I've planned a day out every Thursday this month, with each trip further than the last. First week Bracknell, last week Ipswich, this week...
Walsall is a large market town swallowed up by the West Midlands conurbation. It lies to the northwest of Birmingham, just beyond the M6, at the heart of its own metropolitan borough. In more optimistic times it used to have a Tourist Information Centre, now obsolete, but that's not to say there's nothing to see. Fans of concrete, art and leather should make tracks.[12 photos, mostly of...]
The New Art Gallery Walsall
Some millennial arts projects, like The Public in West Bromwich and the National Centre for Popular Music in Sheffield, folded fast. Walsall's £21m art gallery is still going, and provides a more substantial offering than similar regeneration foci in Margate or Middlesbrough. The building is five storeys tall, clad in terracotta and overlooks the basin at one end of the Walsall Canal. One of those handwritten neon tubes faces the water ("Be There Saturday Sweetheart") because such statements are pretty much obligatory these days. It was opened in February 2000, with the Queen dropping by three months later to do the official honours, and was also nominated for the Sterling Architecture Prize, mainly for its amazing interior.
What architects Caruso St John created was a stack of interlinked galleries surfaced with Douglas fir cladding, wooden floors and walnut plinths, along with a good splash of concrete throughout. The ground floor atrium provides a good indication of what's to come, with a broad staircase zigzagging into the heart of the beast. The first and second floor galleries house the permanentcollection, municipally hoarded since 1892, in an enticing space of interconnected rooms. I scanned the line-up of artists along a single wall which read Epstein, Pissaro, Ruskin, Constable, Livens and Turner, which is none too shabby for a town just outside Birmingham.
The core of Walsall's collection is by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, bequeathed by his wife, providing the entire gallery with its raison d'être. His personal archive has also been given an illuminating slant by the artist Bob and Roberta Smith, another strong supporter of this Walsall hub. The third floor galleries are high and airy with overhead concrete ribbing, approached via yet another conifer-clad stairwell, and are used for temporary exhibitions. A final ascent leads to an additional space in what used to be the restaurant, plus the not-yet-open-for-the-summer roof terrace. "More long-distance visitors come for the architecture than the art," the guide told me.
That top floor restaurant proved the Gallery's chief design mis-step, with Walsall's population reluctant to engage in daytime dining out. Replacing the ground floor shop by a branch of Costa Coffee instead has proved far more successful, even if latte-sippers rarely nudge any further into the building. The pedestrianised square outside isn't especially enticing either, faced by a mothballed BHS and the doorless back wall of a Poundland, hence the need for big signs reminding residents that admission to the gallery is free. It must be quite a drain on council coffers, which is why their austerity plans include closing the place down as a last resort, but they'd better not.
Walsall Leather Museum
Every Midlands town has an industrial tale to tell, and Walsall's is based on leather. It started out in Tudor times as a centre for lorinery, that's the manufacture of bits, bridles, spurs and stirrups, later moving into leather saddles in order to be able to provide "everything for the horse". Things got serious in the 19th century thanks to burgeoning demand for equine accoutrements for working horses, across Britain and the wider Empire, then collapsed at the start of the 20th as mechanisation took over. Walsall's factories then diversified into leather goods to survive, notably purses, wallets, belts, gloves and luxury handbags, and the town remains the UK's chief lorinery hub to this day.
This fascinating story is told at the Walsall Leather Museum, which is housed in a former factory on the ring road. It smells fantastic, assuming you enjoy the whiff of treated hide, and that's just the gift shop at the entrance. Don't expect anything all-singing all-dancing beyond, just the chance to wander amid workshops and a series of display cases across two floors, plus more of that special smell. Working in a tannery would have been damned unhealthy, thanks to all the chemicals involved, whereas those engaged in stitchery and production had some of the more pleasant working conditions in the Black Country.
Towards the end of the wander comes a display of designer handbags - Mrs Thatcher swore by her Walsall clutch - and then a workshop where a former leathermaker might be available to give you a demo. For 60p you can stamp your own leather key fob, or pay rather more for some top quality accessories in the shop, whereas true cheapskates may prefer to walk away with a free offcut from the waste bin. You'd be hard-pushed to spend a full hour here, but it is a proper reminder of craftmanship past, and another one to visit before austerity finally bites.
This one's already gone. It used to be housed in the main library, and fingerposts through the town centre still point towards it, but it was closed in 2016. A few bits of the collection still get an occasional outing in a temporary galley at the Leather Museum, but for the most part the heritage of quarter of a million residents remains hidden.
Jerome K Jerome Museum
This one's gone too. Three Men In A Boat's author was born in the big house on the corner of Bradford Street and Caldmore Road, not that he hung around long, but Walsall doesn't have too many famous Freemen of the Borough to boast about. The museum in his birthplace closed in 2007 after the council withdrew its grant, but the firm of solicitors who moved in afterwards were quite good at maintaining a corner with memorabilia and allowing the inquisitive inside. They now appear to have moved on, the two lower floors of the building are boarded up and currently no new planning applications are lodged. As the great man once said, “we must not think of the things we could do with, but only of the things that we can't do without.”
Walsall town centre
Most visitors to the centre of Walsall are of course here for the shops, of which there are many but fewer. The Saddlers shopping mall is doing best, and the Victorian Arcade still has some independent character, but a recent survey suggested that one in four Walsall shops is empty, a total since augmented by M&S who closed down last summer. The bleakest corner is Old Square, its 80s mall anchored by a tired Debenhams, and whose arcades are a succession of mothballed units and posters desperately proclaiming Exciting Retailers Coming Soon. I suspect market day is brighter, but missed that so saw only a series of empty booths down the main streets.
Streetfood offerings were a refreshing change for those of us used to London's inflated prices, including jacket potato plus two toppings for £2, or a jumbo burger with chips from Mr Sizzle for only 50p more. My money obviously went on a £1 baguette from Poundbakery, whose sub-Greggs bargains wouldn't raise enough to pay business rates in the poncey southeast. Footfall in the town centre is kept artificially higher thanks to the presence of several warehouse-sized supermarkets a stone's throw from the main streets, each offering free parking as an enticement to visit. Don't get me wrong, Walsall's retail offering could be a heck of a lot worse, but the fear remains that it soon will be.
To end on a bright note, I risked crossing the traffic on the ring road and headed half a mile out of town. Walsall's green oasis isn't a true arboretum showcasing specimen trees, but is 170 acres of parkland focused around two landscaped gravel pits and dates back to 1870. It's ideal for a stroll round the woods, or a cuppa in the new visitor pavilion, or on certain summer weekends a concert in the lakeside bandstand. I came for the waterfowl, and got especially excited when I thought I spotted the definitive blue flash of a kingfisher, although I fear it was only an oddly illuminated pigeon.
I spent three full hours in Walsall, and despite all its tribulations gave the place the thumbs up for realism, depth and culture. I might not say the same in five years' time.