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.

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

A Roman day out in London

Aside from the educational value, there are two great benefits to a Roman day out in London. Firstly the attractions are mostly indoors, secondly they’re free. This makes it a perfect option for a rainy half term visit. But where to go to discover Londinium?

The Roman settlement of Londinium roughly covered the City of London. It grew rapidly in the 1st Century to overtake Colchester as the largest city in the country. Despite the appearance of modern day London there are still many Roman ruins beneath the city. We spent a day visiting some of London’s more accessible Roman attractions.

Temple of Mithras

Entrance to Roman Temple of Mithras at Bloomberg HQ, London
Entrance to Roman Temple of Mithras at Bloomberg HQ, London

Even though it’s more than 1800 years old the Temple of Mithras is a relatively new addition to the London tourist circuit. It’s surreally located under part of the Bloomberg European HQ building.

The temple was initially unearthed in the 1950s following excavation works on a bombsite. Thousands of people flocked to see it during its excavation and the temple was subsequently reconstructed for all to see. However, it was criticised for not being an accurate representation; this has been rectified since Bloomberg acquired the site on which it stands.

Temple of Mithras
Temple of Mithras

The current day temple is a faithful reconstruction of the ruin, using original stone and brick. Some parts, such as mortars, are new but have been recreated as if they were 3rd Century Roman.

The first floor displays Roman artefacts found during the excavation including sandals, pottery and coins. Visitors then descend to a mezzanine where you can learn more about the cult of Mithras. A further set of stairs takes you down to the temple.

London Mithraeum
London Mithraeum

The temple would have been at ground level during the Roman era. It’s now seven metres below the pavement! As you enter there’s lighting and sound effects to enhance your visit. The show is around 10 minutes long; visitors are then free to spend time at the end wandering around the temple. It’s not particularly large but is interesting and well worth a visit.

Entrance is free. We turned up on spec and were allowed in immediately but if you want to guarantee entry book online in advance.

Museum of London

The Museum of London is a fantastic place to learn more about the development of the city and its people. I prefer to dip into specific rooms or exhibitions rather than attempt to see it all in one go; the Roman galleries are perfect for this.

Dining room in Roman times, Museum of London
Dining room in Roman times, Museum of London

The museum has recently refreshed its display of items that were unearthed at the Temple of Mithras excavations. This makes it an ideal stop after you’ve seen the actual temple. In addition to the Temple artefacts there are exhibits dedicated to many different aspects of Roman society, including trade, burials and games.

From the museum take a peak out the window at your next destination…

London Wall

Roman wall from Museum of London
Roman wall from Museum of London

The Romans built the London Wall as a defensive structure around the landward side of the city sometime between 190 and 225 AD. Parts of it have survived in modern day London albeit with medieval enhancements. One of the easiest sections to spot is right outside the Museum of London, conveniently visible from the Roman galleries inside.

Another well known and easily accessible section is at Tower Hill. An alternative untouristy option is the underground car park next to the Museum of London. Funnily enough we were the only people wandering around the car park looking for a wall.

London Wall, near Museum of London
London Wall, near Museum of London

Roman amphitheatre, Guildhall Art Gallery

On to our last Roman attraction of the day. This time, a Roman amphitheatre underneath the Guildhall Art Gallery.

If you visit, first check out the curved line of black stone in the Guildhall yard. This marks the outline of the arena which lies several metres beneath you.

London guildhall
London guildhall

The amphitheatre was discovered in 1988 by archaeologists who were taking part in a dig in preparation for the new art gallery. The remnants were subsequently integrated into the exhibition and have been on public display since 2002.

To reach the ruins you’ll need to walk though part of the art gallery. The juxtaposition of the ornate Guildhall and pre-Raphaelite art with public executions and gladiatorial combat is an intriguing mix!

Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Art Gallery, London
Amphitheatre underneath Guildhall Art Gallery, London

Once underground, the partial remains include a stretch of entrance tunnel, the east gate and stone walls. Display boards outline the history and use of the amphitheatre.

It’s artfully lit, albeit a little heavy on the green graphics for my taste. I like my attractions more, well, Roman. The most surprising thing however was the lack of visitors. A well kept secret!

Amphitheatre underneath London Guildhall
Amphitheatre underneath London Guildhall

The amphitheatre was a fitting final to our Roman day out. I highly recommend spending a day uncovering history that’s literally beneath your feet.

If you’re looking for other themed days out in London check out my Great Fire of London walk or my post about exploring Second World War London.

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A walk to and around Highgate Cemetery, London

Highgate Cemetery, one of my UK bucket list items, might appear a strange destination for a family day out but we loved it. We spent an afternoon visiting the cemetery after a morning walk across Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath

We had a couple of hours spare before our cemetery tour so I’d planned a walking route from Hampstead Heath underground station to Highgate Cemetery.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Hampstead Heath. My prior knowledge mostly came from lurid tabloid headlines about the after dark activities of gay men on the western heath. The daytime reality was a tranquil dog walking and running area, albeit one that was in need of a good dose of rain.

Hampstead Heath boating pond
Hampstead Heath boating pond

Our route took us up to the viewpoint on Parliament Hill. From here the Shard, Gherkin, St Paul’s Cathedral and BT Tower are all easy to see. Some of the other buildings shown on the orientation map were harder; I couldn’t see the London Eye however much I looked.

View from Primrose Hill, London
View from Parliament Hill, London

Highgate is also famous for its outdoor bathing ponds. These were much busier than I expected on a gloomy weekday. I’m not a water lover so couldn’t imagine wanting to swim in them, surrounded by ducks and pond debris. However plenty of swimmers looked like they were enjoying it, particularly the divers jumping off the board in the men’s bathing pond.

Before heading to the cemetery we popped into the Village Deli in Highgate village for a takeaway lunch. Despite the expensive sounding name, and location, our picnic lunch was incredible value and very tasty, highly recommended. There’s a square opposite to sit and eat your lunch in.

Highgate Cemetery

Highgate was one of seven new private London cemeteries, constructed in the Victorian era, to accommodate the increasing number of burials. Prior to this, burials were in local churchyards but these were literally overflowing due to the doubling of London’s population.

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

Many of London’s wealthiest were laid to rest in Highgate. However, the cemetery fell into decline after the second World War. Decaying and vandalised it was taken over in 1975 by a charity, the Friends of Highgate Cemetery, who work to restore and preserve the area.

We visited West Highgate on a guided tour before crossing Swain’s Lane to look around the East Cemetery independently.

West Highgate Cemetery

Forget your local graveyard. Imagine instead a jumbled area of crowded gravestones and gothic and Egyptian influenced monuments, some covered with ‘Dangerous’ tape. Nature is in charge; tree roots climb over gravestones, ivy and bramble tendrils encircle the monuments. This is West Highgate cemetery. Some visitors call it romantic, others creepy; I guess I’m somewhere in between.

Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery
Entrance to the Egyptian Avenue, West Highgate cemtetery

We started our tour in the open space in front of The Colonnade; big enough, our guide explained, so that the horse drawn carriages delivering coffins could turn around.  From here we followed the path up through the graveyard to the Egyptian Avenue, flanked by columns and obelisks.

There are sixteen family vaults on either side of the avenue; each with room for twelve coffins. The vaults are also home to a large spider, the rare orb weaver. Discovered during a bat survey the London Wildlife Trust estimates the vaults could contain a hundred of these adult cave spiders. I’m not sure whether the bodies or the spiders unsettle me more!

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

The Egyptian Avenue leads out into the Circle of Lebabon; a huge 300 year old cedar tree surrounded by a circle of tombs. The Victorians certainly knew how to celebrate their interred relations, very different to today’s attitude to death.

Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery
Circle of Lebanon, West Highgate cemetery

Our eyes slowly accustomed to the dark inside our next stop, the above ground Terrace Catacombs. It takes a moment longer to realise that every recess on either side of the passageway houses a coffin. Room for 825 people in total! We heard how coffins were once prone to exploding due to a build up of gases inside them. The ingenious solution was to drill a small hole into the coffin, insert a pipe and burn the gases off.

Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery
Catacombs, West Highgate cemetery

Outside the catacombs stands the mausoleum of Julius Beer. This was built for his daughter Ada who died she was just eight years old. Although we couldn’t go inside our guide showed us photographs of its rich interior. The mausoleum cost £5000 to build in 1878; in today’s money that’s around £3 million!

Most residents of West Highgate cemetery may not be household names today but many were famous in their day. I loved hearing the stories of some of these. Our guide recounted the life of Tom Sayers, a bare knuckle fighter whose stone dog adorns his grave. And that of Jim Selby, a carriage driver who raced from London to Brighton and back in less than eight hours.

Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery
Tom Sayers grave, West Highgate cemetery

The grave of George Wombwell reflects his livelihood, a travelling menagerist. His tomb lies under a statue of his lion, Nero. George famously advertised a dead elephant as one of his exhibits in order to attract more visitors than a competitor, who only had a live elephant. Different times indeed.

One of the more recent graves is for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian defector who was poisoned by polonium radiation. His grave is buried 12 foot deep and lined with lead to protect from visitors from accidental radioactive exposure.

Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London
Alexander Litvinenko gravestone, West Highgate cemetery, London

Our guide also explained the symbolism used by the Victorians. I’ve never given it any thought before but urns, clasped hands and broken pillars all have specific meanings. For example, a broken column indicates a life cut off in its prime. I’d always assumed it was due to vandalism!

Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery
Nature taking over, Highgate cemetery

We finished our tour with a visit to the dissenters graveyard. This is an area of two acres set aside for non-Anglicans; not as extensive as the fifteen acres for Anglicans.

I’d hoped we might see some of the wildlife that Highgate is famous for. There were plenty of butterflies and a cheeky robin but no fox cubs lounging on gravestones that I’ve seen in some photographs. Fortunately we didn’t see the vampires or ghosts that Highgate is also known for!

West Highgate cemetery, London
West Highgate cemetery, London

East Highgate cemetery

East Highgate Cemetery is a tidier, more manicured resting place on the opposite side of Swain’s Lane. There’s less woodland and the graves are arranged in a more formal layout.

The entry booth provides maps with the graves of more notable residents marked; there are plenty of familiar names. There are all walks of life here; from historians, architects, zoologists and cabaret stars to political activists. Even the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery.

Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery
Gravestones in East Highgate cemetery

Over in West Highgate most of the gravestones we saw were of traditional design. Whereas in East Highgate Patrick Caulfield’s gravestone has the word DEAD cut out of the granite, and Malcolm McLaren has another statement headstone. Douglas Adams has a simple grey headstone but fans have adorned it with a pot full of pencils.

However the most famous grave belongs to that of Karl Marx, the German philosopher. Although originally buried in another part of the cemetery he was moved in the 1950s after the Communist Party funded a new memorial.

We didn’t stay long in East Highgate as we had a train to catch. Fortunately we left early as I took the roundabout route back to the underground station. Yes, we went the wrong way!

If you’re looking for other unusual things to do in and about London please pop over to my 10 quirky things to do in an hour in London post.

More info

  • You’ll need to book in weekday tours advance in the West Cemetery on the Highgate Cemetery website. Alternatively turn up early on a weekend and go on the next available tour. You can visit the East Cemetery without a tour, an entrance fee is payable.

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