Saturday, 7 September 2013

A Birmingham walk

Last Monday we spent the day in Birmingham with our grandson Curtis. He's a delightful soul, a great talker like all Howards. He also enjoys walking around looking at buildings and this walk has its roots in something I wanted to see and then something Curtis wanted to see. After that it was all chance.

NOTE: The photographs have all been numbered, so they can be linked to my map showing our walk. Enjoy.

1. I start with an escalator in New Street Station, where we arrived, because this is a good one, with plenty of level space to get on and off.

2. The old Stephenson Place, much changed in the last year. The whole station is getting a makeover, inside and out.

3. Burlington Arcade.

4. The Council House.

5. Birmingham Town Hall,  In the early-1970s the City Council's Planning Committee, which I was a member of at the time, considered a feasibility study on turning the Town Hall round so that it faced directly down New Street.

6. A view of the old Birmingham Central Library and Archives, which lasted less than forty years. I knew the building well in my time as a Birmingham city councillor for a variety of reasons.

7. Birmingham City Museum & Art Gallery, another place I knew well.

8. The glass canopy covering 'the hole' in the middle of the old library.

9. Baskerville House, where the City Council Planning Committee used to meet (it may still do).

10. The old Registry Office on Broad Street, opposite Centenary Square, now 'The House of Sport', whatever that is?

11. Once I knew we were going to Birmingham for the day, I wanted to go and see the new Central Library & Archive building. We arrived a day early. It didn't open until 3 September. On the outside, it doesn't impress, but I'll hold back on any further comment until I've been inside. I liked the outdoor all-weather exhibition panels telling the story of the city's central library buildings. Centenary Square is not the fun place it used to be. The interactive sculptures have gone, so there is nowhere for kids to climb or paddle, which is a shame.

12. Matthew, Watt and Murdoch on Broad Street, across from Centenary Square.

13. The walk-through atrium in the National Conference (or is it 'Convention') Centre which links Centenary Square and the canal area. Much too messy, with lots of half-levels and banner clutter.

14. The view south towards Broad Street, Gas Street Canal Basin and beyond. I actually wrote an article in The (Birmingham) Journal in February 1973 arguing that this area should be developed and made more accessible to canal walkers like myself. Even included a canal walk I had done on several occasions with my kids from Selly Oak to Newhall Street in the city centre.

15. Brindley Place from this view looks pretty banal. Nothing original about it…

16. …until you turn around and see this. It would be interesting to see inside.

17. The tall building is what caught Curtis's eye over lunch and was why we decided to walk south along the canal past Gas Street Basin to try and find it and this is what we found.

18. Took this photograph because of the narrow gauge track set in the towpath. I cannot ever remember seeing it before, but the last time I walked this way was forty years ago, when it was all derelict and the canal was lined on either side by abandoned factories and the towpath overgrown, so much so in places that I had to carry the pushchair.

19. A view back towards Broad Street. Notice the sign, 'The Mailbox'.

20. At this point the canal does a ninety-degree turn and heads out towards Selly Oak and Kings Norton. Beyond the trees and the bridge in the distance a glimpse of a canal more like the one I remember.

21. The tall building Curtis likes is called 'The Cube' and I took this photograph looking up its east side elevation.

22. The Mailbox has clearly not been a success retail wise. It has a number of 'levels', all lined with retail units, most empty, full of large posters telling of plans to give The Mailbox a new look for 2015. In truth, it is little more than a long walk-through, housing BBC offices and a mini-supermarket at the canal end, plus a few non-descript shops (or were they beauty parlours? I can't remember).

23. The eastern end of The Mailbox opens onto Queensway, the city centre ring-road. It is separated from the city centre proper by the ring-road and lots of high buildings which funnel wind and made the section to John Bright Street the most unpleasant on this walk, which by now had become random. Well, I had a destination in mind, as you will see a few photographs on.

24. This old corner building at the junction of John Bright Street and Lower Severn Street came a welcome relief. Too many modern tall buildings and you create a cityscape which pedestrians cannot relate to. There needs to be scale and I have no objection if new buildings provide this, but developers want to maximise their potential profits, so we have to rely on old buildings like this.

25. This old theatre has been turned into an Indian restaurant. I rather like its facade.

26. And this where I was leading Susan and Curtis. To the National Trust Back-to-backs on Hurst Street. Unfortunately, it was closed (they open Tuesday–Sunday), so it was all a bit disappointing. Susan and I had been at the opening a few years ago, when we used to publish Local History Magazine and we ran its opening as our cover story. 

27. Much of  'downtown' Birmingham is like this photograph I took of Pershore Street looking south. Ugly. Just loads of multi-storey car-parks and office blocks. Most of the buses are old and clapped out just like the one. It could be anywhere.

28. Just along Pershore Street, heading north towards the city centre again and you come to the Birmingham Bull Ring Indoor Market, which was not as busy as it was when I knew it best in the 1970s. The sign says it all. Hardly the best way to encourage visitors.

29. At the other end of the market, at the back of the Bull Ring, there were people playing ping-pong on concrete tables. This what I like to see.

30. Across from the Market we entered the Bull Ring Shopping Centre via its back door and was confronted with this glass atrium. The place was bustling, full of shoppers and very noisey. We made our way to the other end and stopped for tea in Selfridges and found the experience disappointing. On our first visit a few years ago, all the eateries were 'high-end', a bit more expensive than your average Costa of burger bar, but worth every penny. Not any more. The Victoria Centre in Nottingham does it just as well.

31. Out the other end of the Bull Ring and looking across Digbeth to Moor Street Station. We decided to cross over and have a look. The last we were there was years ago when they had re-opened the old railway tunnels linking the Moor street and Snow Hill stations to pedestrians for a Sunday before they put down the tracks and we walked through with Owen, Curtis's dad.

32. It was lovely. People passing through all the time, a bar cum coffee shop and it was all very relaxing. I could happily while away a day at Moor Street Station.

33. The writer in me saw great potential in the Station's impressive flower stall for stories about why people were buying flowers. Men with guilty secrets, hoping that the scent from a bunch of flowers would mask the perfume on their shirt from a afternoon assignation, or daughters trying to placate a mother in desperate need of attention. And did I see George buying flowers for John. In this day and age, quite possible.

34. It was time to move on, a bookshop beckoned and only ninety minutes left before Curtis was collected by his mum at six o'clock. New Street thronged as it always does. Once it would have been full of buses and pavements unable to cope. Pedestrianisation has made a great difference to all our town and city centres.

35. Waterstones Bookshop on New Street, where we parked ourselves for an hour. It no longer has a coffee shop, which is sad. It was alovely place to have coffee.

36. We ended our walk where we had started it seven hours earlier. Once Stephenson Place would also been full of buses and featured in an article I wrote for The (Birmingham) Journal in June 1974 called 'A Glimpse of Paradise' about my then (and still) favourite Birmingham bus route, the no.28. I those days it shared the street with buses I called 'The Lions in blue' which all headed out of the city to the Black Country towns of Dudley, West  Bromwich and Wolverhampton, all with several routes going to the same destination. Not any more. I really miss not seeing the buses down there.

And that was the end of our day in Birmingham, lots of talking, eating and walking in the company of a grandson who is a fine young man, able to talk about politics, architecture, Dr. Who and other sci-fi TV dramas (something both he and Susan enjoy).  For us, it was the 6.19pm back to Nottingham and home by 8pm.

Birmingham remains a special place and I love it dearly.

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