Sunday, 10 March 2013

Birmingham and Coventry

Howdy All,
Pretty boring week for me blogwise, mostly spent planning our upcoming holidays.  I'm also starting to feel like we are almost done here.  Lori and I are working on an inventory of items we need to get rid of before we head back and we have started talking about what we need to do once we arrive back home.  The last seventeen months actually went by pretty quickly when I think back.  Lots of vacations, twenty countries visited (hoping to hit twenty-five if everything works according to plan), quite a bit of pain/growth/learning as we adjusted to life in another country, and so much more to describe but today isn't the day for reflection.  Still to much ahead of us to start down that long happy/frustrating/amazing/painful road of reflection.

On Saturday we knocked off a couple of items I didn't plan on seeing but thanks to the "brilliant" English weather I threw them into the vacation plan (as opposed to walking a trail in the Peak District).  The first stop was in Birmingham (OZZZZZYYYYYYY!) to see the Back to Backs (Wiki link), a set of houses that reflect living conditions over multiple eras.  This was our first and probably last trip to Birmingham that didn't involve the airport.  Birmingham just wasn't high on my list of places to visit.  It is England's second biggest city by population (just over a million people per a couple of internet sources, London is number one at over seven million, Leeds is number three for the curious; stretch goal fact - according to Wiki "ber-ming-um" as the Brits say it is about the size of San Jose, California which is the tenth largest U.S. city) but it just didn't have a lot of attractions that interested us.  We love going to the airport and tip our cap to its Ozzy Osbourne birthplace heritage but other than that we don't have an urge to visit it.  But I did receive a favourable review of the Back to Backs (thanks Steve, it was worth the trip) so off we went to learn about Ber-ming-um's working past.

The front of the Back to Backs.  Not the original front as the houses fell into disrepair and were restored to what is thought to be historically accurate.

Scary stats there.

Just for you Christy Stine - check out the bed bug on the bottom right.  Pleasant dreams tonight!

Back to back explanation for the curious.  The answer to the second question is because Court 15 is though to be the last back to back houses left intact in England so its a fine example of their working heritage.

I just like charts.  Facts, figures, pictures, colour coding - what's not to like?

How do you fit houses so closely together?  Small stair cases.  I found myself walking next to the wall on a couple of flights so my feet would have a little wood underneath them at least.  Karl's 12's are about to clown walk down this flight.

The courtyard which is smaller than most per our average docent.  She did an okay job but the guides on these tour really make or break the experience.  She did know enough to keep us interested almost to the end.

On the left are two houses and a few baby buggies.  The houses were about fifteen feet wide by twelve feet deep with one room per the three stories.  One of the recordings they played for us was an older man recalling life in one of these houses.  He said there were ten people in his house which meant they were to many to fit in the kitchen/dining area so they either ate in shifts or took their food to the roofs and ate there.  A couple more tidbits were four kids sleeping head to toe on a double bed and mothers sent their kids outside for the whole day as it was to small inside the house for the kids to stay.  See the big tub under the left side bay window?  That was a wash tub from the day.  Fun fact of the day was pre-running water times the kids would all bathe in the same water one after another.  I'm not sure if the last one through the tub actually was cleaner or dirtier than when he/she got in the tub.
You aren't allowed to take pictures inside because they run the eight person tours right after another so I'll add some commentary from the tour but no pictures, sorry.  The tour goes through a 1840 era house, a 1870 era house, a 1930 era house and a 1970's - 2000 shop.  Walking through the 1840's doorway you are immediately hit with the eye rubbing smell of smoke and burning candles.  When I mentioned this to the guide she said there would also have been the smell of bodies (no running water means infrequent baths), food (not a good combination IMO) and possibly soap from hanging laundry in the event of rain.  They did have some information of the people who lived in the houses at these times and this family was a more well off than average.  The father was a Jewish clock hand maker and there were four kids in the family.  The ground floor was the kitchen and dining area, the first floor was the parents and daughter's bedroom (they had their own hand wash basin in the bedroom, another sign of wealth), and the second floor was the three son's bedroom.  Since this family was more well off than others the kids each had their own small single beds although I was not sure how much was documented fact and how much was educated guess.
The 1870 era house was the same width and depth but the floors were different heights than the previous house which our guide couldn't explain.  I guess cookie cutter building wasn't invented yet in the 1870's.  This family was not as well off as the previous family so they had two boarders staying with them.  The bottom floor again smelled of smoke and candles and was again the kitchen/dining area.  Still no running water so the kitchen had pails for boiling food over the fire, washing vegetables, and other cooking uses.  I forgot to ask if the families would wash their hands before eating - isn't that a lovely picture?  Six or so kids coming in from playing in the streets and pawing the spread like a bunch of starving animals?  Most likely the husband worked physical labour jobs in unsanitary conditions as well.  No wonder mothers yell at their kids to clean up before eating - it's a learned behaviour generations old.  The first floor again was the parents bed and a double bed this time (this is the ten person house), and the second floor had two double beds with a blanket hung up to separate the small room.  On one side were the two boarders bed and on the other side were the four siblings sleeping head to toe bed.  The father was a doll glass eye maker and there were some examples of glass eyes there.  There was also a historically inaccurate Teddy Bear there that our guide pointed out.  Teddy Bears are from the early 20th C, since we were Americans she also mentioned that they were named after our president Teddy Roosevelt which some of the family didn't know (names concealed to protect marital harmony).  During the tour I asked about dressers for clothes and she said most average families had three sets of clothes - in the wash, on the rack, and on - so dressers would have been small if families could afford them at all.  If they couldn't afford them cupboards would be used as dressers.
The 1930 era house was a little different obviously.  It belonged to an older man who lived alone and apparently received a sizable inheritance from his father but died broke.  The house had a running water cold tap and gas lights (kind of odd seeing a copper gas line feeding a light "bulb").  The ground floor was the same as the previous and the first floor was the man's bedroom with blood spots above the pillow on the bed.  They were bedbug squash marks from the guide, nothing like eighty year old blood spots to add authenticity.  The guide said this man's father found a way to rid the bed of bed bugs - he would light a fire (all rooms had fireplaces for heat in the houses) and stoke it as hot as possible. The extreme heat would drive away the bed bugs to the next door house for six months and worked until the neighbour smartened up and did the same thing thereby driving the bugs back.  There also was a hot water bottle in the bed (old school electric blanket if you will) that the gang didn't remember from previous house tours (am I the only one paying attention as we tour these places?).  He also had a nice little wooden box on legs next to the bed called an earth closet.  My sharp memoried readers will remember that term from an early manor house trip.  It is basically a posh bed pan set in this wooden box so as to not detract from the room decor.  The earth part was the pan would have a little dirt in it to help mask the smell.  His top floor was a collection of pieces from the last hundred years that didn't have any connection to the house but were mildly interesting to look at.  One item was a cut throat razor - I remember watching my grandfather Tessmer shaving with one a long time ago.  They also had a Rolls Razor which somehow rolled on a man's face and shaved it at the same time.    
The shop was a tailor's shop from the 1970's to early 2000's.  The man was from the Caribbean somewhere and was a third generation tailor who came to Birmingham in the 1970's.  It was okay but not as interesting as the houses.  Old patterns, 1950's model sewing machines, and clothes draped around didn't snap my attention at all.  The most interesting part was the man's son was a theatre tailor somewhere in London, his daughter made clothes somewhere locally and his granddaughter worked in the fashion industry.  The man is retired now but his shop was preserved along with the houses and is part of the tour.  The top floor was the pattern cutting room, the middle floor was the sewing room, and the bottom floor was the store/showroom.   
After the house the tour concluded with the courtyard, community toilets, and community washing room.  

This posh iron has a swing latch on back to hold a hot piece of coal to heat the iron.

Check out the green late Victorian ringer machine on the left Ma!  On the right is the wash tub with the fire underneath that heats the tub of water. 

This is the flush loo.  See the "toilet paper" on the roll on the right?  Prior to toilet paper they used old newspapers which is what you see.  Try that at home to get the "old school feel".  I will refrain from inserting any newspapers in the bathroom jokes here.  I didn't take a picture of the bucket under the bench loo next door but our guide did have an interesting story about it.  Per legend the people who drove around collecting the various buckets in the city would haul them down the road and dump them at a place informally called Soil Hill.  Coincidentally or not the next town is now called Solihull.  The guide did say the people who lived in Solihull didn't believe the Soil Hill story tho.  And we were told not to mention it to them either. 
Tis a new month which means another Facial Hair of the Month.  Yeah!  This month is similar to a previous month, The Horseshoe, but this time the handle bars are going all the way dowwwn-towwwn.  What's cooler than handle bars?  Handle bars all the way down of course.  Nothing says "I'm a MAN" like a handle bar moustache. 

The Handle Bars going all the way dowwwn-towwwn.  Man-ley!

Dana Johnson Pic - I think I have been in England to long.  I actually like the pub style gammon (ham) and eggs.  Even the peas tasted good today.  Or maybe the beer over here finally killed my taste buds.
After lunch was a trip to Kenilworth Castle and Elizabethan Garden (local link or WIki link), another Steve recommendation (thanks again Steve).  The castle is ruins now but has a rich history.  It started out as a simple Norman motte and bailey castle in the 12th C by Geoffrey de Clinton and passed through many hands (Kings Henrys and Johns) and construction phases until it reached its fabulous zenith in the 18th C before falling into ruin. 

Info board of the castle as it is today.

Mortimer's Tower which King John built in 1210-15.  The tower was one of the gates into the castle grounds.

The stables which were built in the 16th C and is now the cafe and a bunch of info boards telling the evolution of the castle.

English castles are being seiged and America hasn't even been "discovered" yet although the Vikings have been there a couple of hundred years by now.  Such amazing history over here.
The English and French mutual dislike goes back a LONG time.

Robert Dudley (Wiki link) and Elizabeth I had a famous connection.  Elizabeth I was the Virgin Queen who never married (and wasn't much of a virgin according to lore) and Robert Dudley was a friend who was the star crossed love of Elizabeth according to the castle info boards.  Elizabeth made Robert a part of the Royal Court (I forget the job) which required him to always travel with her.  They never formally were together because he was her subject so marrying him would demean the crown according to some and also because he was married.  His wife died suspiciously after falling down a flight if stairs but this only increased the public pressure on them not to get together as there were whispers Elizabeth had her killed in order to marry Robert.

The castle in 1575-80.

The castle today.

The inner courtyard in the distance, or more appropriately what is left of it.  The building insides weren't set up as touring rooms, they have mostly collapsed and are just shells now.
Leicester's Gatehouse which was built by Robert Dudley.  It was built in the 1570's and a couple of the floors are furnished from that time period.  One of the rooms was a bedroom with a very short bed and a sign proclaiming the bed to be one of the very few Elizabeth I didn't sleep in.  Ouch.  The upper level told the story of Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley.

A small garden and gate.

The Elizabethan Garden, a modern recreation of the garden Robert Dudley planted for one of Elizabeth's visits in 1575.  The sculpture in the middle is solid white marble.  This is probably beautiful in the summertime.

The 12th C Norman castle.

Sample view inside the ruins.

Here's your Word of the Week Auntie "B".

The Mere today.
The Garden on the left and ruins on front.
This would have been the State Apartments but they were all gone now.

The outside of the castle.  You can see how large the Great Hall windows were.

Inner Courtyard close up.  On left is the Leicester's Building which was built for a visit from Elizabeth I in 1571.  It wasn't built to her standards so it was remodelled for her next visit.  The Norman Keep is on the right.
Since we were done with the castle and opted not to revisit the Coventry Air Museum again (no interest from the family, my scotchiness in paying fifteen pounds for less than an hour of touring) we consulted a English Heritage map and set out for Stoneleigh Abbey (link).  We've never heard of it before but were in a no man's land of to early to head home and not even time to properly visit an attraction so we rolled the dice with the abbey. 

And failed.  Closed until Easter.  Oh well, it was worth a shot.

The abbey I think.  I read the website this morning and am still not sure if it is a touring type place or a special occasions place.

Jim Seppanen Pic - This tree was made to be in some spooky fantasy type movie.
Dinner was at Anoki, a good Indian food place we rarely frequent as we have found two places closer to our house (and cheaper) that we like better (Red Chilli in Littleover and Mumbai Chilli in SW Derby in case any ex-pats are curious). One of the few food items we will miss is Indian food. So I guess not all the English food is bad... oh wait Indian isn't English. That explains it. Just kidding Brits.
Kevin Coleman Pic - The mongoose holding the cobra in its mouth led to a brief discussion about the mongoose and cobra fighting subject.  See how educational beer is?  More beer! 

Dana Johnson Pic - Mushroom rice and a traditional spice and chicken Indian dish that tasted good.   
Sunday was UK Mother's Day so Happy Mother's Day to the UK Mothers out there.  We didn't do anything special for Lori.  We celebrated by seeing Oz the Great and Powerful in the mall movie theatre.  It was just okay, my biggest complaint was the CGI and human actors interfacing was very obvious at times like we were watching a lower budget movie which I don't think this was with the popular actors and director in it.  The story was okay - it was meant to tell the story of how the Wizard ended up in Oz and did tell it okay but just didn't impress any of us.  Lori and Karl actually dozed off a couple of times during the show although Karl's was related to his all night gaming session the previous night with English Karl.  He lasted through the afternoon and finally crashed in the evening.  Another week in the books. 
Thanks for listening,

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