Saturday, 27 June 2015

This River Tame




As part of our project Brendan Hawthorne, Poet Laureate of Wednesbury, has written this wonderful poem about the river between Perry Bridges (in Perry Barr where the Holbrook comes in) and Salford Junction (in Nechells near where the Hockley Brook comes in). Brendan comes from a little further upstream, but traveled down to write and read 'This River Tame' at our walks and our closing event. Copyright Brendan Hawthorne 2015.

This River Tame

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Perry Bridges …
tandemspans leap
Built over two hundred years apart
The oldestzig-zag structure
now mirrored byJazz Age update
once ferried packhorsecargo
with lay-by refuge for muscle and cart
allowing ebb and flow commuting
toan ever-changing workplace estate

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Ryknield Street …
the famed mettle of Roman marches
reinforces an ancient footfall crossing
Here the memory of invasion is legion
and reflects on those gone before
Now an insightful water-meadow fording
giving rest to those whose myriad paths
have traversed these rippling shallows
from its warrened banks to its gentle shore

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Holford Mills …
Tame water is harnessed
Has driven the mill wheels of centuries
from cleansing wool to finery
shaped, cast and wrought
A darkened meandering river cutting
where blades were sharpened
and gun grey barrels bored
and a twist in the tale is bought

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Willow Grove …
an echo of a forgotten bridge
weeps the lime green willows low
Bowing sentinels to bygone pathways
and custodians of the lions roar
Waters erode the shifting footprints
of its diverse labouring people
A place where joyous arcs spring
and fountains rainbows soar

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Witton Bridge …
turquoise waters bled from Kynoch’s copper casings
Outfalls from packing ammunition for sport and war
The elements of alloys and allies drifted unhindered
channeled along these bends of blends to dilution
at an ancient muddy low point intersection
made rank and foul by nature
now passive in looks and demeanor
once crossed by trades of expanding conurbation

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Electric Avenue …
there’s a street with buzz
where three-phase currents co-exist
along this broad thoroughfare
From nearby,wavelets of river flow
and the spirit-breath of air turbulence
thatswitch to bridge rectification
in bluest tungsten filament light
where energy sparks and lanterns glow

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Salford Park …
some say this drinking water reservoir
is the oldest in all this land
Hollowed out to slake the thirst of workers
and all its nearby tempered forges
Collecting libation for Birmingham’s
ever-growing unquenched demand
An interchange where sweat dries
anda region’s demand engorges

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Hawthorn Brook …
the healing nature is of tame confluence and direction
Where mystical scrates are lost to road
and yet remain enigmatic by design
Hosting shelter from search light bombings raids
seeking sight and range on wartime munitions
Their ghosts and stories are still here
in whispers along cuttings and skyways
waiting to be heard before cadence fades

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

At Hockley Brook …
along the way from olden Scraford
a trinity of canals link arms unnoticed
Set in the shadows of Bromford ‘duct
where glory days of construction last
a source emerges that once powered Soho
Its fame and fortunes cast at this point
asrail and canal meet river and brook
delivering another layer to cover your past

This River Tame
Grey metallic silk artery of revolutionary industries
This River Tame
Bends at will and yet re-formed for greater design
This River Tame
Omnipresent friend silent and sometimes unseen
This River Tame
Seemingly forever rolling the gravel pits of time

Thursday, 18 June 2015

"One of the Most Perfect Little Paradises": Perry Pont House

Perry Pont House in 1909. In 1833 Mr. & Mrs. Osborn held a lawn party in a
tent here "to partake of a handsome cold collation [cold food]" in 
celebration of the consecration of the nearby church to St. John. A 
musical band played and fifty-four rounds of cannon fire were set off.   

In Perry Barr, at the place where the river curves sharply just before it comes upon Perry Bridge (taking traffic over the Aldridge Road), a little island of land is formed, hemmed in by the river on two sides and the road on one. It was here that wine merchant and coal dealer, William Henry Osborn, created "one of the most perfect little paradises which any man could desire", or so it was said by those surveying the new Grand Junction Railway in 1838. On the site stood Perry Pont House (a Georgian six bedroomed villa), a walled garden, several different kinds of trees, gardens, as well as meadows leading down to the, then, meandering river; it was a beautiful spot. Osborn was a keen gardener and achieved green-fingered 'fame' for growing a perfect green rose at Perry Pont, as well as the first to officially record the Elford Pippin apple (apparently, a delicious dessert fruit), and appeared in Regency botanical publications such as The Floral Cabinet.

Considering his love of the garden it seems likely that it was Osborn that turned the grounds of Perry Pont onto a wondrous park of outdoor curiosities, as in 1938 it was described that throughout the grounds were grottoes, statues and other follies, including a miniature church. The church could contain six people, and was complete with font and altar. One folly had an arched entrance and stained glass windows , with oyster shells set into the roof, another had a miniature of Cleopatra's Needle at the entrance and inside a mosaic floor made of horses teeth and animal bones; its stained glass was filled with imagery of unicorns and lions. Some follies had collapsed, but one that had survived was described in detail: 
"only a glimmer of light oozes through air holes in the rock roof. The pillar is coated with pearly coloured oyster shells, interlaced with ribs of polished black stone and coral; on the walls are more oyster shells and pieces of shiny stone. At one side there is a miniature fire-place, its mantel-shelf decorated with pearly shells. And at intervals around the walls are small niches." 
Below is the "entrance to a secret passage". 

Entrance to a secret passage at Perry Pont, 1909.
Entrance to the miniature church, 1938.
Stool found at Perry Pont in 1909, which had the inscription
that it was made from part of the root of the tree which
Charles II sheltered within in 1651 after the Battle of
Worcester. The householders seem to have had a taste
for curiosities. 

By 1938 the river was dirty and muddy; its situation as a beauty spot diminished, and the house was planned to be demolished and replaced by industry. This may have taken several decades, as the house can be seen on maps through and after the war period, but by the 1960s the site was a builders' yard.

NOTES
William Henry Osborn died on 21 December 1862, and his wife, Mary Ann, on 8 May 1869.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Serpentine & the Aston Tavern

Aston Church with the River Tame nearby, before the railway
cut it away from Aston village. 

Today the River Tame seems to skirt past the Aston area; taking a sharp turn under Witton Bridge, and then creeping behind the houses and industries of Tame Road, only to emerge under the Aston Expressway at the other end of Witton. But the old village of Aston grew up along the river, its shape determined by it and especially a large meander, later called the Serpentine. The Tame and its meander formed the north-east border of what was called Aston Manor, a smaller administrative division in the huge parish of Aston, set out at least by the time of George III.* This watery boundary line stretched from Witton Bridge (where the Shire Brook once joined the Tame, forming itself the north-west boundary) to just past Salford Bridge, where the Hockley Brook comes in (which formed the south-east boundary).

The Manor of Aston contained the central hub of Aston Parish; the village, the parish church, and the great manor house called Aston Hall (with its historic deer park), but when the Grand Junction Railway was driven through the area, it drew a line separating the river from Aston Manor. The Serpentine, the meander which lurched too deeply into the village of Aston, was also cut away by the railroad, and left as a motionless arc shaped pool. More pools formed at its centre, and the nearby Aston Tavern utilised the picturesque ‘Old River Tame’ at the bottom of its sloping ornamental ‘tea gardens’ and platforms were erected for fishing (which was, apparently, excellent, and one of the favourite spots around Birmingham). Further from the Tavern, boathouses were built, and you can imagine summer afternoons with the paddles sweeping against the water, and Victorian ladies reclining with their parasols. It was described in 1838 that the Aston Tavern attracted “a great deal of company in fine weather, from the pleasantness of the situation and the taste displayed in the laying out of the ground”. Its situation during the nineteenth century was a fine one; it stood with a number of other buildings (some timber-built Tudor constructions) along what was called Aston Street (now Witton Lane), with the Holte Almshouses (completed 1656, see images below) standing opposite.

Looking down Aston Street from outside the Aston Tavern in 1897, with
the Holte Almshouses on the other side.
Holte Almshouses.
Aston Street with the Old Aston Tavern on the left, during
the days when the gardens behind led to a picturesque
river remnant; the Serpentine.
The Old Aston Tavern shortly before demolition and rebuild,
with the spire of Aston Church behind.

Moving the River Tame, in 1838, was not the easiest of tasks. The new course was dug out, but the railway line needed to be raised on an embankment to protect it from floods (where it still resides) which kept collapsing, as the riverside ground consisted of thousands of years of soft river deposit. It was the local gravel that saved the day, and was built up to form a firm foundation for the embankment that would support the heavy traffic on top. These setbacks caused a substantial delay, and the workmen worked “by sunlight and by moonlight” to get the line ready for its official opening.

There has been a settlement near the river here since at least Saxon times, with a moated manor house on the banks of the river just south of where Witton Bridge is today; this was early Aston, though the Saxon’s called it Enstone. Although the house had disappeared, the moat was still drawn into the ground in the days of Birmingham’s first historian, William Hutton (1782), who noted that the trenches were often flooded by the river. After the Saxon’s fell, the Domesday Book describes 44 inhabitants, one being a priest (suggesting that the church was already built), as well as a mill, which would have been water powered and situated along the Tame. Although probably older, evidence of the village on the banks of the Serpentine Tame can be traced back to the thirteenth century, with finds of pottery (such as cooking pots), a medieval stone wall, and what seem like drainage channels to the river discovered during archaeological digs. Traces of an orchard from the fifteenth and/or sixteenth centuries were also found. It is also possible that a predecessor to the Aston Tavern may have stood on the site in the eighteenth century, as drinking vessels and handled mugs from that period were found during excavations.

Aston Hall with the Grand Junction Railway passing.

In more modern times, the great curve and pools of the Serpentine began to silt up and were eventually filled in. In the 20th century the ancient Onion Fair was moved out of the city centre to the suburbs, and by 1914 had moved to the ‘Serpentine Grounds’. The annual fair remained on this site till about the 1960s or early 1970s.

Birmingham Onion Fair Week. Birmingham Gazette, 1 October 1915.


NOTES

* The parish of Aston was huge and contained a number of administrative divisions: these were Bordesley, Castle Bromwich, Deritend, Duddeston & Nechells, Erdington, Little Bromwich, Saltley & Washwood, Witton and Water Orton. Only Bordesley and Deritend (and the Duddeston part of Duddeston & Nechells) did not have the River Tame as part of their boundaries.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Perry Bridges and the Holford

View of Perry Hall (c. 1725), by Thomas Bardwell. Held at BMAG.

After forming the boundary between Birmingham and Sandwell through Sandwell Valley Nature Reserve and Hamstead, the River Tame enters Birmingham through Perry Barr, meandering gently round the tatty industrial estates near Hamstead Station and through the green expanse of Perry Hall Park. The ‘Perry Hall’ part is a reminder of a red brick Elizabethan moated mansion that stood in the park till its demolition in about 1929 (see image above). Although the house passed through a number of hands, it is generally remembered as the seat of the Gough family, who owned much of the land around where the River Tame took its course through the green open scenery that was this part of Staffordshire at the time (Perry Barr was part of Staffordshire till 1924 when it became incorporated as part of Birmingham). The many generations of Gough’s that lived at Perry Hall used the Tame for fishing and boating. As the river leaves the park it is hidden from all but those who go looking for it; it has been diverted past the One Stop Shopping Centre and Perry Barr Greyhound Stadium, before it slips quietly under the Aldridge Road.

It is here, at the Aldridge Road, that you can (with a small climb over a railing) get down to the river and begin to follow it downstream, not far from where a little stream called the Holbrook joins the Tame. It is thought that this was the point that King Charles I crossed the River Tame, over a little wooden bridge, on his way to Aston Hall when that building was being attacked. Kingstanding, nearby, is said to be named from this royal visit too. By 1711 a new stone bridge had replaced the wooden one and the road it supported was turnpiked (tolls were collected along it); this bridge was erected with twelve arches, showing that the river was once wider and shallower, but all but four are now blocked up. At over 300 years old, the bridge, locally known as the Zigzag Bridge, is Birmingham’s oldest structure. This crossing is probably relatively new, usurping the old Holford, an ancient crossing that was about 200 yards further downstream. The Zigzag Bridge was itself usurped in 1932 when the Aldridge Road was widened to support the traffic of the 20th century and a new Art Deco bridge was constructed adjacent to the stone one. The old bridge, now, is reserved for pedestrians and Pooh Sticks.
Postcard of Perry Bridge before 1930.
Perry Bridge today, with walkers on
our Tame Walk, by Richard Kiely.
Tame water at Perry Bridge, by Richard Kiely.

The ‘hol’ part of the names Holbrook and Holford comes from the word ‘holm’, meaning ‘water meadows’, and the area around here forms a flat, low landscape that would have flooded and formed these meadows. Archaeological digs around the river area suggest that this area was damp, open grassland since at least the third century AD, and before this the area had been wood and shrub land. The Holford, which was situated not far from where Elliott Way comes down to the Tame today, was the site where the Roman road Ryknield (sometimes pronounced Icknield (pink on our map)) Street is thought to have crossed the river. Today a pair of kingfishers is often seen skimming up and down the river here under the shadow of the M6 and electricity pylons, away from everyone apart from the most intrepid explorer. As you follow the river the signs of human life are only the hum from the motorway, and the clanking of machinery from the industries whose back walls line the river, and rabbits hop away surprised if they see anyone walking along the river. It seems strange that this band of green and serenity streaks through the industrial estates of Perry Barr, and on, into Witton.

Victorian Tame looking upstream from the site of the old
Holford (Ryknield Street)........
........and a similar viewpoint today,
taken May 3rd 2015 by Richard Kiely.