The Coffin Works and Back to Backs museums in Birmingham

The British Museum might have eight million items but that’s just too overwhelming for me. Instead I prefer small museums with a dedicated focus. That’s why the Coffin Works in Birmingham made it on to my UK bucket list. I recently visited the Coffin Works and another heritage attraction, the Back to Backs. Was it worth the bucket list entry?

Coffin Works

The Coffin Works museum is around 15 minutes walk from Birmingham New Street railway station. Along the way you’ll pass shiny new buildings, cranes and roadworks. All reflecting the huge changes to Birmingham’s landscape over the last few years.

Newman Brothers coffin works, Birmingham
Newman Brothers coffin works, Birmingham

From 1894 until 1998 the Newman Brothers manufactured coffin furniture from a factory on Fleet Street. After it closed the last owner, Joyce Green, fought to turn it into a museum. Her dream was realised and visitors can now discover the story of the company that once made coffin handles and decorations (not coffins!) for luminaries such as Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother.

Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin Works, Birmingham

Entrance to the Coffin Works is by guided tour only. The tour starts outside in the courtyard and takes in the stamp shop, warehouse, office and sewing room. Our guide, Cornellius, talked us through the different jobs carried out in each area and demonstrated how some of the machinery worked. One thing came across loud and clear; health and safety wasn’t paramount in those days!

Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin Works, Birmingham

What made the tour come alive was the stories of those who had worked at the Coffin Works. From Mr Ray, the gentleman who worked as the die sinker through to Diamond Lil who read tea leaves and worked in the plating shop.

Coffin handles, Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin handles, Coffin Works, Birmingham

In the warehouse we discovered shelves full of original stock. Cornellius explained that from the late 1960s all coffin furniture used in cremations had to be combustible so plastic fittings became commonplace. This was one factor in the eventual closure of the factory as the mark up on plastic fittings couldn’t compete with the metal furnishings.

The office was home to Joyce Green who joined the company, aged 18, as a secretary and eventually became the managing director and final owner. Much to the disdain of several male workers! Joyce had to contend with striking workers, a changing business climate and the eventual closure of the factory. Sadly she never got to see the opening of this museum but I’m sure she’d be happy with the results.

Coffin paraphernalia, Coffin Works, Birmingham
Coffin paraphernalia, Coffin Works, Birmingham

In the sewing room we learnt about shrouds and linings. A row of sewing machines lined the wall next to the windows, to ensure the seamstresses were able to work in good light.

However, pride of place went to a wedding dress made from shroud materials. Sheila, a seamstress, was too poor to buy her own wedding dress. Instead she created one out of stolen offcuts of lace and satin, coming in early to obtain the materials and then hiding them around her belly during the working day. Not many people get married in a shroud!

Sewing room, Coffin Works
Sewing room, Coffin Works

The tour ended in a small room with pictures and clippings from famous funerals. Although we’d only been onsite an hour or so it was an engaging and entertaining look at a business I knew nothing about, it definitely deserved its place on my bucket list.

Back to Backs

From the Coffin Works we hotfooted it across town to our next destination, the Back to Backs. These were a type of housing, built around a courtyard, once common in Birmingham and many other industrial towns in the 19th Century.

Back to Backs, Birmingham
Back to Backs, Birmingham

The houses at Inge Street are the last remaining courtyard of back to back houses in Birmingham. The National Trust now owns these properties and has renovated them to show what they might have looked like during different time periods. It makes a lovely change to see the National Trust preserving working class homes rather than stately houses.

Inside back to backs house, Birmingham
Inside back to backs house, Birmingham

Again, entry is by guided tour, bookable in advance, so you’ll need to be organised!

The tour starts outside, with a geography lesson. As I’m not particularly familiar with Birmingham it was helpful to get some bearings, even if I didn’t always know where the guide was referring to. We then walked through an alleyway into the courtyard and on into the houses.

Once inside we heard stories of the residents who lived there. We learnt about the lives of an 1840s Jewish toy maker, an 1870s glass eye maker and a 1930s lock maker. The houses are decorated as per the time periods. Possessions were minimal and space at a premium; be aware of low doorways and steep and winding staircases!

Bedroom, Birmingham Back to backs
Bedroom, Birmingham Back to backs

One of the most sobering rooms is the one which hasn’t been renovated. The other rooms all look as if they’d provide a level of comfort, commensurate with the times, but in the original room the ceilings, windows and walls are in very poor state of repair. We were shown photographs of the houses shortly before renovation; I wouldn’t have wanted to live there!

Inside George Saunders tailor shop, Birmingham back to backs
Inside George Saunders tailor shop, Birmingham back to backs

The final house was the shop of George Saunders, a tailor, who came from St Kitts in 1958. It was interesting to learn about his life in Birmingham and the difficulties he faced as a Caribbean immigrant. The shop is kitted out in 1970s style, adorned with half finished suits and clothing patterns. 

Outside in the courtyard are the shared toilets and laundry room. The laundry room contains a mangle; I remember using one of these after swimming lessons at secondary school! Indeed there were a few items on the tour which were familiar to me from my grandparents’ house.

The laundry, Back to Backs, Birmingham
The laundry, Back to Backs, Birmingham

After the tour finished we spent another 15 minutes in the National Trust traditional sweet shop trying to decide on some treats for the train journey home. There was just too much choice!

I’m happy to say that the Back to Backs tour perfectly complemented our earlier visit to the Coffin Works. I highly recommend both museums as they give a fantastic insight life in Birmingham over the last century.

Review: Dick Whittington and his cat at the Oxford Playhouse

Many Christmas traditions fall by the wayside as the kids get older. Goodbye nativity plays, school Christmas fairs, visits to Santa and the yearly panto. Wait! Goodbye panto? Oh no, we don’t!

When the Oxford Playhouse invited us to their 2018 pantomime, Dick Whittington and his cat, I was a little worried about taking two teens to the performance. Both are obviously too cool to shout at baddies, take part in the sing song or clap along. Or are they?

Dick Whittington: the first half

Sarah the Cook, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
Sarah the Cook, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

*Spoiler alert*. Contains details of songs, jokes and plot (yes, I’m sure you think you know this).

The Oxford Playhouse version of Dick Whittington is a loosely adapted version of the original tale. With added panto scenes. Think mice in remote controlled cars, a monkey called Brian and a Brexit bus. Exactly how you’d imagine it.

The first half is a musical extravaganza. From the opening ‘Don’t stop believin’ to Nirvana’s ‘Smells like teen spirit and John Legend’s ‘All of me’ the songs and choreography are brilliant.

An early bakery scene produces the first big laughs. In Generation Game style, Dick and his cat decorate cream cakes as they move along a conveyor belt. Slowly, then a bit faster. You know what’s going to happen. It’s still funny.

King Rat and Scummy, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
King Rat and Scummy, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

My favourite character, without a doubt, was King Rat, played by Max Olesker. King Rat has plans to buy a bakery (or maybe a chain of sandwich shops, Rat-a-manger), become mayor of London, then foreign secretary and finally to take Britain out of the world. Sound familiar?

The youngsters were excellent too. In a moment of recognition my son discovered why the boy he sits next to in English had missed lots of lessons recently. Do teenage boys not talk to each other? (No need to answer).

Mr Fitzwarren and Sarah, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
Mr Fitzwarren and Sarah, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

Sarah the Cook plays the Dame. In time honoured tradition she is in love with Mr Fitzwarren and wears a variety of colourful and wacky costumes. Despite some strategically placed buns on her cook’s dress she wasn’t as smutty as expected. Whilst there were a few quips around Dick’s name most of the adult jokes were references to Brexit. Personally, I rather like a rude joke but I know they’re not for everyone.

It was a brave move to finish the first half with a panto version of a Les Mis song. One of my favourite numbers in the musical, reworded for Dick Whittington. What a terrific way to end!

Dick Whittington: the second half

Cat and Alice, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
Cat and Alice, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

The panto action moved swiftly from life on board Shippy McShipface en route to Timbuktu (via the Titanic) to a surreal under the water scene. In complete darkness the cast swam amongst jellyfish and a mermaid. I might have guessed that blooming song, Baby Shark, would follow. I definitely didn’t envisage a Doctor Who tardis.

But how else would the characters end up on a tropical island? Subsequently imprisoned, with the help of Brian the monkey. Although not before cat and the Dame had a calypso moment on the beach.

Cat and Sarah the cook, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.
Cat and Sarah the cook, Dick Whittington. Photo courtesy of Oxford Playhouse.

Yes, it all got a little hectic. Add in a Spice Girls medley, lots of dancing and a bee hating Queen. There was hardly room for Dick Whittington in the second half. And they wonder why panto is a peculiarly British institution!

Wait. Slow down. Back to the original tale, and the mayoral election. In a nod to political incorrectness King Rat announces that only middle class boys can vote. Of course, he doesn’t win. But does Dick? Now that would be telling.

All works out well in the end. Rat gets his comeuppance, Dick and Alice fall in love and Katy Perry’s Firework provides a fitting finale with added pyrotechnics.

I know the teens enjoyed it. I saw them laughing when they thought I wasn’t looking. Teen daughter was suitably embarrassed when dad mistakenly stood up for the ladies song. And teen boy was incredulous to discover I didn’t realise the cat’s moves were based on Fortnite dancers. That’s because I’m an adult.

Dick Whittington and his cat is on until Sunday 6 January 2019. Purchase tickets direct from the Oxford Playhouse.

Disclosure

Our tickets were provided by Oxford Playhouse. This is an honest review of our experience. All words are my own; all pictures provided by the Oxford Playhouse.

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CulturedKids

15 best picnic spots in Oxfordshire

Summer days are made for picnics. Whether you’re looking for somewhere to take the kids, a peaceful river bank or a hill with a view there are plenty of great picnic spots in Oxfordshire. Scroll down to find my favourites!

1. Cutteslowe Park, Oxford

Cutteslowe is the largest park in Oxford with lots to keep children entertained. There’s mini golf, a splash zone (summer only), miniature railway (selected weekends), play areas, duck pond, sandpits and picnic tables. You could easily spend all day here. Parking charges apply.

2. Warburg Nature Reserve, near Henley

Hidden in the Chiltern hills this woodland is a great spot for nature lovers. At the reserve entrance you’ll find a small interpretation centre, toilets and a picnic area. Once you’ve eaten, walk off your lunch on the circular wildlife trail. If you visit in early summer look out for the orchids.

Warburg isn’t the easiest place to find so follow the instructions on the BBOWT website.

3. White Horse Hill, Uffington

In my opinion the view from White Horse Hill is the best in Oxfordshire. After your picnic be sure to explore the area; as well as the chalk figure, walk around the Iron Age hill fort of Uffington Castle and wander along the Ridgeway to the Neolithic burial ground of Wayland’s Smithy.

Park in the National Trust car park, charge applies for non members.

4. Abbey Meadows, beside the River Thames, Abingdon

Another family friendly option. Visit in the summer to enjoy the interactive water features and outdoor swimming pool. You’ll also find a newly refurbished playground, tennis courts and walks along the River Thames.

Parks in general are great for picnics; check out the free parks website for lots more suggestions.

5. Hartslock Nature Reserve, Goring

This is a good option if you want to combine a walk with a picnic. Park or take the train to Goring and then follow the river east until you reach the reserve. Head steeply uphill and rest on the bench looking out across the Thames and Goring Gap. A fabulous view, albeit slightly less lovely since the railway electrification gantries have been installed!

6. Minster Lovell hall, near Witney

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Minster Lovell hall was a 15th Century Manor House. Now in ruins it backs onto the River Windrush; a perfect setting for a picnic. Paddle in the shallow river, watch the ducks or explore the ruins. Be warned, it gets very busy in summer.

Park in St Kenelm’s Church car park from where it’s a five minute walk to the ruins.

7. Blenheim Palace parkland

Blenheim Palace is one of Oxfordshire’s most visited attractions. Its manicured parkland make sure a great picnic spot.

Whilst you need to pay to access the Palace or Pleasure Gardens it is possible to enter the parkland for free on a public footpath. Just pick up an OS map or follow the instructions here.

8. Rollright Stones, near Chipping Norton

Picnics aren’t just for summer. We ate a memorable picnic one cold January day surrounded by the Rollright Stones, a complex of three Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments.

There’s limited road parking beside the stones and an honesty box for your £1 entrance fee.

9. Lord Wantage monument, The Ridgeway

Take the B4494 from Wantage to Newbury for approximately three miles until you reach the Ridgeway car park. Park on the left hand side and then walk east along the Ridgeway for a few minutes until you reach the Boer war monument.

Lord Wantage monument, Ridgeway

Despite the amount of house building in Oxfordshire I always marvel at how much ‘countryside’ you can see from here; it feels very rural. Although you’re unlikely to be alone as it’s a popular rest stop for walkers and cyclists on the Ridgeway.

10. Beside the Oxford canal, Thrupp

Thrupp is a small canalside village a couple of miles from Kidlington. Choose your picnic spot beside the towpath and settle down to watch the narrow boats and ducks.

Parking is behind Annie’s cafe. Of course, if you’ve forgotten your picnic you could always just eat here instead!

11. Wittenham Clumps, Long Wittenham

Easy to spot from a distance these two wooded clumps are visible across much of flat South Oxfordshire. Archaeological digs have confirmed the site has been used since the Bronze Age; understandable given it’s prominent location.

Nowadays it’s a nature reserve and is better known for its kite flying and winter sledging opportunities. There’s an orientation pillar, benches and lovely views of the River Thames from the top of Round Hill. Or Didcot if you look in the other direction.

12. Watlington Hill, Christmas Common

Oxfordshire is well known for red kites and this is a great place to watch them. Its chalk grassland is also a haven for butterflies in the summer.

Park in the free National Trust car park at the top of the hill and walk a couple of hundred metres to find a picnic spot with a view. If you’re feeling more adventurous there’s a waymarked short route to follow around the hill.

13. Port Meadow, Oxford

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Port Meadow is a large meadow just outside the centre of Oxford bordering the River Thames. Best visited in summer unless you’re a bird watcher, if so visit in winter when the flooded plains are full of geese and ducks.

For picnics I prefer the Thames Path side on the opposite river bank, away from the grazing ponies and cattle, unless you’re happy surrounded by hooves!

14. Kirtlington Quarry nature reserve

Famous for its fossils this small nature reserve was once used for the production of cement. The tooth of a Megalosaurus has been found here so your picnic would have been a scary affair 166 million years ago. Nowadays it’s rather more relaxing; after your dinosaur hunt here’s a large flat area perfect for setting up your picnic mat.

15. Faringdon Folly woodland

Faringdon folly
Faringdon folly

Previously owned by the eccentric Lord Berners Faringdon Folly is usually open on the first and third Sunday from April to October. There are great views from the top so it’s worthwhile trying to coincide your visit with one of these dates. However the surrounding woodland is always open and is perfect for a picnic.

Wherever you decide to picnic remember to follow the Countryside Code.  Respect the countryside and most importantly take all rubbish away with you.

If I’ve missed your favourite picnic spot please let me know in the comments.

An autumn walk from Turville in the Chilterns, Bucks

Despite living only 40 minutes drive from the Chilterns we don’t visit as often as we should. Stretching across four counties, from Bedfordshire to Oxfordshire, they’re less well known than the Cotswolds but a great option for walkers in hill deprived southern England.

The area is characterised by beech woodlands, chalk hills and brick and flint villages. Autumn, when the leaves change colour, is impossibly pretty. It also seems to be the only time of year I remember that I live close to the Chiltern Hills. There is an inherent switch in me; falling leaves equals walk in the Chilterns.

Add into this mix a fantastic cafe whose existence I’d only recently discovered. It was time to head to the Chilterns.

Turville village

We started in Turville, a small village with an impressive screen pedigree. Scenes from Midsomer Murders, Lewis and Jonathan Creek have all been shot here. And you may even recognise St Mary’s Church, renamed as St Barnabas Church, which featured in the Vicar of Dibley. Of course all of this was lost on my Netflix generation of children.

Turville village
Turville village

Leaving Turville we walked up through Churchfield Wood, emerging beside the security cameras of Turville Court.

It’s fair to say many of the home owners round here are rather well heeled. Whilst Google couldn’t name the owner of Turville Court we did discover it was sold for £18 million in 2015. It has 26 bathrooms, 13 bedrooms and interior decoration which is definitely not to my taste.

The Chilterns in autumn
The Chilterns in autumn

As we walked on we were treated to the sight of about 30 red kites circling above a nearby field. Kites are common in the Chilterns but I did wonder what was attracting the carrion eaters. Or maybe I read too many crime novels.

The next property, Turville Grange, is the country retreat of an influential American family and has previously been owned by both the Henry Ford family and the younger sister of Jacqueline Onassis. The footpath passes between the house and walled garden so you can sneak a view of the estate. Oh how the other half live!

The Barn at Turville Heath

Pub walks may be popular for beer lovers but I’m not much of a drinker. I prefer a cafe with coffee and cake any day. When I heard about The Barn Cafe in Turville Heath I knew it would be a perfect lunch stop.

The Barn cafe at Turville Heath
The Barn cafe at Turville Heath

One niggling concern was that I wasn’t sure exactly where it was. I was therefore relieved our walking route took us right to the front door. This is one of its great features. It’s a no car cafe; you can only reach it on foot, bicycle or horse.

Burgers at the Barn cafe, Turville Heath
Burgers at the Barn cafe, Turville Heath

As befits the name it’s a cafe in a barn; keep an eye out for the old Land Rover in the kitchen! The cafe serves its own Dexter cows in the form of beef burger and ghoulash, along with other home reared and local products. I was pleasantly surprised to find several veggie and vegan options.

We sat inside but there’s limited seating so do come prepared for an outdoor lunch. After our excellent burgers we just about had room for something sweet so shared a slice of lemon and blueberry cake. Rarely get that in a pub!

Walking down to Turville Wood
Walking down to Turville Wood

Onwards towards Ibstone

It was time to walk off our lunch. From Turville Heath we took the footpath leading down to Holloway Lane, and back uphill the other side. Did you know Holloway is another name for a sunken lane? It described this road perfectly.

At Hell Corner Farm, previously owned by the Labour MP Barbara Castle, we turned towards Ibstone and walked a track through the woods. The kids found a rope swing and argued over it for a couple of minutes.

Park Wood, near Ibstone
Park Wood, near Ibstone

These woods were the reason I wanted to walk in the Chilterns. We kicked through leaves, spotted fungi and watched the sunlight filter through the trees. It really was the most gorgeous day.

We emerged onto the road near Ibstone House, yet another mansion owned by the super rich. After a short road section we headed back into the woods, eventually arriving near Cobstone Mill.

View through the trees, Park Wood, near Ibstone
View through the trees, Park Wood, near Ibstone

Privately owned Cobstone Mill stands proudly on a hill above Turville. The 200 year old windmill has starred in numerous TV programmes and films including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Somebody from the TV location agencies must really love this area. Or live here.

Cobstone Mill, Turville Hill
Cobstone Mill, Turville Hill

From the windmill it’s a very steep walk back down the hill into Turville. So steep that it was hard not to run down it. Although I’d probably end up falling over if I attempted to do so.

Back in Turville we mooched around the church and admired the houses. It’s a gorgeous area and we really must make the effort to visit more than once a year. Particularly now I know a great cafe for lunch!

More info:

  • The Barn at Turville Heath offers full service during weekends and a limited menu with self service during the week.