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37. Two short walks in & around Birmingham.


16th November 2011. We are now getting into our long-deferred Sabbatical Leave from playing music & gigs. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for years. No matter how enjoyable some of the gigs are, travelling the length & breadth of the country (see Diary 36 for a sample of this) is increasingly stressful as we get older & older. Anyway! The Sabbatical (it’s meant to last a whole year) has begun; and the first Major Leisure Project we are undertaking actually has nothing to with the nice restful scenes below. No; the Project is to compile a list of all the British Disc Record Companies (and illustrate their labels) from 1898 to circa 1923. (There were some disc records around earlier; but 1898 is generally accepted as the start of ‘disc records as we really know them’.) Two days in front of the PC has given us a very promising start, and naturally, the eventual list will appear (D.V.) elsewhere on this shoddy & disreputable website. However, we are currently enjoying the most glorious weather for November that I can recall; so it seems a pity to waste it. Besides, as it were, one needs to increase the focal length of one’s eyes from time to time. In simpler times, psychologists used to call this ‘Exteriorisation’. If one sits looking at a blank wall (or indeed a PC monitor) for countless hours, one’s spatial awareness can become – impoverished, shall we say? Reality, if I may use such a vague term, lies on the outside: in the landscape, in Nature, in the sky; in birds, animals, plants. To lose touch with Nature is, I think, a very regrettable thing. When you have been concentrating on a PC screen for many hours or even days, it only takes half an hour or so walking in the open air, drinking in the ­space, both metaphorically and literally, for you to start yawning copiously. At least, I usually start yawning. It’s nothing to do with being tired – even if one is actually is physically tired; it’s more a process of exchanging your accumulated confinement for the infinite space outside. As I said, you ‘exteriorise’ yourself by looking at things far away, and accordingly feel refreshed. Or perhaps I’m just a silly old prat that rambles on about obsolete & outmoded ideas? 8^)   Anyway, out we went!


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Oh, look! It’s the lake at Leasowes Park, Halesowen. I can’t tell you what ‘Leasowes’ means, but this large and now public park was apparently the grounds of Leasowes House, which belonged to William Shenstone (1714 – 1763). He was a poet, and above all, a pioneer of landscape gardening. After total neglect, a long and extensive restoration work is being carried out by Dudley MBC. Though Halesowen borders the open countryside, resources such as this are extremely important, as a large population of the West Midlands are confined within our huge conurbation, and need very much such parks as this.


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We only live about 3 miles from here, and come to Leasowes fairly often. Because of the long, hot dry summer of 2011, we were expecting unusually nice autumn coloured leaves. But the weather has remained so mild, some of the trees aren’t really sure what to do.


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While many leaves have fallen, others are still very green.


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Here we have a path leading down, near to a small stream which flows along a little valley. We took a sample of water from it, and examined it for the presence of diatoms. Perhaps we have neglected to tell you, but looking for diatoms in rivers, ponds and streams is now one of our new hobbies, as more leisure time has gradually become available to us. These days, the abundance and diversity of diatom species has come to be a simple and quick way of evaluating the purity of ponds and watercourses. Of course, the more pure the water is, the more species there are, and the more abundant each species is. It’s early days for us yet in this revival of an interest which dates back to our schooldays. As yet, we have no camera or imaging device to attach to out battered old microscope. Eventually though, you may be bored with images of diatoms on these pages! There are apparently about 2,500 species of diatoms in the British Isles. So far, many of them look the same to me. Diatoms are tiny plants, generally about 100 microns or so (one tenth of a millimetre) long, though some are much larger & some smaller. They have two-part ‘shells’ or frustules as they are properly called. These frustules are apparently made of silica, in effect glass. How a microscopic plant, relying on chlorophyll for photosynthesis, can possibly make a shell for itself out of glass is quite beyond me at the moment. There were very few diatoms in the sample. But this stream is well shaded, and plants rely on light. And the days, however bright they may be, are very short at the moment. Or perhaps the stream is very polluted? Who knows?


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17th November 2011. Pray forgive me, for imposing myself on this shot. It is purely to give scale to the photograph. To my right, you may see a small, overgrown ditch? This is the River Rea, or at least the incipient River Rea. We are in the Waseley Hills Country Park, near Frankley, on the extreme south west of Birmingham. The source of the Rea (which is an ancient river name, probably of uncertain meaning) is a couple of hundred yards away. It’s a tiny spring, basically a large muddy puddle, which apparently never dries up. Although after this incredibly dry summer, it contains the merest trickle.


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Many people have walked the River Rea, and uploaded a whole set of photos. of it. We don’t intend to be that ambitious, although we have recorded its confluence with the River Tame (another ancient Celtic river name!) in Diary 30. Here it is after another few hundred yards. It’s still only a few inches wide. The bit of green garden hose at the bottom left will give you the scale.


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About 200 yards further on, it opens into a large boggy area. I rather like this shot, with the bridge reflected in the admittedly almost stagnant pool below it. We found some fine filamentous algae in that pool, and will examine it for diatoms. One way of collecting diatoms is to brush off brownish algae from stones in lakes & rivers. This works fine, but there is often a lot of very fine silt too – at least in this district – which makes it hard to separate the diatoms. My best samples so far have been taken from water plants and above all, filamentous algae. We use 15% Sodium Hypochlorite (with great caution!) to dissolve the chlorophyll and other organic parts of the algae, just leaving the diatom shells. Currently, we are awaiting delivery of Hydrochloric, Sulphuric and Nitric acids, besides Hydrogen Peroxide, all of which can be used (very carefully indeed!) to dissolve & remove various debris & make the diatom shells easier to inspect and mount.


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While deciding on today’s break from work, we looked at Google Earth to check out the best route, and clicked on somebody’s shot from Frankley Beeches towards the centre of Birmingham, over the Bartley Green reservoir. It was very good indeed; and imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, made up out mind to take one ourselves. Happily, the air was pretty clear. All the junk in the middle of the horizon is the centre of Birmingham. I suppose we’re about 5 or 6 miles away from it. And yet: here is a farm, with cattle disporting themselves – or mostly chewing the cud – just that few miles away from the teeming city. Yes, it’s back to exteriorization again. If I say it myself, we have succeeded fairly well in doing that today. And without any undue physical effort. Of course, I was driving myself around in the car; I wouldn’t have been able to walk that distance. But a couple of hours was spent in the open. By the way, Frankley Beeches (which is a few yards behind us) is the top of a hill. It is an excellent vantage point in practically every direction. Marconi used Frankley Beeches way back in the 1920s for some experiments in early ‘VHF’ radio. I think he sent some ‘beam’ signals to Bristol from here. Just left of centre you can see the Post Office Tower, the tallest structure in Birmingham. It is one of the links in our nation-wide microwave communications system; so it is entirely appropriate that we should photograph it from Frankley Beeches, a Marconi ‘Historic Radio Site’ of 90 years ago.   


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Lastly, we tried a zoom shot. Don’t use zoom much; butterflies tend to go out of focus. But this one worked, mostly because we’d remembered to take the camera tripod, and it was a calm & sunny day. The intention was to shoot the ‘space age’ buildings in the centre. That is the great new extension of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Metchley – once the site of a Roman Fort. But I was rather gratified to see that to the left of that complex, the tallest blue-coloured building was caught nearly as well. That is the multi-use building modestly known as ‘10 Holloway Circus’. Opened in 2005, it is 427 feet (130m) tall, and is the tallest inhabited building in Birmingham. Left & behind it is ‘The Rotunda’, opened in 1965. That is 265 feet tall, and was for many years the tallest building in Brum. But as we said, the tallest structure in Birmingham is the ‘Post Office Tower’ (just visible in the shot before this one), which is 152 metres tall – Wikipedia says 499 feet. Surely it must have been 500 feet tall when it was finished in 1966? It’s probably just settled a bit. 8^)




Page written 17th November 2011.