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Sunday, 27 May 2007

My history of the founding of Handsworth Park

The Earl of Dartmouth opens the Victoria Park Extension on 30 March 1898
This afternoon, I did another history tour of Handsworth Park - initially titled Victoria Park - but the chilly wet weather was too much for all but my friend Zarina, so we strolled round the pond in the wind and the rain for over an hour, meeting one of the rangers and the boatman and some people measuring the Canada Geese population ("There are too many" said one, while another wrestled a bird to the ground to ring it), sheltering under trees, gazing at the views, and chatting about lots of things - geese and whether its cruel to pierce their eggs, Guantanamo, that 'heavenly body' and the uses of sheep according to Lawrence Durrell in Prospero's Cell, the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Hunters Road, Mr Smiley's houses, plans for Aston and Lozells, the gate the developers want removed from the masterplan linking the park and the new houses on the Victoria Jubilee Allotments, the workings of the Serious Organised Crime Agency, discarded gum and cigarette butts, details of Austin Line's and Charles Palmer's lovingly restored fountains ("You know Palmer was a keen cyclist"), what to do about dog mess, the boats which were out again yesterday, the hoped for return of fish to the pond, the unmarked pauper's graves in St.Mary's Churchyard and the thinking of the people who created Handsworth Park - "so people like us could talk in a public place on a rainy day?" Strolled home to tea and coffee with Lin. Had a good afternoon yesterday attending a friend’s wedding where the pastor has been for 50 years and is struggling a bit with rituals - checking stage directions sotto voce. My friend M, arrived 50 minutes late, having struggled, she told me later, to get the clingiest of pale pink wedding dresses around her slender figure. She's now married twice - well actually thrice if you count yesterday. She divorced a while ago. Yesterday, having plighted their troths and sworn the vows the pastor started over “Do you – sorry remind me of your name – yes, right – OK - do you M take ... ?“ and so we went round again, everyone, including bride and groom, smiling and laughing at a joyful and hilarious piece of double knot-tying to the music of ‘Greensleeves’, through Handel’s ‘Behold the Lamb of God’ and the singing of ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘When Jesus Washed – Oh happy day’, a Lesson from Ephesians 5, 20-33, some vibrant preaching with the tale of Paul shipwrecked on Malta surviving a snake bite - ‘for his destiny was Rome’ - and a convivial blend of black and white. Someone whispered to me later that the ‘pastor was past his best’ - yet he founded this church and saw its congregation through hard years of settling in England – years about which the Anglican communion in Birmingham has reproached itself for being less than welcoming to Christians from the Caribbean. It will be decades or more before a faltering secularist like me can compete with this sort of thing. Around 4.30 I was at The Village Cafe over from the Arcadian Centre with Richard and Amy enjoying noodle soup with roast duck. R took the car to work in Broad Street. Amy and I walked home via Bennetts Hill, the Jewellery Quarter into Hylton Street where a shoulder-width alley between workshops leads to Key Hill and the closed post office on Hockley Hill. By a bus stop among broken bottles lay the glossy cardboard packaging of a legless headless torso branded 'Heavenly Body'. We threaded the low tunnels and non-agora under Hockley flyover, up the sidewalk, past flytipping, past the nearly completed Gurdwara Babe-Ke - "Hey the fibreglass dome is rotating!" - down Naden Street (more an alley) where we were asked to a boombox enhanced block BBQ in the car park behind the redbrick flats overlooking Soho Hill. Along Hunter's Road, with the exception of the Catholic church and St.Mary’s Convent with their flowered frontages, a street of fine buildings has suffered low-budget private renovation. We walked on to the top of the hill and the tripartite junction of Weston Road, Hunters Road and Barker Street, wondering why some roads are called 'streets' and v.v., passing The Observatory Pub in the bow of one junction, and walking up Barker Street to the acutely angled Villa Cross, its identity mishapened by the disorder of the 1980s, losing us a cinema (already a bingo hall), pub (a drug market), shops (uninsurable) and gaining us a carpark, boarded up buildings and grant-funded offices with frontages attracting fly-posting as a cul-de-sac attracts flytipping, prompting traffic to pass rather than arrive. How titanic a task to draw in the involvement of its present and future population in reshaping this place and its surroundings. It can be done. People are working at it. We do meet and strive to get our minds around many tasks. It helps to have lots of cups of tea and biscuits. Promise exists - despite the acronyms of planning - in the Aston, Newtown and Lozells Area Action Plan (AAP) Issues and Options Report handed out at the Ward Area Committee last week. Comments need to go by 15 June 07 or phone 0800 694 3100. This plan will be part of the Local Development Framework (LDF) replacing the Unitary Development Plan (UDP). It's about the interconnection of housing, jobs, architecture, green space, health, education, transport, sustainability. It's about the circuitry of the area – IT, lighting, energy and water. It's about places to buy and sell, to worship, to play, to grow, to sit and talk, to listen, to eat, to associate, to read and view. It's about museums, gardens, smallholdings and trees and all with an eye to the broader changes that transform the practices and objects of one era so they become incomprehensible or impractical in another. Coming down Heathfield Road we came across three quite new brick houses in this dystopian place. They’d been built with such care and skill I wanted to clasp the hand of their builder. Amy took a picture she hasn't given me yet of a carved plaque in the wall of one house, saying it was built and designed by a man called Anthony E. Smile in 1998. Of course I’ve seen these many times but never asked about them. We strolled down Heathfield Avenue under trees and peered at the backs of the houses through iron gates. With a 'peep' of its horn an estate drove up. A lady introduced herself as Mrs.Smile. I shook her hand. "When you see your son please pass to him my deepest respect. He is a craftsman!" Smiley's houses are hope in brick. Mrs Smiley said "See the Lodge at the top of North Drive. My son worked on that." We did. This was the Lodge at an entrance to James Watt's Heathfield Estate, the original house demolished and what would now be called executive homes built in eclectic styles in the 1930s and now made more eclectic by prosperous newcomers who instead of flying to the suburbs on making their wealth have stayed in wicked Handsworth. The rawness of some renovations, such as the giant rampant gilt lions on one frontage, has not yet been moderated by the patina with which time can moderate the flamboyant impulses of new money. We walked on down North Drive, turning left along Gibson Road cursing the non-planning that had permitted the placing of several ill-proportioned new houses, still fenced off with paling and barbed wire, much too close to the pavement with diminutive back yards taken from gardens in North Drive. "It's someone in North Drive who's built them" said Amy. Greed in brick. So we came home, having enjoyed several little adventures. (see this entry 13 Dec'11 on a proposed Heritage Trail for Handsworth and Lozells)

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Simon Baddeley