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GIVING BIRMINGHAM A SPORTING CHANCE

05-10-2006

Steve Beauchampé is the co-author of "Played In Birmingham", the definitive history of the city's sporting heritage. Ahead of a talk at the Library Theatre next Monday, he shares some of most treasured discoveries he made during months of research.

You can live in a region for decades and still know relatively little of it's character, culture and built environment. Take sports grounds; in well over forty years of living and working in Birmingham (and as a non-driver who walks plenty), the history and appearance of most of the city's cricket and football grounds were a mystery to me, even more soit's bowling greens, tennis courts and snooker halls.

True, I'd often wondered what lay hidden down those little alleys and pathways between the neat rows of houses in Birmingham's suburbia, occasionally glimpsed a trace of grandstand or clubhouse from the top deck of a bus. I knew of Villa's Victorian dominance, of Blues' eternal cinderella status, of Moseley Rugby Club's fight to stay at The Reddings, of the glory of Moseley Road Baths and the amazing pavilion at Bournville.

Yet there was so much that I didn't know; such as Birmingham's pivotal role in the development of lawn tennis (the game was founded here), its wonderful collection of swimming pools, the scale and ambition of the Cadbury family's sporting and recreational infrastructure at Bournville and Rowheath.

Nor had I seen such architectural gems as the King Edwards School pavilion in Selly Oak, the clubhouse at Shirley Golf Club or the baronial surroundings of the bowling green at The Black Horse in Northfield. I didn't know that the first World Snooker Championships were played in John Bright Street or that the city boasted the world's largest works football league (so big that their annual awards ceremony was held over seven consecutive nights!).

And I had never, never heard of the Moorpool Estate in Harborne. In my experience, most Brummies haven't either. It's truly one of the city's best kept secrets and it's sporting infrastructure is quite wonderful.

Conceived in the early 1900s by John Sutton Nettlefold, first chairman of Birmingham Housing Committee and member of the Guest Keen Nettlefold (GKN) family, Moorpool (known until the 1990s as Harborne Tenants Estate) was redolent of the Garden City Movement of social housing pioneered by the likes of the Cadbury's at Bournville and the Lever family at Port Sunlight on the Wirral. At a time when most of Birmingham - indeed Britain's - working population lived in squalid back-to-backs or crammed into smoke-filled inner city terraces, Nettlefold's estate offered the luxury of a mere nine houses per acre (forty was the norm elsewhere) and the opportunity for all residents to own and manage their estate's affairs through a one household one vote scheme (universal suffrage years before women got the parliamentary vote).

Built between 1908 and 1913, no two of Moorpool's 500 houses are identical. Yet, like their close cousins at Bournville, many of the designs are inspired, with some properties accessed by little bridges, others down a collection of pathways and passageways.

No pubs (Nettlelfold was a Quaker and his ethos is maintained on the estate to this day), no Tesco superstores, the roads almost too narrow for today's increasingly monster-sized motors, 93 years on and the basic structure and idyllic lifestyle of Moorpool appears largely unscathed by the rush of modern life a mere quarter mile away on Harborne High Street.

Indeed, one resident told me that he wakes each morning. leaves his house and half expects to see Rupert the Bear and his pals walking down the road towards him.

Perhaps best of all, the estate boasts a raft of chocolate box-pretty sporting institutions.

Two tennis clubs, an enchanting bowling green, a rifle range (used by the Home Guard during World War II), a billiard hall (40p per game, tea 5p a cup, coffee 10p) where the chalk is lowered on pulleys placed above the tables and, naturally, a pool, where the Moorpool Fishing Club catch carp, tench, roach, perch and bream.

Yet of all the amenities provided at Moorpool, none is as unique, or indeed as curious, as that which sits hidden under Moorpool Hall (home of the Moorpool Players amateur dramatics group). The skittle alley of Moorpool Skittles Club, opened in 1913 at a time when regional skittle games were enjoying a revival, is one of only two that I know of left in Birmingham and, moreover, the only one left in Britain known to feature a both a flat alley and a crowned one.

Moor Pool skittles

Quite why such an odd design was engaged is unknown. What is known however, is that achieving a Round 30 - that is, knocking down all ten skittles three times in succession on the 'round' alley - is extremely difficult. So much so that it hasn't been done in over ten years! Inside, it really is as if time has stood still, with the bowling woods the same ones purchased in back during the reign King Edward.

Today, the Moorpool Estate is a conservation area, with the city council now pursuing a hands on approach to preserving and maintaining this unique enclave in what can often be a fast changing city.

So nowadays I often take a diversion down the alleys and pathways of Birmingham; who knows, there may be another hidden sporting oasis waiting to be discovered.

Steve Beauchampé and Simon Inglis talk about their book "Played in Birmingham" next Monday at 7.30 at the Library Theatre, Chamberlain Square, as part of Birmingham Book festival. Admission £5.

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