I had a glorious trip to the lovely Blakesley Hall yesterday and I had a truly spiffing time. The sun was out, it wasn’t raining or blowing a gale, so I was well pleased. I was, as some of you know from my tweets, quite disappointed to discover that most historic houses here in the Birmingham area are closed for winter. Imagine my great happiness when, on the night before last, I received a tweet about a private tour!
I’m always a little worried when I venture out somewhere on my own, especially in a big, sprawling city as Birmingham is, but it ended up being pretty straightforward. From Birmingham New Street Station, I took a train to Stechford (which is still in Birmingham) and from there walked straight down Station Road until I saw the brown sign (brown signs in the UK usually mark historic sites) and made a right into a pretty standard residential street…until…….this came into view. It’s quite surreal, to see so much 21st century stuff and suddenly, like in a time warp, there is a slice of 16th-and-17th-century life right there.
Get a load of the front…
The staff were very welcoming and we (a group of five – two couples and myself) were escorted around and into the Hall by the lovely lady who is in charge of the site. Most of the information in this article comes from that excellent tour, the Blakesley Hall Guide and finally, The Smalbroke Family of Birmingham 1550-1749 by Marie Fogg, both of which I purchased afterwards from the Hall’s gift shop.
The Hall was built around 1590 by the Smalbroke family, who owned land in the Yardley area. It is now owned by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Our talk was primarily focused upon prevention conservation of the building. The responsibilities are many, and include:
- prevent deterioration
- environmental monitoring
- grounds care (the gardens reflect a c17 home)
We started from the outside and worked our way in. The white was painted about a year ago and conservationists have encountered numerous problems with chipping, and a rather unfortunate reaction from applying lime to emulsion! There is some trouble from squirrels, which have a nasty habit of scratching the sides of the house and creating nests amongst the beams. I didn’t know squirrels could be such trouble.
I quite liked the aesthetics of the building, and found it was in very good condition.
The house looks remarkably new, and this is because it has had significant restoration work done to it, and this was done in several phases:
- In 1941, the house was bombed during WWII and this significantly impacted the house and took several years of restoration before it was opened to the public again, and that was 1955.
- In the 1980s, the interiors were reinterpreted.
- In 2002, a recipient of £1.2 million of Lottery money, the Hall had a Visitor’s Centre built, which I thought was very tasteful and open. There is a lovely mural at the entrance of the centre.
Our guide told us that the dark or blackened timbers we so often associate with structures from this time period is not accurate, and indeed, the darkening of these beams is a Victorian creation – made from bitumen, etc. More accurate Tudor/Stuart houses would have been lime-washed, and some accounts suggest that the wood would have been whitened as well.
There are words etched into the wood above the doorway read
OMN(I)POTENS D(OMI)N(U)S P(R)OTECTOR SIT DOM(US) HUI(US)
…or “May the Almighty Lord Protect this House.”
Some of the furniture are period pieces including the long table, which was made around 1620 – just look how beautifully carved it is. There was an interesting story that went along with this particular piece – the house was lived-in until 1932 and then the contents were put on sale. Items were scattered throughout the neighbouring villages and farms until 1976, when the items listed in the 1684 Inventory were sought and the table was found. In a way, I think it was lucky that so much was removed in the 30s, as in the 40s, the house was bombed!
In 1684, (during the last part of King Charles II’s reign), the Smalbroke family made an Inventory of the items inside the home. This inventory proved extremely valuable for learning about what kinds of things were used inside such a home in the 17th-century.
In 1685, Blakesley Hall was rented out, probably to farmers.
The fireback in the picture above is a replica, but it was still nice to see the ‘1638’ on it!
Do you see that hole in the wall? What do you think it was used for? That’s right – it was where the family kept their salt!
Let’s go upstairs now, shall we?
In what was probably the only silver lining in having been bombed, previously hidden 16th-century paintings were found by those who began the arduous process of repairing the damaged building. These walls were painted around 1610 and there are loads of images all over which symbolise fertility.
We all laughed when we heard about how fertile one of the hall’s ladies was – she had twelve children!
This next room has been furnished to look like a servant’s chamber, but in truth, servants would not have slept in this room, but rather in the attic or downstairs. You can see the walls have been white-washed in here:
I really liked how the wall bowed in this room, which added to the already great character of this old house:
The third bedchamber…
From this bedchamber, we could look down at the herb garden. The original one would not have been as ornate as this design is. The gardens are regularly maintained by visitors and organisations, which I thought quite nice:
We next moved down a few steps into an area which contained very old beams, which I believe we were told dated from the 1300s – perhaps this was from the original Mediaeval hall?
Now, back downstairs! The guide states that this kitchen – built with bricks in stead of the wattle-and-daub that the rest of the house was made with – was added around 1650.
The Boulting Room:
The Still Room, where the lady of the house would prepare medicinal concoctions, etc:
A constant theme was how costly running such an historic building is and how difficult is is to maintain the building without copious amounts of money. This bothered me, frankly, because I believe that a nation’s identity and heritage is tied into these historic sites. If people have money to squander on season football tickets, going out drinking every weekend, nails, etc, they certainly can contribute regularly to historic places such as this. And you know what’s worse? This property is one of the lucky ones. There are many many more scattered throughout the country that are falling into disrepair, are crumbling, and our history is crumbling with them. Just my two cents…
I would like to thank the staff at Blakesley Hall for memorable tour – which ended with some delicious coffee! I would also like to thank the very kind couple who thoughtfully offered me a ride back into the city centre – that saved me time and a very long walk back!
Whilst it is closed except for occasional tours (usually £7 pp) at the moment (winter months), the address is:
Blakesley Rd, Yardley, Birmingham, West Midlands B25 8RN
Therefore, if you happen to be in the area, I think it would be a good idea to see if there are any tours or events you could participate in, please look on the Blakesley Hall website.
I hope you enjoyed virtually visiting with me! x