Friday, 7 February 2014


The Council House

We met up with Sally and Malcolm for our latest excursion. We have got into a run of urban walks and today it was the turn of Birmingham. Once we had managed to extricate ourselves from the maze of New Street station we walked along New Street, which remains a grand and characterful street - unlike say Oxford Street in London. I was especially taken with this building faced with pink terracotta.

We turned right into Bennett's Hill to pass the site of the house where the great Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones was born. At the top we found two fine bank buildings: the original Bennett's Bank on the left, now a bar. The inside was typically spacious.

Opposite, there is a one-time branch of Midland bank with external columns suggestive of a classical temple.

We now walked along Waterloo Road, developed no doubt in the 1820s and turned the corner at the end to be confronted with the imposing Council House - what would be called the city hall anywhere else. It was built between 1874 and 1879 and was designed by Yeoville Thomason. The sculpture in the pediment showing Britannia receiving the manufacturers of Birmingham. The mosaic above the main door is by Salviati of Murano.

In front is a water feature by the sculptor Dhruva Mistry called The river. It is apparently known by the locals as "the floozy in the jacuzzi". We somehow failed to spot Anthony Gormley's Iron:Man statue. One for next time.

In the background can be seen the Town Hall, an extraordinary Roman-revival building of 1834. The architects were Joseph Hansom (of Hansom cab fame) and Edward Welch. Hansom also designed the Roman Catholic cathedral in Arundel.

I have a map which names it as the Old Town Hall, as if the Council House was a later replacement, but it was in fact built as a Concert Hall and for public meetings. From Wikipedia, I learn that it was created as a new home for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival, which had been established in 1784 to raise funds for the General Hospital, after St Philip's church became too small.

We turned round the side of the Council House, where the entrance to the City Art Gallery can be found, and passed the monument of 1880 to Joseph Chamberlain in Chamberlain Square.

Next we went through the ambitiously named Paradise shopping centre to emerge in Centenary Square where the extraordinary new Library of Birmingham is located. It was designed by Francine Houben of the Dutch practice Meccanoo. It formally opened in September 2013.

We then passed through the International Conference Centre to reach the canal and detour to the right to see Gas Street Basin. This was where the Worcester and Birmingham Canal met the Birmingham Canal in 1773. The owners of the latter insisted on a physical barrier between the two canals and for 40 years, before a lock was built, cargoes had to be man-handled between the two.

Retracing our steps, we walked along the Birmingham Canal to another junction, known as Old Turn Junction, with a roundabout in the middle and turned right following the canal for a while and then leaving it to contune along Charlotte St in same direction.

This brought us to the Georgian St Paul's square, with St Paul's church (1779, by Roger Eykyn) in the centre.

From here, we followed Ludgate Hill and Church St to reach St Philip's Cathedral.

The first impression is that it is rather small to be a cathedral and it turns out that it was indeed built (in 1715; architect Thomas Archer) as a parish church. When Birmingham became a diocese in 1905, the first bishop decided that a new cathedral was not a priority and that an existing church should be adopted instead: St Philip's was chosen.

The cathedral has a pleasing 18th century air, and is in many ways similar to St Paul's church. Its crowning glory is four stained glass windows by Burne-Jones dating from 1885-7 and 1897 depicting the nativity, the crucifixion, the ascension and the last judgement. This is the nativity.

Temple St leads from the Cathedral back to New St. We stopped for an absolutely excellent lunch at San Carlo.

Conditions: delightfully bright and sunny, if quite cold.

Distance: three miles or so.

Rating: four and half stars. So much to see.

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