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Stirchley High Street Stories told through different lenses

Stirchley-High-Street-Stories-Fiona-Cullinan
Me and my dog – just one theme from Stirchley High Street photo stories

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

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.

Stirchley High Street Stories Newspaper, 2019
Stirchley High Street Stories newspaper with back cover featuring Stirchley Shutters

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, and a photo from the launch night.

Final thoughts on ‘what next’ after the scroll…

The photos

Under the bridge to Stirchley School
Under the bridge to Stirchley School
It's a boy's world at the barber's, Stirchley
It’s a boy’s world at the barber’s, Stirchley
Dog meets dog
Dog meets dog at the barber’s, Stirchley
Stirchley curves
Stirchley curves
Patting the dog at Loaf
Patting the dog at Loaf
Waiting for human to go to the park
Waiting for human to go to the park
Human goes to British Oak pub again.
Human goes to British Oak pub again.
No escape from the Seven Capital hoardings
No escape from the Seven Capital hoardings.
Shadow lines on the demolished corner of Mary Vale Rd
Shadow lines on the demolished corner of Mary Vale Rd.
Stirchley Gorilla
Stirchley’s Kong presides over all.
Stirchley High Street Stories pop up gallery at Artefact
Stirchley High Street Stories pop up gallery at Artefact

What next?

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.

Ideas are forming… get in touch?

Stirchley retail park – deadline and suggestions for comments

derelict Stirchley houses now demolished

You have until this Thursday 9 May to submit comments on the preliminary planning application by Seven Capital. Link: https://eplanning.birmingham.gov.uk/Northgate/PlanningExplorer/ApplicationSearch.aspx

Search ref number: 2018/10370/PA

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.

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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.

A purple haze of bluebells at Clent Hills

English bluebells

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.

Uffmoor Wood, Clent Bluebells

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.

Wild garlic in 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.

Tree near St Kenelm's Church

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.

Walton Hill pano

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.

Clent bluebell walk

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.

Clent Hills bluebells

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.

There are two more guided bluebell walks at Clent on Saturday 4th and Wednesday 8th May (info/booking here). Bluebell info/National Trust: 6 things you might not know about bluebells

CLIPS: Birmingham Collage Collective launches its first exhibition

CLIPS Birmingham Collage Collective

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:

Gareth Courage
Ruth Harvey
Joe Joseph
Barbara Gibson
Geometric Anna
Hazel Pitt (whose photomontage course I did at the Mac in 2017)
Molly Cleaver
Kali Louise
George Caswell
Sophie Chadwick
Tom Kennedy
and me… Fiona Cullinan.

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.

Hope to see you at the show!

Killing Facebook softly – and asking how can I sell them my data instead?

Analogue-columns

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.

It happened after reading about how (yet another) 540 million Facebook records were left exposed due to sloppy third-party developer security and then listening to Grahan Cluley’s Smashing Security #75: ‘Quitting Facebook’ podcast (on the same link).

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.

  1. I went through all the privacy settings, disabling Facebook’s app platform and turning off all the default ‘on’ stuff.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Nine years with Moselele

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).

First-Moselele-recording

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.

Moselele slogan tee

Things escalated even further when hundreds of people started joining in at the twice-yearly singalongs.

Summer…

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.

 

 

Country to city solo walk – North Worcestershire to West Midlands

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?

Alvechurch marina
Alvechurch marina

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.

Alvechurch to Stirchley walk
Similar route – but via canals on the first stretch from Alvechurch

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.

Worcester Birmingham Canal

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.

Narrowboat near Bittell Reservoir

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.

Wast Hills Tunnel – south entrance.

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.

North Worcestershire Path.

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!).

Observatory
Birmingham University Observatory

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.

The bridge at Seals Green

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.

Hawkesley edgelands

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.

Lush graffiti

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.

Seconds from a cuppa

 

 

 

My goals for 2019

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.

Mental/emotional

  • 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.

Physical

  • 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.

Creative

  • 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.
  • Digitise backpacking/travel diaries; stories/art/workshop?
  • MOOC – photo/videography, photojournalism, art.
  • Get three songs playable on guitar.
  • Find all animals on social media called Fiona.

Financial

  • From ‘The Examined Life’ – don’t just reduce, give back, eg, for every new clothing item I buy, give half the cost to charity.
  • Review monthly spend/savings – spreadsheet.
  • Household and travel budget – annual spreadsheet.
  • Possible New Zealand trip in 2022 – research costs/start saving.
  • Digital detox: get Facebook off phone, trim Twitter. set up RSS feeds.
  • Professional development/training courses: SEO + Google Ads through Udemy. Or certification through Google Digital Garage
  • Work half days only on screen.
  • Find one more regular client.

Random

  • Help fix an issue that has always bothered you through volunteering, eg, Fat Fluffs rabbit rescue – next steps (medical care)?
  • Research Nat Trust jobs.
  • Monthly date night.
  • Meet the oldest people in the city.

Return to solo backpacking

I’ve just discarded my initial 600 words on why it was such a challenge to get on a plane on my own and fly to Fuerteventura this winter. The less angsty, need-to-know summary is that I’ve been pretty conflicted about travelling in recent years. I was a frequent backpacker when I was younger, seeking out the cheapest huts, sleeping on one-inch mattresses, overlanding entire subcontinents for a fiver, etc, etc. I even turned my travel passion into something of a travel writing career.

But now I hate the flying, the research, the anxiety of going somewhere new and the suspicion that no one will talk to me if I do, being 50 and all that. Where did all this crippling angst come from? I don’t think it is age; I think it is the lack of risk-taking once you settle down. (I never thought I’d settle down.)

And so it was quite the emotional challenge to book a week in Fuerteventura at the end of November – one I’d spent nine months procrastinating over.

In the end, I booked two days before flying (in case I changed my mind) and snagged the last dorm bed in the only available cheap accommodation left in Corralejo – a surf lodge on the deserted edge of town for about £14 a night. I tried not to think about who I’d be sharing with but the thought that the mixed dorm might be all-male did freak me out. It’ll never happen I told myself.

SurfinTrip – turned out to be a really nice share house.

At least I’d been to Fuerteventura before (for a birthday surf and bodyboard) so I didn’t have to stress about going somewhere totally new. And my friend Kerry was flying out a few days later on her own trip so I would have someone to talk to for half the week.

Here are some snippets from my diary of what it was like, ending on the question: ‘Would I do it again..?’

++

Saturday

I’m in a surf house that sleeps 10 people at the edge of town where the signpost says you are now leaving Corralejo. It’s actually pretty nice. It has a pool and a terrace and a large kitchen, albeit no space in the fridge.

I’m in a mixed dorm but in reality I’m sharing a stifling, slightly smelly room with three men: Jon, a surfer from the Basque Country; Alex, a 50-year-old Italian boat captain and kite surfer who looks a bit like George Clooney, and another guy who didn’t come home last night but is now sleeping and snoring his way through the daytime.

I’m here for the chance to walk, swim, exercise and generally get outdoors in the sunshine. The first frost has landed back home. Here, the light here is beautiful; there’s a soft warmth in the blue sky, even if the sea requires a brave plunge.

The wild West coast of ‘Europe’s Hawaii’.

Over the past 10-15 years I realise I’ve been gradually upgrading my travel choices. I’ve paid ever higher amounts for comfort, privacy and location.

A dorm bed in a share house has brought me back down the earth. There was no door-to-door airport transfer, either: I had to walk down a dark, deserted street behind a walled-off hotel complex and use a torch to find SurfinTrip Academy and Camp house.

It’s been a thrill already, even if it is the thrill of risk. I want to still love all this; me, a middle-aged woman with a rather large comfort zone. It’s good that I did this by myself and see what it’s like to drop out of my life for a few days.

++

Sunday

It’s Mum’s 17th anniversary and I’m taking some time to remember her today. She would say ‘Go for it!’ – she always did.

I spend breakfast with the chainsmokers on the patio and the rest of the morning doing the chores of the self-catering budget backpacker: shopping at Hyperdinos and walking the long sweaty road home loaded down with heavy water and basic foodstuffs in the midday heat. Then I walk another hour to get to sunset, before realising I have my easts and wests mixed up and it’s on the other side of the island. So. Much. Walking.

Sunset shadow selfie.

It’s a pleasant evening at ‘home’, talking with a French Canadian surfergirl who’s become addicted to surfing and is 18-months into a backpacking trip with no return ticket, and a 27-year-old bubbly lady from Leeds who’s fresh off the plane. Later Captain Clooney points out Cassiopeia and other constellations in broken English like a scene from a John Cusack movie. I get no sense that he is going to make a move, though, thankfully; this is just a friendly ‘let’s look at the stars’ thing because the clouds have cleared away and a starry night sky remains one of the best things ever.

These people are my temporary family, made up of random strangers from around the world who are not so different from me, or at least who I used to be.

 

++

Monday

Today a classic ‘dirty old man’ at the beach made eye contact with my unfocused, unspectacled eyes while I was drying off from a swim, and took it as an invitation to lurk. No, no. no. I thought I’d be too old for this particular joy of lone female travel.

After dinner (Kerry has arrived!) we walk along the seafront for a nightcap tea and Tia Maria coffee at Waikiki Bar. I was dreading the long walk home and sure enough the busy road was now dark and deserted but for the occasional car.

I don’t mind the dark or the emptiness, it’s when there are potential opportunistic humans around that I get uptight. I pull out my Swiss army knife and thread the corkscrew through my fist. The massive closed Aqua Park is the worst, with its broken chainlink fences and large car parks and Scoobydoo-like giant galleon rearing out of the ground with lion leaping off it. I try not to picture being jumped and dragged in there to die in a deserted fairground.

‘It’s all about risk-reward’ – this line from the young trainer at the UoB gym kept going through my brain. The risk in that walk back didn’t seem worth the reward.

++

From this point on I moved to Kerry’s accomm. Although this has ended on a bit of a downer, I had a fantastic week’s break and I did get a lot from going back to budget backpacking if only for a few days.

It was fun, a bit uncomfortable but a good way to meet new likeminded people. I wasn’t the oldest person there, to my surprise, and no one was ageist in the slightest. In fact, I found myself remembering how open and considerate and up-for-life the average backpacker is.

As for my travel fears, the public bus to the airport was also way faster and cooler than the rammed and rambling airport shuttle – and it was cheaper. I didn’t take Valium on either plane journey for my fear of flying, and I was surprised at how little I fretted about these flights – an advantage of short-haul daytime flights and of booking last minute.

Would I do it again? I surely would.

Would I spend 11 months arguing with myself about booking it? Probably, but I’m working on it.

And look, I even look kind of happy.

Not relaxed but looking sort of happy.

 

My first (and second) art exhibition

An open call was issued by The Holodeck printmakers in Birmingham: submit an artwork for consideration for their new Riso book and exhibition on the theme of ‘Weird Science’. The exhibition was scheduled to run from 14 September to 13 October at Artefact in Stirchley.

I’ve never thought of myself as an artist but I had it in the back of my mind to do something with rabbits so I started playing around with some photomontaging one hot day during this summer’s heatwave.

I produced around 20 ‘weirded’ rabbits using black and white printouts of Joy, our rabbit who had died a couple of months earlier, mashed with creatures cut out from various books. In the end I submitted this simpler rabbit/volcanic island collage – and it was accepted, risoprinted and shown. My first artwork to be in an exhibition! As you can see, I looked pretty chuffed.

Emboldened, I decided to try for another open call, this time by the Edinburgh Collage Collective and Mark Murphy (moif_collage) on the theme of ‘postcards’. Once more I spent a very pleasant afternoon putting some options together and posted them under the #cutandpost hashtag to my @editoriat Instagram. As a collage beginner, it was no surprise that I didn’t make it into the final cut of 24 printed postcards but it was useful practice putting work together to a theme and a deadline.

In the end I framed one of the postcards and submitted it with another piece for the Artefact Winter Group Show. They were both accepted and were hung in pride of place by the toilet queue in the run-up to Christmas. Someone even offered to buy one of them. The Birmingham postcard still makes me laugh, though I’m tempted to collage something more into the bottom right panel. A work in progress maybe.

This all happened because of a) a local collage club that meets every month, b) having an ace local gallery space that is committed to its community, and c) putting my stuff out there when I could easily have left it in a folder in a cupboard at home and said ‘nah, they’re not good enough’. I’m glad various people encouraged me to go for it and grateful to those who accepted the work into their art spaces.

I still wouldn’t say I’m an artist but I enjoy making the artwork and being a part of something bigger. And I’ve learnt that if in doubt, go for it.