The Outer Circle – Stage* 2
We’ve travelled on our tour of the Outer Circle from Sarehole Mill, and in stage 1 we got as far as the Grand Union Canal in Acocks Green.
After that we find that Yardley Cemetery is on our right immediately after the canal bridge. An 8 acre cemetery was opened here in 1883 to relieve the churchyard of Yardley Parish Church. On the extension of Birmingham’s boundary in 1911, the cemetery was taken over by Birmingham Corporation. The cemetery is now some 64 acres, with the last extension occurring in Nineteen-Twenty-One. Although the cemetery served the local community well, interest in cremation was growing, so in 1952 the City Council adapted one of the chapels for cremation purposes.
We are now approaching what will be forever known as The Swan, although there is no longer a pub with that name here. The first known “Swan” inn was recorded in 1605 sited on our left before the junction. Then a much larger new pub in a Tudor style was built in 1898 behind the old one, which was then demolished. This is probably “The Swan” that most people over the age of 60 will remember.
The Swan at Yardley in the 1950s.
This was itself demolished and a new “Swan” was built in contemporary style when the Coventry Road underpass was constructed in 1967. The Swan then boasted that it had the longest bar in Europe and was the largest pub in the UK. This building lasted less than 30 years when it was replaced by the office block, which now stands on the site. The style of this building has tried to recapture some of the appearance of the 1898 Swan.
As we go round the junction we are crossing the A45 Coventry Road. In the early post war years of the British motor industry’s heyday this road was a major artery between the motor manufacturing centres of Birmingham & Coventry and the constant stream of trucks carrying components and completed cars allegedly made it the busiest road in the UK if not Europe.
Anyone who has not driven around the Swan since the beginning of 2011 will recall that previously the Outer Circle went straight along the very narrow Church Road lined with tiny shops and terraced houses before it opened out into one of the familiar dual carriageways. That has all changed and it seems that the power of the mighty supermarkets has re-planned this part of the Outer Circle bus route forever. Tesco has now opened a supermarket to our right and Church Road has been diverted around the car park, which has been built on what was parkland. In 2012 after about 7 years of legal wrangling the 1960s Swan Shopping Centre, which was originally named the Tivoli Centre after the 1927 cinema that stood near the corner of Coventry Road, was demolished leaving the original residential tower block above the new store. Hardings bakery stood next to the cinema on the corner to our right.
The Tivoli Cinema on Coventry Road opposite the Swan Yardley. It opened on 17th October 1927 with Rudolph Valentino & Gloria Swanson in “Beyond the Rocks”. The exterior of the building was designed by architect Archibald Hurley Robinson while the remainder of the building was by architectural firm Satchwell & Roberts. Seating was provided in stalls and circle levels, and the auditorium ran parallel to Coventry Road. The Tivoli Cinema was closed on 1st July 1961 with Bob Hope in “The Facts of Life”.
The original shopping centre in Yardley was here ahead of us at what is now known as the Yew Tree. The original yew tree stood outside where the Co-op pharmacy is on the left and was relocated to the centre of the traffic roundabout. It seems that this was damaged during road works and a new tree has now been planted there.
The original Yew Tree pub was built in 1925 in the grounds of Yardley House on Yew Tree Lane. Yardley House had belonged to prominent local families such as the Minshulls and the Flavells, but in 1919 the Flavells sold the house to the brewers Mitchells & Butlers, who built the pub and then demolished Yardley House in 1930. The Yew Tree was closed in 2000 as it was believed to be a magnet for crime. The building was subsequently destroyed by fire after an arson attack – a recurring theme on our tour. As we turn into Stoney Lane a new pub called the Clumsy Swan with a Co-op supermarket behind it stands on the site of The Yew Tree.
Further along Stoney Lane we will come to the junction of Blakesley Road and off to the left is the Grade 2 listed Blakesley Hall, which was built in 1590 by Richard Smalbroke, a member of one of Birmingham’s leading merchant families. More than 400 years later Blakesley is still a haven; secluded from the avenues of modern houses that lie beyond its gates. Admission charges apply to the Hall but the gardens, grounds and visitor facilities are free. There is free admission to the entire site on the first Sunday in every month during the open season.
Blakesley Hall built by Richard Smalbrooke. He was a hardware merchant in Birmingham and Smallbrook Street (now Queensway) was named after him. He had family connections with the Colmores & Greswolds and owned much land in Yardley. The Merry family, a local paint and varnish manufacturer were the last of a long line of families to occupy the hall. Blakesley Hall then became a museum in 1935. An adjacent barn (Grade II listed) to the east of the hall has been renovated and provides space for exhibitions and functions.
To the right Blakesley Road would take us to the area known as “Old Yardley”. This was granted conservation area status in 1969, becoming the first in Birmingham. At the centre of this is St Edburgha’s, Yardley’s parish church, which dates back to the 13th century. Next to it is The Old Grammar School, which was in use from the 16th century to 1908. The spire of the church can be seen over the tops of the houses on the right.
St Edburgha’s church in Yardley. The church had six bells by 1902. The sixth bell had been produced by James Barwell of Birmingham, who also produced new bearings for all the bells. At the same time, the oak frame within the spire was repaired.
In 1949, it was discovered that the church tower had become infested with death watch beetles resulting in problems with ringing the bells. On 1 May 1949, the bells stopped ringing to allow work to begin on repairing the frame and recast the bells. The new ring of bells was dedicated by Michael Parker, the Archdeacon of Aston in September 1950.
Yardley is named in the Doomsday Book and was referred to as early as the year 972 in King Edgar’s Charter where it is named Gyrdleah. The parish of Yardley was historically part of Worcestershire and it became absorbed into Birmingham in the expansion of the city in 1911.
As we cross Bordesley Green East the Outer Circle becomes Station Road, and along here on the right we see a number of houses which pre-date the 1930s and stand on the building line of the original road whilst those built between the wars lie much further back to allow room for one of the planned dual carriageways that was never completed.
Further along on the right opposite the shops is Stechford Cascades. This was originally built in 1961 and rumour has it that it was designed and constructed as the first Olympic size swimming pool in Birmingham, but between drawing board and construction the size of Olympic pools was changed from imperial to metric, so the new pool did not meet the international criteria.
After the shops we will pass over Stechford Railway station. This was built in 1844 by the London & Birmingham Railway and it lies three & a half miles from the city centre. Stechford Station was originally served by a wooden booking office built on the bridge, but it is now accessed from Victoria Road, which is on the left after the shops.
The railway line here is now part of the West Coast main line with Virgin’s Pendilinos whisking travellers between London & Birmingham four times an hour. The line was electrified in the 1960s and Stechford was the scene of an accident in February 1967 when an electric passenger train from Manchester to Coventry hit the locomotive of a goods train. Nine people lost their lives and 16 more were injured.
Panoramic view of the approaches on the Coventry side of Stechford station with the down sidings on the right as seen on 7th September 1957. Amateur photographer Dennis Norton is standing on Station Road bridge with Hill House bridge in the distance. Stechford No 1 Signal Box is seen on the left. On the right is the “hump” used to ‘fly shunt’ wagons in to the down sidings. Photo Copyright – D.J Norton
As we descend from the railway bridge we pass what was the site of the Parkinson Cowan gas cooker company on the right then enter the rather chaotic urban landscape which is the junction between Station Road & Flaxley Road. This seems to be the junction that development forgot. Apparently the “rivers of blood speech” politician Enoch Powell was born in Flaxley Lane near here in 1912.
On the right at the end of Flaxley Road is the site of the Bulls Head pub that was later called the Manor Tavern. This was demolished in 2000. The site of the pub is identified by the original post & frame that held the pub sign and it is now being used as a tyre depot, or is it a car wash? Next to it is land once used by fairground operators as an over-wintering site.
We now cross the River Cole for the second time and the area both sides of the river is a flood plain which has been designated as green belt. The name Stechford may have been introduced by the railway in 1844. There is reference to a ford over the river in 1249 named after the Stych which is a tributary of the Cole. Hence Stych-Ford.
The River Cole valley is known as the Kingfisher Country Park and along the river kingfishers and herons are a common sight, feeding on fish in the river. Water voles and mink are both associated with the river and, more recently, otters have been recorded at the lower reaches of the Cole.
We now travel up Stechford Lane to the Fox & Goose – at long last another bit of dual carriageway that was actually completed.
Look out for the Aldi supermarket on the right at the top of the hill, which stands on the site of the magnificent 1,500 seat Beaufort Cinema that opened in 1929. The Beaufort apparently boasted one of the finest cinema organs in the country, a Compton with 2 manuals and 8 ranks that was moved in 1937 to EMI’s Abbey Road studios in London. The cinema closed in August 1978.
The Beaufort Cinema just 3 years before closure. The Beaufort had a magnificent Tudor style interior and was closed on 19th August 1978 with Doug McClure in “Warlords of Atlantis” and Terence Hill in “Watch Out We’re Mad”. There were hopes that the cinema could be designated a ‘Listed’ building, but the powers that be at that time deemed it’s interior as fake, and not real Tudor, and listing was refused.
At the cross roads on the left is the Fox & Goose pub, which gave the junction with Washwood Heath Road & Coleshill Road its name. There was an inn here known as the Golden Cross in 1680 and the OS map of 1887 shows the building as the Fox & Goose. The pub was rebuilt in a Tudor style after 1905 at a time when this location still lay well beyond the urban area of Birmingham.
About two miles to the east are Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens. This unique example of an English Baroque Garden is being restored as near as possible to the period 1680 to 1760 by Castle Bromwich Hall and Gardens Trust. The 10 acre grade II* listed Walled Garden contains over 600 species of plants from the period and is a rare example of formal English garden design. The house was built in 1599 by Sir Edward Devereux and extended by Sir John Bridgeman about 100 years later. The Gardens were developed by several generations of the Bridgeman Family (later to become the Earls of Bradford) but they fell into decline during the second half of the 20th century until they were rescued by the Trust in 1985. The Holly Maze there is a distorted mirror image of the one at Hampton Court Palace.
We will now go along the sweeping boulevard, which is Bromford Lane through Ward End. This road is mainly occupied by residential property, but on the right as we go down the hill you will see the site of the Penfold Golf Ball factory now boarded up as a development site. The Penfold golf balls became famous in the third James Bond film Goldfinger when Bond got the better of the villain Auric Goldfinger over a lost Penfold Heart golf ball. The company, now based in Dudley, produces special 007 packs of Penfold Heart balls.
As we approach the M6 Motorway which crosses the Outer Circle ahead of us, if we look to the right you’ll see the site of Bromford Bridge Racecourse. The land was leased in 1894 by brothers John and Stanley Ford and the first recorded meeting was on 14 June 1895. At the point where we go under the motorway there was a station built on the Birmingham to Derby railway line built specifically to serve the racecourse.
In May 1914, the racecourse grandstand was burnt down by members of the suffragette movement and the course was requisitioned by the military for the duration of The Great War. During the Second World War the racecourse was used as an anti-aircraft station. In 1949, the course was bought by the Birmingham Racecourse Company for eighty-five thousand pounds. The company then sold the land to the city for one point two million pounds when it closed in 1965 and the Castle Bromwich housing estate was extended. The red & white winning post now stands alongside a playground on the estate and the roads are named after racecourses and famous horses.
Bromford Mill was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. It must have been rebuilt a number of times, but continued to grind corn for 500 years when, as Bromford Forge, it became the last mill in Birmingham to be converted from corn milling to iron processes. ‘As red as the rising sun at Bromford’ was an old Warwickshire saying used until the end of the 19th century. Could air pollution from the forge here have contributed to the exceptional red dawns?
As we go towards the M6 there is a temptation to look up at the motorway but below us you will see the River Tame and then the old Midland Railway line to Derby.
Locomotive 66014 approaches the site of Bromford Bridge Station in 1999 – 34 years after the station & racecourse closed. Looking east from the road junction at Bromford Lane, this scene has not changed much in the last 15 years. Fort Dunlop dominates the skyline, but the M6 motorway has sliced its way through the scene since 1965.
The River Tame became one of Britain’s most polluted rivers during the 20th century, draining as it does great swathes of the Black Country and Birmingham. This gave it the name locally of “The Black Brook”. However, remarkable efforts were made during the last quarter of the 20th century to improve the quality of the water to the extent that herons have been seen fishing the river between the factories at Bromford Bridge and kingfishers now fly the stretch alongside Castle Vale.
About the author
The author of the Outer Circle tour is David Humphries. David was bought up in Hall Green and now lives in Solihull. He, and his wife Pam, started their OuterCircleBus.com tours of the No 11 bus route and have run them every year beteween 2011 and 2014. Visit www.OuterCircleBus.com to find photographs of the tours and to find out how much money was raised for charities from the tours. David now conducts guided tours of the Birmingham Back to Backs and Newman Brothers at the Coffin Works in Fleet Street.
*For those of tender years the term “stage” in the context of a bus journey may seem strange – especially as in many instances you can travel almost any distance on one bus for a fixed price. However this is an important word in the lexicon of bus travel. Historically the “stage” related to stage coaches as depicted in Victorian coaching scenes or in wild west movies. Horses cannot go on indefinitely and would be changed at “stages” during a long journey. The same term was adopted by motor bus companies to identify the “stages” of a journey or route to determine the fare depending upon how many stages were passed on the journey. Initially bus companies were referred to as “stage carriage” services. In Birmingham at one time you would see the sign “Stage” attached to the top of the appropriate bus stops.