Monday, 28 November 2011

Mixed News in Weston

Nothing like ups and downs, is there?

I began today reading this article:

explaining that the new sea front works in Weston-s-Mare had been given an award. Good. Much needed work and a much deserved award. Makes the town appear to be on the up. All very positive.

Then, this afternoon comes this:

For those of you that don't know, the Tropicana was for a few years the name for what had for years been called simply "the bathing pool". This was Weston's vast open air swimming pool (able to accommodate 1,500 bathers at a time), venue for diving displays, beauty pageants (a young Diana Dors came third in a beauty contest here!) and a valuable swimming resource in a resort where the sea can sometimes be a bit far off.

In the eighties it was redeveloped, losing the iconic art deco diving board but gaining a wave machine and some giant fruits down which one could slide into the pool. (It was better than I'm making it sound, honestly!) was closed down. We were told that it was too expensive to run, that it wasn't suited to the British climate (only being able to open for part of the year), although how that differed from the previous sixty years seemed to be a moot point.

Schemes to redevelop the pool came and went but always seemed to involve Something Else: an hotel, a bowling alley, a car park encroaching on the Beach Lawns opposite.

And since the last of those schemes fell through, the place has effectively lain derelict, used to store materials for the seafront enhancement, an ignominious fate for so fine a structure.

All the time, anyone with any sense sense (and there are plenty of those, believe me) has been saying that the answer is a remarkably simple one. Restore it as a pool, with a retractable roof, so that it could be used all year. It's in a good, accessible location and the town's only other swimming pool is well inland, on the edge of a suburban housing estate at Hutton Moor. The Tropicana site is ideal as a pool. To use modern parlance it's a no-brainer.

I've become steadily more concerned by the apparent inability of the local council to understand that any pool scheme here needs to be simple to be affordable. But somehow, I always thought that the pool would, eventually come back. So today's news that demolition is likely has come as something of a bombshell.

If these people allow (nay, cause) the loss of this facility, this monument, they will earn the enmity of all who truly love Weston-s-Mare. I for one will not forgive them. And I shall not be alone.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Ian Jelf Public Walks

I have quite a pedigree of doing walking tours in both usual and distinctly "unusual" places.

Well, I've now started running my own public tours in a small way, so that anyone, as long as they book in advance, can join in an Ian Jelf Walk. They're only occasional but they depend on uptake. I keep the groups deliberately small (usually a maximum of 20) and there's usually the
chance of a bit of sightseeing (or even shopping if you're that way inclined !) afterwards.

At the moment, I have three walks on sale, namely:

Sunday 27 November 2011 11am-1pm Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter

Saturday 3 December 2011 11am-1pm Lichfield

Wednesday 7 December 7pm-9pm Ghosts of Old Shrewsbury

All the walks cost £8 per person. Booking in advance but pay on the day.

You can get more details either by sending me an e-mail to or calling/texting on (07976) 251785. E-mail me and I'll add you to a mailing list, too, so you can be alerted to future walks.

If you'd like more details of what I do and how I work, you can take a look at my website at .

And to help a little business which began in a back bedroom in Warley and grew to run walks from Durham to Winchester, from Taunton to Norwich.....come along and/or spread the word!

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Weston's Other Pier

Let me tell you the story of a Pier. Not the one you think I’m going to talk about. Another one. And one that needs your help. Stick with me to the end and then follow the links and help to make a difference…….

At the Northern end of Weston-s-Mare, the end that hardly any casual visitor gets to these days, is the town’s other, forgotten Pier.

This isn’t the famous Grand Pier, burned spectacularly in 2008, speedily rebuilt and the subject of other Blog Posts of mine. This is something altogether different, more historic, more interesting and certainly more threatened. This, dear reader, is Birnbeck, or the “Old” Pier.

Birnbeck Pier was designed by a man called Eugenius Birch, the IK Brunel of pier-building who is said to have designed no fewer than 14 around the British coast. None of his designs is what you might call “ordinary” but Birnbeck is even more unusual, for rather than being a simple pier, it is in fact a pier-cum-bridge, linking the mainland with the rocky islet of Birnbeck.

The Bristol Channel is subject to the second highest tidal rise and fall in the world (before you ask, it's the Bay of Fundy in Canada) which makes shipping hazardous and finding landing places useable for much of the day deeply problematic. Birnbeck managed to meet those criteria though and as early as the 1840s there were plans for a suspension bridge linking the island with the mainland so that it could be used as a landing place. These plans were to say the least problematic and in the event, the town had to wait until 1867 before the Pier was eventually opened.

It’s hard for us to imagine now what a major event this was. Flags flew, holidays were proclaimed and Weston took its place among those seaside resorts which “had arrived”.

We tend nowadays to think of piers as pleasure places, for promenading and for amusements and Birnbeck came to have all this. It shouldn’t be forgotten though that they originally had a practical purpose as landing places and in the pre-Severn Bridge Bristol Channel this passenger steamer traffic was significant. The relatively wealthy mining population of South Wales would descend on Weston en masse at weekends and holidays and Birnbeck was their point of arrival. Indeed, a much repeated legend with probably more than a grain of truth was that many day trippers never left the confines of the Pier, it having more than enough to keep them occupied.

For those venturing further afield, horse drawn carriages met the ferries at the Pier and from

1902 Weston’s electric trams arrived. By then, though, railway excursion traffic was becoming important, too and the focus of the town moved ever more Southward, prompting the opening of the Grand Pier in 1904. (The Grand Pier has managed to burn down twice; Birnbeck has managed it only once, on Boxing Day 1897.)

During WWII, Birnbeck was requisitioned by the Admiralty for weapons testing, receiving the designation “HMS Birnbeck”. Their “Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development” carried out some work here concerning the famous “Bouncing Bomb”. As I'm always telling sceptics, there's real history in that mud. (And by the way, it's not mud at all. It's ozone-rich sand. So there.)

After the War it was quickly business as usual and the steamer services of P&A Campbell continued to bring visitors over from South Wales, as well as taking Weston holidaymakers on day trips to other English and Welsh resorts. Indeed, in 1962 Campbell’s bought the Pier. But for a variety of reasons the writing was on the wall.

Perhaps the biggest single factor was the opening of the Severn Bridge in 1966. Steamers continued for a while until the last trip left in 1979. In 1994 the quickly deteriorating Pier was closed and has not reopened since. The RNLI still use it (having made repairs so that their crews can reach one of the few all day launching places in the area) but even they are reported to have gone looking elsewhere for a site, should the worst happen.

New owners, promising much from hotels to apartments on the island have come and gone and competitions for new designs have seen some suggestions which might be charitably described as “different”.

But what actually stands there, albeit crumbling, is a beautiful, elegant Victorian pleasure palace. For the past couple of years or so the wonderful vintage Carters Steam Fair has come to Weston with its brilliant period fairground equipment. And you know what? People, even the iPhone X-Box generation, love the simple old-fashioned stuff, so there’s certainly a market for it. A period looking hotel on the island would seem to have some possibilities, too. After all, it works at
Burgh Island.

So where are we? Well the Pier has now been sold (again) to two local businessmen, so let’s await the next plans.

But I told you this long story to try to get you interested in this fabulous bit of surviving (albeit dilapidated) Victorian social history. There is a body of people, interested, caring people, called The Friends of the Old Pier Society. You can check out their new website at

you can buy Stan Terrell's new book, or, as I’ve done, you can join them as a member.

The Grand Pier came back from disaster and a generation ago so did Clevedon Pier, just up the coast (possibly the most beautiful in Britain but that’s another story I must write about one day).

Let’s get the Old Pier back, too and put some life into this lovely bit of Weston.

M Shed

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be taken on a behind the scenes guided tour of M Shed, Bristol’s new museum which has gained a great deal of attention lately.

It has a remarkable number of parallels with Birmingham’s Think Tank and I thought it might me interesting to share here my thoughts about the place.

M Shed replaced the old Bristol Industrial Museum, a much loved attraction on the City’s dockside but one which was not particularly well known to visitors. It’s fair to say that the Industrial Museum had become rather “worn”, although this always begs the question of who allowed that to happen in the first place?

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Think Tank and miss Birmingham’s old Museum of Science and Industry very much. I don’t like over-reliance on interactive displays, nor a tendency to concentrate only on younger visitors. So it’s fair to say that hearing a lot of buzz-words used in conjunction with M Shed didn’t fill me with optimism.

First impressions were good, though. The new museum takes full advantage of its position on the docks, with huge picture windows giving a truly panoramic view of Bristol’s skyline.

The second Big Thing is that admission is still FREE. There are the usual donations elicited and nominal charges for things like guided tours but otherwise, people can come and go as they wish. Not an easy thing to achieve in this day and age and Bristol City Council is to be applauded for it.

We were led first to the Museum’s store, where objects not currently on display are held. As with most museums, M Shed can only show s relatively small part of its collection at any given time but they’ve approached this “problem” in an innovative way, undertaking to change a proportion of their displays every year. In this way, things don’t languish out of sight for ever and people are given something new to come and explore each year, encouraging return visits. The store was very reminiscent of Birmingham’s Museum Store in Nechells, although it’s much more regularly accessible and the labelling was especially good so that even though things were stacked everywhere, you could easily see what they were.

Then it was into the Museum proper, which is arranged thematically rather than chronologically. As a chronological sort of person, I found this quite difficult, at least at first. But there’s no denying that it’s a though provoking approach and it does encourage looking at things from a different angle. There are three permanent galleries, looking at “Bristol Places”, “Bristol People” and “Bristol Life”.

But this juxtaposing of related but different subjects does work to some extent. For example, in “Bristol People”, the section dealing with the difficult subject of the slave trade is cheek by jowl with sections looking at Bristol’s race relations and the famous (in Bristol anyway) bus boycott in the sixties, prompted by the local bus company refusing to employ non-white staff.

Talking of buses, bus building was a big Bristol industry and they have, as one of the most prominent exhibits in “Bristol Places”, a complete Bristol bus (an FLF Lodekka, for the cognoscenti!). This was used as a sort of “gateway” to exploring transport in the City generally, looking at waterways, roads, housing and factories.

The interactive displays weren’t overdone. Indeed, I found those examining the topography of the City to be the most effective way of telling that story. However, they had loudspeakers, not microphones and when two (or three or four) are being used simultaneously I could imagine it might be jolly difficult to concentrate or even hear your “own”.

The “Bristol Life” gallery was a bit too left of field for me (oh Museum traditionalist that I am!) but might well work in bringing the place to the attention and interest of those who don’t normally visit museums. And in any case, out on the dockside there’s plenty more stuff to keep me enthralled with the cranes (a real feature of the city) boats and dockside railway all integral parts of the Museum.

So, M Shed gets a pretty reasonable thumbs up from me; 7/10 for the statistically minded. Go and take a look.

(While you’re there, by the way, don’t miss out on the City’s many other attractions not least the splendid City Museum & Art Gallery up the hill near the University. This too is free and is felt to compliment M Shed. I rather liked the ethos that “M Shed shows Bristol to the World, while the City Museum & Art Gallery shows the world to Bristol.”)

Monday, 14 November 2011

Why in Birmingham?

By and large, I enjoy working in Birmingham very much. Actually, I enjoy it a lot.

It is my birthplace and it has pretty much always been my home. People used to think of it as some post industrial hell-hole but in the last 25 years or so there has been a tremendous transformation in the City Centre that always leaves visitors impressed and to be honest many of the suburbs, attractions and parkland have always been remarkably at odds with the perceived view. To see the greenery spread out, to realise the great things that happened here, to hear its distinctive and lovely accent and to find amazing buildings and stories in unusual places is a wonderful thing.

So it with some sadness that I've realised in recent months that it's becoming harder and harder to work in the place, at least doing City Centre walking tours. Why? Because of all the towns and cities where I do walks, this is virtually the only one where you can be guaranteed "interference" from unusual people while trying to do a walk.

This varies from the mildly abusive (shouting at groups in the distance), through the whole spectrum of "latching on and pulling faces", "telling drunken stories of their own", "people with 'issues' coming and staring in a way that unnerves both me and the group" right up to "threatened physical abuse".

Now whenever I mention this to anyone they always seem to think that this is an issue that would afflict any busy city centre, especially at night. But you know what? I have though I say it myself a pretty wide range of tour destinations and this really is a Birmingham phenomenon. I genuinely have no idea why.

I've thought long and hard about posting this. After all, it's not likely to do either the City nor my business much good if I say these things, is it? But in recent weeks I have not done a single walking tour without some sort of incident of this nature and one day I'll simply pack up the umbrella and go and do this somewhere else. It doesn't happen in London (and I include inner city places like Lambeth and Bethnal Green in this), nor Bristol, nor Reading nor Nottingham. Nor many dozens of other places.

Answers on a postcard please to the great question: "Why in Birmingham?"

Thursday, 10 November 2011


On the face of it, I'm pleased that FIFA has allowed England (and Wales) footballers to wear Poppies on armbands during their games this weekend.

However, there is a nagging doubt inside my mind that this is the right course of action.

There are a set of rules in place designed to ensure complete "neutrality" in the game itself and banning all religious or political symbols. Now I don't believe that the Poppy is a religious symbol, nor a political one. But not everyone might see it that way and I suspect that one day other countries might well want to place symbols which we might not agree with on shirts. Better to ban everything; and stick to it. Keep it simple.

What has happened with leaders writing letters and the press becoming angry, smacks of that haughty attitude which we British are sometimes said to have when dealing with others. I don't think we do usually; but I can see traces of it in this.

The solution of placing them on armbands seems to me a very good (clever, even) compromise. Everyone sticks to the rules, everyone is satisfied.

Remember the phrase "Wear You Poppy With Pride"? I always found that very moving and I genuinely do wear mine with pride, with a sense of remembrance. Nowadays, though, it sometimes seems to me that people wear them because they think they should, rather than because they actually want to. As soon as someone doesn't, everyone descends on them like vultures and people become indignant. (That said, I did refuse a request from the tour manager of an overseas group to remove mine before a tour many years ago to avoid upsetting the clients. I refused but I'm self employed and they hire me, with all my views and foibles and that's the end of the matter.)

So if you haven't already bought one, go and make a donation for your Poppy. It is a visible and potent symbol of loss and remembrance and the funds raised go to a cause that is right and moral, good and commendable.

But when you can't wear can't. And when that happens, nd your Poppy is still in your coat pocket and your donation is still in RBL's collecting box. Job done.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011


I've just been to the dentist, or more correctly to hygienist.

No problem. My teeth have been fine, as far as I'm aware. Well, they were, until she started scraping around on them with that horrid hook thing they brandish with such gusto. Now they hurt.

Also, she questioned me at length about what I eat. "Do you eat plenty of fruit?" she asked.

"Yes,", I said, feeling distinctly sanctimonious.

"Oh," came the reply "that's the problem. This leaves a lot of acid over the teeth which softens the enamel. That's why they seem so sensitive."

Apparently fruit is okay (d'uh?!) as long as I have it with meals, don't "snack" on it and don't brush for at least an hour afterwards, otherwise I'll spread the acids all over the place.

Isn't life complicated?

I'm off for a haircut later. I wonder if I'll find that I've been brushing my hair incorrectly?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Summer Babies

Research has claimed, not for the first time, that summer-born babies struggle at school.

Well, with a birthday on 22 August I feel reasonably well placed to comment on this.

It's a load of drivel.

Although I *hated* school with a passion - and it hated me - I never "struggled".

People are people; some are good at things and some aren't. I'm good at remembering stories and making Lamingtons. I'm bad at football and playing the trumpet.

That's why I'm showing people around Symphony Hall, not playing in it. It also meant I never had to go to school on my birthday.......

Computer Says "No"

Have you noticed how – whatever you do nowadays – and expert will ask you to fill in a form or survey which bombards you with various statements and then asks if you “strongly agree, somewhat agree, are ambivalent…….”. Well, you know what I mean. I think it’s called a Box–Jenkins survey, if my memory of studying statistics thirty years ago (ouch) is correct.

I’ve recently had this both at the doctor’s and at the bank and I’ve watched my mother be asked to do the same with regard to pain management at an arthritis clinic.

I suppose any tool to help comprehension is to be applauded. But there’s a slight nagging feeling inside me that this is turning the “professional” in front of me into a slave of the computer. After all, all this data is promptly fed in and then “the computer” says what the next step ought to be. It’s turning highly skilled professionals into data entry clerks. Sooner or later I fear I’m going to have a doctor say to me “Computer says no”.

Maybe the machines are closer to taking over than we thought.