The Black Country town of Walsall

Visiting Walsall, near Birmingham, May 2013

When traveling, especially for as long as I am, it is a gift when a local extends their friendship with a personal invitation to see their town. So it was I ended-up visiting the unlikely destination of Walsall, essentially a suburb of Birmingham now but born in the days when such an idea was not conceivable.

Situated 35 minutes by train from New Street Station in Birmingham, the town of Walsall is a destination in it’s own right. “I was wondering if you might like to meet me in Walsall to visit the Art Gallery and Arboretum,” I received as a text from a sweet woman I have met at meet-ups twice before.

“It’s disgustin'” “It’s alright, cud be worse.” “There’s just nothing there.” Similar commendations from Brummies who have never been to Walsall as I heard from Southerners who have never been to Birmingham. “Have you been there?” “No.” Well then, your opinion must be very accurate I’m sure.

I take a photo of the approaching train comparing the sight with the trains that approached me in India. India has left such a strong impression on me, I still think of her often. (I think most Indians consider India a “she”.) The gleaming structure approaches the platform VERY slowly, leaving me holding my camera up to my face for much longer than I would have expected. So slow that it could easily stop very short if someone were to do something stupid, incredibly safe approach. “Quite a contrast to Indian trains,” I share with the girl beside me, “the ones I rode were not able to close their doors and people hung outside.” “That does sound quite different.” “People were jumping off the train before it even came to a stop,” I added.

From Nottingham, this girl with long, curly cranberry-blonde hair moved to Birmingham to do her PHD. I sit closely enough on the train as to be able to chat with her from across the aisle, I had hoped we could continue our discourse and she was happy to do so. Two other gentlemen join in the conversation. A student of the Birmingham Conservatoire is going to Walsall to try-out the pipe organ at Walsall’s Town Hall before being part of a group performance there tomorrow. He has never been to Walsall. Another gentleman sitting behind me overhears me explain how it is that I come to be where I am today, on a train from Birmingham to Walsall. Sometime after becoming single I sold my business and my home and now completely untied I am traveling the world. “I’m trying to start a development business,” he starts, “oh no, this is my stop.” “Look-up Launch48,” I tell him, “It could be useful to you, it’s a weekend conference where people form groups to brainstorm and set-up businesses in the course of 48 hours. It could be a really good start for you. . . .” and he is away.

The lovely PHD student exits where the University of Birmingham has a suburban campus and the young organist and I chat until the end. “What are you playing tomorrow?” “Something nasty, I really don’t like it.” He tells me what it’s called but I don’t recognise it. I guess something modern. For a pipe organ. One doesn’t really think of modern and pipe organ together, but I suppose why not. “How did you choose it?” “Oh, I had no choice, they told me what I have to play.”

We exited the station onto the high street 20 minutes early. After he gets directions to the Town Hall from a friendly local we part ways. There is more than one exit and we did not decide where to meet because texting makes one lazy that way. “Where are u?” “I’m at . . .” “Okay, walk to your left see you in a minute.” That’s what usually happens.

“I’m here, where should we meet?”
“Unable to send.”
“Unable to send.”
“Unable to send.”

I enter the Carphone Warehouse located right at the exit where I am standing. I don’t have any signal but I know I have credit on this pay-as-you-go phone that I got from ee. “Do you work with T-Mobile?” I ask. “We can top-up T-Mobile.” “My phone isn’t working, can you take a look?” An Indian woman accepts my phone, “You have no connection.” She then goes through the very highly-technical process of removing the battery and SIM card, replacing, and repowering the phone. “It’s back now, I don’t know why it disappeared. Do you want me to check your balance?” “Sure.” She presses some buttons and an automated voice tells us, “You – have – 8 – pounds – 68 – pence. For – more – information – press – 1. To – hang – up – press – 2” or something like that.

“I might as well top-up, can you add £20?” “Certainly, Sir.” “You should take your phone to ee if you continue to have problems, they are just down the high street, just turn right after you go out.”

“Thanks very much.” “You’re very welcome, Sir.”

Outside I run into Clare who is climbing the steps towards the entrance of the Shopping Arcade in which the station is located. “Hi Ya!”

Well that was good, I guess I must have come to the most obvious spot. “Shall we go right to the gallery?” she asks. “Absolutely.”

I really like pedestrian high streets in Great Britain. People walking and lingering and meeting-up on lovely cobbled spaces without the noise and intrusion of vehicular traffic. I cannot understand why these areas are so rare in North America, would it kill traffic to close off one central street to cars? Imagine the feeling in Toronto if Yonge Street was a long pedestrian park, still lined with the streets and shops, but closed to vehicles. Places to walk and sit and relax, all on lovely paving stones with the occasional sculpture, statue, and arrangements of flower gardens and shrubbery. Of course, there would need to be infrastructure on either side of the street to allow it, and at some intersections traffic would need to cross as it does here. It may be impossible for most of our cities as they are now, but imagine the warm and pleasant feeling it would create and does create throughout many cities of Europe and many places in the world. Birmingham has a great pedestrian zone. And so does Walsall.

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The rain was really coming down as we walked along Walsall’s pedestrianized high street, but it was still a lovely time.

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The New Art Gallery Walsall.

We enter the New Art Gallery Walsall which sits at the top end of high street. A tall, modern structure it stands proudly in front of of a canal pool. Completed in 1999, the gallery was designed via an international competition and has become the largest building in the UK that was designed by a British architect under 40.

“What a pretty puppy!” Clare exclaims when I remove my scarf. I’m wearing one of those horrendous but fun and cheerful t-shirts that have life-like oversized animal faces on them. It’s hard to be looked at too seriously when wearing one of those. I feel like I must look approachable with such a silly shirt, will people judge me as someone who doesn’t take himself too seriously, or will they just assume poor taste? I find that I get both reactions.

“Is it a girl or a boy puppy?” I hadn’t thought of this. Spot decision, “He’s a boy!” “What’s his name?” I look down to my chest in consideration. “He needs a name,” she informs me. His eyes, enormous from the enlarged reproduction, look very bright. “Sparkles,” I suggest. “Sparkle Pop!” Clare corrects. “Ahhh, cute little Sparkle Pop! Are you ready to see some pretty pictures?” she asks as we exit the lift to start the exhibition from the top, 4th floor.

David Rowan’s display of photographs will be shown here until July 21st, 2013. Although I would not call his collection, Pacha Kuti Ten, pretty, they are intriguing and I relate to them. I would want to take these kinds of photos myself were I a photographer. He is showing us the bowels of Birmingham. The underground facilities that are rarely seen by the public. I find this kind of thing fascinating. Below this lovely paving stone walkway with trees and flowers, beyond your view, is this dark sewer tunnel system. Is this former coal mine. Is this underground vault. Is this hidden canal.

The Tenth Pacha Kuti is an Inca prediction of apocalypse and translates as being when the world turns upside down. In this collection, Rowan shows us the subterranean world that lurks below us, just out of view as we go about our lives in Birmingham. To me, the message feels sort of like: your world does exist, but at the same time this also exists.

You can see a few of these images by clicking on the following link.

http://www.davidrowan.org/work/pacha-kuti-ten/

One level down we are greeted by a sculpture by Patricia Piccinini. This looks like a deformed animal made out of chicken flesh wearing a hat and training hair. “It’s not pretty!” Clare screams. It is very, very not pretty. Clearly it is not supposed to be. You really must click on this link to see the sculpture I’m referring to.

https://www.google.ca/search?q=patricia+piccinini&client=safari&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=XeyUUY_nCcXChAfL-oD4Bw&ved=0CDgQsAQ&biw=1024&bih=672#biv=i%7C46%3Bd%7C5PHAhK6oH8-UEM%3A

Her other sculpture present is of a “sphinx”, also looks like a chicken-flesh blob. Her work is unique, interesting. I would recommend clicking on this link to see some more of it, I have never seen anything like it myself. (If the link doesn’t work, just Google Patricia Piccinini, this is a link to the Google Images.)

https://www.google.ca/search?q=patricia+piccinini&client=safari&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=XeyUUY_nCcXChAfL-oD4Bw&ved=0CDgQsAQ&biw=1024&bih=672

Hanging on the wall in the same gallery are life-sized paintings of bulls by Mark Fairington.

http://www.markfairnington.com/page26.htm

These are part of the exhibition, “Nature of the Beast” which is on until June 30, 2013.

An installation piece by Tessa Farmer, a Birmingham-born artist who now resides in London, involves mostly insect taxidermy. Ants of various sizes on the open floor consuming a dead snake. Very creepy. A food chain of shell fish to insects. Hundreds of flying wasps, very unsettling to stand at, all dangling from invisible thread within reaching distance. Her piece de resistance, she has made little people using insect body parts.

Definitely worth a look by clicking on this link. If the link doesn’t work, just Google Tessa Farmer and you will see lots of images.

https://www.google.ca/search?q=tessa+farmer&client=safari&hl=en&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=efCUUYyDPIeK7Ab6-YDgAQ&ved=0CDcQsAQ&biw=1024&bih=672

Polly Morgan creates very disturbing works with her taxidermy. But I like it. “It’s creepy! I want to touch it!” says a distressed Clare, who now realises that she has not brought me to Walsall to see some pretty art. It is all fantastically interesting though. Pretty pictures can only capture my attention for so long.

A small fox intertangled and pierced by octopus tentacles, a tentacle goes in one ear and out the other, a tentacle protrudes from an eye socket. Some taxidermed birds are involved as well.

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View more of Polly Morgan’s work by Googling her name.

This very cool video shows the amount of work that it takes to put-up such an exhibit. Less than 2 minutes, take a look, it’s interesting in a general museum way.

http://m.youtube.com/#/watch?v=Nonk2-KWkkQ&desktop_uri=%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DNonk2-KWkkQ

Perhaps the main exhibit was anatomy works by Damien Hirst. A photo of him when he was 16 provides a good introduction. At that time he used to visit the anatomy department at Leeds University where he worked on anatomical drawings. This photo is of a happy, young, smiling Damien with his face posed nearly touching the severed head of a cadaver that sits on a table. It is astonishing to behold. I don’t want to violate copyright, so again here is a link to the photo rather than the actual image:

http://www.damienhirst.com/with-dead-head

Overall I was very impressed with the New Art Gallery Walsall. If you live in Birmingham or somewhere nearby, it is definitely worth a visit.

http://www.thenewartgallerywalsall.org.uk/

Following our artistic appreciation we stop for lunch at the Costa location within the gallery. It’s a nice open space with windows onto the canal pool.

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A view looking out the window of the Art Gallery.

Outside we walk down the high street and past a statue of Dorothy Wyndlow Pattison who was a hard-working and highly respected nurse in Walsall. When she died in 1878 she became the first woman in the country to have a statue commemorating her who wasn’t a member of the Royal Family.

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Near Pattison’s statue stands a more modern sculpture of a Hippo (See photo of me riding it.) and another of a head with tools of the trade in his/her very ample hair, or falling towards them, I’m not sure. This is not one of my favourite statues.

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Continuing our tour of Walsall we walk past the lovely Town Hall, a library and another museum, as we make our way to the Walsall Arboretum. We enter the park through the gates of a lovely brick structure that sits across from the school where Clare attended with all girls. She had earlier recognised her former uniform on a group of grade 7 girls who were drafting some of the sights in the animal exhibits in the museum as we wandered about.

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Walsall’s Town Hall.

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The entry gate to Walsall’s Arboretum.

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Fortunately, today’s rains had completely abated by the time we were walking about. Colours really come out just after rain too.

The arboretum is a gorgeous park surrounding a boating lake. Occupying 80 acres, it includes more than 200 species of tree and shrub. It also has a play grounds, a bowling green, a playhouse, and a children’s park. We enjoyed walking the circumference where we chatted and met some friendly dogs. And dog owners.

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When one thinks of Walsall, one thinks of the lovely central boating lake surrounded by trees, flowers, and fields where one can take a country walk very near to downtown.

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Okay, perhaps one doesn’t, but I do.

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It’s a perfect picnic spot also.

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This is not a headless swan, he/she was grooming and each time his/her head came up I missed it.

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“Ma-ma, are you able to have guests?” Clare asks into her mobile phone. “You could make us a nice cup of tea?” Clare’s parents live nearby the arboretum. Wandering in their direction we meet a wonderful pit bull. Snoopy has a limp. Turns out that 3 years ago he was running full-throttle with a stick in his mouth. He’s a very heavy dog and when the stick suddenly caught on the ground it went right into him through the back of this mouth. Sounds like it was touch-and-go with some major surgeries and they needed to borrow a leg muscle as part of the reconstruction. Poor little guy. He’s as happy as could possibly be now though, he loves his cuddles!

We greet a welcoming retired school teacher upon entering Clare’s home. Clare’s Mum taught young ones, primary school, before keeping herself active with various different activities. Today she had been shopping in Birmingham, bought some clothes. “Don’t tell Father,” she jokes, kind-of, to Clare. She seems young for her age, the high activity of being in the classroom every day has done her well. Running around with children must be better than sitting behind a computer all day when it comes to one’s well-being. “One had to be high energy,” she offers as way of explanation. So true.

Clare’s Dad returns from playing snooker and after some friendly banter retires somewhere to listen to organ music. “He usually plays it much louder, ” Clare tells me. “Guess what Darren’s new name is,” Clare tells them, “Blossom.” Yes, she has decided this to be my appropriate nickname while we were sauntering through the park where there were lots of apple and cherry blossoms. Mostly it was in response to me telling her that in Scotland some of the girls at the office called me “Petal”. The guys called me “Daz” or “Dazzer” (pronounced da-zah).

Our teas long gone Clare walks me back to the station to catch my train back to Birmingham. A lovely day.

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Black Country, Home of England’s Industrial Revolution

Black Country

The Black Country is situated in Central England in an area of the West Midlands. This area may have been the earliest industrial area of it’s size and scope in the world. Industry from the 18th century onwards included coal mining, tube manufacture, anchor forges, ironwork, chain making, making locks and keys, and more. The three anchors and chains used on the Titanic came from this region, the entire collection weighed more than 100 tonnes. The heaviest piece, one 12 tonne anchor, took 20 horses to transport it to the ship.

The term “Black Country” is seen to have been used since the 1840’s. Heavy industry in the area polluted the air with soot and darkened the skies, hence the term. Industry situated here naturally due to the existence of Britain’s largest coal seam running through the area.

The coal industry contributed mostly to the creation of the vast canal network to ship this heavy, cumbersome commodity in great bulk on barges pulled by horses. The horses were tethered to the barges and walked along the “tow paths” which are now fantastic areas for cycling and walking all throughout Great Britain.

Today Black Country is no longer black. The heavy industries and mining that created that dark environment have all but gone and anti-pollution laws control discharge from the little that does remain.

I have also written separately about my visit to Walsall to be posted soon, and this is one of the main towns in the Black Country. I did not notice that this town had an industrial past, I did not know that until after my visit. Today, it seems a quaint, modern, nearly-suburb of Birmingham.

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A replica of the world’s first steam engine. The original was built in the Black Country in 1712. It was not very efficient in it’s coal usage so it was only feasible for use near a coal mine source, which it was. In fact, it’s original use was pumping water out of coal mines. Sometime later it was improved upon to the point of being mobile and more efficient to be able to create the locomotive.

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Some artefacts from the entry of a coal mine.

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A little Black Country home.

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Another little home in the Black Country.

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I’m not sure, I guess it’s a scrapyard for scraps of centuries past.

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I stopped for a lunch break in a civic hall.

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The recommended Black Country dish to be tried was quite hardy. “Faggots and peas”, the peas mushy and in that too-green colour. Faggots are essentially meatballs made from pig’s heart, liver, and belly or bacon with added spices and cooked in a gravy. To me it tasted like a spiced meatball that had pate mixed-in. I don’t know how these got their name. I understand the term faggot used for cigarettes in the UK, because it refers to something that is burned. It became applied to gay people when the Nazis decided that homosexuals were also something to be burned. Alive. Little trivia for you.

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Although we may think of this as a more modern development, the movement towards equality was long and of course still continues.

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High street shopping as it was before the advent of the supermarket, a change made possible by the common use of motorcars. (More people can travel from further away to one large store, and they can carry more items away from it.)

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It was raining all day and all these places felt cold and damp. I think life might be a bit more comfortable now than it was.

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This is the inside of a traditional pub. (Public House)

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A raising bridge over the canal. Notice how the platform lifts completely up rather than tilting.

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The creation of canal networks facilitated the industrial revolution making transport of coal and finished goods much more feasible. Later there was very strong competition between the canals and the railroads for the transportation of goods. Railways eventually operated much faster than barges which were pulled by horses and were very much slowed by land gradations (many labour-intensive and time-intensive locks needed to take a boat uphill or downhill). Canals were eventually rendered obsolete.

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Canal-side workshops.

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It is still popular for amusement park features today to be decorated in this style.

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I love the sound that came from this automated air pipe music maker. It must have been quite a marvel in it’s time.

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Although much of it is no longer in operation, the auto making industry of Britain naturally centred in the midlands.

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The previous photos were taken at the Black Country Living Museum. This is a large open-air museum set in Dudley, 35 minutes from Birmingham. Covering 26 acres, the reconstructed canal-side town with costumed inhabitants is a fascinating place to visit. Plan to go in the morning so that you can enjoy having lunch there as nice break.

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