This was bear country. No doubt about it. Over breakfast Alfred from the guesthouse had said, “You should make sure that you talk when you go walking there – or maybe sing – that way you won’t take them by surprise. My wife and I saw a mother bear with cubs in those woods earlier this year but don’t worry too much, just make sure that you don’t take them by surprise.”The drizzle had stopped by the time we left the guesthouse to walk east along the bank of the Valbona River. The day before we had come across four snakes in the space of a couple of hours, including a sluggish horn-nosed viper that had the tail of an unfortunate lizard protruding from its mouth, but today, perhaps because of the lack of warm sunshine, they were nowhere to be seen. Undoubtedly they were still close by, skulking beneath rocks, sleeping the deep reptilian sleep that comes with the digestion of a heavy meal… of reptiles. No snakes, but we did see an extraordinary large lizard – a European green lizard (Lacerta viridis) as we later identified it – with strikingly beautiful markings that morphed like a potter’s glaze from sky blue on the head to copper-stain green along its back and tail. Among our fellow guests at the guesthouse were a couple of German amateur herpetologists and, confronted by reptilian magnificence as this, it was easy to understand the appeal. Bear country it may have been but this was snake and lizard territory too.In a meadow just beyond the footbridge that led across the racing river to the tiny hamlet of Čerem, stood a monument to Bajram Curri. Bajram Curri (pronounced ‘Tsuri’ like the English county rather than the universal Indian dish) also gave his moniker to the principal market town of this far northern border region of Albania, its name only 20 years ago a watchword for lawlessness and gun-running – a KLA stronghold that was more closely connected to what was then war-torn Kosovo than its own national capital in Tirana. These days, Bajram Curri is a quiet provincial town that only ever becomes animated on market days when hard-bargaining farmers might raise their voices over the price of sheep. Like the rest of Albania, it is now as safe as anywhere in Europe – safer probably – yet still there were those who looked askance whenever Albania was mentioned as if the country was still lawless and dangerous and run by shady mafia figures. It is not… but there are bears in the woods.Further on a wooden sign pointed steeply uphill towards ‘The Cave of Bajram Curri’, the cave where the Albanian hero and patriot was said to have once taken refuge whilst fleeing his enemies. We followed this up through woodland for a short while before taking another path to the left that signposted the springs at Burumi i Picamelit. This track, marked by occasional red and white ciphers painted on trees like Polish flags, lead through dense beech woodland scattered with huge boulders that had long ago thundered down from the cliffs far above. It was an evocative place, a numinous realm of shade and fecundity – the light tinged green by filtration through the high leaf canopy and by the thick carpet of moss that coated every surface. Here and there were saprophytic ghost orchids poking through the coppery leaf mold – pale, bloodless plants that had no truck with the chlorophyll that otherwise permeated the woodland like a green miasma.The path eventually bypassed a glade where large moss- and fern-covered rocks formed a natural outdoor theatre. Dead dry branches snapped noisily underfoot as we made our way across to the largest of the rocks – silence was not an option and any lurking bears would have been duly warned of our intrusion by our clumsy, crunching progress. Growing high on one of the larger rocks was a solitary Ramonda plant, a small blue flower and rosette of leaves anchored to the moss. The plant had an air of rarity about it – and scarce it was: a member of a specialised family found only in the Balkans and Pyrenees. Growing in solitary isolation and providing a discrete focal point in this hidden glade it almost felt as if this delicate blue flower had lured us here – the trophy of a secret quest, an object of worship. Indeed, the whole glade had the feel of the sacred: an animist shrine or secret gathering place; the location for a parliament of bears perhaps?We looked for evidence of ‘bear trees’ and eventually we found it: beside the track we discovered a conifer that had a large patch of bark missing from its trunk, freshly removed by the action of claw sharpening – or maybe as some sort of territorial signifier. At the junction of tracks further on was more visceral evidence in the form of a footpath sign that has been quite brutally attacked by a bear (or bears), the support post whittled away to a fraction of its former girth by unseen fearsome claws. Why this post had more bear-appeal than live growing trees of similar size was a mystery. Did bears have a preference for scratching away at machined timber? Was the unnatural square profile of the post especially tempting? Or did the bears somehow understand what signposts were for – to direct clod-footed human walkers into their territory. Fanciful and absurdly anthropomorphic though this might seem it did somehow hint at a thinly disguised warning – a re-purposing of man-made signposts to advertise the bears’ own potential threat: ursine semiotics. The day had, of course, been characterised by a total absence of bears – and woodpeckers too, despite numerous dead trunks riddled with their excavated holes – but their unseen presence in this secretive bosky world was nonetheless all too tangible. All the signs were there to be read.We ventured on to visit the springs at Burumi i Picamelit where underground water emerged straight from the limestone to race downhill in a fury towards the Valbona River below. Tucked away in a crevice beneath one of the rocks was another Ramonda growing just inches from the fast-flowing water.Heading back we become temporarily lost in the woods and spend ten minutes walking in circles looking for the trail before finally rediscovering it. Shortly after, we met the German reptile enthusiasts from the guesthouse walking the other way. We stopped to compare notes. None of us had seen any sign of bears in the flesh (in the fur?) but we had all seen the evidence that beckoned us: the claw-scratched trees, the mauled signpost. We concurred that it was probably best that way: an absence of bears on the ground but a strong sense of their presence as we politely trespassed their territory.
Still reeling from the solar onslaught of the Sun Ra Arkestra the previous night we travelled yesterday to Great Yarmouth to see The Tempest at the town’s Hippodrome Theatre. The Sun Ra Arkestra fronted by nonagenarian alto-sax maestro Marshall Allen had done what they always did: channel the Saturnian spirit of their erstwhile and now-deceased leader Sun Ra and perform their joyful big band space-jazz to an appreciative audience for nigh on two hours. As the song goes, Space IS the place, and the place in this instance had been Norwich’s Open, a venue fashioned from the brick and mortar of late capitalism – originally a Georgian building that had started life as a wine merchants before its vaults were re-purposed for the storage of bullion by the Gurney family. Merging with Barclays Bank in 1896 and soon outgrowing its original premises, a new building was constructed in 1926 with a large hall, extensive vaults and what was reputed to be the longest banking counter in the country. Later in life it went on to become the regional headquarters of Barclays Bank but now the clink of wine bottles and kerching of cash registers were nothing more than silent ghosts that observed on the sidelines as the Arkestra’s music swirled unfettered to the ceiling in this neoclassical void. A quotidian space formerly dedicated to the exchange of capital now given over to brave sonic venturing seemed like the best of outcomes, and the Sun Ra Arkestra quickly made it their own, filling the cavernous space with a joyful stellar noise and a powerful, if playful, presence. The Tempest took place in another very singular space: the wonderful Hippodrome on Great Yarmouth’s seafront, the only surviving purpose-built circus venue in the country. Built in 1903 by the great circus showman George Gilbert the building once faced directly onto the seafront across a square but now huddles behind the garish pink bulk of the Flamingo amusement arcade, a gaudy slice of Las Vegas tat transported to the Norfolk coast. Slip into the narrow street behind though and the gorgeous facade of the Hippodrome can be seen in its full glory, with Art Deco lettering and charming panels around the door, its towers peeping above the pink nonsense of the Flamingo to peak at the beach and the North Sea beyond. This was, and still is, a grand and stylish place: a theatre of dreams, a venue fit for the likes of Houdini and Chaplin who both performed here in the Hippodrome’s heyday. If the exterior seems full of promise, the interior is even more beguiling: all dark velvet and chocolate brown, and a warm, well-used ambience that has left a rich patina on the fabric of the place. The seating is snug and steeply tiered; its darkly lit corridors lined with old posters and portraits of clowns and past performers, most notably Houdini (where better than Great Yarmouth to demonstrate the art of escapology?). There is even a poster of Houdini in the gents and, while a male toilet in Great Yarmouth is probably not normally the wisest place to take out a camera, my fellow micturators seemed to understand my photographic purpose. Theatre in the round; theatre in the wet: the Hippodrome might have been made for The Tempest; or, given a bit of temporal elasticity that could anticipate three hundred years into the future, The Tempest for the Hippodrome. The production, directed by William Galinsky, Artistic Director of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, is a hugely inventive, almost psychedelic, affair that makes full use of the circus’s horizontal and vertical space and central water pool. For two hours we were mentally transported to Shakespeare’s island zone by means of brilliant storytelling, excellent acting and inspired direction, and, in keeping with this circus venue, the acrobatic shenanigans of the Lost in Translation Circus. Shakespeare is reliably universal of course, but did I detect a whiff of Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) in there? A hint too of Samuel Beckett? Of course, we each bring our own cultural references to bear. Today, yesterday’s performance seems almost dreamlike – a short-lived transportation from reality in which both the drama and the unique properties of the venue itself had an equal part to play. As Prospero remarks:
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
One of the highlights of my recent trip to South Africa was to see some really well-preserved rock art. The cave paintings were made by the San people, the hunter-gatherers who inhabited the Drakensberg mountain region in KwaZulu-Natal province close to the Lesotho border before the incoming Zulus drove them from the land. The rock paintings date from between 2,000 and 200 years ago and the best preserved are those found in south-facing caves where there is never any direct sunlight. One such cave is that found beneath Lower Mushroom Rock in the central Drakensberg.
The figures show hunting scenes involving various animals indigenous to the region, like eland, which are still numerous, and lions, which are no longer found here. Other paintings depict animal skin-wearing shamans in trances, a state of mind artificially (and partially chemically) induced to connect them with the spirit world in order to foresee the future and cure illnesses.
The paintings were made using brushes made from animal hair and dyes and pigments extracted from indigenous plants and mineral-rich rocks. The colour and attention to detail of the paintings are remarkable, and even depict the typically steatopygic buttocks characteristic of the San bushmen who nowadays mostly occupy the arid regions of Botswana and Namibia.
My feature on walking part of the Kumano Kodō pilgrimage trail in Japan will be published in a few days time in Elsewhere journal. Elsewhere is a Berlin-based print journal, published twice a year, dedicated to writing and visual art that explores the idea of place in all its forms, whether city neighbourhoods or island communities, heartlands or borderlands, the world we see before us or landscapes of the imagination.
I was delighted to have a short piece on Tamchy, Kyrgyzstan published in the second issue and am now even more pleased to have a longer essay on the Kumano Kodō route in Honshū, Japan in the third.
The third edition also has features on Yangon, Myanmar by Alex Cochrane; Swedish Lapland by Saskia Vogel; Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada by Knut Tjensvoll Kirching; Belfast, Ireland by Feargal Mac Ionnrachtaigh; Faversham Creek, England by Caroline Millar, and Berlin and Trieste, Italy by editor Paul Scraton. The features and articles are accompanied by the beautiful illustrations of Julia Stone, who also did the cover that shows the cedar forest through which much of the Kumano Kodō route passes.
Here is a very brief taster of my feature (the photos here on the blog below are not included in Elsewhere) :
“The temple here is considered to be the sacred centre of all the Kumano Kodō routes. The large fluttering banners that flank its entrance bear the temple’s distinctive emblem, the yatagarasu, a supernatural figure in the form of a three-footed crow with raised wings.”
To read the article you can buy the issue or even better a subscription to the journal.
One way of looking at this evocative, if mildly disturbing, place is as a hidden enclave populated with the ghosts of colonialism. Situated right in the middle of Kolkata, tucked away purdah-like from the mayhem of the city streets, the Park Street Cemetery seems like another world. It really is another world: one in which time has coalesced to leave a thick patina on the colonnades and obelisks that commemorate the colonists who created this tropical city in their own image. The colonials mostly died young – easy victims of the disease-ridden, febrile climate that characterised this distant outpost of the East India Company. In true Victorian manner, those who were unfortunate enough to die young and never be able to return to their temperate homeland were interred here in magnificent mausoleums among lush, very un-British vegetation – a tropical Highgate transposed a quarter-way round the world. The cemetery is reputed to be the largest Old World 19th-century Christian graveyard outside Europe. It is also one of the earliest non-church cemeteries, dating from the 1767 and built like much of Kolkata/Calcutta on low, marshy ground. The overall effect is one of Victorian Gothic, although there are also some notable flourishes of Indo-Saracenic vernacular that reflect the influence of Hindu temple architecture. Arriving at the gatehouse my name is recorded in a ledger by a lugubrious guard, an action that in itself carries the hint of entering some sort of forbidden zone, a place where the living are only tolerated and should not outstay their welcome. The cemetery seems largely deserted of visitors, although I do inadvertently stumble across a spot of surreptitious man-on-man action taking place in the deep shade of one of the tombs. Despite the funerary setting, there is nothing occult at work here, and I conclude that the young men are simply taking advantage of the privacy offered by the cemetery in this most crowded of all India’s overflowing mega cities. There are signs prohibiting ‘committing nuisance’ attached to some of the trees and I wonder if this is a warning against this sort of clandestine liaison, although in India the expression is usually a euphemism for public urination. There are, of course, those who take full advantage of the cemetery’s concentrated occult power – fakirs who use it for training apprentices by making them spend the night here alone, an experience that could never be a comfortable one however much one was inured to the idea of djinns being hyperactive after dark. Even for hard-nosed rationalists, the sense of the numinous here is quite tangible, and the cemetery is without doubt a thoroughly spooky place. This is true even in broad daylight when the taxi horns and traffic thrum from the manic thoroughfare of Mother Teresa Sarani (formerly Park Street; before that, Burial Ground Road) cuts through the trees to provide a background drone for the tuneless squawks of the urban crows and parakeets that loiter here. Not requiring of any such thaumaturgic rite of passage, a short afternoon visit suits me just fine. I am left alone with just the crows for company – dark portentous forms that swirl and scatter in the trees above, occasionally coming down to perch scurrilously on the sarcophagi as if they were extras from an Edgar Allen Poe film adaptation. Indeed, this would be the perfect location for a Gothic horror film, especially one that required a steamy colonial setting. Park Street Cemetery is the sort of place where dead souls rising from the ground can seem a distinct possibility – an eerie realm where the hubris of the Raj confronted its own vulnerability and the sad ghosts of empire still linger.
What is it that draws us to the sea; to the coast, the beach? On hot days in summer the answer is fairly obvious: to sunbathe, to swim, to cool off in the sea. Hot summer days are not such a common commodity these days – not in the British Isles anyway – but, whatever the weather brings, people tend to be drawn to the coast like moths to lanterns.
Perhaps it is part of an unwritten code of leisure etiquette, something that established itself in the British collective unconscious in Victorian times when those who could afford it caught trains to the newly developed resorts on the coast in order to take the air. The tradition persisted into the 20th century when, given more leisure time and improved public transport, the working classes too could enjoy the same privilege. Nowadays a trip to the coast is a commonplace activity: a Sunday outing, an hour or two spent strolling on the beach, exercising the dog, dragging the children away from the virtual Neverland of their electronic screens.
But maybe there is something that lies deeper? Some sort of atavistic compulsion to gaze at the sea, to see where we come from, from land masses beyond the horizon, from the primal sludge of the seabed. An urge look at the edge of things where seawater limns the shore and shapes our green island. We are, after all, an island race.
Or maybe that’s just me.
Either way, there is beauty on the beach. Sensuous ripples of sand adorned with calcium necklaces and bangles; the pure white glint of breaking waves. Serried ranks of breakers on the incoming tide, parallels of swell and surf creating a liquid stave for the ocean’s moonstruck music: swash and backwash, the gentle abrasion of pebbles, the faintest tinkle of dead bivalves.
It was the day after the winter solstice – a bright sunny day with the wind from the south, the temperature mild. Conscious of the turning of the year, a last minute escape from the frenzied Christmas build-up seemed appropriate, even if just for a few hours. The north Norfolk coast beckoned – where better to go when days are at their shortest, when the sovereign reign of darkness is turned on its head and the world set aright once more?Wells-next-the-Sea was already closing up for Christmas when I left it behind at midday. I followed the coast path east, skirting the salt marshes and mud flats, the pines of East Hills silhouetted on the northern horizon. Scolt Head Island aside – Norfolk’s most northerly territory a little further west, its Ultima Thule – this was the last tract of land at this longitude before reaching the North Pole that lay far beyond the horizon and sunken, sea-drowned Doggerland. Scattered at regular intervals, poking for invertebrates in the mud were redshanks, curlews and little egrets – the latter once a scarce bird in these parts but now commonplace thanks to climate change. Brent geese, Arctic natives wintering here on this soft-weather shore, were feeding in large groups in the salt marshes. Periodically, without much warning, and honking noisily – the wildest of sounds – they would take to the air to describe a low arc before landing again. A hen harrier, white-rumped and straight-winged, quartering the marshes seemed to go unnoticed by the geese. Focused on much smaller prey, the harrier presented no threat to them – this they knew. The mildness of the winter was clear to see. This was late December yet gorse bushes were weighed down with mustard yellow blooms. The emerald early growth of Alexanders lined the path edge, and there was even a small, yellow-blushed mushroom, its umbel newly fruited, peering up from the grass. The recent rainfall was quite apparent too – water that had accumulated to render the surface of the path in places to a viscous gravy that made walking hard work. After a couple of hours walking, Blakeney Church came into view on the low hill above the harbour, its tower a warning – or a comfort – to sailors of old on this stretch of coast without a lighthouse. Stopping briefly to eat a sandwich on the steps of a boat jetty, my back to the sea, a short-eared owl, another winter visitor, swooped silently past, its unseen quarry somewhere in the wind-rustled reeds. Approaching Blakeney, the moon, almost full, rose over the sea as the sun started setting behind the low ridge that topped the winter wheat fields. It was only three o’clock but already the light was vanishing. But there was change afoot – from now on the days would gradually lengthen and, in perfect solar symmetry, the long winter nights would slowly begin to lose their dark authority.
A grey morning, late November; a blanket of thick, high-tog cloud slung over the wet flatlands of northeast Norfolk. The day begins serendipitously when, approaching the car park at Horsey Windpump, two distant grey shapes are spotted in a roadside field – grey forms that have enough about them to demand a second look. Binoculars reveal them to be common cranes, an ironic name even here in one of their few British strongholds.
Cranes have bred in the region of Horsey Mere for over three decades but all my previous visits to the area had proved to be fruit-, or rather, bird-less. This time they were there for the asking: a pair feeding on the far side of a field, their visibility as good as it gets for cranes, which, despite their bulk and striking appearance, are shy birds that can be hard to locate. The birds stayed for a minute or two as binoculars were passed round before raising their wings to fly a over a hedge, out of vision. A fleeting sight, but a thrilling one – it was easy to why the Chinese call them “birds of heaven”. I had seen cranes before in Norfolk, at Stubb Mill, a remote winter raptor roost near Hickling Broad, where I witnessed half a dozen swooping in low, bugling their Latin name “Grus Grus”, just as darkness fell. This though, was a surprise sighting – unprepared for, unexpected – and all the more magical for that.
We had, in fact, come to Horsey for the seals. But first, a walk through the marshes alongside Horsey Mere, then to follow the channel of Waxham New Cut before crossing the coast road to Horsey Gap to reach the dunes and the beach. Close to Brograve Mill, a solitary marsh harrier was quartering the reed-beds on the opposite bank. The jackdaws that had gathered on the broken remains of its wooden sail flew off as we approached the mill. Long an icon of the Norfolk Broads, this photogenic ruin looked to be reaching critical mass in its ruination; the brickwork of its tower leaning, Pisa-like, in a losing battle with gravity.
The car park at Horsey Gap had its usual compliment of visitors – most folk do not want to have to walk far to fulfill their annual seal pup quota. Clearly it has been a good year for grey seals, with more than 300 newly born pups along this stretch of coast. Signs and plastic ribbon barriers do their best to encourage the over-inquisitive to keep at bay. Grey seals, despite their bulk, are the epitome of vulnerability. On land anyway – slumped on the beach liked huge slugs with lovable Labrador faces, their awkward obese bodies are an encumbrance out of the water.
The beach action is minimal: an occasional clumsy rolling over; the odd shuffle forward using flippers for traction; sporadic barking and baring of teeth between rival males. The scene looks like an aftermath of overindulgence, bodies adrift on the beach sleeping off the effects of a heavy night. Perhaps it is all that hyper-rich seal milk that explains this torpor: the effort the pups take to digest the 60%-fat fluid, the energy involved in the cows’ synthesising the milk from a diet of fish? Such extreme inactivity brings to mind an assembly of turkey dinner-replete families on Christmas afternoon, individuals sprawled on sofas somnolently waiting for the Queen’s speech. Maybe this is the subliminal reason that so many people come here to see the seals on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day?
Heading inland back to the car, the lowering sun finds a gap in the clouds to paint flame red those that lie beneath. We stop for a pint in the pub and, looking out of the window observe a deer, emboldened by the burgeoning dark, casually crossing a field of sugar beet. At the car park, as the last traces of daylight evaporate, three V-shaped formations of geese fly overhead, their high, wild calls preceding the appearance of their silhouettes in the sky.
The strangest place in the wide world
I wrote a post about Great Yarmouth’s Time and Tide Museum some time ago. The museum continues to be one of the town’s cultural highlights but for inquisitive visitors, especially those with a taste for faded grandeur, there is plenty more to see. One such attraction is the Britannia Monument, aka Nelson’s Monument, which is also mentioned in the same post. This 44-metre-high monument of Britannia atop a Doric column is closed to visitors for much of the time, but access up the slim spiral staircase to its viewing platform is permitted with prior booking on Sundays in summer (visits can usually be booked through the town’s Nelson Museum). Our visit was during heritage weekend in early September. Some of the photos come from earlier in the summer.
From the top of the column it is plain to see that Great Yarmouth occupies a sand spit, a narrow isthmus of land delimited by the North Sea and the River Yare. Housing and industry have long since filled the available space between the river and sea – today a modern industrial estate surrounds the base of the column – but when the monument was first erected in the second decade of the 19th century it stood alone on a fishing beach, separate from the bulk of the town to the north. An early 19th century painting by JMW Turner depicts the monument as a beacon towering over a vast beach on which sailors and local women frolic on the sand, the glowering sky above appropriately Turner-esque in tone.
Looking east, our eyes are drawn to the taut curve of the North Sea – a white-flecked mass of green that fades to grey in the haze towards the horizon. Wind turbines, grouped together like wraiths with arms raised in supplication, loiter offshore at Scroby Sands, their blades almost immobile on a calm day such as this. Turning around to gaze inland the wide silver snake of Breydon Water is revealed, the bird-thronged estuary where the Yare and Bure rivers come together before narrowing to flow past South Quay to the sea. On a clear day, it is said, you could see the spire of Norwich Cathedral nearly twenty miles inland. On this day though, a smoky blue haze limits the view to the west beyond the glimmering mud.
Walking back to the town centre along Marine Parade we pass all the familiar trappings of an old-school English coastal resort: the town’s Pleasure Beach with its garishly painted fairground rides, amusement arcades, fast food shacks, miniature golf courses, skate parks and putting greens. Punctuating this main seaside thoroughfare are the town’s twin piers – the eponymous Britannia with its end-of-the-pier theatre, and the truncated Wellington, now little more than an elegant facade. Next to Wellington Pier stands the intricate, if fragile-looking, framework of the town’s Winter Gardens, the last remaining Victorian glass and wrought iron building of its type in the country. Long empty and neglected, corroded by salt spray, the structure resembles a huge three-storey greenhouse badly in need of a paint job: a potential future Eden Project in waiting (indeed, that is one council member’s dream) if only the necessary funding could outpace the building’s slide into irreversible decay.
It is the all-too-familiar face of the English seaside resort in the early 21st century. Once bustling entertainment palaces now lie empty and abandoned. The Ionic-columned Empire Theatre opposite Britannia Pier lacks both audience and a full complement of letters above its portal. In its most recent incarnation this Edwardian cinema served as a bingo hall, and before that as an amusement arcade, but since 2011 it has lain dormant despite vague plans for its reincarnation a nightclub. The building’s anachronistic colonial name is now reduced by weathering and gravity to spell out ‘EMPI’. Perhaps in a few more years it will degrade further to ‘EMP’ and invite a literal-minded graffitist’s addition of ‘TY’?
Edgelands are not necessarily always on the urban edge. Not physically anyway – the important thing is they are perceived as different from the zones that lay beyond. Neither strictly urban nor rural but an overlooked amalgam of the two in a cannot-make-up-its-mind frontier zone, canals constitute an edgeland of sorts – a conduit by which the countryside without can snake its way into and through a town or city. A narrow green thread of water and wildlife through concrete and brick, their resilience is remarkable, and canals can withstand pretty well anything that their urban surroundings may throw at them.
In the early decades of the 19th century canals dramatically changed the face of the landscape as countless navvies laboured to gouge channels through the countryside to create a network of slow-moving waterways between the towns and cities of newly industrialised Britain. With the coming of the railways just a few decades later most of these were soon reduced to the status of transportational white elephants, although their sluggish water would always be valuable for industrial cooling and quenching purposes as well as providing a handy receptacle for dumping factory effluent.
These days nearly all canals have been re-imagined for leisure purposes – narrow boat holidays, fishing, cycling and walking. Nevertheless many, like the Grand Union Canal that curves its way into central Birmingham from Oxford and the south, seem to have few users despite a well-maintained towpath. It was this canal that I chose for my approach to the city centre having sneaked in under the thrumming M6 at Chelmsley Wood close to its airport (see Birmingham Edgelands Part 1).
Perhaps it was the less than endearing urban surroundings that was keeping visitors away? Thanks to high-budget projects, like the curvaceous, disc-clad Selfridges building and the newly redeveloped New Street Station, Birmingham might well be currently enjoying a minor renaissance but drabber inner-city areas like Sparkhill and Small Heath rarely make the Sunday papers’ “see-before-you-die” travel sections. Consequently, I had the canal almost to myself as I followed its towpath westwards and inwards from Olton in the east of the city. It was only close to gentrified Gas Street Basin that I started to have much in the way of company. There was the odd cyclist along the way of course, an optimistic fisherman here and there, and even the occasional lone spliff-smoking youth wasting the morning away on a waterside bench, but for the most part I was oddly alone – the local graffiti artists (there was no shortage of evidence of their presence) had long since completed their mission and taken their spray-cans to scent-mark pastures new.
At Olton the canal is a rural microcosm, its bosky banks bursting with leaf and life as it winds its way further into the city’s heart from Acocks Green to Yardley. But closer to the centre the vestiges of industry draw closer to the water itself – high factory walls and railway sidings at Small Heath, Victorian warehouses at Sparkhill, railway bridges and flyovers at Bordesley. Everywhere graffiti, the heraldry of hyperactive taggers, and ciphers of Birmingham’s tribes – Blues and Villa, West Brom, even a lone, provocative Wolves flag curtaining a cracked factory window. Occasional gaps in the buildings and solid walls offer rare glimpses of the world beyond – a large mosque at Sparkhill, new offices and residential blocks at Aston – but the city’s more iconic high-rise buildings are surprisingly elusive until the centre itself is reached.
Eventually, somewhere near Nechells Green, the canal turns a tight loop south for its final run into Gas Street Basin. Here at last are barges on the water, joggers and lunchtime office workers on the towpath, modern new apartments over the water and waterside pubs with outside tables. Finally, this is a place that people choose to be – a respite from city-centre bustle and rattling traffic. Here you can lose sight of the fact that, despite the oft-repeated claim of having more canals than Venice, modern Birmingham is largely a city where the pedestrian is peasant and the motorcar is king. A case of unconscious onomatopoeia, it’s not called Brum for nothing.