Monday 19 June 2023

Staying in The Jewellery Quarter

A trip by train to Britain's second city

I have visited the Jewellery Quarter twice before, but only for a day each time. This visit, staying over three nights, grew out of a casual conversation with a friend who expressed an interest in the Pen Museum. Having been there on one of my day trips I enthused about it and we agreed to go together, with our wives, and make a short holiday out of it.

The mural in our train's toilet compartment celebrates the Jewellery Quarter 

We did try to incorporate quite a lot more, including a third couple and a fourth night, but these did not fit in our diaries, and some of what we wanted to do was not available, so maybe next year there will be a post describing yet another visit to Birmingham! 

The continuing dispute between the railway workers' unions and the government-backed railway companies threatened to overshadow the trip with strikes and cancellations (those companies free to negotiate their own terms had already settled with the unions, but those subject to government intervention could not), but we were able to work around these very successfully, Cross Country running just enough trains to get us home on a strike day.

We travelled with minimal luggage and our train to Birmingham was more-or-less on time all the way, affording us good views of the High Speed Two construction sites on the approach to the city from the east. Contrary to popular belief, this line is not just about getting between London and Birmingham, but rather provides a relief line between the north and London, avoiding the congested bits south of Birmingham, with a branch into Birmingham city centre. This branch follows the same "gap in the urban fabric" as our line from the east as it makes its final approach to its Curzon Street terminus.

After arrival at Birmingham New Street we went straight to the Grand Central tram stop in Stephenson Street where we met our friends who had travelled from Warrington by car since their rail company had not been able to guarantee a train home on the strike day. We took the tram to the St Paul's stop, in the Jewellery Quarter and then walked to our hotel, St Paul's House, a former rope factory in St Paul's Square. We had a room at the front overlooking the square with St Paul's church in the middle among the trees and the gravestones.

After checking in and unpacking we booked a table in the hotel's restaurant for dinner and then took a walk into the city centre (actually, St Paul's House is more of a bar-restaurant with rooms than a hotel with dining room). I had hoped that we could attend Evensong at St Philip's Cathedral but it was too early, and probably not choral, with this being half-term week, and furthermore the cathedral was having a lot of building work done so we did not even bother to visit it. We walked down to New Street where we had a little shopping to do at the Apple Store and then to the Bull Ring area and back to the Jewellery Quarter for dinner, a drink and bed. Tomorrow the exploring would begin.

We walked down to Centenary Square via the canalside path and Fleet Street and were going to call at the Library of Birmingham, but this did not open until 11:00, so we continued our walk via Broad Street - taking in the pavement star of Jasper Carrott whose show in Stamford we were missing, ironically, by being in Birmingham - and the canalside to Gas Street Basin and the Mailbox, where we had coffee at one of the coffee shops before returning to the Library. 

After visiting the Shakespeare Collection and the roof garden we made our way through Victoria Square and Colmore Row to Snow Hill station where we took a bus to Aston. This had been going to be a train trip but there was a strike by Aslef and no trains were running in Birmingham; the upside was that as three of us were pensioners this did not cost us anything! From the bus stop we walked past Villa Park and then visited the villa after which it is named, Aston Hall, a Jacobean manor house well worth the trip. I had been there once before, fifty years earlier when I was studying in Birmingham, and I remembered hardly anything! We began with a light lunch at the café, then took the self-guided tour of the house before rounding off with a cup of tea back in the café. Touring the house included quite a lot of learning about the social history of England, notably the Civil War, as well as about the house itself and domestic architecture in general. The parkland around is open free of charge to the public at all times.

We travelled back to the city centre on the same bus route and from the stop at Snow Hill station walked through the Great Western Arcade and down Corporation Street before taking the tram to the Jewellery Quarter stop from where we walked through one of the two cemeteries and then past the (now closed for the evening) craft jewellery shops of Vyse Street before returning to the hotel for dinner again, having seen things on the menu the previous evening that some of us had been keen to try! 

The second full day was dedicated to the Jewellery Quarter and the industrial heritage of Birmingham. There was nothing here that I had not done before, some of it twice, but displays change and in different company it's a different experience. We began by walking to the Pen Museum which had been the starting point of the conversation which led to this tour. It had changed markedly from my previous visit but still included the chance to undertake part of the process of making a pen nib. In the days before ball-point (Biro) pens took over the world, 75% of the world's writing was done with nibs made in the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter! 

We learnt a lot about the small metal-working industries that made Birmingham the City of a Thousand Trades and put it, by the efforts of the early industrial pioneers (not forgetting their workers!), at the heart of the world's industrial revolution. We'd learn more about the workers at the next visit and on the following day. We thought we might have lunch at the pub called A Thousand Trades but it looked a bit more than the snack we needed and we ended up at Costa Coffee - we needed our coffee break as well in any case - and then had time for a swift pint in the splendid interior of the Rose Villa Tavern before striding on to the Coffin Works!

We walked past the historic Birmingham Assay Office (along with Sheffield, Birmingham successfully campaigned for an assay office to save valuable metal goods having to go to London for hallmarking) and then along the canalside to the Coffin Works, the former premises of Newman Brothers, a typical Birmingham small metalworking company. When we arrived and clocked on I was delighted to find that we were to be shown round by Cornelius who had demonstrated the equipment to me several years before on my first visit to the Jewellery Quarter. A former professional die-stamper, he knows all about the techniques for producing metal coffin fittings, now in very little demand because of the almost universal trend for cremation which requires destructible fittings. 

From the coffin works it was a pleasant stroll along the canalside, past several locks, to the wharf by the International Convention Centre where we awaited and boarded a public tour run by the Sherborne Wharf company. Once we were under way I bought a bottle of wine for the four of us to share as we explored more of the history of Birmingham's industry and the transport systems which kept it all working and provided markets for its products. As far as raw materials were concerned, most was local, with coal and ore being mined in the black country and in other places nearby - when I studied here in the 1970s there were still coal mines working along my route into the city from home and still plenty of steel works and gas and coke works and other "dirty" industries in and around Birmingham. London Underground trains were made in Birmingham!

From the canal trip we returned to our hotel and then went out to a local Italian restaurant for dinner: even after such a busy day I found my favourite pizza margherita too much to finish!

And so to the last day. This time the RMT union was on strike, but there were some trains running and we were able to travel home. We took the precaution of planning to leave two hours earlier than originally planned, which simply meant ditching a final lunch together, allowing our friends to get on the road before the evening peak and giving us one more opportunity in case of a last-minute hitch with our train. Before then, though, the final visit of the tour was the National Trust's Birmingham Back-to-Backs which have to be visited by guided tour. 

The site was originally on the edge of Birmingham and was developed as a single dwelling as the village began to grow in the industrial era. The owner then split his house in two (back-to-back) and rented it out to two families, then built several more until many families could be fitted onto the site. People flocked into the growing city to escape rural poverty and to work in the new industries. Some were highly skilled craftspeople and some worked from home here in the courtyard - the large bay windows of two houses were ideal for small-scale crafts. One street frontage was small shops and in my days as a student the upper floors were used as workshops and storage for a tailor whose shopfront is now preserved by the National Trust. It was he and his family who had effectively preserved this little corner of England for posterity by using it and preventing it falling into decay and demolition. It is less than five minutes' walk from New Street station, right on the edge of the city centre and surrounded by theatres, bars and restaurants. An usual NT property and well worth booking a visit.

Back to the hotel to collect our luggage and then onto the station to take our train home. All went very smoothly in the end: we had a picnic lunch, bought at the station, on the way home and arrived in good time to pack our things away and prepare for the next trip, in just a few days' time!

No comments:

Post a Comment