I commute. I commute for the best part of twelve hours a week. And as any commuter knows, you have to find a way to keep your sanity on these epic trips, to hold on to your senses before you go completely postal and drive through a Tesco Express just for the hell of it. I normally distract myself with podcasts, but I’ve recently noticed that my journey is actually interesting. This is the first in a series about the hidden world of my commute.
As you head out of Walsall, along the A461, look to your left. Standing on the bank of the Daw End branch canal is a fisherman. He’s there every day, every night, and while rumours persist he once caught a fish or a boot or even an Olympic Torch, today his line hangs empty. He’s a lonely figure, lost in his memories; spare him a smile as you drive over the bridge into Walsall Wood.
The Fisherman is part of the Walsall Wood sculpture trail commissioned by the local council in 2009 to commemorate the area’s industrial history. He stands at the canal to draw attention to how this waterway was once a thriving artery, transporting resources between the various mining communities along its route, reminding us how this settlement and the wider Black Country grew up around pits and nail making and steel working. It’s in our DNA, and even those of us who ended up desk jockeys can probably trace our lineage back to a miner or two.
Because this is where the Industrial Revolution was born, the whole Black Country maintaining traces of this history in a landscape scarred by overgrown subsidence and criss-crossed by canals. You can see this as you walk away from the Fisherman towards town; first you’ll come across a miner and his whippet, standing some way away from the other ‘people’. He’s a steel and copper image of an image, a metal interpretation of a stained glass window in the nearby St. John’s church.
It’s a reminder of the centrality of local churches in those days, where the iconography of religion existed alongside that of industry. Apparently the church contains a miner’s lantern inscribed with the names of those killed in a local pit disaster; more on that in a future post.
The whole sculpture trail is about memories – memories of an industrial past now long gone, memories of the families who relied on that industry for survival, whose fathers endured brutal work down the mine to feed their kids. Their stories are told among another group of people, just opposite the church. Now we’re talking about micro-history, stories of children dressing as scarecrows and of a monkey that lived in the local pet shop.
This is the stuff of family history, the stories passed down by grandparents, the stories that would eventually have faded had artist Luke Perry not frozen these memories in metal, preserving the past of the area in the very steel that was so important in creating that past in the first place. In that sense it’s appropriate that the sculpture trail ends with a giant replica of the Walsall Wood colliery: everything is leading to the mine, coal and bricks and workers and memory and legend. Everything begins and ends with the pit.
And yet the Coppy Pit mined for less than a hundred years, from 1874 to 1964. Now the site is a trading estate; the railway line that serviced it a children’s play park. From the point of view of a commuter, the sculpture trail is the only obvious reminder of what this town used to be, a town built around industry, where the community opened soup kitchens to feed each other during the General Strike of the twenties. I have vague memories of the miners’ strike, the outpouring of rage and despair at the collapse of communities built around industry. Is that what happened here? Or did mining in Walsall Wood slowly die, locals finding employment elsewhere, in different towns, different industries?
Because while the sculpture trail is hyperlocal, the town is still moulded by wider, global concerns. While I was taking these pictures, I stumbled on a stark reminder of that: a small cross with a poppy on it, weathered and stuck in a plant pot. I don’t know if it was a leftover from Remembrance Day celebrations or if it was just left there by mistake, but in it’s own way it’s another act of memory; of the men who worked the pit and the canal who found themselves fighting and dying a long way from home.
Memory is a powerful thing, and so is art. Maybe we need more steel sculptures and small wooden crosses to embed these memories in the streets we walk, on the roads we drive.