Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working with the Overhear Poetry app and Ben Waddington from Still Walking Festival, to develop a walking tour which combines an exploration of the city centre with a live poetry experience. Part guided tour, part poetry reading, and part writing workshop, the event was premiered over this past weekend, with a trial run on Saturday 26 October, and the real event on Sunday 27 October.
When I was first approached to run a walking tour around the city, I knew immediately that I would like it to be an exploration of Birmingham’s green spaces. The city has a reputation of being a concrete jungle, sometimes considered to be more grey than London. But the truth is, Birmingham has a lot of green spaces – sometimes you just need to look a little closer.
One such hidden gem, which formed the starting point of our walking tour, is the City Centre Gardens. Though it is quite a small space, hemmed in on all sides by the Library of Birmingham, the Rep, the Arena, and residential tower blocks, it is still a small oasis of green that offers a bit of an escape from the bustling streets and building works. It was offered as a gift to the residents in the tower blocks, as a ‘thank you’ for putting up with the noise during the reconstruction of Centenary Square. In this garden, we found a small plaque which cited the Gardens as the winner of the Urban Green Space Awards in 1995. This then formed the basis of our walk – we would present the ‘Urban Green Space Awards 2019’, a tongue-in-cheek look at Birmingham’s other green spaces, from the intentionally planted to the overgrown and wild.
In order to encourage walkers to see Birmingham, and these green spots, in a new light, the City Centre Gardens did not win in 2019 as it did in 1995, but actually came in last place. Walkers were encouraged to take a close look at the garden’s features – its strange structures, its exotic planting, its neatly-manicured lawns – and compare this strictly regimented garden to the geometric aspects of Birmingham’s architecture.
As we walked, we discovered a number of different green spaces – a patch of grass and flower beds in the centre of a traffic island, a small community allotment behind some tower blocks, wild plants thriving at the edge of the canal, and herb gardens bordering the towpath. At each, I invited the walkers to formulate a personal connection to these green spots, before giving the spaces a little backstory and a ranking within the competition. Along the way, I also read a few poems: one old, one from Bella, and one which is soon to be published in an anthology.
A short walk took us a little way out of the city centre, through a housing estate, into a strange little patch of wilderness I titled ‘the Deadarm’. Centred around a basin branching off from the main canal, it mirrored the city centre gardens in that it was also hemmed in on all sides: to the north, a railway; to the east a busy ringroad; and the canal to the south. But this place was far more overgrown, far less friendly, than the gardens. The grass was knee-height, and strewn with the debris of human habitation (the obligatory fridge, half a mattress, and supermarket trolley left to rust). As we stood there, traffic buzzed around us: train, car, narrowboat and pedestrian. But this space was separate to all that – a place which had an atmosphere all it’s own. I encouraged walkers to see the strange beauty of this place and potential treasures it might offer up, if we were only to look. I read another poem, before announcing ‘the Deadarm’ as the winning entry into the Urban Green Space Awards 2019.
The concept for the walking tour was a little strange, but everyone who attended, either for the trial run or the real event, will have taken away something different. In some cases, it may just have been the discovery of new parts of the city; for others, it may have been a new perspective on Birmingham’s hidden ecology, and its reputation as a concrete jungle. For myself, who attended both walks (in both heavy rain and beautiful sunshine!) it was a rekindled a connection to the city, and an appreciation of our relationship with both the urban and the rural, the man-made and the natural. I will definitely be taking more strolls down Birmingham’s green vein in the future.
Thanks go out to Tom and Angela at Overhear for commissioning my Yorks Cafe poem and the walking tour, and to Ben for all his help and support in developing this walk. Thanks also to all those who came along!