Birmingham after the Commonwealth Games: the legacy of a city

After 12 frantic days of sports events and celebrations, tonight “The Second City” ends an unforgettable chapter in its history.

I have lived in Birmingham for nearly 4 years and, when I thought I knew the city like the back of my hand, I was astonished by what it showed me in the last 2 weeks.

Its streets were flooded with thousands of both visitors and locals; a legion of proud hard-working volunteers helped to turn a massive event into a worldwide success, and the city’s most iconic attractions were adorned with the celebration’s colours before being shown to the world. These are just some examples of what the Commonwealth Games have meant to Birmingham.

In their most tangible aspect, the Games have gifted d Birmingham with a new mind-blowing attraction: The Raging Bull.

Victoria Square was adorned with the colours of the Commonwealth Games. Image credit: davidtravelwriter

A 10-metre high and 5-metre wide monument of a bull stands proudly in the middle of Centenary Square. Made of foam and built by around 50 people over half a year, the Raging Bull has a special connection with the city and every one of its citizens.

The Raging Bull was created as an allegory of Birmingham and its historic Bull Ring Market Hall. Nowadays, the state-of-the-art Bullring shopping centre stands in the area where the old market hall used to be.

However, this new impressive art piece that moves and throws smoke by its nostrils is not the only iconic bull figure in Birmingham. Since 2003, a bronze-made statue of a bull can be found in the heart of the modern Bullring.

While the city works to find a new indoor home to keep and exhibit the Raging Bull, everyone who wishes to take a look at it will find it in Centenary Square until the end of September.

The Raging Bull. Image credit: davidtravelwriter

In a less (but not least important) tangible way, one can feel that Birmingham has marvelled everyone who was not familiar with the city.

Many misconceptions about Birmingham have been knocked down by the sense of community and the love towards their city displayed by Brummies.

Birmingham has been like this for a long time, the Games just put the spotlight on an impressive city packed with heritage, home to different cultures, and set for a thriving future.

Me at the Smithfield Festival Site. Image credit: davidtravelwriter

King Kong strikes Birmingham… again!

A 7-metre replica of the original statue makes a temporary return to the Jewellery Quarter during the celebration of the Commonwealth Games.

I got to know the character of King Kong thanks to the 2005-film directed by Peter Jackson. If you haven’t watched it yet, I won’t spoil it for you. All you need to know is that Kong is a massive gorilla brought to the civilized world against its will.

The original story was released in a black and white film back in 1933, and it has continued with Jackson’s adaptation and a few more blockbuster productions.

Kong had a massive impact both on the screen and outside of it. Back in the 1970s, the artist Nicholas Monro made Kong part of Birmingham’s cultural landscape. How? By creating a statue of the animal and by placing it in the middle of the city centre.

Kong’s original statue was placed at The Bullring‘s Manzoni Gardens. Image source: Brumpic

As the years went by, the statue left The Second City and was displayed around Edinburgh for some time. Eventually, it was purchased by its current owner and now it is displayed on private property in Cumbria.

Half a century later, the king is back in Brum. A new statue, created by RoboCarv and with the blessings of Monro’s family, is placed in a brand-new pop-up park in the Jewellery Quarter.

Slightly bigger than the original, the new Kong brings the same aura of nostalgia and creativity set by its predecessor. Making the most of the spotlight brought by hosting the Commonwealth Games, one of Birmingham’s main symbols returns for the joy of locals and visitors.

The King and myself. Image credit: davidtravelwriter

If you want to pay a visit to the king, you can find it at the entrance of Great Hampton Row thanks to the initiative that Cordia Blackswan has put together. At the park, you will enjoy daily DJ music, live broadcasts of the Commonwealth Games, and local food cooked and served by the Digbeth Dining Club.

Best of all, the entrance is free and the site is open from noon to 11 PM until the 8th of August 2022. Will Kong stick around the city forever? I hope so.

Kong in all its glory. Image credit: davidtravelwriter

Manchester in 24 hours

From a Roman fort to one of the most industrialised cities in the world. My first time in Manchester made me realize that the city is way more than its football team.

I have put together some of the places that I visited during the day I spent in the city. By learning about them, you will be able to travel back to Roman times, the Middle Age, the WWII period, and the modern era… without even leaving Manchester.

Alan Turing’s legacy

My tour through Manchester started right where one of its most important citizens (sadly, not acknowledged properly) stands in the form of a statue. I am talking about Alan Turing, who should be better known as “the father of modern computer science”.

Turing had a massive impact over millions of lives during World War II. At Bletchley Park, he joined a team tasked to crack the Nazis’ secret communication code (Enigma), which they eventually did with the help of Polish intelligence.

Image of Turing’s statue.

This massive success is estimated to have shortened the war by 2 to 4 years, saving around 14 million human lives. After WWII ended, Turing moved to Manchester and (again) joined a different team which had another overwhelming and ambitious assignment… To create the first computer ever.

Turing was openly gay, and sadly this brought enormous trouble to his life as until 1967, homosexuality was considered an offence within the UK’s law. However, Turing would not live that much to see things change.

After being caught on a homosexual relationship, he was given two choices by the police. To be jailed for up to 2 years or to go through chemical castration. Turing chose the latter. Due to the hormones that he was taking as part of this monstrous treatment, his concentration and his work suffered enormously.

Finally, in 1954, Turing was found dead in his apartment with a biten apple by his side (which is represented in his statue right in Manchester’s heart). Lots of legends have emerged from this episode. One of them defends that the current Apple’s logo was inspired by Turing’s death.

It was not until 2010 (56 years after his death and 43 since homosexuality stopped being considered a crime) that Alan Turing was officially pardoned by Queen Elizabeth.

I must add that Turin was an extraordinary and dynamic man based on some of his qualities. He almost competed in the Olympic Games as a long-distance runner. Also, he was quite fond of his favourite tea cup. So much that he would chain it to a radiator and padlock it.

Vimto Monument

The story of this non-alcoholic drink starts with a man named John Nichols. He was a devoted Quaker who wanted to invent an alternative to alcohol. Nickels lived on the number 19 of Granby Row, the street where nowadays the Vimto Monument stands proudly in recognition of its creator.

This drink sells 6 bottles every second, and it is quite popular outside the UK (especially in Muslim countries from the Middle East and Africa). Also, its sells usually skyrocket during the Ramadan period.

Back in 1992, the University of Manchester commissioned a monument for this drink. You can appreciate its design below.

The Vimto Monument.

Music & Film

Manchester has made these two arts part of the city’s character and history. Regarding the music scene, Manchester saw the creation of a legendary record label named Factory Records. The creator of the company, T. Wilson, wrote a letter using his own blood to state that “they (Factory Records) do not own the music, musicians do”. As you will discover in the next paragraphs, this declaration brought hell to Mr Wilson.

In 1982, he opened a nightclub called Hacienda. Eventually, the venue was known because of the consumption of drugs and the shootings between gangs that happened inside the club.

Manchester and its idyll with music.

Years later, in 1997, Hacienda was declared bankrupt. This was a hard pill to swallow for Wilson, but not the only one. His letter left him without any rights to claim music’s royalties, as he had declared that everything was for the musicians.

Also, Manchester has been a prolific spot to film movies and TV series. Productions such as Spiderman, Captain America, or The Crown were partially filmed in the city. As seen in the picture, the fire escapes outside some apartments make Manchester look like New York through the lens of the cameras.

Gay Village

This city’s area cannot be understood without talking about The New Union Hotel. This property is believed to be the second oldest surviving gay pub in the UK. Back in the day, it was called The Union Hotel (now you will learn why).

As I said when talking about Mr Alan Turing, homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967. Police officers used to raid and make arrests in The Union Hotel. Nearby, in Chorlton Street, it used to be a place packed with prostitutes, who were usually arrested too.

The hotel’s landlord came up with an innovative idea. He would brought the prostitutes inside The Union Hotel to pretend that they were dancing with the gay men who frequented the venue when police raids took place.

Me in front of The New Union Hotel.

Eventually, the landlord was arrested and when released from prison, he just changed the hotel’s name to The New Union Hotel. Under its new name, the place was booming every night.

Manchester was the first European city to have a publicly founded gay community center. Also, the city’s town hall was the first one in Europe to wave the Rainbow Flag. Manchester’s role in fighting for the rights of the LGTBI+ community was stressed through the Antisection 28 march demonstration.

On the other hand, James Anderson, (former chief of police in Manchester who used to raid The New Union Hotel) was the city’s dark side against homosexuality. His job consisted of looking for “men who where provocatively dancing with each other”, which according to an old Victorian law was considered a criminal offence.

Mr Anderson was an evangelical Christian who defended that God spoke through him. He also said that AIDS were a self-inflicted punishment. Once, his men did beat up 2 gay men after chaining them to a street mailbox.


Manchester’s Chinatown is the second largest one in the UK and the third one in Europe. The imperial arch that you see in the picture below was a gift from the Chinese city of Wuhan (yes, where COVID was first reported), which is Manchester’s twin city.

Chinatown’s imperial arch in Manchester.

Many streets of this neighborhood are named after the original residents that lived there in the Georgian era. It was in Chinatown where sociocultural associations such as the Athenian Society, the Literature and Philosophical Society, and the Art Gallery were established.

All of this put Manchester right on the map for top minds such as George Dalton or our friend Alan Turing, who studied and worked in the city.

A Secret Building

The construction finished in 1954, with the shelter being 100 feet deep into the ground. Under the city, there is a bunker with capacity for 40 people, 6 months worth of food, a well to get drinking water, a bar, and 2 tunnels that can be used to escape from the city.

The story of this infrastructure began in 1949, when the US government gave 4 million pounds to Manchester City Council. This money was provided so the city could build a nuclear bomb shelter.

The secret (and useless) bomb shelter.

But, the life of the building was relatively short. In 1967, just 13 years after being built, the shelter was declared useless because of the development of the new (and more deadly) H Bomb.

After this, the shelter was turned into the so-called Guardian Phone Exchange, a net of tunnels filled with telecommunications wires.

Regardless of its use, people from Manchester did not know what this building really was until 2004. Back then, a homeless man managed to sneak inside the former bomb shelter where he lighted a cigarette that caused a fire.

The flames spread throughout one of the tunnels, which cut half of Manchester’s telecommunications and part of the Internet in Sweden. To conclude with this story, I must add that there is a replica of this building in the city of York, and it has capacity for 40 people too…

The Midland Hotel

This establishment was opened in 1903, and Adolf Hitler liked it so much that it is believed that he gave instructions not to bomb it during Manchester’s Blitz. The Nazi leader wanted to use this majestic building as his Administration Headquarters in North England after he had conquered the country, which he never did.

The hotel’s façade.

There is a curious monument under one of the second arch’s of the hotel’s façade which represents two men shaking hands. These gentlemen are the two founders of the company Rolls-Royce, who happened to meet for the first time at The Midland Hotel.

Manchester Central

Until 1969, this place used to be a train station before becoming a music venue. Nowadays, the building is used as a conference center.

Nearby Manchester Central stands the Bridgewater Hall, a venue for classical music that is home to the Holly Symphony Orchestra (the oldest one in the UK).

Next to where these two buildings stand today, something terrible happened back in 1819. On 16th August, around 60000 people gathered here in a massive peaceful protest to promote democracy and rights to vote.

The city’s authorities were worried about a revolution taking place in Manchester. In order to disperse the masses, a voluntary police force called The Britons Protection was summoned, and its members were mostly war veterans from Waterloo.

When these forces stormed the demonstration, 18 people where killed and over 700 were injured. This was known as The Peterloo Massacre.

In 2019, a monument was erected in this square to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the massacre. The names of the victims are engraved on it and there is a drawing of compass that points to other worldwide places were similar incidents happened.

The Free Trade Hall

This building, bombed during WWII, was redesigned into a music venue where stars such as Louis Armstrong or the Sex Pistols performed.

One of the entrances of the building.

Manchester Town Hall

The city’s town hall is currently closed, yet it will be reopened in 2024. One of its main features stands at the top of the building’s tower. Right there, a golden cotton ball stands over the city.

There are a lot of personal stories connected with this construction. The bell inside the town hall is called The Great Abel after Abel Heywood, former Manchester mayor who opened the building, whose initials are engraved on it.

Before starting his political career, Mr Heywood was sent to prison for refusing to pay a tax on written texts that was introduced to stop the spread of revolution after the Peterloo Massacre.

Queen Victoria was supposed to attend the inauguration of Manchester’s Town Hall. However, she refused to share the stage with Mr Heywood because of his political ideas and his working-class style.

St Anne’s Church

Located in St Anne’s square, the church’s clock tower is the exact central point of the city. By one of the building’s sides, a particular statues represents both homelessness and Jesus Christ.

This statue was supposed to be outside the House of Parliament in London but, somehow, it ended up being put in Manchester…

The famous statue.

The Royal Exchange

Nowadays it is a theatre with 755 seats that was constructed in 1976. Before that, it used to be the Exchange of Trading which ended up closing on 31st December 1968.

This building has a particular connection with the United States and especially one of their presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Main entrance of the building.

In 1861, a civil war started in America between the Union States from the North (lead by Lincoln) and the Confederate States from the south. The latter were proslavery and their economies were heavily dependent on slaves picking cotton.

Back in the 19th century, America was the biggest cotton’s export in the world, with Manchester being the top import worldwide. For around 120 years, this trading relationship kept slavery going on.

However, times changed. A group of merchants decided that Manchester would not export any more cotton picked by slaves. Instead, the city would trade with Egypt or India which made these transactions more expensive.

Eventually, Lincoln won the war and wrote a letter to the city of Manchester acknowledging its decision to stop this way of trading based on slavery. He also sent a gift to the city, a statue of himself which was put in what is known as Lincoln Square.

Exchange Square

This place witnessed one of the most shocking moments in the history of Manchester. In June 1996, a bomb was planted in the city centre by a member of the IRA.

Luckily, no one died. Manchester Police managed to evacuate 80000 people before the bomb went on. The explosion destroyed everything in a quarter of a mile except for a red post box that still stands today. Also, around 200 businesses collapsed.

However, this disaster brought light to the city. Exchange Square was completely rebuilt thanks to private local investment and funding from the EU. And for many citizens, this started a rebirth process for Manchester.

Do not miss my next travel here.

10 places that you must see in La Palma

This is my contribution to an island that, despite a terrible natural disaster, remains as beautiful as it ever has been.

Certainly, you have heard the name of La Palma in the last months of 2021. The reason? It was not because of the beauty of its landscapes nor the kindness of its habitants. What put this island on the spotlight was a volcano.

The “Cumbre Vieja” erupted in September, wreaking havoc in some municipalities near the volcano. Rivers of lava and ash clouds turned La Palma into a Mordor-like landscape until the eruption ceased last December.

When this catastrophe happened, I came up with the idea for this article. Although an area of the island was affected by the volcano, La Palma has not lost a bit of its natural beauty.

While the affected region starts to be rebuilt literally from the ashes, here are 10 places that give La Palma the nickname of “Isla Bonita” (Beautiful Island).

1. Caldera de Taburiente

We are talking about a national park with a diameter of up to 8 km and a depth of 1 km. Also, this wonder of nature has numerous specimens of the Canary Islands’ pine. The viewpoint of La Cumbrecita, the visitor center of El Paso, and an extensive network of hiking trails, make this UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserve a mandatory stop for every traveller.

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2. Balcones de la Avenida Marítima

These constructions, some of Arab origin and others inspired by the Portuguese adufas, offer incredible views of the Atlantic Ocean. These balconies used to be frequently included in the journals of travellers who, back in the 19th century, immortalised them through words or even paintings and drawings. In the past, many of these balconies had a rudimentary toilet attached to them…

Image credit: Pinterest

3. Bosque de Los Tilos

This is a laurel forest and is considered a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. Here you can enjoy a walking route that will take you to some beautiful springs (Marcos y Cordero). Also, there is a visitor center called Los Tiles with plenty of information about the forest.

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4. Salinas Marinas de Fuencaliente

Come to this place and be marvelled by the contrast of colours between the white of the salt, the black of the volcanic soil, and the blue of the Atlantic. If you are curious enough, you can learn how salt is obtained by hand and thanks to a combination of sunlight, water, and mud.

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5. Calle O’Daly

This street runs parallel to the ocean, making it a perfect place to stroll while discovering picturesque local shops. The area was name after a Dutch merchant who had a key political impact on the city (Santa Cruz de La Palma) in the 18th century.

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6. Roque de los Muchachos

With 2420 metres, this is the highest point on the island. It is also one of the best spots for stargazing in La Palma.

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7. Porís de Candelaria

What the picture below shows is a 50-metre geological cavity which holds a small town whose houses were built a century ago. As you can imagine, is an ideal place for snorkeling as well.

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8. Faro de Punta Cumplida

This lighthouse, inaugurated in 1867, includes three different luxury suites in its buildings. But there is more. The tower houses a viewpoint on the top floor that offers views of a landscape with the power of taking your breath away when watching a sunset.

Image credit: Lonely Planet

9. La Ruta de los Volcanes

This is a top trail for hiking enthusiasts. It stretches for 22 km along the Cumbre Vieja Natural Park (same area where the latest volcano erupted) and it takes between 6 and 8 hours to complete.

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10. Playa de Nogales

This amazing beach can be found on the north coast of the island. As you can see in the picture, Nogales is the border where the mountain and the ocean meet.

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A day in Vienna

Vienna has always been one of the top destinations on my travel list. I am attracted to its culture but especially its history and its great artistic heritage. Almost 2 years ago, in December 2019, I was able to enjoy a few hours in the Austrian capital and fulfill that dream of discovering one of the most impressive and culturally rich cities on the European scene.

I have to admit that the main destination of my trip was Bratislava, where I spent most of my stay. But I was surprised for good by the ease and comfort with which you can travel between cities in Central and East Europe. In my case, I decided to visit Vienna because it was a destination close to the Slovak capital and that allowed me to explore the famous Austrian city in a few hours.

I made the journey between Bratislava and Vienna by bus. The duration was around an hour and a half and the price of the return ticket was 11.50 euros. Once in the Viennese capital, I had to go from the bus station to the city center. I am a traveler who believes that walking and “getting lost as you please is the best way to get to know a destination. By doing this, you can walk through non-touristy streets, have the opportunity to visit the shops that local citizens go to, and discover the so-called hidden gems that only true travelers value and find.

My first stop in Vienna was the Karlsplatz, undoubtedly one of the most symbolic and accessible squares in the city where the Karlskirche is located. When visiting the city in winter, I found a small animal market at the back of the square as well as a good number of Christmas stalls and kiosks. After visiting this area, I went to Kärtner Straße, which is the main pedestrian street in the city, where most of the big shops and well-known restaurants are located.

Me at the Hofburg Palace’s entrance.

I decided to hire a free tour in Spanish, another of the best ways to get to know any city or destination. In my case, the tour guide was a Viennese citizen who spoke and understood Spanish perfectly. Going with local guides is always a plus, because they give you a different and much more complete perspective of the city.

The hired tour took me through several of the most emblematic places and buildings in Vienna. We started the tour in front of the facade of the Albertina museum, where I admired the sculpture of The Gates of Violence Memorial: a monument to the victims of war, especially the Jews killed during the Second World War. Next, I came across the Capuchin Church in which the imperial crypt (where the members of the Habsburg dynasty of the Austrian royal house are buried) is located. The next stop was Café Frauenhuber, the oldest establishment of this kind in the city. After visiting it, I passed by the facade of the house where the musician Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died.

The final part of the tour passed through the central core of the city. In this area, I was amazed by the impressive St Stephen’s Cathedral as well as the traditional Christmas market that extends around it. Here you can find handmade Christmas decorations, decorative glass figurines and even try traditional sweets or drinks like mulled wine. I love these types of markets not only because of the Christmas spirit they give, but because of the possibility they give you to help small merchants, interact with the local population and taste traditional products.

My walk continued to the Stephenplatz, in whose surroundings are both historical buildings such as the Hofburg Palace (former residence of monarchs and empresses) or the Church of St. Peter, as well as monuments such as the Pestsäule (an ornate column built after the epidemic black plague that ravaged the city). Of all of them, the place that most captivated me was the Hofburg Palace, not only for its architecture and historical importance, but also for the remains of an ancient Roman settlement that can still be seen at the entrance of the building. Mention should also be made of the many classical statues that surround the white palace as well as the fact that the Spanish Riding School is based in the building.

The roof of St Stephen’s Cathedral.

During my time in the city, I also had time to try the Viennese cuisine. From its traditional coffee to a Viennese schnitzel. I personally recommend visiting Reinthaler’s Beisl restaurant and exploring their menu of local food. Finally, I tasted the sacher cake, the best-known dessert in Vienna whose original recipe was created in the famous hotel that gives its name to this sweet. In my last hours in the Austrian capital, I said goodbye to the city by looking at the facade of the renowned Vienna State Opera.

In just a few hours walking through its streets, the city takes you a few centuries back and makes you see that it exudes history and culture from all its corners. Once upon a time, Vienna was an imperial capital and one of the most important cities on the European continent. To this day, it maintains that atmosphere of grandeur and luxury that has been attracting travelers for centuries. On your next getaway, I recommend that you consider visiting Vienna to immerse yourself in a city that has managed to combine its immense artistic heritage of past centuries with the modern context of 21st-century Europe.

The scariest place in Birmingham is underground

Halloween is almost here so, in preparation for this, I searched the city looking for the spookiest place to write about. And I found it. Actually, it turned out that I had been there already. I am talking about Key Hill, one of the two most important burial grounds within the Jewellery Quarter.

However, this time I just visited a restricted area within the grounds of Key Hill. As this was my second visit, I will not go into the details of the place’s history in this post. If you wish to know more about some legends and fun facts about Key Hill, you can find all the information in this article of mine.

The interior of one of the catacombs.

Exactly 3 weeks before Halloween, I went inside the catacombs of Key Hill. This would not have been possible without the help of The Friends of Key Hill and Warstone Lane. May this post be able to express my gratitude to them and the numerous tasks that they carry out to preserve the history of these burial grounds.

A few minutes after 2 PM, I stepped into the darkness of the catacombs. I was with Richard, a nice man who usually conducts tours through Key Hill and Warstone Lane. I had a lamp with me, so I could appreciate every detail underground.

These catacombs were originally dug on the base of a sand quarry. Nowadays, they are surrounded by wild vegetation, with one of its entrances cleared. Inside the vault, there is a small corridor that leads you into a bigger one. Once in there, vaults can be found on both sides.

The entrance to the darkness.

I must say that there are no visible coffins at the moment. However, each vault used to have 10 coffins inside. Back then, they were put in four rows and wooden structures used to support them. Currently, the rails where these structures were attached to the walls are still visible in some of the chambers.

Although the catacombs have two levels, one of them is currently closed for safety reasons. In the same way, one or two of the vaults on the sides remain sealed. The catacombs are the place where some relatives of Washington Irving were buried. In case you are wondering who this man was, he wrote the creepy story (perfect for Halloween) known as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

In the past, families who buried people here used to have keys of the catacombs. As you can imagine, being buried in these vaults was way more expensive than other types of graves. Also, during WWII, the catacombs were used as air shelters to protect people from the bombings carried out by the Nazis in Birmingham. It is thought that during this time, bodies were removed from their original place in order to make room for people who were trying to keep themselves safe from the bombs.

Overall, it was incredible to be there. The place is quiet, barely illuminated by some artificial lights so people do not trip over. By moments, the silence is overwhelming. I was glad that I had my little lamp with me while I was moving through the catacombs’ shadows.

Richard said that the catacombs were reopened recently, so the people carrying out research are still finding interesting stories about the place. I would like to go inside again in the future, maybe when further levels or tunnels are discovered. If so, I will firmly grab my lamp and my pen before entering the darkness to share the hidden history of Key Hill’s catacombs.

The hidden beauty of Birmingham’s Oratory

Written by David F. Villar

It is true that we can find beauty everywhere. Sometimes in obvious aspects like tangible monuments or breath-taking landscapes that cannot escape from our senses, and sometimes in more subtle ways. The latter is the case of The Birmingham Oratory. Located near Hagley Road, one of the busiest roads within the city, this place seems nearly unnoticeable to most of the people that walk past its walls daily. Actually, I did not know the Oratory until I got the chance to visit it in the Birmingham Heritage Week.

My tour started right at the heart of the Oratory. A guy named Colin was the person who guided me and the rest of the expedition through the church while explaining everything. From historic facts about the place’s construction to precise details about the lives of two key characters for Birmingham’s Oratory. The first of these personalities was St. John Henry Newman.

Birmingham Oratory’s dome. Image: @davidtravelwriter

Born and raised in London, Newman dedicated himself to the Catholic Church after his conversion from Anglicanism. Also, he was responsible for establishing an oratory in Birmingham, firstly in Digbeth (an old gin distillery was transformed into a chapel) and later in Edgbaston, which is the current location of the Birmingham Oratory.

Newman and his companions had a massive positive impact in many districts of the city. Their actions propelled social and religious projects of all sizes and shapes in places such as Deritend, Ladywood, Handsworth, or Bournville. However, Newman’s main legacy would be the construction of the mentioned oratory which is dedicated to St Philip.

After getting to know a little bit about Newman’s life, I entered the Oratory. As soon as I raised my eyes, I realized why the place is known as Birmingham’s Little Rome. The interior and decorations of the chapel reminded me of my visit to St Peter’s Basilica during my trip to the Vatican City. Twelve pillars made of marble sustain the whole beauty and history of the Oratory. These dozen structures were constructed in Italy and brought by boat to Bristol, before arriving to Birmingham via its extensive canal network.

Apart from the pillars, I spotted 6 different side chapels. Each one of them was dedicated to a specific saint, being Saint Mary’s the largest and prettiest. This space is supported by two wide pillars which, according to history, were supposed to be placed in Westminster Cathedral in London. Above each of the side chapels, there are colourful mosaics, but the one that outstands is the one behind the altar which reflects the Coronation of Saint Mary at Heaven.

Main altar of the Oratory. Image: @davidtravelwriter

The tour took me to a room dedicated to St Philip, founder of the first-ever oratory. Here, visitors can appreciate a painting of the saint when he was a child, as well as a little collection of relics belonging to him. Also, there is a wax figure of St Philip. Opposite this chamber, there is another one that stands as a tribute to St John Henry Newman. In this second room, some obituaries brought from the original church founded in Digbeth can be seen. However, the relics of Newman were stolen a few years back. Despite this terrible event, the oratory is still considered Newman’s shrine

Other interesting and worth visiting highlights include the Oratory’s courtyard, the skeleton of St Valentine (taken all the way from Rome’s catacombs to Brum), the church’s dome, the two canopies, and the old-fashioned organ. Additionally, there is the St John Henry Cardinal Museum which gives a wider perspective of Newman’s life and works. Here, you can admire a collection of personal objects belonging to the cardinal.

For those of you who, like me, treasure elements of history and art, the Birmingham Oratory is a must see. Feel free to visit it and interact with the relentless volunteers who keep the place operational and fuel the spirit of heritage conservation. To conclude my article, I would like to thank Colin for taking the time of showing me the secrets of the Oratory, and to the organizers of the Birmingham Heritage Week for including this incredibly beautiful hidden gem in the festival’s programme.  

Warstone Lane & Key Hill, two historic treasures in the Jewellery Quarter

Written by David F. Villar

As part of the Birmingham Heritage Week’s programme, I booked a visit to two places that, as a Brummie, were unknown to me. These two locations are the cemeteries of Warstone Lane and Key Hill, both can be found at the heart of one of the most historical neighbourhoods of Birmingham, the Jewellery Quarter. Before my tour started, I went on a little walk through the first of the cemeteries, Warstone, to have a look around the place.

I spotted some beautiful graves’ designs during my brief expedition, also I had the chance to read some of the explanatory panels that are spread across the graveyard. At 11 o clock on a sunny Saturday, I began the official tour. A man named Richard was the guide for that day. Firstly, he shared with us some information about the role of the Jewellery Quarter Project and the associate known as Friends of Key Hill and Warstone Cemeteries.

After that, we heard a small introduction to Warstone’s history. The cemetery was created, as well as Key Hill, to help Birmingham cope with the number of deaths that the city was sustaining. In the 1800s, the city had 6 parishes that could not take any more burials. In the words of Richard, “the dead were burying the church of St Philips instead of the church burying its dead” due to the pressure that the burial land was suffering.

What we know as Warstone today, was once upon a time purchased for over £9000. The land has an extension of 9 acres and has more than 100000 buried on it. Also, there used to be a chapel within the cemetery, and underneath it was a big network of catacombs. In terms of types of graves, Warstone has both family ones (which go deep in the soil up to 22 feet) and public ones (some of them filled with hundreds of people).

Warstone Lane’s vaults. Image: @davidtravelwriter

One of the entrances of the cemetery has quite a story behind it. The entrance’s building has a remarkable gothic style and used to be the place were the company that managed the cemetery used to hold their boardroom meetings. Next to it, a war memorial is erected. Also, a small plaque remembers the heroic actions of private James Cooper. 

Across the graveyard, I was shown some of the most iconic graves. One of them belongs to a famous druid called George William Marley, not far from there, there is the grave of the cemetery’s first burial (James Heath, aged 7) which was donated to the family by the company running the graveyard at the time. Other famous people who are at Warstone include John Baskerville, Harry James, Joseph Smith, or Jenkin William Evans.

There are some spooky stories about the place that make it a good adventure thought. When tunnelling the basements of a building near one of the cemetery’s walls, the construction made some coffins (literally) fell down. Constructors refused to keep digging. Also, in one of the public graves, there is a plaque in remembrance of 3 little children from the same family who died in strange circumstances within the same week.

One of the most intriguing parts of Warstone Lane is the catacombs’ area. Each of these vaults holds around 10 bodies, some of them conserved in metal coffins. Two catacombs used to belong to the University of Birmingham and the bodies inside of them were used in anatomy classes. Also, in one of the sections, there are another two vaults with holes on their doors so the coffins inside can be seen. Finally, there is a tunnel which is a restricted area nowadays, that used to connect the catacombs with the chapel’s basement.

After exploring the corners of Warstone Lane, it was time to do the same at Key Hill cemetery. The second tour was carried out by Richard as well, and despite that both graveyards are really close in distance, Key Hill seemed to me to be bigger and with more tombs. Firstly, we visited the entrance of the catacombs. As part of Birmingham Heritage Week, there were tours that went inside this area, which was not opened since last century.

Entrance to the catacombs of Key Hill. Image: @davidtravelwriter

While walking across Key Hill, Richard showed us some of the graves that have been restored thanks to the conservation project carried out by the Friends of Key Hill and Warstone Lane. As in the first graveyard, we got to see the graves of famous personalities such as Frank Tolkien (grandfather of the Lord of the Rings’ author, J.R.R Tolkien), Joseph Chamberlain (probably Birmingham’s most recognised politician ever), Marie Bethel (the first credited female reporter), or Joseph Gillott (a well-known philanthropist).

We ended up the tour visiting the Muslim and Jewish representation of graves and the Memorial Shield commemorating those killed in combat during. Overall, it was great to visit these cemeteries and learn a different part of Birmingham’s history through the lives and deaths of some of their most recognised people. Also, both Warstone Lane and Key Hill have some beautiful sculptures and ornamentation details, as well as an aura of peace and silence that makes you reflect about concepts like life and death.

Birmingham through its historic lenses

Written by David F. Villar

One thing I missed the most while lockdowns were going on in England, was to visit the Library of Birmingham. Not just because I like the modern architecture of its building, but mainly because of the vibes that the place encompasses. Thousands of books at your reach, a quiet atmosphere that helps you to concentrate on your class notes or to fully immerse in a fictional story. What I would discover, now that everything has reopened, is that the Library of Birmingham holds way more than just books or maps.

The building, on its fourth level, was hosting a historical journey. Destination? Eternity. Everyone who stepped into the exhibition Taking and Displaying the Photograph had the opportunity to navigate through a century of cameras, manufacturers, and photo albums. All of them with Birmingham at their lenses.

A sample of Birmingham’s photography heritage. Image: @davidtravelwriter

A small room full of big achievements and memories. That is how I would describe this event that has been part of the Birmingham Heritage Week 2021. This visual story starts in 1860 however, evidence of photography courses’ ads and manufacturing of photographic equipment in Brum is provided since the 1830s. Also, the exhibition shows the key role of the Birmingham Photographic Society in the early years of photography.

I was able to see original samples and models of cameras and other elements such as tripods, shutters, glass plates, enlargers, or lamps. In addition, and thanks to the chronological display of the show, one can appreciate the evolution not just of these devices but of the trade itself. Just so you know, there were more than 200 Birmingham-based companies that manufactured cameras and other photography accessories.

Some of the displayed accessories at the exhibition. Image: @davidtravelwriter

J. Lancaster & Son, Aldi Brothers… were some of the men that grew the photography business. But they were not alone. Helen Smith, Emma Barton, or Elizabeth Ann Hulme were female entrepreneurs that lead in the photography sector nationally and even internationally. Displayed in one of the panels, was The Awakening, a picture taken by Barton that shows a woman holding a little girl. The photo itself, and especially the look in the child’s eyes, is so powerful and pretty that dignifies the art of photography.

After wandering through dozens of cameras and hundreds of photographs, I must admit that the exhibition exceeded my expectations. It successfully combined three of my main passions. History, photography, and Birmingham. Every picture, a story. Every story, a tangible memory preserved by the work of men and women who refused to let them fall into oblivion. May we never forget to look at the beauty of this world with immortal lenses.

Birmingham’s first swimming pool, Woodcock Street Baths

Written by David F. Villar

I wanted to finish my experience at Birmingham Heritage Week 2021 with a special event, maybe doing something that I love but which I usually do not have the time or the resources to do it. And I found the most suitable activity, a guided tour through what was known as the Woodcock Street Baths and a swim at the place’s main swimming pool.

The baths are located right at the heart of Aston University’s campus, 5 minutes from the city centre. At my arrival, I was welcomed by Michael, who is a member of the organization’s staff and who was responsible for showing us the facilities. I must add that, currently, the place is a modern sports centre that has kept some of its old features.

Woodcock Street Baths’ façade. Image: @davidtravelwriter

The baths are located right at the heart of Aston University’s campus, 5 minutes from the city centre. At my arrival, I was welcomed by Michael, who is a member of the organization’s staff and who was responsible for showing us the facilities. I must add that, currently, the place is a modern sports centre that has kept some of its old features.

After this brief introduction, I started to discover the different areas of Woodcock. At the reception, I was told by Michael that the current desk is a pretty decent restoration of the original one. In addition, all the hall’s tailing has been kept like that since the place opened its doors in the previous century. However, elements like two side turnstiles were removed. Most of these restoration processes began when Aston University acquired the building in the 80s and invested in it in order to make it accessible for the community.

Woodcock’s crown jewel, its pool. Image: @davidtravelwriter

I also had the chance to visit the gym, which has kept some of the architectonical features from what was once the place’s public laundry, and the room where the original boilers were located (currently there is a dance studio). The next part of the pool took me inside the sports pavilion. Although covered by the current floor, the original Garlock pool is still underneath. Also, in one of the back walls, the place where the pool boards used to be is still visible nowadays.

After the tour was finished, it was time for my swim. I shall confess that the pool’s area, with its original tailing and iron arches across the ceiling, is quite pretty. Additionally, there are old-fashioned cubicles where people can get changed and leave their stuff. Nevertheless, modern toilets and locker rooms were included in the adjacent pool’s area.

It was great not just to learn the history behind such a place but also to enjoy a swim again. Another aspect that I liked about the pool was the temperature of the water, it was quite warm, and it really makes you stay and relax inside Woodcock’s crown jewel.