The past month or so seems to have flashed past and I have been to several different places. My mind doesn’t seem to have quite kept up with my body, and may still be behind me in London, Oxford, Northampton, Birmingham, Wellingborough, Paris, Bristol, London, or anywhere in between. Or maybe just here in Bath waiting for me to return.
There are lots of blog posts in my head, just waiting to get onto the page, and they’ll all make it – eventually. Here’s the first.
What a weekend! Last weekend I went away with one of my oldest friends (in the sense that we have known each other for a very long time). We went to Birmingham, the first time either of us has done more than pass through or go there just for work. How did we manage to not know what a fascinating and warm and welcoming and interesting place it is?
The weekend was one of those pauses in ordinary life that seem to re-set something, and reawaken everything.
We stayed at a Quaker study centre where she’s been before (she is a Quaker herself). I loved it from the start – the warmth of our welcome there, the ease with which we relaxed and were looked after, the lovely garden, the quiet and peace (leaving aside the noise from the nearby busy road), the comfortable shared spaces and refreshments and help-yourself-fruit, and the (optional but for me positive) opportunities to join the short evening ‘Epilogue’ meetings.
It was the perfect place to base ourselves as we explored the centre of Birmingham, about 5 miles away. Knowing nothing about Birmingham beforehand, we made a short-list of the places we thought we’d like to see.
We began by visiting the City Museum and Art Gallery, housed in an impressive Victorian building. We concentrated on the collection of stained glass, and on the Pre-Raphaelite paintings, before discovering the astonishing Staffordshire Hoard including exquisite gold, silver and garnet artefacts created by the Anglo-Saxons – no pictures of these, but go and see for yourself if you get the chance, it’s very beautiful, interestingly displayed, and will challenge everything you thought you knew about ‘the dark age‘.
(My photography skills aren’t up to dealing with lighting and reflection problems so forgive me, but I hope it’s enough to give you an idea).
Oh, and of course we made a visit (ok, several visits) to the museum’s elegant Edwardian Tea Rooms.
Then the next day we walked into Birmingham along the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, which took us right into the city centre. A green route in every sense, well used by runners, walkers and cyclists.
Our first stop that morning was Birmingham Library, a striking building that unashamedly declares the city’s determination to improve life for its citizens. We enjoyed the outside very much, and the inside just as much, and the high-level gardens even more – the first terrace was a lovely herb garden (yes! I believe that that every community should have communal herb gardens); the second terrace was a peaceful sitting space with even more stunning views, including the view of the carpet of pavement tiles at ground level below.
Sadly we didn’t have time to go to the top level (next time!), but surely the views from there must be even more far-reaching.
Then on to the cathedral, which I imagine must be the only Georgian cathedral in the country? – and probably the smallest cathedral? We had hoped to see the windows by Burne-Jones, but unfortunately internal renovation work meant that they were mostly hidden from view. A glimpse of one (behind the altar) gave a tantalising sense of the rich and vibrant colours – something else to come back for in due course.
Outside the cathedral, as part of their 300th anniversary celebration, there was a multi-media presentation that was happening three times each day this weekend. What we most enjoyed was a machine/robot(?) – called Skryf – designed to beautifully ‘print’ out words in white sand along the paths. A quick chat with the designer (Dutch artist Gijs van Bon) suggested a man with a fun, playful and intelligent approach – combined with an ability to make the improbable happen.
Then on to our booked tour of the National Trust Back to Backs museum – a fascinating insight into the harsh and difficult lives lived by ordinary working people through the industrial revolution until the mid 20 century – cramped and insanitary conditions which however much we might want to romanticise these homes and lives, for so many meant hard work, overcrowded conditions, and early death from diseases such as cholera, typhus, diphtheria, scarlet fever, and tuberculosis.
So hurrah for Bournville Village, a model of what housing could (and should) be like for working people, opened in 1901 and funded and founded by George Cadbury, the (Quaker) wealthy owner of the Cadbury chocolate business. Which we explored the next morning. What a complete contrast with the then still-prevalent living conditions in the many, many back to back houses in the city centre. It’s hard to imagine how anyone moving from one to the other would have felt – as though they had landed in some kind of paradise?
It’s a sobering thought then to realise that we have already returned to the point where homes like those in Bournville are once again beyond the means and dreams of ordinary young families – a situation getting worse and worse.
All that was interspersed with regular retreats to the City Museum and Art Gallery for refreshment of body and mind – sitting in the Edwardian Tea Rooms was a complete delight, and I can imagine getting used to it if I lived there. And indeed I may well be tempted back on my regular rail journeys through Birmingham for work.
I can’t leave Birmingham without remarking on the people. The lovely, warm, friendly, helpful people we met everywhere as we asked for directions (or sometimes didn’t ask, but were offered them anyway). (Though sometimes it seemed that the enthusiasm to help outweighed the actual knowledge of where things where….). It seemed to us a city full of young, diverse, warm and confident people. Some of the buildings may not be beautiful, or may not be to your (our) taste; we may not share the joy of shopping in busy indoor and outdoor malls, but my goodness, it would be hard not to be infected with the sheer exuberance of the people and the place.
I for one can’t wait to go back. There’s so much more to explore and experience.