A last walk around the Stirchley Co-op – a photo essay

On 25th January 2020, the Stirchley Co-op sadly closed forever. The urge to see it one last time was strong. It was a strange feeling, after all it was just a shop. And yet… this was the supermarket I had grown up with in the 1970s-80s and returned to in the 2000s-10s.

Now, as we entered another decade, it was finally disappearing. The Co-op had been in Stirchley since 1875 and on the Umberslade Rd/Hazelwell Lane site since 1914. Its closure was big local news. In the era of late capitalism, it felt as if this was part of a wider crumbling in the way we run our society, the Co-op somehow a victim of a race to the bottom.

But that's a different post… To say goodbye I wanted to take a slow walk around Stirchley’s greatest ever retail character.

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My Co-op memories

It was a supermarket I grew up with from childhood. I remember it when it was a thriving shop with a large dairy and rows of milk carts, where the lower car park is now.

I remember being allowed the treat of licking the Co-op Blue Saver and Green Shield stamps and sticking them in a stamp book so Mum could get some money off the groceries. Someone said on Twitter today that Stirchley was never a working class area – "as working class as Shoreditch". I beg to differ. There wasn't a lot of money around here in the '70s. Any money off was coveted.

It was also our local pop-to shop where our Irish catholic working class parents got their whisky ‘n’ fags before KwikSave moved into the high street and undercut them. I moved to London in the late 1980s but would help Mum shop there. She often bumped into friends and would stop for a catchup chat in the aisles. I have no memory of my Dad ever setting foot in it – feminism came late to our house and arrived courtesy of the women on the belt at Cadbury's somewhere in the 1980s.

Years later, I was back and single and heartbroken – and grieving. I recall many Friday/Saturday nights when popping to the Co-op was the tragic highlight of my evening. A place of comfort and loneliness all in one. Is this what my life had become I wondered as I walked across the two pedestrian crossings, past the brimming Three Horseshoes, tears rolling silently down my face. Still, be positive… I got a good Coop saver deal on my saucepans.

The ‘Society Café’ past the tills was where I went on a date circa 2003 – for dating irony at this point. We had tea and cake on the sofas while a mini brass band ensemble and carol singers played Christmas carols. Then he lent me music and books that I pretended to like, as was the dating tradition.

The café was also a destination for pensioners, local councillors, kids and hipsters alike. These were the days before Stirchley had many daytime cafés to escape to. Where you could get an unbranded cuppa char for £1.50. 

I didn’t realise I was building up such nostalgia for this shop that many other B30 residents lambasted for its high prices and empty shelves, especially in its final years. The arrival of the cut-price German supermarkets, Aldi and Lidl, and food e-tailers were sounding the death knell.

At a corporate level the Co-op Group had been going through some turbulent economic times, with the near collapse of its bank in 2013 (it is now out of the banking business). But I always forgave the Co-op because it had more ethical policies in place than other cheaper supermarkets.

Still I was sad to see it run down over the years. More recently, with nowhere else to go in the rain, it became a place we took my new great-nephew for a pram ride around the aisles (if that isn't an indictment of our capitalist society and leisure offerings, I don't know what is). And when he started toddling, a trip to The Works concession at the back of the store for a book or toy. To him, it was still a world of exciting colour and riding the shopping trolleys. 

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The Co-op walk we had to cancel

The Stirchley Co-op’s last day was a Saturday and there wasn’t much shopping to be done anymore. The shelves had been slowly emptying over the previous weeks and whole sections of the store were now being closed off. The number of open tills shrank and then were removed. The raw infrastructure of the supermarket was being revealed in a slow uncovering of hook-on shelving, wire racks and easy-clean metal racks.

Locals were tweeting about the ‘apocalyptic scenes’ as if the end were nigh. Given what was to come, it was prescient.

Little did we know that a global pandemic was about to hit. That panic buying loo rolls and hand sanitiser was about to become a national sport. Or that we would soon have to travel much further afield to get basic food supplies during lockdown.

Before we knew any of this was coming, fellow Stirchley resident and psychogeographer Andy Howlett and I decided to walk the Co-op.

To: “mournfully walk up and down the empty isles, browsing instead the infrastructure that remains”.

To embrace: “The stark angles of empty metal shelving! The receding vistas of shopper-free aisles! The rhythm of its layout and walkways! The final beeps of the disappearing tills! The barren promotional structures offering no deals!” 

To say a last goodbye.

We decided to put it up as an event on Facebook for friends and residents to join us. But when 120 people expressed an interest, we knew we’d hit a nerve and this walk would either be a great thing – or trouble.

Sadly our funereal store procession was not to be… 

We received a nudge from the councillor and an alarmed email from a respected Neighbourhood Forum member that the walk wouldn’t go down well with staff. Although staff had all been offered new jobs with Morrison’s, who had taken over the site, it was felt a walk by the public would be inappropriate.

And so we cancelled the event. (It still lives on at LiveBrum listings archive – someone added it to the site and it lives on as a memorial marker perhaps.) To be honest we didn’t think so many people would want to come. We probably shouldn’t have formalised it into a group ‘walk’.

I sometimes wonder if the staff would have understood the sense of occasion and the community's wish to mark a historical day. Perhaps even enjoyed the shenanigans like the flash mobs of old. Instead the Co-op slipped quietly away.

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Goodbye Stirchley Co-op

On closing day, just three of us went ahead for a last walk up and down the aisles of this iconic store. We met outside, slightly worried that 100 people might still show up. They didn't.

Keri, Andy and I walked slowly around the store, visiting every area that was still open, talking about the changes and taking photos. Staff were laughing and joking. Maybe they were relieved. A near-empty supermarket, shorn of its shiny goods, has to be demoralising. 

The Stirchley History Group had set up a small exhibition of the history of Co-ops in the area. It showed the incredible Harrods-like original building on the corner of Umberslade Rd. My elderly friend Rita, now 90, fondly recalls a hat concession on the upstairs level. Why it was knocked down and replaced with a box and the upstairs never used, I don't know. Progress, I suppose.

The exhibition also had a supercuts model of a local TASCO (Ten Acres & Stirchley Co-operative Society). More local TASCO historical photos here.

After visiting it, the three of us went for a ceremonial tea in the Society Café, where we reminisced. Then, as a surprise, Keri pulled out a poem he had written to mark this day.

It was his way of saying goodbye to the Co-op. He read it out for us and I wished the staff could have heard it, too. Reproduced here with permission.

Elegy to a Co-op

In Stirchley, fair Stirchley, a proud beacon burns
To a positive wealth of cooperative firms
There’s Artefact, Loaf and of course the Bike Foundry 
But now we are faced with a very sad quandary
By the gyratory, where the cars stop,
The mum of them all is now shutting up shop.

Over the years, we have given a wave
To Fitness First, Ten Pin and (less missed) KwikSave
The Co-op has fallen foul of a sad plot
So more than a Lidl – we’ll miss you a lot

You’re not just a supermarket. You offered more
As Stirchley’s own miniature department store
With bedding and linens, and cheap deep fat fryers
Tellies and vacuums and big tumble driers.
And there at the back an enormous amount
Of books that you’d not even want at a discount

When needing some supper we’d pop along late
To shuffle through food near its best-before date
Each one yellow-stickered and begging ‘choose me’
Like sad Cinderella, disconsolately

An eclectic selection contained in our hand,
Then we’d be faced with a different demand
The challenge that buying your purchases posed
With nine tills and checkouts – and eight of them closed

And on Sunday mornings, now where will we go for
An eight-item breakfast on black leather sofa?
Though some people avoided you, some people dissed
Please understand that you’ll always be missed

And so what approaches us from the horizon?
The future is brought to us by Mister Morrison
He means well, I’m sure, with his newly found operatives
But sadly for us, they will be un – Cooperative

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A new beginning

And so it ended. We each left and turned in different directions.

The Stirchley Co-op is dead, long live its new cooperatives (Loaf, Bike Foundry and Artefact). And with their Stirchley Co-operative Development plans for the corner of Hunts Rd/Pershore Rd currently going through local planning and endorsed by MP Steve McCabe, perhaps in some way the baton has been passed on.

From upper case Co-op to lower case co-ops, perhaps this shift in in our high street augurs for a better society and a more modern 'Stirchley'.

Next week on 9 July 2020, delayed by the Covid-19 lockdown, a new Morrison’s will open on the site. Anyone fancy a walk?

Further info and walks

This Stirchley walk and photo essay is part my 'Perambulate With Me' series of 12 walks around Stirchley. More about this and other walking projects on the Walking page.

Currently I'm involved in the Mapping Stirchley project through Walkspace, and we will be creating some walks from the community sourced 'map of noticed things' soon. Join the Walkspace Facebook and Twitter, or sign up for the newsletter to find out more.

Pandemic diary 52: Fucking Blackbird

Hippie alert.

Hello. I've done something stupid. I decided to pick up the guitar for the first time in about three years. And now my wrists hurt. So this will be a short post. Basically I loved it and couldn't stop and now my RSI has flared up. When will I learn that I can't compute AND play.

I made a video with the idea of showing progression, but not sure I'll be playing again for a while. Still, some muscle memory is there from learning this song about 15 years ago. Also, birds (what are birds?)!

Enjoy my pain, Schadenfreudsters.

There's a blackbird hanging around the garden at the moment btw – it's got a really lovely tune. Not like those great tits!

Thanks

Today I am thankful for TREES! We took a trip to the next park over from yesterday's Manor Farm Park to Ley Hill to see the Giant Redwoods (!) and take a stroll around Merritt's Hill. The trees there were something else.

Also got home in time for a Zoom gender reveal on my next great niece or nephew, who is due in October. They fired a cannon with pink or blue smoke. It was quite exciting. And they are going to have… whatever gender pink is! I probably should have checked. 😉

A Giant Redwood at Ley Hill, nearly 6m round and quite high, presumably with a long way to go.
There were some crazy carvings up there too, including a rabbit, bear and a tree with a hole in it.
Tiny Pete – is far away – but it is still a big tree.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 51: Stirchley's Von Trapps* in lockdown (guest post)

Every Wednesday a fresh load of songs arrive. How do you write a positive song anyway? Or any song?

Another guest post has come in – hurrah! This is especially welcome as I have spent eight hours editing financial B2B copy and have nothing left to give. This insight on lockdown life is from a highly talented musical, digital and culinary friend – Lobelia – who I've had the pleasure of knowing for nine years this year. She lives in Stirchley with her pro musician husband, Steve, and their super smart young son (who used to interrupt his coding to give me a hug back in the good old hugging days). Please say hello to Lo!

__

I have avoided writing much about my time so far in lockdown due to Covid-19. I think that’s largely because I’m trying to avoid the realities in a sort of ‘fake it till you make it’ kind of scenario. It’s not that I’m not acutely aware of what’s going on, but rather that I’m employing a technique of not allowing myself to dwell on it. At least as much as possible.

I felt a bit guilty at first being comfortable in the environment of staying home. I have a husband and a 10-year-old son, and I feel quite content being close to them. My husband and I work from home mostly, and our son is quite self-contained, so we are great at being together in a small space. I only struggle with people eating cereal near me (that’s a whole other story) or my son wearing headphones and bellowing talking at full volume on his Zoom calls. 

As a techy musician (I’m a techy geek by day working in sustainable transport/wellness) and a musician otherwise running gigs, writing songs and working as a studio singer on various projects, I feel like my training in both were tailor-made for this kind of scenario.

I was furloughed quite early on from my day job, at 100% salary for the first month, which has since decreased to 80% and soon to fall to 60% if the Tories have their way about it.

My brain isn’t great at being idle, so I immediately fell into devising and working on a project with a friend called The Positive Songs Project, which encourages members to write and record one positive song a week in times of despair and uncertainty. I don’t think I’d ever intentionally written a positive song in my 25+ year career as a songwriter so I’m amazed to find that, five weeks in, I’ve got part of a Bandcamp album of positive music under my belt.

Working on this project has definitely kept me focused and feeling mostly OK, although I do have days where I can’t function. It’s always the tipping point of an article in the news I shouldn’t have read, or someone I know that is affected. 

All and all, I feel very lucky. I can still perform from home with high-quality streaming gigs (thanks to fast wi-fi), release music (thanks to Bandcamp) and I live in a gorgeous area in a lovely little house with very connected and community-focused neighbours.

There are parks and green spaces all around me. My expenses are low with no car and very reasonable rent and I can spend time on the things that are important to me.

The feeling of community that has built up around this crisis is wonderful on my street, we even have Zoom calls with drinks to connect and bond.

I still despair about the state of the world and those who are not as lucky as me and I have no idea what’s going to happen in future – but I’m just going to focus on doing my best for my family and helping others as much as possible and take it one day at a time

Fiona back again – I highly recommend tuning into the Positive Songs Project. You don't have to write a song for it (maybe one day) but there are some lovely recordings on there. My favourite so far is Granfalloon's The Pigeon. It's quite hypnotic and all about birds, my new lockdown interest.

* PS. Sorry for calling you the Von Trapps but you are the most positive musical family I know. Stirchley's rubble hills are alive with the sound of positive songs. Plus, you guys are a few of My favourite things!

Thanks

I saw a friend posting photos from a local park I'd never heard of. I looked it up and it is only 10 minutes away in the car. How have I never known about it? It's hidden right there behind the trees lining the Bristol Road on the way to Northfield.

So this evening we went for a walk around Manor Farm Park, which is part lake (currently drained so extra interesting), part park, part meadow, part woodland, part manor (it was once the grounds of Northfield Manor House). It's massive and quite fairytale-esque in many places with little waterfalls and glades. If you ever read 'The Magic Faraway Tree' as a child, then I'm pretty sure you'll relate to this park.

So yeah thanks P-Bantz for the recommendation. B31 2AB is the postcode for your satnavs. Here are some photos to prove how lovely it is.

Oak trees, brooks, waterfalls and Pete.
Wetland in south Birmingham.
Secret riverside walks through the glade.
A deep silt plain, formerly the lake but perhaps the work is on hold due to lockdown.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 41: The dark side of the Rea

Sunday. We are both feeling better today.

Slept and slept, nearly 10 hours in all. Two Mad Mens for breakfast. A rich chocolate brownie for lunch. Gardening and rabbit runabout. The day ended with a bit of exciting work as a logistics client went out on an SOS call to help get desperately needed incoming deliveries of PPE (personal protective equipment) from Turkey moving along the supply chain and into the NHS. I'll be working on filling out this story on their website tomorrow. Maybe I'll slot in a cheeky backlink from here for an SEO boost, ha ha.

Around 7pm we then took a walk to follow up on the tree identification live demo yesterday along the River Rea Route – the other unofficial path, the overgrown dark side. I also wanted to do today's #distancedrift walking prompt by walking artist and author Sonia Overall. Her prompt was to find islands on our travels: I've yet to process my photos but I've found islands made of plants, litter, salty efflorescence, cat's eye lights, rocks in the river, road markings and more.

It's good to get out of the house and your head.

Pete's photos of this lockdown walk are here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/peteashton/albums/72157714151240013

Other people's found islands in the lockdown landscape can be found under #distancedrifts hashtag on Twitter.

Things to be thankful for

Today I am thankful for… wild garlic, tons of it, on our walk. I foraged some and added it into tonight's chicken quorna curry.

Also it was lovely to have a distanced doorstep hello with my great nephew M who informed us that he is now three-and-eight-twelfths, and that he is not allowed to come into our house "until the lockdown ends". And then he sang T-Rex 'Get It On, bang a gong' and danced to Gangnam Style. Oh to be three!

There was also a bonus mysterious Robson – Walkspace collaborator – as we walked out today. He's done a very readable, borderline poetic series of lockdown walk writings over on Walkspace recently. Check them out here: 'Robson on…'

Remember that giftbox with a tree in it that I mentioned yesterday? Pete has turned it into a rabbit engagement tunnel for Clem. She hides from us there. But I am always waiting with my camera for Madame Showpony.

Finally, for added cuteness, we spotted a dog on our evening forage walk. But we could only see a fraction of it under the garden fence. We both took a photo. This dog is an excellent model. And goes to show sometimes you don't need to see the whole picture to appreciate the view.

A. Pete's pic.
B. Fiona's photo.

Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 29: The lure of the open road

No bunny today. Trying out my new birthday trekking poles on the streets of Stirchley. All pics: Pete Ashton.

One of the things I have started doing is walking down the middle of the road. Empty roads, big gaps in traffic, an invitation to reclaim the highway from the automobile. The lure of the open road. It's very satisfying, although not relaxing as you still have to keep an eye and ear out. Slower, quieter streets are safer but bigger main roads feel more of a coup. Sometimes there is a central chevron path, sometimes a single white line.

Pete labelled this 'street walking' until I set him straight.

More coronavirus lockdown changes…

I go to press the button at three pedestrian crossings and then realise there is no need.

Never has speeding been so attractive to so many. Speed limits have become token. Those 20mph test zones – ha ha. The 'meringue' sound of the speedway from streets away.

Pedestrians criss-cross frequently to avoid meeting on the pavement. Movement outdoors has become one big do-si-do of scale.

Joggers and cyclists everywhere. It is the walkers who must move out of the way. Recently I read an article about the need to avoid their slipstream by up to 10m as they leave a much longer trail of potentially contagious droplets. No wonder thinking about this invisible thing is so mind-wrecking. The figure of 2m is burned into our brains but what if it is wrong?

Hiking Stirchley's rubble hills.

Thanks NHS!

Today I am thankful for the NHS (once again), this time for my elderly friend who has had to go into hospital for non-Covid-19 reasons. I hate that he is on his own but it should only be a quick visit hopefully. That is one of the worst things about this situation – no contact. But the emergency services have been fantastic and got to him so quickly. Get well soon, old friend.


Commission/hire me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Pandemic diary 6: Good sunrise, sad memories and bad ears

Stirchley around 6.55am after the clocks went forwards

I've swapped out the bunnies today for a photo of sunrise on the first day of British Summer Time.

It's been a strange day, which is saying something in these strange times. Getting up at 5am (6 if you count the clocks going forward, which no-one does on the first day) was always going to be tough but a quick curtain twitch told me the sunrise would be worth it.

I'd said to Andy (of Video Strolls and Walkspace) that I'd meet him on the bridge on Mary Vale Road. This and Hunts Road were the two local options for sunrise-road alignment, according to the lovely Photographer's Ephemeris app, which shows sunrise, sunset and moon rise alignments. Here is this morning's map:

While making takeaway coffee and toast, I popped into the garden to hear the dawn chorus. Not too many birds were awake but it was pretty chirpful in the dusk before dawn.

At 6.30am I had Stirchley High St to myself. I walked on the white lines in the middle of the road, snapped the Stirchley Gorilla and took some 360 video of the closed down emptiness. This was isolation from the isolation. I walked around the school block and up the hill to the bridge for sunrise at 6.48am. Of course, it's a bit later in a hilly city, clearing the horizon about 10 minutes later.

A lone figure was standing on the Mary Vale Rd canal/rail bridge – Andy. We chatted briefly about Blake Morris and Desmond Morris (no relation) at a safe distance while watching the sun rise over Stirchley.

The sky lit up pink and orange briefly before the sun rose over the horizon and we could look at it no more – a proper sunrise.

Andy headed off to the canal towpath on his walk and I drove to Raddlebarn Park for a second sunrise and breakfast.

For the first time in a few weeks I felt I was living life rather than being suppressed by it. There is something transcendent about these moments in nature and something powerful about experiencing it alone with your thoughts, uninterrupted by human chatter. I felt free and uncaged. Soon I would return to my home 'prison' but not before seeing a second sunrise over the park and kneeling down next to a long line of spring daffodils in full bloom along Warwards Lane.

One last strange thing… in the park I was transported back in time to 2001 by the view and location. I realised I had been looking at the last view my Mum had. She had a garden room in St Mary's Hospice which sits inside but at the edge of Raddlebarn Park. After a long night when we had kept watch over her, she had opened her eyes that chill November morning, the winter sun shone in on her and she slipped away, changing our world for ever. I miss her. Especially now.

Later: Perhaps it is tiredness or the stress coming out but the past few days I've had a low tinnitus hum in my ears and a pressure in my head. My hearing feels dulled and I can pop my ears but it doesn't clear anything. Today I started getting that dizzy-woozy unbalanced feeling. I'm really hoping this doesn't trip into vertigo. Now is really not the time to be ill.

Today I am thankful for British Summer Time and some short-lived freedom. For the privilege of being able to be with my Mum at the end. And for snuggling my boo, Bunminster, who is too slow to run away.

See, there's a bunny after all.


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Capturing the moon – reflections on Full Moon Walking

How can you share a walk beyond the walk? What can be the artifact that arises from, for example, our recent full moon walk, which drew 22 people into 'an expedition to explore our local waterways by full moon'.

A poem seems most apt as a way of processing the experience in text – if I had any skill in that direction. A walk report – doable, journalistic and a useful archive document but that's what I know and want to move away from. A Q&A or blog post to process the experience, as last time? A photo – there are some posted here on Walkspace, but they are Pete's photos not mine. A video – too dark. Some moon water – I did indeed capture the moon in water but spilled it to mark the lunar spell's boundaries. A map – I like that idea. An artwork, a collage? A single overriding memory? Some kind of feedback loop from the 22 people who came on the walk? Did their wishes, prayers and intentions come true, for example?

Maybe the walk is the thing. But creating an artifact from it makes each walk live on beyond the thing itself, and gives something to revisit.

If I have any kind of 'practice' it is the diary. My entry from the pre-walk check reads like a set of mythographer's travel notes:

…River Rea bridge troll, parallel tunnels, bridge ladder to a floating island, Lifford lake monster, Orion tracking/hunting the night walkers, the upturned Plough, tree of shoes, cachunking of the mineral automaton, a lost bridge, corrugated rusting barn, brutal concrete water tower, guillotine locks for chopping off heads of giants, moon water at the junction of waterways, the moon travelling alongside us in the canal, cat's eyes watching the alley behind the houses, the river stopped, freeze-framed in mid-flow.

Diary entry, 2 March 2020

While these notes conjure up the walk for me but they feel more like raw material for something else. The post-walk artifact is something I want to think about a bit more for future walks, and they are going to need some planning.

I particularly like Hamish Fulton's videos of slow group walks (especially his Penzance Beach walk) and Craig Mod's SMS book 'Pachinko Road Walk With Me' that tapped into the real-time activity of his long distance walk and created a book from his SMS texts (he explains the tensions of real time v asynchronicity in a great newsletter/video post).

There is also Richard Long's The Line and his other way markings. And a favourite from the recent Walking's New Movement's conference: Miranda Whall, who crawled the sheep tracks of Wales with a bunch of cameras attached and which led to an atmospheric multiscreen, soundtracked exhibition. Finally I love Sophie Calle's multimedia outputs and recordings, for example, her book log of surveillance activity and photos from when she walked (stalked!) a man from Paris to Venice.

These walk artifacts are what I aspire to but I've yet to figure out what I can create from a walk that will be of lasting value. Last year, when I expressed an interest in art, my mentor Kate Spence said to use this time for exploration and play. Be interested and interesting. So I guess you can expect more random walk experiments in the months to come.

And if you've come across creative outputs from walkers or walking artists. I'd be interested to hear about them. Please do leave a link in the comments.


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


Dark Moon Walking night walk – in conversation with myself

Normally I walk alone but on Sunday evening, I led group of eight people on a night walk around the unlit borderlands of Stirchley, Lifford and Bournville in south Birmingham.

It was more than a walk. It felt more like a short expedition or an adventure or an exploration into the unknown, because who knew how things would change after dark?

I had many questions. Having ventured into the darkness, I now have some answers.

1. Who or what lurks in the shadows?

No one. Us. In the park, a dog with an LED collar and its owner. On the towpath, a cyclist.

2. Did you need a torch?

For the first few minutes, yes. The city does not get fully dark even during a new moon although night vision kicks in quite quickly. From the street everything looked black but the dark was elusive once we stepped into it.

3. Did you feel differently at the start and end of the walk?

I was a bit apprehensive about what we might find going into a park or along a canal after dark. At the same time, walking in a group was nowhere near as tense as the time I ventured alone into a park. Having someone to talk to is very calming.

I think we all felt emboldened as time went on. By the end of the walk, I felt quite calm and perhaps even weirdly disappointed that there weren't any thrills beyond exploring the world after dark. It was surprising how unthreatening the whole event was.

4. Why a night walk?

Because walking at night is otherworldly and comes with a sense of the forbidden. Green spaces, such as parks, canals and cut-throughs, feel off-limits and taboo at night. The absence of people in them makes you feel safer at night but it is simultaneously strange to see these popular spaces deserted.

Becoming invisible was also a big draw – invisibility is a fun power –and the instruction was for participants to wear black or dark clothing to facilitate our becoming creatures of the night. I also suggested we move quietly, with cat-like stealth, and to talk quietly so as not to be heard or seen.

Lastly there is a power and pleasure in becoming the weirdos who are lurking in the dark. It flips the dynamic away from being a potential target or victim, and allows us – particularly women, I would say – to reclaim the night.

5. What did you learn?

That the park after dark can be a serene, peaceful place.

That coming back onto the streets is an assault on senses that have become attuned to nuances of light and shade. That sunglasses or a pirate's eye patch might be desirable… I learned from my fellow walker (and husband) Pete that pirate eye patches were used to deal with the sudden change of light going above and below deck – just flip it over as needed.

I also learnt that my ever-whitening hair glows at night. So my ideal night walk outfit is a witch's hat, a pirate's eye patch and a black invisbility cloak. Probably.

6. What did you gain?

The knowledge of what is out there.

This also raised more questions – what was that culvert river in Cotteridge Park? Where does it appear and where does it flow? There is nothing on the internet maps. Should we follow it and find out?

7. Were you scared at any point?

Briefly – by a solitary figure standing at the edge of the woods in Cotteridge Park. It turned out to be a small conifer. This is where night vision can be deceiving and amplify your fears. The reflections in the pond also warped my depth perception of where the water line was.

8. Was there any colour vision?

None – apart from the orangey glow of distant lights. No blues, reds or greens to be seen.

9. What kind of people go on a night walk?

People who want new experiences. Most were from an extended network of friends. It was mainly women who registered for the event although the mix was more balanced after six cancellations on the day.

What I liked was that everyone actively wanted to make the most of the dark and turn off the torches. Most went to the pub afterwards too and I was reminded of how the social element of walking is an important one. It was a shared experience.

10. Will there be another one?

Well, full moon is in two weeks…

'Dark Moon Walking' was the third in an ongoing series of Stirchley walks called Perambulate With Me. It was timed to coincide with the new moon, the annual Terminalia festival of psychogeography and the launch of Walkspace, a collective of walking artists in the West Midlands.

Photos from Dark Moon Walking with a walk review by Pete Ashton are on Walkspace.


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


The hill I couldn't climb

The-hill-I-couldnt-climb

Every January 2nd, we go away somewhere with big skies for a few days – to have a think and read books and walk and look at sunsets and reconnect and make plans for the year ahead. It's a great way to start the year and offers a crisp restart after Christmas has gone stale, and the long weeks of winter still stretch ahead.

Mid-Wales is my first choice for this, Snowdonia being one of the few UK places where mountains meet the sea – and on the west coast, you can get a perfect sunset if the weather goes your way.

Another place I recommend is a National Trust property sitting on the northern slopes of Cadair Idris, Wales' second highest mountain. At 800ft above sea level, Cregennan Lakes offers a double whammy of great views – the Cadair Idris ridge and over the Mawddach Estuary to Barmouth.

On the northern side of these two fishing lakes is an abrupt hill called Pared y Cefn Hir, a child summit of Cadair Idris with a peak at 1257ft. It's the pointy peak on the left in the photo above.

From across the lake, on still days, it creates a neat triangular reflection in the lake.

But looks are deceiving – walk 90 degrees to the side, and suddenly it presents quite a different lumpier, bumpier, longer three-headed profile that can't be seen as you ascend.

It's just a hill though, and a couple of family groups seemed to be trotting up and down it. There was also a well marked path, an invitation.

I headed up as Pete headed down and around. It was aerobic. And there were slide-marked mud patches all along the wide path. Still, my boots were sturdy and it felt good to have the heart pumping on all four cylinders.

At the top of the first bluff, I looked down and took a photo of Pete, a tiny waving speck down in the spent heather and golden grasses. Zoom in and see if you can spot him.

He also took one of me, a waving silhouette far above.

The-hill-I-couldnt-climb

Behind me there was a deep near-vertical gully, which a couple were attempting to climb by wedging themselves in the gap. A dog walker in the car park told me to avoid this, and walk around and up: "It's a bit of a scramble but not too bad."

The wind starting blowing as I rounded the bluff and came out of its lee. That was also the point where the soil ran out and the path disappeared into the rocks. I stepped onto each stone carefully, well aware of the drop of a couple of hundred feet just a slip away.

Of course, once you start thinking like that, the confidence you need to goat-hop up the rocks disappears and the inner no voice goes into overdrive:

"You're on your own, what if you fall here, or even just twist your ankle? Is there any phone reception to call for help or does the mountain block the signal? Is the path just over that rock or have you lost the way and getting deeper into the shit with every step?"

I clung to the slope with both hands trying to reach for some inner mountain mojo and looking for a way forward.

The inner voice starts to get the upper hand.

"Most accidents happen on the way down, you know. And to older people like you. You'll be tired. You'll stumble or slip on loose gravel. Your knees will give way, the way they do, and over you'll go. You won't be able to see the path from above and you'll have to take a more dangerous route."

Reassuring now.

"Just turn around and go back to safety. The view at the top is the same only higher. Do it another day when there is someone with you. There's no shame in turning back. It's not a failure because it's not a competition. Better not to push a bad situation."

And so I turn around and retrace my steps back to the first of the three headers. I feel both relieved and disappointed in myself. My Welsh hillbagging challenge is over, curtailed either by wise decision-making over my abilities or by a lack of gumption to forge ahead anyway, it's hard to tell. Age is possibly a factor either way – although these limits are also a function of living in the city and a comfort zone.

The photo now feels slightly tainted. I captioned it 'The hill I couldn't climb'.

To anyone else, it shows a solo hill-climber on an adventure. To me, it is the moment just before defeat. Where I know I have reached my end point and can't continue on. It transports me vividly back to ancient forgotten defeats in the way that funerals resurface past griefs.

But what else is there to do after funerals and walking failures except carry on? There are other hills to climb. And if not, Snowdon has a train.

Oh and I made a kick-ass plan for 2020.

It's always good to end on a positive note.


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com


A walk underneath Spaghetti Junction

Birmingham's famous 1972 concrete megastructure – which criscrosses the M6 and various other slip roads and expressways – makes as much sense from below as it does from above. Probably less so once you add in the Tame River, a fishing lake, three canals, a train track and those swooping forests of pillars.

The underbelly of the  Gravelly Hill Interchange is a daunting place to visit alone. There is the grave-like monument to PC Michael Swindells, who was stabbed and killed in 2004 on the Tame Valley Canal while in pursuit of a knife-wielding paranoid schizophrenic. On today's visit there were three or four semi-threatening dirtbikers using it as their playground. Sadly there was litter everywhere – next time, I'll bring a bag.

But it is also desolately beautiful in its own way, with birdlife, an ongoing Bill Drummond artwork, stark lines and angles and reflections, the monolithic grandeur of the concrete supports, and the relentless chunking of the stitched highways carrying 'flying cars' overhead like a preview of a future that never came to be.

This is my fourth or fifth time visiting. The low winter sun brought me out this time but Spag Junction is impressive on every visit – and differently moody .

These 25 photos are from today's winter walk with Photo School. Pete leads walks there every winter, spring, summer and autumn so you get the effect of the changing seasons. The spring walk is on 26 April 2020.  Details here… 

Click photos to view larger.


Hire/commission me: fiona [at] fionacullinan.com