Be a tourist in your own back yard – Up The Cape

Last Sunday my husband and I went ‘Up the Cape’ with Ian Jelf, a Blue Badge Tourist 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 fify 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 trade mark 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 Mans 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,i t 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 Pankhust 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.

The April Shopping Challenge

Following on from my post yesterday, about living on a low budget, here is my spend today. All bought in Aldi. I am going to make toad in the hole, working out at £1.11 per portion including mashed potatoes and vegetables and baked beans. This again takes me over the £1 Live Below the Line budget so I can see that I need to some serious re thinking if I decide to take on that challenge.

 £       0.18 potatoes  £          1.99
broccoli  £          0.49
 £       0.31 baked beans  £          1.25
 £       0.33 Sausages  £          1.99
toothpaste  £          0.69
toilet cleaner  £          0.85
Handwash  £          0.75
 £          8.01

After all the comments about how IDS can live on £53 per week (not if he eats a £39 breakfast, he can’t) I am continuing to track my spending for a month. I am also using ingredients from my store cupboard and discovering what lurks in the freezer, and costing out all meals. At the end of April I should have a pretty good picture as to what it actually costs to feed 3 adults and to keep a house relatively clean. If we eat out, I will also add that to the spend.

And because I rant on all the time about how shopping locally is the only way to keep what is left of our high street alive, I am only using shops withing walking distance of my home. Which means shopping only in Bearwood.

Bearwood is in Smethwick, predominately in the Abbey Ward of Sandwell. It is bordered on three sides by the Harborne Ward in Birmingham. The high street like many others has a number of empty shops.  Arguably, a major contribution to the decline of this particular high street was when Morrisons took over and then closed the Safeway store, in which the post office was located, so we lost a post office as well as a large supermarket. For quite a while the lot stood vacant. Eventually Aldi and Argos took over the space and bit by bit some shoppers returned. Yet shopping habits had changed, a big retail park including a new indoor market and a huge Asda had opened at Cape Hill, and Bearwood really was never the same.

Shopping locally has it challenges due to lack of good independents or a market selling fresh produce. Bearwood has numerous charity shops, a handful of pawnbrokers and betting shops. Poundland wanted the prime space that was occupied by a green grocer and the big boys won so we lost that too. In addition to Aldi, Bearwood has a small Co Op (limited range and quite expensive), a Tesco Express at the other end of the high street and an Iceland. There are 4 butchers, yet not one supplies organic or free range meat.

International Food and Atlantic Grocers are independents that migrants have opened and are gems for ethnic food and some vegetables. Two African/Caribbean shops have also recently opened, again selling items not found in most supermarkets. There are no independent bakers, Firkins has just closed which leaves us Greggs if we want anything approaching fresh bread.

About a year ago I took part in the 4 week Shopping in Bearwood Challenge, an inspired experiment of one of the founding members of The Bearwood Pantry. We were all involved in the Portas Pilot bid and we took part, as an evidence base to find out what the local high street needed and what it already had. It was a useful and interesting experiment that led to the formation of a food cooperative, Bearwood Pantry who source meat and vegetables direct from the farm and handmade bread from Ubuntu. Membership has grown, they have recently received a pot of funding, which is marvelous news. And perhaps this is the future for people who want good quality food and want to avoid the supermarkets.

Through the Portas Pilot bid I got in touch with some of the other towns going through the process, one of which was Warwick and started to follow @WarwickTweetUp on Twitter. This week I discovered that Todd who is @WarwickTweetUp  is carrying out a similar challenge, Todd Buys Local in April. His experience in Warwick will be different to shopping in Bearwood I am sure. Nonetheless an interesting one that I will follow. His is more about what he can source in Warwick and not about how much one spends to live in the UK today. Warwick also seems that have lot of lovely independents and some good coffee shops. And a decent pub.

Coffee shops (and pubs) are a blog subject for another day. However, if you want to trawl back over past posts you will see I have written about coffee shops too. Well once you have had Melbourne coffee, the bar is set high and that is my excuse and I am sticking to it.

A sense of identity, or if I’m not a Brummie, what am I?

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Today, Birmingham City Council hosted a meeting to discuss what it means to be a Brummie. It had a hashtag on Twitter  #mybrum so interested parties could follow the discussion and even watch the meeting online.

My first thought was, can this be true, the council are meeting to discuss what it means to be a Brummie? Yes it was true, even Carl Chinn, Brummie historian, was there.

My next thought was, am I a Brummie? I don’t think I am.

  • I was born in London. Yet I don’t qualify as a cockney nor consider myself a Londoner.
  • I left London when I was about 6 years old to live in Smethwick, Staffordshire. Then it became Smethwick, Worcestershire. It is now in Sandwell.
  • I lived in Bristol for 4 years.
  • I then lived and worked in London, Surrey and East Sussex for a few years.
  • I now live in Birmingham and have done for nearly 25 years now.

So I have spent the majority of my life living in Birmingham. But I wasn’t born here and none of my family were. My maternal family are from Smethwick, my paternal family are  from Norway, my father was born in South Africa.

So now this beginning to sound like ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Which is why I guess they wanted to know what it was that made people feel that they are a Brummie.

I then saw this report from the BBC: Birmingham: can people name England’s Second City?

Shocking that they don’t know very much about Birmingham, yet not surprising. Birmingham and the people live here, have in my opinion always undersold the city.

105-365 Bull at the Bull Ring, Birmingham

105-365 Bull at the Bull Ring, Birmingham (Photo credit: PaulSh)

Birmingham is home to The Mini, The Jewellery Quarter, Cadbury’s, HP Sauce,  and places that were inspiration for JRR Tolkein such as the Two Towers in the book, Lord of the Rings. It has three Michelin Star restaurants and an infamous Balti Triangle. And of course, The Bull Ring.

I am sure most of them will know the accent. Yet the accent changes from one street to another and often gets confused with the many Black Country dialects. A few weeks ago I was in Dudley and I asked a women for directions. I was only a few miles from my home. I hadn’t left the West Midlands County let alone the country. Friendly as she was, and she really was, because people round here are, she treated me as one would in another country. ‘Yowm not from round ere am ya?’ (Apologies for the poorly written dialect, I am not intending to poke fun, as they do a better job of it themselves.)

Brummies are quite rightly proud of their city. And I think it’s a city that gets better and better. I quite like living in Birmingham for now. Yet I am pretty sure I will not spend the rest of my life here. There are so many other places I want to see, so many other things to do, so many interesting people to meet. I have very itchy feet and no attachment to bricks and mortar and possessions. And no real attachment to Birmingham. Which is probably the real reason I am not a Brummie.