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.

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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Otis and Us

My Humphry Davy MOOC review and a visit to the Royal Institute, London

I can imagine many of you wondering what on an earth a MOOC is. Simple really. It’s A Massive Online Open Course. Or in other words an online course, often created by a University, open to anyone with an Internet connection. I discovered them recently whilst browsing the web and decided to try one out.

Why did I study a MOOC?

I completed a Natural Sciences degree through the Open University (OU) in my 30s and often think about studying again. However I cannot afford the time or money to study another degree at the moment.

Fortunately many MOOCs are free and take just three to six weeks to complete. In the UK, FutureLearn (a private company offshoot of the OU) have been providing courses since 2013. They work with UK and international universities and provide an eclectic choice of courses. There’s bound to be something for everyone!

Humphry Davy MOOC

Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Henry Howard oil on canvas, 1803 NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Humphry Davy by Henry Howard NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Created by Lancaster University, this MOOC focussed on the life and works of Sir Humphry Davy. I have a fascination with polymaths and Davy fitted the bill perfectly. Probably best known for inventing the miners’ safety lamp, he was also a chemist and a poet. He isolated several elements, experimented with nitrous oxide, helped found the Zoological Society of London and wrote Salmonia, the fly fisherman’s bible. A man of many talents.

The course took place over four weeks, with about three hours study per week. It’s easy to extend this if you want to read more around the subject; indeed I’ve just bought one of the further reading suggestions.

The course is a mix of online videos, reading and discussions. Each week we looked at two or three different aspects of Davy’s life. For example, investigating the controversy around the Davy safety lamp or looking at Davy’s possible connection to Frankenstein.

The work involved was quite straightforward but I struggled to understand and enjoy some of his poems. Whilst I appreciate Davy’s many talents his poems were not to my taste.

Davy’s safety lamp - and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London
Davy’s safety lamp – and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London

Students were encouraged to contribute to online discussions with comments and questions after each piece. I didn’t always have time to add my thoughts but it was interesting to read everyone else’s. The course educators also commented and created a weekly summary arising from the online discussions.

Whilst browsing the comments I couldn’t help but sneak a look at some of the other student’s profiles. Most appeared to be retirees who I guess have time on their hands and want to occupy their brain cells. It also appears that once you’ve completed one course you start another. That’s my experience too as I’ve already signed up for another two courses!

And what’s the connection to the Royal Institution (Ri)?

I’m a regular visitor to London but have never considered visiting the Royal Institution. That is, until it was offered as an opportunity as part of the Humphry Davy course.

Founded in 1799, the Ri was set up to promote scientific education and research. Humphry Davy lectured at the Ri; his chemical experiments were incredibly popular but would be a health and safety nightmare today.

Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution
Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution

Located in Mayfair the building is set amidst luxury hotels, jewellers (Faberge is at the end of the road) and high end restaurants. Not an area I’d usually visit.

Our course educators had arranged for us to view some of Davy’s notebooks from the archive, take a guided tour of the Faraday museum and listen to them presenting in the lecture theatre that Humphry Davy presented in. Professor James even demonstrated how Davy’s safety lamp worked (with real flame!). It was an incredible opportunity to learn more about Davy and a definite highlight of the MOOC for me.

Although the Ri is open to visitors I’m not sure I’d gain the same enjoyment from a visit without the context of the course. You’d need an interest in the history of science to truly appreciate the Faraday museum but I’d certainly attend the regular public lectures if I lived closer.

My introduction to the world of MOOCs was an excellent experience. I think my other FutureLearn courses will have a high bar to overcome!

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10 quirky ways to spend an hour in London

According to my oracle (Trip Advisor) there are over 1600 attractions in London. Enough to fill years of sightseeing. But what if you’ve only got an hour to spare? Maybe you’ve seen the major sights and are looking for something different. Well, look no further; here’s my top ten quirky ways to spend an hour in London:

1. Shop for silver at The London Silver Vaults, Chancery Lane

The place to buy silver in London. Housed in a large underground vault there are silver shops for all occasions and budgets. Access is via a security check and huge steel doors; all I could think about was the Hatton Garden robbery!

London silver vaults, Chancery Lane
London silver vaults, Chancery Lane

There are silver items galore in the shop windows, most leaning towards traditional rather than contemporary design. We didn’t buy anything but it’s definitely the place to come if you’re looking for a special gift.

And I’ve happily ticked this off my UK bucket list.

2. Visit a London film set

From Westbourne Park Road (Notting Hill) to Chalcot Crescent (Paddington) London is packed with film locations. A quick Internet search will help you find your favourite film locations.

Regency cafe, London
Regency cafe, London

My favourite? It has to be the Regency Cafe on Regency Street. A star of the film Layer Cake (and several other TV productions) I primarily love this cafe for its huge fried breakfasts!

3. Tour West Highgate cemetery

The hour long tour around West Highgate cemetery takes you through an Egyptian Avenue, into the catacombs and on a whistlestop tour of the resting places of many notable Victorians. Ivy and bracken spill over the gravestones and danger signs mark out unstable crosses; it really couldn’t be more atmospheric! Read more about our visit to Highgate Cemetery.

4. Admire the carvings at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden Temple

Be transported to India in Neasden. This huge Hindu temple is made from intricately carved marble, granite and limestone. The story of its construction is incredible; more than 26,000 parts were carved in India,  shipped back to the UK and assembled by over 1000 volunteers.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Neasden temple is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday 9am-6pm. As the temple is a place of worship do read the visitor guidelines beforehand. You can read about our visit here.

5. Play the games at Novelty Automation, Holborn

This strange mix of arcade machines would have been at home in Banksy’s Dismaland.

It’s a hugely imaginative, irreverent and entertaining place to spend an hour or so; our family loved it. There’s no entrance charge, simply pay for the machines you want to use (generally £1-3 per go).

Novelty Automation, Princeton St
Novelty Automation, Princeton St

My daughter braved the Autofrisk machine, whilst I tested my nerve in the dog’s cage. I don’t want to spoil your fun by revealing what happens!

6. Grant Museum of Zoology, Bloomsbury

This University zoological museum is stuffed (literally) full of preserved animal specimens and skeletons. Housed in a single room you’ll find dodo bones, dissected brains and a python skeleton. It’s most popular exhibit appears to be a jar of moles!

The Grant Museum of Zoology is open Monday to Saturday afternoons, admission is free.

7. Buy a neon sign from Gods Own Junkyard, Walthamstow

Tucked away on an industrial estate this is the place to go if you’ve ever wanted to buy a neon sign. Or just to look at someone else’s collection of them. Although housed in a relatively small unit it’s packed with neon lights and retro signs.

Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St
Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St

Out the back there’s a small cafe; grab a coffee and slice of cake to enjoy in the courtyard garden whilst you contemplate where to put a neon sign in your home.

8. Sir John Soane’s Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields

A museum worthy of a longer visit but doable in an hour. This architect’s house is packed full of antiquities, paintings, sculptures and a sarcophagus. It’s eclectic, cramped and definitely quirky.

Sir John Soane’s museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday. Entrance is free, no photography allowed.

9. Ride the Emirates Air Line across the River Thames

A fun way to cross the River Thames. The cable car provides great views of London and it’s much cheaper than many other viewing experiences in the city.

Cable car across the Thames

We combined our visit with a trip on the DLR and a boat ride along the Thames, taking full advantage of our London travelcard.

10. Hunt out street art

We enjoyed searching for street art in the area around Brick Lane. It’s easy to find (sometimes with help from the Internet) but if you’d like to find out more about the artists and their work I’d recommend joining a street art tour.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of quirky things to do in London in an hour. What else would you add to the list?