Saturday, 31 May 2014

War Comes to Blakesley Hall

I know the heritage tourist season has barely started, but I have just returned from my 4th visit to Blakesley Hall this year. To be honest I am just a little obsessed with the place. Why is this? Because I really do believe that this site in it's quiet understated way, is the jewel in Birmingham Museums Trust's crown. Staff there are always only too pleased to guide or assist visitors; there are no flash-bang 'gee-wow!' approaches to the story of the site; nobody has to suffer the living hell a 'heritage experience'; and you can make your own way around the place without being treated like you have the intelligence and / or attention span of the average intoxicated newt.

The café also serves carrot cake* that you would kill your granny for (*from my forthcoming book 'Great Carrot Cakes I have scoffed')!

The hall itself is maintained to an excellent standard, and the gardens are always well cared for. In the garden areas you will always find something interesting going on in the wildlife department – today's entertainment was provided by loads of Bumble Bees (It's good to see that the place is such a haven for our endangered friends). 

Like 'buzzzzz', man...

There are also humans doing good things too. Here is a slide-show that I created from an earlier visit.

I haven't wrote up a potted history of the hall here. This is provided very adequately by Wikipedia - wonders will never cease eh?

The reason for my visit was to check out the 'Tom Frank and May – One Family's Story' exhibition which is currently running until November, and is all about the effect of the First World War on the the Merry family; the last residents of the hall. The exhibition is in itself an understated affair but no less potent for that. After taking a flight of stairs to the second floor, storyboards lead the way to covered cases that in turn reveal various artefacts:

Some items were informative:

Soldier's Pay Book

Hand - embroidered greetings postcard
 Some were evocative and poignant:

and some were inadvertently funny:
Just say no, boys and girls...
The caption that went with the cigarettes had words to the effect that they were recreationally consumed by soldiers, but people were unaware of the health hazards at the time. Hmm. Even tobacco - horrible substance as it is - probably couldn't really compete against German bullets and artillery regarding 'threat to health' risks! A more revealing point to have made would have been to explain wartime's part in stimulating a huge and sustained demand for the tobacco industry's products.

A collection of war poetry, facsimiles of the satirical trent magazine 'The Wiper's Times', and stereoscopic images of the conflict were also available to peruse; together with a video film giving a synopsis of Tom, Frank and May Merry's war. This was a very tight and informative production, and I hope that it will eventually be made available to the public after the exhibition closes: It is far too good to be junked or ignored. Here is an extract from the film:

It is always very strange how exhibitions such as this can affect the mind. Personally the exhibition evoked memories of my Grandfather (William Zachariah High) who was a First World War veteran. I would have loved to have talked to him about his experiences, but he died in the 1970s before I was old enough to care about them. He probably wouldn't have talked about it anyway... an awful lot of people didn't back then. But I digress.

An optional purchase from the Hall gift-shop is a homespun but very informative guidebook written by Rev. Tom Merry. At  £4 it is well worth the investment.

So there's nothing much to add except to say please consider getting your butts down to Blakesley Hall in time for this excellent exhibition. It is a low-key evocative reminder of the sacrifices made during that grim period. Congratulations and thanks to all involved.

For anyone not interested in the First World War, get your butts down to Blakesley Hall anyway. It's one of the most wonderful historical sites in the Midlands, and you won't regret visiting for a second.

Photographs and taken by Graham High, © 2014. YouTube Videos rights belong to their respective owners.


  1. Wonderful post Graham - and thanks so much for details of the exhibition. Haven't been to Blakesley Hall for a year or so at least but I was very impressed when I visited (as you say the staff are v. helpful) and I must now go to see the exhibition. Will take son too as he is very interested in history. Oh and carrot cake again I see - can't wait :)

  2. Hi Caroline. Thanks, nice to be back after such a long pause. I don't know where the time has gone this year.

    I've just finished reformatting the entry after making the 'unfortunate political decision' of cutting and pasting it directly from a Microsoft Word doc. I won't be doing that again in a hurry! :)

    I often find myself wandering to Blakesley Hall if I need to relax for an hour or two during a busy weekend. The place always delivers. I must admit the exhibtion far surpassed my expectations: That'll teach me not to be such a cynic!

    By the way the carrots on the cake are organic apparently. I asked the person serving if they were free-range or battery farmed, but he didn't know. :) :)