02 May 2011

There’s more to Birmingham than Crufts and the Bullring

A multilingual and multicultural welcome to Birmingham and its cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

I have a feeling that most Irish tourists in England give Birmingham a wide berth. Unless they are going to the Crufts Dog Show in March, the Horse of the Year Show in October, or an exhibition at the NEC, most of my friends think of Birmingham as an airport or a railway station to be passed through on the way to somewhere else.

It was a city once loved by Daniel O’Connell, who held many rallies here in the early 19th century. Today, Birmingham has 2½ times more Irish-born residents than any other part of England, and at times its Saint Patrick’s Day Parade has been the second largest in the world, ranked only behind New York. But, understandably, many Irish people shy away from Birmingham, remembering the horrors of the Birmingham bombings of 1974, and recalling the miscarriage of justice in the trial of the “Birmingham Six.”

Not even mention of cricket at Edgbaston, Aston Villa games at Villa Park, or a Bees rugby match at Damson Park can convince my friends that Birmingham is worth a stopover. They may have embedded memories of trying to negotiate “Spaghetti Junction,” hours on platforms waiting for connections at New Street Station, or images of brash 1960s architecture.

Birmingham has no castle, no port and no great river. Yet it was childhood memories of the landscape that inspired JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954/1955). Birmingham has art galleries, theatres, concert halls and universities, and is home to orchestras and to the Birmingham Royal Ballet, formerly the Sadler’s Wells Ballet.

Woodbrooke, Europe’s only Quaker Study Centre, is based in the former family home near Bourneville of the Birmingham chocolate maker, George Cadbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2007)

This city is also the home of Cadbury’s chocolate, Bird’s custard and the Moody Blues. Its suburbs include Bourneville, one of the most advanced experiments in social housing. With a population of over a million, this is England’s second city, transformed over the centuries from an agriculturally insignificant village in the 1200s into one of the greatest industrial cities in the world.

The mediaeval and the modern

Saint Martin’s Church in the Bullring is 19th century Victorian Gothic revival on the outside, but inside has 12th and 13th century carvings and tombs (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The site of the Bullring, close to Saint Martin’s Church, is the city’s historic market centre. It began life in 1166 when Birmingham received a charter for its own market. From mediaeval times, the town was served by the ancient and parish church of Saint Martin’s. Although now clad in 19th century restoration work, it may date back to a simple place of worship in Saxon times. We can be certain there has been a church on the site since 1290, and the interior still has carvings and tombs dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries.

The town grew significantly in the 17th century, but a new parish was not formed until 1708, in the reign of Queen Anne. The new area of High Town stood at Birmingham’s highest point, and the panorama from Saint Martin’s was one of splendid houses gracing the hilltop.

The town became a city and acquired international prominence in the 18th century when it was at the heart of both the Midlands Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. At the core of these movements were the members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham, including the botanist Erasmus Darwin, the steam pioneers Matthew Boulton and James Watt, the chemist Joseph Priestley, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, the chemist James Keir and the author and abolitionist Thomas Day.

The story of this intellectual and creative circle has been told by Jenny Uglow in her book The Lunar Men (2002). They also included the author Anna Seward, the painter Joseph Wright of Derby, the lexicographer Samuel Johnson – who, like Erasmus Darwin and Anna Seward, also hailed from Lichfield – the typographer John Baskerville, the poet and landscape gardener William Shenstone, and the architects James and Samuel Wyatt.

In the 1960s, the market site at the old Bullring became a celebrated example of revolutionary urban planning with the development of one of the largest enclosed shopping centres outside the US. The three symbols of the era became the circular Rotunda building, the swathe of ring roads, and the Bullring Shopping Centre, which opened in 1964.

Selfridges in the Bullring has become a modern architectural symbol of Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

But by the 1980s, the Bullring was tired and jaded, and the city was left with only one department store even though it was a leading centre for business and culture. The redevelopment of the 40-acre Bullring site was the catalyst for transforming the city into a world-class retail capital. Drawing on Birmingham’s historic street patterns, the Bullring became a series of traditional streets, squares and open spaces, linking once again New Street and High Street with Saint Martin’s Church, the open markets and beyond. As part of this development, landmark buildings such as the Rotunda, the old Moor Street Station, and Saint Martin’s Church have been cleaned up and restored, and long-lost historic street names have been reintroduced.

The Rotunda is 81 metres tall, was built in 1965, refurbished in 2004-2008, and reopened in May 2008 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Churches and cathedrals

In the midst of this modern glass and steel, Saint Martin’s stands out as the historic building in the Bullring. Most of the church as it stands today is 19th century Victorian Gothic work dating from 1873 and designed by Alfred Chatwin (1830-1907) from Birmingham, who had worked with Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin on the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

Saint Chad’s Cathedral, Birmingham ... designed by Pugin about the same time as many of his churches in Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Birmingham’s best example of Gothic Revival is Saint Chad’s Cathedral – the first Roman Catholic cathedral built in England since the Reformation. Built by Pugin in 1839-1841, it became a cathedral in 1850. In the canopy above the altar is a shrine with some relics of Saint Chad, rescued from Lichfield Cathedral by Canon Arthur Dudley at the height of the Reformation, about 1538.

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, seen from Colmore Row (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

In contrast, the neighbouring Church of England cathedral, Saint Philip’s, is the third smallest cathedral in England, after Derby and Chelmsford.

When the new Church of England parish in High Town was created in 1708, it was decided that Saint Philip’s, the new parish church, would be a major feature of the cityscape. The local architect chosen for this project, Thomas Archer (1668-1743), had recently completed the Grand Tour of Europe. Italian architecture, especially the work of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, had left a deep impression on him, and he had formed a friendship with Francesco Borromini.

This was Archer’s first church, and the initial estimate put building costs at £20,000. However, many of the materials were donated and transported at no cost, and the final figure was only £5,073 13s 10d – about £660,000 at today’s prices. The church was consecrated in 1715, and was dedicated to Saint Philip the Apostle in a tribute to the Philips family who donated the site. The tower was completed by 1725, and King George I granted £600 towards the final stages of completion.

Baroque influenced by Borromini

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, with Chatwin’s chancel and the east windows by Burne-Jones (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Archer’s baroque design is more Italianate than Christopher Wren’s London churches, and reflects Borromini’s influence. The interior is a rectangular hall with aisles separated from the nave by fluted pillars of classical form, with Tuscan capitals supporting an arcade surmounted by a heavily projecting cornice. The wooden galleries, stretched between the pillars, are typical of English baroque churches.

Externally, the building is surrounded by tall windows between pilasters of low relief, supporting a balustrade at roof level with an urn rising above each pilaster. The western end is marked by a single tower rising in stages and surmounted by a dome and lantern. The building is of brick, and is faced with stone quarried on Archer’s estate at Umberslade, outside Birmingham.

By the late 19th century, as the elevation of Saint Philip’s to cathedral status became a possibility, Chatwin extended the eastern apse in 1884-1888 into a larger chancel, making space for a bishop’s throne, and stalls for a provost, archdeacon, canons and choir. His bold design is enriched by the marble surfaces of the columns and pilasters, the gilded capitals and cornice and the ornate ceiling.

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, reflected in the Royal Bank of Scotland building in Saint Philip’s Place (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

A local heiress, Emma Chadwick Villiers-Wilkes, donated three new East Windows by the Pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898), who was born nearby in Bennett’s Hill and baptised in Saint Philip’s. His windows depict the Ascension (centre east, 1885), the Nativity (north-east, 1887) and the Crucifixion (south-east, 1887). Burne-Jones also donated a fourth window at the West End, the Last Judgment (1887), in memory of Bishop Henry Bowlby of Coventry, a former rector of Saint Philip’s.

Peter Ball’s cross in the north aisle is made from a simple wooden sleeper, the Crucified Christ from copper and bronze foil (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As Birmingham expanded in the 18th and 19th centuries, the number of new parishes grew too. Birmingham became a city in 1889, and – thanks to the efforts of Birmingham’s most famous statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, and Bishop Charles Gore of Worcester – a new Diocese of Birmingham was formed in 1905.

During World War II, the cathedral was bombed and set ablaze on 7 November 1940. By then, the Burne-Jones windows had been moved to safety in a mineshaft on the Welsh borders and they were replaced, unharmed, when the cathedral was restored in 1948.

Two box pews at the back of Saint Philip’s are reminders of the original appearance of the interior of Saint Philip’s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Two box pews at the back of Saint Philip’s are reminders of the original appearance of the interior, with its oak pews complete with doors and brass fittings. The organ by Thomas Schwarbrick (1715) has been enlarged, repaired and relocated at various stages over the last three centuries. The churchyard, covering four acres, includes a monument to two men who died during the building of Birmingham Town Hall and a memorial to victims of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974.

Bronze door handles in the south aisle, finely fashioned as three-winged heads of a lion and bull, symbols of the evangelists Saint Mark and Saint Luke (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Gore’s Irish ancestors

A statue of Bishop Charles Gore (1853-1932), vested in convocation robes and with his right hand raised in blessing, stands at the west entrance. Gore, who became the first Bishop of Birmingham in 1905, was one of the greatest English theologians. He was a socialist and the leading Anglo-Catholic of the day, edited Lux Mundi (1889), and was the founder of the Community of the Resurrection in 1892.

Bishop Charles Gore, the first Bishop of Birmingham, was the son of Irish-born parents. His statue stands at the west entrance of the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Gore’s father, Charles Gore (1813-1897), grew up in Dublin, where he was a page in the Vicergal Lodge – now Áras an Uachtaráin; Gore’s mother, the widowed Countess of Kerry, was born Lady Augusta Ponsonby (1814-1904), and hailed from Bessborough, Co Kilkenny.

Bishop Charles Gore’s coat-of-arms as Bishop of Birmingham (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

As a canon of Westminster Abbey, Gore enjoyed showing visitors the tomb of his ancestor the Earl of Kerry, with an inscription that ends with the words (in double quotation marks): “Hang all the law and the prophets.” On closer inspection, he would point out, the words are preceded by “... ever studious to fulfil those two great commandments on which he had been taught by his divine Master ...”

Bishop Gore’s statue stands directly beneath the dome and cupola of the cathedral, unique for an English cathedral. Archer modelled them on the mid-17th century dome of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice. But then Birmingham has more canals than Venice –Birmingham has 35 miles, Venice only 26 miles – yet another reason for discovering and enjoying the capital of the English Midlands.

The Right Revd David Andrew Urquhart became the ninth Bishop of Birmingham in 2006 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2006)

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay was first published in the May 2011 editions of the Church Review (Diocese of Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Diocese of Cashel and Ossory).

Saint Philip’s Cathedral, seen from Cherry Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

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