Far sickness part two and why some things in Bearwood are less than awesome

Bearwood Interchange

Bearwood Interchange (Photo credit: tim ellis)

I chose to live in Bearwood because almost everything I needed was in walking distance including schools, a range of shops, green space, a library and a swimming pool. When I moved here about 25 years ago I could buy lovely bread from The Old Bakery, get almost every type of fruit and vegetable from Mike Drapers and meat from a number of butchers. We had a book shop, a music shop, a toy shop, a post office. Now most of them have gone. Slowly Bearwood is changing. Our high street like many others across the country is dominated by pawnbrokers, multiples, fast food and charity shops. And empty shops.

And I hardly noticed that this was happening.

Three things made me realise how bad it really was.

  1. I went around the world.
  2. I took part in the 4am project.
  3. I got involved with the Portas Pilot bid.

I had enjoyed vibrant neighbourhoods in Melbourne such as Brunswick, Armadale and in St Kilda I volunteered for Lentil as Anything. I visited fantastic markets with an amazing range of produce. Bearwood is closer to Birmingham than most of these Melbourne suburbs are to the CBD and equally well served by public transport, yet they each seem to be able to support a thriving and unique high street. They were social spaces where people met, worked and shopped.

I photographed Bearwood at 4 am and the bleakness of the high street at that time shocked me. Litter from the fast food outlets, lights flickering in empty shops and battered litter bins. This is Bearwood.

The Portas Pilot bid was an opportunity to transform the high street into one that reflected the community that lived in Bearwood. The vibrant, musical community who organise brilliant concerts in Lightwoods Park and Warley Woods. The crafty community who transform a church hall into a bunting strewn lively craft fair. A community that makes Bearwood a destination. A community full of hope and optimism.

And that was reflected in The Bearwood Blog post Has West Norwood got it right?

Yet somewhere along the line it has all gone horribly wrong. There is now a community hiding behind keyboards, determined to jump on any suggestion of an independent coffee shop where home workers could network. A community that believes that artisan bread and organic produce is not wanted ’round here’. A community that believes farmers market are a threat, not an opportunity. A community that doesn’t seem to want change. A community who wants it like it was when they were children back in the good old days. While I miss some of the old shops, I believe we have to look forward and not back if we are to bring the high street back to life. We need to be realistic that the high street is changing. And we can influence this change by developing a Neighbourhood Plan.

We need to capture aspirations and ambitions to ensure we all contribute to the function, liveability, economic advantages and environmental credentials of Bearwood. And I admit I have borrowed those words from here. They were good words! I don’t want to reinvent the wheel, just Bearwood.

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Far sickness Part One, or why some of the people in Bearwood are awesome

After travelling I found it very difficult to settle back into the normal routine of living in England. Everything was too small and so very grey. I was not working and to be honest I had changed. Old friends and acquaintances only know the old me. They asked about the trip like I had just come back from two weeks in Benidorm. One ex work colleague was shocked to see me, I thought you were off travelling she said. I was, I said, I have been away five months. The look on her face was priceless. She was still in the same job with the same problems doing the same things. In the meantime I had been around the world. I had moved on and she was in exactly the same place as she had been five months ago.

With many people I discovered that when they asked how the trip went, they were just being polite. Eyes glazed over when you talked about the Remarkable Rocks or your first kangaroo. They didn’t get it or me anymore. Some of them understood that I couldn’t slot back into my old life like nothing had happened. Others who had travelled understood, and like a secret society, we share tales of Down Under. And some like the new version more.

I made new friends in New Zealand and Australia and despite the distance and despite the fact they only spent a few days with me,  they know me better than most of my old friends, because they met the person who was on a journey. I wasn’t judged by what job I did or what clothes I wore, which is just as well as my wardrobe was limited and I took no makeup with me.

On my return, I made a choice to get involved with a group of local people who were bidding for Portas Pilot funding. They like me were passionate about the neighborhood they lived in and concerned about the ever increasing number of shops that were closing. These were people I had never met before and the joy of that was that they were meeting the new me and had no reference to my past. All they knew was that I had just got back from travelling and had a background in community development.

I joined in a challenge to shop locally, driven by the bid, to discover what our local shops did and did not provide.  As a result of the shopping challenge and driven by a passion to feed themselves and their families well, (watch out Jamie Oliver) a group of women then established the Bearwood Pantry. I am amazed by their energy and commitment to the project.

Others working on the bid had organised successful events such as the Bearwood Shuffle and Bearwood Handmade so were doers not talkers, my kind of people. Together we surveyed shoppers and traders, made a film about our high street, using the talents of local people and did the best we could with the tools and time we had available. Many of us gave up our weekends to ensure we consulted the wider community at events such as the Lightwoods Park Festival. 

As a result of being involved with the Portas Pilot I am privileged to have met some very lovely people in Bearwood. Many are not born and bred Bearwoodians (including a German, a Canadian and a couple of Ozzies). This may be why they challenge and question, in the same way that I have and will continue to do so, the lack of real choice on the high street for food and the lack of a real community hub that is not faith based. They have seen that in their home communities and have seen it in other communites in England. As I do when I travel both home and abroad. A space where we can take our family, our knitting or our lap top and meet with likeminded people. Places like Six Eight Cafe. Conduct business, share skills, run craft workshops, listen to story tellers, poets, live music and Book Cross. Dare I say, even have a pop up library.

All these things can and do happen in other high streets and towns. Why not Bearwood? In the meantime this is our high street. I think we deserve better.

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