Category: Birmingham

Brunch in Australia – the good the bad and the ugly

Brunch figures a lot in my eating out in Australia. I have written before about my love affair with brunch – a meal that Brits, IMHO, still haven’t got right.*

In the UK, a cooked breakfast is usually a fry up be it the English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish or even regional breakfast. You will see all day breakfasts on some menus, often dressed up as brunch. My local pub in the UK, The Dog, has recently added brunch to the menu – yet finishes serving it at 12 noon and only offers it on a weekend. That is not brunch. Brunch needs perfectly poached eggs, sourdough, good bacon and excellent coffee. And served at least till 3pm if not all day. A full English and bacon sandwiches is not brunch. That is breakfast. I like breakfast, I do, but I like brunch better.

In Australia they know brunch. Smashed avo, corn fritters, beetroot and spinach with free range poached eggs. This is one of my favourite brunches offered at Coin Laundry only a few minutes walk away from where we are currently housesitting in Melbourne. Available from 7am to 3pm. For two of us, with a latte each, the bill is Aus$42.

Seven Seeds. A Good Morning Breakfast Burger and Eggs and Waffle Benedict, two items from their current, all day menu. Proper Brunch. With speciality coffee. Aus$45. Great atmosphere, great staff, excellent food, awesome coffee. We have got to go back as our table companions had the Brioche French Toast and it looked, and they said it tasted, amazing.

And then there is Triim.

Phil and I were hungry, we had just been in a hot, dusty substation, looking at ACDC things. (It was Open House Weekend). We needed brunch. Seven Seeds seemed too far to walk to. It was Sunday and would probably be a line. Instead we wandered up Little Bourke street, looking for its sister cafe, couldn’t find it and then saw Triim on Hardware Lane, a studenty/backpacker district of the city and chose to brunch there.

Oh dear. At first it seemed ok, it was busy, all ages, shoppers and students, backpackers and families. Efficient staff. But. You knew there would be a but.

We ordered a Big Breakfast and a Morning Glory. Yes they can poach eggs. However the mushrooms were slimy and the sausage, I can only assume it was a chicken sausage, was horrible. The bread was poor quality. Butter is served in plastic pouches. We left feeling bloated and later felt quite headachey as if we had eaten poor quality food. Bill came to Aus$42.40. Hardware Lane is an interesting place to people watch. Go watch them from someplace else.

Was this the worst breakfast we had in Melbourne?

No. Because we went to McDonald’s. I know, I know. Phil and I had an early start, we were off out on a tour and had to be at Fed Square for 8.55am. Macca’s is nearby the pick up point. We had not had a Macca breakfast for over a year. Indeed it was at this Macca’s and for the very same reason. We do not learn.

Aus$18 for two sausage and egg muffins, with a hash brown and a latte. Not half a good as Triim, but nearly as good people watching as commuters dash from Flinders Street Station. Not anyway near the quality, ambiance or service levels of either Seven Seeds or Coin Laundry.

I know, it is McDonalds, I don’t expect silver service. Yet, at just under half the price of the other brunches Phil and I have had in Melbourne, this is an expensive and insubstantial breakfast. The only good thing I can say is that they have baristas in McDonalds in Australia (at least at this branch) so the coffee is not awful. It is not awesome, better than coffee in an English McDonalds. Not hard to beat that. Oh and surprisingly I didn’t get headaches like I did with the breakfast from Triim.

What really concerns me that this is the everyday breakfast for many commuters and school students. Melbourne has the best coffee in the world and Melburnians are now buying coffee here. And adding a McMuffin to their order. I don’t see any struggling indie coffee shops in Melbourne, somehow there are enough coffee addicts to keep the good ones going. I do see more coffee shop chains in Melbourne though. And that is not a good thing.

So, if you are in Melbourne, find a good brunch spot. It is not hard.

To help you, here is a list to help you out.

*There are exceptions. Birmingham Breakfast Club occasionally arranges special breakfast events in the city. Only I would call them brunch because there is usually alcohol involved and they don’t start at the crack of dawn.

If you want to know more about these wonderful Breakfasts in Birmingham here are some links. I include these only because I am fed up of people Bashing Birmingham. We have good food in Birmingham. We have good other things too. Such as the two towers that inspired Tolkien.

Full to the Brum  – an award winning Brummie Blogger

Eat with Ellen  – one of my dining companions at Nomad now re born as The Wilderness

Breakfast at Simpsons

Waiter there’s a bug in my brunch

Birmingham Breakfast Club 

 

Conversations at the corner cafe – Xenos my friend

As I entered the corner café, a stranger said hello.

Saying hello to strangers is not what the British do.

I said hello back and we fell into conversation.

We discovered we had at least one person in common.

And that we both loved Greece.

We talked about other cafes in the area, how another café had told him about the corner café. The best Greek food, and where to get it, the best tapas and SE Asian food. And how Moussaka from the corner cafe had won me a day with James Martin.

We talked about afternoon tea.  How a local café turned a poor review on TripAdvisor, due to them handling it professionally, into a success and brought more customers to the café.

He recommended two places for afternoon tea, one in Edinburgh another in Bournemouth, in the Echo building. Where Bill Bryson used to work I said. Yes, that would be right, he said.

I had been thinking of following the trail of Little Dribbling as a holiday idea before I go on the next big trip. And here I am getting café recommendations. How did he know?

We agreed that Tilt needed sofas.

Our conversation – it was as if we were speaking in code. A language no one else knew or could understand. We were not intentionally excluding anyone, yet this conversation of shared experiences,  no one else in the cafe that day understood.

I told him my story of the church in Santorini. He never questioned that I was led to the spot by my mom, she chose where I was to scatter her ashes. People with faith who know the story tell me God was guiding me. I think that connections with people you love don’t end at death. I think he thought that, too.

We talked about great places to eat, how he visited islands in Greece where no one speaks English. That this was the best Stifado he had eaten outside Greece.

He needed to take his own advice and book his trip to Greece he said. Make it happen instead of talking about it.

Two hours we talked. Two strangers.

I don’t believe in coincidences.coincidence

Later that day I sat down to start working through the Life Purpose Alchemy workbook that Lisa Cherry Beaumont asked me to review.

And I thought about my conversation with the stranger.

Because when he got up to go he asked if he could give me his card. I recognised the name, he is a life coach.

The person we both know is a life coach. I told him about Lisa, my life coach and how much I had changed since being coached.

He wants to live in Greece, as do I. I thought that we may end up working together in Crete combining our talents and skills. Not knowing how.

Today in the workbook I have been working on the section where Lisa asks you to

free-write some ideas about what you could do to earn a living. Play with ideas, without restriction. Don’t worry if it sounds crazy or too “way out” – put all your ideas down and don’t limit or edit what you write. Use more paper if you need to

and I thought about that conversation with the life coach in the cafe.

How comfortable we were sharing information with each other. How defined our goals were. How we believed that anything was possible. How open we were to possibilities. How positive our language was. How we said what we thought. How we went with the flow.

It struck me that this can make some people uncomfortable. We have been conditioned to limit our self belief. From childhood. The day you sing for your teacher and don’t get chosen for the choir you stop singing, perhaps forever. You fail a test and label yourself a failure. If you are not in the ‘gifted and talented’ stream at school, you believe that you will never be gifted or talented at anything.

Two strangers, not limited by can’t. People who don’t wait for someday. Who have dreams and make plans. And put a date on it. This scares people because they like the comfort of limited self belief.

That way they can’t fail.

If there is only one bus a day, I will get it. The first ferry of the season that will get me back just in time for my flight, could be cancelled if the weather is poor, book me on it. Get on the wrong bus, fate will intervene. Telling me I can’t do something is merely laying down a challenge.

The stranger too found himself on islands with one bus a day with no one who spoke English. He discovered he could speak Greek better than he thought.

I guess that if you get on the wrong bus in Corfu, a bus full of locals with goats and chickens and not tourists with sunburn, and two minutes later the bus that gets stopped by the police as it is unsafe, you realise that it has happened for a reason. And when there just happens to be an English girl on this bus (she is teaching English in a remote village) who directs you to the right bus, you just know that things have a way of working themselves out.

Yet somewhere along the way, in between being a carefree student, and becoming a mom and getting a mortgage and jumping on the work, watch, spend treadmill, I forgot this. Instead I opted for safe choices, because that is what I believed I was supposed to do. Get a job, get a house, get married, have kids, get into debt, watch the news and get depressed. Be normal.

Don’t talk to strangers.

In Greek the word for stranger is the same as for friend.

Xenos (Greek: ξένος, xénos, plural xenoi) is a word used in the Greek language from Homer onwards. The most standard definition is “stranger”. However, the word, itself, can be interpreted to mean different things based upon context, author and period of writing/speaking, signifying such divergent concepts as “enemy” or “stranger”, a particular hostile interpretation, all the way to “guest friend”‘ one of the most hallowed concepts in the cultural rules of Greek hospitality.

In my workbook I wrote:

A social media language café, where people can learn Greek and English, life coaching, I could coach people to declutter, fulfilling my need to socialise and help people clear their lives of whatever is holding them back.

I told Lisa that going through the workbook was like playing pass the parcel and unravelling the layers to get to the prize.  The prize? A map of my life. Yet the map is a jigsaw, that still needs to be assembled. I haven’t completed all the exercises yet, I’ve unraveled the layers, found the jigsaw, now I have to build the map.

What I have discovered is that everything that I have done and everything good that has happened to me, the lovely people I have met, the crappy things and the horrid people, has made me who I am now. I needed to unravel those layers. To find my purpose. The map is a jigsaw and I can’t find my way until I put the pieces together. When I am uncomfortable it is because I have forced the wrong piece in the wrong place, as if my shoes are on the wrong feet. Sometimes pieces are missing and we have to go find them.

Or they find us.

The conversation in the corner café was a the missing piece I needed to place in the jigsaw to discover what my authentic life looks like. It is pretty much how it looked at age 23 as I got off the bus full of chickens and goats in Corfu and thanked a stranger.

I asked the life coach if I could write about our conversation.

He said yes, but only if I didn’t say he wolfed down Stifado like a wild animal. I don’t think he will mind.

Addendum 3/6/16

Recently, while in Winchester, I met a Greek bar man and talked about the word Xenos. He told me the word I was looking for was this.

Hospitality, the official English translation of ‘philoxenia‘, doesn’t do justice to the concept as it does not encompass its main element, which is generosity of spirit. The Greek noun ‘xenos’ initially meant ‘guest’, acquitting the meaning of ‘foreigner/stranger’ at a later stage.

I have recently returned from a week on Skiathos. Yes, Greece still feels like home. Never a stranger there, always a guest.

 

 

 

Cooking with Ping at Chi Kitchen

Chi Kitchen

a contemporary pan asian restaurant created as an exclusive departmental brand for Debenhams

The menu for Chi Kitchen has been created by Group Consultant Ping Coombes, 2014 MasterChef UK winner.

I was fortunate to be a guest at a masterclass with Ping on Sunday 20 March 2016 at the restaurant on the third floor of Debenhams, Birmingham. As I could take a plus one I dragged my husband along. There was food – he was not so reluctant tbh even early on a Sunday morning.

While I didn’t get on with SE Asia on my travels, I did get on with the food. The fusion of Malaysian cuisine particularly impressed me, with so many influences, from Indian to Chinese. The hot curries in Little India, KL and the delicious steamboat in the Cameron Highlands are particularly memorable.

When this invite to the masterclass popped into my inbox I was delighted. While I love SE Asian food I am not very confident when cooking it nor familiar with the ingredients or the techniques. And now I was going to learn from a MasterChef. How brilliant is that?

And that is why on a sunny Sunday morning I was meeting Ping in Chi Kitchen, Birmingham, desperately trying to hide my excitement at meeting an actual MasterChef winner. I am an avid watcher of TV cooking shows and I was a little bit star struck.

Ping was delightful. She warmly welcomed me and my husband Phil and she recalled that I had tweeted about the event. She remembered everybody’s names, which is a great skill.

We all had a welcome card, with details of the food we would be making during the masterclass.

The staff at Chi Kitchen were friendly and attentive. Water was brought out straight away, tea offered while we waited for the other guests and nothing was too much trouble for them.

Meanwhile Ping was securing a couple of glasses of bucks fizz for us.

The Executive Chef was already making Roti Canai for us to snack on.  Ping told us that we would be making it later on.

Never I thought, could we produce this in one lesson.

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We did. Well Phil did, he made the dough comprising of flour, water, condensed milk and sugar and did a decent job for a first attempt.

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I thought making the Money bags would be easy.

I have seen women making these in the food malls in Melbourne, they produce hundreds in a matter of minutes,  it took me 5 minutes to make one. Not going to be getting a job in a food mall in Melbourne anytime soon.

Then it was on to the Nyonya Salad with King Prawns.

Lots of individual ingredients, rice noodles, bean sprouts, tomatoes, cucumber, onions all into one bowl and massaged.

Add the chilli sauce and massage some more, and you are left with a salad that zings. Beats the limp lettuce and tasteless tomato salads that I was brought up on.

Once we had finished cooking, more food was brought to us. Everything was delicious.  Fresh, clean, spicy, a riot of flavours, yet delicate on the palate.

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To be able to eat food of this quality, in a department store, demonstrated just how the food scene in Birmingham is improving. As a child, my Grandmother used to take me to Lewis’s restaurant as a treat. This was when we had waitresses in black dresses and white aprons serve us. Proper posh.  Then department stores restaurants adopted the canteen style of cafes, offering chicken nuggets, congealed lasagne and chips.

Debenhams has realised that this no longer good enough for the discerning diner. The food offer in department stores needs to be more than a refueling stop for shoppers, in store restaurants need to be a destination to meet friends over lunch or after work. They have also realised that Birmingham is the place that this can work. We Brummies are foodies and we want great food.

Over the past few years I have observed Birmingham’s food scene getting better and better. While the councils PR and Marketing will always mention the Balti Triangle and how Birmingham has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other British city outside London in every press release, as will any London based journo who writes about Birmingham, there is a middle ground for us foodies. And I am not talking Mr Egg.

The Birmingham street food scene brought us Digbeth Diner. This showcases the best street food in Birmingham, including The Original Patty Men (which I have yet to experience) Meatshack dirty burgers and Andy’s Low and Slow, to name but a few of the many wonderful purveyors of amazing food

Indies started to fight back and it became easier to avoid chains selling identikit mextex when Bodega and Habeneros came on the scene. Urban and Six Eight gave Brummies decent coffee. Jake popped up in his telephone box, opposite Starbucks, selling great coffee, amazing sausage rolls and cake. Jake also gave us Tfor2, a way for his customers to pay it forward and buy a suspended coffee for rough sleepers.

A food scene was slowly and surely being established in Brum. Hoo flippin ray and about time too.

And all of a sudden it exploded, in a good way.

Birmingham has some excellent Tapas restaurants, the aforementioned dirty burgers from Meat Shack, innovative burgers at The Original Patty Men in Digbeth, great bread from Peel and Stone and Loaf. And then there is the innovative The Wilderness. Add to that the Michelin starred Adams, Purnell’s and Simpsons and the Birmingham Breakfast Club, Birmingham we have got food covered. Almost. There is still a shortage of mid priced good food that is not Beef Eater but I am sure we will get them soon.

With the opening of Grand Central, Brummies who may not have braved Digbeth for street food, Chinatown for SE Asian food, or tried tapas in Spain, are stepping out of their comfort zone of fast food and are experimenting with new food experiences. This is a good thing. Having tasted pho and lush pork belly tapas, in Grand Central I hope they will want to explore the street food scene, visit the Birmingham Foodies Festival or the Colmore Food Festival, showcasing the best food Birmingham has to offer.

The choice of food at Grand Central is staggering. Yes, they are chains, some small chains, some family run. Yet this is food we used to only be able to get in London. My personal favourites are Pho, Tapas Revolutions and Leon. There are eateries to meet the requirements for almost everyone in a safe environment, restaurants without doors in a shopping mall. It is a food court, a good food court, above a railway station. There are no toilets (if there are I’ve not found them yet) which for family dining is a nightmare. They are all busy, which is good for the retailers, yet one often has to wait in line to eat at Tapas Revolution and Pho.

Well now you don’t need to. Leave Grand Central, take a short walk to the Bullring and visit Chi Kitchen in Debenhams.

Attentive staff, authentic food, good music, open kitchen, uncrowded with a big picture window, clean toilets and no queues. Yet.

Disclaimer

I was a guest of Chi Kitchen. I was not asked to write about the experience, I chose to. I was not asked to say only lovely things  when I told them I would be writing about them. Ping is genuinely lovely. She told me to say that.

I am that easy to read am I? I just wanna have fun and want the same for my guests 🙂

All the photos were taken by Phil and me. Please don’t steal them.

And we got a goodie bag.

 

 

 

 

 

Waiter! There’s a bug in my brunch

And it was meant to be there.

I was at a special brunch at Nomad organised by The Birmingham Breakfast Club. The last one I attended was at Simpsons, which was superb. This time I took my husband Phil as a treat for our upcoming wedding anniversary.

I had checked out the website and I knew they offered food that was not the run of the mill fare. I read seasonal, foraged, but I must have missed the bug bit.

It was only when Laura aka Full to the Brum asked if there were any insects in the cereal boxes and the waitress declined to answer that I thought I would investigate.

Phil had already started to enthusiastically tuck in to the fourth course of caramelised milk mousse and tipped the contents of the cereal packet and had not noticed the bugs. I decided to tell him. I thought it was only fair.

It seems odd to start a post about a breakfast with the final course. However you do need to know that Nomads does bugs.

It also does bloody good food and drink.

So as Maria says, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. Do-Re-Mi.

Coffee and tea on arrival and a cocktail of English mead wine, forest garden honey and Spanish Cava. A little bit of fizz is always a good way to start brunch.

Then as an appetiser, eggy bread with tansy, an edible flower, reindeer moss, forest garden honey, reindeer moss, bacon, eggs and baked coffee and sea buckthorn. In a little pot there was homemade fresh yoghurt.

Small but perfectly formed, this was a lovely start to a brunch. I love yoghurt and honey and bacon and egg and eggy bread and here they were all on one plate, with reindeer moss. I like reindeer moss now. Together the individual flavours complemented each other beautifully.

This was followed by a plate of pearl barley and spelt kedgeree with sea buckthorn and poached eggs. The sauce had a hint of cumin to it.

The pearl barley evoked memories of family suppers our parents or grandparents cooked. We reminisced about hunting for the pearls on our plates and the comfort of good old fashioned, home cooked food. To serve a kedgeree replacing rice with spelt, with the twist of the old school pearl barley, was a very clever use of ingredients. If the plan was to get us to recall memories of food from our childhood, this did the trick.

The egg was perfectly poached, the sauce beautifully spiced and for a brunch, just the right balance of breakfast and lunch.

Between courses we were served a mimosa and fresh apple juice.  Cleansed the palate marvelously.

And now back to that Caramelised Mousse with a crunchy topping. And toys. A course that got people talking.

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The mouse was light and cream. The crunchy cereal was honeycomb coated. As were the bugs. It was lovely, and it was fun to include some toys in the packets. It was as if the team behind Nomad were saying, ‘we take our food seriously here, but not too seriously, go ahead have some fun’.  And we did.

Brunch is my favourite meal. Sharing food with like minded people, who love food and writing about food and being actively encouraged to take photos of food. What’s not to like?

I already knew award winning blogger Full to the Brum, and it was lovely to meet James and Ellen aka Eat with Ellen and Ryan aka  Brummie Gourmand. In addition to eating great food we also talked about food and blogging and learning how to use proper cameras and the pros and cons of the iPhone to take photos of food. It was a very social brunch.

This was my first time to Nomad and I thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company. The menu changes constantly, and with advance notice, Nomad can cater for pescatarian, vegetarian and gluten-free diets.

Disclaimer

The bugs were crickets and had been added to the crunchy honey concoction that is a Nomad secret recipe. Probably. You will not find them in any cereal packet you buy at the supermarket. The boxes used by Nomad are for serving purposes only. Although I have heard of infestations of moth pupae in porridge oats. But not at Nomad.

I ate them, Phil pulled his to the side of the plate. They were dead, crunchy and sweet. I still would not eat live insects, although I may have once accidentally swallowed a small fly. I have never pulled wings off anything.

I paid for the brunch and was not asked to write about it or say good things about it. But it was good, otherwise I wouldn’t say it was. And I like writing about food, meeting other bloggers and eating.

Addendum

Nomad is no more. It is now The Wilderness. Apparently there is another place called Nomad something in America and they didn’t want to share their name. So the Birmingham Nomad changed theirs.

 

 

Thing to do in Birmingham – Two Towers, tall buildings and a reservoir

These are the two towers that Tolkien could see from his Birmingham school window. These photos were taken at Edgbaston Reservoir, an oasis of calm at the edge of a beautiful city.

The building with the gold crown on the left is The Library of Birmingham, in the centre is the Rotunda and to the left is Alpha Tower a Grade 2 listed office tower.

The Library of Birmingham has replaced the old Central Library. As stunning as the new library is, many of us will miss the Brutalist architecture of the old library. Having today discovered that Alpha Tower is a listed building, I struggle with why the old library wasn’t listed. It is now being demolished to make way for Paradise. I kid you not. Perhaps it wasn’t tall enough?

We like our tall buildings in Birmingham. Birmingham has an impressive skyline.  Although much has changed since the 1970’s the Rotunda is still the structure most people identify with the city.

Brum 70's

Although once the wrong skyline was once used. In 2008 leaflets produced for the city council were printed with the skyline of Birmingham Alabama . Oops!

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These are just a few of the beautiful buildings dotted around the city centre that have managed to avoid the developers  bulldozers or the WW2 bombs.

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As you wander around the city there is almost always something going on.  Food festivals and Morris Men in Victoria Square, colourful markets, art installations, Chelsea Flower Show winning entries to name but a few attractions you may find.  And then stop at one of the great indie coffee shops for refreshments or catch some rays on a deck chair.

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Then return to the reservoir and soak up the nature.

More information about Perrott’s Folly here.

 

 

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.

 

Heritage Open Day – the iconic Rotunda

Birmingham PostcardBirmingham. It gets a bad press, the accent is mocked and the city is thought of as grey and grimy. It’s not. It is a city that is the birthplace of Heavy Rock, has a world class art gallery and some beautiful Victorian architecture. I love my city.

I have lived here for most of my life. I remember going to the Bull Ring back in the 1960’s with my nan, when it was all new and shiny. By the 80’s it was considered dated and ugly. Towering over it all was the Rotunda. And yesterday I got the opportunity to visit this building for the first time. Heritage Open Day in Birmingham, offered so many places to visit but this for me was the number one to do. The Bull RingThe Rotunda survived the threat of the bulldozer (unlike the Brutalist Central Library) when the Bull Ring was redeveloped. It also survived the Birmingham Pub Bombing. Today it towers over the newest development over New Street Station, Grand Central, and the All Seeing eye.

 Three huge screens around Birmingham New Street railway station are to scan passers-by before choosing which adverts to play.

Each of the screens are made from 100s of tiny TV screens will analyse rail passengers, shoppers and those just passing by to assess the crowd’s demographics.

Targeted ads are then set to be played through the screens.

Birmingham Mail

The tour gave us the opportunity to see two of the Staying Cool serviced apartments and the communal roof garden.  If you suffer from vertigo, do not look down.

Even looking up is dizzying.

And you can see for miles.

The architecture tells its own story.

A bit different to the 1960’s.

The Bull Ring 1968

SmallbrooRingway 2015

Here are some other photos taken on Heritage Open Day at The Rotunda.

Hopefully it will be open again for the next year and I recommend a visit.

I am even thinking of spending a night in one of the apartments and inviting some friends around.

But I will keep the windows firmly closed. Because it’s a long way down.

 

 

 

 

In with the new: a Birmingham tea room gets a make over

This article first appeared on the Dine Birmingham website in an edited format.

This once tired, tatty tearoom has had a makeover. It had become a convenient place for refreshments, appealing only to those who needed a cup of tea while they rested their legs. Not somewhere to linger. Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery have given this tearoom much more than a lick of paint. Would the food and service do the surroundings justice?

Previously this stunning room had been lost in a sea of ancient brown, wobbly tables and chairs that not even Kirsty would try to flog as vintage.

Before

The decor is now a seamless blend of Ikea functionality and Lee Longlands lushness. Cosy armchairs and sofas are pooled in light from oversized lampshades. These, with communal refectory style tables, booths with industrial lighting and barstools around smaller tables meet the seating requirements of young and old, families and friends, grannies and grandchildren. While the room is huge, with a glass ceiling, it feels more like a well designed New York loft apartment.

After

I was a solo diner and ordered Flat Mushroom, Asparagus, with Poached Egg and Hollandaise from the all day brunch menu.

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My  poached egg was cooked to perfection with a soft, runny yolk. The asparagus was crisp, and the mushroom tasted as if it had been picked from a field that morning. I am no expert on hollandaise sauce, yet, if this was out of a jar; I want to know what jar. It was perfectly seasoned and glossy. This meal was cooked by someone who knows what they are doing. The portion was just right for a light lunch.

Tea for one

I ordered a pot of loose leaf. The milk is served in a dinky milk bottle, the tea in a enamel pot.

Prices

Flat mushrooms with poached egg and asparagus £5.95

Pot of Suki loose leaf Tea £2.80

Prices ranged from £3.90 for homemade soup with artisan bread to £9.50 for the Slow Cooked Lamb Shank. The children’s menu included soup and bread at £2.50 and pasta with fresh tomato soup at £3.00.

Lovely fresh bread

A regular flat white is £2.10

Soft drinks, including Fentimons traditional lemonade were £1.70

the drinks selection

Every dish I saw brought out was well presented. In addition to the main menu there is a specials board. Afternoon tea is very tempting for a special occasion.

Specials Board

Efficient and friendly staff, kept tables clear and took time to talk to customers. It was clear from the chat I had that they wanted to get it right. They have only been open a few weeks and I told me that they were still on a learning curve and looking to continually improve.

Free Wi Fi

There is free WiFi with numerous power sockets dotted around the room. This is a good thing. However, on this Saturday lunch time I did not see one person tapping away on a smart phone. This is a good thing too.

The only downside? I would have liked a pot of hot water with my tea.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is a trust and not part of the local authority. Spending your money here contributes to keeping this gallery open to all and free to visit. 

Up The Cape – A tourist in my own backyard

Last Sunday my husband and I went ‘Up the Cape’ with Ian Jelf, a Blue Badge Tour Guide.

Ian Jelf
Ian Jelf

This is an area that my grandparents grew up in. My first Saturday job was in Woolworth’s Cape Hill and it is about a 20 minute walk from where I now live. Much of my childhood was spent around this area, as it had a thriving market and I had a favourite Auntie Renee who in the early 70’s lived in the then, modern, high rise flats. She had been moved from a prefab and considered herself very lucky to have a place with all mod cons including underfloor heating.

Yet I knew very little about the history of the area. A tour of the area was in order.

It would be fair to say that The Cape is not without its social and economic problems. It is an area of low wages, high unemployment and low educational attainment. A high number of the population are immigrants, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Caribbean and more recently from Eastern Europe. The shops on Waterloo Road and Cape Hill reflect this rich diversity, and it is the best place to shop if you want Asian ingredients, quality fruit and veg and wonderfully colourful materials.

Fresh produce
Fresh produce

As ever there will be somewhere that bucks the trend, and throws statistics and predictions out of kilter. One primary school in the heart of this community, has a long reputation of educating young people who eventually go to university.

Two hundred and fifty years or so ago, it was an area that was ‘highly desirable’. The Cape was where wealthy industrialists would make their family home, to the west of the city, avoiding pollution, on a hill overlooking Birmingham. It is hard to imagine that this was once pretty much rolling countryside. Yet my Grandad’s first job in the 1920’s was as a farm hand. His father was a highly skilled gilder, hand applying gold leaf to frames, many of which hang in the Birmingham Art Gallery, according to my Nan.

The group met on a very sunny Sunday in March at McDonald’s, at the junction of Dudley and Grove Lane. Not a place where you would normally expect a guide to the history of an area to begin. There was a good reason for this however (in addition to the practicalities of parking, toilets and refreshments) as this was the site of a former public house, The Cape of Good Hope which gave the area ‘The Cape’ its name.

Ian began by explaining that this would be an unusual tour because most of the places he would be talking about no longer existed as they had all been knocked down. DSCN0726

And of course we got some odd looks from passers by, a posse of middle aged white people, following a man with an umbrella, a trademark of a Blue Badge guide, all wearing sensible shoes, and carrying cameras. In Smethwick on a Sunday. We may as well have had a placard declaring ‘History Geeks R US’. And we would have held it proudly!

The Grove
The Grove

And so we began. The Grove, a beautiful Art Deco Cinema now a bathroom show room.

A road named after Arthur Keen of Guest Keen and Nettlefolds (GKN).

Keen Street
Keen Street

A description of Smethwick Grove, a beautiful home to the Kier/Molliet family that used part of the canal as a boating lake, with swans and grazing cattle. James Kier was a member of The Lunar Society had been a friend of James Watt.

The Grove
The Grove

Then on to a now derelict pub (one of many in this area) The London Works. This pub would have served the workers who made the metal frames for The Crystal Palace for The Great Exhibition. The Glass was made just up the road at Chances of course. Yes, The Crystal Palace. Made in Smethwick.

A meander around a housing estate (more baffled looks from residents) crossing over from the land of Grove House to the estate of The Woodlands. The only remaining evidence of this is a run down Working Mens Club and the name of the street. New housing built in 1968 have one reference to history, the first moon landings.DSCF7964

Smethwick Windmill
Smethwick Windmill

As we go around the back of Asda and the Windmills Shopping Centre, named for the original windmill that once stood nearby, we find yet another beautiful and listed building.

The Gaumont
The Gaumont

It was originally the site of a skating rink built in 1909 which became The Rink Cinema in 1912. Demolished and rebuilt in 1928, it is now the Victoria Suite having been The Gaumont Cinema and a Mecca bingo hall (frequented by my Aunt Renee).

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The next stop was at the junction of Waterloo Road, Cape Hill and Shireland Road. The Waterloo Pub. It is crowned with wonderful weather vane, in the shape of a Galleon. There are galleon tiles in The Grill Room. This is because the it was originally going to be called The Galleon, changed to The Waterloo due to its location.

It is a tragedy that this building is not being used. It was recently sold for £150k and yet nothing is being done to preserve it despite it being listed. Oh to win the lottery.

We continue along Shireland Road, to the site of the former Shireland Hall, another of the great houses in the area. Now a car park and terraced houses. It was the biggest house in the area as it had seven hearths (recorded due to The Hearth Tax). One of the many taxes invented to obtain revenue from house holders, such as the Window Tax, where the phrase Daylight Robbery is derived from. Oh the things you learn when on an Ian Jelf Guided Tour.

This junction was also a site of a battle in 1643. According to this article about the military history of Birmingham  ‘At the far end of the town at Cape Hill the Roundhead troopers made a stand and successfully checked the Cavaliers between the Royalists’. I think we ought to arrange a re-enactment sometime. That would make the locals look up!

And talking of looking up, above and among the shops and banks there is some amazing architecture.The Victorians made their buildings stand out with turrets and clock towers, even those to meet the needs of the poor such as The Dispensary, a now an “at risk” Grade II Listed Building. Cape Primary school is where my nan was educated over 90 years ago.

We end the tour at the site of the former Mitchells and Butlers Brewery. Now a housing estate. This was such a big site that it had its own fire station, railway network and cricket pitches. Only the fire station building, the war memorial and these gates remain.

Most of the pubs around the area were M&B pubs, my Grandad’s local was The Two Brewers (now demolished and a housing development) and the famous Blue Gates where Christabel Pankhurst made a speech when seeking a parliamentary seat in the 1918 election.

Ian covered so much more than this post could do justice to. His knowledge of the area is amazing. His style is eccentric, witty and informative. And never ever boring.

If you want to learn more about where you live, find a Blue Badge Guide. If you live in Smethwick or Birmingham, find out where you can join an Ian Jelf Guided Tour.

And I will book myself on another tour of my back yard soon. Bearwood I think.