As time goes by, and I have a clearer idea of what I personally find aesthetically pleasing, I apply a form of selective vision to block out all that is visually unsettling – or just plain ugly. From there, I am free to play in my mind’s eye – imagining another version of reality around me, without the majority of the modern ‘improvements’ which are born of natural progress, pushed through by social and economic necessity. Sometimes, I get carried away in this game of mental photoshop and extend it to its very limits.
A liberal dose of artistic license includes a shameful glossing-over the harder aspects of life past and present and probably results in picture-postcard quaint, with a distinct whiff of gentrification, but there you have it... However, this readjusted reality it is an effective means of escaping dreary 21st century views. Landscapes with their urban development - all typically monopolized by concrete slabs, glass casing and plastic panels - are conveniently rearranged to the flights of fancy and fantasy. Some places, fortunately, require little visual tweaking and on my recent trip to Birmingham, I revisited one of these….
Winterbourne House and its extensive grounds is a perfect example of an Edwardian Arts and Crafts villa and botanic gardens. Often somewhat overshadowed by its better-known neighbour, the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses, Winterbourne is set in the leafy suburb of Edgbaston, yet is surprising close to the city centre . So close, indeed, that across the lake can be seen the latest high-rise constructions… Suffice it to say that these were hastily banished from my line of vision! I wonder what John Nettlefold would say of these new towers of modernity, as the industrialist who commissioned the building of this elegant country estate and himself a pioneer in housing reform in Birmingham? The principals that he held dear in the realisation of Winterbourne were also key to his philosophy in town planning, later visible in Harbourne’s Moor Pool Estate. Inspired by Bournville, he sought to provide decent homes for the working classes with housing that would enhance quality of life.
Coming from a wealthy family and working at Guest, Keen & Nettlefold (GKN) – the world’s largest screw, nut and bolt manufacturer - it is probably safe to assume that Nettlefold and his wife Margaret already had a fairly decent quality of life. They were, in fact, second cousins from the Chamberlain family and wished to live in a home that reflected their vision and was in harmony with its natural setting. They opted for a design in the Arts and Crafts style and the house was built to incorporate all the latest amenities that modern technology could offer at the turn of the century; running hot water, electric lighting and telephones.
Built by Birmingham architect Joseph Lancaster Ball, Winterbourne was based on the simple, spacious layouts of 17th century farmhouses making the home light, comfortable and unfussy. This was a far cry from the heavy, dark upholstered interiors of the Victorian era, as was the house’s relationship with the gardens that surrounded it. Light, airy rooms, largely south-east facing, look onto the gardens and are flooded by natural light whilst the French doors on the ground floor open directly onto a terrace that once served as an extended living room. I could almost imagine hearing the clink of china and the noise of croquet being played out at teatime on the lawns!
One of the tenets of the Arts and Crafts movement was the use of simple, natural materials and local craftsmanship and Winterbourne house and outbuildings were indeed built of characteristic Brummie redbrick with casement windows. The decorative wall panels of the interiors were the work of George Bankart, a craftsman who led a revival of 16th and 17th century plasterwork in the region. These are all based on natural forms - plants and animals - and are in line with the movement’s use of flora and fauna in ornamentation, textiles and wallcovering, all exemplified, of course by the work of William Morris.
Throughout the home, there was a harmony between utility and beauty – again a key principal in Arts and Crafts design and a calm still seems to reign there today. When Winterbourne was finally restored to its former Edwardian glory in 2010 - after years serving as halls of residence and classrooms and then left empty – Morris wallpaper and Edwardian furnishings were used throughout to recapture the unique mood of the period.
I did wonder if it was actually quite so beautifully decorated back in its early days but that certainly wasn’t a major preoccupation for me as I walked along the spacious corridors, from room to room, imagining the life that Winterbourne’s inhabitants once led there -without any inevitable hardship, of course. For indeed, as any family, whatever their financial situation, the Nettlefolds did experience pain and loss. Not only did two of their eight children die, but John Nettlefold suffered a mental breakdown that probably led to the sale of Winterbourne in 1919.
Although the name Winterbourne is closely associated with the Nettlefolds for whom it had been specifically designed in 1903, when they left just 16 years later, it went on to belong to two subsequent families. The final occupant of Winterbourne - John MacDonald Nicolson - was a keen gardener who added additional features such as the Japanese bridge and the scree garden to the original grounds. Nevertheless, he maintained the harmony created by Margaret Nettlefold’s designs which had been inspired by the gardening theory of Gertrude Jekyll, with emphasis on utility and beauty.
Today, Winterbourne encompasses both house and grounds – it is no longer considered as separate entities, as had been the case on the death of the last owner, Nicolson, in 1944. Indeed, he had bequeathed house and garden to the University of Birmingham with the botanic garden becoming the main focus of the acquisition for research by the School of Botany.
As with the house, the seven-acre grounds have been restored to their former splendour and the garden was Grade II listed by English Heritage in 2008. So it is that we can walk around Winterborne today, across lawns, beside sandstone rock gardens, along woodland walks, and into greenhouses. We can wander next to the geometric patterns of the walled garden and find ourselves surrounded by ‘traditional’ English plants but then discover exotic species from all across the world.
Winterbourne now offers public events, alongside a variety of courses, talks and workshops. A simple visit to house and gardens is made all the more enjoyable by a trip to the café, serving all the usual teatime treats on a daily basis – on William Morris trays, no less. The latter can also be purchased in the shop, incidentally… The second-hand bookshop in one of the former outhouses also has a great selection of books and even the outside toilet was pretty.
All in all, Winterbourne was the perfect experience on a grey day at the end of August; in my head I was enjoying its sunlight spaces at the turn of the 19th century!
Below is one of a series of linocut works by the artist Sarah Moss in 2018 - They Called it Winterbourne, inspired by a William Morris woodcut.
Walking home, I love looking at the cathedral. Whatever the time - day or night, whatever the weather or my mood, the cathedral always makes me feel contented. However, I think it looks even more beautiful when illuminated at night.
It never fails to amaze me that this same edifice has stood there for over 800 years, dominating the horizon from afar, and towering over the streets around it.
So how should we treat the social and historical markers of our past – namely the architecture and edifices that have made up our urban landscapes over the last centuries ? How should we care for the people who inhabit these spaces today ? These are questions I keep asking myself and yet can never find any appropriate answers.
As restrictions are lifted in line with the lessening of Covid’s grip over our movements, we are once again largely free to travel to towns, cities and other countries, rediscovering or recreating a sense of normality after so many months of limitations.
I would love to believe that the extended period of rigidly-confined geographical boundaries at least enabled us to nurture a new awareness and appreciation to all that is precious in life, past and present, and the world about us.
However, the speed in which we seem to have resumed normal activities – the admirable ones and the less so - with only the slightest backwards glance, appears to dash that hope somewhat.
Last month, I finally made it back to England at great expense and effort and was relieved and yet taken aback to note that everything initially seemed much as it had in the ‘before’ days, barring the face masks, of course. In many respects, this was uplifting albeit a little unsettling…
On closer expectation, the ravages of the economic hardship wrought by the situation soon became apparent, etched on both individuals more down-trodden than ever and the streets around them, with buildings and edifices facing different, yet equally destructive challenges.
Extreme poverty and poor health are nothing new but Covid has underlined these in a vicious, insidious manner. Are we at risk of growing almost ‘accustomed’ to seeing make-shift tents shacked up below overpasses and on wasteland and to encountering beings in unspeakably poor states of physical and mental health ?
In an eerily similar act of stealth, the blight of urban development has been steadily gnawing away at city centres, using the plea of Covid-induced economic necessity as justification to send in the wrecking ball. The building sector seems to have been quietly thriving over these last 18 months.
Perhaps the principles behind the ultra-modern architectural offerings that are thrown up today are no different to those behind the massive, wide-spread generation projects of the last centuries. Architects presumably trust that these changes will bring a bright new future or at least the hope of such a perspective. That was certainly the case for the Birmingham of the 1960s.
Yet try as I might, I just can’t find the wonder or beauty in any of these new buildings, present or past, and nor can I believe that these towering, oppressive constructions just being completed now will contribute to the community or outlive the populations therein. Nor are they intended to in many cases since real estate offers lucrative opportunites that do not necessarily need to address such issues.
It is indisputable that the cramped back-to-back Victorian housing and over-crowded tenement buildings needed to be overhauled. Such accommodation had created insalubrious slums for the poor, especially around the city centre, with no access to gardens or public green spaces. Not surprisingly, they were deemed « unfit for human habitation ». But ultimately, did they all have to be demolished, taking with them the unique spirit of close neighbourhoods? Perhaps this would have been lost anyway, but the new housing, building complexes, roads and fly-overs did nothing to secure it.
From the post-war years, successive waves of modernity have swept away all that is deemed outdated and hence ‘ugly’, so that swathes of the past lay buried beneath this crazy modern-day geological strata. Each generation of developers lays down another layer of progress, leading locals to mourn what has been lost. Even the demise of the Brutalist archictecture of the 60s, with its infamous, iconic Bull Ring shopping centre and concrete noose inner ringroad incites nostalgia for a ‘better time’.
How can we possibly take the measure of a place and its people if there is nothing left but anonymous, soul-less constructions of concrete and glass ? Does a community of buildings shape and enhance the community of the people inhabiting these spaces ?
Sometimes, developers leave a nod to the past, with the choice juxtaposition of state-of-the art modernity next to some remnant that has managed to survive to the present day. The effect is certainly striking but there is an emptiness and cruel irony that makes me sad. From its position as fulcrum of the Industrial Revolution, along with Manchester, this « city of a thousand trades » acting as the workshop of the nation does not seem to take enough civic pride in its past when it comes to maintaining its architectural heritage.
Wandering around Birmingham city centre, I admired the old buildings that have made it through the last few months and earlier decades, and wondered how much longer they can hold on in a state of disrepair before their existence is no longer justifiable and they too just disappear?
Surely the architecture of the past reflects our own resilience and ingenuity, a witness to events that have marked our collective and individual histories.
Wiping that out may leave a blank slate to start anew, effectively removing any grimy, shameful secrets. Yet how do we learn where to go if we no longer have any trace of where we have been, and how far we have evolved in the course of that journey? What is left of a Black Country that has been whitewashed and glazed over ? That said, the humour and welcoming ways of today’s Brummies appear to hold fast and are the most lifting aspects of a trip here. And yes, I do love the Brum accent.
Fortunately too, some of the revelopments have fully embraced the cultural and social heritage of the city to success, but if only there were more of these. Old red-brick buildings around the canal waterways, for instance, have been adapted in a manner that does justice to the Brummie past and present and there are many other examples besides. Yet the spectre of bland modernity still looms over the old vestiges, casting a cold, mercenary shadow over their ornate facades.
Ignorance and limited access to information has often left the large majority of populations ill-equipped to fight worldly ills in the past. Today we should know better yet we have so much ‘data’ at our fingertips that we are overwhelmed to the point of complacency. It would seem that everybody is now so busy looking at their screens for distraction, comfort and validation that they are safely blinkered from the 3D reality about them. Are we being encouraged to believe that just as long as we can shop and swipe, we should be content, whatever our surroundings ?
We need to look up and around overselves, to reconnect with the places and people that are part of our present and finally to try to retrace the good, the bad and the ugly of the past that built this brave new world. Pouring concrete over the whole lot can surely not be a solution….