Tuesday 21 May 2019

Birmingham with Friends

A visit by train to the historic Jewellery Quarter

Probably NOT real diamonds in this shop window display in
the Jewellery Quarter, but the shop does sell real diamonds!
Birmingham is an easy journey from my home, and a city I have known since I studied there in the seventies, a city with both an interesting past and a lot of promise for the future. A couple of years ago I visited the Jewellery Quarter solo and after the experience of bringing a group to Birmingham for the Christmas Market last year decided to offer them the chance to visit the Jewellery Quarter with me. I wanted to return there myself to see the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter which I had not had the chance to see last time. Seven people signed up to come with me; three bought their own train tickets and left before the shared evening meal and five of us stayed on until the last train home so that we could eat together as we usually do on these trips.

I was able to get a small discount on train tickets by buying them well in advance, and also bought tickets for two attractions, the Coffin Works and a Canal Tour, so that we could be guaranteed places on them. Participants were then free to choose what other activities they wanted to do for the rest of the day.

We left Stamford on the 08:05 train to Birmingham New Street, dead on time out of Stamford and about right for the rest of the journey. Gathering on the platform at New Street we made our way up and out towards Stephenson Street for the Grand Central tram stop - currently the Birmingham terminus of the Midlands Metro but soon to be a through stop as the extension into Broad Street takes shape. For just £1 each we bought tickets to the Jewellery Quarter stop. This bargain fare is available for journeys within Birmingham, and our stop was the last to which it applies. We climbed the stairs to Vyse Street, the main spine of the quarter, and then went our separate ways, agreeing to meet again at the Chamberlain Clock which we could just see up the street at the main crossroads.

I went to the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, as it happens at the same time as another of my party. There was time to look around the two galleries of self-guided material before the guided tour began. The museum is in two former terraced house which became a jewellery factory and was converted into the museum when the factory closed, and many of the processes of making craft jewellery are demonstrated here - the drop press (which we saw again later at the coffin works), the skill of using a piercing saw, the soldering of delicate components, the polishing. You really have to visit this place for yourself to take in all that is has to show.

The Museum of the
Jewellery Quarter
I was so taken with all that was shown to me that I was shocked when I looked at my watch and saw how little time I would have before the agreed rendezvous at the cross roads, and some of the party would be expecting me in the Rose Villa Tavern for lunch first! So I rapidly replaced my lunch break and had a sandwich in the museum café then ran down to the pub for just a quick pint, in time to gather everyone for the walk down to the Coffin Works.

The tour of the Coffin Works was, of course, similar to the one I had done on my own a couple of years ago so I shall not describe it here, but again the demonstration of how these small Birmingham metalworking factories mass-produced quality goods was fascinating to those who came with me on this trip.

After our tour of the Coffin Works we walked down along the canalside, past several locks, to the waterside by the International Convention Centre where we were due to join the boat for the canal tour. We were a little early and some of us had a very quick walk around the Brindley Place area which is now full of restaurants but which I remember as a semi-derelict old industrial area from my time in Birmingham in the seventies. It is wonderful to see what has been done.

We soon boarded our narrowboat and were taken around some of the canals of the Birmingham Canal Navigation - and past several sites that were still derelict, as well as a lot of new development, too, some of which had changed a lot since my last canal tour. Again, thoroughly recommended if you are in the slightest bit interested in the history or geography of Britain - and the boat has a bar, too!

If you've ever wondered why the mark
of the Birmingham Assay Office is an
anchor ...

After the canal tour one family left to take an earlier train home and the rest of us strolled along the canalside to Gas Street Basin to enjoy a pint at one of the pubs there, then walked back to the City Centre after taking a look at the underside of an aqueduct (Holliday Street) that we had crossed on the boat a short while before.

After the meal at ASK Italian we took the last train home to Stamford, tired and ready for bed on arrival!

I was pressed to arrange another trip this summer. We shall just have to see!

If you live near Stamford, Oakham or Peterborough and are interested in joining me on some of these day trips, please see the "Come with me!" Page.


On Saturday I had planned to attend the Market Deeping Model Railway Club’s annual exhibition at Stamford Welland Academy, my local secondary school, and to join the club again after an absence of several years owing to other commitments. But at 4am that morning Lincolnshire Police apprehended four youths who seem to have been responsible for the destruction of almost everything that had been prepared for the show on the previous evening. I had an unwanted free afternoon.

It is quite heartbreaking, As someone who has just spent only six years building a really rather basic model railway I sympathise deeply with those who have lost far more years’ creative work. I have moved home and am struggling to house my layout but cannot bear to dismantle it - how dreadful that there are people who think it acceptable to destroy others’ beloved creations. Theft is understandable but I cannot understand destruction; it looks like they just wanted to hurt people, many too old simply to start again on twenty years’ work. The huge total of crowdfunding gifts will not simply help financially but emotionally, demonstrating a huge amount of goodwill and support.

I did not get to the exhibition to resume my lapsed membership, but I shall be attending the club again soon and will try to take part in its rebuilding and in next year's exhibition, which ought to be outstanding after all that generosity!

Wednesday 8 May 2019

Tired of London? Not I: I’m Not Tired of Life!

A Week in London by Train

Regular readers will know that I have been to London a lot in the last couple of years. Indeed, apart from actual holidays I have not really been anywhere else much, which may make the blog a little boring, but that is life as a grandparent. This trip, though, has been different. The combination of family away on holiday and my retirement has meant that we could take up their offer of living in their house for a week while they are away, both helping with their security and providing us with a decent break in London.

We are now members of both English Heritage and the National Trust, so having fitted in a week between commitments I browsed the two handbooks for local places of interest and their opening times. If we got on with it we could visit them all, and a couple of other places not in the custody of either organisation, but we probably would not want to do all that. I did a scheme incorporating everything which we could then vary according to the weather and what else we felt like doing. There were two "musts": the Garden Museum at Lambeth (which is in a former parish church where an ancestor of my wife was buried) and Kew Gardens. We also had a gift voucher for afternoon tea at Marco Pierre White's new York Italian (sound interesting!) in Southwark so I got that booked - just one slot on our last day was all that was available - and I contacted a friend to say that I would be in London and he kindly invited us to supper one evening. Trains were booked, bags packed and off we went armed with Oyster cards, Senior Railcards, English Heritage and National Trust membership cards - and a camera.

We travelled as usual with Advance First Class tickets on LNER from Peterborough, which we reached by he short hop from Stamford on Cross Country, standard class. We deliberately had some time in Peterborough because I had a haircut booked there and by careful choice of trains I did not have to alter the appointment! My wife waited in the coffee bar at the Great Northern Hotel, which passes as LNER's First Class Lounge at Peterborough, and we met in time to get a mid-afternoon train to London. LNER had just introduced a new First Class menu and although we did not get to try the new sandwiches on this short ride we did prefer the new cake and we also had fruit, wine and tea. We travelled straight to our temporary home when we arrived at Kings Cross and found that our family had kindly left us a bottle of Prosecco as a welcome: we did not drink all of it but it was a great start to a week which was to be both relaxing and interesting.

We looked at the weather forecast and adjusted our first few days' schedule to ensure that we at least started with some of the things we definitely needed to do. It looked like I was not going to need the short-sleeved summer shirts I had brought, but the jeans and sweater and waterproof jacket would come in handy! There was not a lot of rain to come, fortunately, but it was going to be cold most days.

Garden Museum
So, on our first morning we caught a District Line train to Westminster and crossed Westminster Bridge to visit the museum of gardening in the former St Mary's Church, just outside Lambeth Palace. The site was chosen for the museum because it is the burial place of John Tradescant (1570 - 1638) and his son who were notable gardeners and established the first public museum in the UK. We had coffee and cake in the museum's café but substantial (and expensive) lunches are also available here.

London Fire Brigade, Vauxhall

Our next visit, continuing the London history theme, was to writer Thomas Carlyle's house, National Trust, in Chelsea. Here we learned a lot not only about the "sage of Chelsea" and his wife Jane but about the rise of Victorian left-wing politics and concern for the poor. Carlyle established a lending library in London and had a huge influence on other writers of his day, including Charles Dickens, who is now much better known. We looked at buses and Underground but decided in the end to walk from Lambeth to Chelsea, a long walk but an interesting one along the River Thames with views of the MI5 HQ and London Fire Brigade HQ at Vauxhall, Battersea Power Station (now being redeveloped), and many other fine buildings less well-known. We witnessed some of the preparations for the forthcoming Chelsea Flower Show, too.

We were well into the afternoon now and the nutritional effect of the coffee-time cake was beginning to fade, so we walked the short distance to the Kings Road, Chelsea and dodging the showers found a craft bakery with a few tables and enjoyed a spicy vegetable concoction with a cup of tea before continuing to Sloane Square for a visit to Peter Jones (John Lewis and Partners) department store in a continuing quest for a red belt for a wedding outfit ... eventually obtained elsewhere later in the week. And so to the Underground and home.

We had decided that the second day would be for Hampstead. There were three places on our list there but we thought that two per day would be all we could expect to do and we chose Fenton House and Ernö Goldfinger's house at 2 Willow Road, within reasonable reach of Underground and Overground stations respectively. A walk across Hampstead Heath to Kenwood, English Heritage, would have to wait until later in the week, or another trip.

Erno Goldfinger's home: the middle of three houses he
designed himself
We caught the Overground to Hampstead Heath and used our iPhone maps to navigate our way first to 2 Willow Road, National Trust, the middle of a row of three modernist houses and the home of the Hungarian born architect Ernö Goldfinger. It was his first building and provided two homes to rent with his own in the centre. It was intended to showcase his style in order to attract clients, but the Second World War intervened and it was a long time before he could do any more work. For a thirties building it was a very new concept, and looking at it now you would take it for fifties or sixties, so popular did the style become in later decades. Photography was not allowed, so I cannot show the interior to you and you will have to make your own way there: it is a small house so pre-booking is recommended.

Art deco flats in Finchley Road
We walked from there to the main street in Hampstead and had lunch at anther yummy café then made or way on towards Fenton House, National Trust. The main interest here for us is the garden, and for many it would be the porcelain (including much Meissen) and a collection of ancient keyboard instruments. We walked from there down through Frognal to the Finchley Road and caught a Jubilee Line tube train to Neasden ... Neasden? Yes, it is the nearest station to Ikea, and we had a couple of small things we wanted to get from there - and by the time we got there it was tea and cake time, too, and hot drinks are free to those with Ikea Family cards! Shopping done, and with no time constraints we treated ourselves to a bus ride back into London, an interesting trip down roads we have driven so often but not had time to see properly. We finished up at the "wrong" end of Paddington station and it had started to rain - but actually had I known Paddington a little better it would have been OK, for a new entrance had been just around a different corner from the one we took: anyway, the Hammersmith and City got us home and the rain had stopped!

What an adventurous day it had been - a lot of walks and transport routes we had never done before, finding our way with the help of mapping apps on our iPhones and making great use of the Citymapper and Bus Checker apps. A little supper and a lot of sleep followed!

The next day was a Saturday and I went out on my own for a walk with my camera. The first thing I did was to go to Paddington to see if there was a better route than the one we used in the rain the previous evening: I left the train at Paddington Underground station and within seconds was standing outside in the bright sunshine on a canal bank, with yesterday's bus stop a few yards to my left - duh! The canal was full of narrowboats and there were stalls and displays all along the bank: I had stumbled upon the Caraway Cavalcade, a canal festival for the bank holiday weekend. It was a pity it was so cold: the Pimms and the ice-cream were not selling at all well! I did buy a Sussex Sausage for lunch, though ...

After spending a little time photographing the gorgeous Little Venice with its canal basin full of colourful boats and surrounded by trees with cream-coloured stuccoed buildings peeping through, I then set off for a walk along the Regent's Canal with no particular destination in mind but with perhaps the notion that I might get to The Regent's Park. There was an occasional shower of rain but by the time I reached the entrance to the park, adjacent to the zoo entrance, there was bright sunshine and it was so warm that I took off and carried my waterproof jacket.

I walked across the park and took some photographs of Art Deco buildings around Baker Street and the historic Baker Street station itself before taking the train back "home". A cup of tea and then out together to shop at Westfield (we needed groceries but I somehow ended up with a new pair of shoes as well ...)

On Sunday we attended a local church in the morning and then set off by District Line Underground train to Kew Gardens. There was a bit of a queue (I know, I know) to get in which we could have avoided by advance booking but we had not done so because of the uncertain weather. We had lunch at Kew Gardens (where we happened to meet some friends we had not seen for a while, uttering what a small world it is) and explored some parts we had not seen before. Neither of us had been for many years anyway, and there was much to see. We especially enjoyed the Rhododendron Dell, most of the rhododendrons being in full flower at the time of our visit. When we had walked enough we left about an hour before closing time and made our way back to the station: the platform was packed but a District Line train soaks up a lot of people and we all got seats. Kew itself is worth seeing as well as the Royal Botanic Gardens, and picturesque place with a rather attractive little station and some interesting local shops.

The original ticket windows at Wembley Park
Metropolitan Railway Station, now giving a little of the
Underground's history
On Monday I set off on a photographic trip around north London to capture a few more Art Deco buildings, notably the Underground stations at Rayners Lane and Harrow on the Hill, together the former cinema at Rayners Lane and the original Metropolitan Railway station at Wembley Park. Once back at Baker StreetI went for a stroll through Marylebone. There are some amazing shops in Marylebone High Street but the street is remarkably quiet: round the corner in Oxford Street there are throngs of tourists and yet they do not venture into the side streets. Weird.

On Tuesday I went for a fairly lengthy walk around Holland Park, within a very short distance of Shepherds Bush Green and yet very different in atmosphere. I walked along the side of the park itself to Kensington High Street, different again, and then used my senior citizen's Concessionary Travel Pass to take a bus back to where we were staying. In the afternoon we set out on some errands and then in the evening had dinner with some old friends in Marylebone. We were amazed how quickly time passed and it was midnight when we arrived on the platform at Baker Street station to go home, and a train was waiting, with only about half-a-dozen other passengers on board! We were home just a few minutes later and, midnight having passed, were already on our last day.

The only activity on our last day was a booked Afternoon Tea at Marco's New York Italian restaurant in Southwark, a Christmas gift from our nephew. Very good it was, too, an interesting New York Italian take on an English tradition which worked amazingly well and was thoroughly enjoyed. We can recommend it, but also need to warn that advance booking is essential because it is very popular - this afternoon was the only time in the week that we could fit it in with the restaurant.

And so home: after our tea we had a little wander around Borough Market and bought some Swiss cheese (getting in the mood for a forthcoming holiday in Switzerland!) and caught our Jubilee Line tube train from London Bridge, collected our luggage and set off home via Kings Cross and Peterborough as usual, enjoying the new LNER "garden wrap" with a glass of wine on the way out of London. We really must go north some time and enjoy the new hot food menu ... and our friends in Marylebone are moving to Berwick-upon-Tweed.