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

Church Of Noise

Posted on 15th September 2010

So the Pope is coming to Birmingham this Sunday, much to the annoyance and irritation of many local residents as well many nationally. He'll be giving a mass in Cofton Park, which is a short walk from where I live. Being so close, the local council has classed us in a restricted area. As a consequence this weekend we'll be prisoners in our own home unless we can prove where we live. We are not allowed visitors, unless we visit them first and give them proof that they are coming to see us.

The restricted area covers quite a large area of Rubery, Rednal, Cofton and Longbridge, and many local businesses are going to suffer. The 2 big pubs, The Old Hare And Hounds and The Oak, the Lai Ling Thai restaurant and the Old Rose And Crown hotel will all being affected, as people travel from outside the area to frequent them on a weekend. I suspect they will either be closed all weekend, or they'll be defiant and local residents will all go out to make a point.

From 6pm on Saturday until 8pm on Sunday we have been told expect severe disruption as roads are closed around the park and restricted access is put in place. Coaches carrying 70,000 people will then descend on Cofton Park from early Sunday morning at around 3am until the mass at 10am. Where these several thousand coaches are going to park is anyone's guess. The mass itself will be heard around the local area thanks to a very large PA system that is being erected. I wonder how many lawsuits local residents will be filing against the Catholic Church if even a whisper is heard through it before 8am on Sunday morning. Technically the pope could even be served with an ASBO.

Cofton Park itself was closed off for public use from last weekend, and won't opened again until a week after the visit. It's supposed to be a public park, and it's being closed for 3 weeks. So much for William Walter Hinde's will bequeathing the park "to be kept for ever as an open space for the benefit of the people of Birmingham."

As we're living in a restricted area, if we leave it, even just to go to the high street shops in Rubery or across the Bristol Road to Great Park for an evening out, unless we carry proof of address, we will not be allowed back in. Even if we're on foot! Apparently the area will be (excessively) policed to ensure no one is there that shouldn't be, so I'm assuming that stop and search will be in full effect, with civil liberties through out the window.

On top of all this we have to pay for it. The church are allegedly covering £9m-£10m for the cost of the visit to the UK, while the tax payer is expected to pay over £12m. A large portion of the population are not catholic, and have no interest in his visit, but local residents are told to pay for the privilege. As you might guess many local residents are not impressed. To make matters worse he's a pope that has a huge dark cloud looming over him because of various child abuse scandals he has been involved in covering up. I'm told he's probably the most unliked pope there has ever been.

So why do the non-catholics have to pay anything? As far as I'm concerned, if he wants to come here, the Catholic Church should foot the complete bill. And in addition should pay compensation to the local councils, which should be put towards community projects, that will benefit everyone in the area, not just a select few.

Several months ago a local councillor or MP, appeared on local news saying something along the lines that the visit would benefit local people with jobs and the like. Others make even bolder statements. Not sure how this can benefit local people, as all the ground crew, police and other support staff are being drafted in, and local businesses are going to severely disrupted. Even the trinket and tshirt sellers aren't from the local area.

And speaking of trinket sellers, how is it that the Catholic Church can rake in profits from sales of their cheap tat, and not expect to cover the remaining costs of the visit? Looking at the pictures it really is cheap tat, except being charged out at over inflated prices. Has the Catholic Church plummeted so low as to be nothing more than Del Boy and Rodney Trotter in the guise of official merchandise?

I remember visiting Lourdes in the South of France over 20 years ago. The initial impression that struck me then was how tacky the place was with all the cheap street sellers, and even the official sellers. The grotto site itself was actually quite peaceful, and although I wasn't caught up with the religious overtones, was relieved to find the grotto devoid of merchandise sellers. The town of Lourdes itself was quite nice, and I did enjoy visiting the Château fort de Lourdes by cable car on the outskirts of the town. In many ways it's a shame that the religious nature of the town over shadows other aspects of the town that are just as worthy of a visit.

It's crossed my mind whether after the visit we'll see parts of the turf from Cofton Park ripped up and sold on eBay, with the heading "The Pope stood here!". The Catholic Church has already plummeted the depths, so I wouldn't be surprised.

Just how much inconvenience and disruption can one man cause, particular when only a small minority from the area actually want him there!

I, like others I suspect, will be awkward just for the sake of being awkward this weekend and see how much hassle it causes to prevent me from entering my own home. I'm guessing the police and officials will just get fed up with residents and let them through anyway. We shall see.

File Under: birmingham / brum / coftonpark / life / longbridge

Living By Numbers

Posted on 13th September 2010

Maisha, now with OAuth support.

A project I started back last year is Maisha, a command line client to interface to social micro-blogging networks, such as Twitter. On 31st August this year, Twitter depreciated the Basic Authention method of allowing applications to login users with a simple username and password combination. In its place they now use OAuth. (See also the blog post by Marc Mims - author of Net-Twitter).

On the face of it, OAuth seemed a bit confusing, and even the documentation is devoid of decent diagrams to explain it properly. Once I did get it, it was surprising to discover just how easy the concept and implementation is. For the most part Marc Mims has implemented all the necessary work within Net-Twitter, so Maisha only needed to add the code to provide the right URL for authorisation, and allow the user to enter the PIN# that then allows the application to use the Twitter API.

The big advantage to OAuth is that you don't need to save your password in plain text for an application. Once you enter the authorisation PIN#, the token is then saved, and reused each time you start up Maisha to access your Twitter feed.

As Identi.ca also implements an Open Source version of Twitter, they have also implemented OAuth in their interface. However, there is a slight modification to Net::Twitter needed, so I will wait for Marc to implement that before releasing the next version of Maisha.

So if you have been using Maisha and have been frustrated that you can no longer access Twitter, you now only need to upgrade to App-Maisha-0.14 and all should work again (once you've entered the PIN# of course).

If you are using Maisha, and have any feedback or wishlist suggestions please let me know.

File Under: life / opensource / perl / technology

Living In The Past

Posted on 2nd September 2010

For a day out during the summer holidays, Nicole and I looked at places to visit that where children friendly, as well as interesting. I was surprised to discover that The Lunt Roman Fort was somewhere we had passed so often, but had never noticed. Although you can see the A45 from the fort, it isn't as easy to see the fort from the road, due to the trees all around now. All those years ago the fort would have had a very good vantage point across the landscape.

The fort itself is in the village of Baginton, which is south of Coventry City Centre and about a mile north of Coventry Airport (hence why its former name is Baginton Airport). However, the fort's biggest failing is advertising itself via road signs. There were very few, and had I not already seen the map of how to get there online, I could quite easily made a wrong turn. I wonder how many more visitors they might get if only they could direct people, as road signs would also help promote the fort to those who drive along the A45 or A46 fairly often. In all the times I've passed by in the last 20 or so years, I only found out about the place because of the internet! Getting there aside, the place is well worth a visit.

The original fort, being primarily wood based, has long since gone, and the buildings there today have been reconstructed based on the original drawings and layout from the roman times. There are stone and earthworks on the ground, so you can still see where many of the buildings would have been, but The Main Gate, Granary Building and Gyrus have all been careful reconstructed, and give a great impression of what the whole layout of buildings might have looked like. The Granary Building is the central museum full of artifacts, replica outfits and games, together with a 3D model of what the whole fort would have looked like. For the kids they have a little booklet to use to search for things around the site. It's well worth using as your guide, as it gave us a reason to have a closer look at the site.

The Main Gate to the south is the main entrance to the site, and on the approach you can see the ditches either side of you that were dug around the fort. The gate itself has a lookout tower, which unfortunately isn't accessible to the public, but it would provide a commanding view of the area. I wouldn't be surprised to be able to see some of the landmarks of Coventry and even Warwick on a clear day. You can climb up to the initial battlements level, and that still provides a great view, although apart from the airport nothing noteworthy is visible from this height, due to the nearby trees.

Next we headed over to the Gyrus. It's essentially a training area, both for horses and men. The ground is extremely sandy, to avoid injuries from falls. There were stables here, which are now only visible by their foundations. There would have been several hundred men posted here too, centurions and officers. The difference between the two clearly marked by the types of foundations of the buildings they would have lived in. The officers quarters looking rather more grand is space, while the centurions would have lived in long buildings that are probably the same as barracks we know of today.

The site was originally discovered in the 1930s when several pieces of Roman pottery were found. Then in the 1960s further excavations uncovered all the foundations to the various buildings. The buildings were reconstructed in the 1970s, when the site was finally opened tothe public.

Although it is a small site to visit, we spent roughly 90 minutes wandering around, there is a lot to discover and understand about the site. The kids loved dressing up in the replica outfits, as did Nicole, and they also enjoyed playing the ancient games. Dan completed the competition in the booklet and won himself an ancient coin. We had a great time exploring the fort, and would definitely recommend a visit. If you wanted to spend a full day out, then there is also the Midland Air Museum about half a mile down the road. We were hungry and heading for pizza, so we didn't get the chance. Combe Abbey Country Park is also very close by too, so taking an hour or so out to visit The Lunt Roman Fort too, is well worth it.

For the full set of photos, click here.

File Under: castles / photography / sightseeing

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