A history lover has put his best foot forward by writing a book on walks around Birmingham to quite literally put the city on the map.
Rob Ankcorn, who is Deputy Director of Operations for Medicines and Long Term Conditions with Walsall Healthcare NHS Trust, has been conducting free weekly walking tours around his home city for nearly six years – and is proud to have been the first to do so.
Co-written with fellow tour guide Ruby Compton Davies, the book, called ‘A-Z Birmingham Hidden Walks’, features 20 routes in and around the Second City, accompanied by guided instructions.
The idea was hatched on a walking tour around Sao Paulo and Rob thought the idea could work in Birmingham.
From there, he printed off a map, putting dots on the locations where he knew interesting stories about, supplementing it with additional information from his research.
For the first one however, just four people turned up on a freezing day in February 2016!
More promotion, this time on Facebook, plus uniforms, a website domain bought and leaflets distributed around hotels and schools to promote the walks, followed before they got their Trip Advisor review. From there, a cottage industry was born.
“I didn’t have any experience as a tour guide,” said Rob. “I just love local history, have a layman’s appreciation of architecture and know how to tell a good story.
“I realised we could make a tour weaving together an interesting narrative about the city. So we decided to go for it.”
So what was the inspiration? “I like a project and this seemed like a fun idea,” said Rob, a Brummie originally from Northfield but now living in Kings Heath.
“I’m an operations manager so I’m good at getting things started. But I really never expected it to grow and take off as big as it did.
“The most we’ve had on a tour is 56 people from all over the world – at one point we were all crammed in a lift – all that seems a world away now!
“If we do more walks now I’ve got a lot of thinking to do in terms of how we set it up as regards to Covid-19.”
Inspiration also came from further afield. “The best walking tour I’ve ever been on is Medellin in Colombia,” he said.
“The whole narrative was about the city being reborn after decades of violence from the drug cartels run by people like Pablo Escobar. Every stop related back to the story of the city which made the overall experience much more exciting.”
Rob believes his tours has put helped promote the city to visitors.
“I’d like to think some people start the tour with these misconceptions about Birmingham, and have a 360-degree shift in their impression of the city towards the end of the tour,” he said.
“I do this because I love meeting new people. I’m proud to show them my city. I think Birmingham benefits from someone showing people around as if they’re friends.”
Each route varies in length from one to six miles, and is clearly outlined on detailed A-Z street mapping, with full-colour photographs of hidden gems and city attractions.
A typical route takes in Victoria Square, Chamberlain Square, Centenary Square, the Town Hall, Gas Street Basin, Burlington Hotel and The Crown pub.
But the tour is as much about events that happened in landmarks or made them infamous or famous, as the actual venues themselves, as Rob explains.
“The Town Hall was where David Lloyd George nearly lost his life to an angry mob – the police managed to get him out disguised as a policeman,” said Rob.
“The Crown was where Black Sabbath played their first gig. Then there’s the library – Prince Charles said he thought the old library looked like somewhere where you’d go to burn books, not read them!
“Although it is impossible to do this now due to Covid-19, I loved taking people to the ‘Secret Garden’ on the seventh floor of the library.
“There lies a viewing platform overlooking a tower thought to have inspired JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, when he was living in the city as a child.”
Rob doesn’t charge for his tours but many people give tips which he donates to charity. “People pay what they feel – some tip and some don’t, some give pennies and some pay £20 each,” said Rob, who has been with Walsall Healthcare for two years.
After previously donating contributions to a domestic abuse charity, Rob has now handed over £180 to Walsall Healthcare’s Well Wishers charity.
There is tour scheduled for Saturday 11 December. If you are interested please register your attendance on realbirmingham.com.
The 128-page paperback, priced £6.99, is expected to come out in April 2022.