July 18th - Again, I made my escape, and I slipped into Birmingham mid-afternoon and got the train to Kings Norton, intending to ride into Birmingham University where I had a call to make, and then on to the city centre along the canal, which is great from King’s Norton all the way into the city.
It is when it’s open, that is…
It turns out the towpath is shut until September between Bourneville and University, for resurfacing. I slipped through the barriers easily at Bourneville, and rode a peaceful and generally rideable route all the way to the barriers at the other end, which were impossible to transgress, so I doubled back and found a way over wasteland down to the Aston Webb Road.
Hot and bothered, I made the visit I intended to, and rode into Brum on the canal, which was lovely.
It was again a great afternoon - but very, very hot indeed.
Just one thing spoiled it - I have a foot injury, or so it would seem. I don’t know what I’ve done, but my foot is agony to walk on; not bad to cycle on, but it makes it more difficult. This is unusual for me, and I hope it heals soon.
Rather than ride home from Birmingham, I caught the train.
July 9th - I’ve worked 40 out of the last 64 hours. It isn’t leaving a lot of time for anything much, but I’m still cycling; it’s my interregnum between home and work, and enables me to straighten things out and relax a bit.
This was my journey home tonight from New Street Station, in snatched photos.
Stations at night again, I can’t help myself. It’s that Late Night Feelings thing coming to the surface again…
July 2nd - Passing through New Street Station in the morning, I noticed a motorcycle paramedic had been dispatched to some unknown incident down on a platform. Parked on the concourse, a well used, and no doubt well loved, specially adapted BMW bike.
These bikes are incredibly well engineered; they have equipment for use by the technician mounted everywhere, and it’s all to hand very quickly. The paramedics themselves hang about town all day waiting for callouts, and off they speed with all the kit to save lives and tend the injured. I used to see them in a particular coffee shop in town, always with scissors tucked into one boot.
It must be a hell of a buzz to ride through the subways, concourses and malls of Birmingham to get to a shout. I can really appreciate the rush of that.
To Flymo and the lads who wait for the call, my total respect. And I love your steeds.
July 1st - New Street Station is still a mess, still barely functional, and mostly, I think, now beyond reclamation. But on an early summer sunny morning, there’s something about the concrete, steel and surrounding architecture that renders it if not impressive, then rather fascinating. Architectural styles and textures clash. Machinery grinds and rumbles. Rails screech and clatter. Overhead wires buzz and crackle.
In the midst of this, the most unnatural, built environment that one would consider utterly hostile - signs of life. Shrubs and weeds, their seeds deposited by birds or wind, by luck find a little moisture, a sheltered fissure and just a little nutrition.
If only human design had such bare-faced tenacity, audacity and beauty.
May 30th - Later on, in Birmingham city centre, I noticed this curious ladies bike. Nice colour, virtually brand new, three speed. It’s Pinnacle, a brand I think may be unique to Evans Cycles, who have a branch nearby - this is a bike aimed at a specific market, and probably price point, too. I think it’s Shimano three speed, and the saddle, grips and comfort features like the adjustable stem are nice, but the brakes - callipers on a bike likely to be heavily loaded - are a bit crap, to be honest. The choice of a white chain and chain set are interesting, too. I’m also intrigued by the frame design; not quite a Mixte frame, it seems a bit pointlessly complex for what it actually is.
I also note the rear light on the seatpost that can’t actually be seen from the rear due to the carrier. Bit worrying that, and why I don’t like seatpost lights, which are often inadvertently obscured by overhanging jackets, too.
It’s a lovely thing, though, really. I’m interested in the way city bikes like this are evolving - they’re coming on a bit from the costly and huge Pashley hulks of a few years ago.
May 30th - Under the rumble and roar of Spaghetti Junction, beside a quiet, limpid canal, on an aqueduct above the River Tame, a little oasis of wildflowers in a built, otherwise hostile urban environment of steel, concrete and brick.
Lupins, poppies, ox-eye daisies, red campion.
That’s my Birmingham, right there.
May 30th - I spent the morning at work, then late afternoon, cycled into Birmingham to meet with a couple of colleagues. I headed down to the canal at Tyburn for a decent run, and followed the canal into central Birmingham.
One of the little-known features of canals that helped keep them open for years after their commercial value declined was the fact that under their embankments and towpaths, utilities found a direct route through cities for their pipelines and cables. By laying services alongside the waterways, many of the issues with traffic and complexity of installation could be avoided.
Along the canals here in Birmingham run gas, high voltage electricity, fibre optic telecommunications links, and petrochemical fuel pipelines. The keen-eyed explorer can often spot the evidence on the surface in the form of markers, bulkheads, valve access chambers and other infrastructure.
These small, concrete gas pipeline markers indicate a high pressure gas pipeline runs below, but also serve another purpose, as can be seen in this example which has had the cover prised off. The pipeline is metal, and to prevent corrosion, a system of cathodic protection is applied; a low voltage DC supply is connected between the pipe and electrodes - called anodes - in the ground nearby. The flow of current between the anodes and the pipe means that the anodes corrode sacrificially instead of the metal they’re protecting.
A similar system is being fitted to metalwork in the supports of Spaghetti Junction to protect it from water damage.
The markers - about 50m apart along the towpath - house junction boxes for the protection wiring and test points, and contain a magnetically operated switch for test purposes. Large brass studs in the side allow connection of test equipment.
You can find out about cathodic protection here.
May15th - I finished up early, had something to eat and then returned to Birmingham on the Snow Hill line. I used to trave that service a lot, but for five years now I’ve barely troubled it. Many of the landmarks from the line I knew have gone, or changed.
When I got to Brum, it was too nice to hop on another train, so I dropped onto the canal, and rode home through Bordesley, under Spaghetti Junction, over to Pipe Hayes and along the Plant’s Brook Cycleway to Sutton. From there, I rode through the park home. A great ride - Brum canals are at their best in sunshine, and even the heron was out sunning itself. The dogroses at Tyburn were beautifully scented, and the canal limpid and lazy.
Plant’s Brook cycleway is lovely, and I shall use it more often. Even the rabbits in Sutton Park performed for the camera.
A wonderful afternoon.
May 9th - I popped into Birmingham to run a few errands and cycled in via Roman Road, Sutton Park, and then onto the North Birmingham Cycleway down past Witton Lakes. I returned via Plants Brook and Sutton, but more on that later.
I had business up at Constitution Hill, and on the way, I remembered these odd utility blockhouses marooned in the centre of the recently rebuilt St. Chad’s Circus. These substation-like buildings are the one solid remnant of the old subterranean subway complex; overlooked by the Catholic Cathedral, they are a chilling reminder of the cold war.
They are plant and ventilation installations for Anchor Exchange, a huge, sprawling, underground nuclear blast-proof telecommunications exchange beneath the streets of Birmingham. Mostly now abandoned, Anchor only exists as cable tunnels, having been rendered obsolete by the end of the communist threat and advent of the internet.
Anchor was built at the same time as Birmingham built the inner ring road, or ‘concrete collar’; the hated gyratory system that consisted of flyovers and tunnels called queensways. Birmingham City Council have spent 20 years now destroying the concrete collar, and putting traffic on the same level as the human city, but Anchor is still ever-present.
There were several entrance points to Anchor from these tunnels, and the complex was an open secret for decades.
It’s telling that long after its usefulness ended, Anchor still requires maintenance and support; this closed stairwell with it’s original rails on the right and peculiar textured facing is one of the only pieces of evidence left on the surface, belying what lies beneath.
May 9th - Also introducing their offspring to the big, wide world were Birmingham’s Canada geese. I saw a couple of families on the canal in central Birmingham, each with 3 goslings. These charming yellow chicks are gorgeous, but fiercely guarded by mum and dad who hiss and head-bob at me while I take pictures.
Late spring - multiplication, it’s the name of the game. Delightful to witness.
April 9th - I had a meeting in Sutton in the morning, then had to pop down to Tyseley. Leaving too late to head anywhere else, but too early to go straight home, I cycled back along the canal home. I love the bit of canal through Bordesley. The stretch past The Bond - so many architectural and technological periods in one shot. I have no idea what’s going on with the statue and the large yellow tank at Typhoo junction, but the cowslips on the embankment were a real treat.
A really nice afternoon.
March 14th - This is for Richard Burnell. Last autumn, he was exploring the canals of Birmingham, and he happened upon these boxes, mounted either side of the canal in Ladywood. He asked what they were, and I told him - to some incredulity - that they were a traffic counter. I vowed that next time I passed, I’d take a picture or two.
In the tall metal box is a mains power supply and a counter. In the long, flat one next to it, two photo electric beam switches (made by specialists Sick), which detect a light beam reflected from a target in the box on the opposite side of the canal. When both beams are broken together, it’s most likely by a boat, so the count increases. By using the two beams, this filters out false signals from curious hands, waterfowl etc.
Measuring boat traffic is important. Similar systems on cycle routes count bikes, and we’ve all seen the temporary ones that count traffic.
March 14th - In Birmingham, Newhall Street junction by the old Remploy headquarters. A great safety warning on the back of a truck. I only have two issues with it:
- It should be twice as big
- It should say ‘Do not pass this vehicle’
Regardless of how cycle lanes are marked, don’t come up the lefthand side of traffic folks. It’s not big, not clever, and is what kills most of the adult cyclists involved in road accidents in the UK.
March 14th - I escaped work in Tyseley at lunchtime, and headed onto the canals of Brum on a fine sunny afternoon. From the Soho Loop, Winson Green; polyanthus in Centenary Square; the canal mural opposite The Bond in Digbeth; Galton Bridge and Ludgate.
Sometimes, this city still feels like it’s mine. A cracking ride.
March 11th - On the way home on a sunny, spring evening, with a low sun shining long over Aston. The train stopped and was held for a few minutes, dwelling on a service coming in the other direction before the points could change - as often happens. The doors were open, and I was stood in golden light, frozen.
It’s a snapshot of Birmingham, and why I love it so.