I arrive to see Andy walking from the side of Cocks Moors Woods Leisure centre. I know he is nostalgic for this place after visiting as a child.
Along the Alcester Road, over the bridge, past the Horseshoe pub and left onto the canal.
Andy comes this way on his bike but hasn’t looked at the boat yard before. Just as I mention that people live there, an inhabitant of the boat steps out and looks up. Perhaps the landlord of the Horseshoe pub that is being renovated? That or a pirate. Kids play on the piratical climbing frame in the pub’s play area and know more than their older counterparts of what lies beyond.
I interrogate Andy on where he has been cycling and it transpires that the other end of our walk is near where he grew up. Armed with this useful information I slide him down a muddy slope onto Cocks Moors Woods golf course. A stressful prospect for me as I am a nervous rule breaker.
I see my second butterfly of the day and am overjoyed. Brown with colourful spots – I think it is a painted lady showing off her freshly healed tatts. But later I learn it is probably too early for that sort of thing. Yesterday, I saw my first bumblebee of the year.
I hear a thwack! and eight… or maybe one and a half minutes later, a golf ball plonks down in front of us. I kick it absentmindedly before turning to see its owner. They are walking towards us – the golfers are attacking! How did that ball spend so long in the air? We barely make it out alive but there's a bunch of club wielders on our opposite side. Flanked! I watch in dread as one of them hits the ball right in our direction…but then Andy points out a little egret.
The myth of the golf ball who transforms into an egret is a great one and sings praise to the resilience of the little bird. It mingles with some crows like ancient warrior monks and out of the tree pops a magpie! It finally dawns on me that a magpie is the lovechild of an egret and a crow. How naïve I’ve been all these years.
We come to what seems deceptively like a country road. As we slip through a hole in the metal fence (courtesy of a renegade angle grinder) I am wary of a dog walking family, but my hypervigilance is shattered as I say ‘Hello,’ and realise they are waiting to enter the golf course in a calm and seemingly well-rehearsed manner.
We cross the narrow brick bridge over the stream into Chinn Brook Nature Reserve. Two joggers go past, one struggling less than the other.
The sun is bright, bright, bright and the trees are budding.
Andy tells how his film about Birmingham’s lost concrete library is developing to be shown at this year’s Flatpack Festival and I’m excited to see it. This is where our existing nostalgia converges into a walking theme of nostalgia for things we’ve never known.
Andy asks if this brook has any link to Carl Chinn. I don’t think so, but I hate to assume. I mention the rap I’m writing which features Carl Chinn serving as a plot link between someone’s cuddly dick and Swingamajig festival via the Peaky Blinders. It’s for a drag act at ‘Valley of the Kings’, the informal night I run. Andy asks about it – little does he know I will later send him a poster featuring eight dangly testicles hanging out of a chastity belt – but what is life if not made up of these wondrous surprises.
We walk some more, through a green alleyway where a lady is wearing a full-on protective mask. It feels like we are in the Russian film ‘Stalker’ and she knows that we should be throwing a sheet tied to a stone before proceeding into unknown territory.
We duck into an overgrown pathway where two dogs are admiring the first flush of ramsons. I have previously seen something exciting and cooing in these parts and am hoping it wasn’t a mirage. We squelch towards the houses that back onto this park and discover a batch of brown and white pigeons in a cage! They must belong to neighbours of the birds I am taking Andy to see. It would appear that pigeon fanciers are abundant in these parts.
Squelching forwards, a cage towers above us and we hear the purring of white pigeons roosting behind barricades and barbed wire. As I point them out, a big stick with what looks like a bin bag, thrusts up and hits the lumbering cage. The birds erupt high into the bright, blue sky and we are in a cloud of neon purple and pink as the surprising flappers circle above us. Flashes of intense colour nestled under their wings. We realise the stick must be part of a giant automaton that whacks the coop whenever someone steps over a trigger beam or panel, we should probably start throwing a rock with a hanky ahead of us.
It’s not the first time today that we will look up to nature at its most bizarre.
We watch the pigeons for a long time. Eight… or maybe one and a half minutes later, we emerge into a large field, Andy points to a stream and says – that must be Chinn Brook.
I am confused then say “Yes”.
This happens again at the end of the walk which, funnily enough, might be the moment Andy realises that I am perpetually perplexed by shifting memories. Andy marvels at what a funny part of the body it is for a brook to be named after. I miss the humour of this as I try to remember if the nearby Haunch Brook, that looks like a bent leg, is actually named after a leg or not.
Anyway, I take him over to Trittiford Mill Pool to see the lonely bar-headed goose and the tundra geese. I tell him my fantastic story about how that bar headed goose must be an escaped convict and is the world’s highest- flying animal reaching 7000m. I refer him to the video on the BBC website of someone slow clapping a goose in an oxygen mask as it flies into a wind tunnel. Quite miraculous.
We stand and look at the geese and the gothically-beautiful, tufted ducks with their blue bills and are profoundly and simultaneously moved to start snacking. Andy has a nature bar which I suppose helps him adapt to his environment whereas I have some rich tea biscuits in a plastic poo bag.
Now we enter the most exciting part of the walk – if this were a graph we would be soaring up to the top edge of the paper.
It is the marshy reed bed formed from what I think is the River Cole and I am excitedly looking for the heron and little egret I’ve seen hanging out together recently.
Only slight disappointment to see there is nothing…BUT WAIT – two hulking masses almost too slow to be flying, lurch overhead with dangly legs like spatulas. They are circling the reeds! Then behind us – another heron skulking on a tree branch!?! What is happening? Are the parents of a teenage heron coming to check up on it? Is it a grand day in the Birmingham heron calendar? How many herons are in Birmingham? Three in one place seems worryingly excessive if you ask me! If only I’d taken the nature bar when Andy offered – maybe I would take this all a bit more in my stride.
So, we carry on after the absolute mayhem that is lingering herons.
Now we go to a bit I have only visited once before. The underworld of Solihull Lodge, an unkempt mess of fallen tree trunks and river twisting together. It really is beautiful. Then we are in Solihull Lodge and we talk about the nightmarish memories we have of Shirley and Solihull.
I overshoot the moment to turn right for the canal, but Andy exclaims “I KNOW HERE!” He has recognised a bend in the road not at all from eleven metres but with intense clarity from ten metres away! It is a jubilation! We turn around and Andy leads us to the canal.
It is a great walk so far. I am in vaguely unknown territory and congratulating myself for coming this far away from my house and being such a reliable tour guide.
On the canal, Andy talks about Desmond Morris for some reason, and pulls out a notebook with the script from when he reconstructed Desmond’s destroyed surrealist film by reading out the scene overviews. It is fantastic to hear him recite it with dramatic, yet dulcet tones and I expect to trip over an elephant’s skull at any minute.
We dip into some mud on the right of the canal and emerge into a picturesque cemetery. We are nostalgic over the Victorians who would picnic in cemeteries and have a healthier attitude to death. We remember the Victorians with their healthy attitudes to death, taking photos with the corpses of their loved ones.
We loop the church seeing the typical titchy-witchy back door and read the brilliant carved tattoo-like messages in the arch entrance where the benches have been removed. I suppose to prevent anyone from sitting there for free and drinking (maybe this church is sponsored by the local pub). We make a guess that we are in Yardley Wood Cemetery (it turns out we were loitering around Christchurch, the parish church for Yardley Wood).
On leaving, we see a group of teenagers ignoring a sign that has asked anyone who isn’t a mourner or is in a group of friends to stay out of the cemetery. I smile and say, “Imagine growing up hanging out in a cemetery”. Andy supposes they will have a healthy relationship with death.
On that mildly threatening note we climb down a firework strewn slope back to the canal.
Andy tells me about a film called ‘King Rocker’ and I start listing the 1990’s rock pop scene that I know of second- hand. Referencing Club Katusi and the many gig posters from promoter Arthur Tapp and the Catapult Club gigs at the Jug of Ale pub. Andy hasn’t heard any of these bands, so I make a mumbled promise to email them over. A small-town Andy and a big city, gender queer, depressive letting their musical memories converge on the edge of a grimy canal which harbours quite gnarly tree roots, big puffs of moss and some really jumpy fish.
I become violently bored (or maybe overwhelmed with memories and nostalgia for things I haven’t known,) so Andy advises me to stare at the path until I get home.
All I see are pebbles for the rest of the walk. Sometimes we look at the tumbling gardens of the canal side houses as they struggle not to collapse into the canal.
He asks me what I am doing and is absurdified to discover that I followed his advice (I think he is a surrealist trickster).
When we get back, I am knackered because there were a lot of pebbles, but Andy is full of excitement to try and glimpse inside his childhood leisure centre. As we walk around the building, I am overjoyed at the second or third time I have heard the story of the boy who put sugar instead of salt on his chips … wait for the punchline…and then cried as he ate them! Andy spontaneously giggles as he tells it. Childhood mischief bubbling out of his eyes like that poor boy’s hilarious tears.
It happened here!
Blacked out windows illuminate the mystery of the dog walkers on Cocks Moors Woods. The golfers I’ve been so afraid of are the local community just moseying onto the field. I didn’t need to be worried but am glad I avoided being clonked on the head at the beginning of our perilous escapade.
I hear a yelp of delight. Where I had seen a wall made of plain old bricks, Andy has spotted a HOLE IN ONE! Reaching up to the tiniest of chinks in the brickwork I see the looping of the water slide. It looks much better than from the inside. The pressure out here is a lot more open, not so moist and the sound is less like a thousand bullets ricocheting off tiny sheets of glass.
Completing the journey by hopping over a fence to look into more abandoned areas, Andy collects his bike. I embark on the remaining fifteen minutes of my walk – absolutely exhausted and trying not to limp. Once safely home, I take a page from Andy’s book, writing our journey down. Without it I wouldn’t have been able to sort what happened out of the crumpled-up mess of memories and anxiety swarming through my brain.
But luckily, I did! If our walk was a graph it would have ended with us flying into the sky with origami herons and pigeons made of neon pink post it notes.
Kate Thompson is a songwriter, drag artist and your lanky legged lolloper from la-la land.