News from Sustrans – Birmingham celebrates local heroes

Three individuals from the West Midlands have been immortalised in steel as figures on a local section of the National Cycle Network, Route Five. The ‘portrait benches’ project has been rolled out in recognition of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee year thanks to funding from the Department for Transport.

As part of a national campaign by walking and cycling charity, Sustrans, residents in the area were invited to have their say. They were asked who they believe has made a positive impact on their local community in the last seven decades, in celebration of the UK’s longest-reigning monarch.

One of the figures chosen was actor, comedian, singer, presenter, and writer Sir Lenny Henry CBE, from Dudley. Sir Lenny has received popular and critical admiration for comedic and dramatic roles on both stage and screen. In 1988 chosen as the very public face of the Comic Relief programme, acting as lead presenter for all but two of every single broadcast to the present day. In 2015 he was knighted for services to drama and charity.

Jane Sixsmith MBE was also selected alongside Sir Lenny Henry. She was the first British female hockey player to compete in four Olympic Games and during her career won an Olympic Bronze Medal (1992), a European Cup Gold (1991), and a Commonwealth Silver Medal (1998). She retired from international hockey after scoring over 100 goals and winning 165 caps for England and 158 for Great Britain.

Ellie Simmonds OBE is the third person to be selected by the local community. The British former paralympian swimmer, and more recently a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, competed in the 2008 Summer Paralympics in Beijing at the age of 13, winning two gold medals. She had further success winning gold medals in the 2012 and 2016 games, setting a world record in the 400m freestyle in London and a 200m medley world record in Rio. 

In total, a series of 30 new life-sized corten steel figures are being installed across England. They’ll complement the existing 250 figures which were installed as part of the Portrait Bench campaign over 12 years ago. They’ve been designed and fabricated by renowned artists Katy and Nick Hallett and will be installed at 14 of the most popular cycle paths across the National Cycle Network.

On Wednesday 1st February, Sir Lenny Henry and Jane Sixsmith unveiled the figures at their new home at Osler Street Park near Edgbaston Reservoir in Birmingham. They were joined by representatives from Sustrans, councillors, volunteer groups and other invited guests.

Speaking at the unveiling Sir Lenny Henry said: “I love that I grew up in the Black Country. That’s why it’s such an honour to be recognised by the West Midlands and Sustrans in this way. Dudley Rocks! Throughout my life I’ve always been passionate about inclusion and equality I know Sustrans share this vision and are committed to breaking down barriers so that we can all have access to healthier ways of travelling. In some small way, I hope that people will see themselves reflected in these figures and realise that the National Cycle Network is for everyone – regardless of their own circumstances. Please use the park and the bench: walking/riding/scooting are all good for the brain box”.

Jane Sixsmith said: “It’s a great honour and privilege to be featured as a local hero. The statue has really captured my trademark celebration! Sustrans are doing a fantastic job of connecting local communities and helping people stay active. I hope the statues will inspire the next generation.”

Clare Maltby, Sustrans England Director, Midlands & East, explained: “We’re thrilled to see Sir Lenny Henry, Jane Sixsmith and Ellie Simmonds recognised in this way. Just like the National Cycle Network, they’re at the heart of the community. At Sustrans, we’re committed to ensuring that the National Cycle Network continues to enable as many people as possible to walk, wheel, cycle, and run, and as ‘Paths for Everyone’ that they celebrate our local communities, cultures, and heritage.”

Sustrans are custodians of the National Cycle Network, which spans 12,000 miles of signed cycling routes including over 5,000 miles of traffic-free paths. Sustrans continues to improve the network locally as part of the England-wide ‘Paths for Everyone’ programme. In Birmingham, they are working closely with Birmingham City Council, helping to redesign sections of the National Cycle Network to ensure they are safe, connected and welcoming pieces of infrastructure.

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