St Martin’s in the Bull Ring : Defiant Gothic … and what we learned there

St Martin's clock

“Defiant City Centre Gothic” writes Simon Jenkins in church crawler‘s ‘bible‘ of St Martin’s church in Birmingham city centre.

“It once towered over the old Bull Ring market place, dramatically clinging to a hillside. Today the site is desperate, squeezed between what survives of the market and an inhuman whirl of urban roads and concrete blocks. Rescue is planned, but the cost of rectifying the horrors of the 1960s and 1970s will be huge. For the moment, St Martin’s is a beacon in a wilderness.” [England’s Thousand Best Churches]

Square in c1950

Looking towards St Martin’s Church with the Bull Ring Market in the foreground (c1950)

St Martin's 1

It is now almost impossible to take a photograph of St Martin’s

We found that St Martin’s (the only Birmingham church listed by Jenkins) was literally a few minutes walk from our Back-to-Back ‘experience’. So it became the excursion on the final morning of our stay before checking out at 10 and catching our trains before 11.

Although the opening time is 10am we noticed a cafe and office attached to the church and a figure moving about. The very kind receptionist understood our ‘plight’ and allowed us to go inside and take a look at the Pugin-influenced building, rebuilt on the site of an older church, in 1873-75 by J.A.Chatwin who had worked with A.W.N.Pugin.

There’s a hammerbeam roof, a modern font, Decorated arches, 14th century alabaster effigies and a beautiful, early Burne-Jones stained glass window.

Burne-Jones Window

Burne-Jones  Window [source]


The Modern Baptismal Font Cast in Bronze by Jacqueline Gruber Stieger in 2002.

Our helpful guide also told us two other facts. The first was that the church has a rare outdoor pulpit and the second, nothing to do with ecclesiastical facts at all, was how to make an ‘infinity scarf’ (another term, new to me, for a snood or cowl) by the ‘arm-knitting method‘!

Outdoor pulpit

Outdoor Pulpit and reflection of Selfridges.

Arm Knitting Demonstration

New St Reflections

Birmingham New Street Station Reflections as we leave


Birmingham Architectural, Historical and Modern Gems, 2

As I said already, the jewels and gems of Birmingham don’t stop in the Jewellery Quarter …

There is also the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which houses one of the best collections of fine and decorative art, historical artefacts and archaeological treasures in Britain today; all displayed in an elegant Grade II* listed building. The collection is particularly strong in Pre-Raphaelite art. There is also a permanent display of items from the Staffordshire Hoard. [Adapted from Art Fund Guide]


Travelling Companions by Augustus Egg (1862) one of my favourite Victorian paintings is in the care of BMAG

On Sunday afternoon we were on the trail of the gold and gems of the Staffordshire Hoard. No photography allowed.

Discovered in 2009 and acquired jointly with the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent with assistance from the Art Fund, this treasure trove of 7th century Anglo-Saxon art features 4,000 pieces of gold and silver displaying intricate filigree and cloisonné work. Since October 2014 a new permanent gallery interprets the story of the hoard and its context within Anglo-Saxon history. Beyond the richness of the materials and the exquisite decoration, the hoard is significant because of its strictly masculine nature. These are exclusively military items created for Mercia’s best  fighters.” [Art Quarterly, winter 2014, p.31]

St Chad's and roads

St Chad’s Cathedral or Traffic Circle

Birmingham has two cathedrals both gems of their type. The Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St Chad is a little out of the immediate city centre but we could easily walk there. How many times did we remark to each – “Car is King in Birmingham”? Pedestrians must wait at lights, use underpasses and walkways and over-road links. The RC Cathedral appeared to be sited in the middle of the road. Access is not easy. However, we made it safely through its doors on Monday morning and into another world. A world of peace and calm and of glorious art. No photography was allowed but I had already taken this one before I saw the sign.

St Chad's

The Nave, St Chad’s Cathedral

A significant stopping-off point on Birmingham’s Pugin Trail the Cathedral was the first Roman Catholic Cathedral to built in the UK since the Reformation. The superb original internal decorations and fittings were made by skilled craftsmen re-introducing skills of the Medieval era.  John Hardman plate and windows; Herbert Minton tiles; William Warrington chancel window. Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin also supplied original Medieval furnishings from his own collection including the stalls and pulpit. His rood screen was removed in 1967.

Only after dropping in to St Philip’s Cathedral on Sunday afternoon and deciding to stay for Evensong – more members of the choir than members of the congregation and followed by a brief organ recital – did I read this suggestion in my LV City Guide 2012 Birmingham, London, Dublin :

Birmingham Cathedral

St Philip’s Cathedral [source]

Sunday in Birmingham : Attend a service in 18th century Birmingham Cathedral which has a number of stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones. Colmore Row.”


Old Joint Stock Bar [source]

Opposite the Cathedral is the famous Birmingham pub The Old Joint Stock Pub and Theatre. Just a few paces from the Cathedral we decided to pay a visit. Unfortunately the theatre wasn’t open that evening but the island bar was impressive. Also from my LV Guide :


Julius Alfred Chatwin was primarily a designer of Birmingham churches … But there were exceptions to his church work and the opulent interiors of the Old Joint Stock, opposite St Philip’s Cathedral (in which he had a hand), showed that he could be moved to great things in the temporal sphere as well. Completed in 1864, the building first belonged to the Birmingham Joint Stock Bank. It was converted into a pub in 1997. Under a glass domed ceiling, beside an island bar and with sumptuous interiors, this is one of the grandest pubs in the city. Upstairs is an 80-seat theatre, minimalist in decor, but the sort of facility few pubs can shout about.

ET ad

ET Mural

Tea Room Mural

On Monday we returned to The Art Gallery to the highly recommended Edwardian Tea Room for a light lunch before heading to our raison de visite The Library of Birmingham.

Few other tea rooms in the world can boast a stellar gathering as was here under the ornate ceiling and glass canopy in May 1998. The G8 Summit was being held in the city and for a short time a group that included Bill Clinton, Boris Yeltsin, Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair (and their interpreters) sat around a table commissioned from David Linley for the occasion, surrounded by a pick of the museum’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings hung here especially for the event. Even without the table and the paintings, The Edwardian Tea Room is still a grand setting for tea, coffee, snacks and lunches.” [LV Guide]

Wedding Cake

The Library Building Decorated on the Exterior to Represent Rings and Birmingham’s Jewellery Heritage

The Giant Wedding Cake, as the library is affectionately known, offers pre-bookable guided  tours to the building and its contents on Mondays at 2.15.  The building was officially opened by Malala Yousafzai in September 2013.

We took the glass lift up to the 9th floor from where we had long-reaching views of the city  and beyond from the Skyline Viewpoint. Also on the ninth floor is the Shakespeare Memorial Room.


Shakespeare in his Memorial Room

“This original feature from the city’s Victorian library was designed by John Henry Chamberlain in 1882. Since then
it has changed home twice, moving to Central Library when it was built in the early 1970s, and to the Library of Birmingham almost forty years later. It originally housed the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, which is still available at the Library of Birmingham. The Room is wood panelled with glass printed shelves inspired by the Elizabethan age with carvings, marquetry and metalwork representing birds, flowers and foliage. The woodwork is by noted woodcarver Mr Barfield, and the brass and metal work is most likely crafted by Hardmans. The Shakespeare Memorial Room has been painstakingly reconstructed by local craftsmen A. Edmonds & Co. Ltd and the Victorian Cornice Company whorestored the elaborate ceiling. The books and memorabilia you see on the shelves are interesting items from the Library’s general collections (the Shakespeare collection outgrew the room as early as 1906).” [source]

70s library

The old Central Library seen through the rings

We then descended floor by floor visiting two gardens on our way down including the Secret Garden and The Discovery Terrace.

secret garden

The Secret Garden on the Seventh Floor

Lift and escalators

Looking down into the Library and the Book Rotunda

Book Rotunda

The Book Rotunda – Shades of The British Museum and Waterstones Book Shops

Children's Library

The Book Browse Fiction Library

Here is a Library buzzing with enthusiasm and offering its readers so much more than books (although I’d be happy with just the books). The What’s On programme that I picked up lists Exhibitions (we visited The Voices of War during our tour), Films, Music, Activities, Performances, Dance, Poetry and Workshops. Lucky Birmingham to have this facility in the heart of the city I hope the citizens make good use of it and what it offers.

Despite a packed two days and two half days we  are sure that there are many more Birmingham gems still to be visited!

Birmingham Architectural, Historical and Modern Gems, 1

Birmingham’s rapid expansion from the mid-18th century into a major centre for the metalworking industry earned it the title of ‘the workshop of the world’. Just outside the heart of the city, the Jewellery Quarter became a close-knit neighbourhood, where a great variety of specialist trades concentrated on the production of jewellery, silverware and small metalware.

Jewellery Mus

The Anchor is the Birmingham Assay Office Mark

In the Jewellery Quarter Museum I learned some interesting facts about the work carried out in the area. There’s a small exhibition and display to whet one’s appetite before the ‘jewel in the crown’ tour of the Museum.

– Birmingham is one of only four cities in the UK which has an Assay Office and on its first working day, August 31st, 1773 the office hallmarked about 200 articles. On its busiest day ever recorded (they don’t say which day that was) the office achieved the hallmarking of 100,000 articles!

– Most gold articles are not made from pure gold. It is too soft and expensive and is mixed (alloyed) with other metals to increase its strength.

– A single gram of gold can be beaten into a sheet of one square metre.

– Coins, clocks, trophies, tableware were shipped all over the globe. By 1914 Birmingham was supplying the world with 28 million pen nibs PER WEEK! And during both World Wars manufacture was given over to medals and munitions.

– Birmingham’s increasing prosperity was largely built on its emergence as the very centre of the British button trade. From the earliest 18th century gilt buttons to the Victorian mother-of-pearls, buttons remain as popular as ever and as fastenings and as decoration.

Christmas decs

Jewellery Christmas Decorations

All very interesting but the highlight was yet to come. A group of us assembled for the tour. I hadn’t studied the website or literature so was not aware quite what was to come! I’d expected examples of valuable jewels and other products of historical significance. But what we got was amazing :

When the proprietors of the Smith & Pepper jewellery manufacturing firm decided to retire in 1981 they ceased trading and locked the door, unaware they would be leaving a time capsule for future generations. Tools were left strewn on benches; grubby overalls were hung on the coat hooks; and dirty teacups were abandoned. Today the factory is a remarkable museum which tells the story of the Jewellery Quarter.” [Art Fund Guide]

Factory skylight

The factory skylight, white walls of the neighbouring building reflect the light and the whole squeezed into a rear yard

We saw the offices, the workshop and work benches, the kitchen shared with the potassium cyanide store (looks just like sugar!!). Every single fleck of gold dust was to be saved and reused – this was a Brylcreme-free zone and no turn-ups were allowed. All dust was saved and checked. Overalls and shoes had to be changed. And the noise must have been horrendous. We had each noise source demonstrated separately but what the combination was like is unimaginable. Dangerous and unguarded sharp and heavy tools were a threat to life and limb. The whole was a Health and Safety Officer’s nightmare. I heartily recommend a visit.

work area

The Factory

work bench

A Work Bench


Notice on the Office Door

Order book

Page from the Order Book

tea tray

Tea and Cyanide, anyone?

But the jewels and gems of Birmingham don’t stop in the Jewellery Quarter …

A Sanitised Back-To-Back Experience in Birmingham

Earlier this year I expressed a wish to one day visit the newly opened Library of Birmingham. My friend Ann immediately volunteered to accompany me and suggested that we book a few nights at one of the National Trust Back-to-Back houses. And so it was arranged back in March.

52 Inge St

Number 52 is the right of the entry

Located in the heart of the city centre, 52 Inge Street is one of eleven small houses that make up Birmingham’s last surviving courtyard of Back-to-Back houses. Inge Street is located next to the Birmingham Hippodrome. Stay here and become a part of urban history whilst accessing all the benefits that this vibrant cultural centre has to offer. The house has been styled in the Victorian period and is set over three floors. We read this and booked ourselves in for three nights from 22 November.

Street Plan

Plan showing Birmingham Back-to-Backs and Court 15

We couldn’t stay in a Back-to-Back without doing the public tour so we booked on the first tour on the Sunday morning. Before 9am we knew that preparations were being made for the visitor tours – we could smell the coal fires in the house that faced into the courtyard and backed onto ours.

B2B kitchen table

Our Back-to-Back kitchen table

capsule kitchen

And capsule kitchen

At 10 o’clock on the Sunday morning we popped out of our house and trotted round the corner to the National Trust shop and visitor centre where there is a small introductory exhibition. A few minutes later we all assembled outside the corner sweet shop for a most entertaining tour of four properties.

Corner shop

Buildings frozen in time
From the 1840s to the 1970s, see how people lived and worked in our courtyard. Come and see the bedroom come workshop of Mr Levi, see the meal time ready kitchen of Mrs Oldfield and take a peek at George Saunders’ tailor’s shop and see what he’s been making.” [NT website]

The interiors are furnished from the 1840s, 1870s, 1930s and 1970s. Read here about the background to the 1970s house which is still privately owned but under the care of the National Trust. One of the rooms is still decorated in the original of this Cath Kidston reproduction design.


Hurst St

The National Trust shop is on Hurst Street

Up and down creaking twisting staircases; minding our heads on low beams; being careful not to touch the lead painted attic but being allowed to touch just about everything else it was a marvel to behold tiny rooms with narrow beds which slept many children, the very few clothes and belongings of the inhabitants and the tools of the trades carried out in these homes. No photography was allowed inside the properties.


The Courtyard

Window view

Window View

We have a lot to be thankful for these days. But here in Leeds many people still live in the back-to-backs.


Our Victorian Bedroom

Loo 1

Luckily this was not our en-suite!

Loo 2

And nor was this!

Bournville and Cadburys – not just Chocolate!

On Friday I accompanied a friend on a trip down Memory Lane. We drove down to Birmingham to visit the Bournville area which surrounds the Cadbury’s chocolate factory and where the world famous Cadbury World Experience is located.

Selly Manor

Minworth Greaves

Our first port of call was Selly Manor and Minworth Greaves. These are two ancient buildings that were moved to their present site by George Cadbury in 1907 (SM) and Laurence Cadbury in 1932 (MG) and now operate as a museum and wedding/events venue. Selly Manor, the museum, appears to lay on lots of activities for children both during the school term and during the holidays. In the house there are many objects that may be touched.  Hands-on history lessons. I’m sure children had made these heavenly-smelling pomanders!

Sweet-smelling pomanders

Something for everyone!

Minworth Greaves, thought to be 750 years old, was saved from demolition in 1932 and transported from Sutton Coldfield to its present site by Laurence Cadbury. It serves as the visitor centre (tickets, shop) for the museum and may be hired as a super venue for weddings and suchlike ceremonies.

The two buildings are surrounded by well-tended gardens of herbs and flowers and box hedges and shrubs.

My friend lived and grew up in Bournville and after visiting the museum she took me took a walk around the planned suburb and we inspected a number of other landmarks in local area.

The Quakers Friends Meeting House

The Carillon (Bell Tower) and Primary School