Who would have thought that a quiet, peaceful town like Walsall should harbour a plethora of bloggers gifted in second sight, clairvoyance and the dark ability of predicting the future? In past times, these Mediums would have been burnt at the stake for practising witchcraft.
On Monday, after returning from a lovely weekend walking the high places of the Yorkshire moors, it became necessary to transport a younger hippo to a gathering of hooligans in Aldridge. Without the use of a motor car, the journey had to be undertaken using public transport. Quite why we had to throw ourselves at the mercy of Centro is a long and complicated tale that might be best left for another day.
Undaunted, we plodded to the bus stop near Morrisons on Lichfield Street to await the arrival of the number six, seven or seven A which would whisk us to the birthday bash in distant Aldridge. Checking the timetable, we would only have to wait seven minutes for the number six. The time was 2-15pm.
Looking back towards the Arboretum, the junction appeared to be in soft focus, as if God had decided to change the lighting to make the death trap seem less dangerous. The small hippo, blessed with more youthful olfactory senses, said he could smell burning and sure enough, the arrival of the number six coincided with the arrival of a fire engine. As the bus approached the dreaded junction, the smoke grew thicker and more appliances arrived. The time was 2-22pm. Once cleared of the junction, we looked back to see an unmarked car with “discreet” blue flashing lights take a position to close the roads as the smoke turned to black.
Within 10 minutes we had arrived at the bun fight and the small hippo joined the other eleven-year-olds trashing what was previously an immaculate garden. After the usual exchanges regarding food allergies, mobile phone numbers and collection times, it was back on the bus to Walsall, leaving the unfortunate host to deal with the mayhem.
Appropriately enough, the returning number six terminated at the almost demolished Mellish Road church with police cars and tape blocking the approach to Walsall. The helicopter was overhead and the pall of smoke indicated something very serious. Drivers of cars and trucks unfamiliar with the area headed off down Buchanan Road to an inevitable dead end whilst others sought sanctuary in the direction of Rushall. We bus passengers disembarked and headed down the hill towards the conflagration to be greeted by a police officer shouting that we should go into the Arboretum. With wind milling arms she shooed us away like crows from a ripe field of corn.
At the main gate, it was clear that Jabez Cliff was well alight. The roof and upper floors were an inferno and the brigade was losing the battle. An appliance pumped water from Hatherton Lake and when the roof collapsed, a police officer told the gathering onlookers to leave the Arboretum because of the danger of falling hot ash. By 3-30pm, Jabez Cliff had gone.
The really spooky thing is the fact that these momentous events were predicted in advance by the warlocks and witches of Walsall who inhabit the internet. Many have given dark forebodings of fire and brimstone to be visited on buildings of cultural value, especially those that occupy a “prime” site or are in the way of some ghastly and unnecessary commercial development. Indeed, in August 2010, when the Jabez Cliff building was sold to yet another mysterious and anonymous consortium of “local businessmen”, soothsayer-in-chief The Stymaster handed down a prophesy of destruction that proved to be chillingly accurate. Walsall Council, particularly the Planning Committee, might now be considering the reintroduction of ducking stools to weed out these dark occultists.
There is, however, no need to resort to the black arts to predict the future of Walsall. Runes, tea leaves, chicken guts and crystal balls are not required to read the tiny minds of those that run this town. The smell of regeneration is the smell of unleaded four star and urban planning is carried out using the Swan Vestas method.
There is, of course, absolutely no suggestion that members of the Planning Committee are running around committing arson, but their failure to hold mysterious local businessmen to account for the security and upkeep of any empty building, even those with little or no historical value, is a dereliction of civic responsibility. The owners and landlords of these properties seem content to allow Walsall’s heritage to rot and welcome the visitations of fire starters in safe anonymity. Land is lucrative, history has no fiscal value.
It’s not just old buildings that irresponsible owners and co-owners ignore. Imagine the co-owner of an empty carpet warehouse allowing his property to be used to cultivate cannabis on an industrial scale without monitoring his tenants. Unthinkable. The Planning Committee should take action against these slack landlords. Oh…yeah…right…of course.
Some might say that Walsall Council has suffered some rather coincidental bad luck with unexplained arson attacks against old buildings. The fate of Shannon’s Mill, Mellish Road Church, Great Barr Hall and the former St Margaret’s Hospital as well as numerous empty pubs across the borough suggests that the arsonists have detailed knowledge of planning applications, regeneration strategy, “the forward plan” and which buildings are in the way of making a fast buck. Clever chaps, these arsonists.
Cabinet’s response to this is always consistent. Yesterday’s “icons of Walsall’s heritage” become today’s “eyesores” and we should be grateful to see the back of them in order to make way for tomorrow’s poorly designed, poorly built monstrosities destined to remain forever empty. They claim to be powerless against errant landlords and developers and accuse any dissenting voice of deterring inward investment.
The cause of the Jabez Cliff fire is, as yet, unknown. But even before the flames had been extinguished, one local councillor suggested on Twitter that the blaze was started by junkies setting a fire to keep warm on a sunny August afternoon. With a council refusing to name and shame the owners of burnt out buildings and keeping quiet about potential connections between “local businessmen” and members of the Planning Committee, we can expect more of this guff in the future as well as more unfortunate yet convenient fires. Next time, the covens of warlocks and witches will be watching.
When he finally arrived home from the boy’s own birthday party in Aldridge, the younger hippo reported that he felt sick due to greedy over consumption.
He is not the only one who feels sick.