The Youngest City

14th September 2018

With its modern and striking shopping centre, historic Jewellery Quarter and extensive network of canals lined with buzzing pubs and eateries, Birmingham is definitely worth a visit, reports Deborah Mulhearn…

My mum’s uncle Frank was a mysterious figure. Hardly mentioned in the family, he seems to have been a prodigal who ran away at 16 to join the army, lying about his age and stating his religion on his army records as Church of England instead of Roman Catholic. We weren’t sure why, but surmised it could have been to escape the fate of his two elder brothers, who were packed off to seminaries to train as Catholic priests.

Frank clearly felt no vocation at all, because he reappears after the Second World War, marrying in St Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham. His trail goes cold after that, so my sisters and I have decided on a day trip to Britain’s second largest city to see if we can conjure his rebel spirit. Frank’s parents – our great grandparents – also married at St Chad’s in 1894, so we have a double reason to go.

We head across the city centre from New Street Station, but we are four sisters in an unfamiliar city, all looking at maps on our respective phones, and despite or because of this we find ourselves repeatedly facing the wrong direction. It’s big and busy and it’s as if we’ve been sucked into a mini-Spaghetti Junction. St Chad’s is nowhere to be seen, even though we know it has twin spires that should be easy to spot.

In fact, the first cathedral we come across is St Philip’s, the city’s small but perfectly proportioned Anglican cathedral. A little bit of Italy transplanted into the heart of this most industrial of British cities, it was built between 1709 and 1715, and is a comparatively rare example of an English interpretation of an Italian Baroque church.

St Philip’s feels like the still centre and spiritual heart of the city, set as it is in its own grounds on a rise, loftily ignoring the commercial and retail life of Birmingham swirling around it. Later alterations and additions include beautiful stained glass windows by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones, who was born nearby and baptised in the church.

But we must search out our own religious heritage, and as the first post-Reformation Catholic Cathedral to be built in Britain, indeed the first cathedral of any denomination to be built since Wren’s St Paul’s, St Chad’s has a story all its own. It was designed by AWN Pugin, a prodigy and colourful character who died tragically early at 40 and is considered by many to be Britain’s finest Catholic architect.

By the time he got the commission to design St Chad’s, Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin had already worked for Sir Charles Barry at the Palace of Westminster, where he had a hand in everything from Gothic details on the façade to the interior decoration, right down to the inkstands and hatstands. Later he designed Big Ben in Gothic Revival style.

When we eventually find it, St Chad’s lacks the theatrical touches of Pugin’s London buildings, but it’s an important example of his architectural philosophy and religious beliefs, which overlapped with the early Arts & Crafts movement – anti-industrial and harking back to a simpler era. It contains medieval carvings and furnishings collected by Pugin himself.

It’s said that he took his influence from the medieval Lübeck Cathedral in Germany, but St Chad’s is now marooned on the far side of a sunken dual carriageway and busy intersection. Presumably it had a grander or at least greener setting when it was built, and our ancestors didn’t have to step out in their wedding attire onto a concrete bypass.

Once we’ve navigated the roaring traffic, its interior is calm and spiritual, with gilded pillars, pointed archways, statues and other accoutrements of the Catholic faith leading the eye and heart heavenwards.

From St Chad’s it’s another tussle with the dual carriageway to cross to the neighbouring Jewellery Quarter, the area of streets and squares where metalwork and jewellery workshops sprang up from the Industrial Revolution onwards and made Birmingham prosperous. By the mid-19th century, jewellery workers were some of the best-paid artisans in the city, and the area still thrives.

The Jewellery Quarter has a mix of building types, some functional, others highly decorative, where jewellery makers, silversmiths and metalware firms would have had living quarters above their workshops or alongside their factories. A former die-sinking works – where patterns for silverware were cut into solid blocks of steel – is an exuberant Spanish-style terracotta flatiron building, for example, and now houses a Syrian/Lebanese restaurant. A preserved workshop can be seen at the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, and the clock tower, the cast iron street furniture and jewellers’ nameplates, and the eclectic architectural styles of the buildings bring the history to life as we walk around.

The quarter built up around St Paul’s Square, the only Georgian square left in the city. Serene St Paul’s, the jewellers’ church at the top of Ludgate Street, is a classical Georgian building, with simple lines and curved rather than arched windows, plus its original box pews. Its spire is a 19th century addition, though, and one stained glass window is contemporary, depicting angels pouring molten metal from a crucible.

Birmingham is now considered Britain’s most multi-faith city, with three quarters of its 1.2 million population professing a faith. It’s also Britain’s youngest city, with 40% of the population under 25, and 30% under 20. By the time of the next census, it is predicted to be less than 50% white British.

This shift is recognised in a new faith gallery in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery in Chamberlain Square, where the objects of religious significance reflect the city’s diversity, and include an Ottoman Quibla indicator or compass that shows the correct direction to face for prayers, and the first British painting thought to show Islamic religious practice. Prayers in the Desert was painted by William James Müller in 1843 and shows a group of Muslim men kneeling and bowing for Salat, the ritual prayer.

Victorian civic galleries such as Birmingham’s were incredibly popular; this one attracted over a million visitors in 1888, two years after it opened. The art gallery is famous for having the most important collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the world. Exquisite Anglo-Saxon metalwork fragments from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered near Lichfield in 2009, are now also on display.

The Industrial Gallery, however, shows historic Birmingham at its best, with its wonderful wrought-iron decoration and chandelier-like gaslights, known as sunlight burners. The displays here include ceramics, jewellery and stained glass made in this most industrious of British cities.

By now we are footsore and famished, so head to busy Brindleyplace and the Gas Street Basin for lunch. Birmingham is known for having more miles of canal than Venice, and its city centre waterways are now full of leisure craft and canalboats. The canal system was built to transport the goods from the heavy manufactories and iron foundries, and down the steps at water level, the vestiges of this crucial industry can be seen.

After lunch we take a taxi out to Winterbourne House and Garden, a few miles into the suburbs. Now owned by the University of Birmingham, it was built for the Nettlefold family in Arts & Craft style in 1904. It’s a wonderfully informal house, with French windows and verandahs onto the beautiful gardens, and generous rooms off a long gallery that we feel sure doubled as play areas – despite its grandeur, it feels like a thoroughly lived-in home.

The Gertrude Jekyll-inspired gardens are a delight, with room-like areas of woodland, arbours and bowers, ponds and an unusual ‘nut walk’ created from entwined filbert, cobnut and hazlenut trees.

The Nettlefolds were part of an influential Birmingham network of interconnected families of strong Unitarian faith. Ironic, one of us notes, that while their house is designed around Arts & Crafts principles of simplicity and traditional craftsmanship, their wealth was built on the mass production of wood screws. The successful family firm eventually became Guest, Keen & Nettlefolds, more familiar as GKN, Britain’s third biggest engineering firm and recently in the news because of a hostile takeover bid.

Back in the centre, we look around the contemporary buildings that have made Birmingham one of Britain’s most exciting and unapologetically future-facing city centres. The Bullring, once a byword for 1960s Brutalist architecture, is now a sophisticated shopping centre. Selfridges, curvy and sensuous with its 15,000 shiny aluminium bubbles, bulges between the buildings and beckons us in.

Luckily, we have time before our train home to head for the Champagne Bar to imbibe some real bubbles. We toast Great Uncle Frank, who forged a life for himself on his own terms. While our sense of direction in twenty-first century Birmingham was woeful, Frank found his feet by getting purposely lost in the city he made his home.

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