Letter from Stirchley: A New River

As a home worker I need excuses to get out of the house so, despite not being that interested in food other than as fuel, I’ve been volunteering at Stirchley Stores, doing shifts and running errands a few times a week. As well as the essential contact with other people it also gives me a commute, of a kind. It’s just a walk through Hazelwell Park and over the River Rea, five minutes at most, and it’s given me a real appreciation of these small, local parks which cover the Birmingham sprawl.

Functional and unpretentious, Hazelwell Park is a typical community resource. A large rectangle with space for ball sports (as I believe they’re known), enclosed on four sides by a terrace, a patch of woodland, some allotmments and the mighty Rea. Like other parks along the river its path forms part of the National Cycle Route 5, a pastoral bypass to the noisy Pershore Road used by pedestrians and cyclists alike. It also houses a vast murder of crows which, remarkable as they are, are not the subject of this letter.

I want to tell you about a new river which I believe has emerged in Hazelwell Park, one of many minor tributaries of the Rea but one which I’m pretty sure was not so obvious last year.

It first came to my attention during the snow last month. The path in the park remained packed with crunchy snow for a good week or two, but there was also a large patch of pure ice, as if being fed with water which would then freeze. And as the snow persisted I noticed an area of grass, between the playground and the copse of trees, had experienced a hyper-localised thaw pointing directly to the ice. I’m no hydrogeologist but that seemed like evidence of constant water flow that was distinct from the usual run-off after rain (for what rain we’d had was locked in snow on the ground).

But the main area of interest was further along the path, by the humpback bridge over the river. Unlike the sprawl of ice by the swings this was more focussed, the ice weaker and the water fresher. This definitely wasn’t an overflow of the water table – this was a stream.

The funny thing about noticing something for the first time is you can’t be sure it wasn’t there before. I’m pretty sure this stream of water wasn’t there last year or the year before, at least not constantly. Sure, the park floods a lot, both up from the river and down from the hills of Kings Heath, but I would have noticed something like this, wouldn’t I? I can’t be sure, so I choose to believe its new. Because it’s more interesting that way.

The snow is well gone and the temperatures are starting to slowly creep up. We haven’t even had a decent storm for a week or so but the water is still there. Today, after my shift at the shop, I took my camera and tried to find the source of this new river.

The East bank of the River Rea. Note the wet area near the river's edge yet no sign of flooding recently.

The East bank of the River Rea. Note the wet area near the river’s edge yet no sign of flooding recently.

Here's that area close-up. Note how a regular flow of water has cut a channel down to the river.

Here’s that area close-up. Note how a regular flow of water has cut a channel down to the river.

The dark area from the path to the trees was clear of snow throughout the winter.

The dark area from the path to the trees was clear of snow throughout the winter.

In the middle of the copse, a pool of water, fed from the left and leaving on the right.

In the middle of the copse, a pool of water, fed from the left and leaving on the right.

The source of the Hazelwell River. It appears to come from the allotments and there's no sign of a leaky tap.

The source of the Hazelwell River. It appears to come from the allotments and there’s no sign of a leaky tap.

The Hazelwell River follows what was once a path down the side of the park. This path has been mostly washed down to pebbled and bricks and the surrounding grass is sodden and feeds the secondary "stream" in the copse.

The Hazelwell River follows what was once a path down the side of the park. This path has been mostly washed down to pebbled and bricks and the surrounding grass is sodden and feeds the secondary “stream” in the copse.

Where the river/path meets the cyclepath which it needs to cross to join the Rea.

Where the river/path meets the cyclepath which it needs to cross to join the Rea.

The permanently wet area of the cyclepath, effectively a miniature ford.

The permanently wet area of the cyclepath, effectively a miniature ford.

Our new river finally reaches its destination and cascades down the bank to join the Rea on its journey across Birmingham.

Our new river finally reaches its destination and cascades down the bank to join the Rea on its journey across Birmingham.

The “source” of this river is still unknown. It emerges from a pool by the fence with the allotments but there’s no indication of what’s feeding that pool. No spring nor inlet – just water seeping from somewhere. It could be there’s a leaky pipe in one of the sheds on the allotments. Or it could be some natural process I don’t understand concerning the origins of rivers and that. Whatever the origins of this stream it looks here to stay, Stirchley’s newest river.

With apologies to Alistair Cooke.

By Pete Ashton

Artist and blogger from Stirchley. Runs photography classes and city walks through Photo School. Developing the Birmingham Camera Obscura.

Artist and blogger from Stirchley. Runs photography classes and city walks through Photo School. Developing the Birmingham Camera Obscura.

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