Walking the Middleway

As part of the Grand Union Bursary I was awarded within New Art West Midlands, the wonderful Cheryl Jones put me in touch with a Walking Artist from Birmingham, Ben Waddington. Ben is the Director of  Still Walking - a fledgling walking festival that has just had its third outing in Birmingham, taking the form of a series of "guided" tours and "walking experiences" of the city.

Following on from my previous Walking in Circles work, we agreed to meet in Birmingham and walk the city's inner ring road.

The walk with Ben was great. It provided me with a set of new experiences. Firstly, I generally walk alone - for a reason, as I am searching for psychologically empty and emptied spaces. But also, I feel more comfortable being able to wander and veer from a course at my own whim.

As it turned out, I think the walk was one of discovery and no small joy for both of us. From my point of view, I got to listen to a seasoned practitioner, full of integrity, with a vigour for his activity and location. It was a real education to hear how much research goes into Ben's walks. Also there was  food for thought when, towards the end of our walk, Ben started to talk in terms of the process being less about art and more about history, and therapy, and sociology and all these other disciplinary concerns. Along the way, I got a series of valuable insights in to the city - as Ben pointed out the secret river,
architectural oddities and incongruous tourist plaques.

The enjoyment of being an alternative tourist.

For Ben, I think, and hope, that this was a new way of walking for him. There was no real history or narrative construct to our journey, we were simply following signs and veering right - expecting, at some point, to end up where we started.

Along the way, it was gratifying to see Ben exposed to parts of his city that he was unaware of - he may well have trodden that path before - but not in this concerted way. It really is true, that each walk is different, even if the route is the same or familiar.

In the event, we didn't make it the whole way around the ring road. In fact we only managed half of it. The whole ring road, composed of a series of Middleways, is about 8-9 miles, which at an average walking pace of 4 miles an hour, should have taken us about 2 hours, or a little more. But our walk, full of conversation, exploration and deviation, ran out of time.

Some weeks later, I returned to the ring road, determined to complete it. This took a further 3 attempts, as I began to understand the scale and a sense of the epicness of the city.

Having had time to digest and reflect on my initial walk with Ben, I realised that one of the discoveries resonated most with me. Within the first quarter of the ring road, drawn by an odd desire-line in the middle of the dual carriageway, we stumbled across what turned out to be a resting place for one or more of the city's homeless. homelessness that I got  stuck on. When I referred to the absent inhabitants as homeless, Ben quickly corrected me
- though I can't recall his exact terminology, his point was that they weren't homeless - they had a home, here in the middle of a constantly buzzing dual carriageway, out in the open. The prejudice was all mine, as I blithely, absent-mindedly assumed that a home meant 4 brick walls and a roof.
It was with regard to this idea of

Photo: Ben Waddington
The reason for the resonation was that this idea of home talked directly to my current arts research interests and particularly informed my planned works for NAWM.

On my second visit to the ring road, i was immediately, maybe subconsciously drawn to re-discovering this place.

An entry from my walk's thoughts -

The first part of the walk, which has taken the best part of two hours, in warm sunshine and cool breeze, was spent largely trying to remember the first walk - both in way, and in intricate detail. I couldn't understand why large parts of the route seemed unfamiliar - I knew I had been this way before - yet I was confronted with unfamiliar subways and discordant buildings.
Photo: Ben Waddington
My mind was magnetised by one memory. I wanted to find the homeless den. i remembered what it looked like - the giant sewage pipes, the archways, the plastic-strewn ground. It was located in a 'wedge of urban green space' between two ring road carriageways. And when I found it, I felt an ease.
The site itself is problematic for me. When I found the site, I realised I didn't want to go back in. I remembered discovering it with Ben, and not realising until we were in the midst of the site who its inhabitants really were, and the feelings of intrusion, and trespass that ensued. I didn't want to go back in.
I recalled the agglomeration of shredded multi-coloured plastic carrier bags, plastic bottles, tin cans and flattened boxes. The association I made with the rats nests we had uncovered at AirSpace during the Bird Yarden renovations was stark.
And then. One appeared. Shifty, with comically slow jerky movements. A can in one hand. Blindly unaware of my presence, thoroughly at home in his surroundings. I looked away for a moment, and when I looked back he'd disappeared. I went for a closer look, but all signs of animated presence had gone.

Ben's ideas of the alternatively homed struck me further when I came across this modern-day stacking system - is this really the future?

Ideas of home and inhabiting stayed with me throughout the rest of the ring road walk - inside - towards the centre there was little sign In fact the archetypal "homeless" perversely, seem to be the only demographic group who can afford to live in the centre of this city. All round the rest of the ring road, a series of utilitarian and social housing and signs of the working classes was the norm.

At the south of the ring road - I was particularly struck by Park Central - a new build development promising a Utopian future at an affordable rate. As the hoardings repeatedly suggested -

the best of both worlds

At the opposite side of the Middleway - only a couple of miles away - this was the opposite of the "homeless" scene. Aspirational, city centre living.

Thanks to Ben - and Birmingham - Walking The Middleway has given me further food for thought in terms of exploring human inhabitation of urban centres. Like many other city centres, Birmingham seems to be struggling to provide a balance between business, commerce, and community and affordable desirable living. There are numerous instances of unused, or badly used land - as well as land taken for use by developers and individuals who, for whatever reason, choose to live outside the system.

4 quarters of the Middleway
walking clockwise,
starting and finishing at N52 29.529  W 01 53.759
2 Hours 35 minutes

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