Beneath a Concrete Sky – to Gravelly Hill Interchange by canal


Where’s Birmingham river? Sunk.

Which river was it? Two. More or


 Birmingham River Roy Fisher

The idea was to follow the Birmingham canal system north to Spaghetti Junction. I had already traversed the city by means of the Grand Union Canal a couple of years earlier, following the canal path west to arrive at the meeting of the waters at Gas Street Basin. That time I had turned left at Aston Junction but I knew that returning to that same point it would be possible to follow the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal north to reach Salford Junction directly beneath the Gravelly Hill Interchange.


Accompanying me on this venture was my friend Nigel Roberts, a fellow Bradt author devoted to Belarus and Blues (Birmingham City FC) in equal measure, who gamely agreed to come along despite our planned route veering close enough to Aston Villa’s turf to risk bringing him out in hives.

We rendezvoused in the gleaming concourse of New Street Station before making our way to Gas Street Basin by way of Victoria Square with its Queen Vic and Iron:Man  statues. A notice on the ever-present temporary fencing that characterises Paradise Circus gave notice that Antony Gormley’s  Iron:Man was soon to be moved to a new home. How, I wondered, might this effect the city’s sacred geometry, its unchartered leys that converged at Victoria Square? But Birmingham (motto: ‘Forward’) was always a city that messed with its past, forever rearranging the deckchairs, refurbishing the urban fabric, reinventing the wheel and then re-forging it by means of a Brummagem hammer. It always seemed a place where time not so much stood still as had a frequent lie-down, a place that lump-hammered the past into something that never quite made it to the future.


After a swift half-pint and perusal of the map at the Malt House pub opposite the geographically incongruous Sealife Centre we set off along the Birmingham & Fazeley branch towards Aston Junction. The day is atypically glorious, warm, blue-skied – peak May, the time of year you might happily be time-locked in were it at all possible. Cow parsley froths alongside the canal path, complimenting the blossoming hawthorn. Oxlips, red campion and broom compete for attention with the lurid graffiti that seems to embellish almost any available wall space. Above a lock, daubed high on a factory wall, eponymous Roof Top Vandals have left their mark in neat, bold lettering – a noteworthy combination of art and athleticism. Passing beneath the bridge that feeds railway lines into Snow Hill Station, the shimmering reflected light from the water dances like an electrocardiograph on the concrete above.


Approaching Aston, we pass the red and blue holders of the Saltley Gas Works, scene of the Battle of Saltley Gate some 46 years earlier when the fuel storage depot was mass picketed during a national miners’ strike.

A little further on, we become aware of a familiar figure atop a building – Britannia, complete with trident, excised from the back of a fifty pence piece, supersized and raised to roof level. It seems churlish not to investigate. We detour from the canal to seek out the building and head for the Lichfield Road in the wake of two teenage girls who swig beer from cans and swap yarns in rich Brummo-Caribbean argot. It is, as we thought, a pub; no longer operating as The Britannia but as The Aston Cafe. We are now perilously close to Villa Park, or Vile Park as my companion prefers to call it. It does not bother me either way – I am agnostic in such matters – but Nigel has started to sense that he is well behind enemy lines.


Returning to the canal to press on north, the Gravelly Hill Interchange aka Spaghetti Junction is already clearly visible ahead. The last house before the tangle of overlapping roadways takes over has iron railings decked in Union Jack flags – patriotism doing battle with traffic pollution. Just beyond, a defiant stand of purple lupins, garden escapes gone feral, announces our arrival at Salford Junction. Here we detour left for a short distance along the Tame Valley Canal, the curving multi-carriageway of the M6 immediately above us, articulated lorries flashing by half-seen above the barriers as they career along in compulsive centripetal motion. Above, spanning the roadways, blue signs point the way to London (M1) and The North (M6), while beside the water a navigational signpost for boats shows the various routes out of here – west to Tipton in the Black Country, north to Tamworth in north Warwickshire, back to the City Centre and Gas Street Basin (3½ miles) from whence we have come. But there are no boats today: the troubled pea-green waters beneath the Gravelly Hill Interchange fail to match most people’s criteria of what constitutes an ideal boating holiday.


Huge concrete pillars support the roads overhead – 559 in total if you were foolhardy enough to count them. The pillars bring to mind Pharaonic temples in Upper Egypt – Luxor, Karnak – although hieroglyphs and carved lotus capitals are noticeably absent. But this whole chaotic enclave of concrete, water and channelled momentum is an unintentional temple of sorts – a nexus of late capitalism; a dinosaur footprint of transport and industry, an entropic sump. The water beneath, largely deprived of direct sunlight, is an opaque soup that looks incapable of supporting anything other than menace and monsters but here and there the light sneaks in to highlight graffiti, reflect on the water and cast shapes on the wall that mutate with the sun’s arc: accidental light sculpture, the oeuvre of James Turrell; found land art.


Locked between the various roadways, the trees and bushes of a green island rise defiantly within its looping concrete confines. It is home, no doubt, to all manner of wildlife – birds, pioneering cats… foxes. A Ballardian realm of preposterous nightmares and Sci-fi imaginings, there are probably parts of the Amazon rainforest that are better explored than this singular non-place.


Satiated with the chiaroscuro experience of this interchange underworld, we return to Salford Junction and take the Grand Union Canal south through Nechells to return to the centre via a route best described as elliptical. We pass the vast entertainment complex of Star City, another latter-day temple to mammon; then an enormous recycling plant that has a conveyor belt receiving the load from a Sisyphean procession of tipper trucks, each crushed metal parcel crashing onto the hill-high mound with a shrill clatter. In uncanny juxtaposition to this unholy clamour, set back from the water is a small pond with reeds, yellow iris, water violet and water lilies – a Monet garden awaiting its artist. But for the deafening backdrop, this might be a scene in leafy Warwickshire. Indeed this whole stretch of canal, just a few minutes’ walk from Spaghetti Junction, has a disconcertingly rural feel to it. What is more, it seems almost completely deserted of people.


Reaching Garrison Lane in Bordesley we make another brief detour so that Nigel can show me the location of The Garrison, the pub whose fictional 1920s counterpart is centrepiece to the Peaky Blinders television series. There’s not a peaked cap or Shelby brother to be seen but it offers an opportunity for Nigel to fill his lungs with the right sort of air – St Andrews, Birmingham City’s home ground is only a little way up the hill.


Approaching Digbeth, we finally come upon the elusive River Rea – a shallow, sluggish channel beneath the canal viaduct. One of Birmingham’s two rivers, the other being the River Tame that it merges with close to Gravelly Hill Interchange, the Rea (pronounced ‘Ray’) spends much of its course through the city below ground out of sight. As the poet Roy Fisher claims in Birmingham River, the Rea does little to draw attention to itself: a ‘petty river’ without memory seems about right.

a slow, petty river with no memory

of an ancient

 name;  a river called Rea, meaning


and misspelt at that.




Another Place


To reach Another Place you have to start in Liverpool. At least that is what we did, taking a Crosby-bound number 53 bus from the city’s Queen Square terminus. Leaving the Victorian magnificence of the city centre behind, the route leads through the edgelands of north Liverpool, in sight of huge abandoned red-brick warehouses that fringe the wide silver Mersey below. Away from the revitalised city centre and the heritage revamping of Albert Dock, this is a zone of substandard housing and broken dreams; a place where most of the pubs are boarded up and semi-ruined now that the dockers who once would have drank in them no longer have wage packets to fritter. The whole area seems partly abandoned to buddleia and the memory of better days although, here and there, like red-brick phoenixes, are signs of identikit housing development: new-build semi-detached homes with small gardens and big aspirations.


Things seem to degenerate at the southern fringe of Bootle where the principal pub lacks not only clientele but also a roof. Narrow Victorian terrace streets slope away from the main road, their grim countenance softened by the names of flowers: Daisy Street, Woodbine Street, Harebell Street, and even a Pansy Street, which is perhaps a problematic address for a burly Scouse docker. After passing through Bootle, whose main centre of social interaction appears to be a bar located in the lower storey of a massive concrete complex that looks like it has been transported wholesale from Bratislava or New Belgrade, things start to look up, socio-economically speaking. Waterloo, where we alight next to the Merseyrail station seems altogether more prosperous, with a handful of smart cafes and a long marine parade of white-painted houses equipped with dormer windows to peer over the dunes to the beach and sea beyond.


At the end of South Road, the road gives way to a track past a man-made lake behind sand dunes. Oyster catchers, gulls and ducks have taken refuge here and have arranged themselves in tightly-packed groups to brace against the bitterly cold north-westerly wind blowing across the Irish Sea. Climbing slightly to reach the dunes and a coast path, the beach and sea are revealed. As are several of the one hundred life-sized cast iron sculptures that dot the foreshore here between Waterloo and Blundellsands, and which constitute the Antony Gormley landscape installation that is Another Place (although here they are more prosaically referred to as simply ‘The Iron Men’). It is a bright, if brutally windy, afternoon and there a few people about, strolling on the beach, walking their dogs, weaving nonchalantly between the iron men that punctuate the beach like sentinels.IMG_5249


The Gormley figures (modelled on the artist himself) stretch as far as the eye can see, each one staring out to sea isolated from the others: a statement on the human condition that refutes the John Donne position that ‘no man is an island’. Here, it would appear, every man is. The beauty of the figures is that, seen from afar, it is sometimes hard to distinguish those which are iron from those which are human. Covered and uncovered by each successive tide, the installation clearly points towards the relationship that exists between man and nature. Perhaps, silhouetted against the backdrop of Liverpool Dock’s cranes, it also alludes to the historical connection that links man and the seafaring trade in these parts?IMG_5177IMG_5326IMG_5260IMG_5259


Ghosts of the Aral Sea

To continue from the earlier post about a hotel that thought itself a ship, here are some more landlocked boats. These, though, are real ones – the rusting remains of what was once a large fishing fleet on the Aral Sea in central Asia. The Aral Sea, which at one time was the world’s third largest inland sea, has shores in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Or rather it did have – it has now almost completely dried up (you might want to check it out on Google Earth).

It is a depressingly familiar story – large scale environmental damage thanks to government incompetence. In this case, the government was that of the Soviet Union, which diverted a vast volume of fresh water from the Aral Sea in order to grow huge expanses of cotton in Uzbekistan – a very thirsty crop in a very hot country. The fishing fleet used to catch several species of fish here, and much of the haul was transported an awful long way by train to the Baltic coast for canning. The main fishing port on the southern shore was Moynaq. Now the boats lie stranded just off the former shoreline. The water, such that remains – saturated with pollutants and virtually devoid of fish – lies hundreds of kilometres to the north.

Given mass employment, isolation, heavy metal pollution and an uncaring post-Soviet government in far off Tashkent, Moynaq is not a happy place.

I visited Moynaq by taxi from Nukus to the south. It was certainly the longest taxi ride I have ever taken – 220 kilometres each way – but even so I managed to bargain a return fare of just $60 (petrol is cheap in Uzbekistan, so is time). The road was surprisingly good, and we speeded north through Karakalpakstan (an autonomous republic within Uzbekistan that translates literally as ‘the land of the black hats’), through a flat landscape of cotton fields, reed beds and poplars yellowing with the arrival of autumn. The driver put his foot down and it took just a little over two hours to arrive at the erstwhile port.

In Moynaq, the scene from the ‘shore’ was both poignant and surreal: scrubby vegetation, sand and rotting boat hulks as far as the eye could see, everything shimmering slightly in a heat haze – the unwordly setting for a Sergio Leone Western that would never be made. My journal records it as ‘a sort of post-apolcayptic Wells-next-the-Sea where the tide never comes in’, and that seems reasonable enough. Away from the absent sea, the town itself, with its depressed air, street corner groups of listless youths and tangible taint of pollution, simply gave the impression that even with full employment, fishing and fresh water it would still be a dump. Now Moynaq was just a neglected and forgotten backwater… without the water.

(For another tale about another former Soviet fishing port now fallen on hard times you can read this about Balykchy, a threadbare port on Kyrgyzstan’s Lake Issyk-Kul.)

Nukus, where I had based myself for the dash to the rusting Aral fleet, was marginally better, although it had none of the Silk Road allure of other cities in Uzbekistan like Bokhara, Samarkand and Khiva, which despite heavy-handed reconstruction still hold  romantic appeal. Oddly enough, what Nukus does have is an incredible art collection. The Karakalpak Museum of Arts has a fantastic display of modernist work from the 1920s and 1930s that was collected by the artist Igor Savitsky (1915-84) and safely squirrelled away here in this distant corner of the former USSR. Here, far from Moscow, supposedly counter-revolutionary work such as that of the Russian avant garde managed not only to survive but also to go on display alongside ‘approved’ works of Soviet realism. There are even some who say that, in terms of Russian and Soviet art, the Nukus gallery is second only to the far more famous collection in St Petersburg’s Hermitage.

The Writing on the Wall

Just up the road from where I live there is a large black-painted gable wall that bears the legend ‘PINK FLOYD’ in large bold white letters. Clearly, it was a gesture made using good quality paint as it has been there as long as I remember. For all I know it may even date back to the time of the original Pink Floyd line-up with Syd Barrett, although somehow
I doubt it – I rather think it is the work of a fan from the Floyd’s high-profile years of Dark Side of the Moon and after. Since that original graffito was daubed another paintbrush-wielding wag has come along to add a couple more brushstrokes and change the ‘I’ in ‘PINK’ to a slender ‘U’ thus rendering it ‘PUNK’, but this anarchic amendment  is not wholly successful, the paint being of insufficient quality to resist natural weathering. One might assume that this addition was made sometime around 1977 but here in Norwich there were individuals sporting orange Mohicans and tartan bondage trouser outfits well into the 1990s. Either way, the gable text seems to be of sufficient permanency that you can almost imagine archaeologists of the future puzzling over the meaning of its ‘Pi(u)nk Floyd’ cipher. Being archaeologists, they will probably attribute it as being of ‘possible
ritualistic significance’.

A little further up the road is a T-junction where the back of a one-way sign has been neatly and inquisitively stencilled: ‘WHY DO YOU DO THIS EACH DAY?’ Years ago, I used to turn left here every morning on my daily drive to work in North Norfolk. The graffito wasn’t there in those days but, had it been, I don’t think I could really have ignored it. It did, after all, pose the very question that was perpetually at the back of my mind and now it seems so significantly placed that I could almost believe that somehow I unconsciously put it there myself – I didn’t.

Putting to one side the familiar and shoddy tagging that seems the imperative of young men wishing to mark their territory like cock-legged dogs, graffiti seems to be at its most potent when a degree of passion is involved. Often it is the unintended permanency of a fleeting emotional state that renders it so evocative. One local piece of graffiti that immediately springs to mind, although I have long forgotten exactly where I saw it, was the legend ‘S. HEWETT IS A HOUR’ (sic), probably the work of a jilted teenage boy
who needs to work on his spelling. Inadvertently, by means of dyslexic subtext, this wounded individual has stated that ‘S. Hewett’, whoever she is, represents a fragment of time – perhaps she really was a waste of time as far as he was concerned. Although this declaration is undoubtedly passionate it seems odd that its author addresses the target of his fury by what seems to be a school register name rather than something more familiar. Maybe he is unknown and unrequited, rather than jilted, and just trying to spread rumours? These days, of course, he would do this by TXT. In contrast to this angry but passionate exclamation, another lovers’ tiff-style message I once saw scrawled on a wall in a neat feminine hand simply stated, ‘CHARLES I DESPISE YOU’. Such withering dispassion would be hard for anyone called Charles to ignore.

There is a fine line between urban wall scrawling and what might be considered ‘art’ but if you make the text 40,000 words long and legitimise it with an Arts Council grant then it may well become officially sanctioned. This is what the artist Rory Macbeth did in 2006, inscribing the entire text of Sir Thomas More’s 1516 work Utopia on the walls of a derelict building in central Norwich that was due for demolition. As Macbeth rightly states, ‘Most graffiti is utopian’. It should be remembered though that, in Greek, utopia actually means ‘no place’, and not ‘paradise’ as is often supposed.