Saturday 15 October 2022

Roundhouse and Birmingham Rep

No cruising today.

Yesterday we booked tickets for a guided our of the Roundhouse, almost opposite where we were moored. We have been past this site for many years but not really had a chance to find out much about it. Now was the time.

There used to be water and elsan facilities here but they have been removed for some while and then it was also a base for Sherbourne Wharf which also closed some years ago (They still have the moorings across the other side of the canal on the Ouzells Street Loop).

The tour was at 11 for an hour and a half but we were asked to be there 15 minutes ahead. All we had to do was to go up onto Sheepcote Street (bridge beside us) cross over and then find the entrance.

At the appointed time our guide issued us with audio facilities intended to allow us to hear what she was saying in a sometimes rather noisy environment. Mike was offered a loop receiver but unfortunately his hearing aids did not cooperate. In any event he was able to hear most of what we were being told - they keep groups to a size of 10 it seems so no issue of being at the back of a crowd.

Although our guide was working to her own script for most of the time she was both knowledgeable and enthusiastic having been involved in architectural appreciation for many years.

The Roundhouse was opened as a Corporation Depot, one of around 30, in 1874 principally as a stables and store. The site was chosen because on one side lay the New Main Line canal and on the other a large goods station belonging to the London and North Western Railway.

At that time, horses were the only land based form of motive power and some 50 were stabled here and used in the work of maintaining roads, collecting night soil and supporting other functions of the Corporation.

Stone for road making, using the newly devised Macadam method, was brought here by canal but then had to  be broken by hand down in to small enough pieces for the road construction, This was, even for its time, exceptionally hard and gruelling work and the workers were amongst the poorest in society.

Of course, horses need caring for and so there were blacksmiths for shoeing and other work, including collaborating with the wheelwrights in maintaining the carts for carrying.

The buildings also provided secure stores. There were two houses, one either side of the main gate, to house the principal managers, one for the stores and one for the horses. At one time one of the managers and his wife had 11 children living with them in what were not exceptionally large homes.

Gradually technology changed and the last of the horses was finally sold in the 1950's. The needs of public works also evolved and eventually the site became largely derelict. Several attempts were made to find alternative uses, none of them especially adventurous and most simply took advantage of the storage spaces. For some years a well known pub, the Fiddle and Bone, operated in one building alongside the Roundhouse but that too went out of business. (The building is now occupied by The Distillery - a distillery and gin bar)

Eventually a project supported jointly by CaRT and National Trust was established, managed by an independent charity, which obtained substantial lottery funding to bring most of the site and buildings back to a usable condition, with a variety of spaces and expected uses. The work included added steel girder supports inside some of the structures - here it highlights just how bowed some walls had become.

When we came by here in 2019 we included a photo of the building surrounded by scaffolding - the work is now complete and the building stands as a proud reminder of the historical background to this area.

The ticket for the tour included a drink (tea, coffee etc) in the new Jonathan's cafe/restaurant, based in one section of the old stables. Whilst we were there we noticed that they have extended their lunch offering beyond the sandwiches which are mentioned on the web site. In particular they have a range of about 8 different hot pies (both traditional meat and some vegan), accompanied by Victorian Seasoned Chips. As we have to eat early this evening it seemed a good idea to have a main cooked meal this lunch time, keeping our usual sandwiches for later. This proved very successful choice as the dishes were excellent. To be recommended - even if not taking the tour.

The naming of the chips intrigued us and when we had finished we took the opportunity to ask the owner what made the seasoning different. It turned out that we had asked very much the right question as he has made a speciality of researching older and regional cooking and developed this recipe with the help of an early Mrs Beeton. It seems that when the British army began to operate in India, the soldiers found the local food too spicy for them so the cooks devised a milder but still distinctively Indian recipe to go with their potatoes!

We then had a break back at the boat - including time to finish yesterday's blog and to prepare the first part of this one, before getting ready to go back into the city centre for the theatre visit.

As dusk was gathering, several GoBoats, hired from just along the towpath from where we were moored, came past with groups intent on starting the evening in a lively way. One (not in the picture) seemed to think that they had hired a stand up paddle board and were keen to test its stability. Since we did not hear a splash nor the sounds of a rescue service, we assume tat they did not push the envelope too far.

We set off for the theatre in good time - the ICC, the way we have normally walked to the city centre, will be closed tomorrow morning when we plan to go to the cathedral, we wanted to test out an alternative route. It turned out to be no longer and we also spotted a quicker way to return.

Consequently, we arrived very early and even after a wait outside the auditorium, when we took our seats not many others had yet come it. Of course, once the performance starts we cannot take any phots so we are limited to just one beforehand.

The performance was by the Royal Shakespeare Company of their new version of  Tartuffe, originally written by Moliere. This adaptation of the tale is set in present day Birmingham amongst a largely Muslim community, rather than the French Catholics of the original.

The central character of Tartuffe is a seemingly religious man who wheedles his way into a family with devout parents but a sceptical next generation. He is, however, more than ready to take advantage of this situation and attempts to seduce the wife. Despite witness evidence from the sceptics, the believers  are unwilling to doubt the sincerity of Tartuffe. However, they agree to a further test, with the husband hidden whilst his wife entertains the holy man. He repeats his advances and is finally revealed for what he is.

In the meantime, the husband has signed over his house and business to Tartuffe and the resolution of  story has yet more twists and turns so that the family are not made homeless by the con man.

Overseeing events is the family's Croatian cleaner - although often ignored, almost invisible, she eventually sets up Tartuffe's final downfall and 'all's well that ends well' in true theatrical tradition.

It was an excellent production, as you would expect from the RDC although we both found it hard at times to follow the accented dialog, especially the punchlines of the humour as they tended to be almost asides. It may have been that in this way we missed them, but the warnings in the theatre foyer about the use of bad language passed us by! In any case, we enjoyed it and would recommend. 

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