How to Explore

I’m an explorer and have been all my life.  When I was eight, I had a Dr Seuss book called ‘My Book about ME’ and this is what I wrote:

When I used to go places with my Mom, she’d let me wander off and meet up with her in a half hour.  It was certainly safer in those days, but I learned how to find my way around and take care of myself at a young age.  When I got older, I’d take native Los Angelenos to parts of the city they’d never seen.  I still love exploring new places and finding routes and spots that most other people didn’t know about.

I had dinner with my friend Bonnie at the Festival of Quilts and was telling her about staying in Birmingham and having a look around Digbeth and finding ways to pay for things with artmoney and she said that I’m really brave.  Yeah, I suppose but to me the opposite of being brave is being bored. I hate the beaten path.  My travelling mantra is ‘Let’s see what’s around the next corner’ and I like to find the heart of a place.

Yet, it is different being a female explorer.  For one thing, a lot of girls and women aren’t encouraged to explore and try new things and go places alone.  So it can be somewhat isolating and daunting.  And being a female explorer, you are more vulnerable than being a male explorer.  I don’t know if many women can really enjoy the privilege of being able to go just about anywhere and not worry about getting hassled.  But it really helps to carry yourself with confidence.  I remember learning that when I was in college, about staying safe on campus.  It’s exciting and confidence building though, to go somewhere for the first time or where not many others have been.  I like abandoned buildings and slightly edgy neighbourhoods. I also get a buzz of adrenalin from going to some of these out of the way places.

Here are some tips if you do want to go it alone:

  1. Listen to your gut.  This is probably the most important piece of advice I have.  If you feel at all unsure, leave or don’t go there.  Period, end of story.
  2. Walk tall and look like you belong there and like you know where you’re going.  Have 360° vision.
  3. Know where the exits are.
  4. When you turn a corner or get to a new place, stop and take a look around and see how it feels before you proceed.
  5. If you approach a dodgy looking character, spit and swagger and give just enough eye contact that says ‘Don’t even think about fucking with me’.  Make a real or pretend call on your mobile phone and say ‘I’m just about a minute away’.
  6. Make some friendly contact with the safe people you encounter.  I say I’m an artist and photographer and ask if they have any info about wherever I am.  I’ve gotten some good inside information this way and have been given guided tours of ‘off limits’ places.  I always hand out my card and invite them to my blog.
  7. Have fun exploring, soak up the ambience, take lots of photos.

One of my last stops in Birmingham on Monday was to photograph an old door at the top of Digbeth High Street.  It looked like it was from the 1930’s, solid wooden frame covered in zinc, some of it peeling away, with a cool metal handle.  The doorway had the initials ‘JM’ in mosaic, for John Morgan Sausage Factory.

A man came out to see what I was doing and seemed bemused that I liked his door.  He’s renovating the building and plans to replace the door with something more modern.  When he found out that I like old things, he invited me in to see his basement which used to be an abbatoir.

Now this is where intuition kicks in.  Some guys, they invite me down into their basement-cum-abbatoir and I do a 180 and take off at a brisk pace, maybe even running a little bit.  But Zack was a cool guy.  His Dad bought the building from the Council in 1966 and opened up an Indian restaurant.  The place was still filled with sausage making equipment which they chucked.  The ground floor is a nice looking restaurant, but the basement was the jackpot.  There were no electrics, so Zack preceded me with a light at the end of a very long cord.  It was way too dark to take any photos.

Zack and his door

The basement consisted of two large rooms with a chute through which carcasses would be dropped and a whole row of 5 foot deep tubs where they were boiled.  He said if I had come by a few weeks earlier, he would have given me some stuff – thermostats and old newspapers.  The walls and tubs were lined with white ceramic tiles.  The tubs reminded me of those Japanese bathtubs you sit in with the water up to your neck.

I asked if I could have an old gas mask (probably from WW2) that was hanging on a hook.  Zack was pretty happy to part with it, but worried that I might get a disease from it.  It was really damp down there and the mask was half rotten.  I assured him that I wouldn’t wear it or anything, just have it on display around the house or something.  My souvenir of Digbeth.  He’s going to tear out all of the tiles (shame) and put the rooms to some sort of use.

When we went back upstairs, he showed me some old newspapers from 1907 they’d found stuffed between the cork and wood in the walls, probably used for insulation.


The outside of the building used to be covered in bright yellow ceramic tiles, now painted over with peeling blue paint.


Then the structural engineer arrived and I left so Zack could get back to work.  I’m such a dingdong and didn’t get the name of the restaurant, but it smelled really good inside.  Next time I go up to explore more of Birmingham’s charms I’ll do a restaurant review for his place!


Back on the farm


2 thoughts on “How to Explore

  1. Pingback: Digbeth Is Good » Blog Archive » Links for August 22nd

  2. yes the unknown is better than the known…looking forward going to some of the out of the way places in Copenhagen with you if you like – or naybe you want to go alone? Going on your own only companied with your intuition can be the best way to explore. Good advices you give – I always tell people to go the and explore the sidestreets (to get away from the mainstreet/mainstream) because this is where you find interesting spots and people and the real life of a city.

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