Get the lowdown on all of the latest news and activities for My Route.
On a bitingly cold January afternoon, kitted out with gloves, scarf, camera and a flask of coffee, I set off for Camp Hill roundabout to meet Ben Waddington, founder and director of Still Walking festival. With Ben having recently explored (and tweeted his findings from) Sparkbrook and Sparkhill, and myself having spent several months researching the post-war history of the Stratford Road, the aim was to exchange our knowledge of the area as we headed south-east along the number 6 bus route.
Ben is a “surveyor” – his eyes are drawn to things which most people ignore or haven’t spotted. His walking tour along the Stratford Road in Shirley was full of intriguing and bizarre observations, from trying to decipher “ghost signs” (old faded advertisements from a bygone era on the sides of buildings) to noticing how the corner of a shop’s signage was faded and damaged simply as it was facing in the direction of the sun, wind and rain. Several weeks later, when we stopped a hundred yards past Camp Hill to observe an Ordnance Survey benchmark at the side of the pavement, I knew the walk would take some time, and that I’d be booking myself in for an eye test by the end of it.
The first port of call in Sparkbrook was The Shakespeare pub, sold last year and stripped of its crimson exterior and fitted with new windows. Likely to be turned into separate flats and shops, it marks a sad end for one of Sparkbrook’s landmarks, particularly when other pubs further down the road – such as The Black Horse and The Antelope – have managed to retain many of their original features.
One can only hope that another landmark Sparkbrook business, further down the road, does not suffer a similar fate. Vale-Onslow Motorcycles, which expanded from its humble origins in the 1930s to occupy around eight adjacent properties, is now surrounded by scaffolding as the brickwork is becoming overrun by nature. But at ground level at least, the building is like a time capsule, with old advertisements and notices adorning the windows, and behind them an array of tools and parts are scattered around the workshop. This collection of photos showing the interior of Vale-Onslow from 2008 serves to add to its chaotic charm. The buildings are monuments to a Birmingham legend, and one of the greats of motor production, and hopefully they will stay that way.
Some buildings, on the other hand, can survive a tornado. And some can – just about – stay standing after a number of fires. And some buildings can look almost exactly the same, despite changes in their purpose. The Antelope, now Indian restaurant Hajees Spices, is a good example. The banner advertising live Gaelic sport inside may have gone, and the Mitchell and Butlers sign may have been painted over, but the William Bloye antelope sculpture, the Holland W Hobbiss architect plaque, and all other exterior features remain the same. This is where Ben’s mindful eye comes into play. How had I never noticed the sundial at the top of building on the Baker Street side, the dial itself at a slight angle so as to face north, proclaiming to tell “the bright hours only”? Furthermore, how had I missed the hidden sign at the edge of Amer Tandoori, back from a time when the shop sold “fine furs”? Or the faded youth club sign a few doors down from the old Piccadilly Cinema? Or the hand-painted “Good Cheer Cellars” sign outside The Bear pub in Sparkhill (Ben also believes there’s a similar one at Ceol Castle on the Moseley Road)? Clearly, there’s a lot to be discovered along the Stratford Road if you scratch beneath the surface (and look up).
Dr. David Richardson
University of Birmingham Cultural Intern at Sampad