Gravy Train walking tour #1

Stuck in Birmingham during lockdown and sick of pounding the same old streets? Then why not try discovering some of the locations in my books? This is one of several walking (or cycling, for the longer ones) trails that I’ll hopefully be posting on here in the next week or two, with routes, distances, and interesting things to see along the way. I hope they help to inspire you.

To start off, a nice easy stroll centred on the suburb of Moseley. This forms one of the main locations of my dark crime caper ‘Gravy Train’ and the walk includes the settings for Fred’s courtyard workshop, Vernon Ball’s criminal HQ, and the bench where grass Todd meets his police contact Suzanne.

Walk #1: Moseley to Cannon Hill Park

Distance: approx 1.5 miles (and the same back!)

Route:

  1. Start in the centre of Moseley. If you’re not local and on foot, there’s parking in a small car park off the Alcester Road or in some of the surrounding streets plus a good bus service (no 50) which passes right through the ‘village’ centre. Head along Alcester Road as far as Woodbridge Road and turn down here. A short distance on the right is a gated archway leading to a courtyard of apartments. There was a dairy operating out of the courtyard at one time and it’s one of the models I based Fred’s car mechanics business on.

2. Retrace your steps, cross over Alcester Road and head down Chantry Road (opposite Woodbridge Road). This is a fascinating street full of large, late Victorian houses, many of them uniquely decorative and some so vast they have their own coach-houses. The ones on the left-hand side back onto the private Moseley Park; there’s a locked gate into the park near the bottom of the hill. It’s one of these houses that forms the lair for crime boss Vernon Ball, with its basement flat, its garden, and its view over the park and pool. I couldn’t possibly say which particular house, but here’s a general street view to give you some idea.

3. At the end of Chantry Road turn left into Park Hill, past more impressive Victorian houses, then find a safe place to cross either Salisbury Road or Edgbaston Road until you’re on the diagonally opposite corner. From here walk a short distance along Edgbaston Road to one of the main entrances to Cannon Hill Park.

4. Cannon Hill Park is a vast city park donated to the people of Birmingham by Miss Louisa Ryland and opened in 1873. It covers over 80 acres – more if you add the woodland, conservation areas and nature reserve next to it, and there are lots of different walks and paths to choose. Look out for the foundations of the old glasshouse, the boating lake, the scale model of the Elan Valley reservoirs which provide the city’s water supply – and the bench where Todd met Inspector Suzanne Charlton, and got pecked by a duck.

5. After a good mooch round the park (and a takeaway coffee from the cafe, assuming it’s open and assuming you’re allowed to) retrace your steps to Moseley.

I hope the walk inspires you to explore this historic and interesting corner of Birmingham but please bear in mind that current restrictions mean you can’t travel outside of your ‘local area’ (whatever that means) for exercise. So if you’re based outside the city, please bookmark this for another day! And if you’d like to read about the various locations of ‘Gravy Train’ in more detail, why not treat yourself to a copy of the book? You can find it here.

Gravy Train locations #2: Vernon Ball’s lair

Unlike many crime bosses, Vernon Ball (or Ballsy McBollockface as he’s known by at least one of his underlings) doesn’t have a swish office in the city centre, or even a converted garage or factory unit. Instead, he works from home. And what a home. A large, detached, Victorian residence in one of the more prosperous suburbs of Birmingham, with a garden that overlooks the local park and space for a whole apartment in the basement where Todd the chauffeur-cum-bodyguard lives. And he’s very proud of that house:

Ball stood at his office window and stared out at the garden beyond. It was one of the perks of working from home – that and not having to join the daily commute. It was a nice garden, too – long and shady and manicured. A green oasis amongst the city streets. His pride and joy. He certainly paid the gardeners enough to keep it looking smart.

But today, not even the garden could help. Cynthia had been on the attack again. Not literally – he wouldn’t have let her get away with that. But right through breakfast he’d had to endure the endless whine of a slighted wife. Why hadn’t they moved to Edgbaston yet? All the really successful people lived in Edgbaston. All of her friends had houses there. She’d seen a wonderful house only the other day. When was he, Vernon, going to look at it?

The trouble was, he didn’t want to move to Edgbaston, even if it was smarter and more expensive and only three miles away. He liked it here. Moseley was a decent place to live. The house was huge, with plenty of space for his work, and the garden sloped down to the private park, with views over Moseley pool. Show him a swanky house in Edgbaston that could do all that.

I wrote this with a specific location in mind, and as you might have guessed from this excerpt, it’s in the prosperous, leafy suburb of Moseley. Moseley is unusual for a city suburb. It’s only about five miles from the city centre, but you could easily be in another world. The locals refer to it as a village, which seems daft in a settlement of around ten thousand residents, but you only need to go there to see what they mean. There’s a medieval church and rows of shops around what would have been a market place, and there’s still a sense of community. But it’s a long way from suburbia, and has its own slightly ‘hippy dippy’ atmosphere with a thriving café culture, health food shops and galleries. I once saw a district of Paris described as ‘Bobo’ or ‘bohemian bourgeois’ and thought that fitted Moseley perfectly.

I lived in Moseley for many years and know the area pretty well, and there’s one road I thought would be perfect for nefarious goings-on. It’s called Chantry Road, and it runs roughly perpendicular to Moseley’s high street in the general direction of Edgbaston. And it’s posh. Seriously posh, lined with a variety of large Victorian and Edwardian houses which get steadily bigger the further you go down the hill. Some are absolute monsters, with three or four stories, separate coach-houses and other outbuildings, and on one side of the road they do indeed look out over Moseley park.

parkgateThe park is unusual too, since it’s privately owned, and only accessible to residents of the suburb. When I lived there you quite literally picked up a key; now I believe it’s all done electronically. In spite of living there I only ever visited once, when the Mostly (Moseley… geddit?) Jazz Festival was in town, and found it’s a pretty little oasis of trees, hidden paths and a lake with ducks. Most folk who live in Birmingham probably don’t even know it’s there, or if they do it’s only the locked gates they walk or drive past on the way to work. And because I’ve only been once, I’m with the rest of them – I only have a photo of those same locked gates.

chantryThere are probably around a dozen to fifteen houses which fit the description of Ball’s home, and I couldn’t possibly say which one I chose to base his lair on. But the above picture (which I took last year) shows a selection of possible candidates, and gives a good overall impression of what the road looks like. Although I should stress that Ball himself is one hundred percent imaginary and as far as I know all the residents of Chantry Road are upright citizens who don’t run organised crime networks from their homes!