Saturday, 6 June 2009

Bricks and mortar

AND then the sun came out, if only for a while, scorching the land and catching the majority of folk off guard. The Underground had to play recorded warning messages about carrying water and having a sit down if feeling unwell; sun lotion went flying off pharmacy shelves; and high street shops emptied as people flocked to the parks.

A couple of weekends ago I was up in Birmingham for Rachel’s belated birthday celebrations, an extended weekend of good food, lots of time in the park and the excellent new Star Trek film. On the Saturday, as various friends went back to Selly Oak on the train, Rachel’s sister, her boyfriend Gary and I opted instead to walk back along the canal. It was a glorious day, and the canal is a good way to cut through the city but remain away from the bustle of a bank holiday city centre.

The canal follows the train line, past the Botanic Gardens and through leafy Edgbaston, past the university halls of residence and then the university itself before reaching Selly Oak. If you were to stay with the canal it would head past Selly Oak hospital, which resembles Shawshank prison, and then directly to the Cadbury factory in Bournville. Where it goes beyond that I can only wonder.

We started our walk at Gas Street Basin, formerly a junction between the Worcester and Birmingham Canal and the Birmingham Canal. Nowadays the barrier between the two no longer exists and the intermediary toll gates have also been removed. Gary knows the basin well, having finished here after one of his many walks in the past. He had to admit, however, that the sight of the basin, the biggest canal basin in Birmingham but still not much to shout about, was somewhat of an anticlimax after hours of counting down the milestones promoting this mythical end of the line. Nonetheless, just seconds from Broad Street and minutes from the city centre, the change in pace down by the water is worth savouring, no matter how small the basin is. From here we were off to the Mailbox, now home to fashionable shops, restaurants and overpriced inner city apartments, aesthetically unpleasing with their numerous, postmodern and pointless appendages and trendy colour contrasts. I find the Mailbox a bewildering place, as it oozes wealth and yet is bordered by derelict car parks and decaying office blocks. The contrast continues elsewhere: Gary has walked the canals out to Solihull, where he tells me the canal path has been repaved and the waterside environment modernized, but it remains in the shadow of dilapidated warehouses.

As we left the ultra-modern we returned to the classic canal landscape, all brick with vegetation creeping through cracks. A weed with a tumorous growth; specimens of the plant that bloke on the telly said is better than dock leaves at soothing nettle stings; and longboat captains dipping their hats in salute to the passer by.

Two days later I was on a train, taking the scenic route back to London. The Moor Street to Marylebone line is a hidden gem of England. It is slower than the Virgin line from Euston to New Street but it passes through some of the best countryside on offer: the Chilterns. But at the Birmingham end it is a whole other landscape entirely, as the track weaves through a maze of disused and abandoned train lines, coated with weeds and opportunistic plant life. Old siding tunnels become independent business, but with the rusting train tracks still in place. Old embankments and brick elevations remain, creating isolated pockets of the city beneath, but stop when they reach a major road: nobody has felt the need to dismantle these relics of a bygone age of the train, and yet they now become useless and derelict obstacles to regeneration. It is a captivating world, and one I hope will remain for a long time. Peculiar how we despise decay of that that remains functional, but enjoy the sight of a derelict and abandoned landmark.

***

The story goes on. As you can tell, my spirits are lifted when the weather shows this world in all its glory. Sunshine on my shoulders, as the song goes, makes me happy.

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