Fountains in Birmingham City Centre
Walsall Leather Museum
Narrow boat about to enter Dudley Limestone Caves
“Tanners, Foggers, Leggers and an Anchor”
A Preview of the 25th AnniversaryAGM/Social Weekend
Each year our AOUG/Social Weekends are based in different Regions or Nations and in 2013, our 25th Anniversary year, it was the turn of the West Midlands. The West Midlands may not in some peoples' eyes sound like the first choice of holiday destination but the home of jewellery and leather with “more canalsthan Venice”, has much to offer the weekend tourist. The area is interwoven with a network of 100 miles of canals, linking 21 locks just within the Wolverhampton stretch, a renovated waterfront in Walsall with its new Art Gallery, a Heritage Centre at Smethwick, cultural attractions at Wolverhampton, tunnels and caves in Dudley and a criss-cross of canal walks through the centre of Birmingham.
The hotel we chose was the Holiday Inn Walsall, at Junction 10 of the M6, which was fully refurbished and re-opened with a special Conference Suite in February 2012 and has both bus and train links close by. AOUG had the exclusive use of the Conference area with our own entrance and earlier check in facilities and also the use of the Hotel Leisure Centre with swimming pool, jacuzzi and gym. The long low building of just ground and first floor, although not sporting a lift, has half of its rooms on the ground floor and outside is an extremely large free car parking area, so we are sure that facilities will be available to cater for all our needs.
Walsall is known for the Leather Industry, and boasts a museum showing the examples of craftsmanship which is still demonstrated today. Here at the Leather Museum, visitors can even have a go themselves. The distinctive smell of new leather hits your senses as you walk through the door and from there you can go on to see all stages of the leather process. The garden outside features the plants used by the “tanners”, in the tanning process and in the museum all types of leather craft is displayed including saddles made for the Royal family and of course there is a shop to purchase all manner of items. Although this is not one of the main optional excursions planned for everyone, it is ideal for non-members to visit whilst the formal AGM meetings take place, as a public bus from the hotel drive takes you to the door of the museum. Afterwards family and friends might like to explore the “Leather Trail” or take a 5-10 minute walk from there, into the town of Walsall. Members who wish to do this may decide to extend their AGM visit to allow themselves extra exploration time.
Birmingham, slightly to the South of Walsall, has become famous for its Bull Ring, flanked by the inner ring roads system, with its statues of giant bulls amidst the modern shopping precincts. The current shopping centre is reputed to be the busiest in the UK but markets were held there as early as the Middle Ages, legally being granted a Charter by Henry II. Then later it became a meeting place for various events in Birmingham`s political history with many demonstrations during the 1830-40s, being the place of the Bullring riots in 1839 and resulted in residents being fearful of any large gatherings and therefore fairs being banned from the centre of the town.
However Birmingham is also famous for its Jewellery Quarter, an area which is over 250 years old with over 200 listed building. Since the 14th century, precious metals have been worked here and expanded with the fashion of Charles II for metal shoe buckles and fancy buttons. This was then extended to trinket boxes, and jewellery incorporating silver and burnished gold inlaid with coloured glass. This area still makes 40% of the UK jewellery, however the trade now specialises in the quality market extending to cutlery for the Cunard liners, trophies for the FA and FIFA and royal regalia featuring highly in the area`s reputation. There are many Jewellery Quarter trails or tours to follow around the unique museums and galleries and one hundred independent retailers. Then when your feet hurt, thirty restaurants, bars and cafes offer a chance to relax.
Here in the Jewellery Quarter is found the Birmingham Assay Office, one of only four UK licensed to check the quality of precious metals and to give them their hallmark prior to sale, the others being in London, Sheffield and Edinburgh. Southern Ireland also has an Assay Office in Dublin but since 1923, Dublin has not been part of the British hallmarking system. Each Assay Office has its own distinct symbol to show that it has been assayed by them and Birmingham bear the hallmark of the anchor. The Birmingham Assay Office was established in 1773 in rented premises at the Kings Head, New Street, but has been on its current site since 1878. This current building was Grade II listed in 2004. The history of hallmarking dates back to 1300 following a statute in the time of Edward I with the aim to protect the public from fraud.
Birmingham Assay Office normally only hosts tours on a Thursday but we have managed to arrange a Friday tour for AOUG. This tour is limited to just 30 people but we can arrange a tour to the Jewellery Museum instead for those who book after this maximum number is reached. As they need us to arrive at the Assay Office by 2pm, we will be setting off for our Friday afternoon excursion earlier than usual so I do hope you will arrange your travel to allow you to participate in this rather unique experience. Then after our tour, there will be time to explore the rest of the Jewellery Quarter, to walk the heritage trail, explore the many shops and workshops and maybe have time for the visit the main Jewellery Museum or one of the smaller museums in this area. If you wanted another visit to the Jewellery Quarter to give you more time then you will need to arrive before the official weekend, rather than stay after as the Jewellery Quarter is all closed on Mondays.
Saturday afternoon, whilst Executive Committee attend their meeting, everyone else has the opportunity to visit the Black Country Museum. The “Black Country” is known as the area to the North and West of Birmingham, bordering onto Staffordshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire. The museum 26 acre site has original buildings (transported from other parts of the West Midlands) along with some reconstructions, to present a social history of the area. These include the Rolfe Street Public Baths, the Old Patent Tube Works, a Victorian School, a chapel, a toll house, a tilted cottage, Pitt`s cottage, cast iron houses and brick back-to-backs, along with a foundry, a builder`s yard and other trade various workshops. Then there are many, many shops, with a bakery, fish and chip shop and sweet shop that made their own sweets. Visitors can learn about the “foggers”, in the Nail shop or can join “Elija Wedge” through underground passages to see pit props and the pit pony, to learn of the lives of the children who worked in the drift mine alongside the men and of the danger of the accidents in the shafts. In addition this fascinating site has collections of transport through the ages, a canal wharf and a chance to ride on a tram from the entrance to the middle of the site. There is so much to see here that I`m sure that the afternoon visit will just whet your appetite for a chance to return.
Then on Sunday morning we are offering a canal trip, but not just any canal trip. We`ve had canal trips before, we`ve even had a special horse drawn canal trip before, but we`ve never had an underground canal trip before. This year we are going to venture into vast limestone caves and through the Dudley tunnel, the second longest navigable tunnel (Standedge, the Huddersfield narrow canal, currently boasting the longest) and whilst underground experience the Singing Cavern and an audio-visual show. The Dudley tunnel is an amazing engineering achievement of the Industrial Revolution and this tunnel leads into the vast underground workings of the limestone mines. The actual tour comes out of one tunnel into Shirts Mill Basin, with its loading bays and mine entrances, before passing through another short tunnel, and out into a once manmade limestone cavern. This is now open to the sky, with the roof having been removed in the 19th century. This area of Castle Mill Basin previously a hive of mining industry, is now a sanctuary for nature with ivy cascading like a waterfall from the rock above. Then after exploring a series of other tunnels and cave, you will discover the work of the “leggers” and the true meaning of the expression “legging it”.
Jean Hertzog – AOUG Treasurer
Time to celebrate our 25 years!
AOUG celebrates our 25th Anniversary. Twenty five years of our volunteers giving of their time and energy to support our University and its graduates. AOUG members know how to celebrate as our 21st Anniversary in 2009 bore witness but this is even more special and we intend to recognise that fact by Executive Representatives in all the Regions and Nations arranging a special event for their local members.
Nationally a special dinner is to be arranged for the Autumn at Bletchley Park, home of the World War II code breakers. Some members will remember our extremely successful outing there in for our 21st Anniversary when we toured the huts and grounds but this dinner will present the opportunity to admire the splendour of the Hall itself. Please watch out for details nearer the time.