A Letter to Elise

Posted on 28th September 2010

The Jewellery Quarter has always held a lot of history within its streets and buildings, but having worked around the area for a few years, I completely missed some of that history. Although I knew of Warstone Lane Cemetery, The Agent Centre, The Chamerlain Clock and of the older buildings, I'd never really looked up their history. Last week I discovered that Birmingham had catacombs, and they had been right under my nose in Warstone Cemetery all this time. As such, I thought it might be interesting to take some time to look up some more history of the area.

After only a few minutes, I decided that Dan and I should take a photo tour of The Jewellery Quarter, and pick out some highlights. Our first stop was at Northwood Street, which was once home to tw2, the web design company I started working at in 1999. We then went around the corner into Regent Place, along to the building now occupied by D&F. From 1777-1790 there stood a large house where James Watt once lived. Not only did he live here, but in partnership with Matthew Boulton, he also worked here too, and produce many of his most famous inventions here. Around the corner is the school that is now part of Birmingham University, but still today concentrates on teaching pupils the art of sliversmith and jewellery making.

Although many of the factories have been replaced over the years, many still hold the history of the trades of a bygone era. One such trade was the making of pen nibs for fountain pens. Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter was once the highest producer of pen nibs in the world, and its decline only came more recently, due to the mass production of László Bíró's invention by Bic. However, The Pen Room in the Argent Centre still exists to preserve the history. As you enter, you walk into a room instantly full of history. Around the walls on the left are various packages and pens, with the centre given way to cases of exhibits. On the right are some of the old machines used to make the pen nibs. On a quiet day the staff are more than happy to give you a demostration, although they can only perform 5 steps of the process, as the other 12 require machines too large to fit in the room, as well as time to perform them. Dan got to punch out the metal and stamp it to begin the process, and got to keep the results. He was quite impressed to realise that all those years ago, children the same age as himself were producing all these nibs. Of the stamping process 28,000 per worker were cut from the sheet metal.

Next we were shown some of the braille machines that were also produced in Birmingham, with Dan getting to spell his name in braille on the ticker type machines. After the demonstrations, we were lead into the second room, full of typewriters, pen nibs and other exhibits, with the opportunity to try some of the typewriters, as well as try writing with some of the pens. A member of staff took out an old German typewriter that was very unique as the characters were all on a single barrel, and the letters chosen via a metal pointer attached to the barrel, and pointing at the letters on a curved pad. A very unusual typewriter, and I should have taken a photo, as I can't find anything like it online. Looking at some of the other exhibits, it is surprising to discover just how much an impact the pen industry had on Birmingham (as well as the world), with many pioneers having been since commorated with street names, mounments and buildings. Josiah Mason, John Baskerville and Joseph Gillott to name a few.

Across from The Pen Room was Joseph Gillott's Victoria Works, and is one of a few factories that can still be seen, the Argent Centre itself (previously the Albert Works) being one too. Incidentally the Argent Centre at one point was also a Turkish Baths. Another bit of history I discovered, is that the stories of 'Rip Van Winkle' and 'The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow' were actually written in a house, whose grounds covered the corner of Legge Lane and Frederick Street. The house survived even after the Argent Centre was built in front of it, to occupy the corner itself. Further up Frederick Street is the factory of Thomas Fattorini Ltd, who moved to Birmingham from Italy, via Skipton, and was renowned for making medals and badges. I used to walk past these buildings every day when I worked at The Big Peg, and although I often took the time to take in the grand designs of the buildings, I really wished I'd taken more interest at the time. I'd have probably spent most lunchtimes walking around with a camera :)

We then entered the central part of the Jewellery Quarter, by the Chamberlain Clock and Aquinas House. From here we walked across the road to the Warstone Lane Cemetery Lodge, and to The War Stone. The former is not something I'd really paid attention to before, and the latter I never knew was there. From here we walked into the cemetery. In the central part of the cemetery are the catacombs. Above them originally stood St Michael's Church, which has long since gone. From images and drawings the cemetery was meant to be viewed from the Icknield Street entrance, with the catacombs appearing to be leading into the church. However, the abundance of trees these days hides a large part of this viw now. The catacombs were once used from protection in WWII, but have now all been boarded up, although some had already been closed with upright headstones. A link to our visit to The Pen Room is John Baskerville who is buried here. Although I didn't find his gravestone, there is a sort of memorial to him.

As we were planning to spend all day wandering around, we walked back and drove around some of the other places, such as Icknield Street School. Next time we'll take some time to visit the Key Hill Cemetery, which is just the otherside of the train station, and holds many famous Birmingham history makers, including Alfred Bird the inventory of egg-free custard, of which the Custard Factory is named (and perhaps another tour some day). Another place we'll visit is the Jewellery Museum at the top end of Vyse Street, as well as taking in more of the buildings in and around St Paul's Square, including The Assay Office, the biggest in the world.

One of Dan's fascinations of the day was the BT Tower. So as we headed back home, I stopped at the base so he could take a picture. Opposite we discovered the building that is St John's Ambulance Headquarters, which I've probably walked past several hundred times and never really noticed. Just goes to show what you can be missing when just walking through the streets of the town where you live.

It was a great dayout, and a good reminder that discovering history is only a short step away from your own doorstep. And it doesn't need to cost a fortune either.

If you're interested in the area, and perhaps doing a similar walking tour, I thoroughly recommend reading The Walk by Bob Miles, as well as the additional material Bob has assembled over the years. I wished I'd read more of it before setting out on our trip, and I'll definitely be using it for the bits we missed when we visit the area next time.

File Under: birmingham / museum / photography / sightseeing / structures / walks
1 COMMENT


Shadowplay

Posted on 30th August 2010

At the end of July, Dan and I went up to Macclesfield in Cheshire to see the Unknown Pleasures exhibition. Although the exhibition was billed as the life/work of Ian Curtis and Joy Division, it mostly centres on exhibits that focus on Joy Division. The exhibition itself was in two parts, firstly archive material surrounding Joy Division, then across the hallway, a collection of artwork inspired by Ian Curtis and Joy Division. The archives are fantastic, and include many items fans would have loved to have sat and read through for hours. The one aspect that was a little disappointing was the lack of photographs, particularly gig photos. The ones on show mostly focused on the two gigs. While they were great to see, it would have been wonderful to have had more on display. Though it did make me wonder whether there were any other photographs. In all the years since, I haven't seen that many more.

Ian died on 18th May 1980, and this exhibition, together with the other events that have taken place, such as the workshops, are all to commemorate 30 years since his death. It seems staggering to think it was 30 years ago, and to realise how much it affected me at the age of 14. Joy Division were always local heroes for me, as I was born 8 miles away from Macclesfield in Congleton, and later moved to nearby Holmes Chapel. Growing up in the aftermath of Punk, the new wave sounds that were centred around Manchester was a source of great inspiration for young teenagers. The fact that Joy Division (or at least 2 of them) were local, only added to their appeal.

As I was with Dan, I couldn't attend the Film Festival that was planned in the afternoon & evening, but it would have been interesting to hear from some of the people behind the band, including Stephen Morris. It's one thing to see the films and get a feeling of the events, but hearing the real experiences of the people involved is quite another. Sadly two additional people who helped to carve the history of the band, Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson, are also no longer with us. I've met both, as well the members of New Order, over the years, and was glad that I was old enough to appreciate those times in the late 70s/early 80s.

After the exhibition Dan & I took in some of the sights of Macclesfield, particularly those relating to Ian and Joy Division. The Exhibition was selling a special map to help guide people to some of the landmarks, which helped to provide a bit more background information, particularly for the rehearsal rooms and gigs they hung out at. The Heritage Centre, also known part of the Silk Museum, is primarily a centre for the town to reflect on it's history of being part of the Silk industry. The Heritage Centre itself used to be an old mill. You can still see evidence of this around the town, and one of the days I may get back again, and photograph some of those sights. However, for this trip we used the map to pinpoint the musical history.

Our first stop was along from The Heritage Centre, towards the town centre, to Duke Street. Krumbles Night Club was the venue of the first Joy Division gig. It has since changed hands several times, and changed names, and I did wonder whether anyone these days still puts on gigs there, as from the outside it just looks like a regular disco. We walked through the arcade of Dukes Court onto the main street. Although there are other haunts the band once took in nearby, we choose to head off to our next destination.

Next we headed to 77 Barton Street. If you've seen the film Control, the exterior shots of the house, are the actual house, as is the Labor Exchange where Ian used to work. It wasn't until I watched Control again recently, that I noticed that they had tried to convey just how close his house was to where he worked. Barely a few minutes door to door walking. That's one of the nice things about being able to come here and see for yourself, you get to see the reality of it, the history of the town. You also get to see the views of The Pennines to the east and north.

I met a guy who had brought his daughter along, as I had done with Dan. It turned out like me he hadn't got to see the band live, though he was 18 when Ian died, I was just 14. We both commented that being 30 years ago, why there wasn't a plaque or something, but I suspect the current owners would rather not have one. I guess they can tolerate fans taking pictures every once in a while, but didn't want to draw too much attention to the house.

We then headed around the corner to the Labour Exhange. Although the building looks to be unchanged, it's no longer a Labour Exchange, and now appears to be a centre to help local businesses. Again if you've seen the film Control, the exterior of the building is used, with the more modern signs replaced with old ones.

Our next location was intended to be the rehearsal rooms the band once used. Unfortunately the location provided on the map is a bit confusing. As such, I think the new school buildings we found next to The Weston pub are more likely to have been the site of the Hall, replacing it in more recent years. We then went to look for the next rehearsal rooms on the map, The Talbot pub. Initially I was looking for a pub, and although we found a couple, they didn't quite fit the location marked in the guide. Pulling over, I read a little more closely and discovered the roundabout we'd kept passing was the original site of the pub. It had been knocked down to make way for one the new roads around the town.

Eventually we headed for the Macclesfield Crematorium. The crematorium itself also has very personal memories for me, as well as being the place where Ian was cremated. My sister Jacqui, as well as Floss, who would have been my Great Aunt had my Nan's brother not died in the war, were both cremated here too. The cemetary and the Garden of Rememberance are both very peaceful places, and even though we saw several fans coming to visit the curbstone, it always felt respectful. It didn't feel sombre either. Those I spoke to had more to say about Ian's life than his death, which is how it should be. I was quite surprised to see most of the fans were actually quite young, most being in their 20s, and two needed their mum and dad to drop them off. It does seem that Joy Division have indeed reached a new audience, one that wasn't even born when Ian died.

On our final journey round the town we took in King's School, where both Ian and Stephen attended, together with The Travellers Rest. The Travellers Rest was another pub that was frequented by music fans and featured gigs. Warsaw asked if they could play here once, but were told they should get a record deal first.

It was a good day out, and nice opportunity to celebrate a life that has touched so many people. Joy Division are one of my most listened to bands over the years, and despite such a small catalogue compared to others, they managed to produce a wealth of great songs. For Ian, Closer was a disaster, and from experience I've seen other bands feel extremely disappointed with the results of a recording immediately after the sessions have finished. However, it's only later that the realisation that you've produced something special becomes apparent.

I've been back to Cheshire regularly since I left, but don't often make it as far as Macclesfield. I'm glad I took Dan with me this time, as aside from giving him a sense of my history, he hopefully has some memories that will bring Joy Division to an even younger audience.

"To the centre of the city where all roads meet, waiting for you"

File Under: art / museum / music / sightseeing
NO COMMENTS


Castles and Dreams

Posted on 29th September 2008

Discovering local history can be quite fun at times. I've lived in and around Birmingham for the past 12 years, and there is certainly a lot history I've discovered already. However, there has been one part I never knew existed until recently. While planning the trip to Ludlow Castle and Richards Castle last weekend with DanDan, I came across a page listing Weoley Castle. Now Weoley Castle is an area of South Birmingham, that is slightly North of where I live now, and slightly south of where I used to live when I first moved to Birmingham. I've driven through the area many times between Northfield and Harborne, but never knew that the remains of the castle ruins still existed. Although to be fair it isn't a castle in the grand sense, but a fortified manor house. Not that that should deter you from visiting it.

So on Saturday, DanDan and I took a drive over to the Weoley Castle Ruins. Having read the web page, we were prepared to only see the ruins from the viewing area. But seeing as it's a bit of local history I wasn't too bothered about that. As it turned out, our arrival at the site couldn't have been better timed. We'd just started taking pictures, when a woman walked passed the other side of fence, in medieval attire befitting of the lady of the house. She and the guy walking with her, walked up on to the ruins, where she posed for a photo. As they walked back, the woman paused and told us that if we wanted to come back later at either 2pm or 3pm, there would be a storytelling and we would be allowed into the ruins to have a look round. Not wanting to miss a golden opportunity, DanDan and I headed home for lunch and picked up Nicole and Ethne.

We arrived in time for the 3pm event, and walked with about 40 others up into the ruins by the last surviving apple tree, of those that had originally stood there. Then the show began. The woman we had seen earlier announced herself as Joan de Botetourt, lady of the castle. Over the course of about half an hour or more, she took us around the rooms of the castle, telling us about each room, the history of the castle and the de Botetourt family history. All completely in character. The show and storytelling were fantastic and I was so glad we had happened to come and visit the ruins in the morning. The storyteller turned out to be Anna O'Brien of Annamation, one of a troupe who frequently do this kind of storytelling, particularly at the Barber Institute by Birmingham University, where they re-enact paintings.

I took the opportunity to take LOTS of photos, and it was a wonderful day to take them too. I spoke with one of the organisers, who had come over to ask if I was a professional photographer or did it as a hobby. Reassuring her I was most definbitely an amateur, she told me about their plans for the site. Unfortunately they had been turned down to open a visitors centre, but they now have plans to open a school room. Although some local schools do take advantage of the opportunities to have the children taken around the ruins, not too many do, and occasionally rain means tours get cancelled. A dedicated school room means more schools can plan visits regardless of the weather, and much more planned activities.

It was a brilliant afternoon, and I'm so glad that Birmingham Museums And Galleries put on these sorts of events every so often. If you ever spot the chance to go and tour the ruins, especially if Annamation are doing the storytelling, then go. You will be thoroughly entertained.

File Under: birmingham / castles / museum / photography / sightseeing
NO COMMENTS


Caught Somewhere In Time

Posted on 26th August 2007

Day Five: The holiday was coming to an end, but there was still far too much to see. We opted for Kents Caverns and Bygones Victorian Museum.

Kents Caverns was actually Nicole's favourite sight of the whole holiday. There is so much history there it really is quite staggering. Dave, our guide, was brilliant. A great sense of humour and a good rapport with his audience made for an excellent tour. At the end of the tour I asked him if he was studying archeology, but it seems not, he's a Sociology student :) The Caverns themselves are huge and very impressive. It was a shame that my camera work wasn't up to much as there were points when I failed to capture some of the awesomeness of the rock formations and patterns. The light in the caverns is all artificial, and at one point in the tour, the lights are switched off to show how dark it really is. It's probably the first time I've ever been in complete pitch darkness and you really can't see anything in front of your face, even a few millimetres away.

After coming out we discovered that due to the weather, the Caverns had become quite popular today. It seems we had arrived at just about the right time. They also have a kids discovery area, which both DanDan and Ethne enjoy being archelogists and uncovering fossils. They they got to draw on the chalk boards.

After lunch we headed back to Babbacombe and to the Bygones Victorian Museum. We had passed the museum earlier in the week and it looked like it was worth a visit. It's quite amazing just how much they have crammed into the building. They even have a small full size engine, which you get to walk onto the footplate. Although it is very much centred on the Victorian era, it does also feature a small section on the World War I. DanDan was a bit too unnerved by it, but Ethne didn't bat an eyelid. It is probably the only part of the museum that is potentially frightening for kids, as it is quite dark. It's quite amazing just how much memorabillia they have managed to accummulate or recreate about the era. However, I think DanDan and I would have to agree the traditional cream soda was the defining moment of the visit :)

File Under: caverns / devon / family / holiday / museum / photography / torquay
NO COMMENTS


Some Rights Reserved Unless otherwise expressly stated, all original material of whatever nature created by Barbie and included in the Memories Of A Roadie website and any related pages, including the website's archives, is licensed under a Creative Commons by Attribution Non-Commercial License. If you wish to use material for commercial puposes, please contact me for further assistance regarding commercial licensing.