Local Lifesaving Club Takes The Plunge

Oak Park Lifesavers Walsall Wood
Instructors Simon Muller and Claire Llewellyn with Andrew Marlow (11), Lewis & Esme Weavill (10) and Hollie Cleveley (12)

A popular swimming club has taken the plunge and re-opened its doors after months of uncertainty.

Oak Park Lifesavers, based at Oak Park Active Living Centre in Walsall Wood, has taught scores of young people the basics of water safety. With a current membership of around forty people aged between six and eighteen, the club temporarily suspended its activities in March last year.

As well as developing skills in the water, members learn and practise basic first aid including CPR, the recovery position and how to treat bleeding, choking and shock. The dangers of open water are made clear and stamina is developed as well as rescue techniques both in water and on land. Members have the opportunity to challenge their skills and knowledge in local competitions.

Although lifesaving activities were put online for those wishing to partake, the members were keen to return to the pool. To comply with current safety guidelines the 1 ½ hour sessions have been split into two 45-minute sessions with members split into two bubbles accordingly.

Organised booking and changing systems ensure safety and spectators are no longer allowed. Coloured bands are placed on bottles so rescuers and casualties know which end to use, all equipment is sanitized before use, and rescues take place at a 2m distance.

Claire Llewellyn, Senior Instructor, said: “The lifesavers are all very glad to be back and the parents are happy with the new process as well. Membership has many benefits including developing new skills and learning to stay safe near open water. It’s a huge boost to the health and wellbeing of all lifesavers.”

The information in this article was received before the current lockdown. Please contact Oak Park Active Living Centre for details of when they are re-opening.

Tracing Family Histories

tracing family history
Sgt Thomas Wilkes

Tracing family histories is a fun hobby but for some people it becomes a passion. Maybe its because learning about our family helps us understand our place in the world. In the digital age there has never been so much information available to the public. This has resulted in the birth of a new industry devoted to helping us find the old records we need.  I’m sure you will have seen the ads on TV. But rather than get lost in data, why not just ask people.  Whether that’s family members or local history groups. For example, talk to older relatives. They will know family names and previous addresses. They will also know family stories, which will give you the first clues in your  search.

Sam Harvey posted on the Aldridge History Group Facebook page because she needed local information. She lives in South Yorkshire and had found that her family was living in Aldridge in the 1830s.  Following a phone call we featured her in our magazines.  Hilary Wilkes was also looking for information on her family history. Regarding her grandfather Sgt Thomas Wikes (pictured) who had lived in Walsall. We also featured her story in our January magazines.

How We Help Trace Family Histories

We will be having a regular feature in our printed magazines to help people tracing family histories. So if you would like to tell your story and get some local help, email editor@pioneermagazines.co.uk. Please let us have your phone number and a brief overview of who you are looking to trace. We can also share your Facebook posts.

Top Tips For Tracing Your Family Tree

  1. Ask Family Members
  2. There are online tools, census and registers
  3. Use other people’s research
  4. Use the free online Births, Marriages & Deaths directories
  5. Search parish records and visit churchyards
  6. Ask for information on social media
  7. Get in touch with Pioneer Magazines & Great Barr Gazette

Below we have listed some websites and social media groups to get you started. We would love to hear from you if we can help you trace your family tree.

Useful Websites/Social Media Groups






Aldridge History Group

Walsall Places, People, Pictures and History

Yours locally

Editor Great Barr Gazette


The Five Best Hidden Walks In The Local Area

Walsall Magazine
Holly Wood Nature Reserve, Great Barr

The Five Best Hidden Walks in the local area by SMALLHOUSEBIGTRIPS

Correction: This article was updated on 29 March, 2021 to clarify that much of the area of Great Barr Hall is privately-owned and cannot be accessed by the public.

As the New Year kicks in, resolutions for a healthier year begin. How about burning off your Christmas treats and starting 2021 walking around some fabulous local, hidden gems.

We at SmallHouseBigTrips have you covered with some of our personal favourites. But sshhh – remember, it’s a secret!

Great Barr Hall, Sutton’s Drive, B43 7BA

A hidden gem that even we didn’t know about until lockdown in March 2020. Much of the grounds of the Great Barr Hall estate is privately-owned with no public right of way. However, Sutton Drive and the land situated to the East of Sutton Drive are beautiful, public open spaces.

Holly Wood Nature Reserve, Whitecrest, B43 6EA

Enter the nature reserve through a magical gate where you will be greeted with 5 hectares of mixed broadleaf woodland and wet meadow. Trees to climb, a stream to paddle in and the largest blanket of bluebells in spring.

Park Lime Pits Nature Reserve, Rushall, WS4 2HH

A former limestone quarry in the woods, this woodland walk has a rope swing over one of the two clear pools, horses, walking trails and plenty of streams for little ones to paddle in.

For nature lovers, there are over 300 species of plants and it is the home to over 100 species of birds.

Cuckoo’s Nook and The Dingle, Walsall, WS9 0PQ

Cuckoo’s Nook is an ancient woodland over 400 years old full of acidic loving trees like holly, oak, birch and alder, winding picturesque paths and a sea of bluebells during spring. Step into The Dingle part of the walk and you enter an area surrounded by hawthorn, ash, beech and elder trees.

It is the perfect place to learn about geology as you enjoy your walk,through the woodland flowers, by the babbling Longwood Brook running next to the path.

There’s a rope swing and little bridges for children and keep your eyes out for the wishing tree which is decorated beautifully throughout the year. Recently it had Christmas lights, tinsel and other decorations.

Sot’s Hole Nature Reserve, B71 4DE

A fabulous circular route starting at Sot’s Hole Nature Reserve, walking through the ancient woodland, looking at wooden statues and various species of plants, leading through to Sandwell Valley Farm seeing cows and horses, before following the path all the way round back to the car. Fields, woodland and kissing gates. Make for some perfect exploring.

If you would like to follow our adventures, you can find us on Instagram or Facebook or Twitter

Streetly Schoolgirl Donates Hair To Charity And Raises £1200

Streetly MagazineA seven-year-old Streetly girl has donated her hair to a charity that makes wigs for youngsters with cancer – and raised more than £1200 in the process.

Kimran Bhathal decided to get her hair cut after growing it long during lockdown earlier this year – and when a schoolfriend told her she had donated her hair to the Little Princess Trust, Kimran was keen to do the same.

Her mum Neeta, aged 35, said: “She’d already asked me why some little children have to wear wigs and when I told her why she wanted to do something to help.

We found out from the Little Princess Trust that it costs about £550 for each wig to be made and Kimran asked if we could raise some money as well.

We set up a JustGiving page and expected just family and a few close friends to donate some money, but once I mentioned it on a parents’ WhatsApp group, she raised £557 in just two hours.”

Buoyed by her success, Kimran redoubled her efforts and set her targets at £1200, which would buy two wigs at the Little Princess Trust.

After posting the charity page link on to a Streetly neighbourhood Facebook page, the Blackwood Primary School pupil reached her fundraising goal in just two weeks.

Kimran donated an impressive 14 inches of hair when she had her hair cut at BU Salon in Solihull, which is owned by a friend of her mother.

“I’m so proud of what she has done,” said Neeta, who lives with her husband Suki and four-year-old son Kyran. “We’ve had people we don’t even know donating to the fundraiser, which is really touching, too. It just shows how kind children are and how a community can pull together to make a better place.”

Anyone wishing to boost Kimran’s fundraising efforts can visit her JustGiving page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/kimran

The New Chapter

Walsall Wood LibraryDo you remember what it was like the first time you visited a library as youngster – the rows upon rows of books with colourful covers?

Using your local library used to be a part of growing up, where you were introduced to the joys of the written word. With budget cutbacks and changes in reading habits, the traditional library is under threat – but a pioneering project in Walsall Wood is planning to change all that.

Called ‘The New Chapter’, a new community-based library is now taking shape thanks to the efforts of a team of like-minded volunteers.

Based in a former dance studio opposite the Baron’s Court Hotel in Walsall Wood, the library will be the latest addition to a venue which is fast becoming a new community hub for the area.

“The whole thing came about because the Navy Cadets decided to take on this big unit for their meetings,” said 41-year-old Lee Wadlow, one of the people behind the project.

“It’s a fantastic space, which used to be a dance studio, and the cadets realised it was much bigger than what they needed, so we decided to open it up for more community groups to use, to make sure it was used to its full potential and help cover the costs.”

After the cadets got their new home ship-shape, they have welcomed all kinds of new users. It is regularly used by play groups, a gaming club, a karate school and even a Spiritualist medium.

There are plans to eventually get a licence to hire out the venue, which has a capacity of 180 people, for events. An application for charitable status could also be on the cards.

But the ground-breaking plan to create a vibrant new library at the site will be a big step in making it a true hub for the whole community.

“It’s something that is needed,” Lee said, “and the response we have had from the community has been incredible.

“Beverley Ricketts, who is one of the team on the Action Group behind the project, raised the point that some children don’t own any books or have easy access to them.

“Because of cuts to library services and school funding, children are less likely to experience books in the same way as previous generations, and we wanted to do something to put that right.

“But it’s also about creating a more vibrant library environment, which is more fun, active and less stuffy. We want to have visits by authors, popular characters and storytellers. Some local teachers have also said they would like to get involved to support children as they discover the books.

“And, of course, we will also be catering to adults and older people to provide the books they would like to read. We want this to be a library for everyone.”

After appealing for help, hundreds of books of all kinds have been donated. Brownhills company Laptop Trader has donated computers while Aldridge’s Best Bind have provided rugs for the venue. Volunteers are building bookshelves. The New Chapter, which only a few weeks ago was suggested in a meeting, is now coming together thanks to a huge community effort.

“We had our first delivery the other day of 600 books – really great quality books too – and members of the public have donated hundreds more,” Lee said.

“There’s a very determined team of people behind this who really want to see it succeed. We decided at the start that we would form an Action Group, not a committee, because we wanted to get things done rather than sit around talking about what we could do.”

Lee hopes the community hub and library will help provide an outlet for the energies of young people in the area.

“People often say that there’s not enough for young people to do these days,” he said. “When I was a kid there were youth clubs that you could go to, where you could do things for free, meet your friends and generally find a more constructive thing to do with your time than walking the streets.

“We really hope that all of this will provide Walsall Wood’s kids with somewhere they can go like that, whether it’s through the Cadets, the library or one of the other groups that use the site.”

Plans for Walsall Wood’s new library has already been noticed in other communities, and Lee believes the idea could be repeated elsewhere.

“The social aspect of a community library can benefit all kinds of communities, from places like Walsall Wood to small villages,” Lee said. “If The New Chapter works here then it could be rolled out anywhere. Who knows, pretty soon we could be working on Chapter Two!”

Get involved!

  • Pop in for a coffee and use our library/hub
  • Spare time? Volunteers are most welcome
  • Suggestions? If you have ideas for fund raising or how to include all areas of our community, we’d love to hear from you.

Contact Petty Officer Stroud 07594 284399

Great Barr Comp – The Largest In The Country, The Fondest Memories …

Great Barr CompGreat Barr Comp was, until 2009, the largest single-site comprehensive school in the country with over 2,400 pupils on roll. We spoke with John Slatford, a pupil at the Comp (now an academy) in its early days, and here he shares his memories. His time there helped him forge an exciting science-based career that took him all over the world so, now aged 74 and still living locally, he recalls why it was ‘such a great school’.

“My first knowledge of the existence of Great Barr Comprehensive School was in 1957. I’d passed part one of the 11-plus at my junior school in Turfpits Lane. That brought with it a choice for my Secondary education.

“I dismissed the idea of Grammar school with what I considered its narrow arts-based curriculum as my interest was the sciences. Luckily a teacher at my junior school was aware of a ‘new type of school’ that had just been built locally. He thought it would be ‘ideal for me’

“So I sat and passed part two of the 11-plus at Great Barr Comp itself – a school which was otherwise just outside my ‘catchment area’. Prior to sitting the exam, we were given a tour of the school which was mind-blowing as I’d never seen anything like it before!

“I started in September 1958 in class 1.2 with Pat Tullet as my Form Teacher. All the pupils were assigned a House. Mine was Priestly. The other Houses were Boulton, Fry and Nightingale. The curriculum was varied, and for the first time I had to listen to the teacher and write down what she said or copy it from the blackboard.

“Once I moved to the second year we were put in a form and a ‘set’ for various subjects. Internal exams in all subjects were taken three times a year. This meant every pupil had a bespoke timetable of lessons depending on ability. My interest was science which was so well catered for – eleven specialist laboratories!

“Very special about the school was the after-school activities.  I joined the Photographic Club, Film Club, History Society, Rambling Club and Visual Aids Society. This meant staying on at school until about 9:30 every evening. We were allowed two hours to do our homework in one of the science laboratories, which suited me. I was also in the Cross Country Running Team and ran for the school at weekends. Luckily there was a disused quarry across the road from the Comp used for cross country running practice. The Rambling Club took place each month on a Sunday and we were only allowed to ramble if we had the proper equipment.

“As one of three pupils recruited for the Visual Aids Society I was taught how to use and maintain the school’s projectors and to show films to the various clubs. We had an active Drama Department and we’d put on Gilbert and Sullivan Operas – giving me a lifelong love of their music and comedy.

“During the six-week holiday a group of boys would be taken Youth Hostelling in Britain and Switzerland. I was lucky enough to go on holidays to the Lake District, Devon and Cornwall.

“Two of the pupils at Great Barr Comp during my time are now world famous. Steve Winwood the musician and Martin Shaw the actor. All in all, it was a fantastic school. I hope today’s pupils appreciate what it offers and that it is still as good as when I was a pupil, back in the 1950s.”

** Great Barr Academy say they will be ‘welcoming students to its brand-new 6th Form Centre in September’.

Read the article in our online edition of Great Barr Gazette here.

Brother And Sister Stream Concerts To Entertain Care Homes Residents

Streetly Advertising Magazine
Priya and Arun

Walsall siblings Arun and Priya Saini have spent the spring and summer entertaining elderly and vulnerable people living in care homes by staging online concerts.

The duo, from Streetly, have picked up their violins and streamed dozens of recitals to keep care home residents entertained while they were in lockdown, unable to receive visits from their own family and friends.

The idea came after their mother Jyoti, a clinical pharmacist, had to visit homes as part of swabbing teams at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Everyone was in full PPE, which is disconcerting for residents when they can’t see anyone’s faces,” she said. “When I suggested playing for them online, the children were keen to do it and I contacted care homes to see if they were interested.”

The duo – Arun, aged 13, a student at Hydesville Tower School, and 10-year-old Priya, who attends Mayfield School – have played short concerts on Zoom, Skype and Whatsapp to residents as far away as Sunderland.

“Residents have been isolated for so long that we felt it was really important to do something to lift their spirits,” said Jyoti. “It’s not only ensured the children do their violin practise, but also helped elderly people enjoy something a little different, as well as support the hard working carers who look after them whilst sometimes being away from their families.”

They are also raising money for The Care Workers’ Charity and have already raised £645. To help them raise more, visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/jyoti-saini

Shelfield Students Perform In Lockdown

Shelfield AdvertiseLockdown didn’t stop current and former students of Ormiston Shelfield Community Academy performing an uplifting song online to showcase their true community spirit.

Organised by former students Isobel Higgins and Alex Banks, the challenging project saw the pair galvanise 15 other students and staff members to take part in a video performing Seasons of Love from the musical Rent.

19-year-old Isobel, who is now studying English as well as working full-time, said the project was the ideal vehicle for rekindling old friendships.

“A small number of us remain in contact as close friends and had always had a dream of getting a group together to sing Seasons of Love,” she said.

“Being stuck in lockdown seemed like the perfect opportunity, especially given the message of the song. As we reached out to more people, this dream became a reality, comprising ex and current staff and students from Shelfield, all of whom maintain a passion for the creative arts.”

She said co-ordinating the 17-strong chorus over two weeks was challenging, but rules, schedules and deadlines for each musician and singer were all communicated via social media

“We received back a set of wonderful performances, which Alex was able to edit,” continued Isobel. “She definitely had the most difficult job and she executed it with such professionalism and positivity.

“I am incredibly proud of every person involved in the project as the outcome has been incredible, thanks to every person’s commitment to their roles in the project.”

Alex, who is studying Media Production at Birmingham City University, said she took on the task of editing to use it in her showreel as part of her degree, but said it quickly “became a joy to work on and put together”.

“I felt that I had a great deal of responsibility in this project and it challenged me greatly through time management and organisation,” she said. “This video really helped me feel a sense of togetherness during lockdown and I hope that it creates the same feeling for others, too.”

Stuart Turnbull, the Academy’s principal, said he was proud of the efforts made by the school’s past and present students.

Aldridge Fire Cadets: Sparking A Connection

Aldridge Fire CadetsYoungsters with a burning ambition to learn about life as a firefighter are being offered the opportunity to take part in special six-month courses.

Every Thursday night, between 6.15 and 8.45pm, Aldridge Fire Cadets are put through their paces at Aldridge Fire Station under the gaze of former Watch Commander Andrew Dickson assisted by a small dedicated group of fellow volunteer instructors.

“To some of the young people, it can be quite a life-changing experience” he told Pioneer. “Parents sometimes comment on how much more confident, assertive and outgoing their children are after they’ve been on the course.

“But that’s because we teach them discipline and structure and expect them to take responsibility for themselves and their colleagues on the course. We even have a ‘no mobile phone’ policy, when they are here.

“It’s great to see how they develop new social skills over the time they are with us.”

There are 20 boys and girls currently on the course, aged from 11 to 15, who dutifully attend each week and support extracurricular activities.

The course has been running in Aldridge since 2008, initially under the auspices of The Young Firefighters Association and latterly rebranded as Aldridge Fire Cadets in line with the National Fire Cadet scheme.

After an initial three-month course proved a success it was extended to six months, and ever since hundreds of youngsters from Aldridge and the surrounding areas have taken part in a scheme which allows them to experience much of what real firefighters do every day.

“The cadets have their own room at the Fire Station and even their own road-worthy fire engine, which is an older one that is now no longer up-to-date enough for fire crews to use on the front line,” Andrew said.

Andrew, who is 60, retired from the brigade in 2010 following more than 33 years’ service. He has retained his involvement with the cadets and, having kept up his HGV licence, drives them to events in their fire engine.

Those events include appearances at carnivals and fayres, as well as providing support as parking marshals at places like Aldridge Transport Museum.

“We are always out and about helping to raise funds with car washing and bag packing,” Andrew said, “which really helps the cadets develop a sense of community.”

But perhaps the most challenging – and exciting – aspect of the course is the firefighter training that the cadets take part in.

“The cadets get a real taste of life as a firefighter,” Andrew said, “learning drills and how to use the hoses, ladders and pumps.

“Underneath the station is a tunnel that the firefighters use for breathing apparatus practice, and we have created some light-weight plastic sets that the children can wear so they can experience it too.

“They love the challenge of going into the pitch black and finding their way through the tunnel using touch only, wearing the apparatus and full mask.”

The cadets also act as casualties in major training exercises for firefighters.

But safety is the number one priority for the cadets whenever they are engaged in training of any kind.

Out on the yard, it is paramount that they are doing things safely,” Andrew said. “In fact, I purposely have a downtime for 10 minutes every week where they have time to have a chat and a joke around and socialise.

“That way we know that when it’s time to be serious and concentrate they are ready.”

Andrew is very passionate about the scheme, which he describes as ‘shaping young people for adulthood’.

“It teaches then teamwork, builds self-esteem, and also provides an NVQ qualification in Understanding Firefighting, so they have mini lectures and do a little workbook,” he explained.

The course is even set up to accommodate youngsters who do not read and write well, still allowing them to get the qualification and certificate.

At the end of the six-month period, the cadets have a Passing Out parade, where all their family and friends are invited, along with the Mayor of Walsall, and dignitaries from the Brigade. There is also an award for the best cadet on the course.

But perhaps the clearest evidence of the course’s success is the number of cadets who have gone on to become real firefighters.

“There are some that enjoy the six-month experience for what it is,” Andrew said, “and then others who actually develop a real passion for joining the brigade.

“I have had a few that have gone through the course, and then when they have reached 16, have been invited back to be junior instructors, then become adult instructors with me, and then applied to the brigade and become firefighters.

“I follow their pathway, and some of them that have done the course are well into their twenties now and serving as firefighters.”

It seems that while all of Andrew’s cadets are reshaped in some way by six months under his tutelage at Aldridge Fire Station, for a few the experience sparks a connection with firefighting that simply can’t be extinguished.

Further information: