Footsteps in Tyseley

Claire Bowman, Central England Quakers’ Ecumenical & Interfaith Coordinator, reflects on an interfaith event connecting with our local environment and a hub for sustainable energy.

St Cyprian’s church in Tyseley sits beside a new retail park. A few rows of tiny houses are nearby and the gates of Webster and Horsfall’s factory premises are right beside the church hall, which was built by one of the Horsfall family in the 1800s.

On Sunday the 18th of August at 2pm a group of between 40 and 50 people, including a number of Quakers, gathered at the church. Some were interested in the local area, some were members of Footsteps (faiths for a low carbon future) some had come because they had been invited and all were intrigued. We had heard about the new project jointly being put forward by Birmingham City Council and the Webster and Horsfall Company in conjunction with Birmingham University and Birmingham City University to improve the area and offer cutting edge green energy solutions to the people of our city.

The plan was to go for a circular walk of about one mile around the edge of the new Tyseley Energy Park, starting with a short distance along the busy A45 Small Heath Highway, then cutting across the River Cole Valley and returning along the Grand Union Canal, Kings Road and George Road. We were to get glimpses into the new development and enjoy a relaxing stroll along the canal flanked by fruit trees and wild flowers and looking out for wagtails coots and mallards.

The event started with speeches from the Footsteps Chair Ruth Tetlow, who described the interfaith interest in this initiative and in exploring forward thinking energy solutions for everyone. City councillor Zafar Iqbal M B E described the city council’s enthusiasm for the project. As a local man he is passionate about seeing a better future for the church and its buildings and for residents in the local area.

Sandy Robertson was our guide for the walk. He is part of the Horsfall family and uncle of David Horsfall who is directing the new energy project. He explained that Webster and Horsfall had been making steel wire in Birmingham for 300 years. They celebrate their tercentenary next year. The factory had first of all been in Digbeth but when that area was first developed it moved to Tyseley. Its products and inventions have been central to the developments of the Industrial Revolution across many industries. The wire for the first successful transatlantic cable was made by Webster and Horsfall. From the inception of the Broadwood piano company Webster and Horsefall supplied the piano strings and if it had not been for Webster improving the design of the strings the piano as we know it today would not exist. From its inception before the age of steam up to the present day the company has made use of the latest power technologies and this energy park naturally looks to the future with the use of new technology and the building of an innovation centre in conjunction with Birmingham university.

In recent times there has been continuing changes in wire-manufacturing machines and the factory now takes up much less space than it once did, leaving lots of land to use for other purposes. A biomass power station has been built, fuelled by wood pellets, the wood for which is supplied by Birmingham Parks and Gardens Department. This supplies all the energy which the factory needs, meaning it is carbon neutral and off grid.  The site also hosts a Veolia incinerator which recovers energy from burning waste.  There is an electrical vehicle charging station for cars lorries and buses and an electric taxi charging park. Taxi drivers can hire a charged taxi, drive it for their shift and return it for recharging.

I was interested to learn more about the ecology of the area. Walking along the River Cole on a paved footpath which is part of the National Cycle Network we noticed a lot of Himalayan balsam and giant knotweed around us.  Sandy explained that the ownership of the land is disputed between the city council and the company. Both sides are working towards agreement on this before they can begin to tackle the problem which infests a large part of the area. Nonetheless the Hay Mills area is a haven for wildlife and a Hay Mills Foundation Trust has been established to restore it and maintain it as a public and ecological amenity, complementing the transformation of the industrial site beside it. The size of the entire area is in the region of 72 acres.

Along the Grand Union Canal members of the party were collecting tiny plums and blackberries and Ruth Tetlow amassed over 20 different wild flowers. With ideal weather it was a very pleasant walk, entirely paved and wheelchair-compatible. We can recommend it, although perhaps some of us as women were glad to be walking with a group as it is currently so secluded and there was evidence of beer cans and other rubbish in the woodlands along the way.

Back in the school room at the church everyone tucked in to tea and cakes, which had been brought along. On the walls we viewed posters detailing the problems and challenges faced by the project. We were humbled and inspired by the huge scale of what is being undertaken. Chris Martin, Footsteps secretary, led us in a few moments of silent Worship to end the day.

My hope for the future is that faith and community groups can be involved in the way forward. We were encouraged to sign up for progress reports and invitations to help. I would certainly like to help with tree-planting and landscaping and with litter-picking and surveys of the local community as part of a team of people.  I am left wondering if there are other companies in the city with spare land which can be used towards a greener and more sustainable future.  How can Tyseley become a better environment to live in for the local community?  How will local people become motivated to be more involved in creating all this?  Will there be more parkland and open space for the community to enjoy in the future? The houses are very small and I could hear many children in them.  I shall certainly be watching out for Tyseley in the future, now that I have visited and met such committed local people both from the company and the council.