Sunday 29 March 2015

Pressing and Stamping in the Jewellery Quarter

Sculpture reminding us of Birmingham's history
Well, my planned day out in Birmingham was wonderful, and turned out rather differently from what I first had in mind. Now I shall have to go again to do some of the things I was going to do, for on this trip I struggled to leave the wonderful Jewellery Quarter. I had been there before twice: once looking for jewellery (which I actually finished up buying in the city centre...) and once very briefly for a quick pub lunch while in the city for something else. This time I wanted to see the Pen Museum and while researching its location I stumbled across the Coffin Works, newly open, which I decided really had to see as well. Given that the first off-peak train from Stamford does not get to New Street until after 11:30, lunch would have to be fitted in between the two museums and the day is beginning to look full!

I started the day with the 10:05 departure for Birmingham, nicely on time all the way following a difficult couple of days for Cross Country Trains caused by a derailed freight train near Birmingham. I had my morning coffee on the train - quite a decent coffee I was, pleased to discover. On arrival I picked my way out of the building site which has been New Street station for the last couple of years (not long now before completion), around the roadworks for the tramline extension and visited briefly the Ian Allen book and model shop to look through the range of model cars to add something to the streets of my art deco model railway layout.

Then it was off to the Coffin Works, the former premises of Newman Brothers, manufacturers of coffin furniture for the funeral trade. I knew the midday guided tour was fully booked because they had told me so on Twitter, so I just popped in to see what was available, booked myself on the 14:00 tour and went on the Pen Museum.

It was a short walk through streets being redeveloped to provide new flats where metal-working premises used to be. Like all our cities, this side of Birmingham is being transformed but is bearing witness to its past trades on which the great wealth of this city was built. Finding the entrance to the Pen Museum is quite a challenge: it is in a building where pen nibs were once made and where many other businesses still trade, and it still looks like a factory. I twigged that I had to open the small wicket gate within the vehicular gate to get into the courtyard where the door into the museum was situated, and once inside was amazed at the huge number of pen nibs displayed before me. I declined the immediate offer of a hands-on demonstration of nib-making while I looked around and took in my surroundings. I was greeted by name - the result of having Tweeted that I was on my way there - and after a while allowed myself to be shown how to make a nib. The whole mass-production process cannot be demonstrated because it involves the use of furnaces, but the pressing and cutting operations can all be carried out using Victorian hand presses. As I cut my second nib my "tutor" explained the girls employed on this equipment were expected to turn out 17,000 nib blanks a day ... At one time 75% of the world's writing was done with pens made in Birmingham, and calligraphy pens are still made elsewhere in the city, but the rise of the ballpoint in the mid-twentieth century saw off this industry as a major part of the city's economy.

Through to another room, I was shown the marketing displays of thousands of pens, along with blotters, inkwells, typewriters (these would have been worth an hour on their own) and a huge collection of novelty ballpoints. By this time it became clear that I would have to tear myself away to stand any chance of a meal before my appointment at the Coffin Works, so I said my farewells and made my donation - entry is free but it is well worth giving a donation to such an enthusiastic group of people who keep alive the memory of such a significant industry.

The Stamp Room, the smallest of the hammers
being demonstrated
I went to the pub I had visited for a meal before. It was busy and the one barman was on the telephone, with another customer already waiting, so I went off in search of another, by now being quite thirsty and making my way in the general direction of the Coffin Works. In St Paul's Square I discovered the The Rectory Bar and restaurant and just had time for a pint (very nice) and a sandwich then made my way along the street to my second quirky Jewellery Quarter museum of the day. On paying the £5 admission each visitor "clocks in" just as the workers would have done and we are taken through to the courtyard and the stamp room. Newman Brothers used to make the metal fittings for coffins, a good Brummie industry, and these are stamped out of sheet metal in the stamp room. There was a number of power stamps of various sizes and one of them was used by a professional stamper to demonstrate the process of making a small "RIP" plate for each of us. The working conditions in the plant's heyday would have been difficult: hot, noisy, dangerous, but the jobs were well-paid (they'd have to have been to get anyone to take them). We were then taken to a room where coffin linings and shrouds were made, less typically Brummie but very interesting. The factory had not been much modernised since the 1960s and and not closed until 1999 and had been left as it was on its last day of working, shrouds in the colours of Birmingham City and Aston Villa football clubs still there ...

Shroud for a Villa fan
In the office the phone rang and a long-dead funeral director ordered coffin fittings for his business from the long-dead proprietor of this one. Eery. And off I went, pen nibs and RIP plates in my pocket and dying for a cup of tea!

The one thing I had promised myself on this trip which did come off was tea and cake at the Centenary Lounge at Moor Street station, a walk across the city centre. This simple little tea and coffee place is in Art Deco style and uses crockery closely based on the Great Western Railway's design for their centenary (and these can be brought from the café or its website for use at home as well!) and they do a very nice cup of tea or coffee and a range of cakes and other snacks. It is also licensed but for me, tea was what was needed, and I had to try the Red Velvet cake, flavoured with vanilla and coloured with beetroot ...

I had intended to visit the ThinkTank museum of science and technology, but by now time had slipped by to the point when it was too late to go in, last entry being at 16:00, so I put that on the "list" for next time and crossed the road to Selfridges where I had a little gift shopping to do. Selfridges is the curvy shop covered in metal discs which dominates any photograph of this end of the city centre. A walk through the market area brought me to the National Trust's Back-to-Back houses which I wanted to photograph, not having done so when we visited them on a holiday in Birmingham a few years ago.

I decided to forego a pint at the Wellington real ale pub which had been on the original schedule in order to fit in dinner at Ask Italian in New Street neatly before the 19:22 departure for Stansted Airport which brought me home in time for an early night, tired out from all that I had seen and done and already feeling the need to return as soon as I can fit in another trip.

Link: My 2011 holiday in Birmingham

Sunday 15 March 2015

Planning ...

Possible day trip to Birmingham coming up for photography and exploration ... It's about time I visited Millennium Point properly and saw the Birmingham science museum, Thinktank. When I was a student in Birmingham I often visited the old Museum of Science and Industry in Newhall Street (which was free of charge) and I'd like to catch up with all that's been done in the forty years since then.

Might have to have tea and cake at the Centenary Lounge again and maybe a pint of ale at The Wellington.

All beginning to take shape, and an off-peak day return ticket with Cross Country Trains from Stamford using my Senior Railcard will only be £14.85. Bargain!

Monday 2 March 2015

Time for a Hot Bath ...

Cross Country Trains Turbostar on its way to Birmingham:
Birmingham New Street offers change of train to many parts
of the UK, especially Wales and the West of England
For various reasons we were not able to book a February holiday much in advance this year, and certainly couldn't take the 11-day holiday we had last year, but when the opportunity arose we decided to revisit Bristol, which we had not seen since we left Gloucestershire in 1991, and Bath, which we last visited ten years ago. Both cities had attractions which were in the construction stage when we last visited and were now complete and worth seeing, and the journey there is straightforward and quick. By leaving on a Sunday after lunch we could be in Bristol in good time for dinner with just one change of train, at Birmingham New Street: we would be in the care of Cross Country Trains all the way in both directions, apart from the short hop between Bristol and Bath with First Great Western.

As usual, arranged the hotels in both places, and in Bristol we stayed in the same hotel, which had undergone many changes, not least of name, as we had visited in about 1986 with our two small sons. One thing that had not changed was the location of the dining room inside the base of a former glass kiln, although the furnishing of it had changed completely. The journey there was simple: we left Stamford on the 14:06 train to Birmingham New Street, taking the Sunday papers with us. As we arrived I noticed that the indicator on the next platform was advertising the 16:12 to Bristol Temple Meads. Because of the building work still taking place there, it took us a while to get to the platform and by then the train was already there and waiting, in plenty of time for its booked departure. It was a High Speed Train, older but far more comfortable than the Voyagers used on most of the services on that line. Because of the late booking (and therefore lack of cheap tickets) we were travelling Standard Class that afternoon, but it was comfortable enough and we were able to buy a cup of tea and a biscuit from the trolley service. Between New Street and Temple Meads the train stops only at Cheltenham Spa and Bristol Parkway and we soon arrived at Temple Meads. Like many other stations, this one is undergoing refurbishment work, but it is not as extensive as, say, New Street, Kings Cross or Edinburgh Waverley and it was not difficult to find our way round and we strolled out to find our hotel

Although we'd been before, that was a long time ago and much had changed, but the map on my iPhone told us the way and we soon found the front door. It was a sixties design assuming car access, even though it now trades on its proximity to the rail station, so pedestrian approach was not as easy as it might have been, but once inside it was very attractively furnished, now in the hands of the Hilton chain. We checked in and were handed a warm chocolate cookie each as a welcome(!) and shown the way
Dining Room at the Doubletree Hotel in Bristol City Centre
to our room, which was spacious and reasonably well-equipped, including free wireless internet access, which we are coming to regard as essential these days. I had booked dinner in the restaurant for 19:00 which gave us time to unpack and get ready. The dining room was remarkably sparsely occupied and service was excellent. Back in our room we planned the following day, for which wet weather was being forecast. One thing I wanted to do was to visit Brunel's SS Great Britain, the
SS Great Britain 1st class dining saloon
world's first iron-built, steam-powered, screw-driven ocean liner, forerunner to the ocean-going passenger vessels that were the mainstay of overseas travel before aviation took over a century later. Last time I had seen this ship she had just been returned from being used as a moored barge in the Falkland Islands and was a sorry sight: now restored the ship was well worth a visit and we spent all the morning there after the usual hotel breakfast, together with a pleasant waterside walk there and back. There is also an industrial museum but that is not open on Mondays, and a dockside railway which operates, taking passengers between the museum and the ship, on certain days. And it did not rain solidly, so we did dry out.

The hotel had kept our luggage for us, so we returned to collect it and made our way to the station to catch a train to Bath Spa. This line is served by several routes so there are trains every 20 - 30 minutes and we simply boarded the next one, a Cardiff-Portsmouth train operated by First Great Western - one day we must do the trip from Bristol to the south coast which apparently goes through some great scenery on the way: there are two routes, one to Weymouth and this one to Portsmouth. It is just a few minutes to Bath Spa; the station sits on a viaduct at the apex of a tight bend in the river, with a river bridge at each end of the platforms, and so the exit is via a subway onto the forecourt, and our hotel was directly opposite. Designed by Brunel, this was obviously the original railway hotel, the Royal Hotel. Not as smart, new or expensive as the hotel in Bristol, it was even more convenient and was more than good enough for our needs with a spacious bedroom and a great breakfast included. We were to stay here for two nights, but this was only mid-afternoon and we set off for a walk around the city centre. We know Bath reasonably well: it has a compact city centre with the rail station, and our hotel, on one edge but near to the shops and other attractions. We sought out Sally Lunn's restaurant and booked a table for that evening for dinner and visited the little museum in the cellar, making a mental note to return on the last morning to buy Sally Lunn buns to take back as gifts. We then made our way to the Thermae Bath Spa which was our agenda item for this city and had been under construction when we were there ten years before. The queue was along the street frontage and a member of staff was available to talk to those queuing: we took his advice on the best time to come and resolved to be there at 09:30 on the following morning and returned to our room to change for dinner.

Dinner at Sally Lunn's was amazing: traditional "trencher" meals are served on a bread bun base as a plate (although these days that is served on top of a modern plate!) and the gravy-soaked bread is eaten last. The building is supposedly Bath's oldest house, altered many times over the centuries, so you're surrounded by history as you dine. Lovely meal. On the way we noticed a rather attractive vegetarian restaurant two doors away ... the smartest veggie restaurant we'd ever seen. We thought about it and in the morning dropped in and booked our table for the next evening.

So, Tuesday morning found us early at breakfast at the hotel and then off to the Thermae Bath Spa where we booked in after a very brief wait. This spa uses the same natural hot spring that was known in Roman and even pre-Roman days, and is located off Hot Bath Street, one block from the Roman Baths. Towel, robe and slippers are provided and we were shown to the changing facilities which are very neatly arranged so that we go into our cubicles from the entrance, change into our swimwear and don the robe and slippers then pass out the other side of the cubicles to put our clothes etc and the towel into a locker. The wristband given to each guest on the way in acts as a receipt and activates the lock on the clothes locker: it is also used to pay for refreshments in the café with a bill presented on the way out, so we needed to carry no money and no key. Neat. A great feeling of freedom.

The postcard! Minerva pool bottom left, roof pool right,
steam rooms bottom centre. Top left is the Cross Pool
in another building which we did not visit this time.
We started at the Minerva pool on the lower ground floor, a warm bath like a small swimming pool but with no chlorine smell and with a flat bottom on the deep side of shallow (!) in which I could comfortably stand or, when there was sufficient space, swim. While there were various fountains, bubble pools and an artificial current which were switched on from time to time, the general feeling was one of relaxation and we spent about 40 minutes here enjoying the warmth and feeling of buoyancy. Photography and telephony were prohibited in order to promote the relaxed atmosphere so I have no photographs of our visit but did photograph the postcard we bought!

After our time in the Minerva Pool we went upstairs to the steam rooms: there are four cylindrical steam rooms around a central cold shower, each having a different scent. Each is very hot and cleans the skin from within, and the eucalyptus one would probably clean the sinuses pretty effectively, too. After a (warm) shower we visited the café for sparkling wine, and then the roof pool. This was really odd, on the top of a high building in February in swimwear and not cold: vapour was rising from the water and it was about the temperature of a hot bath. Lots of people were in the pool by now and the sun was shining strongly but very low in the winter sky. After final visit to the first pool we had coffee in the café and changed to go back out, feeling very invigorated. The toned-skin feeling lasted several days, as did the general feeling of well-being. I'd recommend it to anyone; although it isn't cheap you do get a lot for your money: two hours in the spa, plus a time-allowance for getting changed and an extra half-hour added for each visit to the café, which in our case took less than half an hour. We were there for about three hours altogether.

In the afternoon we strolled around the city and looked for ancestors' memorials in a closed churchyard (but drew a blank) and then changed for our dinner at The Acorn Vegetarian Kitchen. Unlike any other vegetarian restaurant we had visited it was the sort of place where dressing-up is appropriate.

The following morning was Ash Wednesday and I had to travel back for evening worship in Stamford, so after a quick excursion to Sally Lunn's for gifts to bring home, we were at Bath Spa station for a First Great Western train to Bristol Temple Meads and then our booked train to Birmingham New Street. Our train to Birmingham was a Cross Country Trains Voyager and this time we were travelling First Class. That part of the trip neatly encompassed lunch time and we were able to enjoy the hospitality of Cross Country. They do not include wine, but on Ash Wednesday that was probably just as well. There was a selection of hot meals to purchase, or cold snacks at no extra charge, but there were also some hot options still available from the breakfast menu which were quite acceptable, although not the standard we've grown used to on East Coast Trains. Paper plate and plastic cutlery, too. A bit of a contrast from the evening before, but then so is the price!

In Birmingham we had time for a short walk around the city centre and a visit to a shop or two: the tramway extension from Snow Hill to New Street is coming along nicely but it means that Corporation Street and Stephenson Street are a bit of a mess at present! Similarly, we look forward to the completion of the work to New Street station itself and will have to make a trip to see it, and the new Grand Central shopping centre, when it is done.

And so back to our little Turbostar train home. For some reason the seat reservation notices were not in place, but we found two satisfactory seats together anyway and the journey soon slipped by: home for tea as planned and then preparations for the evening.

We shall have to return to Bath. The spa visit was well worth doing and if you can save up the cost of the spa and the hotel and book cheap rail travel (our Two Together Railcard helped us), then it is well worth it. My photographs for the trip are available at