A non-essential walk

In her first post for Walkspace, Megan Henebury goes for a walk in Birmingham city centre on the day the shops re-opened.

Walk Reports

I went to town today.

Since lockdown began I have been to town a handful of times. The first was a mission of artistic curiosity at the beginning of the ‘official’ lockdown – in the middle of a project about urban spaces, ‘edgelands,’ and pigeons, I reckoned the area surrounding the Bullring would take on a distinct charm in the absence of people. I cycled in, anticipating waves of inspiration to emerge from the quiet, desolate streets and darkened shop fronts.

None came. I realised you can walk through near enough the same town after 6pm on an ordinary Sunday, the only difference being there was nowhere to get fast food.

Feeling somewhat useless, I put the word out that I was near Boots if anyone needed anything. One friend asked if I would pick him up some Nytol, another requested toothpaste. Now armed with essential supplies for friends in need, I cycled back home imagining that this had been my objective the whole time. A hero, you might say.

Three months on, as of today, ‘non-essential retail’ is permitted to reopen under social distancing guidelines – of course I had to go and take a look. I have come to realise in this long yawn of lost weeks that the Bullring in lockdown didn’t inspire me precisely because it is the presence of people that makes it a place in any conceivable sense.

On my long walks, bike rides and public transport journeys I go looking for the places you could collectively describe as familiar but ignored. Beneath motorways, disused power stations and factories, canal tunnels, forgotten walkways – all of which often exist on the intersection between urban and rural environments, the places between places. I don’t particularly want to encounter other people there, and if I do, I keep my distance, make them part of the landscape like the birds and the concrete. Meanwhile, my fascination with marketplaces, shopping centres and high streets is rooted in community and culture. An empty mall is only remarkable if it’s open. In this instance, the mall being open at all is in itself remarkable, so like many others I am compelled towards it.

Setting off, I began on the Rea Valley route but at the last moment changed my mind and decided to backtrack and take the canal. The area around the Mailbox and Brindleyplace is mostly occupied by bars and restaurants, all still closed. But there has been a clear shift in atmosphere – more people, most of whom were wearing masks and occasionally gloves, all looking quite pleased to be out, but maintaining respectful space between groups.

I circled around onto Oozells Square and peered into the still closed Ikon Gallery hoping for a sign of life. No joy. Across Centenary Square then, where I found myself thinking about how I definitely would have found the inspiration I was looking for at the start of lockdown if Paradise Place still existed, and onto New Street which almost out of nowhere seemed to erupt with people.

I locked up my bike and wandered around. At this time, around 1pm, the only notable queue outside a shop was for Apple, although I understand that Primark dealt with hour long waiting times at their tills for the majority of the day. What stood out about the bustling high streets was the slow realisation that it really wasn’t bustling at all. There were far fewer people than you would expect to see under more familiar circumstances, particularly inside New Street Station and Grand Central where the staff on duty outnumbered the general public. Still, town felt like a living thing again and so I did too, drifting with the flow of returning people.

When I eventually circled back to my bike and rode off – towards the Rea Valley route this time – I made a quick stop at the China Court bakery. As I ordered a trio of buns, a man who had queued up behind me excitedly said, “Don’t these guys do such good buns?” I grinned back, “They really do! I love tasty buns!” This infantile back and forth continued as I got back on my bike, and I wondered which of us had been more starved of social interaction to get to this point. We wished each other a nice afternoon and I didn’t feel irritated or hassled at all. So much for a return to normality.