On Saturday morning I was guide for a history tour of Handsworth Park – at first called Victoria Park, like many others at the time, in honour of the Queen. The chilly weather and the snow, still falling now and then, did not deter over 15 people turning up. I’ve been doing tours of Handsworth Park for years. This one was included in a more ambitious enterprise dreamed by my friend Aftab Rahman of Legacy West Midlands. Handsworth Park is one of ten other places with historical resonance included in the East Handsworth and Lozells Heritage Trail
Legacy WM won a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant to develop a heritage trail for Lozells and East Handsworth training 15 volunteers in a greater appreciation and understanding of local history so they can give guided tours. Legacy WM is working with South and City College to develop an accredited course, being run at St Mary’s Convent, with the aim of launching the trail on the 25th May 2013. Once trained the volunteers will give guided tours to the community, people across the city and visitors to Birmingham, tours that will include:
St Mary’s Convent – Hunters Road
Hamstead Road – 9 restored Georgian houses built around 1836 – with 9 amazing gardens
Asian Resource Centre – Old Toll House
James Watt Gate House – West Drive
St Mary’s Church – where lie the remains of James Watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch
Handsworth Park and bandstand
Thornhill Road Police Station – formerly Staffordshire Court
Handsworth Library – Soho Road
Handsworth College – once Handsworth Council House, Soho Road
This was how journalist Tom Rowley described the tour in The Telegraph in February 2013….
[QUOTE] Birmingham’s new tourist trail – but will coach parties want to visit East Handsworth?
Do tourists really want a guided tour of the once riot-scarred streets of Birmingham?
Walking tours of Oxford begin by the gates of Trinity College. In Bath, the eager participants gather at the Pump Rooms, and in Edinburgh the route starts at the foot of The Mound, near the Royal Mile. But our rendezvous today is the Asian Resource Centre.
I’m the first visitor to sample Britain’s newest – and most controversial – walking tour, and my eager guide, dressed in hardy boots and a baggy cagoule, is Aftab Rahman. Rather than lingering by a Bridge of Sighs, though, the two-hour route will see us walk through two of the country’s most deprived and notorious neighbourhoods – Lozells and East Handsworth – in search of their industrial heritage.
The wards, two miles from Birmingham city centre, are not an obvious tourist draw. One in four of the population is unemployed and a recent police newsletter warns of anti-social behaviour, prostitution and drugs. More than four-fifths of locals are from ethnic minorities. It was here that racial and economic tension sparked the riots in 1985, when two brothers burnt to death in the Post Office they ran and 45 shops were looted. In 2005, further rioting claimed another two lives and injured a police officer.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the Heritage Lottery Fund has given £38,000 to launch the tour. When it begins in May, volunteers in Victorian garb will guide visitors around the area for free each Saturday.
The local MP, Khalid Mahmood, thinks it is a huge waste of money. “We’re talking about the middle of Birmingham,” he sighs. “I don’t think it is picturesque. We haven’t got the sort of sites they have in York, for example. Of course we have some history, but we’re not in that league. We’ve got to understand where we are. We’ve got better things to spend that money on than walking a group of Japanese tourists around.”
Lottery funding should go towards regenerating the area or helping residents find jobs, he argues. “I think they should provide pamphlets for people to explore the area themselves. Then visitors could interact with local businesses and put some money back into the community.”
Undeterred, we set off in driving snow, and Aftab dismisses Mr Mahmood’s concerns. “The MP should be promoting his own area, not putting it down,” he tells me, as we pass the “Eat Well” Caribbean vegetarian takeaway on Hamstead Road.
Aftab, 42, emigrated from Bangladesh to Lozells with his family when he was six. He admits that the area has generated a bad press over the years. “I came here in 1976 and it wasn’t always rosy,” he recalls. “There was a lot of violent racism in the early days and the riots when I was 15 were devastating. Shops were burnt down, there were petrol bombs and stand-offs with the police.”
Walking tours in unlikely areas are a recent phenomenon and not confined to the West Midlands. Visitors to Belfast will soon be offered a walkabout that includes a dozen sites associated with the worst atrocities of the Troubles. Last year, an enterprising bus company launched a £15 tour of the M25. The chance to spend four hours in a jam seems unlikely to become a major draw. Aftab, on the other hand, is determined that his tour will work. “Ultimately, I want people from London and across the world to come,” he insists. “We have enough to showcase here for the world to see.”
It is impossible not to be cheered by Aftab’s enthusiasm. Whether he is pointing out Soho House, a grand Georgian home where the industrialist Matthew Boulton lived in the 1700s, or “one of only six bandstands in the West Midlands” in the park, he is proud to call himself a local.
Aftab, a former youth worker with Worcester city council, is an energetic supporter of the community and has set up several charities to help young people into work. He will run the walking tour in his role as director of Legacy West Midlands, an organisation he set up to promote the area’s history.
But some of Aftab’s showpieces are, frankly, of limited appeal. The “first Halal slaughterhouse in the West Midlands”, where customers used to be able to select a chicken to be killed, is, perhaps, of minor cultural interest. Similarly, a row of nine Georgian houses, sympathetically restored, have little to commend them beyond charming sash windows.
But the route also takes us into St Mary’s convent on Hunters Road. Built in 1841, it is the work of Augustus Pugin, more famous for much of the interior design of the House of Commons. Two of the nuns greet Aftab warmly and show us Flemish carvings and a grandfather clock by Pugin.
Our final stop is St Mary’s church, back on Hamstead Road. The Norman tower is magnificent but Aftab heads straight to a marble mausoleum where James Watt, the Scottish engineer and inventor whose improvements to the steam engine were key to the Industrial Revolution, is interred.
“This is what my trail is all about,” he says. “We have these hidden gems here that people don’t know about. It is beautiful and we need to make a song and dance about it. People think of Lozells and East Handsworth as a riot hotspot with gang affiliation. But it is not like that. Give this area another 10 years and it will be one of the most desirable places to live. What was Brixton like 10 years ago? The community is growing slowly and it is just a matter of time. Give it a chance.”
Our tour may be over, but Aftab will never tire of walking around his neighbourhood – even if coachloads of tourists fail to turn off the M40 at Junction 16. [END QUOTE]
To quote Khalid Mahmoud, our MP, again…“We’re talking about the middle of Birmingham. I don’t think it is picturesque. We haven’t got the sort of sites they have in York, for example. Of course we have some history, but we’re not in that league. We’ve got to understand where we are. We’ve got better things to spend that money on than walking a group of Japanese tourists around.”
Our MP’s words angered Linda, my wife
"He’s rubbishing his own constituency’
I enjoy quotes like this though. They are a challenge.
Handsworth, modern Handsworth where we’ve lived since 1979, has a reputation I rather enjoy, not only because it discourages visits by the kind of people who made comments like this below Rowley’s carping piece…
(QUOTE) "….as you can work out for yourself, the area is a dump. you could work out your own guided tour out with a book on birmingham architecture. i wouldn’t recommend someone white do it, as your safety could not be guaranteed. it still has a black presence so mugging is a distinct possibility, and it is now overwhelmingly muslim, so not to be recommended for non muslim women, especially white women, as some of these people regard non muslim women as easy meat (especially if you happen to be very young, white, and from a dysfunctial background). thinking about it, as a brummy i have to say it would be better to take a trip out to worcestershire or gloucestershire and see what england use to/should look like. birmingham is rapidly looking more like a 3rd world country, and i can’t see why anyone wishing to sight-see england would want to look at that. sorry to disappoint."(END QUOTE)
…but much more important because the history that resides in this area is entirely formidable. I’ve been taking people around Handsworth Park, including my entranced Japanese students, for decades, telling them how "in this place the modern world was invented"
For years I’ve lived amid the echoes of this astounding source. Only in the last twenty years or so have I begun to grasp the causes and consequences strewn around me – this place where the industrial revolution was seeded.
Ironically there is part of me that cherishes the concealment that hides this significance from so many people, including our MP who talks unknowingly of "understanding where we are". It may seem a paradox but I don’t want this area to become a museum replete with commodified history. I value it too much for its present life including its risks and the things that anger me as well as those things in which I rejoice.
I’m protective, even possessive, cherishing Handsworth the way I might cherish a chest of private family treasures that, as an old man, I might ease open with false reluctance in response to the pleas of curious grandchildren, encouraging their small eager fingers to touch and hold; their ears to listen, uncritically, to my crafted accounts of amazing things; their innocent eyes to gaze untroubled, wondering and happy at what one day they will be taught as ‘history’.
On the matter of our MP’s opinion that £35K could be better spent on other things. What comes at once to mind is education, health and crime prevention. He cues an important argument about the allocation of scarce resources – in this case the public money granted for the development by Aftab and people like myself of a Heritage Trail in our area. It is absolutely fair that those of us using the £35,000 in question should be able to show how its investment in a local Heritage Trail is as good a way as any more direct investment in promoting education, sport or health and reducing crime. A decade ago we made that case in campaigning for the investment of Heritage Lottery money in the restoration of Handsworth Park and other urban green spaces.
This was my contribution to that debate:
I am confident that the same case can be made for the East Handsworth and Lozells Heritage Trail
E-mail me to arrange a history tour of Handsworth Park firstname.lastname@example.org
Tagged: , Handsworth Park , Birmingham , Heritage Trail , Simon Baddeley , snowing , snowy