Around 180 seconds had gone by before I noticed movement. A little curious head popping up between empty beer barrels, whiskers twitching, tail dragging along the steel.
It stopped dead when it saw me as if we were about to enter a face-off. Our brief staredown was over when the creature scurried away beneath a row of brightly-coloured bins, leaving behind a nugget of rotting food in its wake.
It would be of no concern if this were a lone cat I had encountered. But this was no cat, and it certainly wasn’t alone. I stood at the edge of Wellington Passage, an alleyway in Birmingham city centre, and watched as several more rats appeared over the next few minutes. They were climbing over bins, entering cracks in the pavement and darting across the broken path to find cover.
I’d been told this L-shaped backstreet, coined ‘rat alley’, had a serious infestation. But it was a shock to find unequivocal evidence in broad daylight – and only metres from where food was being served and workers were going about their day.
The council-owned alley connects Bennetts Hill with Colmore Row and snakes around The Wellington pub. Businesses in the vicinity, including the iconic watering hole, told me the issue had been going on for 12 months and called on the council to take action.
“Customers in our smoking area are watching rats run around them,” said Wellington boss Nigel Barker on his 65th birthday. “Luckily we don’t serve food but it’s not on – the council has to do something.”
Trousers tucked into my socks, I ventured into the alleyway to see if more rats would jump out. I was thankful that, on this occasion, none were to be seen but their droppings were everywhere.
I found comfort when I turned a corner to see a man with a relaxed posture smoking a pipe. He introduced himself as Alan Ashford, a Wellington regular in his mid 70s, and said he’d spotted “one or two” rats while sitting out the back.
“Sometimes I get them running around the back of my legs,” he told me. When asked if that was a usual occurrence, he added: “I’m used to it.”
Rodents are everywhere in big cities and that’s never going to change. But this was on another level and of real concern. A local pest-control firm said it best: “We need action to be taken quickly otherwise the area is going to need the Pied Piper.”
Birmingham City Council said it was “aware” of the infestation. “We’re in dialogue with Colmore BID with a proposed action plan moving forward which includes a treatment regime to remove the rodent problem.”
A spokesperson for Colmore BID added: “We have been working hard with businesses for a while to try to resolve a number of issues in Wellington Passage. We reported some significant concerns, on behalf of businesses, to the council in July.
“We’re pleased the council is now engaging with these issues. We have been representing the business community to explore outcomes that will work both for businesses and the long-term good operation of the passage.”