Birmingham but not as you might expect it


We’ve been going back and forth to Birmingham for twenty years since our son moved there. We’ve grow to love it for all sorts of reasons –  it truly deserves the title of Second City and given the avaricious spread of what Cobbet called the Great Wen, it should probably push London into fourth place for being a pain and hardly fit for a human being to live in.

Anyway this weekend he decided to give us a taste of the unexpected by taking us to Winterbourne House – which used to house the University Department of Botany, and to show us the biggest wildlife corridor I’ve ever seen.  If you wanted to study botany at degree level these days, you’d have to come at it sideways via plant sciences or ecology – not that there’s anything wrong with those disciplines but the days when every science student had to study some field botany are well and truly over, and the discipline has been divided into the fiercely scientific world of DNA, plant breeding and drug development, professional horticulture, and environmental studies that often seem to serve mammon. Finally old-school field botany limps in, populated by relatively mature amateurs who (trust me) really know their brambles and dandelions – I stand in their shadow.  But the buildings and grounds now house all manner of short diplomas and courses organised by the university, so all is not lost.


Winterbourne House is worth a visit in itself, and the gardens – the old botanical gardens – are an absolute treat as well, a real wildlife haven near the centre of the city. Birmingham is awash with botanical gardens by comparison with most universities. The house itself is rather lovely too – in an ‘upstairs downsairs’ kind of way. I can never quite fit myself into these great houses because I’m painfully aware that in all likelihood I’d have been one of the servants and never the one to disport myself on a chaise longue.

But once you’ve escaped the relative formality of the botanical gardens, you can slip through a gate and get into the Edgbaston Nature reserve which includes a large lake and therefore attracts ducks and swans, plus – to our great delight – a heronry. I can’t remember the last time I saw five, if not six herons at once. All this, remember, in the centre of a great city. Adjoining the reserve there’s a golf course, and we saw a great swathe of green as far as the university halls. Birmingham can be proud of the fact that it’s got more green spaces than any other European city, and they’re big enough to be quiet.  We could clearly hear the university clock chiming the quarters.

Next, then to the main campus nearby and the Barber Institute where, as usual I was bowled over by the very early 13th, 14th and 15th century devotional paintings. But they’ve got a great collection of modern works – Madame was very taken by a Matisse landscape of Corsica which he must have painted on his honeymoon.

IMG_6328Then on Sunday we shipped off to the Wyre forest and shared our walk with innumerable cyclists, dog walkers, families, horseriders and half-marathon runners.  The runners were pretty inspirational – clearly many of them were on personal crusades, some being supported by friends or personal trainers, and all of them up to their ears in mud. The forest is so big and so lovely that it would have been easy to escape the crowds, but it seemed nicer to share the day with all those other people. One of the race stewards said to me  – “Have you seen a bloke in a long cloak and a witches’ hat – he’s bringing up the rear.”  Sadly we didn’t see him but I could have hugged some of the runners who were so far out of their comfort zone. The final stretch was a long slow and muddy climb, and after only about 4 miles we were already tired, but the runners all seemed determined to finish – even at the cost of walking for short periods.

As expected it was a bit late for a great number of fungi, but I managed to photograph a fly agaric, a bolitus which I didn’t want to pick so I couldn’t identify it fully, and candlesnuff fungus.  I’m sure with a guide who knew the forest better than me we could have seen masses of fungi. So home to find two new (second hand) books waiting. Somehow I managed to follow a random trail in search of Elizabeth Blackwell, illustrator of “A Curious Herbal” which was published in parts between 1736 and 1739.  It was a ground breaking book which offered far better illustrations than previous herbals written in English. Her book made enough money to get her dodgy husband out of debtors prison and has subsequently become famous, but when I checked for references in Blunt and Stearn “The Art of Botanical Illustration” I found her summarily dismissed by Blunt as –

“Not worthy of their reputation; the work of an industrious amateur ; and show no touch of genius”.

This loftily dismissive pronouncement by Wilfred Blunt just about sums up in a sentence everything I despise about the art establishment and has left me fuming with indignation.

But enough, I’m ploughing through a rather poor edition of Culpeper whose American editor mis-spells Tutsan (Hypericum androsaemium) as ‘Tustan’ – neatly removing its relationship with Norman French “tout sain” and consistently ‘translates’ ‘divers’ as ‘diverse’. Am I being pedantic to care about it? When it comes to plant names, it’s hard to find better than Geoffrey Grigson’s “The Englishman’s Flora” – I got mine for about 30p and I’m ever fearful it will fall apart.