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on Tue, 22 Jun 2021
We find out what visitors to one of Birmingham's most iconic buildings can expect once it reopens...
It’s hard to believe but in the shadows of the concrete jungle of Spaghetti Junction and the largest football stadium in the West Midlands - Villa Park - sits one of Birmingham’s most iconic buildings.
Just a few short miles from Birmingham city centre and a stone’s throw from the A38 Expressway is the magnificent Aston Hall - a Grade 1 listed 17th century mansion. And its location is just one of the things that makes it so special, according to Kimberley Biddle, museum team manager at the venue: “Its location definitely makes Aston Hall so unexpected and unique. Situated next to a seven-lane motorway, a Premier League football stadium, rows of terrace houses and an industrial estate is this very theatrical and fairytale-like mansion that has survived 400 years of history.”
We Brits are fascinated with stately homes and country mansions. Countless novels and hugely successful TV dramas - from Jane Austen to Downton Abbey - centre on historic houses and the lives of the people who live there. According to research, in 2019 there were 26.9 million visits made to a National Trust property and 26.8 million people visited one of the UK’s Historic Houses.
In 1864 Aston Hall was the first historic building in Britain to be preserved by a local authority specifically as a public visitor attraction - pre-dating the creation of the National Trust by some 30 years.
“Whether it’s an element of romance, a fixation with history or a general fascination with the lives of others, our interest in stately homes, castles and stories of the past is undeniable,” says Kimberley.
After being closed for over a year, Aston Hall is this month set to welcome visitors once again. The venue reopens on 7 July, complete with brand-new displays that explore the fascinating lives of the Hall’s residents and its colourful historical past. Like every other UK visitor attraction, the prolonged pandemic-enforced closure has had a significant impact on Aston Hall, but it has also brought some time to reflect on the visitor experience.
“The past year has given us the opportunity to consider how we retell, reimagine and re-display the four centuries of Aston Hall’s history,” explains Kimberley. “The new displays capture the excitement and eventful history of the Hall, and the fascinating lives of people associated with it. Visitors love the architectural and historical delights of Aston Hall - such as the breathtaking Long Gallery and the battle scars of the Civil Wars - but they also revel in the real-life stories of the families that lived there. We’ve made more of the ancestral history of the Holte family, who built Aston Hall in the 1600s, and peppered that history with enthralling stories of family rifts, royal visits, pitched battles and even the tragic tale of a tightrope walker.”
Visitors can explore over 30 rooms at Aston Hall, including the amazing Long Gallery - said to be one of Britain’s finest and surely one of Birmingham’s most incredible spaces - and the elaborate Great Stairs.
But equally fascinating are the servants’ rooms, from the eerie Dick’s Garret at the very top of the house, to the purposeful Butler’s Pantry on the ground floor.
There’s also an amazing collection of paintings spanning four centuries to see, including works by the likes of Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney. Peter Lely’s famous official ‘warts and all’ portrait of Oliver Cromwell also features - as Kimberley explains: “Cromwell purportedly said to another artist, Samuel Cooper, who was painting his portrait, ‘Remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it’. Lely is thought to have based his portrait on Cooper’s, and it does indeed show Cromwell ‘warts and all’ - and so the saying was born.
“Aston Hall is home to Lely’s prime version, or original, of the Cromwell portrait. When it was painted, it was declared an official portrait of him in his role of Lord Protector.”
Another historic gem will also be on display for the first time in over a decade when the Hall reopens - the hangings from the 17th century bed in the King Charles Room.
“This is one of the rooms used by King Charles I when he spent the night at Aston in October 1642, shortly before the battle of Edgehill,” says Kimberley. “The bed hangings were in desperate need of restoration and were taken off display over a decade ago. We don’t know the full provenance of them, but they’re believed to be hundreds of years old. So to finally have them back on display, reinstated for many more years to come, is really quite an exciting coming-home moment for us all.”
The exquisite embroideries have been painstakingly restored by a team of conservators and volunteers at Birmingham Museums over a period of 10 years. Designed using a type of embroidery called ‘crewel work’ - a popular 17th century style - the embroideries feature a stunning design of flowers, birds and Chinese-style pavilions.
So what else can visitors to Aston Hall expect as part of the July reopening?
“We’ve also changed the Hall’s food & drink offer,” Kimberley explains. “With Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery currently closed due to the essential electrical upgrade of the Council House complex, we’ll be welcoming the sous chef from the gallery’s award-winning Edwardian Tearooms to head up a new menu in the Stable Yard Café. We’ll be serving hearty hot lunches for the first time, as well as a signature Astonishing Afternoon Tea inspired by the Hall’s Lady Holte’s Gardens.”
As a born-and-bred Brummie, Kimberley’s passion for Aston Hall is palpable: “Nowhere else in Birmingham can you explore such a magnificent and iconic building. The Hall really comes alive when visitors are there to enjoy its many treasures, be it the breath-taking rooms, incredible collections or the real-life stories of the past. It’s a must-see destination this summer, and we can’t wait to reopen.”
For further information on Aston Hall and upcoming activities, visit: birminghammuseums.org.uk/aston
Feature by Marianne Peterson