Things to do in Birmingham – history on my doorstep

England is well known for its stately homes. Producers of period dramas such as Downton Abbey and adaptations of Austen novels are spoilt for choice when choosing locations.

Lacock Abbey and Alnwick Castle were used in the Harry Potter films. In the West Midlands where I live there are dozens of National Trust properties to visit, including Hanbury Hall and Charlecote Park, and many are less than an hours drive from the city centre.

We expect to see such grand homes in the countryside where the landed gentry had their estates.  Not in city centres. Yet Birmingham, before the industrial revolution, was rural. My grandfather, who was born in Smethwick, worked as a farm hand as a young boy.

So it should be no surprise that there were many grand houses and heritage buildings in Birmingham, dating back to  the Jacobean period. There are two houses that I would recommend both tourists and residents of Birmingham visit.

Both are owned and managed by Birmingham Museums and there is usually an entry fee. I visited both properties on a Heritage Open Day so on these occasion the visits were free.

Aston Hall

Aston Hall, built in the Jacobean style, is a stone’s throw away from the Aston Villa football ground. This 17th century red brick mansion is situated in a public park and King Charles 1 visited the then owner, Sir Thomas Holte, in 1642 and in 1643 the hall was attacked by Parliamentarian forces.  The hole you can see in the staircase was made by a cannonball when the house was under siege. Incidentally the Holte End at Villa Park was named after Sir Thomas.

The gardens are lovely.

I have not yet been but I have been told that Aston Hall by Candlelight is an experience not to be missed. You can also get married here.

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The guided tour was extremely informative and engaging, and I found out so more about my city’s history. There is also a shop and a cafe. A visit to Aston Hall is an excellent day out for all the family.

Blakesley Hall

Blakesley Hall is one of the oldest buildings in Birmingham. Built in 1590, this Elizabethan house is a fine example of Tudor architecture. Built by Richard Smalbroke, it was designed to show off his wealth and status. It is amazing that it survived the developers bulldozers as it is in the centre of a 60’s housing development. Birmingham has a history of destroying its heritage. This is why the National Trust and similar organisations are so important to preserving our heritage.

While I knew about Aston Hall, and realised that it was amiss of me not to have visited before, I didn’t know anything about Blakesley Hall. It was a wet and windy Sunday and we wanted to go out somewhere, but not too far, and then I saw that there was another Heritage Open Day here.

Modest compared to Aston Hall, the house is still impressive. The gardens were stunning.

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The cake in the café delicious.

Some of the rooms had been made up as they may have been when the family were living there, with much of the original wallpaper still intact.

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It was perfect Sunday afternoon out.

Even on free Heritage days both of these properties were relatively quiet. I asked at Blakesley Hall if people living in the close by houses visited the hall. It seems not despite BMAG trying to involve the community in activities and events.

We will drive hundreds of miles to visit the castles in Northumberland and Wales (or in my case National Trust properties in Melbourne) yet ignore the heritage on our doorstep. And that is a shame.

If you live in Birmingham, or are visiting the city, make time to visit these two properties. You won’t be disappointed.

 

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