Saturday, March 19th 2016
We haven’t been on out-of-town trips lately because it has hardly seemed worth it in the cold weather we have been having. So today we decided to make a break for it and go to Birmingham. In the end, the trip turned out to be a damp squib or, rather, a cold squib. The low temperature, combined with a treacherous wind, made walking the streets uncomfortable, to say the least. We made a brave attempt, though, and took a few photos, then, a little sadly perhaps, turned back towards the station.
There are several possible ways to go to Birmingham but our preferred way is to catch a train from London Marylebone Station and disembark either at the terminus in Snow Hill or the stop before that, Moor Street, a pretty station still much as it was when it opened in 1914. We had not eaten before travelling, so, on arrival, we breakfasted in the small Centenary Lounge cafe on Moor Street Station.
Tempting as it was to remain in the warm, drinking tea, until we felt justified in taking the train back to London, we bravely set out along Moor Street to begin our ramble. There we saw the Catholic Church of St Michael. As churches go in general, and Catholic churches in particular, this one seems curiously understated. It is a relatively plain building without a spire or even a bell tower. The reason for this lies in its history. Built around 1800, it was then a Non-Conformist church, replacing an earlier meeting house of 1726. Non-Conformists had suffered several periods of persecution, including the burning of their churches, so tended to avoid showy designs for their buildings. The 19th century saw rapid increases in the population of Birmingham, particularly in the poorer neighbourhoods such as Digbeth, fuelled largely by immigration from Europe. Many of the immigrants were Catholic and in response to a perceived need, St Michael’s was reconsecrated as a Catholic Church in 1862. It is now a Grade II listed building.
Sometimes we go straight to the centre of things in Birmingham’s Bull Ring and start our tour from there but today we were going to explore Digbeth and the above view is the closest we were to come to the Bull Ring. The main buildings you can see are, firstly, the Rotunda (you can guess which one that is!) and, secondly, the unconventionally shaped Selfridges Building with its lizard-skin exterior.
We turned off the main road and on the corner of Park Street and Bordesley Street, found our first artwork of the trip. This area has a large Polish community and on the corner site stands the Polish Millennium House, a centre for that community. On the façade is a sculpture of Madonna and Child by Tadeusz Zieliński (1907-1993).
The area where we were rambling is now the heart of Birmingham’s Creative Quarter. It is situated in the district called Digbeth, a rather pleasant name but of uncertain origins. There were once watermills here and watercourses were made made to take water to the mills. The first part of the name seems certain to derive from Anglo-Saxon dic, meaning a dyke. For the ancestor of the second syllable there are two candidates cited, the Anglo-Saxon words, bæþ (‘bath’) and pæþ (‘path’), respectively. Some see the name as meaning ‘dyke path’ and others as meaning ‘dyke bath’ or ‘dyke pool’. We shall probably never know for sure which – if either – is the true derivation. Some prefer the local nickname, ‘Duck’s Bath’.
The building shown in the photo above was once a pub, I believe, though I have no idea what it was called. Today it is a club or music venue with the name SUKI 10C. I am told that the phonetic resemblance of the name with the phrase ‘Suck it and See’ is not a coincidence. The walls are decorated with the work of several street artists.
This rather mechanical or robotic spider (I think it’s a spider) was found on a wall and has been signed by Annatomix.
Snow Hill Station opened in 1852 and the railway line to it crosses through Digbeth upon a viaduct that is still one of the area’s dominant structures. Digbeth became the city’s industrial quarter and though industry has largely departed the area, its landscape still reflects this character.
Slightly obscured by a parked car, we found a painting by Hoakser.
Boardered by Milk Street, Moore’s Row and Floodgate Street is this remarkable building, so remarkable as to score a Grade II* listing. It was built in 1891 by the relatively short-lived Birmingham School Board. It is obviously a school, one designed to teach 1,115 children at a time. It also expresses confidence and civic pride in its bold lines. It was designed by J.H. Chamberlain and F. Martin and is cleverly planned to fit onto, and make the most of, a relatively small site. Its qualities drive the English Heritage inspectors into virtual raptures, as you can see from their history and description of it. Taken over by St Michael’s Roman Catholic School in 1940, it is today an annexe of South and City College Birmingham, thus still providing education, if of a slightly different nature from the days when it first opened.
This large artwork is in Floodgate Street and, I think, is a collaborative effort. I could see no signatures. Behind it, running below street level, is the River Rea.
We arrived at Gibb Street where, on the side of a previously plain building we now saw a missive mural, entitled High-Rise, by Jim Vision. It obviously refers to, or even advertises, Ben Wheatley’s film based on J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel of the same name.
Nearby was this smaller piece (not sure I know what it represents) signed by Hull Graffiti, also with the initials ‘TTK’, which I assume to be those of the Third Team Kings of Newcastle with which this artist allies himself.
In the 1830s or 1840s, Alfred Bird invented his famous custard, motivated to find a recipe that did not require eggs which his wife had difficulty in digesting. Bird’s custard powder and other food products were successful and began to be produced on an industrial scale throughout the rest of the century. In 1902, Alfred Bird, son of the founder, set up a custard factory in the heart of Digbeth. The company moved to Banbury in 1964 but the name ‘Custard Factory’ is now applied to the area that is being developed as the Creative Quarter.
The Custard Factory, as an area, is also promoted as a ‘shopping destination’ though I do not think it has quite managed to justify that label yet. There may be a few specialized shops but I think it needs more facilities if it is to attract people in large numbers, other than curious people like ourselves more interested in historical traces and street art than in retail therapy.
In what is now a car park, stands what is variously called the Custard Factory Chimney or the Custard Factory Tower. It no longer performs whatever function it was originally created for but has attracted the attentions of street artists. It was cleverly painted to resemble a standing man but the paint has now faded and it is hard to make out the design. It will no doubt form the basis of future art projects which we await with interest.
Despite a cup of hot tea and a rest to warm ourselves up, the cold had begun to take its toll and we decided to make our way back to Moor Street Station and catch a train home. We shall no doubt return in more propitious circumstances to see what new developments await our curious gaze.