There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 30 September 2011

Birmingham: Back-to-Backs, Dim Sum and some Random Thoughts on Garlic

To Birmingham with Lynne on the last day of September to meet daughter Siân accompanied by grandson David, unquestionably the world’s cutest baby.

Our intention was to visit the National Trust’s back-to-back houses, so first - a little history.

7th century Birmingham was a hamlet beside the River Rea. It had grown into a village worth 20 shillings by the time of the Domesday Book and in 1166 Peter de Birmingham was granted a royal charter to hold a regular market. The Bull Ring is still there, but I doubt Pete de Brum would recognise the recently re-rebuilt shopping mall as being his cattle market.

The City of Birmingham, though, is not a market town, it is a product of the industrial revolution. A population of 15,000 in 1700 had became 74,000 a century later and half a million by 1900. It doubled again in the following 50 years.

All those new people had to live somewhere and the answer for Birmingham, as in other growing cities, was back-to-back housing. A square of houses was constructed facing a small courtyard with another square of houses built on the back of them facing outwards to the street. Living in back-to-backs meant you were separated from your neighbours to left, right and behind by just one course of bricks.

Life in the back-to-backs was invariably overcrowded and often squalid, - though there were much more squalid ways of living in nineteenth century cities. The early residents were mainly skilled workers. They arrived with their families from all over the country, and beyond, attracted by the industrial boom that made Birmingham the workshop of the world. The three storey dwellings had a kitchen on the ground floor and a bedroom on each of the floors above. In houses already overcrowded by the large families of the era, space often had to be found for a workbench, as many men worked from home.

As the population continued to grow, those who could afford to moved out, making way for newer and poorer arrivals. As the city prospered, the poor were concentrated in the back-to-backs.

At their peak as many as 80,000 lived in Birmingham’s back-to-back houses, but as time moved on people wanted better accommodation. Clearance started in the 1930s. Second world war bombing cleared more, but those that survived gained an extra lease of life from the post-war housing shortage. The last residents moved out in the 1960s and by the mid 1970s only one block, Court 15 on the corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street survived, providing a home to several small businesses.

As the block was still standing in 1988 it was given listed building status. Restored in the 1990s by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, Court 15, now in the care of the National Trust, was opened to the public in 2004.

A corner of Court 15, looking cheerful in the warm sunshine
We were led through the tunnel from Inge Street by our guide Ann, who was herself born, brought up and started married life in back-to-backs not so very far away.

The courtyard was big enough for a vigorous game of badminton, though I doubt it was ever put to that use. Decorated with half-dry washing and a couple of decaying antique prams to give a flavour of the past, it looked remarkably cheerful in the warm sunshine.

Houses wrapped themselves round three sides while the fourth was occupied by the brewhouse (the communal laundry room, despite its name) and the two privies that served all the residents – up to 60 people. In the early days, the privies consisted of a plank with a hole over a bucket. Full buckets were stored outside until collected by the night-soil men to be used as fertilizer. The yard smells much better now than it must have done in 1840.

Siân & David outside the brewhouse
Gradually there were changes. The bucket privies were replaced by water closets, instead of a single communal tap, water was piped to the individual houses, mains gas was supplied, electricity arrived, but life remained hard. Ann looked back with no illusions, despite enjoying a happy and secure childhood, she was quite clear that nobody would willingly return to living that way.

The National Trust has restored three houses in three different styles.

We first entered the home of the Levy family in the 1830s. Mr Levy made hands for clocks and sold them in the Jewellery Quarter.  The family were members of what was then a large Jewish community – Birmingham has been multi-cultural as long as it has been a city.

In 1861 the house next-door was occupied by Herbert Oldfield, a maker of false eyes, his wife and their eight children. Living conditions seemed to have improved little.

The third house brought us into the early years of the twentieth century with plumbing and gas lighting. A substantial range filled half the tiny kitchen. ‘Cosy’ was one word that was used to describe it. ‘Cramped’ was another.

The fourth property open to the public was once a tailor’s shop owned by George Saunders, who had arrived in Birmingham from the Caribbean in the 1950s. He retired when the restoration programme began and agreed to leave his shop exactly as it was. Now almost 80, he still takes an active interest in the Back-to-Backs project. [We visited again in May 2017 and were sorry to learn that Mr Saunders has recently died].

The tour is an hour and a quarter well spent. A National Trust property devoted entirely to the lives of ordinary people is rare, a wander through the servants’ quarters of a country house is usually the only indication of the lives of the great mass of the population. It is also strange to visit a past that was still alive in my childhood – though it seems almost like another planet. Two more properties on the court have been fully modernised as holiday homes.  It is a great way to stay in the heart of the city while avoiding the anonymity of the major hotels.

Outside, part of Hurst Street has been pedestrianised. The pub opposite was covered in hanging baskets and, like a couple of nearby cafés, had tables lining the street. There were plenty of takers on this unusually warm September day. With the poverty and squalor of the back-to-backs behind us, the city looked relaxed and prosperous.

Birmingham’s ability to attract immigrants did not stop with the industrial revolution. Hurst Street stands on the edge of Birmingham’s Chinese quarter, so we headed for the Chung Ying Garden.

Once past the forbidding – and very Brummie – redbrick exterior, it was almost like being in China: the inevitable small flight of steps to the internal entrance being guarded by the obligatory stone lion. The clientele was overwhelmingly Chinese, too, undoubtedly a good sign.

David instantly charmed the waiter – he does it so effortlessly – and we were quickly brought menus, tea and a high chair.

The restaurant claims the largest variety of dim sum (I am unconvinced by dim sums as a plural) outside Hong Kong. The menu offers 69 choices, but in case that fails to substantiate their claim, a note at the bottom says a full list is available on request.

First taste of Cha Shao Bao

The bilingual menu appears to have been written in Chinese and translated into English. Some of the translation is a touch brutal; ‘pig’s intestines in satay sauce’ would put off some though, perhaps strangely, it attracts me. The intestines were excellent, mouth-meltingly meaty with a good chilli kick. With Siân’s help, I soon discovered I knew the Chinese for several menu items - though not the Chinese characters - but was unsure of the translations. Jiaozi are not really dumplings, but that is how they are always translated.  I never found the big fluffy pork filled buns I know as Cha Shao Bao on the menu, but we succeeded in ordering some anyway. Spring rolls are more obvious, tofu with shredded duck was not quite written that way, but tasted wonderful. The sweet water chestnut paste was a revelation; looking like Turkish delight, it was a sticky Chinese delight with a fresh water chestnut flavour. Chickens’ feet, of course, translate as ‘Chickens’ feet’ - what else? Not all Europeans share my (and Lynne’s) delight in chickens’ feet - Siân for one – but a billion Chinese cannot be wrong. I have discussed their pleasures before and although I prefer the ginger and chilli treatment we enjoyed in Shanghai, Chung Ying Garden’s version with black bean sauce was undoubtedly a genuine taste of Canton. Indeed the whole meal was full of rich and subtle Cantonese flavours, a contrast to the technicolour palate assault of the average Anglo-Chinese takeaway.

Classic chopstick technique

Not for the first time, I admired Siân’s use of chopsticks. Living in China for eighteen months, she perfected a stylish, classical technique. Lynne and I use chopsticks effectively, but without the same elegance. Young David had to make do with milk and a few slices from the apple Siân had brought with her. He also had a go at his very first piece of Cha Shao Bao – such pleasures there are in store, little fella.

Inelegant but effective chopstick technique

Inevitably, somewhere in our meal, we encountered garlic; it plays a pivotal role in many cuisines. It was important in medieval England too, but somehow, as the industrial revolution separated people from the production of their food, garlic slipped out of use. By the early 20th century, and even in my youth in the 50s and 60s, it was a metaphor for everything that was foreign - indeed everything that was wrong about being foreign.

With the growth of package holidays this slowly began to change. In the early 70s garlic appeared in our local Macfisheries (a now defunct supermarket chain) - sold by the clove. In the early 90s, we were reading the menu outside a restaurant in Portugal when an elderly British couple walked up and started reading over our shoulders. “I might like that,” he said cautiously, indicating an item on the menu. “There’ll probably be garlic in it,” she said threateningly. “We can always ask for it without garlic,” he suggested. She tutted. “Remember you asked for it without garlic in that place and they said ‘no garlic, no garlic,’ but when it came it was swimming in it.” I still occasionally wonder how anything can swim in a vegetable, but the British suspicion of garlic was deep rooted – even if they were not always sure what it was.

But all that has changed. There is scarcely a greengrocer in the country where you cannot buy a bulb of garlic; garlic bread is considered comfort food and is given to children. It should always have been thus; if bananas, pineapples and oranges, which cannot grow in our cool climate, have become integral parts of the national diet, why not the humble garlic. It grows here, after all, though our attempt was less than spectacularly successful.

Our entire garlic crop 2007
Standing on the flagged floor of one of the back-to-backs Ann, the guide, remarked that some of them had earth floors and in wet weather slugs used to come up through the earth. “We didn’t waste them,” she said, “we fried them up with garlic butter.” She told us she had made this crack once and later a teenage member of the group had asked her quietly “Did you really do that with the slugs?” “We didn’t,” she replied, mischievously allowing him to believe that perhaps others had. But, as Ann herself said, back then she had never heard of garlic butter and would have had no idea what to do with it if she had. Such is the change in two generations.

We finished our Birmingham outing with a visit to the indoor market to find a Chinese grocer. The Chinese butcher by the entrance had plenty of pork, including some fine trotters - a dish we have not enjoyed since Xingyi - but, strangely, no chicken’s feet. They were, however, plentiful at the Halal butcher’s next-door.

The market is clean and light. Birmingham’s huge variety of ethnic groups work in harmony to sell food, both exotic and everyday, to a huge variety of shoppers. On a bright sunshiny day, everything in the garden looked rosy.

It rains sometimes, though.


  1. To paraphrase Terry Pratchett: if you spend your life eating beaks and feet, after a while you're going to start wondering who's porking the rest of the chicken...

  2. If you had been talking about duck’s feet I would have agreed with you. I remember sitting in Huizhou nibbling away at the web between some poor bird’s toes and thinking ‘why am I doing this?’ But chickens feet are different, chicken’s feet are unctuous, chickens feet are…well rather nice, actually.

  3. Well, you may keep them, and I shall enjoy the Cha Shao Bao, thank you. Incidentally, the English is 'Chinese Roast Pork Bun'- I think you can see why we stick with the Mandarin, now :)

  4. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has tried slugs -
    probably taking the idea of local foraged food too far, I think.

  5. A step too far, I'm sure. Despite the Telegraph's headline, Hugh F-W's conclusion was that he had produced a number of good slug dishes, all of which could be improved by leaving out the slug. I'm sure he is right - he usually is - though I find it difficult to explain why I am more than happy to eat a snail

  6. Well, the garlic from my garden is hanging in the traditional way from pegs in my garage!

    Yah! Boo!

  7. I'm trying to think of an incisive witty comment about 'coming down like a row of terraced houses' but it just won't come. Perhaps you can help me out!

  8. Sorry Francis, I think you're faffing round with a wobbly jelly there. What you need to do is nail it to the mast and get on with milking the gravy train.

  9. For me, the difference between slugs & snails is a question of manners. Snails politely provide their own carrying handle which I can use to pick them up and then remove them from my garden (even if I know they will eventually return). Slugs, on the other hand, have no such device and must therefore find themselves salted.

    Plus, the shells on snails are a) a source of wonder to small children, and b) renders them too large to fit through our catflap and leave 'orrible slimy trails all over the carpet. I think it's something to do with that odd cuteness of a snail, and the hardness of the shell that removes the ick factor. Slugs are just ick all over.

  10. Never mind the slugs and snails, you can keep those. I'll join you in enjoying lots of garlic which I use in massive quantities in my cooking. We are quite addicted to the taste.

  11. I was particularly startled by our guide's account (May 2017) of the residents' exposure to high levels of toxins, including arsenic and other heavy metals, and, of course, coal dust and smoke. Amazing that some residents actually reached the ripe old age of 70.

  12. Should also mention the dim sum--a delightful welter of flavors and textures. Yumm.

  13. I vaguely remember the last back to backs in Leicester, just down the road from where we lived in Belgrave. I know that my Great Grandparents lived in a number of Courts from the census records. Not surprising that both died young, Great Grandpa from Consumption and Great Grandma (designated pauper at the time of her death) from heart/lung problems. Main drainage did not reach them till after WW2.  My Grandpa on the other side of the family was public assistance officer for Leicester from late 20's till the NHS/Welfare State and was an ardent supporter of slum clearance and council houses (homes for heroes) so it is quite personal for me. I must try to visit the ones in birmingham though they look a lot better maintained than the ones that I recall (or rather recall being told about) down the road.