Be a tourist in your own back yard – Up The Cape

Last Sunday my husband and I went ‘Up the Cape’ with Ian Jelf, a Blue Badge Tourist Guide.

Ian Jelf

Ian Jelf

This is an area that my grandparents grew up in. My first Saturday job was in Woolworth’s Cape Hill and it is about a 20 minute walk from where I now live. Much of my childhood was spent around this area, as it had a thriving market and I had a favourite Auntie Renee who in the early 70’s lived in the then, modern, high rise flats. She had been moved from a prefab and considered herself very lucky to have a place with all mod cons including underfloor heating.

Yet I knew very little about the history of the area. A tour of the area was in order.

It would be fair to say that The Cape is not without its social and economic problems. It is an area of low wages, high unemployment and low educational attainment. A high number of the population are immigrants, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and more recently from Eastern Europe. The shops on Waterloo Road and Cape Hill reflect this rich diversity, and it is the best place to shop if you want Asian ingredients, quality fruit and veg and wonderfully colourful materials.

Fresh produce

Fresh produce

As ever there will be somewhere that bucks the trend, and throws statistics and predictions out of kilter. One primary school in the heart of this community, has a long reputation of educating young people who eventually go to university.

Two hundred and fify years or so ago, it was an area that was ‘highly desirable’. The Cape was where wealthy industrialists would make their family home, to the west of the city, avoiding pollution, on a hill overlooking Birmingham. It is hard to imagine that this was once pretty much rolling countryside. Yet my Grandad’s first job in the 1920’s was as a farm hand. His father was a highly skilled gilder, hand applying gold leaf to frames, many of which hang in the Birmingham Art Gallery, according to my Nan.

The group met on a very sunny Sunday in March at McDonald’s, at the junction of Dudley and Grove Lane. Not a place where you would normally expect a guide to the history of an area to begin. There was a good reason for this however (in addition to the practicalities of parking, toilets and refreshments) as this was the site of a former public house, The Cape of Good Hope which gave the area ‘The Cape’ its name.

Ian began by explaining that this would be an unusual tour because most of the places he would be talking about no longer existed as they had all been knocked down. DSCN0726

And of course we got some odd looks from passers by, a posse of middle aged white people, following a man with an umbrella, a trade mark of a Blue Badge guide, all wearing sensible shoes, and carrying cameras. In Smethwick on a Sunday. We may as well have had a placard declaring ‘History Geeks R US’. And we would have held it proudly!

The Grove

The Grove

And so we began. The Grove, a beautiful Art Deco Cinema now a bathroom show room.

A road named after Arthur Keen of Guest Keen and Nettlefolds (GKN).

Keen Street

Keen Street

A description of Smethwick Grove, a beautiful home to the Kier/Molliet family that used part of the canal as a boating lake, with swans and grazing cattle. James Kier was a member of The Lunar Society had been a friend of James Watt.

The Grove

The Grove

Then on to a now derelict pub (one of many in this area) The London Works. this pub would have served the workers who made the metal frames for The Crystal Palace for The Great Exhibition. The Glass was made just up the road at Chances of course. Yes, The Crystal Palace. Made in Smethwick.

A meander around a housing estate (more baffled looks from residents) crossing over from the land of Grove House to the estate of The Woodlands. The only remaining evidence of this is a run down Working Mans Club and the name of the street. New housing built in 1968 have one reference to history, the first moon landings.DSCF7964

Smethwick Windmill

Smethwick Windmill

As we go around the back of Asda and the Windmills Shopping Centre, named for the original windmill that once stood nearby, we find yet another beautiful and listed building.

The Gaumont

The Gaumont

It was originally the site of a skating rink built in 1909 which became The Rink Cinema in 1912. Demolished and rebuilt in 1928,i t is now the Victoria Suite having been The Gaumont Cinema and a Mecca bingo hall (frequented by my Aunt Renee).

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The next stop was at the junction of Waterloo Road, Cape Hill and Shireland Road. The Waterloo Pub. It is crowned with wonderful weather vane, in the shape of a Galleon. There are galleon tiles in The Grill Room. This is because the it was originally going to be called The Galleon, changed to The Waterloo due to its location.

It is a tragedy that this building is not being used. It was recently sold for £150k and yet nothing is being done to preserve it despite it being listed. Oh to win the lottery.

We continue along Shireland Road, to the site of the former Shireland Hall, another of the great houses in the area. Now a car park and terraced houses. It was the biggest house in the area as it had seven hearths (recorded due to The Hearth Tax). One of the many taxes invented to obtain revenue from house holders, such as the Window Tax, where the phrase Daylight Robbery is derived from. Oh the things you learn when on an Ian Jelf Guided Tour.

This junction was also a site of a battle in 1643. According to this article about the military history of Birmingham  ‘At the far end of the town at Cape Hill the Roundhead troopers made a stand and successfully checked the Cavaliers between the Royalists’. I think we ought to arrange a re-enactment sometime. That would make the locals look up!


And talking of looking up, above and among the shops and banks there is some amazing architecture.The Victorians made their buildings stand out with turrets and clock towers, even those to meet the needs of the poor such as The Dispensary, a now an “at risk” Grade II Listed Building. Cape Primary school is where my nan was educated over 90 years ago.

We end the tour at the site of the former Mitchells and Butlers Brewery. Now a housing estate. This was such a big site that it had its own fire station, railway network and cricket pitches. Only the fire station building, the war memorial and these gates remain.

Most of the pubs around the area were M&B pubs, my Grandad’s local was The Two Brewers (now demolished and a housing development) and the famous Blue Gates where Christabel Pankhust made a speech when seeking a parliamentary seat in the 1918 election.

Ian covered so much more than this post could do justice to. His knowledge of the area is amazing. His style is eccentric, witty and informative. And never ever boring.

If you want to learn more about where you live, find a Blue Badge Guide. If you live in Smethwick or Birmingham, find out where you can join an Ian Jelf Guided Tour.

And I will book myself on another tour of my back yard soon. Bearwood I think.

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Why Shared Reading matters

Five years ago I started a new job with Sandwell Libraries and Information Service. I was the Community Development Manager for the Big lottery Community Libraries Programme.

Two libraries, Smethwick and Bleakhouse were to be refurbished as part of the programme. My remit was to deliver the outcomes of the Community Engagement Plan. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? I don’t do boring, I do creative, I do fun. This was probably the most fun I have ever had at work. I think I may have been a bit of a shock to some people who worked there, and a breath of fresh air to others. 

New community space and new ways of using the libraries, activities to bring the community together, engage with the wider community and improve health and well being. Work with staff to understand how community engagement could change libraries. All part of my remit.

And together we created libraries with vibrant spaces for new and fun things to happen.Vegetable shows, laughter yoga, pizza making, gaming, art groups and shared reading.

Julie Mckirdy, supervisor at Thimblemill Library, really understands how to make a library a creative, vibrant space. She works very closely with her community and constantly looks seeks for opportunities and innovative ways to bring new activities and people to the library. Bearwood Pantry, a local food co-operative use the community room once a week, and Utter Bearwood, in partnership with Black Country Touring celebrate the spoken word with a series of storytelling events.

Yet, while the veggie shows and yoga were fun, my proudest achievement, and what I want to be remembered for was being part of the team that brought shared reading to Sandwell.

I came across the idea of shared reading groups after reading an article about a project led by The Reader Organisation. As soon as I read about it I knew that I had to find a way of weaving this into delivering some of the outcomes of my project. I wasn’t really sure how it would fit in, yet I had a gut instinct that I needed to do this. I always listen to my gut!

A meeting with a fantastic woman from Sandwell PCT, who was already delivering a series of activities in libraries to improve mental health and well-being in libraries further convinced me that this was something I had to make happen. She had read about the impact that shared reading had on people and had been looking for a way to introduce it to her portfolio And then I came along and she found the way to do it. Professionally and personally we clicked, she agreed to fund a ten week pilot and in Autumn 2009 Make Friends with a Book, Sandwell, was launched at Smethwick Library.

The ten week pilot got extended for a year and then a second group was commissioned by the PCT. The impact on people who came to the groups was transformational. Five years on from my first meeting with her there are now five Make Friends with a Book groups in Sandwell Libraries. One other group is in a care home, specifically for those suffering with dementia.

But the future of all these groups is under threat. This is because they all rely on funding to continue.

The groups at Bleakhouse and Smethwick will have to stop in March 2014.

Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) commission most of the hospital and community NHS services in the local areas for which they are responsible. 

Following the reorganisation from PCTs to CCGs, the responsibility for promoting public mental health has been passed to local authorities. Local authorities who are experiencing substantial cuts in their overall funding.

Interventions have to be evaluated, graphs have to be drawn, numbers need to be crunched. Evaluated. And services cut.

And that makes me sad. I know that funding is tight, I know that tough decisions have to be made, but how do you explain this to people in the groups? That the NHS would rather prescribe you happy pills than fund an activity that gets you out of the house meeting new people. Take away the weekly session reading poetry to people with dementia, and offer them bingo instead? How do you explain that the woman who reads to you isn’t coming any more, even though you asked her to read Daffodils by Wordsworth, a poem you remember reading at school?

How do you explain that the groups will stop to people who before coming to the groups would normally spend Monday morning alone watching day time telly and Thursday morning with Jeremy Kyle?

The groups have enjoyed theatre visits at the RSC and Birmingham Rep, watched films together, read Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and George Elliot. And having come to the library for one group, Make Friends with a Book, they subsequently have become actively involved in other activities in their library, including volunteering to look after the garden, creative writing, IT and painting and drawing.

Looking at the data, Sandwell is not doing very well to ensure people live longer lives. Of cause a lot to do with this is that there are pockets (big ones) of high deprivation. And yes money needs to be spent on working with people at risk of life threatening and preventable illness.

I am not saying that shared reading cures cancer or helps people to stop smoking. I do know that it makes people feel better. Just read these testimonials to see how shared reading makes a difference.

Good health is more than having a heathy body. Shared reading improves mental health and well being. I see evidence of this every time I go to a group. I don’t need statistics or produce pretty graphs to know this. If you came to a group you would see the difference it makes to people’s lives.

Good mental health can lead to improved physical well being. Just by getting out of bed, and dressed and getting on a bus to the library once a week can make a big difference to a person who otherwise would see no one all day. To someone like Gordon or Edith or Sylvia who I wrote about in All the Lonely People.

It makes a difference to the person who lives alone, to carers, to the bereaved. To those suffering a terminal illness.

It makes a difference to someone who has been made redundant, to someone who is job seeking.

It makes a difference to someone who likes listening to other people read, to someone who has loved literature all their life. And to someone who has never read a novel before.

It makes a difference to someone like me who is still grieving after losing someone close to them. To someone who is sometimes so sad that she cannot get out of her bed or remember to eat. Make Friends with a Book is my time to nurture and look after me. And to meet up with people who knew and loved my mom.

It made a difference to my mother, who had been diagnosed with an incurable disease, with a unknown life expectancy. A woman for whom getting out and seeing the world, meeting people and reading were her main pleasures. Those and a mixed grill.

Mom had lost her appetite, her sight and her mobility. Yet at Make Friends with a Book, Sylvia, a former actress, had a new audience. She met new people who were interested in her life on stage and the stars she had met. She had another fifteen minutes of fame.

When I sat in that PCT office five years ago, making the case for funding this project; talking about the impact it would have; who the beneficiaries would be; how it would achieve shared outcomes; all the things you have to do when justifying funding a project, I didn’t know that two of the ‘beneficiaries’ would be me and my mom.

And it was her new audience, who were there at her funeral, dressed up in bright colours. They made the last few months of her life a bit more bearable. And she would never had met them if it wasn’t for Make Friends with a Book.

Now, go evaluate that.

Make Friends with a Book go to Stratford (again)

Yes, we liked it so much we did it again!

English: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, home of th...

English: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last October I took my mom to see The Tempest with the lovely Make Friends with a Book people. I wrote about it here.

Make Friends with a Book at Stratford upon Avon

On September 21 a whole bunch of us took another trip from Sandwell to go and see All’s Well that Ends Well at the RSC.

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Some of us met on the train at Snow Hill Station.

I timed my journey so that I could enjoy a bit of sightseeing and tea before the theatre.

Mom loved Stratford, and had fond memories of a trip she took with her old friend when they were teenagers. I am so glad that I had the opportunity to make it one of her last days out. And as per her wishes I left a little bit of her there, on this visit, by the river in the shade of the theatre she loved so much.

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The people from the group that meet at Bleakhouse Library had been very important in her life for the last year of her life and I knew that they were looking after her while I was away on my travels.

Who knew that a group that I helped to establish four years ago was going to have a significant impact at the end of her life? Not me.  They were her final audience and gave her the opportunity to share her stories from the theatre once again. She got lots of curtain calls.

And the play? Thoroughly enjoyed by all, amazing production, and the sun came out for Make Friends with a Book again.

Our next theatre visit is closer to home, at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to see A Christmas Carol. Guess what we will be reading in December?

The Library of Birmingham

DSCN5934I was very lucky to have a sneak preview of The Library of Birmingham before it opens its doors to the public on 3 September 2013.

I was a guest at one of a series of soft testing. Members of the public were there to test the knowledge of the staff, some of the services on offer and generally feed back on the building.

Today the photo embargo was lifted and I can now share my photos and thoughts about my visit.

The press have also released their reports, it seems The Guardian hates the library and Birmingham, and the council. The Independent is kinder.

This is my personal feedback, based on what I experienced on the day.

What I hope they have got right by the time of opening is:

The temperature. It was too warm, everywhere. It was a warm day, after a particularly hot few days. The studio theatre we met in was stuffy.

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The Shakespeare Memorial Room was sauna like. The rest of the building was certainly warmer than needed. Time will tell if this is a snag or a major issue.

The wi-fi. This was patchy and non existent on either of the terraces.

The lifts. They were so slow, I wasted valuable time waiting for one to arrive.

My other thoughts are:

The Children’s Library is on the Lower Ground yet the Buggy Park is on the Ground Floor. This does not seem very practical or secure to me. Buggies are very expensive and I cannot see parents wanting to leave them unattended. Or take toddlers down two escalators.

The change from escalators to a travelator in the main body of the library was a bit disconcerting, especially coming down. I can’t say why exactly but it confused me a bit. I wear varifocals and sometimes I have issues with stairs and escalators, so perhaps it is just me.

I think there are some accessibility issues. My mom, as her sight deteriorated would have found it very difficult to navigate around the rotunda and on the escalators. The light would not have been adequate for her. For me, as the person who took her out and about in her wheelchair, I would have found it difficult to manoeuvre around the building. And mom would have got fed up of waiting for the lifts. As I am not a wheelchair user nor was with someone who is on the day, I couldn’t test this, I did however ask someone who was there with a wheelchair user. They thought there were some issues too. Again, time will tell how major a problem this is.

So onto the good bits.

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The Rotunda of Books is stunning.

DSCN5940Every member of staff I spoke to was enthusiastic and excited about opening to the public and were well informed. They will have a lot of changes to get used to and I think they are up to the job.

DSCN5946The Secret Garden on the 7th floor is lovely and will be a good place to relax. The views are amazing.

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I also liked the Discovery Terrace on the 3rd floor. DSCN5961

More amazing views of Birmingham.

I will be visiting the library when it opens and hope that I can organise a special visit behind the scenes for Make Friends with a Book, the shared reading group I helped establish in Sandwell.

In the future I will be trying out the cafe and may even write a blog post from there. So watch this space.

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Twitter talk

I was going to share my happy bus experience today. I am not as I am not feeling that happy now. Outraged, astonished and bemused is closer to what I am feeling, all because I dared put my head above the parapet on twitter.

It followed my visit to West Bromwich and The Public yesterday. And my blog post. Not really sure how it all started as there were quite a few of us involved in the conversation.

  1. morning @westbrompaul hope you are going to help save @_the_public .Its contribution to health & wellbeing on many levels is important

  2. @brummytaff The council cannot afford to subsidise it. The Public will still be there but is likely to end up with a smaller arts offer.

  3. @westbrompaul @PaulSandars @brummytaff health, wellbeing, culture not high on the councils agenda just more tesco and poundlands

However it seems that because I live in Birmingham, I have no right to have an opinion of decisions made by Sandwell Councillors. 

@westbrompaul: @travellingcoral @PaulSandars The people of Sandwell are my priority. I make no apologies for that.” < Rt Indeed Paul

While I absolutely accept that they are not my elected members, I do not accept that I should not be able to voice an opinion about Sandwell, its councillors or The Public.

I also dared correct @sandwellleaders grammar in response to this: I couldn’t help myself.

@westbrompaul @travellingcoral @PaulSandars Paul just ask where they pay there Council Tax !

And so it continued:

  1. @sandwellleader @westbrompaul @PaulSandars i am shocked that you are confined by boundaries esp now bham is labour controlled

  2. @travellingcoral @westbrompaul @PaulSandars When will you have something positive to say about Sandwell.. There their

    And there is more:

    1. @sandwellleader @westbrompaul @PaulSandars I have a lot to say positively about Sandwell: libraries the first but need to be marketed better

    2. @travellingcoral Your off again Coral but they need better marketing.

      Grammar is clearly not the strong point of Darren Cooper. Others agree.

      @travellingcoral And you’re/ your 😉

       I just hope the advice is taken on board.

      @loveourpublic @westbrompaul @travellingcoral @PaulSandars Thanks for the tip useful 🙂

      The message is clear here. Am wondering if I will need a visa to visit Sandwell.

      1. @travellingcoral @sandwellleader @PaulSandars You can always go to Birmingham if you’re that unhappy. Bearwood & Cape Hill are busy places.

        At least Paul can spell.

        If not take advice.

        1. @westbrompaul @loveourpublic @travellingcoral @sandwellleader @PaulSandars Suggest you setup separate personal & professional accounts guys

        2. @re7ox I don’t need two, thanks.
        3. @westbrompaul No need to thank me. Just an observation. Most employees have a statement to differentiate their public/professional views.

          Interestingly, only one Sandwell councillor attended Hyper WM when it was held at The Public. She has since been reprimanded for improper use of social media. (IMHO she didn’t). Darren and the Pauls may have found it useful. I suppose I should be glad that at least they are having a conversation and not just sending messages.

          And in case I don’t understand that my views are not important to them.

          1. @sandwellleader @westbrompaul @PaulSandars 2/2 and what happens in Bearwood impacts us in B17.parking and litter. empty shops.

          @travellingcoral @westbrompaul @PaulSandars Moan to Birmingham then.

          I already have expressed my concerns to my local councillor on how what happens in Bearwood has an inpact on those that live on the border. I don’t think I have moaned to him or a Sandwell councillor. Ever. Expressed my views and challenged decisions perhaps. And got the refuse collected because my councillor understands that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason. To listen twice as much as you talk is the making of a great communicator.

          Amusingly, it ended thus:

          Next week I am volunteering. On Bank Holiday Monday. For Sandwell Library and Information Services. At the Sandwell Show. Promoting the wonderful services that are available in lovely Sandwell Libraries. To the people of Sandwell.

          I will be letting Darren et al know that, of that you can be assured.

          And bringing my passport, just in case.


The Tesco Footprint

I visited West Bromwich on Tuesday this week and after one very happy bus journey (to be a future post) I met a friend at The Public. This Arts Centre is under threat of closure and I wanted to show my support by actually visiting and not just tweeting about it. I also wanted to show my friend the Central Library as it is a stunning building. We were also taking some photos for the 365 Project. You can see my photos here and my friends here.  The last and certainly least reason for the visit was to see New Square.

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The imaginatively named New Square is in my humble opinion a Tesco vanity we are the big boys and we want that land project, with a massive supermarket, an Odeon Cinema, some other chain stores and the promise of more mixed retail come. It is also adjacent to The Public which when built caused much controversy as it was bringing art to a community who wanted a cinema and a swimming pool.  West Bromwich didn’t want art. It seems the council doesn’t either. Indeed one of my tweets about the matter was

@_the_public @tom_watson sandwell doesn’ t value the arts, it might create aspiration

I may have been a little bit harsh. Or I may have hit the nail on the head. Either way the reaction to the announcement of its closure has made the local MP wade in

News: MP Tom Watson calls on council to find solution for The Public http://bit.ly/148pJG0  #Sandwell

And this from The Leader of the Council http://sandwellleader.org/

After a lot of hard work, a change of management and apparently a 30k subsidy per week (what can that be spent on?) Sandwell Council have now said they will not subsidise The Public after November 2013. The Public struggled to get visitors in the past, and one of the main reasons was that it had very little footfall due to its location. It introduced a range of activities for the whole community, including Tea Dances, a film club, some unique exhibitions and has featured work by Tracy Emin. It has a cafe which on the day I was there was full of people of all ages.

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Footfall is no longer an issue as it is now on New Square opposite the cinema, coffee shops and restaurants. After years of subsidy, it is now the council want to close it and turn it into a sixth form centre. This makes no sense to me and many others, finally The Public is bang in the centre of a well marketed ‘entertainment destination’. A multi million pound investment has been made in West Bromwich for Sandwell College, so why do they need to convert The Public into a sixth form?

That aside, this new development has effectively shifted the town centre to gravitate around New Square which is good for The Public yet look at this Tesco footprint.

Tesco footprint

Like many high streets West Bromwich has its fair share of empty shops. It also has a thriving indoor and outdoor market, most of which are run by independent family businesses. What impact will Tesco and the other multiples have on them? There is some refurbishment work going on in the pedestrianised part of the high street and in one of the older shopping centres, Queens Square. Only time will tell if Tesco rips the heart out of this high street and community too.

I don’t like big supermarkets for a number of reasons, and while I would like to avoid them completely, it is not really a viable option for me when I can only buy what I can carry and within walking distance. I have touched on my shopping preferences here in my April Shopping Challenge post.

Supermarkets appear to be cheap yet with the bogof offers and bulk buys most people are buying more than they really need which leads to food waste. They are designed to tempt the consumer to buy things they don’t really need, and spend money they can ill afford.(Sandwell has high levels of deprivation, unemployment and a high proportion of NEETS).

Talking to the local butcher, who after the last veg shop in Bearwood closed down was forced out by an unscruplious landlord who had their palms crossed by a multiple who sells every thing for a £1, has been very enterprising and started to offer a range of loose fresh veg, I asked him how sales were going. Customers have complained that his prices are too high. They would rather go to Iceland and get a bag of carrots for a quid than buy three from him for 40p. Then he added, ‘what they haven’t thought is that they will end up throwing away most of the bag as they have gone off’. Of course they will. It is false economy buying veg  in bulk if you are not going to cook it in a couple of days. Carrots that have been shipped across the county then wrapped in sweaty plastic bags that will go to landfill, will go off quite quickly so they need to be used within a couple of days.  I do by bags from Aldi as that kilo of carrots will be in at least two meals, a soup and a breakfast juice. If they go past their best, and to be honest when we had the heat wave it was a battle to keep anything fresh, I have a compost heap, so eventually it will go back into the land, and a chicken who will eat most other stuff. New potatoes are dinner one night and potato salad the next. Cabbage and carrots are made into coleslaw and a stirfry.

As Team Pugh at  A Year without Supermarkets have found they have saved huge amounts of money and have almost no waste by only shopping at independents and cooking from scratch. The bulk of my shopping is done at Aldi because it has what I want at the price I can afford. It doesn’t have bogof offers that tempt me to buy more than I need and the quality is good. Each week it has the Super 6, offering seasonal fruit and veg, unlike other chains that seem to have offers on  fizzy drinks and fast food, hardly encouraging healthy choices. I don’t need to buy 2 for £5 scrawny pumped full chemicals chickens from Tesco as I can buy a Free Range chicken from Aldi for £5 and stretch it over 3 meals.

Of course Sandwell Council are over excited at having a shiny New Square in the ‘capital’ of Sandwell. Creating oh so many jobs. Of course most of the jobs will be minimum wage or Zero Hours contracts, and what will happen to the staff who will lose their jobs at the Public? 2000 people applied for the 30 jobs at the cinema. All of the folding t-shirts jobs have gone at Primark and it hasn’t opened yet.

The concerns that New Square will have a negative impact on the rest of the town has not been lost by the media, according to a BBC report there will be investment elsewhere in the town. What about those for whom West Bromwich is £3.90 bus ride away. Where is the investment in the rest of the Borough? New Square for West Bromwich. Old litter bins for the rest of Sandwell.DSCN5591

Problem at Pollensa Bay (aka another holiday disaster)

Earlier this week I was reminded of one of our many holiday disasters, see 9 Reasons Not to Travel, when there was a cruise ship on the telly box.  We were eventually shipped off Majorca by the Thomson Nightmare Dream, which is another post for another day, but this captures the last few hours of tranquillity before our epic journey home.  I wrote the following a few years ago after a creative writing workshop, led by Brendan Hawthorne at Bleakhouse Library in Sandwell

It was the only plane in the sky that day

Waves were lapping against the wall and I was lulled into a day dream by the soft murmur of voices in the cafe behind me. The clatter of plates, the clink of glasses, the smell of warm dough, made my stomach rumble as it baked in the pizza ovens. The sunlight sparkling on the sea, but all was not right with the world.

The sea plane broke this spell, its engines roaring as it took off over the bay, swooping birdlike across the landscape. It was the only plane in the sky that day.

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All other flights were grounded worldwide because of the volcanic eruption in Iceland.

I had been told that these planes regularly took off for practice flights. They would scoop up the sea then letting it tumble out, high on the hills, rehearsing for the regular summer fires they dampened down.

This was my first sighting and I grabbed for my camera trying to focus on the yellow dot in the glare of the sun. I had seen seaplanes in movies, the golden age of travel, ladies in their furs carrying hat boxes, men with trilby’s and neat moustaches. That must have been how this bay was when Agatha Christie set a short story here. Now I too was experiencing my own problems in Pollensa Bay.

Uncertainty had dominated the last three days. Sky TV updating us of the situation. Tears and tantrums from some, disbelief from all as the reality unfolded. No one could tell when or how we would be going home. Schoolchildren were delighted to have an extended break. Parents worried about their jobs, the car parking, goldfish and house plants. The lobby reverberated with the tap, tap, tap of fingers spelling out messages on their laptops, Blackberries and Apples, sending out an SOS to the world.

I had come down to the sea to get away from the buzz of anxiety, the speculation and constant information underload. Pine Walk was an escape from all this. Children searched for treasure with nets in rock pools, oblivious to the crisis that was unfurling, while parents huddled behind windbreakers wearing sweaters with shorts on the beach. In a few months they would be doing much the same in Rock or St Ives.  Meanwhile for Easter, families rented stucco villas as older couples wallowed in step back in time luxury at an Art Deco hotel, all taking early evening strolls after their siestas, to build up their appetite. Just as well heeled travellers just arrived by steamer from Barcelona may have done, in the halcyon days between the wars.

Similar journeys to those intrepid travellers of the thirties were now to be experienced by the world weary tourist. By land and sea from Spain to England, almost nonstop through France, with glimpses of cathedral spires in Barcelona, rush hour ring roads of Lyon and the well ordered allotments of Calais. No flights home for us this year. Departure lounges lay vast in their emptiness, floor polishers echoing around the shuttered mall. The baggage carousals, silently still, no lone suitcase revolving, unclaimed. Planes grounded in their hundreds on the runways, stretching out as far as the eye could see, white crosses marking casualties not of war, but of nature.

Valued Volunteer Award for Make Friends with a Book

Volunteers’ Week takes place every year from 1 to 7 June, and for the past few years, The Volunteer Centre Sandwell has hosted an award ceremony at The Public in West Bromwich to recognise the contribution volunteers make across the borough.

This year, Make Friends with a Book was one of the projects nominated. I was so thrilled that this group had been invited to the awards ceremony because this was a group I had worked closely with between 2009 and 2011 when I was a Community Development Manager working on the Big Lottery Community Libraries Programme in Sandwell.

Part of my remit in this role was to recruit volunteers to support activities in the lovely new community rooms at Smethwick Library and the very first volunteer I took on supported Make Friends with a Book at Smethwick Library. She later went on to become a BUDS volunteer (who were also nominated for an award last week). When Make Friends with a Book started at Bleakhouse Library, I recruited two regular members of the group to become volunteers for that group too.

Make Friends with a Book facilitators are trained by The Reader Organisation who started the Get Into Reading Project in Liverpool. Novels, short stories and poems are read aloud, with breaks so the group can reflect on what they have heard.

The amazing thing about the Bleakhouse Library volunteers is this. Before becoming volunteers they visited the library, borrowed a book and then went home. After they started volunteering they began to think of other activities they would like to have at their library and got involved in making the decisions about what went on in their library. The initial volunteers recruited more volunteers. The designing and planning of the reading garden was all done by volunteers. Another volunteer runs a self help group for people suffering with arthritis. The Art Group is all volunteer led. Volunteering went viral.

Picture this. We are all chatting over a cuppa before we settle down to listen to Gina read this week’s short story, in comes Gill in gardening gloves with a trowel in her hand. She had been tidying up her raised bed. All the gardening volunteers have their own bed which they look after, as do children from the local school.

Now picture this. Make Friends with a Book hits Stratford! Group members,  family and friends, including the lovely volunteers from two Sandwell Libraries are pictured here, after enjoying The Tempest performed by the RSC at Stratford upon Avon in October 2012.

Make Friends with a Book at Stratford upon Avon

The volunteers who support Make Friends with a Book got the recognision they deserved on Friday, and carried away a Valued Volunteer award. I will admit to shedding a little tear of happiness that day. I was so proud of them, and proud be part of the team that brought shared reading to Sandwell.

Spendy Saturday

Not been a good day for budgeting

May well have blasted the budget for this week. A combination of tempting bargains in the GAP outlet store and the charity shops meant that my husband now has 4 brand new tops. However in his defence the Gap tops were dramatically reduced at £4.88 for a long sleeved tee and £8.74 for a more formal shirt. The OH does like his shirts so when he saw the ‘perfect work shirt’ in Barnardos for £3.99 he obviously had to have it, as a man cannot have enough shirts, apparently. Then I spotted a YSL 100% wool, lightweight sweater for £6.99 and it wasn’t hard to persuade him to have that too.

Or for shopping locally

I also broke my only buy from shops within walking distance pledge today. I had an appointment in West Bromwich which is about a 15 minute drive from here. After the appointment the OH and I decided to mooch around the Astle Retail Outlet Park where there are a number of outlet stores including a Next, a Marks and Spencers and a Gap. Which explains the purchases referred to earlier. And then because it was sunny we strolled up to the outdoor market and bought some vegetables. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, Bearwood doesn’t have a market or a vegetable shop so this sort of shopping is a bit of a treat. Look at me, getting all excited about being able to buy fresh veg at a market!

A special journey was not made

Which is my only excuse for not shopping locally. I would not drive just to shop in West Bromwich, although the market is a temptation. To be honest if I were to drive to a market to shop, it would probably be Birmingham as it has a bigger and better market and West Brom, well isn’t the most attractive place to be.

Sorry West Brom

I don’t want to be mean about West Brom, but it isn’t the most attractive place in the world. I swear it is alway 5 degrees colder in West Brom than the rest of Sandwell. This is probably becuse it is so high up, indeed the local football stadium, The Hawthorns, is, or used to be he stadium above sea level, or something like that. Anyway it is cold and windy. And West Brom also has the threat of a massive Tesco development, on the edge of town whis could be a threat to the survival of retailers on the High Street. Yet it seems to be thriving for the time being. It certainly has wider range of shops than Bearwood, and the market is busy, all traders there are the independents I like to support. The veg stall seemed to have three generations of one family working there, which is great. I just hope they manage to survive once shiny Tesco sucks the life out of the high street.

But the councillors love West Brom (in my opinion)

More than they love Bearwood. Probably because Bearwood is in Smethwick Town yet not central Smethwick. So if there is any money floating around it goes to West Brom and the High Street and Cape Hill part of Smethwick, because apparently Bearwood doesn’t need it.  However, I think they see West Brom as the capital of Sandwell. Councillors are delighted that Tesco, Next and other retailers and food outlets are being built and will bring, oh hundreds of jobs to an area that has very high unemployment. I suppose this is a good thing. However, this development has effectively shifted the centre of town where both the indoor and outdoor markets are and shops along High Street are closing. It has a shiny new FE college locally known as the Ski Slope. This was built after many years of Sandwell College getting very poor OfSTED reports. Apparently building a shiny new campus will improve the quality of teaching. Then there is The Public. Depending on your point of view it is either a wonderful arts resource for Sandwell or a White (actually purple) Elephant. It does have very good toilets which is very handy, of course, when it is so cold in West Brom. And the West Brom Building Society is building its new Headquaters there (despite origallly planning to abandon its lovely art deco HQ in West Bromwich town centre for shiny offices in Merry Hell Hill). Merry Hill is in Dudley which doesn’t seem to be the right location for a building society called the West Brom. The council also thought this and were very vocal about the planned relocation. Almost overnight a piece of land, conveniently adjacent to all the new development, was found, so the West Brom is staying in West Brom after all. Handy that. There also seems to be work going on in the area where the market usually is, new paving and such. Hopefully the market will thrive even when the smaller Tesco relocates to the retail park and leaves a big empty unit in the old shopping centre. I hope so.

So what was the damage to the purse?

 £          0.08 onions 2kg  £          1.00
aubergine x3  £          1.00
grapes 1kg  £          1.00
petrol  £        15.00
Gap shirts  £        13.62
Charity shirt  £          3.99
Charity YSL jumper  £          6.99
Lamb  £          5.47
cat food  £          2.39
peppers  £          1.49
Cauli  £          0.89
Ketchup  £          0.69
3 tins tomatoes  £          0.93
bath mat  £          4.99
Steak mince 500g  £          3.59
6 sausages  £          1.99
fresh basil  £          0.65
Spagetti  £          0.24
Penne  £          0.29
Bet on the National  £        10.00
Beer and wine  £        25.00
 £      101.21

A massive dent to the budget. The betting and the alcohol were luxuries I guess and if we were on benefits we could not afford these. To add insult to injury we did not get a winner. Yet who is to say that poor people shouldn’t have a treat now and then? We are not exactly rich as we only have one wage, and a relatively low one at that that, coming into the house. But we choose to rent out rooms to English language students to supplement this. It is a lifestyle choice that not everyone could or would make.

Supper on Saturday cost £9.06 and there is plenty left over for lunches, so at 6 portions this is £1.51 per portion.

The lamb is for Sunday dinner and will be used as sandwiches in the week. so that will be five meals for around £1.40 each, three of which will be a big yummy Sunday roast using up all the vegetables I have bought this week.

How local did I do?

Apart from the Gap purchaces and the market stall purchases of grapes, aubergines and onions every thing was bought in Bearwood. I used Aldi for most of the shopping and the lamb was bought at another family butcher on Bearwood Road, Higgins. I like to share my indie love around!

The Mary Portas factor

West Bromwich also put in a bid for the Portas Pilot funding to improve the high street, and Bearwood was the other bid in Sandwell. Both were unsucessful. Which looking at some of the bids that were successful may not have been a bad thing. However it still smarts to be reminded that Sandwell Council could have had funding of 10k each for West Bromwich and Bearwood as subsequently all towns that submitted a bid were offered this amount to help build a town team to improve the local high street. The reason for refusing to accept this money? Well it was ‘political’. I do have an email from a Sandwell MP in response to my querying why they chose not to support local residents who wanted to improve where they lived, which I may just share with you one day. It wasn’t personal to Bearwood, so maybe they don’t love West Bromwich enough either. Who knows?

Do you live in Bearwood? Do you shop in Bearwood? Do you think Bearwood gets overlooked for investment? Did you town put in a bid for the Portas funding? I would love to see your comments? And please share tips on budgeting for food and in general.

The #4amproject

What is the 4 am project?

I first heard of the 4 am project over a year ago. I had started following @karenstrunks on twitter via people I had met at Social Media Surgeries. Karen had been driving home one night at 4 am and it had struck her how different the world looks at that time. The idea for the project was born.

Made in Birmingham

This is now a global project but it all started here in Birmingham in 2008. Social media has enabled us to play a part in building a global picture of the world at 4am.

My involvement

I met with Karen at one of the monthly Social Media Cafes she organises in Birmingham.  I have been on a bit of a mission to actually meet people I met first through twitter and she was on the list. Her blogs are brilliant and she is a real enabler in so many ways. The next 4 am project was coming up and she persuaded me to join in.

Street furniture

When I attended Planning Camp I learnt a lot about street furniture. So it seems has Winchester.

The decline of the high street

This was the theme  of my first contribution to the 4 am project. I had got involved with the Portas Pilot bid for Bearwood and I had started noticing the empty shops more and also the general neglect of what is essentially community space. I wrote a bit about it on my blog Post Travelling Blues. I called it litter and light.

Litter and Light

We chose a different location for the 4am project this time and we knew it would be interesting to see the contrast between Bearwood in Sandwell and Winchester in Hampshire. There were some common themes, again in litter and light.

Turn off the lights?

It was shocking to see how many empty shops in Bearwood had lights left on all night. The wast is shameful. Yet in Winchester we found that so many of the Building Societies and shops also left not the odd one of two lights on but loads of them blazing away. From a security point of view there may be valid reasons to do this, yet the waste of power appalls me.

Things really look different at 4am

They really do. Looking at the photographs today a few things struck me. I had walked past this shop in daylight (well gloomy rain filled light ) earlier and never noticed this display. Now all I can see is legs and handbags.

Or this one.

The once busy pubs were all shut up and chairs on top of tables.

Yet here there was a whole team of staff laying tables at 4am.

Who would have seen this in the daylight?

And what a gloomy, dirty and neglected bus station for such a beautiful city.

Yet again, I was glad I was not waiting for a bus…..