Sunday, 7 July 2013

Pubs of Digbeth walk, 29 June

On Saturday 29 June we co-hosted the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Love Architecture Pubs tour of Digbeth. It was led by architect and urban designer, Joe Holyoak and we were joined by people interested in architecture, Digbeth and, crucially, pubs...

We started at The Woodman by Millennium Point which has recently been granted planning permission for renovations and to be reopened. The architecture was by James and Lister Lea who were responsible for designing a number of pubs in the Digbeth area during the late nineteenth century – they’re easy to spot by their red bricks and terracotta decorations. The next pub, also a James and Lister Lea, was the Eagle and Tun. Now boarded up, it was once frequented by UB40 whose recording studios were just round the corner – the interior features in the video for Red Red Wine and there’s an article about it here.

At one time there was a pub on virtually every other street in Digbeth; we learnt that they were mostly on street corners in order to maximise passing trade. Some were purpose-built as public houses and others were converted from domestic buildings, such as the ex-Spotted Dog on Meriden Street.

On the tour, we also passed other pubs no longer in operation such as The Old Wharf on Coventry Street, which was known for its Heavy Metal clientele and gigs and only closed in recent years. I went there a couple of years ago (and it was Metal) so that must have been very soon before it closed. It had a small stage in the gig room and the whole interior back room was painted with images of bands from through the ages.

After The Old Wharf, we passed the Birmingham Packpackers. This ex-pub on the corner of Coventry Street was built in the 1920s and is of a notably different style to the grand James and Lister Lea pubs. At the start of the twentieth century there was increasing concern about drinking and pub environments - as such, new pubs were built in a more domestic style. The Spotted Dog on Alcester Street is another pub that would appear to fit this style.

Towards the end of the walk we went into The Anchor and The White Swan on Bradford Street to see the interiors; both are James and Lister Lea and are definitely worth a visit. The White Swan still has its original Minton tiles and both pubs retain much of their original character.

We ended in The Old Crown which archaeological investigations date to the late fifteenth century - so, far more ancient than the other architecture we’d already seen. The building began life as the Guildhall and School of the Guild of St John the Baptist of Deritend (the church of St Johns used to stand on the other side of the road) and didn’t become a pub until the nineteenth century. The building has a long and fascinating history which is well worth investigating, including that it was used as a safe house during the English Civil War.

Some fascinating themes emerged from the histories of these pubs and the people who we spoke to on the walk. Firstly, and in contrast to now, pre-Second World War, Digbeth was a densely populated area with terraces, back-to-back housing and factories crammed in with a multitude of pubs serving the community. Now many of these pubs have gone but their traces can still be seen on street corners throughout modern-day Digbeth. Another consistent theme is the sometimes difficult dynamic between residents and pubs, particularly music venues of which there have historically been a lot in Digbeth. Noise complaints have frequently threatened the survival of pubs - The Rainbow on Adderley Street had a very narrow escape from closure a couple of years ago, and The Spotted Dog with its legendary Jazz and Irish music nights has been more recently threatened. The industrial nature of the area was commented on by our fellow walkers, as well as the fact that many of them hadn’t been into the pubs here before but that they certainly would again.

All in all, we had a fantastic day and spoke to some great people - this was thanks to everyone on the tour, the pubs of Digbeth and a few pints along the way! The message is: go and explore Digbeth’s great pub heritage!

For anyone interested in finding out more, Joe Holyoak has highly recommended the following books: Birmingham Pubs 1880-1939 by Alan Crawford, Michael Dunn and Robert Thorne; the Birmingham edition of Pevsner Architectural Guides to Birmingham; CAMRA’s Britain’s Best Real Heritage Pubs, Pub Interiors of Outstanding Historic Interest by Geoff Brandwood.  The Midlands Pubs website is also an excellent source of information on Birmingham’s pubs.

Katie Hall

1 comment:

  1. That was one walk that I'd love to have been on, but I was unable to attend. I'm sure I'd have learned a lot even though I've covered all of Digbeth's pubs in my blog Pubs: Then and Now (