Today was the launch of the first stage of Rich White‘s Viaduct, a study of the derelict Duddeston Railway Viaduct in Digbeth which was never used and has been sitting there, like a monolithic bluebrick slug, since 1846.
This stage of the project consisted of Rich recording conversations with various people as he walked around the base of the viaduct, conversations which he then edited into a single dialogue printed in a newspaper. (I have copies of the newspaper if you want one.)
I was one of the people who Rich took on a walk. I quickly forgot he was recording me and when I got the transcript I was delighted at how I came across. He really managed to get the good stuff out of my brain.
I asked Rich if I could use the unedited transcript of my walk and he said fine, so here it is. Thanks again to Rich for the opportunity and to Trevor Pitt and A3 Project Space for putting us together. Here’s to part two of the project!
10 January 2014, 2pm
PA: I’ve never really looked at this bit. I normally just stop at the canal.
RW: Right, this is walk number two with Pete Ashton. We’re at the end of the Duddeston Viaduct looking at the big, flat face of brick. I love those shapes; the corners.
PA: It’s like a little castle; the little turrets along the top.
RW: I think the idea of leaving it as-is, that you mentioned earlier, is really nice, although I think there’s probably… I don’t know it might want some maintenance on the sides.
PA: Yeah, it will just crumble…
RW: There are bits that are falling off and crumbling. But to leave the top, which as you say, was untouched for 100 years is really nice.
PA: There probably aren’t many places in the Midlands that are untouched, even out in the countryside.
RW: Maybe we can start a campaign to get the… who is it, the Wildlife Trust? They buy tracts of land in order to keep them as-is. Anyway we can go in here [BCC car park].
PA: Wasn’t this a recycling depot?
RW: I don’t know. The BCC use it as a car park. They’ve got a building just there…
PA: I’m sure there used to be recycling trucks parked up around here?
RW: They may well have done that, but I’ve rarely seen any people here. And when I have - there’s some people in that window - they never come out and ask you what you’re doing. So we can go nosing around in all this little arches, and you get a good view up here. So up there there’s lots of not necessarily unsafe damage but I think it’d be nice to make it look… looked after?
PA: I don’t think so?
RW: But leave all the stuff coming through the brickwork.
PA: I think it’s all or nothing. Once you start fixing it…
RW: You’ve made a clean spot.
PA: It needs to just rot and die. I think. I don’t know. It the curse of preservation; once you start preserving something - you lock it in aspic or something - it’s no longer of the past, it’s no longer of the present, it just becomes like… This is alive. It might not fit in with what we consider to be looked after but it’s alive now. There’s a hell of a lot of life on there, even the lichen and the stuff that we can’t really see, and the stuff that’s eating the bricks, that’s alive. All the trees are alive, obviously. If you were to clean it up and make it all nice then it would be dead, it would be mummified, or the process would just start again, and then in a hundred years time someone will go ‘oh, they should look after that’. I’m thinking about this as representing Digbeth. The big thing that always comes to mind when I’m doing my walks around here is how Digbeth has never really been… or at least in the last century or so, has never really been razed. Little areas have been redone and knocked down and built up, but there’s this sort of sense of layering of architecture. So you’ll get a blue brick building and then a red brick and then they’ll build an extra thing on there out of concrete and then breeze blocks over here and then more bricks; you get this kind of hodge-podge of uses layered upon uses - you can see it there with that red brick thing hanging off there…
RW: And there’s that archway filled in.
PA: Yeah, and even the metal remnants you see like just bolted on to stuff, they’re not removed because there’s no need to remove them…
RW: So they stay there and the next thing goes on top of them.
PA: And it’s only when something’s in the way does it get moved out. And you see this on all of the red brick stuff around this area, where the other viaduct goes in there’s loads of that sort of stuff, and I like that about it - I like the fact that nobody’s done a clean sweep. It just stops here and if it’s not in the way we just work around it, and if it is in the way we get rid of it. And so this is just… this is a kind of extreme end of that in that it’s not really in the way and it has a use - in a strange way - we can use these arches as caves or as structures.
RW: It’s weird how it’s not in the way. It’s one of the things I like about it.
PA: It’s too big.
RW: It’s so big and it’s got the arches through it - there’s nothing you can do but get on with it, around it, because you can’t move it.
PA: You can’t move it and you’re not going to bump into it.
RW: It becomes kind of invisible.
PA: And it’s also standard for this area, there’s loads of these coming in… this one’s quite small compared to the one that goes past the Custard Factory.
RW: The one that goes into Moor Street Station.
RW: That one’s pretty massive. [Approaching hole in pier] We’ve poked our heads in here before.
PA: This is going to form part of my walks I think, oooh!
RW: A dump/sleeping quarters.
PA: They’re hollow. Who knew?
RW: I doubt they could build it solid.
PA: The irony of when I lead the photowalks… I lead between 5 and 20 people on a photography trail, normally about a mile and a bit - just over an hour, so walking really slowly, but I never get to take any decent photos because I’m always…
PA: Talking and doing the mother duck thing and making sure everyone’s OK so my brain’s in a completely different place. I had this err… somebody asked me to do my five favourite places to take photos in Birmingham and I thought ‘yes, I can do that, easy’ I knew exactly the places but I didn’t have any decent photos to give them.
RW: So that business there has itself backed onto the Viaduct. I think they actually use the inside of it for storage as well. All of their office furniture. I went in and had a chat with them and the only story they had was about rescuing ducks off the roof. I’m sure he said ducks? Again they don’t really think about it. He said something about having to brick bits of it up because you could get in through the other side, it just wasn’t secure so they blocked it up.
PA: Look at the way the building meets it, which came first, was it temporary, or how long ago was it?
RW: It looks pretty new.
PA: Mid-to-late 20th Century.
RW: I like the way it’s cut around that semi-circular thing.
PA: Do you know who owns the Viaduct?
RW: I’ve heard various things; I’ve heard Network Rail own it - or they own the top. And then the Custard Factory own quite a lot of the arches, and there are various businesses underneath it.
PA: So how would you buy this bit?
RW: I don’t know?
PA: That’s obviously just a wall…
RW: That’s a really weird triangular shaped one, that one. It’s quite nice. And this has got this stuff underneath it from the Forge Tavern - well, not underneath it but against it.
PA: Yeah, it’s just a sort of triangle…
RW: It comes to a point, and then goes off over the canal. And that one, I imagine, was just to pick up the bridge coming across.
PA: It’s all myths and stories but I heard they never made the connections over?
RW: No, I don’t think they did?
PA: So they built these and then they stopped. Before they did the connections. So it never did go over this part.
RW: I think the main bit they did use for, something I’m not quite sure what it is but something called cattle sidings? Which I assume was the cattle trucks because of the big signs at the other end, at the Bordesley Station end, it say ‘Bordesley Cattle Sidings’ I think, painted in big letters on the side.
PA: So they’d bring the cattle in on trains…
RW: I think they’d bring it in along this first big curve that comes round here…
PA: And just leave cows on it.
RW: But I don’t think it went any further than this. So we can go up here a little way…
PA: Did they let the cows out?
RW: I don’t know? Let them out to graze?
PA: Before they were slaughtered.
RW: We can come up here and have a look at this bit, and then we’ll go around that way. Because if you go… I think it’s the other nice thing about it is that if you go round that way to try and pick it up it’s quite a while before you meet it again, or see it. And it’s similar going around that way as well - there’s a little view point by St Basil’s where you can see a little bit of it. And then it’s gone again.
PA: I do like these little houses.
RW: Yes, I like all the odd houses they’ve built in. Roofs underneath roofs.
PA: And you see this in err… somewhere over there in the other viaduct, all these pods.
RW: Yeah, we’ll see those. They look really odd, those ones. Me and Bob [Ghosh] were trying to figure out what this bit with the pillars was for.
RW: We were guessing that is was done at the same time because the arches fit it, it doesn’t look like a thing that was added in afterwards.
PA: What, the metal pillars?
PA: I think that’s where it collapsed and they’ve had to…
RW: You reckon?
PA: Yeah, I think it collapsed, or at least it weakened.
RW: But would that have been whilst it was being built?
PA: No, that’s contemporary, it’s recent because you’ve got newer bricks underneath, so I think all that area was damaged or something bashed into it and then they had to replace it, and rather than replace it brick…
RW: A hefty job.
PA: That’s the thing I suppose. It had value. I’m guessing - it’s all guesswork, obviously - but I guess this area had financial value and was worth keeping it and keeping it running. And they couldn’t just leave a gap in the structure.
RW: No, and a pile of bricks.
PA: So either it all had to go, or they had to reinforce it. So maybe it was when it was being used a sidings? I wouldn’t say that was at the time of being built, I’d say that was more recent. There’s a railway, if you get close to the Bullring car park area, the big archway, the back entrance into the Bullring car park near the Friends of the Earth cafe. A road down from there they’ve had to replace part of the bridge, and they replaced it with just metal bridging, so it’s… that reminds me of that a little bit.
RW: I do like that, though, that’s two people seeing the same thing and coming to the opposite conclusion. It’s great. That’s how these sort of stories, I think, start.
PA: I see that as a bodge.
RW: It kind of looks like a bodge but…
PA: It’s a later… and the brickworks different. I worked very briefly at the Custard Factory and there was a thing were a train derailed and bashed into the wall, and you can see at the top the bricks are different - they’re cleaner - and a funny story behind it, somebody had parked underneath it and it said ‘no parking’ so there’s this no parking thing and this car just crushed, literally flattened.
RW: And that’s why you don’t park there.
PA: There was almost nothing left of the car, you could just see wheels.
RW: There was no-one in it was there?
PA: ‘Don’t park here or we’ll literally drop a ton of bricks on you.’
RW: This is the bit where you just get a little, just a little view of it, with the barb-wire.
PA: But what’s interesting is when they fixed it they - because that one is a working railway - you can see how the bricks have changed, so you can start mapping or plotting where there’s been repairs and how old those repairs are based on the colouration of the blue bricks. Even on that one you’ve got some.
RW: There are patches. It could just be repointing?
PA: Could be. Repairs.
RW. We’ll go up here. I don’t know if you had a route in mind or whether you’ve just left it…
PA: It’s entirely up to you. Like I say, I normally I cross it going to different places.
RW: Because I’ve been going back and forth on this for while so you get trapped in a route that you think is - that’s the route.
PA: It’s quite hard to walk it.
RW: It is.
PA: When you sent this I thinking ‘well how are you going to do that?’
RW: Originally I would go straight up there and round that way but I was walking it with Trevor [Pitt] at the end of last year and we found another bit through that way going down Hack Street and through the, is it a Custard Factory owned car park?
PA: The one with ‘Forward’ on it?
RW: Yes. And you can go through there, so you end up zig-zagging underneath three arches, which is a lot nicer than going round. So each time you do it you find new things, little bits.
PA: Look at this bit here, there’s about three different… it’s like some sort of ghost building there.
RW: That weird arch on the right - and on the left, there’s another one.
PA: Doorways, at least two floors, or three possibly. Yeah, bolted on. And entrance there and then you just brick those up afterwards. And some metal remnants - some sort of engine? Extractor fan?
RW: I think it’s the end of a pipe? There’s a valve on it.
PA: And they’ve left it there. And people just park there cars under it?
RW: Perfectly safe.
PA: A hunk of rusty metal just above the back of your car. I wonder who inspects them? I suppose it’s down to whoever owns that bit of land? It’s their job to keep it. The proper railway bridges,they’re inspected all the time because the trains go over them. But who inspects this? Who makes sure it isn’t just going to fall?
RW: They must have some sort of schedule. You’d hope.
PA: Yeah, but then this is Digbeth. Who knows?
RW: Me and Bob were admiring the twist on these arches. It’s really nice.
PA: Those marks are to do with maintenance - might be some code for… maybe they’re ‘I’s?
RW: That’s what I was thinking, are they ‘H’s of ‘I’s? I don’t know what they mean.
PA: This stuff on the bricks, it almost looks alive, like moss, but it’s almost like rock. Is it organic or is it just crystalline? It looks like moss but it doesn’t… it feels like…
RW: It feels like sediment…
PA: Or stone.
RW: It’s just been growing - or not growing but accumulating.
PA: It’s extruded from the brickwork over the years. The detail on these things is really… it’s something that interests me a bit - you’ve got this massive thing and then get up really close to them.
RW: I don’t think we can see… can we see the other end of that… I don’t think we get a very good view. Maybe from the other side? Yeah, it’s just got a crappy asbestos roof. So the other side has that lovely brick end-fill on that arch, and then this side is just a crappy shed. Which is a shame. And then there’s that one with windows in it still. ‘Gates in Constant Use’.
PA: Because you wouldn’t believe it otherwise.
RW: I think actually that was open at the end of last year when me and Trevor walked through. Or did we just stick our heads in this hole? This is where someone appears with a shotgun.
PA: ‘Please do not park near gates and leave adequate space for moving vehicles coming in and out. Any driver that does will do so at their own risk.’ It’s not that you’ll get it the way, it’s ‘we’ll knock you out of the way.’
RW: ‘We’ll just crunch you up.’ One of my questions was going to be ‘what would you like to see happen to the Viaduct? But you’ve already answered that at the beginning, which was ‘nothing.’
PA: Yes, leave it alone. But then that’s Digbeth in general. I have this slightly strange relationship with Digbeth in that I like the fact that it’s been left. More ghost signs.
RW: There is a guy in there… or is that one? One of these buildings… there’s a guy who has a little machine shop under there. Either in that one or that one. Me and Trevor spoke to him.
PA: It’s this thing that like the Jewellery Quarter’s based on jewellery so there’s money there already, it’s this identifiable industry, where-as Digbeth has just been this sort of warehousing and light industrial, metal bashing or processing… it’s a bit like Southwark in London, it’s a place where stuff comes before it goes somewhere else. And they’ve tried to redevelop it, there were big plans in the 2000s - big city plans regenerating Digbeth and then it all just collapsed with the financial crisis, and the Custard Factory has taken, what is it - 25-30 years to get to this point, nearly being the… I like the fact that Digbeth is this stubborn old fucker that refuses to do what it’s told. Brindleyplace was just fine, it was ‘oh, just demolish me and build all this new stuff.’ Digbeth? ‘Nope. It’s not gonna happen, mate.’
RW: I’ve done a few projects looking at regeneration - or that were involved as part of regeneration projects and it sometimes sounds like ‘we’re doing it because it’s what you should do, you should regenerate.’ And you get all these things thrust upon the landscape and built up that have all of these buzzwords and slogans attached to them…
PA: ‘Mixed use, city-living…’ I love the fact that when I take people on the walks we start at Moor Street Station and wind up round the Custard Factory and immediately… well, you come out of Moor Street and you’ve got the Bullring on the side and the Palisades and stuff, and then you go down towards that derelict pub, and now we’re spitting distance from the largest shopping centre in Europe. And look at it? And then we go down to the Polish centre and there’s the stray cats and all this and it’s like ‘look, here we are, we’re in this sort of environment.’ And I think that doesn’t make a lot of sense for a city because this area should be really financially wealthy, or this land should be worth way more than it actually is. And maybe that’s what stalled the regeneration, the people who own the properties just waiting for that inevitability of wealthy land-owners coming along and buying it up. And it’s never going to happen. So it’s just stuck in this…
RW: I did a research project in West Bromwich a couple of years back where they were… after they’d levelled this massive patch of land to build Europe’s largest Tesco. So we had all the plans to look at, and we’re looking at West Bromwich and this land and they were the same size! The town and the Tesco were the same size - there where other shops and things in this complex. I’m not sure that’s what regeneration really is?
RW: It might bring money and jobs but it…
PA: I think Digbeth’s stuck because everyone’s expecting this money to come in and they’re just waiting, and so it’s in this limbo.
RW: And if it does, is it going to be the same sort of thing where they flatten massive areas of land and then build another Bullring?
PA: If it was out in Longbridge though they’d just demolish it and it wouldn’t matter if it was left, it would be cheaper to begin with anyway, but because it’s here they’re waiting for the City Centre-type property values to arrive, and they’re not going to arrive - it’s a chicken/egg thing. I think we’re stuck in this limbo of ‘you can’t change until the price goes up…’
RW: But the price won’t go up while it’s like this.
PA: So that’s why people are just… you’ve got this slightly rundown old building being used for taxi repairs and very short let stuff and no-one’s going to establish themselves here. The Custard Factory do, but that’s because Bennie Grey is a stubborn old fucker who won’t do what he’s told - and that’s a compliment. Or at least he’s playing a long game, and it’s a very long game. I mean, this place could be amazing - well, I say amazing - this place could be the Jewellery Quarter, and that’s what people in those positions are expecting. But the Jewellery Quarter’s here, Digbeth is here, we’re the same distance, the same history, the same types of buildings.
RW: I think this is the bit that’s owned by…
RW: Possibly Rainbow I think. And they hold gigs and club nights and stuff.
PA: This is what I’d heard, that they’d got a licence to go up there and put shipping crates with stairs to go up to the top. There was a thing on their Facebook page last year about it but it never came to anything. But I’ve learned not to listen too hard to the ravings of pub landlords. They’re good people but they’re slightly in their own little world. This is nice.
RW: These little arches in the big arches are rather nice things as well. Some are bricked up, some are not. More of those ‘H’ symbols.
PA: Maybe it’s something where they - not tap on it - but measure it for… put some sort of sonic thing through it to check it’s stable?
RW: And ‘H’ means ‘hmmmmm’.
PA: ‘Hmmm, probably alright’. And that used to have some roofing built in.
RW: Yeah, they’ve flashed in something, and then they’ve taken it out again.
PA: A brief history of security cameras?
RW: Yes. It is isn’t it?
PA: And these signs that were once really important but are no longer relevant, but they leave them up there. So you have to figure out which ones are important and which ones aren’t. So ‘Bar’…
RW: ‘Bar’ is now important. The ‘Stand well clear of lorries’ is probably not?
PA: No. But you have to read it…
RW: …depending on what the situation is. There’s an ice cream van over there?
PA: It’s probably a bar.
PA: That’s pretty hardcore. Is it to hold that up?
RW: I’m guessing it’s that as it doesn’t have a wind post. Makes sure it doesn’t fall over.
PA: There was a previous one here.
RW: I like how it feels pretty constant.
PA: How do you mean ‘constant’?
RW: I like how when… especially that last bit where you zigzag through about three arches, and you just see the same thing even though it’s not the same bit each time. I find it quite reassuring - ‘there it is again’.
PA: And it’s got a sort of pre-fab feel about it.
RW: As I don’t live here this has become how I navigate around it - around this bit of Birmingham. I get off the coach at the coach station and I can see that line running up to Moor Street, and I know that if I get to that and follow it down I’ll get to this one. I don’t have to know any street names I just make my way across the arch. I love that bit as well, it’s really nice. They shouldn’t get rid of that.
PA: It takes them a long time bed in.
RW: I like this bit in between the two viaducts.
PA: This is where the entrance to the Rainbow Warehouse venue is. They have a smoking area underneath the archway. Or at least they did last time I was here. I’m pretty sure they close off this road as well.
RW: They do. I was here when they were setting something up and they’d just fenced the whole thing off with those galvanized barriers.
PA: That’s become another bin.
RW: Loads of stuff chucked in. I keep seeing these now, as well. When I go to other places, I’ve sort of hyper-sensitized myself to it in the same way that people have ignored it. I’m now seeing arches everywhere. I’ll go to another town and see a viaduct and I’ll be trying to see where it goes and whether its used or not. It becomes slightly obsessive.
PA: Have you looked at it on the Apple Maps?
RW: On Street View?
PA: No, the Apple one, not Google. It has a 3D view and you can get a real sense of height.
RW: I think I did.
PA: That one’s got a number.
RW: Which must continue, I’d imagine?
PA: I think it’s just for this bit?
RW: Is it? I always imaged that once we’d got to there, that’s 42… that’s 43…
PA: I guess these are… this is a span, where-as that’s a…
RW: It’s a span.
PA: Oh, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
RW: But what are they for?
PA: Just so they can say ‘oop, there’s a problem with span 38, can you come and fix it’.
RW: So that’s why I’m wondering if those continue, so you can still identify…
PA: Then they become bridges…
RW: …or do they just do it by the road name, or the plot? I don’t think it has… no that’s 42, and then there’s nothing.
PA: Everything has a number though. Every lamppost has a number…
RW: That’s number 1.
PA: I wonder if that’s the first lamppost in Birmingham?
RW: Probably the first one on this street.
PA: Something I’d like to get hold of is some sort of record of all of the street furniture - there’s a big database of street furniture, so every electric box, lamppost and manhole cover, they’re all recorded somewhere.
RW: What would you do with it?
PA: I don’t know, just sort of stare at it. I’d probably just draw connections. I was thinking about sewers last year, about how we’ve got the road network and we think of the City as based around the road network. Well then you can have the canal network, and if you look at the map of the canals in Birmingham without any roads it gives you this completely different sense of an areas importance and ways of navigating it. So I thought ‘what about the hidden things like sewers and electrical conduits and if you could have big sewers and little sewers and get that sense of ‘do they match the roads, where do they veer away?’ How does the electricity move around the City, how does the gas move around the City? It probably fits the road network, but it might not? And it’s those hidden patterns that are… that we don’t use but somebody in that industry will use. So who ever is in charge of streetlamps will have a sense of this map of the City which is quite different to somebody who is in charge of traffic management. Where are the areas of congestion for electricity?
RW: And the internet, as well, there’s a similar thing. I remember a guy I work for was having a lot of trouble with his at four-five o’clock every afternoon, it would get really slow, and apparently it was to do with a certain hub that serves that area that isn’t powerful enough to serve all of the people who want to download stuff. And there was nothing they could do about it until they install some other thing, so again there’s this network of things that is completely different to how we look at the world.
PA: I noticed this working from home, we both work online at home and we have fine internet during the day, but at about six o’clock it all slows down…
RW: Everyone gets home from work, kids get home from school…
PA: And in the evenings everyone’s streaming stuff like Netflix, and I think we noticed when Netflix and iPlayer kicked and people started getting internet enabled TVs because our internet just went ‘thum!’ until they upgraded it.
RW: So they must get the same sort of map of physical locations where the cables are more… I don’t know, more of them? More traffic.
PA: Just a slight tangent, but did you hear about this erm… you know the phenomena of when the adverts come on or when Eastenders finishes…
RW: Kettles. Yes.
PA: And how they deal with it.
RW: I heard something about that.
PA: Excess energy is used to pump water up a hill, in Wales, up a mountain, and then when they need it…
RW: … they let it go and comes down produces more power…
PA: So this reservoir atop a mountain is effectively a battery.
RW: It’s brilliant.
PA: And there’s this guy who’s job it is to watch Eastenders…
RW: … what a terrible job…
PA: This is the fascinating thing, he watches these popular programmes so the moment when the credits roll…
RW: … he has to push the button…
PA: … because they’re not always… the times that he’s given… there might be slight delay.
RW: It’s got to be very precise.
PA: He has to wait until the credits and then ‘go!’
RW: Kettles on.
PA: And he presses this button and tons of water come pouring out of this reservior, and everyone can make a cup of tea.
RW: I look at this as a… how you’re saying about how street furniture will have a different map, and I’m quite intrigued by how this has no effect, yet a very big effect, on how Digbeth is laid out. It seems to me that it’s not… not necessarily not taken into account, but it’s kind of… it’s just there so we’ll build…
PA: Build around it.
RW: We’ll just build our thing here and around it and…
PA: It’s like a river?
RW: It’s become a completely immovable…
PA: Have you thought about the canals in a similar way? The canals are lower down but there’s that sense of this canal that kind of butts up alongside the railway, follows the roads, and you can’t really build over it, you can’t build under it. There’s a great area in a bit of Stirchley, where I live in south Birmingham, where the railway line and the canal line meet around Bournville, actually it’s way before then, but there’s this particular point - most of the way the butted up against each-other but then they just slightly split off, and they very slowly go off like this. And there’s this area for about a mile where the land is pretty useless because you can’t go over the railway and you can’t go over the canal, so it’s like this industrial estate where to get to places you have to drive for miles until eventually you get to the warehouse you’re looking for. You couldn’t live down there, it’d be awful, you’d have to drive a mile out of the City just to get back in again. It’s the kind of dead zones that are enforced by these monolithic things.
RW: I think it’s here, it’s underneath this sign. ‘Bordesley Cattle Station’.
PA: Bordesley Cattle Station?
RW: It’s underneath the advert for self-storage, or something.
PA: Yeah. Bordesley Station itself is over there? That’s fascinating.
RW: Yes. I’ve not been up there yet, it always closed - it opens at the weekend doesn’t it?
PA: When there are football matches.
RW: I heard there was only one train, which is some kind of requirement for keeping it open - they have to run a train on it.
PA: I thought it was for the Blue’s ground? So it’s a train station for football fans to use when there’s a match.
RW: Again, strange stories get told…
PA: Sometimes you can see a little bit up. There’s this spooky, damp entrance up the stairs.
RW: Yeah, the view through that gate is quite grim. Yes, ‘Self Store Containers’ covers the Cattle Station sign.
PA: And that’s the end.
RW: Yes, that’s the start of it… is that open?
PA: There’s a big fat gate at the top.
RW: I’ve never seen that one open though? Exciting.
PA: Might be able to get halfway up.
RW: Oh, I’m in luck! This is where we get locked in. Does that mean that there’s a train coming? You can’t see much. It’s over there somewhere. You can’t really see it?
PA: No, it’s a shame. You can’t make it out at all?
RW: It’s the other side of that fence… there’s a tree sticking up. In front of that big, square, black building. With the white border round it.
RW: I think that’s the end of it, isn’t it.
PA: You can see the greenery that’s behind those bushes… is the viaduct. This church is quite fascinating, it’s fascinating the things people ignore - it’s right on the ring road so millions of people drive past it, and it’s massive, a monolithic big thing but if you ask most people about it they won’t have a clue ‘that big church on the ring road, what?’ It just sort of vanishes. It’s not used as a church, it’s used as a - I’m not sure if it’s the offices of a homeless charity or if it’s actually used as a homeless shelter, but it’s definitely a homeless charity. And should be know, it’s on hill, it’s high, but nobody realises it’s there. It’s just vanished.
PA: Any final words now we’ve gone a bit quite?
RW: Well, that’s the route - that’s the street-level walking the Viaduct, and it’s… it’s an odd thing, I think.
PA: It’s sort of exciting and mundane at the same time.
RW: There’s something mildly depressing, in a way, about it.
PA: I don’t know if it’s depressing?
RW: What we were saying about the whole idea of regeneration and nice new things being there and the fact that it’s a load of old lean-tos and crumbling things. There’s a certain charm to that but at the same time I find it quite sad. That it’s all a bit uncared for.
PA: I had somebody on a walk once… actually I’ve got two examples of older people on walks - like 60-odd, probably 70 actually. And the first one, he was really enjoying it because he grew up here and was ‘oh this is amazing, I used to run around at the canals’ and he was telling me all these stories about being chased off the canals by the police because they were effectively industrial infrastructure and they didn’t want them damaged, so there were police policing the canals, which is just surreal. And he had a great time. And this other guy who found the whole thing really depressing because this was his city and it was all just being left to rot and stuff, and I found that one quite hard to deal with, I was thinking ‘this is interesting to me’ and it kind of challenges… I talked to Ben Waddington about it… when we’re taking people on tours - is it some kind of class tourism? It’s something to be aware of. And I think what we concluded, or what I got from that, was that this idea of you not judging it, you’re just showing it to people and they can make their own judgements, and just trying to open it up and say ‘this is here, decide what you want’. I do have this thing of on the one hand I like the fact that it’s all grotty, but I also accept that people have to work and live here and they want a post office, and they want public toilets, and a decent shop.
RW: A train? Not stopping…
PA: And that tension’s there for me. But then I suppose people who live in the countryside have the same feeling - we like a nice old rusty shed.
RW: You don’t want some modern building here…
PA: When actually what they want is a modern, stainless steel building and the equipment to farm effectively and efficiently, but what we want is something out of the chocolate box…
RW: … story book thing.
PA: I remember when I was living on the Isle of Wight for a few months, I was working on a farm, and there was this village nearby and ambulance went through and I was seriously shocked that it was a modern ambulance. I was expecting it to be one those old… like something out of ‘Heartbeat’ or something, with somebody rattling a bell, and it was like ‘woah, oh shit yeah, I’m in the twenty-first century!’ And there is - why shouldn’t there be that stuff - why shouldn’t this place be cleaned up and modern? But then, there’s a whole other area about what cities should be and Birmingham’s always had this… whenever people moan about new buildings or knocking down old buildings we say ‘well, it’s Birmingham’s way’. I mean, I like the old buildings and I feel sad when they go but Birmingham’s slogan is ‘Forward’. Birmingham’s history is the Victorians knocked down the Georgian buildings, the post-war knocked down the Victorian buildings, now we’re knocking down the post-war buildings. It’s what we do. We don’t look back, we don’t think about… we don’t worry about the heritage of this stuff, as much as the functionality of it. It’s… you know, when you clear the slums they weren’t worried about the communities they were worried about the cleanliness and the functionality of giving people somewhere nice to live. And that was a big tragedy for the Irish community, it split them up and sent them out, but, they got nicer houses? It’s that sort of double-edged thing. But on a personal level I like the fact that there’s this weird dead zone right next to the city centre - that you can get off the train at New Street and in ten minutes you’re in this place that doesn’t make any sense.
RW: That’s exactly how I felt.
PA: I don’t want it to go. I don’t want it to become another Jewellery Quarter or another Brindleyplace.
RW: I think that’s the thing, it’s that it is nice to see how things - because things do change anyway - but it’s quite nice to see how they change on a more organic way as apposed to a developer coming in and building a big thing.
PA: The last fifty-odd years - the post-war history of Digbeth - is these tiny incremental changes, and little things here and little things there. We’ve seen it today walking past - ‘oh, that.. six months ago this was this, and that was that’ but it’s so small that it doesn’t… there’s nobody really dominant, although on Floodgate street maybe the Custard Factory’s dominant, but even then it’s hardly a dent. Anyway, I can feel myself getting on to my soapbox.
RW: OK, let’s leave it there. Brilliant.