Today saw the first meeting of our new Steering Group, who will give us guidance and support as we develop the four new trails from the existing Legacy Heritage Trail, which was originally launched in 2013. Although the weather looked menacing when we woke up, as the morning progressed, the sun shone and cleared away the worst of the snow. Thanks to those who braved the remaining snow and made their way to Soho to discuss the project.
I hope I speak for everyone when I say that the meeting was very positive. We had a great range of talent represented, and all those who came were very supportive of our ideas, and also gave some thoughts and perspectives that we hadn't considered, all of which were extremely useful. We hope to produce trails which not only raise awareness about the wonders within Handsworth for local residents, but also challenge preconceptions people from outside the area may have about Handsworth. We really believe that there is something in Handsworth for everyone!
The trails will be: 'Soho', 'Pugin', 'Secret Gardens' and 'Rights and Resistance' ... Or 'Rights and Resilience' was proposed as an alternative title for this last tour ... Handsworth certainly has demonstrated its resilience over the years! We had a very interesting presentation as part of our meeting by Adam, who showed some of his age mapping work in the area, and this really brought home to the group just how much the area has changed within a relatively short amount of time. We are very excited to have had such a positive first meeting, and if you are interested in being involved with the group, please do get in touch.
Although we didn't see the amount of snow that the weather forecasters had promised us, this is probably just as well in terms of the practicalities of attendance at Steering Group meetings! However, I couldn't resist an old photo of Soho Road in the snow to illustrate our latest blog ... Snow might make getting around Handsworth more difficult, but you can't deny that it makes the area even more picturesque!
Continuing to explore hidden Handsworth gems, I have been to visit an extraordinary survivor from the medieval period; Handsworth Old Town Hall. Built circa. 1460, when it would have been one of the few buildings within a picturesque Handsworth rural landscape, it is now encroached upon by buildings on all sides, and sits on the corner of Slack Lane and Oxhill Road. I visited this beautiful cruck-framed building over the weekend as it is the home of the Handsworth Historical Society, and wish I had taken the time to visit before! The impressive timber frame is now filled with brickwork, but the materials would originally have been wattle and daub between the timber frame.
Handsworth Historical Society have a varied programme of talks and events throughout the year, and their archives and displays offer a wealth of information for those hungry for knowledge about the area. Every month there is a coffee morning where non-members are welcome, and the building is regularly open at other times for visitors to view the collections. I spent time looking at old maps of the Handsworth area, and talking to Paulette, Bob and Pat about the building, and more generally about changes to the Handsworth area. For more information about the activities of the society, check out their website: https://handsworth-historical-society.co.uk/
For the purpose of the walking tours that Legacy will be developing, the distance between Soho House (where our walks begin), and Handsworth Old Town Hall, is a bit far ... even for the very athletic and energetic! However, we are looking forward to working closely with Handsworth Historical Society, who have got a deep well of expertise within their membership, and hope that their knowledge can help us as we develop our heritage trails, so that we can make our trails even more engaging and entertaining!
Leaving Soho House's lovely autumnal garden and setting off down the Soho Road, it's easy to see why Legacy WM have decided to develop their existing Heritage Trail. The area has a wealth of fascinating architectural gems and stories just waiting to be told. Just a couple of minutes walk away from Soho House is the Supreme Works, which opened for business in 1922. This beautiful building was created by the architects Holland Hobbiss, and housed gold and silversmiths who worked on a range of jewellery making less than a mile away from the Jewellery Quarter, the main area for jewellery making in Birmingham.
At its height, at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was claimed that over 70,000 people were employed in the Jewellery Quarter in jewellery making or associated trades. As one of the new Legacy WM trails will focus on Matthew Boulton, Soho and the Lunar Society, it is worth mentioning the influence that Boulton had on the development of the Jewellery Quarter. After he successfully campaigned for a Birmingham Assay Office towards the end of the eighteenth century, it was natural that more and more of the metal-working skill set that existed within Birmingham should migrate closer to where the Assay Office was in order to easily get their pieces hallmarked. Boulton's push for Birmingham to have its own Assay Office had a massive influence on the expansion of the jewellery trade within this small area of Birmingham.
The Supreme Works building may now look slightly less grand than it did in its hey-day, but it is still a splendid building. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature are the bas relief sculptures which adorn the frontage, which are all by the sculptor William Bloye. This highly skilled and prolific artist worked on a wide range of Birmingham sculptures until his retirement in 1956, and the sculptures on the front of the Supreme Works are typical of many others he produced in the art deco style. Others include the running stag at the Perry Barr Stadium and the bear and staff on the frontage of the Bear Inn in Sparkhill.
As everything (for me) comes back to Boulton, I have to tell you that William Bloye's most famous sculpture is of Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch. This iconic piece, known as The Golden Boys for obvious reasons, is currently in storage, as extension work on Birmingham's Metro continues. It is anticipated that the Golden Boys' will be back in place at the edge of Centenary Square some time in 2018, but in the mean time you can still marvel at Bloye's wonderful work by coming along to Soho Road and checking out the beautiful lions on the front of the Supreme Works!
On a fresh and bright autumn day, is there a better way to spend the morning than to begin to explore the hidden gems around Handsworth? Legacy WM is just beginning a new and exciting phase of the Heritage Trail project with help from Historic England and Heritage Lottery Fund. This will involve engaging and training new volunteers, gaining new insights and hearing new stories as we extend our knowledge of the area with 'Enriching the List' events, making Handsworth rich history available to more people through age mapping, and last but not least, developing the outstanding Heritage Trail which celebrates the incredible Handsworth area.
Part of the project is building on our own knowledge of the area, and that's all the excuse that was needed to do a bit of exploring. Stepping out into the wonderful garden at Soho House on a crisp October morning is a reminder of how great it is to be based here in such lovely surroundings. One of the extended new Heritage Tours will focus on Soho, Matthew Boulton and the Lunar Society, and all the tours for the Heritage Trail start from here.
Although very little remains of the extensive Soho Estate that used to surround Matthew Boulton's home, what does remain was carefully planned and planted by Phillada Ballard in the 1990s. The garden is a fabulous and unexpected little oasis just off the busy Soho Road. As well as some wonderful and unexpected planting which produce colour throughout the year, there is also the quirky recreation of Matthew Boulton's Hermitage. This small, circular building was originally built further away from the main house, and it was where Boulton would go to spend some time alone, away from the hustle and bustle of Soho House and Soho Manufactory; an 18th century version of a man cave perhaps? When the Hermitage was recreated in the 1990s, the reduced garden area means that the new version sat much closer to the house than the original, but it is believed to be the only thatched building in Birmingham - unless you know differently?
More recent projects have seen Legacy WM work with a community group to develop an under used space at the rear of the house to develop a Peace Garden, and this area now greets visitors as they enter the gates at Soho.
There are many more hidden gems to explore and research around the area as we begin the project. Let us know your favourite part of Handsworth; why is it special to you, and what stories are connected with it? The new trails will be exploring the more recent heritage of Handsworth, and your voice counts!