Autumn is come, and the air is chilly. And so I haven’t been sitting in my usual spot on Victoria Square observing the movement and interaction of people over my lunch break that often. Once I’m acclimatised, and I’ve procured a handy supply of buttock-insulating newspaper to sit on, I suspect that I’ll return to those habits. But for the past few weeks I’ve been walking the city, familiarising myself with the links between the various areas I’ve driven to, but have never walked around.
Which has led me to contemplate the history of this city. Most people will be at least dimly aware of Birmingham’s industrial heritage – it was a reasonably innocuous market town until the late 17th century, when Messrs Watt, Boulton and Priestley got going and kickstarted the Industrial Revolution. There are many images one comes across that encapsulate this heritage – factories, mills, chimneys. But in my head, there are two that stand out, due to their link to transportation. There’s no point, after all, to mass producing goods unless you can get them to markets.
The canals are one – from the centre of the city, they spread out in all directions to link up with Stratford, London, Coventry, Manchester, Worcester and the Severn. To me, they’re always the quintessential countryside reminder of the creeping influence of modernisation in 18th-century Britain. Out there, they’re beautiful, picturesque, peaceful. In the city, though, they have mainly the face of functionalism. They’re still perfect for walking along, though, as there are far fewer people on them, no cars, no noise, and just enough of a smattering of the innate peacefulness that is exuded by bodies of water. Such as this spot, which has everything you need to make you happy. The shape of that bridge over the tunnel, the chimney, the barges. And, if you’re that way inclined, the all-you-can-eat buffet at Jimmy Spices.
The other, of course, are the railways. And not the diesel-electric commuter trains, but the real thing – steam engines, and all the magnificent infrastructure that went along with them. I’ll admit it – I have a penchant for functional public Victorian architecture. Pump houses, water towers, and railway stations. But it’s the bridges that really make my heart warm. Sometimes, it’ll be idyllic rural ones like this one:
But my most recent discovery is this spot, where the railway line just north of Snow Hill Station crosses the Birmingham-Fazeley canal:
There’s a huge, cavernous arch, which feels almost neolithic, while the circular reflections of the light at the other end magnify the airy, ostentatious magnificence of the architecture. The niches along the sides are filled with discarded rubbish, the metal staircase from road to towpath is rusty and functional, and the water dripping from the roof of the arch give it a dingy, dirty, degraded air. Coming into this spot from the small, cramped, canal tunnel is a fantastic experience, bringing together the best and worst of Victorian transportation.