The Outer Circle – Stage 5
Having now left Winson Green Road behind us we’re skirting around Somerfield Park and our tour of the Outer Circle has taken us into City Road.
This was laid down in the 1890s and at 1.2 miles is reputed to be the longest section of straight road in Birmingham. If you have ever used the phrase “A face as long as Livery Street” then you’d find that Livery Street is only half the length of City Road at 0.6 of a mile. Livery Street is indeed a miserable looking road. It is quite narrow and on the East side is overshadowed by the bulk of Snow Hill Station. But we are on the Outer Circle, so, less information about city centre roads and let’s concentrate on what we have here.
When we reach the junction of Rotton Park Road we are at the highest point on the Outer Circle at 625 feet above sea level. The houses on our left are in front of Summerfield Park and on the opposite side of the park is the trackbed of the old Harborne Railway which ran as a branch line from Harborne to the LNWR near Monument Road. Passenger trains on the line, which was ironically dubbed the Harborne Express, were suspended in 1934 and the track was lifted in 1963. Parallel to the railway trackbed is Gillott Road named after Joseph Gillott who had made his fortune by mechanising pen-nib manufacture.
Also on our left about a mile away, if only we could see that far, are the two towers of Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks. These, it is said, were visible by JRR Tolkien when he lived as a young man in nearby Ladywood before moving to Oxford in 1911 and were inspiration for his second Lord of The Rings volume. But more about Tolkien later.
Edgbaston Waterworks Tower. The buildings were designed by John Henry Chamberlain (not a relation of Joseph Chamberlain) around 1870. The engine house, boiler house, and chimney are Grade II listed buildings. Despite the close proximity to Edgbaston Reservoir there is no current or historical connection of the water. This waterworks manages domestic water supply whereas the reservoir was built to feed the canal system.
Perrott’s Folly which was built in 1758. There are many theories to explain why the tower was built. One is that landowner John Perrott wanted to be able to survey his land and perhaps entertain guests. Or the tower might have been used to spot animals for hunting. Or that he built the tower so that he could see his wife’s grave, 15 miles away.
As we reach the bottom of the hill, on the right, where new housing has been built is the back of the site of the Mitchells & Butlers famous Cape Hill Brewery, which dated from 1879 and eventually covered 90 acres. The factory had its own railway network, which was connected to the Harborne Railway by a branch line crossing City Road along here. The factory was demolished in 2005.
Cape Hill Brewery. Mitchells & Butlers Brewery was formed when Henry Mitchell’s old Crown Brewery (founded in Smethwick in 1866) merged with William Butler’s Brewery (also founded in Smethwick in 1866) in 1898. Henry Mitchell had moved to the Cape Hill site in 1879 and this became the company’s main brewing site
Further along City Road at the junction of Portland Road on our left is Grade II listed St Germain’s church. This large church designed by E F Reynolds in Romanesque style and completed in 1917 was one of only two churches in the UK consecrated during the First World War.
Next to St Germain’s is George Dixon’s Grammar School. This was opened in 1906 and has Kenneth Tynan the film & theatre critic amongst its famous old boys. Another was Michael Balcon the film producer who in his 1950s film The Blue Lamp named the hero George Dixon after his old school. George Dixon (1820 – 1898) was active in local government in Birmingham and sat in the House of Commons from 1867. He was a major proponent of education for all children.
We are now going to turn right out of City Road onto Sandon Road then left down Barnsley Road. This is so that we can keep to our ”historic” bus tour on the line of the original route. The present 11 bus route now goes straight on along Sandon Road, beyond the city boundary, to Bearwood Road for the benefit of passengers wishing to avail themselves of the wide array of shops there. Bearwood Road is in Smethwick.
As we go down Barnsley Road the junction ahead of us with Hagley Road sits above Chad Brook, which will flow southeast from here to a lake alongside The Edgbaston Golf Course in Priory Road. The Chad, of course, gave its name to the famous Chad Valley range of toys & games. The company, which moved to Harborne in 1897 was one of the UK’s leading toymakers, but the factory was closed when Chad Valley was taken over by Palitoy in 1972. The radio broadcaster Kenneth Horne was Chairman and Managing Director of the company in the 1950s. The brand name was bought by Woolworths 1988. Then Home Retail Group, the parent company of retailers Homebase and Argos, purchased the brand and Chad Valley toys are now available exclusively in the Argos catalogue.
Our route takes us right onto Hagley Road and we will meet up with the current 11 route as we turn left into Lordwood Road alongside the Kings Head pub. Holt Brewery opened the present Kings Head in 1905. Although this is located on land owned by the Calthorpe family, who like the Cadburys would not allow the building of licensed premises, this pub replaced a much earlier hostelry, which pre-dated the Calthorpes’ ownership. This circumvented the restriction on pubs on Calthorpe land.
The Lords Wood that gives this road its name was originally located on land to the right between Hagley Road and Blakeley Avenue which belonged to the lords of the manor of Harborne. Woodland is shown at this location on the OS map dated 1834.
In September 2013 one of our OuterCircleBus passengers made a brief video of the 1953 Birmingham bus that we used for our tours as it went along Lordswood Road – take a look at it here:
On the left we will see the House at Home pub. Not particularly remarkable, but I will refer to it later in our journey.
The next road on the left is Carless Avenue leading to the Moor Pool Estate which was established in 1907 by John Nettlefold, first chairman of Birmingham Housing Committee and member of the Guest Keen Nettlefold company (GKN). It was part of the Garden City concept shared by the Cadbury family in Bournville, to provide low density housing centred on a community hall with many green spaces, at a time when the majority of inner city housing was crowded back-to-backs. Five hundred houses were built which can still be seen today. The Estate boasts two tennis clubs, a bowling green, allotments and the Moor Pool itself, with an active fishing club. In the Moor Pool Hall there is an acclaimed dramatic society, a unique skittle alley dating back to 1913 and snooker tables. Developers have plans to knock down the community facilities and a trust has been set up to raise over £300,000. In December 2014 it was announced that the Moor Pool Trust has raised sufficient money and along with a Heritage Lottery Fund grant they have secured the facilities for future generations.
As we head down Lordswood Road towards Harborne we might like to reflect upon the fact that rural Harborne was a centre for the growing of gooseberries. In fact the Gooseberry Growers’ Society annual dinner was held at the Green Man pub at the far end of Harborne High Street from 1815 up to the 1920s. Furthermore the district was also known for its healthy location: “Harborne being situated upon very high ground, and the soil light, renders the air very salubrious; instances of longevity being very numerous, particularly one couple, James Sands and his wife, one of whom lived to the age of 140, and the other to 120.“ said Charles Pye in his 1818 “A Description of Modern Birmingham”
On the right as we enter Harborne look out for the modern building which is the Swimming Baths, originally opened in 1923. The poet WH Auden lived in his father’s house next to where the baths are located between 1919 and 1939 when he moved to the USA. His father was the Chief Medical Officer for Health in Birmingham. Auden was born in York in 1907 and died in 1973.
There is a cinema in Harborne High Street which was the Royalty Cinema, boasting a ‘high quality Art Deco interior’. In the summer of 2011, the Royalty Cinema was designated Grade II Listed by English Heritage.
Interior of the Royalty Cinema in Harborne showing one of the “high quality Art Deco” features above a fire exit. The cinema opened in 1930 and closed in 1963. It was used as a bingo hall until 2011.
The Outer Circle route now takes another one of the famous dog-leg turns out of Lordswood Road through the end of Harborne High Street into Harborne Park Road. Look up at the pub on the corner and you will see that the roof is missing. This was the Kings Arms (this was written in 2014), which was changed into a Tolkien theme pub called the Huntsman in 2013 by a hairdresser then the roof caught fire in July – he’d probably left his curling tongs plugged in!
The Kings Arms in Harborne in 2012 before the fire that devastated the roof.
Further down Harborne Park Road, on our right is Old Church Road and along here we would find Harborne Hall, once home to a succession of notable Birmingham families including Walter Chamberlain brother to politician Joseph Chamberlain and members of the WT Avery family, remembered for their weighing machines. The hall was latterly a convent and is now used as a conference centre and hotel. Further along the same road is St Peter’s Church, parts of which date from the 14th century and the church school dating from before the mid 18th century which is grade two listed.
As we descend the hill Harborne Park Road becomes southbound only, the northbound traffic a few metres away to our right is in Harborne Lane.
Look to the left as we start to go around the roundabout and you will see the new Queen Elizabeth Hospital building above the trees. This now houses most of the activities from the old QE & Selly Oak Hospitals including the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine which was previously located at Selly Oak. The facility, which opened in 2010 has the largest single-floor critical care unit in the world, with 100 beds. The new hospital cost a total of £545,000,000, has 1,213 patient beds and 30 operating theatres. There are 3,800 car parking spaces so I suppose that there’ll be plenty of income from those then! The original Queen Elizabeth Hospital was opened in 1938 and stands on land originally donated by the Cadbury family.
We then continue up the hill to where a new roundabout is located. Look to our left to see the new Selly Oak Relief Road, which opened in 2011 and is intended to divert traffic on the busy A38 away from the congested Bristol Road. The patch of disused land on the left next to the new road is planned to be the site of a new Supermarket. However it currently seems that Sainsbury’s may be reneging on their agreement to develop the site.
As you look left down the new Selly Oak By-Pass you can see the University Clock Tower. Birmingham University claims to be the only university campus in Britain with its own railway station.
University of Birmingham Clocktower. Built in 1900, the clock tower was the tallest building in Birmingham until 1969 and is nicknamed “Old Joe” after Joseph Chamberlain, the University’s first Chancellor. It is a prominent landmark visible from many parts of the city, and is said to be the tallest free-standing clock tower in the world at 100 metres.
As we go down from the roundabout we cross the point where the Dudley No 2 Canal once went as a new route to Birmingham avoiding the busy Birmingham Canal (which we crossed when we were on Winson Green Road). Opened in 1798 it was built on the cheap and the tunnel at Lapal was constantly collapsing. The canal was closed in 1926 it now ends in Halesowen. The line of the canal was visible below the new bridge that was built here in the 1920s for the Outer Circle and it ran behind where the retail estate is to our left, to a wharf for the Birmingham Battery Company and then joined the Worcester Canal. The bridge was replaced during the on-going road improvements, and the canal has vanished.
On our right now is the old Selly Oak bus garage, which opened in 1927 as a tramcar depot. Buses shared the garage until 1952 after the Bristol Road trams ceased operation and it finally closed in 1986. Selly Oak provided buses for the Bristol Road routes, the Outer Circle and housed the Leyland single deck buses that were used for the no 27 route through Bournville.
Birmingham City Transport’s Leyland PS1 single deck bus no 2245 now in preservation at Wythall Transport Museum. Shown here with the route number 27 which it worked for most of its life. The 27 ran from Kings Heath through Bournville to Northfield. It was the tunnel under the railway & canal in Bournville that meant only single deck buses could work the route.
The retail park on the left is on the site of the IMI Eliott works, a major employer in the area and next to it was the Birmingham Battery Company. There was much controversy when the site closed because of contamination of the land, but there are now plans for developing the area around the Worcester Canal which runs through the site with retail, leisure and business facilities.
On our right is the original Sainsbury’s store built on a triangle of land bounded by Chapel Lane, Bristol Road and Harborne Lane. The local shops and the Oak Cinema stood on the corner of this site and on the opposite side of Chapel Lane was the Plough & Harrow pub. These were all demolished when the Bristol Road was widened in 1979.
A right turn takes us onto Bristol Road, the A38. Those with a good memory will remember that we crossed the A38 earlier at Tyburn Road.
When we turn from the Bristol Road into Oak Tree Lane we pass the alleged site of the original “Selly Oak” which was felled in 1909 amid concerns about its safety and damage it was causing to the nearby buildings, which are now shops. There have been three new “Selly Oaks” planted in the area since 1985.
The Selly Oak in Oak Tree Lane being cut down in 1909. The house behind the tree is now “Brevitts” solicitors.
As we go along Oak Tree Lane, to the left is the familiar site of Selly Oak Hospital, now partially closed, which originally occupied the buildings of the Kings Norton Union Workhouse. This is now the third of the workhouse sites in Birmingham that we have passed, the others being in Erdington & Handsworth.
At the top of the hill here Oak Tree Lane veers off to the right and the Outer Circle follows Linden Road as we enter Bournville.
There is just one more “Stage” in our tour of Birmingham’s famous Outer Circle – if you are reading this in February 2015 return here next month for the final part of our journey.
About the author
The author of the Outer Circle tour is David Humphries. David was bought up in Hall Green and now lives in Solihull. He, and his wife Pam, started their OuterCircleBus.com tours of the No 11 bus route and have run them every year beteween 2011 and 2014. Visit www.OuterCircleBus.com to find photographs of the tours and to find out how much money was raised for charities from the tours. David now conducts guided tours of the Birmingham Back to Backs and Newman Brothers at the Coffin Works in Fleet Street.
You can contact David on info@OuterCircleBus.com