Botany in Birmingham I

My first unsteady steps into the world of blogging took place several years ago. These steps took the form of a slightly tongue-in-cheek but genuinely-inquisitive look at the flora of Spaghetti Junction and the surrounding area, under the title Botany in Birmingham. As time went on, it became untenable to continue to regularly visit my chosen locality, along with balancing the various other demands on my time. My obsession with Corydalis and Bleeding Hearts became greater, so it made sense to blog about something that interested me but was also in the back garden; cutting out the forty minute round trip (by foot) to the bowels of the Gravelly Hill Interchange. But fear not, dear reader, my interest in the plucky inhabitants of that concrete jungle never waned! What follows are some thoughts and musings on my latest field trip to the exploration of Spaghetti Junction.

Trip Overview

Upon finding myself with a free Saturday, it quickly became filled with Things. You may have noticed that there are a finite number of hours in each day. Sometimes this is a blessing, other times a hindrance. On finding that the time appropriated to this particular Saturday (24 hours, I believe) was fast being allocated elsewhere, I decided that the only answer was to begin the day earlier than is often considered acceptable. I strode, bleary eyed, into the centre of Salford Circus at 5:30 am. From there I headed briefly up to road level, before descending down to the canal, swiftly covering the few yards of the Tame Valley Canal before it changes seamlessly into the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal. After travelling merrily along the towpath for a short while, I scrambled up the bank onto the road overhead (imaginatively named Saltley Cottages, after Saltley Cottages), crossed the Tyburn Road and headed homeward. It was a brief visit, but it satisfied my wanderlust and botanical curiosity for the time being.

Part I: The Mighty River Tame vs Salford Circus

Much was seen and much was contemplated on my excursion, but I’ll try to tame my wandering musings into something that passes muster for you as the reader. In Part I, I’ll compare and contrast the mostly natural River Tame to the mostly artificial Salford Circus. Part II will be more photo-based.

The Mighty River Tame

The River Tame is one of Birmingham’s three rivers (along with the Rea and the Cole). It runs across North Birmingham and, unbeknownst to many of it’s inhabitants, has played an integral part in the development of it’s surroundings. There has long been a road crossing the River Tame at the site of Spaghetti Junction; Salford Bridge has existed in one form or another since 1290, with the bridge being built on the site of a pre-existing ford. Being undeveloped, but relatively flat, the valley has been used by both canal builders and road builders, in their respective heydays. The Lichfield-Redditch train line also crosses the River Tame at this point. Car, Barge, Train, Horse and Carriage: They all cross at this point.

Now that we’ve completed our incomplete history lesson, we return to the River Tame in modern times. Having once been the area’s most influential geographical feature, it now finds itself relegated to a partly culverted, entirely neglected, out-of-site-out-of-mind status.

Botany in Birmingham River Tame

If left to it’s own devices, it is believed that the flora along this stretch of the River Tame would be predominantly the various native Willows, mostly Crack Willow and White Willow, that often grow on soggy soils in this country. Indeed, nearby Saltley’s name derives from the Anglo-Saxon for ‘Willow-clearing’. Having looked at old photos of this stretch of the river (pre-Spaghetti Junction), the river had reached a point where there was very little greenery left; mostly just a lot of smoke.

Botany in Birmingham River Tame

With much of the heavy industry now gone, and the River Tame living a mostly ignored existence, a healthy sward of growth is developing on the banks of the river. There’s a whole lot of green in the picture above: Elders, Sycamores and Cow Parsley feature heavily. Perhaps most interestingly; the soft grey-green colour you can see are Willows. The River Tame seems to be reverting to a much altered, but more natural state. I’d very much like to have a closer look at some of these plants, but it might involve a bit of negotiating metal railings and such. An adventure for another day.

Salford Circus

The first point to be made is that the name Salford comes from the old crossing mentioned above. As a crossing on the Worcester to Lichfield road, it probably precedes the existence of Birmingham itself. Modern day travellers are expected to make the journey by automobile, but those of us intrepid enough to make the crossing by foot find ourselves quickly relegated to a mysterious subterranean wonderland. When the architects of Spaghetti Junction were scheming and planning, they evidently looked to the future: that future had four wheels and an internal combustion engine. As a result, pedestrians must navigate this complex using an hypogean circle, accessed through series of subways: Salford Circus.

Most of my previous visits to Salford Circus have been in the winter, but this early summer encounter revealed a whole new perspective. I had always assumed that the place had been designed by someone on a work experience placement at best, or a Crazy Person at worst. It turns out it may well have been designed by a Crazy Genius Person. With the sunlight shining filtering down through the massive concrete columns, the whole area takes on the appearance of a brutalist atrium.

There are five circular raised beds; five circles within a circle (is this significant?); all planted with a surprisingly bold selection of trees. Whilst all this could have been regularly spaced, dividing up the area with mathematical precision, the actual placement of the raised beds is surprisingly whimsical. The raised roads above cross the Circus at curves and tangents, carving up the space asymmetrically. Any space that isn’t dominated by columns has been commandeered by the raised beds. Here’s a photo of one of these raised beds, with a mature stand of Robinia pseudoacacia being the main feature:

Botany in Birmingham Robinias

Whilst the trees themselves cut imposing figures, another attention grabbing aspect of the whole space is the increasing domination of Ivy. All of the raised beds are carpeted with the stuff, and it is slowly colonising the rest of the Circus too:

Botany in Birmingham Ivy

You can see the wall of the raised bed to the right, and about six feet of Ivy extending beyond it. The most exciting factor about all of this is that the Ivy has been chopped off around the perimeter of the wall but has rooted into the cracks in the concrete; existing in it’s own right, rather than using the raised beds. A Robinia sucker has also made it’s way up through the drain. Exciting times for Salford Circus: a re-wilding of sorts.

Part II: Other Things

The previous section was rather word heavy, so what follows are a series of pictures of Other Things wot I seen on my travels:

Botany in Birmingham Graffiti
In their wisdom, the powers that be insist on painting over all the graffiti periodically. This only serves to create a literal blank canvas for people to express themselves. This particular visit didn’t yield any masterpieces, but I quite like this partially obscured statement.
Botany in Birmingham Goslings
These goslings are pecking away in the filth next to the canal. Their parents came to hiss at me after a bit.
Botany in Birmingham Buddleia
Buddleias are another ever-present floral companion on this type of field trip. Not quite in flower yet.

Conclusion

That brings us to the end of my Botany in Birmingham expedition. Nothing beats furtling around underneath the M6 for floral delights. It seems that the River Tame is enjoying a bit of freedom to be itself, ecologically speaking. Salford Circus appears to be undergoing some sort of vegetative takeover, surely beyond the wildest (pun intended) dreams of it’s architect. I always enjoy taking in the sights and sounds of Spaghetti Junction and getting to know it’s leafy inhabitants, hopefully you enjoying reading about it all. When I get a moment, I’ll head back to further explore. See you soon!

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