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 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.

Best of Brum at Spring Fair 2018

I’ve attended various events at the Birmingham NEC over the years – for both journalistic and digital marketing purposes – but none so ginormous as ‘the UK’s largest home and gift show for the retail industry’ held earlier this month.

In stats… Spring Fair 2018 featured 14 show sectors, 19 exhibition halls and 2,500 UK and international exhibitors. It’s so big they added Autumn Fair a few years ago to help spread the load. Personally, I got a whole lot of exercise  in – clocking up 18k in Fitbit steps – just by visiting those exhibitors based in or around Birmingham

I wanted to do a pick of the Brum-related products that may be appearing in a store (or zoo or Birmingham art gallery) near you in 2018, and to make a few local connections and contacts. Here it is – I have to say I love the randomness of the products and stories on offer…

1. Bloom and glow

Electric flowers won’t be to everyone’s taste but the Blossom Collection’s products were surprisingly nice to look at. The company launched following a sourcing visit to China and has blossomed (!) ever since. If you have a black wall in your house (I have two), it’s the perfect backdrop for glowing roses, tulips, orchids or Blossom’s best-selling calla lilies.

2. Puns to make you cry over your chopped onions

I’m a little chilli but do nut worry…  Why oh why can’t I get a job writing food puns for chopping boards?

I was excited to meet Zodiac, a kitchen equipment company based in near to me in sunny Selly Oak, but a bit disappointed to find out that they are actually the UK arm of a Chinese company and not a local family business. But, hey, Cadbury’s…

As a content marketer, I have to say Zodiac had one of the slickest sites of all the Spring Fair exhibitors I visited, with related recipe and other support content around the kitchenware, an up-to-date news section, a listening/feedback area and a busy CSR section.

Tasty marketing chops.

3. An elephant memento never forgets

“It started with an elephant,” Kiran Chohan of Wildtouch says of his business handcrafting souvenirs, gifts, jewellery and other accessories for zoos, aquariums and other heritage sites around the UK.

The original elephant went to Twycross zoo and the company has since grown into a niche business supplying zoos and other leisure attractions with animal souvenirs from meerkats to monkeys, clown fish to killer whales.

Kiran also has his own range of jewellery and the firm is based in Birmingham’s famous Jewellery Quarter.

4.  Hanging tin

Jo Willis co-started Red Hot Lemon in 2014 after working as a sales manager at a metal sign firm that closed. She says the array of licensed metal signs attracts the rare  male buyer demographic with the VW Campervan one of their bestsellers. They have also expanded into selling a range of other tin products with that ever-popular retro-vintage feel.

5. Made in Sunderland (for Brummies)

My World may be based in Sunderland but Brum is their biggest client with a range of regional cards, prints, mugs and fridge magnets sold in BMAG, the Town Hall and the Library of Birmingham. Pretty surprised Brummies didn’t corner this market, though, especially since Created In Birmingham shop surfaced a lot of local artists a few years back. But it’s all fine and the Birmingham skyline print is a winner.

6. Cactus drinks jar for your mojito?

MD of KitchenCraft Matthew Canwell explained how the design and development (alas not the manufacture) of more than 4,000 kitchen and homewares products is done in Birmingham.

The company has been in Brum for 168 years and was founded by a local man named Thomas Plant on Edgbaston Street. The name only changed from Thomas Plant to Kitchen Craft in 1996 and the company has since grown to become part of Lifetime Brands inc, a global kitchenware provider supplying leading department stores and 80 countries worldwide. Another slick website – kitchenware is the place to be for content marketing.

7. ‘Winter is coming’ – fill your goblets!

AE Williams is possibly most famous for supplying its pewterware goblets to Game of Thrones but, says Stephen Johnson, a partner in the firm, there just isn’t room to show them at Spring Fair. In the absence of a GoT goblet, this whisky decanter stood proudly as king of all the Digbeth-based manufacturer’s exhibits

8. A subtle celebration of your memories

Charlotte Lowe graduated in 2009 and this is her seventh year at Spring Fair, showing jewellery made in her workshop in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. I like the way she encapsulates personal memories (pets, children, simple moments, photos) into items of bespoke jewellery that are obviously personal to the individual but not at all sentimental in their design.

9. A perfectly potty invention

I liked Pot Pal because it represents the dream of being an inventor – and bringing a product to market. Pot Pal is a vertical plant holder that evokes narrowboat paraphernalia with its colours and design. It was invented by Brett Cattlin, who started out making pet products in wood. Recently he partnered with Firstpress (Plastic Moulders) Limited of Ladywood, Birmingham to design, manufacture and distribute ‘Pot Pal’ products in a lighter, more cost-efficient plastic. The product has only been out since January ready to catch some spring/summer buying.

10. ‘Mini me’ tweeds

The husband and wife team behind Chand Textiles were lovely and we chatted for ages about everything from Tamil Nadu to digital photography. Based in Highgate, they were showing their range of tweed jackets, gilets and peaked caps for children that are perfect for a country set ‘mini me’.

11. A fluffle of bunny goods

Kate Sproston from Nuneaton – that counts as greater Birmingham, right? – drew me in with her range of rabbit-embroidered goods, including a Rabbit Egg Cosy shortlisted for Gift of the Year 2018. Kate also has a number of equally lovely collections that aren’t about rabbits but the law of small animal owners is that all talk must revert to pets so I introduced her to Profession Bunminster Fuller, Clementine Bundango and Joy (yes, we our pets have a website) and in turn she told me about their guinea pigs Frankie Valli and Alan Turing (from Hutch 6). Top punnage there.

12. See this cat? He’s a bestseller

Wolverhampton-based Dean Morris has the honour of being regularly demonised by the tabloids for his low-brow comedy cards (cries of irony!) but ‘smut, filth and swearing’ just sells so very well to the great British public (as any tabloid fule kno). Dean has been keeping it rude since 1999 and was the first to offer ‘Keep calm and carry on…’ cards. This one took me back to my days working for Moonpig just as they launched in 2000. Cards are a competitive business so fair play to Dean for his success.

Fiona Cullinan works as a digital content producer, editor and copywriter mostly for B2B clients. For further information, please visit The Subs Desk.

Visit to a parallel time

Modern stories of Victoria/Chamberlain Square, Birmingham #3 – my final and favourite photo narrative started out as a warm up exercise to get my mind into gear. I went to find a distant, deserted corner and found myself in a parallel Chamberlain Square where it was sometimes impossible to tell what was real…

[Photos taken for stories class of Matt & Pete’s Photo School; next up: Spaghetti Junction photo walk and picnic on 29 July.]

01 Parallel time
Continue reading “Visit to a parallel time”

The Yellow Backpackers of Chamberlain Square

Modern stories of Victoria/Chamberlain Square, Birmingham #2 – the second of three photographic narratives focuses on a group of European students – I think from San Marino – colour-coded yellow by their backpacks. Where were they (location shot)? How did they interact with the environment? Could I get any sneaky close-ups? Achieved more of a documentary feel with this one.

[Photos taken for stories class of Matt & Pete’s Photo School; next set of pix will be from their Spaghetti Junction photo walk and picnic on 29 July.]

Establish Chamberlain Square location.

01 Yellow tourists
Continue reading “The Yellow Backpackers of Chamberlain Square”

Abstract Birmingham

Photo School abstracts lamppost

This Sunday sees the fourth and final session (for me) of Photographing the City – Matt and Pete’s sociable, how-to photography course set on the streets of Birmingham and featuring a pleasant mix of arty/techy teaching, walking, socialising, photographing stuff (more egs below) and peer review.

More adventures from Photo School… Continue reading “Abstract Birmingham”

Photographing the landscapes of Birmingham

Photo School Landscapes-23

So today was week two (of four) of Matt & Pete’s Photo School. Last month, we played with finding the decisive moment in street photography, this time it was landscapes and creating huge panoramic vistas using the iconic buildings of Birmingham.

More adventures from Photo School… Continue reading “Photographing the landscapes of Birmingham”

Roller disco by the reservoir

It’s a disco but it’s on wheels. It’s roller disco! Back from the 70s/80s and currently going strong in 2012 at the old-school neon pink glitz of the Tower Ballroom by Edgbaston Reservoir in Birmingham. Tonight featured a very mixed crowd (from 18 to 70+), a punter being stretchered off to hospital by paramedics, the Cupid Shuffle line dance on skates, slamming into the bar, skating back from the bar with pint in hand, and lots of wibbly-wobbly laps. 10 out of 10. Go. Meanwhile here is some lo-fi vid featuring power ballads and Whitney-pop to whet the appetite… Continue reading “Roller disco by the reservoir”

A weekend featuring various artists

I don’t often write diary posts but sometimes a weekend is so full on, it’s a way to offload stuff and think about them later. So here’s the rather strange collection of activities and oddities that Birmingham presented this weekend.

FRIDAY: Trampolines and New Romantics

1. The 28th Trampoline and Tumbling World Championship, NIA
I’ve never paid to go to a sporting event before but I was fascinated to see what the world’s best offered in terms of sports that basically involved jumping, bouncing and general boinging.

Continue reading “A weekend featuring various artists”

Secret Stirchley, flashers and goodbye tearoom

Secret Stirchley-4

After donating my teenage memory of ‘being flashed’ to the Secret Stirchley crew at the pop-up arts tearoom, this weekend my embarrassing memory became the stuff of a Stirchley promenade street theatre narrative.

Performed by three actors as part of the Inhabit programme of pop-up tearooms, the stories they had collected from Stirchley residents over the past five weeks were woven into a narrative, relived and professionally delivered by actors as we wandered around the local streets. In this environment, it was hard to tell who was part of the show and who was incidental.

We listened in on the story of a grandmother and her grand-daughter, as well as other characters who overlapped with their lives, from the ghost of a father who went to war and came back shellshocked…

Secret Stirchley-7

to the grunge boyfriend met in the British Oak…

Secret Stirchley-3

to a street mugger re-enacting a bag-snatching…

Secret Stirchley-9

– and to a young girl who was once flashed by a man standing in the reeds of the River Rea, followed by the ensuing police visit asking for rather intimate details and distinguishing marks.

While I enjoyed the show, however, I’m not sure Stirchley is quite ready for such artiness – a feeling which was underlined by two events ahead of the opening Friday performance.

1. The neighbouring solicitor had apparently thrown quite a wobbly about a bit of chalk saying ‘Sweet shop’ on the pavement outside his shop (which was, you’ve guessed it, formerly a sweet shop).

Secret Stirchley-2

He told them he was trying to conduct a ‘proper business’ and was insistent that they remove it, which they did despite this being a public pavement. His uncompromising reaction seemed unwarranted – especially since the passing promenade didn’t even raise the two front-room workers’ heads as we passed by. And yet his over-reaction forms another B30 tale as I had been to see them the day before and now feel quite disinclined to do business there. Stirchley may be strong in community spirit, but at the same time it has always had its bullies, though maybe that is too strong a word – perhaps he was just having a bad day.

2. The second incident happened when a passing young mum with a pushchair had to be reassured that the mugging wasn’t real, just in case she didn’t spot the unconcerned crowd and phoned the police.

But the show must go and after 40 minutes or so it circled back to the tearoom for the final scene, followed by tea and delicious cakes…

Secret Stirchley-12

Personally, I think the show would have worked better for me as a direct documentary of Stirchley memories, flowing between characters but without the narrative hook. I suppose I wanted to focus on Stirchley and wanted to hear other people’s memories. I don’t think they needed the plot device, or perhaps I was slightly distracted by the fictionalised performance, which made the memories seem less real somehow.

Still, I have very much enjoyed the tearoom over the past few weeks and I think it will be missed in Stirchley, which is a high street of diverse businesses but none of which offer a particularly sociable stop-off or gathering place (unless you like to go to the pub in the daytime or the ‘Society Cafe’ in the Coop, that is).

The tea-room now moves to Hodge Hill. Lucky things. But I hope that it – or someone else with community spirit – moves into our empty shops soon.

If you want to catch a performance of Secret Stirchley, there is one day left to see it – at 1pm and 4pm tomorrow (Sunday 13th March). Performances are free and start at the shop, on the corner of Ivy Road and Pershore Road.