A big fat hairy welcome to LEJoG Birmingham (Part 1 of 2)

Day 32 pre-amble

Let us recall 50FootHead’s founding metaphor and imagine that the island of Great Britain is a human body, facing away from us (the justification for this will become clear). In fact, let us be more anatomically precise – just for today, let us speak only of England. For now the head is at Northumberland and Cumbria rather than Caithness and Sutherland. The lower half of the left leg is splayed slightly, so the centre of gravity is lower than if he or she were standing upright. I have worked my way slowly up that left leg, starting at the delectable Cornish foot and moving along the beautifully shaped calf, through Exmoor and Somerset to the suspended knee at Bristol. Now the upper half of the leg takes on a more recognisable, straighter aspect. Dwelling only to admire the exquisite Malvern thigh, I head more or less directly for…

(sound of record scratching)

Well, you know where, don’t you? The bottom.

Hello again Birmingham. I’m sure I’m not the first person to look at a map, consider delights such as Spaghetti Junction, the old New Street Station, those infernal Queensways and endless concrete, and deem our second city the arsehole of England.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: this is, in all seriousness, unfair. Brindleyplace and the central canal complex is very attractive. Broad Street holds its own with the social centres of similarly-sized cities. There’s a world-renowned symphony orchestra, theatres and the world-class International Convention Centre. The Bull Ring retail mecca, chocolate (bit milky for my taste, but undeniably popular) and some lovely, green suburbs. And almost certainly a load of cool areas and places I’m now far too old to know about. They’ve even transformed New Street into this. Last but not least, Birmingham also hosted arguably the best ever contest in my undisputed favourite sport. A massive claim, perhaps. Over the top? Certainly one of the greats.

After moving to Birmingham, I compared it unfavourably with the place I lived in before. I’d see old friends and make the obvious jokes about my new home city. One of the things I had to deal with in my post-breakdown reckoning is that a lot of this was driven by frustration with myself. For not giving Birmingham my best shot every day, for not putting down roots, for not socialising much beyond work. I may not, still, like it as much as other places. Doesn’t change the fact I should have made more of it while I lived and worked there.

So, we can do this for starters: arsehole. Any reader should be in no doubt that describing Birmingham as the “arse” of England is principally a geographical-cum-anatomical term, in keeping with the title and theme of this blog. Of course it’s also a cheap joke, but it’s meant affectionately and not with malice. It’s how you might feel about a former lover’s arse. Not a backside you just want to kick and kick again.

The next two stages are the story of how I said my last farewells to Birmingham. Or, how I kissed the arse goodbye.

Finally, oh yes: the justification for not having the body facing the front. It also helps to imagine this body as female. For, if reversing both of these things, we would have to come face to face with the fact that Stage 32 started a mere two miles (negligible in geographical-cum-anatomical terms) north west of this most perfectly-situated village.

LEJoG Birmingham Part 1:

Day 32 (Thursday 30 August 2018)

Hagley to Birmingham – Gas Street Basin (16½ miles)

Cumulative: 455 miles

Facts: Time on walk: 4 hours 25 minutes. Average speed: 3.74 mph (second fastest to date). Weather: Warm but cloudy all day.

Practicalities: Some background first.

As per the introduction to Day 20, in June I had set foot in Birmingham for only the second time since leaving full-time work at The Firm. Knowing that I would be returning for a long weekend before the summer was out, I started to look for places I might like to go on Friday or Saturday night. Now, I used to enjoy dancing before my confidence fell apart. So I thought this was just the ticket and arranged to go the following weekend. It was quite easy to stay out of the much more showy Soul Train thing, and I did a bit of dancing. However the music wasn’t quite as good as expected and I still felt a bit self-conscious.

The following Friday I went to the Night Owl again for this. It was a disappointment, with the hour after 2am killing the early promise. On the Saturday though, I attended this, for Craig Charles and Candi Staton. CC played plenty of Stevie Wonder, which helps. I waited for CS to perform one of the best disco songs ever made before leaving to miss the rush. The festival made up for Friday night. Over the same weekend I also bought my first pair of shorts or trousers with a 34″ waist since the breakdown. 13 years it took to get back to the size I maintained between the ages of 18 and 32. Some of the entries in ‘Head’ might explain why this was not just a lack of self-discipline.

And so to this weekend. Train down in the evening. Stayed at the same hotel I’d used in June, the Ibis Birmingham New Street, from Wednesday to Saturday night. On Thursday morning I walked from New Street to Snow Hill, from where I caught a train to Hagley.

Maps used today: OS Explorer 219 (Wolverhampton and Dudley, south sheet) and 220 (Birmingham)

The LEJoG Birmingham walk (Part 1 of 2)

Start: Hagley station, 11:05am. End: Gas Street Basin (sign), Birmingham, 4:45pm.

Gas Street Basin, LEJoG Birmingham (Day 32)

Sign for Gas Street Basin, at the conclusion of Day 32/start of Day 33

The first task of the day was to climb the Clent Hills and drink in the views. In all my years living and working in Birmingham, I’d never been there. I’d heard people mention them, but never had the inclination to find out more. You may remember the same applied to the Malverns, albeit they are further away. Even when I was a runner, living in one of Birmingham’s south-western suburbs, I trained in Sutton Park.

From the station I continued east along Brake Lane to the roundabout, where I went straight across, passing the Lyttleton Arms on the right and following signs for Hagley Hall. Before reaching the grounds I turned right to head SE on an obvious path (satellite map here) then left at the first junction. Crossing a road and turning left near the Sunfield Assessment Outreach Service, I then took the main path to the Clent Hills on the right. It’s quite a short climb to the viewing platforms, inevitably steep in places but nothing serious for a veteran of the Malverns or South West Coast Path.

At the top – just short of the 3-mile mark for the day – I took a few photographs (below):

Clent Hills view1 and toposcope

Toposcope and view to south west

Clent Hills view 2 and toposcope

Toposcope and view to north west

Clent Hills toposcope

Panoramic stone toposcope, erected by the Rotary Clubs of Stourbridge and Kidderminster

These platforms are set apart in a clearing which is actually a few hundred metres west of the highest point on the Clent Hills. From there it is a short and steepish descent to a car park and minor road on Hagley Wood Lane. I turned right here, then left into Chapel Lane and right into St. Kenelm’s Road. Followed a road route through the village of Romsley in preference to finding my way through Uffmoor Wood to the north. There are wide verges throughout, except for a brief section just before Romsley itself.

I skirted the village to the north by continuing along St. Kenelm’s Road rather than following Dark Lane. After a few metres on Bromsgrove Road it was back into the fields along a SE-bound path past farm buildings. This changes course to E in open fields, heading for a small wood. Turn right at the wood, then left again to follow a path leading east through fields and trees to Frankley Green Lane. This is the road I’d chosen to use as my crossing (actually an underpass) of the M5. ‘Frankley’ to me means the service station that showed you were nearly home after working away, usually in glamorous places like Swindon. It marks the border between the Bromsgrove parish in Worcestershire and Birmingham proper, and as such it seemed the ideal place to have lunch (1:20pm, 7 miles completed).

Coming from the west, I stopped for lunch at the crossroads with (clockwise from N) Ravenhills Lane/Church Hill/Frankley Hill Lane. My next target was Woodgate Valley Country Park. The most direct route was north, but this was a 50mph road with very narrow verges and so I proceeded straight on down Church Hill. No verges in places, and not ideal, but still preferable to Ravenhills Lane. From here I caught my first sight of Birmingham city centre. Turned left at the bottom into Frankley Lane and then left into Scotland Lane, which runs west of Bartley Reservoir. This has no verges but is a very wide road, at least until the uphill bend after the reservoir access road. A school on the right after the bend was the first taste of Bartley Green and genuine Birmingham suburbia.

Headed straight down Field Lane to the junction with Kitwell Lane – ‘Kitwell’ was a name I knew only from the front of the number 22 bus which seemed to turn up far more frequently than my number 10 back in the days when I chose not to drive to the office. Turned right down Wood Lane and proceeded N/NW to the junction with Clapgate Lane and the south-western edge of Woodgate Valley Country Park.

Now, an illustration of something I referred to in the introduction. One of my common complaints about Birmingham was its lack of green space, yet for three years I lived not half an hour’s walk from this park and had never visited it before today. I mean really. Followed a path north to Bourne Brook and then the main path east through the heart of the park. Nothing spectacular, but a welcome break from trudging past bus stops, roundabouts, shops, schools and all those cars.

At the eastern end of the park, left along West Boulevard and over two roundabouts to Tennal Lane. In my days as a casual runner, this was as far as I used to get from my house. Lazy get. That all changed when I started training for the London Marathon. Now the Proustian rushes began, coming more powerfully than they ever did on day 5. Here, for example, is Court Oak Road: if I take a right I can be in the centre of Harborne, early 2000s young professional ghetto and home for my first three and a half years in Birmingham.

Instead I delayed the moment of arrival, heading along Croftdown Road to the crossroads with Lordswood Road and… Gillhurst Road, where I lived from 1999 to 2000. It’s here I took the photo that provides today’s header image. My entire reason for choosing this route was to see the two old Harborne houses where I made my home between 1999 and 2003. Neither had changed very much; nor had the little bank of shops and a dentist at the bottom of Knightlow Road. Joined up the two houses by taking a right along Pereira Road and then picking up Park Hill Road. House number 2 was near the bottom of Gordon Road. That really did look exactly the same, and terribly small.

Climbed the B4219 and stopped at Harborne’s eastern crossroads for a slow beer (3:30-4:05) in the Green Man. It’s one thing your old houses looking no different from the outside fifteen years later; it’s another barely noticing any change in the interior of your old local. A man could almost convince himself all that time hasn’t really passed, until he remembers all the things he lost after 2005.

From the Green Man, a route very familiar from driving between my gym in Bearwood and flat near Edgbaston cricket ground (2003-04), along Somerset Road in the direction of Priory Road. But, before reaching the university campus, time to head north for a perfect climax to today’s walk: about a mile and a half walking by the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and mainline railway, straight to Gas Street Basin.

They say, of course, that Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice. I doubt anyone, however fond they are of Brum, is going to claim that it rivals Venice on the beauty metric. But if your aim was always to create a walk that captures some of the second city’s character, then I doubt you can possibly do any better than finishing it like this. In just 25-30 minutes, you pass the University halls, Chad Brook and sports grounds, look behind you at the place ‘where the trees begin’ and enter the urban centre, pass Five Ways and sense the temptations of Broad Street nearby, and finally set eyes on what must stand alongside the Bull Ring and New Street/Grand Central as the most successful development in Birmingham’s 21st century history.

Approaching Gas Street Basin, LEJoG Birmingham (Day 32)

Final approach to Gas Street Basin (hotels/restaurants either side)

Mailbox view, LEJoG Day 32

The Mailbox (seen from Gas Street Basin)

High-end shopping and offices; restaurant and bar complex; TV studio; link between Broad Street and New Street/Chinatown; second home during my farewell weekends

At Gas Street, you really feel like you’ve arrived in the heart of Birmingham. And if we’re pursuing that bodily metaphor, I suppose that means I’ve arrived at the “heart of the bottom”. But someone got to that wordplay first a long time ago: Britain’s greatest golfer, Sir Nick Faldo, made an infamous speech after his third Open win at Muirfield in 1992, in which he thanked the press “from the heart of my bottom”.

Well, while I’m here I’d like to thank the heart of the bottom, from the bottom of my heart. For the memories. Not all good: some were not as good as they really should have been, some were worse than I could ever have imagined, and I left it a bitter and broken man. But on revisiting Birmingham, I found myself not bitter at all, more philosophical and thankful for almost everything I learned and experienced while I was there. Above all, for some of the people I met and miss, one or two of whom did try to kick me up the arse as an act of love. I wish they’d seen more of my best, but I didn’t see the worst coming until it was too late.

After the walk

The very first thing I did was provoked by my strongest memory of Gas Street Basin: had a look at the channel (maybe 7 feet wide) which a friend tried to jump in the summer of 2004, ending up with a broken leg. His fiancée was one of the afore-mentioned loving arse-kickers; their wedding was the last one I attended before my breakdown.

Then, after changing at the hotel, it was back to the Mailbox for another evening meal at Pizza Express. This is where I’d gone on both Friday evenings in June and July. All three nights were warm and sunny. It was nice to be reminded of a time when you could come to the Mailbox after work to eat, drink and chat. But also, how much people can take for granted. That was my kind of Friday night life as a single, young professional man for years, and it’s still shocking to me how rapidly it came to a complete stop.

Postscript – My Listening Pleasure

UB40, Duran Duran, ELO, Black Sabbath, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, Ocean Colour Scene, Jasper Carrott, the Crossroads theme, the Best of Barry Taylor

Nah. Just kidding.

Don’t actually remember listening to anything today.

Picture (taken 30 August 2018) shows The Old House at Home, a pub at the corner of Lordswood Road and Gillhurst Road, Harborne. It welcomed me to the road on which I lived when first moving to Birmingham, and signified the start of a sentimental diversion during which I visited both of my “old houses at home” as well as the pub at the opposite end of the suburb.

Next: Day 33 (31 August 2018)… in which Ben remembers a different kind of marathon.

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