The Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up Open Day

By Heather Barrett

On Saturday 8th December 2018, the Oldbury Writing Group was fancying another trip, so we went to the Steelhouse Lane Lock-Up Open Day.

With our heady summer well and truly behind us and colder grey days in place, we did not feel like another venture into the great outdoors; it was time to come inside. The Lock-Up is one of many architectural gems offering open days to the public which is run by the West Midlands Police in conjunction with Birmingham Hidden Spaces. With the likes of Fred West and the Peaky Blinders, amongst some of its notorious inmates, the prison proved an engrossing if not sombre choice for an OWG trip. So we set out to indulge in some crime and nourishment. Our group leader, Angela, who has a long established love of history and intrigue; Nicole, who discovered the Lock-Up tours; Julian; and I went on the visit.

The Steelhouse Lane custody block is an imposing and very tastefully decorated red-brick, Victorian build that served as a central lock-up prison for Birmingham and West Midlands Constabulary and the local courts. It operated from 1891, with the foundation stone being laid by Queen Victoria herself, until 2016 when Perry Barr Custody Suite took over.

The most striking aspect for me, was once we were through the charging area and into the main prison, we acclimatised to our environment, and left the rain-drenched street behind. It is designed typically as such that cells flank each side of the building. Passages are narrow to prevent huddling by prisoners and the grilled flooring allowed officers to keep an eye on all three floors, as with mainstream prisons. There is a kitchen where meals were prepared for prisoners, such as marmalade and chawl sandwiches in days gone by, and microwave suppers for more recent inmates. Also, some cells were converted into medical suites, storage and administrative rooms.

Cells were small, contained and Spartan with in-cell sanitation — a more modern feature — and a bench, cum bed with a sparse mattress atop it. However, we all made ourselves quite at home in those cells and took in a world most never get to see, with the comfort of knowing we could leave at any point, unlike many who had sat in there in previous times. The brickwork was painted cream, and the flooring came with a security line just inside the cell. The doors were heavy, with a hatch and spy hole to keep an eye on prisoner activity. The odd name scratched into the wall, and the footprints on the brickwork were reminders of those who had been there in circumstances less favourable than our own.

Julian pointed out that in many cases this would have been an offender’s window onto the wider penal system. Those who would go through the courts and maybe into mainstream prison got their first taste of that system right here in this very building. It had a sense of being a penal microcosm, a community sealed away from the wider community with its own characters, social strata, regulations and rites. Julian noted it would be the ghost of things yet to come and the old photos of past prisoners show keen apprehension or seasoned resignation on the faces of the hardened and green first time criminal. We could not help noticing that many prisoners from the turn of the last century were often children. As Angela observed, they were stunted by hunger and poor living conditions, making them look even younger than their already tender years. However, this did not stop them receiving corporal punishment like the whey-faced boy called Henry, who got the whip on top of three days custody for stealing cigars.

The building is known to be an area of paranormal activity, which is hardly surprising, considering the history. Reports have centred on sightings and sensations inside and around the tunnel that took prisoners from cells to court. These tunnels were installed following police deaths when ‘angry-mobs’ had tried to free or attack prisoners in outside transit. The tunnel was off limits, but we saw it through a small door window — a white tiled ominous passageway with a staircase turning to the right. Its style is much similar to the morgue tunnels underneath Birmingham Council House.

Some of our tour hosts and experts were former custody sergeants who had worked here from the 1970s upwards. While we looked through a selection of policing paraphernalia spanning Victorian to modern policing times, we were all taken aback by the illuminating tale of the man brought in after going berserk when his wife forgot to submit a winning Pools coupon, back in the 1970s. Some conversations ran quite deep, such as the impact of cutbacks and extra work pressure on police officers today, in what feels to many as an exhausting and thankless task. Another custody sergeant also told us what a grim job this could be. She was ordered to keep an eye on the prisoners, even when they were taking a scrub, which from her reckoning was not too often. The reality of the job was noisy and smelly, prisoners banging on their iron cell doors, people, for reasons known to them, avoiding soap and water for a while. On tour days some of those same prisoners had often returned on nostalgia checks, debating and arguing which cell they had spent their time in.

The visit was certainly thought-provoking. The images of Peaky-Blinders types in the sepia mug shots were evidence that even in an age of supposed respect for law and authority, there was still the kind of ‘Wild West Britain’ the Red Tops lament about today. Offenders were still young, and gangs still prowled the streets. It could be argued then and now, with certain types of crime, the common denomination boiled down to a disparity of wealth, with Victorian and modern age austerity serving as a breeding ground for crime, when policing is thin, living becomes survival and aspiration is reduced to raw opportunity. It made us think about a side of life most ordinary people assume they will never encounter. Nicole observed, “I learned a lot of new things about prison life that could inspire a story one day.”

As for us, we got a chance to show our criminal wild side by taking in-cell snaps and having our fingerprints taken. Angela and I got to unleash our inner Juliet Bravo, trying on officers’ hats, although we looked more like the laughing policewomen! We were not the only ones having a ball. The place was packed with other sightseers and children were fascinated with all the accoutrements of prison and policing life. The gift shop was a lovely little find towards the end of our visit with plenty of affordable items for souvenirs and gifts, and the adjoining interview room with felt walls and tape deck felt like a step back into a golden oldie crime series. Angela commented, “It was an inspiring place, a brilliant setting for a story.” Julian shared my views that we were a little too comfortable for comfort, “Brilliant! Great atmosphere for ideas. I felt strangely at home.”

On stepping back on the outside, a few hours later, with its rainy sky and bustle of Christmas shoppers, I could not help but ponder the words of a friend who had served some time back in the 1980’s, that being spat back out into the world can be as jarring as the point the prisoner is first taken from it. The wind and cold shook me after the warm and isolating prison space. Little wonder, for some prisoners, that a return to society is such a fragile and daunting time.

The Lock-Up tours cost £5 per person, and more information on tours can be found on Eventbrite.

Music:

Jail by Plusplus

Oldbury Writing Group – Christmas 2018

By Nicole J. Simms

On Saturday 22nd December 2018, we celebrated our fifth Christmas together by having a small Christmas party in the library and a Christmas meal at the Court of Requests in Oldbury.

During our Christmas party in the library, we drank some mulled wine (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), ate gingerbread biscuits (I baked them), mince pies and chocolates. We also exchanged cards and gifts. We then read out our Christmas inspired stories and poems, and Dave read out the well-known Christmas poem ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’, which Angela had brought to the meeting. Like with any other meeting, we also had interesting conversations about Christmas, writing and life in general.

After our meeting, we all headed over to the Court of Requests for our Christmas meal. A table decorated with a festive purple tablecloth and cute red and white crackers was prepared for us at the back of the pub. We all took a seat and looked through the menus. Some of us were traditional and ordered meals from the Christmas menu. I had the Christmas veggie burger meal, and others had the stuffed turkey meal. Others were a little rebellious and ordered from the normal menu instead, not wanting to stick to tradition. However, we all individually enjoyed our meals.

While waiting for our meals, we pulled crackers and read out our jokes. Some wore the cracker hats, and others rebelled against wearing them. Well, that was until it was photo taking time, and I, as always, insisted on everyone wearing their hats.

Once our main meals were eaten, we continued reading our Christmas stories and poems. We then chatted away about everything and anything, simply enjoying each other’s company. Only three of us had dessert: me, Heather and Sandra — the others had to go home. Heather and Sandra had the apple crumble, and I had the Melt Mallow Stack. My dessert was delicious, and it is something I plan to recreate.

We all had a wonderful time, and it was the perfect way to end 2018. Our Christmas parties and meals have always made Christmas even more special for me. I’m happy and lucky to be part of such an amazing group, and I hope we have many more Christmases together.

We hope you had a lovely Christmas, and we would like to wish you a Happy New Year.

Music:

Christmas Memory by Borrtex

Our Trip to Kinver Edge and the Rock Houses

By Julian Hadley

On Saturday 25th August 2018, as part of the continuing OWG 4th anniversary celebrations, Angela, Nicole and I visited Kinver Edge and the Rock Houses. On this occasion, there were just the three of us, but we still had a really nice day.

For anyone that may not know, Kinver is a beautiful village, west of Stourbridge and north of Kidderminster, perhaps best known for its rock houses.
Well, after a bit of a disjointed journey, courtesy of my trusty sat nav, we arrived at our destination, and set off, eager to scale the dizzying heights of Kinver Edge. (Incidentally, I myself hadn’t been to Kinver for six years, and I had forgotten that parking for Kinver Edge is free. Another bonus).

We’d opted to follow the woodland trail, as this was apparently the shortest and least strenuous. Hmm, I think this was a case of famous last words. That said, it wasn’t too bad, though the trail was quite steep in places, so it might not suit those with mobility issues.

Our route was well marked and led us along some nice, shady paths and as one would expect, through plenty of greenery. Like Sandwell Valley, plenty of conservation work has been/is being done, and it was nice to see that here too — the off-trail areas had been allowed to go wild. At one point, a series of basic hides had been put together with fallen branches, so presumably, that was a good spot for wildlife. I myself didn’t see any, but who knows how many pairs of beady eyes were watching us from the dense undergrowth.

Soon enough, we reached the top and marvelled at the view. You can see for miles, in almost every direction. For those who like to know which way home lies, a compass type beacon has been provided for your convenience. As one would expect, most local towns were pointed out, as well as a few places that are a bit further away. Even New York was featured, though I think that is a bit too far for a Saturday hike.

After a short break for lunch, we followed a gentle path up to the famous rock houses, and for the first time in my life, I was able to go inside. As a boy, I visited Kinver several times with my Grandfather and had seen the rock houses when people were still living in them. I suppose I thought that inside they were the same as any other house. I was very wrong. It was like a trip back in time. The rock houses, or cave houses, were cut into sandstone, which was formed roughly 250 million years ago when the entire region was a desert, a desert which presumably encompassed nearby Bridgnorth, which is hard to imagine, given the green and pleasant landscape of today.

The houses (currently owned and maintained by the National Trust) were known to be occupied as early as the 1700’s and were described by one of the earliest visitors as being very clean and comfortable, and having modern conveniences. But of course, back then, little basics like electricity and flushing toilets didn’t exist. Yet despite that, these cave houses had plenty in their favour. For one thing, having no gas, electricity or running water meant no bills. Also, they were cosy; being solidly enclosed made them warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. The typical form of heating was a cast iron range, which doubled as a cooker, and given the location, they had no shortage of firewood. The houses typically have one general living area and one bedroom, both spacious. Looking around, you can see little niches or alcoves cut into the walls, which were probably for candles. I don’t suppose for one minute that it would suit everyone, but I would happily live there. If you haven’t been, it’s worth seeing.

After our visit to the rock houses, we headed into Kinver for a look round. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a lovely place, but there isn’t that much to see. We did, however, find a great little antique shop, hidden away in a side alley – the proprietor of which was a retired firefighter from Rowley Regis. It really is a small world.

Angela treated herself to a few books, including a copy of the complete works of Edgar Allen Poe, dating to the 1800’s, and we all got to see a small collection of blades, including a Scottish basket hilt Claymore, though unfortunately, it was a replica. Still a beautiful piece, though.

We concluded our little ramble with a visit to a local pub, the Plough and Harrow, just on the High Street. We were all very good and had soft drinks (honest guv), and Angela sampled one of the speciality pork pies. I hadn’t been in that pub since 1988, and while it had changed a bit, it still managed to keep its traditional appeal.

As usual, there were a few comical moments that are worthy of a mention, but since they all focus on one certain group member, I will not name names.

Things got off to an encouraging start when a certain someone mentioned that they could identify any of the snakes we might encounter, including the adder, which apart from being venomous, it has a very distinctive pattern.

A little later, following our visit to the rock houses, this same someone went on a scrumping spree through a nearby orchard, swiping at least two apples, supposedly to see if they will grow when planted in a garden.

Last, but not least, this certain person recounted a little ditty, “sit in a hole and suffocate a mole, in an English country garden.”

Honestly, you couldn’t make it up.

So, there you have it, another adventure crossed off the list. And since we’ve still got a little bit of summer left, there is plenty of time for another. All suggestions welcome.

Music:

Song 1The Banshee. Gravel Walks. The Old Copperplate by Sláinte

Song 2Appalachian Coal Mines by Mid-Air Machine

Four Years of the Oldbury Writing Group

By Angela L. Garratt

It is amazing that four years after the birth of the Oldbury Writing Group (OWG), we are still going strong, but none of what has happened would have if it were not for the brilliant members that we have.

We have seen it all since day one, a teacher that wanted no more than to expand his imagination, a nurse who loves to write poetry, an Italian children’s author, a life writer, graphic novelists, journalists, content and copywriters and of course people who just want to write for the fun of it.

Being a writer, or indeed any kind of artist is no good if you are just in it for the money, you have to love what you do in order to do it right. The reader can tell whether or not there is passion in the words that have been written, and that is the one thing that every member who comes to the OWG have in common. Whether we write for fun, therapy or as a profession, we all love what we do, and that passion is shown every week in the stories, poems and other works that are shared. It has been this way for four years now, and I am so proud that I am the founder and leader of this magnificent group.

We are not just group members; we are friends that get together every week. Sometimes we see each other more often: we visit each other, call and text one another. We help each other out, and the one thing that you can always rely on is honesty. We can trust each other to tell the truth about each other’s works. We want to know if our works are good enough to be published and we will tell the truth as it would be better coming from a friend you can trust rather than an unscrupulous editor that won’t bother to spare your feelings.

The Oldbury Writing Group encourages equality and diversity. It is great to see two people standing together; two people who could not be more culturally different, but they have their love of the written word in common. One of the trips we went on a couple of years ago was to Haden Hill House in Cradley Heath, which is a big manor house with beautiful grounds and a lot of history. I took a photo of two of our members who have since moved on, of a white, English, elderly gentleman and a young, black male from Africa’s Ivory Coast. They were not just standing side by side, but they were leaning on one another – friends because of their common interest. I love how the OWG has brought people together, created friendships and helped to increase the confidence and self-esteem of people who have really needed a lift in life.

We have shared our good times, like my 40th birthday when I invited all of the OWG to my birthday party and they put together and bought me a £45 voucher for WHSmiths (which I have now spent), and we have shared our griefs. All the members of the OWG are my friends, and I care about them all deeply.

We have learnt so much, not just from each other, but from the outings that we have taken together. Another place that we have regularly visited as a group was the PowWow Festival of Writing in Moseley. About three years ago, there was a talk about the pros and cons of getting a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing. The two talking was a Master’s Degree student and a university professor on the subject. The student said, in so many words, that you would do just as good if you joined a good writing group to study creative writing instead of studying it at a university. I do believe that, but an element of my degree is in creative writing, so who am I to say. Having said that, I do run a good writing group, but the truth is, this group would not be the group it is if it were not for Nicole J. Simms. Nicole is the group’s deputy leader, and she runs the online side of the group. She knows exactly when to take charge and when to step back; she has all the makings of a natural leader, and she has done the OWG proud. She is a wonderful human being and one of my closest friends. We would be lost without her. We gain inspiration from one another too, listening to each other’s woes and praises, life experiences and general chit-chat.

One thing is for sure, it is impossible to put into words just how much the OWG means to me. Not just the trips, inspirational talks, the stories and poems that we hear from each other, not the new skills or even the fact that we have each helped one another to overcome our insecurities or improve our self-esteem, or the fact that we are all such good friends. It is all of that and more. I hope that in the next four years, the OWG would have expanded to gain new members who become good friends, I hope we publish more and more books together as we already have done with From Sunrise to Sunset and another anthology that we have coming out towards the end of this year. I hope that we see more personal publications from each member, and I hope that we are all still there to help support each other through our personal and passionate journeys to expressing ourselves through the beauty of the written word.

Music:

Memories by Audiobinger

Our Day in Sandwell Valley

By Julian Hadley

On Saturday 28th June, four daring members of the OWG, namely Angela, Dave, Julian (me) and Nicole, undertook a scouting mission into Sandwell Valley, encompassing the Priory ruins, the Swan Pool, and concluding with the RSPB reserve. And a great day it was, too.

One of the first things that struck me was the rich greenery. The walkways are well maintained, but to a greater extent, the surrounding woodland has been allowed to revert to its natural state. Tall leafy trees line the main trail, but off track, patches of dense, thorny undergrowth help to ensure that people are kept away from the valley’s delicate wildlife; just as it should be.

A short way along the trail, our collective eye was drawn to a metalwork sculpture of a clump of flowers. It was nothing fancy, but novel, despite the graffiti, so delicately sprayed on the dull grey leaves.

Further on, we found what I think is a small stream (Google maps doesn’t say), roughly five feet wide and quite literally carpeted with Jade green algae. The water’s canopy was so still and perfect, it looked like a road, leading off into the distance. Here and there, decaying logs and fallen branches raised their heads above the surface, rather like hungry crocodiles in a scene, more reminiscent of an Australian swamp than a tiny stretch of water in the West Midlands.

Next, we reached the ruins of Sandwell Priory, and wandered round, trying to guess which foundation was which (little realising that just a few feet away, was a site map). I found myself trying to mentally reconstruct the site, wondering if the original builders had used mortar, etc. The excavation work had been carried out by volunteers, between 1982 and 1988. They certainly did a good job.

Back on the trail, we soon reached the Park Lane waypoint and continued towards the Swan Pool. The last time I was there (obviously a very long time ago) the trail leading to the pool didn’t exist. I think there was a simple stile on the main path, allowing hikers access to the field. These days, thick green bushes, trees and shrubs line the path, effectively hiding the pylons, which once dominated the view. It was here that Angela spotted a pair of Damsel Flies, such fragile little things, a beautiful shade of blue. At first, I was surprised to see them. It was quite open at that point, and the wind was strong. But of course, with the land having been allowed to go a little wild, there was plenty of shelter for them.

We skirted the inner edge of the Swan Pool. There were a few Canadian geese here and there, and perhaps one or two other species, but for the most part, the waterfowl were concentrated on the opposite side.

So, after a quick stop for lunch, we headed for the RSPB reserve.

I knew that Forge Mill Lake was popular with ornithologists, but I had no idea there was a dedicated RSPB site there. Just in case you’re thinking of going (which I would recommend), parking is £3, and the drinks are quite pricey, but the site itself is free entry. Not being a bird watcher myself, I was pleasantly surprised. The visitor centre is really nice, and inside is an observation deck, with a great view of the pool; perfect for anyone with mobility issues.

We followed the track and found that once again, the surrounding landscape (while well maintained) was quite wild. Rarely have I seen so much dense greenery in one place. Much better for wildlife and it stops people straying too close to the water.

Soon, we came to a hide. Again, I was impressed because it was deceptively large. Inside, seating was basic, but the view was fantastic. Ok, it was only a pool in Sandwell, but that’s hardly the point. I was surprised to find that the RSPB had provided a telescope and some binoculars for people to use. Most of the enthusiasts had their own of course, but I found them handy. Luckily, Angela was very clued up on the different species and quickly spotted a couple of lapwings (apparently rare) and a moorhen. I heard one of the enthusiasts saying that he’d been watching a heron, though I didn’t see it myself. I’m not sure I will ever be a “twitcher”, but it was lovely to see the birds, just doing what they do, unthreatened and unafraid.

We left the hide after about fifteen minutes and carried on around the lake and back to the visitor centre. It was a lovely walk, but there wasn’t a great deal more to see. As usual, one of the best things about the group outings is spending a little time with kindred intellects and simply enjoying the day.

There were, of course, a couple of comical moments.

Inevitably, at one point, it started raining. Dave, Nicole and myself, were suitably covered up, but our Angela hadn’t brought a coat or umbrella. Never fear; I sorted her out with a German army poncho, in a very fetching olive green. Not everyone could get away with it, but she carried it off nicely. It wasn’t long before the rain got heavier and I was forced to put my poncho on too. Naturally, Nicole snapped a few discreet photos (I’m negotiating with her for the negatives).

So, that’s another mission completed. I’m not sure if it will inspire any great literary works, but time will tell.

PS:

While I think about it, Angela suggested that we should have a special name for our touring group. So, I applied my keen mind to the task for a few minutes and came up with “OWG Reconnaissance and Expeditionary Squad.” I quite like it, but my son reckons its closest acronym would be “Ogres.” I welcome any thoughts on the matter.

Music:

Adventure, Darling by Gillicuddy