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AN ASTON TOUR

27-06-2008

Aston Hall

It’s one of Birmingham’s oldest suburbs, and as Dave Woodhall discovers it’s got loads more to offer than grim newspaper headlines and a Premiership football team.

One of the great joys of Birmingham is the ability to come across undiscovered gems.

Walk around most of the inner city areas and you’ll soon find a wonderful old building. A pub, a disused factory or maybe a row of houses.

They might not seem much on first glance, but take a closer look and you’ll notice classic examples of Victorian, and sometimes earlier, architecture that can often provide a fascinating glimpse of a time when the workshop of the world was growing at an unprecedented rate.

For decades this history was destroyed or ignored, but recent years have led to an upsurge in social history and such events as last Saturday’s Aston Heritage Day.

The idea was simple – take a dozen local landmarks, and either provide information or guided tours around them. Unfortunately the weather was none too kind but the rest of the day was fascinating.

Starting off with possibly the oldest site in the city in continuous use, Aston Parish Church, dating in parts back to the fourteenth century and earlier. Tens of thousands regularly walk past here, but hardly any so much as think about it.

This was only the second time I’ve been through its doors, and the scale of the place is staggering; proof that in days gone by Aston was an area of great wealth and importance.

From the oldest building in Aston to the best-known, Villa Park. Building work and the fact that the club is now a seven-days-a-week commercial enterprise limited visitors to just one small part of the Witton Lane stand (I still refuse to call it by any other name), which is where the Villain radio station is housed.

For me this was the most disappointing part of the day; it wouldn’t have been too difficult to allow a view of the pitch and have a guide on hand to give a brief rundown of the club’s history.

Never mind, onto the Transport Museum, also on Witton Lane. If you’re used to interactive, hands-on centres of learning this is a real culture shock. Old buses, old bus engines, bits of old bus engines. It’s not exactly state of the art, but it’s a real nostalgia fest.

My favourite part was an old Midland Red mirror that reminded drivers and conductors to smarten their appearance and make sure their uniforms were tidy. Perhaps Mr Bateman might explain what happened there.

Then it was down to the Jame Masjid mosque, still better known by its original name the Saddam Hussein. It was disappointing to see that few people had made the effort to visit here; the mosque officials on duty virtually threw themselves at me in an attempt to show me their place of worship.

I learned more about Islam in ten minutes than I’ve ever known. If more people took the trouble to understand, we could help rectify one of the most damaging misconceptions of the modern world.

Then it was onto the collection of Victorian buildings centred around Witton Road – the fire station, library (with original features Sara Beeney & co would die for) and Christchurch, the latter now private homes owned by the Mercian Housing Association.

This organisation were consulting visitors about community art – one of the themes mentioned was a sculpture of a broken gun, which seems to me a perfect message to convey from an area that has received more than enough bad publicity due to this subject.

Unfortunately, the old magistrates court now used by the Kajans training group seemed closed.

The most surprising part of the tour took place at the Sacred Heart church. Again, it’s a building I’ve travelled past many times and took absolutely no notice, as it seems from the outside to be an ordinary-looking building of no significance. Inside, though, is the most spectacular mosaic ceiling, made from imported Belgian and Italian materials, the entire roof supported by marble columns.

By now the rain had returned as I made my way to the highspot of any Astonian tour, Aston Hall.

Built over a period of nineteen years by Sir Thomas Holte and finally finished in 1635, the hall is one of the finest family homes of its era and is at long last being restored to much of its original splendour. This confined visitors to a small area of the great hall (it’s closed to the public until next year) where staff were on hand to explain what’s happening birth in the hall and the surrounding area.

And from the oldest building to the newest – a tour of the Drum showing the sort of technology that goes into a state of the art media complex. And finally, the Barton’s Arms, which has one of the finest pub interiors anywhere in the world and beer to match made a fitting end to an enjoyable and informative day.

Although the weather kept numbers down that made the tours even more interesting as in most cases they were conducted individually. I found out a lot that I didn’t know, had a few misconceptions altered and I’m sure there are many areas of the West Midlands where such an event could take place.

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