Posting day: Sunday, and, sometimes, maybe, extra bits in between.
Sunday March 28th 2021
Highbury Hall, now a Grade II listed building, was commissioned as his Birmingham residence by Joseph Chamberlain in 1878, two years after he became member of parliament for Birmingham. It took its name from the Highbury area of London, where Chamberlain had lived as a child.*
The park is undergoing substantive changes in order to restore the environs of Highbury Hall to their original layout. Among other projects is the relaying of lost paths and the restoration and replanting of borders.
Those of us who have walked in Highbury over decades, with or without dogs, feel at best ambivalent about the current changes. The most special feature of Highbury, much enjoyed by its round-the-year users, and frequently commented on by visitors, was its wild areas.
Until now, it was possible to walk around three sides of the park without meeting anyone, and, apart from the distant hum of traffic, hear only birdsong and rustling leaves. Sometimes you could only hear silence. A good silence. Very rare in a large urban area.
A buzzard might swoop down and fly across your path. You had to weave in and out of trees, and push rampant plants aside to follow the twisty little tracks. You felt as though you were in the country.
Now we have lost our wildness, and it feels very sad.
And since lockdown a year ago, the tarmacked paths have often been redolent of Saturday’s city centre pavements.
Yes, of course it’s good that more people are enjoying the city’s open spaces. It’s fair that wide paths with smooth, level surfaces will make much more of the park accessible to wheelchair users and others with limited mobility.
The men who are carrying out the restoration work are doing an excellent job. I’m sure the areas on which they’re working will be pristine.
And preserving our local history is important too.
Whatever, when Y. tells me that Highbury is no longer a quagmire, off we go, Isis and I, to suss out the new paths which are being laid, and see whether it might be possible to circumvent them and still enjoy a bit of untamed woodland.
On Friday, after Isis has had as much time as she wants with her favourite hedgerow, we follow the erstwhile woodland paths.
We walk up through the community orchard. Volunteers have covered the muddy entrance to the area with wood chippings, so paws and boots no longer sink into deep, black mud. This is pleasant. Thank you volunteers.
Isis knows the park so well that she can lead the way up along the woven hazel fence, past the entrances to the two lower level paths and across the top edge of the project, where parts of brick paths, floors and steps have been uncovered over the years, again by the orchard volunteers. Then we meander up the steep hill, turning turning left as we reach the Angry Wall.
8 Sept 2011 – The 20ft wall, which borders one side of Highbury Park, was, according to local folklore, built by its former owner Joseph Chamberlain to wind up his neighbour Richard Cadbury. It is thought it was made to look like a series of cannon shells wedged into an embankment as a taunt to Cadbury, a pacifist liberal.**
Isis overshoots the path but quickly turns back to follow me. She is both intrigued and confused by the scents she picks up. There are no newly constructed paths here, but saplings, roots and undergrowth have been torn out. She moves very slowly because she is preoccupied with so much sniffing. She also moves very warily, often stopping. I think this is because the once familiar territory doesn’t smell like it did.
She always checks to make sure I am still around, but she asks for more reassurance than usual. She wants to be a follower, not a leader today.
When we are assaulted by the first newly constructed path, she is clearly disorientated. I feel disorientated too – although that’s nothing new. I have no sense of direction and usually rely on Isis to navigate us through the woods.
We walk along the as yet unsurfaced stones for quite a way until I suddenly realise we can reach the next level by leaving the path and descending through an island of natural growth.
When we walk past the stagnant pond to the little wooden bridge, we are in for an unpleasant surprise.
There is now a wide new path going down to the bridge and a virtual motorway leading from it to vast steps.
The luxuriant grass mound where Isis used to love to dance is now bald.
She recognises the mound, but when scents lead her back down onto the path, she seems mystified.
Thank goodness it’s only about forty strides from the beginning of the steps to the mound. On the other side of the mound the path curves to the right. We walk behind the yews and down the narrow, undulating track which meanders to the main entrance.
We’ve met no-one along our way. I guess that this area is considered out of bounds.
Naturally, we carry on. Let’s see if there’s a way out.
There is now a wide verge of tamped down earth along the edge of the new highway. Isis and I walk along this towards a huge digger. I smile at the working men and they smile at me. Then we squeeze between the notice board and the machinery, back into the main park.
I decide that we’ll go somewhere else tomorrow. Then I discover that I’ve dropped my much loved neck warmer knitted for me by friend A.
So we will return to Highbury the next day and retrace our footsteps.
I’m glad we do because next day there’s rain and sleet and my Hairy One is very, very happy.
*Headliner from Wickipedia
** https://www.business-live.co.uk › economic-development
*Isis came from the Aeza cat and dog rescue and adoption centre in Aljezur, Portugal. For information about adopting an animal from the centre, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or www.dogwatchuk.co.uk