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.

Two days exploring the Dorset coast from Bridport to Charmouth

There are more than 80 miles of Dorset coastline, much of it with World Heritage Status. We spent a couple of days exploring the eight mile section between Charmouth and West Bay, an area packed full of fossils, great walks and spectacular views.

West Bay

Cliffs at Bridport, Dorset coast
Cliffs at Bridport, Dorset coast

Our first stop was West Bay, the village made famous by the TV drama, Broadchurch.

We visited out of season, early on a grey Monday morning. Although many places were open the village felt a little ‘closed for winter’. We mooched around the harbour, got buffeted by the wind on the pier and then lost ourselves in a huge building full of crafts and antiques.

However, it’s the cliffs which West Bay is famous for so, once we’d seen the village, we headed towards the beach and its towering golden sandstone cliffs.

Cliff walk near Bridport, Dorset coast
Cliff walk near Bridport, Dorset coast

Our walk started, as expected,with a steep uphill climb to blow the cobwebs away. Once up top we enjoyed a fabulous walk along a stretch of the rollercoaster Dorset coast. This area isn’t without its dangers. A short while after we visited a huge rockfall temporarily closed both the beach and the cliff path. After seeing the photographs it’s a sobering thought that we were walking beside the collapsed cliff section. Do visit, but abide by all warning notices.

Walking back down to West Bay
Walking back down to West Bay

We didn’t walk far. The weather wasn’t conducive to staying on the cliffs and we had a longer walk planned for the afternoon so we soon retraced our steps to the village to find a cafe for lunch. If it’s a nice day, and you fancy seafood for lunch, I’d suggest checking out the kiosks by the harbour. However it was too cold for us to mill around outside and most were still closed for winter so we opted for indoor comfort at West Bay Tea Rooms. This was a great choice with friendly service and good size portions.

Golden Cap walk

After lunch we drove over to Seatown, our starting point for a walk to the summit of Golden Cap. This is a flat topped hill that looked distinctly un-golden when we arrived at Seatown car park. Obscured by heavy rain I decided it best to shelter in the car whilst we waited for the rain to blow over. If you’re without a car and looking for shelter the alternative is a quick half in the Anchor Inn. Although you might be tempted to stay longer than strictly necessary…

Looking back from Seatown, start of Golden Cap walk
Looking back from Seatown, start of Golden Cap walk

At 191 metres Golden Cap is the highest point on the south coast. We followed the 4 mile AA Golden Cap in Trust route. As per our morning walk it started with a steep schlep up to the summit. The heavy rain had made it much muddier and slippier than I’d envisaged. Although when the sun came out a few minutes later all was forgiven. The route to the top took us around half an hour or so; by then we’d jettisoned our outer layers as spring appeared!

Muddy route up Golden Cap
Muddy route up Golden Cap

On a clear day it is evidently possible to see as far as Dartmoor from the summit. Whenever facts like this are pointed out to me I’m always disappointed as I can never see as far as some people obviously can. I could certainly see Portland Bill and, in the opposite direction, Lyme Regis. But not Dartmoor.

Route to Golden Cap summit
Route to Golden Cap summit

Our route continued down the far side, passing the ruins of St Gabriel’s Church. There are some fabulously located National Trust holiday cottages here if you fancy getting away from it all (or as much as you can in Dorset). These buildings are all that remain of Stanton St Gabriel, a village deserted in the 18th Century after residents moved to nearby towns for work.

Golden Cap trig point
Golden Cap trig point

The rest of the route took us on a tour of green and quiet lanes. We cut back beneath Langdon Hill, which is still part of the National Trust estate and offers an alternative starting point for the Golden Cap ascent. As you return to Seatown the views of the Dorset coast return too, it’s even more beautiful when the sun is shining!

Charmouth fossil hunt

The following day saw us in Charmouth, exploring a stretch of Dorset coastline marketed as the Jurassic Coast. The cliffs and beaches are full of fossils that reveal the Earth’s history, from prehistoric Triassic deserts to tropical Jurassic sea. Fossil hunting in Charmouth has long featured on my UK bucket list so I was looking forward to our next activity, a walk with a fossil expert.

We’d booked a walk with fossilwalks.com; at just £5 per head it was excellent value. They run most days during the school holidays or alternatively you can book a rather more expensive private walk. Whatever you choose, book early.

Fossil hunting on Charmouth beach
Fossil hunting on Charmouth beach

The walk starts with a half hour introductory talk about where to find the fossils, what to look out for and what you might find. Chris, our guide, passed around samples of the different fossils for us to handle. We also learnt how to use our hammers correctly (additional cost, book in advance through the guide).

After our briefing we set off to find fossils on the beach. This is a key safety point. Fossil hunting takes place on the beach, not the cliffs! I was sceptical at first to think that fossils would just be lying around on the beach. That was until I found my first ammonite on the sandy shore. Followed by further ammonites, belemnites and, what I’ll call, stones with fossils in. Perhaps not exciting finds in geological terms but I was happy with my haul.

View from Charmouth beach
View from Charmouth beach

Charmouth Heritage Centre

After the walk we visited Charmouth Heritage Centre which houses some larger fossil finds information about the area’s history and geology. Entrance is free (although do leave a donation) and highly recommended; they also offer guided walks and hammer hire.

If you haven’t managed to find any fossils on the beach there’s also a fossil shop next door. Shush, no-one need ever know you’ve bought one.

So, there you have it. Two days exploring the Dorset coast. I now need a few more months to explore the rest of it!

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Oregon Girl Around the World

Hidden London tour of Aldwych tube station

Fancy visiting a disused underground station? I did! With a little forward planning (and hint dropping) I was lucky enough to receive a Hidden London tour of Aldwych station as a Christmas present. What did I think?

Alydwych station

Entrance to Aldwych (Strand) Station
Entrance to Aldwych (Strand) Station

Aldwych began life as the Strand station. Hence the rather confusing sign outside the entrance. In stark contrast to those entering Fashion Week across the road our group was (mostly) middle aged and comfortably dressed. No high heels allowed on this tour!

Aldwych was never a busy station. When it opened in 1907 the first two trains didn’t have any passengers at all. Despite partial refurbishment in the 1980s passenger numbers remained low. When the station closed in 1994 only 450 people were using it every day. That said, it’s no ghost station. Indeed, it has led a significant alternative life as we discovered on the tour.

Ticket hall and entrance

The tour started in the ticket hall where our guides, Paul and Nick, provided an overview of the station. The architect, Leslie Green, designed a number of Tube stations, often with similar distinctive features. Our guides highlighted the red station frontage, the teal and cream tiling scheme and the design of the ticket office windows. And to think I’ve never given the design of underground stations a second glance before.

Deserted Aldwych underground station
Deserted Aldwych underground station

From the ticket hall we walked down our first set of stairs to the eastern platform. At this point I realised I hadn’t taken any photos of the ticket hall. I later regretted this as you exit via an alternative route; make sure you don’t make the same mistake if you visit.

Lift shafts

Our next stop was the lift shafts. Three shafts were dug out by hand but only one was fitted with lifts. This economy of design is reflected elsewhere in the station, from unfinished tiling to tunnels.

We discovered that one of the unfinished lift shafts was the perfect location for a music video, Prodigy’s Firestarter. Other bands, including Madness and The Kinks, have also filmed down here.

Eastern platform

The eastern platform only saw active service until 1917, at least in relation to its train service.

Eastern platform, Aldwych
Eastern platform, Aldwych

In World War I the platform acted as an emergency store for over 300 paintings from the National Gallery. This function was repeated in World War II when many valuable artworks were moved underground for storage. These included the Elgin Marbles, which were brought down in the lift. Our guides showed us the large looped rings installed to make their subsequent removal easier.

Tiling designs, Aldwych station
Tiling designs, Aldwych station

Elsewhere on the eastern platform there are experimental tiling designs. We discovered that one of Aldwych’s many alternative uses is as a drawing board for other stations.

Rails at Aldwych underground station
Rails at Aldwych underground station

Although they might not look particularly exciting these original rails contribute to the station’s Grade 2 listing. They are very different to today’s rails; there’s no suicide pit and the sleepers are wooden. They also include an early design of insulator. This is, evidently, a big deal for insulator enthusiasts!

Aldwych Station adverts
Aldwych Station adverts

Posters still adorn some of the walls. Including a timely advert encouraging us to join the Common Market!

Western platform

The Western platform remained open until the station’s closure.

In World War II it was used as an overnight air raid shelter. We sat in a disused carriage and listened to a recording of Julian Andrews, recounting his time spent sheltering here.

Western platform, Aldwych underground station
Western platform, Aldwych underground station

Although the government propaganda advertised a holiday camp atmosphere the reality was a lot of people in a very small space with minimal privacy and hygiene. The toilet was initially a curtained off bucket. However as the bombings dragged on an underground community was formed, offering a library, religious services and entertainers including George Formby.

Whitechapel sign - in Aldwych
Whitechapel sign – in Aldwych

Despite the lack of trains the station is still in use today. Nowadays it makes money from film and TV studios. Films such as Atonement and Darkest Hour and TV shows Sherlock and Mr Selfridge were filmed here. Hence, not everything is at it seems. The Whitechapel sign is an obvious imposter but our guide also pointed out fake tiling and wall panels left behind by the film companies.

Underground map, Aldwych station
Underground map, Aldwych station

The station is also used by emergency and armed services to carry out training. Forces trained here as part of the preparation for the 2012 London Olympics and in 2015 it was used by the emergency services in a mock terrrorist attack.

Western platform, Aldwych
Western platform, Aldwych

There was a lot of heavy breathing as the group climbed the 160 steps back to the surface. From where, ironically, we finished our tour in the lift.

Aldwych lifts

The Edwardian lifts weren’t very reliable and their potential refurbishment cost was one of the reasons for the stations eventual closure. The power failed on occassions so a supply of candles were kept in the lift. If the lift broke down we were shown a ‘secret’ door into the next door lift shaft from where the second lift could come and rescue passengers. Nowadays the lifts don’t move, I’m rather glad of that!

Our 75 minute tour sped by. I’m usually desperate to get out of underground stations but the tour could easily have lasted another hour. I certainly have a new found appreciation of the tunnels beneath our feet!

This trip was on my UK bucket list, pop over to my  blog post to see what else is on there.

More info

  • Hidden London tours are an offshoot of the London Transport Museum. Tours of a variety of underground stations (some disused, some not) are announced several times per year. Most sell out quickly so sign up to the advance notice mailing list on their website to be in with a chance.

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Suitcases and Sandcastles

Five things to do with teens around Coniston, Cumbria

It can be hard work holidaying with teens. Even more so when your destination is a soggy Lake District rather than the Instagram perfect beach of their dreams. Fear not, if you’re in the Lakes, and you’ve managed to lure them out of bed before noon, why not try one of the following:

Walk up a mountain

Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston
Looking back towards Old Man of Coniston

Climbing to the summit of any mountain gives a great sense of achievement, even if there are a few grumbles along the way. From Coniston, the 2634 ft Old Man of Coniston is the obvious target. The tourist trail paths are well marked and there’s plenty of legacy mining activity to add interest.

We booked on to a guided walk with Lake District volunteer leaders. Our route was originally designed to summit both the Old Man and Dow Crag. However the incessant rain put paid to this and our leader suggested an alternative descent instead of Dow Crag. Although slightly disappointing we were all soaked through and it was the right decision. Of course the rain eased off not long afterwards!

Route down from Old Man of Coniston
Route down from Old Man of Coniston

Walking with a guide offered us the opportunity to learn more about the area and its industrial history, which I wouldn’t always appreciate if walking alone. The National Park offers a variety of walks for all abilities which generally cost £10 or less per person (many are free). Highly recommended.

Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston
Quarry on descent route from Old Man of Coniston

Go gorge scrambling

If there’s one thing that gets teens animated it’s the chance of an adventure. Something completely different from their day to day routines. Gorge scrambling definitely offers this.

We booked a half day gorge scrambling and canyoning trip with Adventure 21. This was a somewhat unusual activity for me as, unlike the rest of the family, I do not like water. I can hardly swim and I hate getting my face wet. I was way out of my comfort zone.

Gorge scrambling - photos courtesy of Adventure 21
Gorge scrambling – photos courtesy of Adventure 21

After manoeuvring ourselves into wetsuits, waterproofs and helmets we walked from Coniston Water up through the village to Church Beck. Here we entered the fast flowing water and I was relieved not to be immediately swept downstream. Despite my fears an almost enjoyable two hours ensued. Gorge scrambling is as it sounds; we climbed up through small waterfalls and negotiated the rocky river bed. If you’re used to scrambling on dry land, this is technically easier but the water makes it ‘interesting’.

At the end of the scramble there’s a chance to try canyoning. Better known as scary big jumps into water. The non-swimmer in me opted out. There was no way I was going to put my head under water.

Despite my reservations everyone survived. And, as predicted, the teens declared this the best day of the holiday.

Take a boat trip on Coniston Water

Coniston boat trip
Coniston boat trip

I’d been looking forward to a boat trip in the Lake District (particularly as it’s one of my UK bucket list items). Truth be told, this was one of our less enjoyable days. It didn’t help that I’d read the wrong timetable and arrived just as the steam gondola I’d planned to catch left the jetty. Or that it was raining. Again.

We took an alternative boat which, although perfectly serviceable, wasn’t what I’d envisaged. Our 60 minute cruise took us up to Wildcat Island, of Swallows and Amazons fame, before returning via Brantwood. This was the home of John Ruskin and makes for an interesting stopover. There’s a cafe, museum and, on dry days, gardens to explore.

Brantwood House
Brantwood House

For a little more excitement we could have hired a canoe, kayak or rowing boat from the Coniston Boating Centre. But I’d had enough of water over the previous couple of days. And at least our boat trip was weather proof.

Go on a road trip

I was running out of ideas to occupy another wet day. Sitting in a car for much of the day wouldn’t normally feature on my list of activities. But when your drive includes a route over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes it’s a lot more exciting!

View from Hardknott Roman fort
View from Hardknott Roman fort

We drove a circular route via Coniston to Broughton-in-Furness, up to Duddon Bridge and Ulpha, onto Eskdale then over the passes to Little Langdale.

We stretched our legs in Eskdale with a walk to Stanley Ghyll Force waterfall and again at Hardknott Roman Fort. The fort is in an incredible setting but I didn’t envy its inhabitants. The winters would have been so harsh; no amount of Roman plumbing could convince me to live there.

View across Wrynose Pass
View across Wrynose Pass

From the fort a single track road zigzags up and over Hardknott and then Wrynose Pass. It’s one of the steepest roads in the UK so you’ll be lucky to get out of second gear. My advice? Give way to drivers coming uphill (and locals), concentrate on the road and don’t be scared by the TripAdvisor reviews. If you’re a confident driver in a decent vehicle you’ll be absolutely fine. Believe me, it’s one of the best drives in the UK. Even the teens stayed awake for it!

Explore caves

There are lots of abandoned quarries, mine workings and caves in this area. Many are dangerous and shouldn’t be entered. However Cathedral Quarry, a short walk from Little Langdale, offers you the opportunity to explore a man made quarry and tunnels in a relatively safe environment.

Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale
Cathedral cave, near Little Langdale

Cathedral Quarry is, rather surprisingly, owned by the National Trust. It is not your usual NT property. It’s free to visit and always open but there are no facilities or cafe. You’ll need to bring a torch for the tunnels and waterproof footwear for clambering over rocks and wading through puddles. Great fun for an hour or two. Oh, and watch out for the goldfish!

Important

All of the above suggestions are at your own risk. As in, they might be dangerous. But how boring would life be it was perfectly safe?

We visited in summer (I use this term loosely); a winter visit is a completely different undertaking.