Wandering About History

IMG_3223IMG_3245One of the first things I like to discover when I move to a new place is where the best walking tracks are. I am certainly not a serious walker but I do like to take some time after work, if daylight and weather permit, to be outside and breathe air that hasn’t been dispensed to me through an air conditioning system.

When I first arrived in Dudley borough I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find anywhere. The town I lived in seemed so covered with concrete and there was no obvious town park or beach-side track as there had been in the last few towns I’ve lived in.

It was after I got lost walking one day that I came across what has become one of my favourite walks. It also provides an insight into what kept this area alive more than a century ago.

The canal path stretches for many miles, with the canal linking the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal with the Dudley Canal and, therefore, Birmingham. Work began on the canal in the late 18th century and soon a thriving trade transporting coal, ironstone and limestone developed, along with products including one of the industries the area is still famous for: glass.

But in the 1850s a railway line opened and by the 1930s cars were more often used to transport products and canal traffic eventually stopped.

I’ve walked the track from Wordsley to Stourbridge town, where the factories still stand alongside the canal. Apart from a few where the old trades are still practised and their devotees try to make a living, most stand silent. Their reflection in the water would once have been constantly disturbed by the regular canal traffic, the hustle and bustle of industry and its main mode of transport around the area.

The broken windows and the doors hanging open have a sadness about them, but also a beauty and mystery. When I walk past, I wonder what life was like for the people who worked inside those dark walls, the people who spent their days working along the canal. The noise. The smell. The sights.

My other favourite walk is in Himley Park, near Gornal in Dudley. You have to pay to park your car but it’s worth the small fee. As soon as you leave the little parking bay you can see the 18th century Himley Hall, grand and austere, watching over the grounds. There is a massive lake, framed by a few beautiful willow trees, where people go boating and fishing.

But there is also what feels like a little adventure park around the house. You can walk up a little hill, crunching the winter leaves under your shoes and making your path around the snowdrops, to where a small waterfall trickles from a massive lake.
There is a little committee of ducks paddling, their movements making little ripples in the otherwise calm water.

You can walk around the edge of the park, up a winding track and small staircase built into the hill, until you are looking down on the house itself. There is a landing with bare trees, taking refuge from the winter before they grow their leaves again for the summer. Walking around them feels like walking around

So Dudley borough does have its beauty spots and there are some wonderful walking tracks to explore either with someone else or just alone with your thoughts. If you know the area, tell me your favourites.

More Than Just a Game

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5818331_600x400When I was preparing to move to the Black Country, one of the first things I did was google. I learned the populations of the main towns, about their industrial histories and various other facts and figures. I also realised football (or “soccer” where I come from) was much more than just a game.

Obviously, being a New Zealander, I come from a country that is also obsessed with a particular variety of “kicking a ball around a park” but, having grown up in a house where rugby was usually on at some point during the weekend (unless it was cricket season), at least I understood that version.

My first UK job in Gloucester saw me in a centre where rugby was still relatively dominant and when I moved to the north of Scotland all I had to learn was that Aberdeen struggled and there was usually some sort of off-field conflict between Celtic and Rangers fans.

Now I’m in the Black Country and football and the two main teams of Wolves and West Brom are more than that. So I needed to learn.

So I’ve been looking at the sports section in the newspaper (which should really be called the football section) but there are so many new names – managers, owners (a strange concept to me) – and it’s difficult to follow the myriad of player trades where footballers are shifted like chess pieces for million-pound sums incomprehensible to most people.

I still remember the national “soul-searching” in New Zealand when rugby first turned professional – it’s that recent. Over here, football is further down that path. Has it gone too far?

Anyway, the first thing I’ve learned about Wolves is that the team isn’t doing well. The manager Dean Saunders (who seems to me to be the coach) has been in the job only a few months and is failing.

About a month ago I wrote a little article about a local bar owner who invited Saunders to do a “Q and A” session at his pub. Saunders cancelled at the last minute, saying he had team commitments the next day. But the pub owner said he thought the manager under siege wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a grilling from 150 die-hard Wolves fans.

I suppose in many ways, although football and rugby have very different rules and I’ll clearly always prefer one to the other, they aren’t that different off the pitch. A few similarities I’ve noticed:

* If the team fails then it is the coach (or manager) who must be for the high jump.

* The team’s players have a contradictory status: when they are doing well, they are beyond reproach. When they fail (particularly off the field) their failures are dissected in detail by solemn-faced commentators asking “how this reflects on the game”.

* Many fans can become obsessed. In New Zealand 99 per cent of the population dresses in black on a big game day and reporters write of “national mourning” when big games are lost (trust me, we lost the World Cup a few times in past decades – I should know). In both places, the game will be the talk in offices and over the phone. It’s difficult to escape from sometimes.

* When the team is winning members are referred to by fans as “we”. When the team is losing, fans often revert to referring to them as “they”.

So I think that if I can master the various names and trades then I can become a Kiwi football fan in The Midlands. Or maybe I’ll just always be a bit too Kiwi for that.