresh.
I recorded one of the songs – Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain – to mark the event but it could have been any of the set. This clip shows off the iconic bass riff from Stephen and drums to lift it from James. It’s pretty great how far we have come. As I was leaving I >think< I heard someone drunkenly suggesting a mass outing or holiday for our 10th birthday. I’m up for it… who’s in?
Next big event – look out for the 2019 Summer Singalong at the Prince of Wales, usually held in July. You can also ‘meet’ Moselele on the blog – here’s my Q&A – there are others. More Moselele mentions from me are tagged here.
This Al Humphreys‘ inspired microadventure has been on my list of to dos for a while. His challenge to city folk in need of adventure is to catch a train out to the country and walk back home. So simple, yet why haven’t I done it?
The thing that has inspired me to actually get on this challenge is watching Poldark. I’ve just finished series three and those broiling seas and wild Cornish coastlines have got me thinking about doing a long-distance coastal walk later this year (as part of one of my many 2019 resolutions to do a challenge that I have to get fit for).
So this walk was like a test. Would I enjoy it? Could I even go the distance with my dodgy foot arches? Would I have the guts to get off the road and walk solo back into the city? Would I feel like doing it all again tomorrow or be seized up on the sofa?
My local train route shoots from Birmingham city centre out to Redditch and Worcester beyond. The first question was how far out do I go? Alvechurch was definitely a stretch with a certain search engine suggesting it was a 2.5-hour walk home – I usually walk for up to an hour – but it also felt doable… about five stops out on the train and seven miles on foot. I later discover Its B48 postcode is the highest and last of the proper Birmingham B postcodes.
With no plan but a window of sunshine, I sent out some callouts on Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone wanted to join me. Quite a few friends seemed up for it, given a bit more notice – you know who you are; I’ll be roping you in on a future walk.
The train out of town was nearly empty. From the comfort of my seat, walking the ever-lengthening distance back seemed impossible. But one thing I’ve learnt from my local walkabouts of the past two years is that everywhere seems too far until you actually walk to them. Places I used to hop to the car are now quite doable by shank’s pony.
Past Longbridge we go, past where the old Austin and British Leyland car factory used to be – now ironically a car park – and the edgelands of Birmingham before the green fields and pastures of Barnt Green and Alvechurch in North Worcestershire fill the train window.
I get off the train in full sunshine and check the route options. The search engine satnav offers a ‘walking’ route, which goes via busy A-roads and takes 2 hr 27 – so specific. But I can see there is a slightly longer canal route that veers east to Hopwood so I head for that, albeit with some trepidation – as a solo female I never feel that comfortable walking on canal towpaths. Still it is the weekend and there look to be quite a few people on their narrowboats at Alvechurch Marina so I duck down onto the path of the Worcester/Birmingham canal.
It’s a picturesque start to the walk and for the next 40 minutes, I fairly stride along the towpath, passing the occasional human – a mum with a buggy, several dogwalkers, a jogger. There are fishermen and reservoirs and teenage couples hanging out on humpback bridges. I pass underneath the M42 motorway bridge and the white noise of traffic is loud and invasive. I feel glad I’ve skipped the road route but don’t feel safe enough to put my music on, which is usually a big part of feeling uplifted and keeping the pace up on my walks.
At Hopwood House pub, about a third of the way home, I check in my location on Twitter and review the next bit of the route. I’d assumed I’d get on the 60mph A-road as per the satnav as the canal is about to duck under a tunnel for nearly 3km. But it looks as if you can sort of go over the top of the canal and pick it up again at the city edgelands of Hawkesley – a bus terminus area for my local 35 bus. Phil B on Twitter confirms taking the scenic route and suddenly things get muddier and emptier, with barely a soul about.
I pass two lots of two men walking – one possibly a father and son, the other pair equally unthreatening. I feel as if I’m getting strange looks but it could be that they don’t want to make me feel uncomfortable so are looking for cues from me first. I say hi, as any walker would, and stride on.
I suspect most women view the world through a certain lens of safety checks and risk assessment, and I notice how I adapt to my fears now. I walk tall, have my hands out of my pockets (ready), and try to look confident and alert and not like a victim – all things I learnt from life in south London and some free self-defence classes from Lewisham council.
When I see a solo man in the distance, I tie and tuck my blonde hair under an army green wool hat – a reaction to past experiences of showing my femininity in public and this being an invitation to being followed and approached. In case of mugging, I’ve hidden my cards and identifiers in a coat pocket, leaving just some cash and a water bottle in my bag. My keys are in my pocket and my phone ready to hand.
I feel a bit sad that I do these things but I also think of talks I’ve been to by RGS explorers, who do far, far riskier things than I, and how risk taking is about preparing for your expedition and trying to mitigate the things that can go wrong.
On a positive note, it’s the conquering of these fears and the ‘knowing’ what is out there and the ‘doing of things anyway’ that ultimately brings relief from the fear and anxiety. Take it from someone who is constantly fighting their comfort zone.
Now I’m growing in confidence. When the canal disappears into the 2.5km Wast Hills Tunnel, I head over the top to a country lane and turn immediately off it onto a North Worcestershire national footpath. I don’t even check my phone map. My sense of direction tells me I’m walking in parallel to the A441. I check for cows – which make me nervous – and then follow the route across several fields.
Without music I find myself coming up with an acronym for all the random shit I do, things that people have started commenting on and which I have found myself recently responding to with ‘This is what you do when you don’t have kids’. I am a ‘Woman Adventurer No Kids Early Retirement’. Or as my lovely friend Paul suggested ‘Tearaway Outgoing Surfer Sister Enjoying Rambling’. Either way, it keeps me humble without giving up bragging rights.
There are a couple of surprises before I enter the city boundary. One, a sudden colourful sign on the country lane announcing ‘Welcome to the Wast Hills Autism Services’. Two, a random tower-like building with a face that looks like it is wearing a hard hat – this turns out to be the Birmingham University Observatory, for the teaching of physics, astrophysics and astronomy. They do events for the public (ooh!).
One minute there are green fields and woodlands, the next the sharp brick edge of the city. This is Hawkesley, which features one of those maze-like estates full of small disorienting veiny roads, curves and cul-de-sacs. Twitter tells me there are no dead-ends and to follow a direct line pedestrian pathway straight through the maze. I ask a local to be sure. They wish me good luck like I’m a proper explorer. I cross at Seals Green, which bridges some small unnamed brook.
I desperately need the loo, and sadly not in the way that involves nipping behind a bush. What would a Cornwall coastal path walker do? There are no pubs or cafes. Just endless suburban housing. I ponder knocking on a door and asking to use the loo but then think how utterly impolite it would be to leave such an aromatic gift with total strangers. I walk on in agony but eventually the pain goes away.
This is a strangely empty estate, devoid of people except for the occasional bus terminus drop-off and driving lessons taking place on the deserted roads. I’m amazed at how I’ve walked for two hours from country to city on a Saturday and only seen handful of people and moving cars. For the UK’s second city, it is so peaceful. Disconcertingly so.
A line of blue pops up on the map. The Wast Hills Tunnel is at an end and the canal drifts slowly out into daylight again. The towpath here is sunken down with tower blocks overhead and the sound of lads somewhere in the dank distance behind me. I feel vulnerable again and, despite the tiredness in my legs, speed up my pace.
I’m nearly at Kings Norton and from there it is the home stretch down to Stirchley. I meet no one on the canal until I reach the junction with the Stratford canal, where a police dog van is in attendance after an arson attack on the historic tollhouse exactly a week ago.
From here it is another 20 minutes or so to walk home. I’m back on familiar ground and the canalside quinces are in full pink blossom over pink graffiti.
My legs are starting to seize up but I’m elated at having come so far and facing my fears. I remind myself that the reality is almost never as bad as the perception. Someone later points out that seven miles is like a walk to the shops for them; but that is how a change in your perspective can shorten distance. I’d never in a million years thought I could walk from Alvechurch, where my sister used to live and where I used to balk at going in the car.
It took two hours and 22 minutes to walk from Alvechurch to Stirchley, from Worcestershire to the West Midlands, from B48 to B30. I beat Google’s algorithm by 10 minutes.
Could I do it all again tomorrow? Luckily I’m saved from a follow-up walk by Storm Freya. Perhaps if this were Cape Cornwall and I had a tricorn hat and boots… but still I think I might need a bit more practice first.
My goals for 2019 have mostly developed out of my sabbatical break in 2016-17. But there’s also a few random things in there for fun, such as developing independent toes (yes, you read that right).
It’s a longish list, mostly so I can get all the ideas in my head out of my head. In reality, there’s no pressure. The ones I want to do will no doubt develop into some kind of habit, the random one-offs will or won’t happen, and the rest will fall away.
I’ve been doing this annual list thing since about 2002. This is the first time I’ve blogged it. I’m not sure why I’m putting it out there. Maybe it will inspire someone else (I know two other people who are doing the splits challenge) or maybe it will create a potential collaboration.
Usually I break it up into sections – work, health, life, etc – but this year, I’ve split it into more general areas: mental/emotional, physical, creative, financial and random. The ones in green have already been started/done – that’s the January effect but also reflects some longer projects that I’m working on.
Sunlight – more sunrises, sunsets and sunshine walks.
Morning hour – plan the day so it doesn’t get derailed (try to take in medium/long term goals not just daily stuff).
Daily pockets of stillness – meditation, walks, unstructured time.
Weekend interesting read – set up RSS feeds.
Internet shorts – ahead of TV viewing – see #filmshorts list on Pinboard.
Make “good enough” decisions but make decisions.
Clear out attic stuff + finish Marie Kondo.
Read first chapter of unread books.
Create/contribute more, consume less.
More stargazing, more celestial events.
Join the Royal Geographic Society.
Do the splits (document the change over the year)
Flex individual toes on command.
Surf fitness (+ Point Break night!)
More elegance, strength (ballet fitness, gym).
Parkrun (Jan and Dec).
Diet – more greens and juices, less carbs and crap.
Dive off a high board.
Update Active Parks calendar.
Learn full Tai Chi Yang 24 short form.
Physical challenge that I can work towards, eg coastal walk, bodyboarding, mountain summit, snowshoe, swimming trip.
1SE photo project – colour spectrum.
Learn to draw, use new pencil set.
Draw (a bunny?) or make an art each day for a month.
Publish one of my ebook ideas.
Zine: guidebook to Stirchley.
Develop a writing habit towards a longer project.
RTW Google Earth tour.
Origami a giant rabbit.
Create an artwork inspired by Sophie Calle or other female artists.