Thursday, 26 February 2015

Walsall - trying to come to terms with its past

The canal basin, with sadly empty mooring pontoons
The signs of Walsall's proud past in industry and commerce are all around you in the shape of handsome municipal buildings like the Town Hall, substantial private houses and intricately worked upper floors of shop parades. As we drove in on the bus we passed the elegant and beautiful Victorian park and Arboretum.
But around too are the signs of the seventies blitzkrieg that affected so many of our town centres and replaced (albeit tired and shabby) houses and shops with bland, amorphous and poorly built shopping malls, ripped the guts out of many old properties that survived in shadow only and generally made a complete balls-up of the place.
IKEA as art by Sikander Pervez
Monolith new art gallery
At last things are happening to redress the balance and the canal basin is at the heart of some of them. It's here that the Art Gallery was built in 2000. Once inside the somewhat brutalist looking edifice we discovered a superb gallery of largely modern art and sculpture spread out across four floors. A was great to see groups of young schoolchildren on class trips taking full advantage of this very accessible culture.
There's a lot to see from Jacob Epstein bronzes to an ingenious young artist who  assembles brilliant sculptures from pieces of IKEA furniture wood.
The view from the gallery's third floor
In the Basin, alongside the gallery is a collection of apartments, cafes and restaurants in similarly angular styles and a looking over it a block of colourful modern flats. The only thing missing were boats and I felt immediately guilty that we hadn't included the canal in our boating schedule. The basin is used by boats but deserves to be busier. Maybe an element of security – it's entirely open to the streets – would reassure nervous nellies like us that it was a secure spot to spend a night.
The town museum is a sorry contrast to the gallery: it's council funding has been axed so only one of three galleries remains. And word is that this will shut soon. It's a classic tale: reduce funding, so the museum can exhibit less, so less people come so the place has less justification for financial support. Already it's a flimsy little show: a bit of obvious stuff about the canals and Walsall's famous leatherware, saddlery and saddle ironmongery industries and that's about it.
Sister Dora, Walsall's heroine
Fine reliefs surround its base

What we did find was the statue to Sister Dora, an Anglican nun who arrived in 1865, was horrified by the medical provisions for workers in the local industries. She devoted the rest of her life to improving matters for working men and their families to such a degree that thousands came to her funeral. The magnificent bronze statue (replacing an earlier marble one) has intricate reliefs of industrial scenes round its base. It was apparently the first public statue in Britain erected for a woman not of royal blood.
Handsome building reveals the town's former glories
It's hard to get to grips with Walsall's centre in a single visit. We arrived by bus at the modern but to my eye sublimely ugly circular bus station and tried to find our way around a higgle-piggle of streets, small arcades of various ages and more than one shopping mall. Things are happening though. Outside the ring road there's been substantial new building and council money is now going into new town centre shopping developments.
Let's hope it all succeeds and Walsall has a future to be proud of as well as a past.

1 comment:

  1. Kevin, we've overnighted in the Basin on quite a few occasions and have never had a spot of trouble. Natives are friendly, and often apologetic about all the crud in the cut, and the canal itself is an interesting route with the odd shallow/silty section. We draw similar to Harry and the only place where we consistently had problems was on Ryders Green flight but nothing that a bit of brute force didn't sort!