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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Birmingham Part 1

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas SEPTEMBER. 26, 2021

This is my recent photo walk in Birmingham, starting at Five Ways and heading for New Street. Some background is explained on my train ride post here. That post covers the train ride to Five Ways and the train ride back from New Street a sort of train ride sandwich with a missing filling. This is the peanut butter filling in that train ride sandwich.

This post starts with a few shots of Five Ways Station.

Five Ways Station is below street level so the first thing to do is climb up into the light. Over the road from the station is a new blue building I have not seen before. It's a while since I've been in Birmingham and even longer since I've been through Five Ways.

This blue building is called Altura and it is student accommodation.

Altura - From Old Galician and Old Portuguese altura (13th century, Cantigas de Santa Maria), from alto (“high”) +‎ -ura. Distance from the base of something to the top) tallness (quality or characteristic of being tall).


The student accommodation compromises 360 en-suite bedrooms in 6- and 8-bedroom apartments with communal kitchen/living/dining spaces expressed with full height curtain walling. The scheme also offers 75 studio bedrooms.

The active ground floor area includes office and administration, gym facilities, and large common area with a café serving element. There is also an 85m² retail space available. (Stride Treglown)


In 1980, my student accommodation included a three bar gas fire with a coin slot meter, a mattress on the floor, mould in the bathroom, a mouse under the stairs, a permanent gas leak from the cooker in the kitchen which was solved by leaving the window permanently open, and a toothbrush frozen to the window ledge in winter. "On sweet" meant where you sat on the sofa, on something treacly that the stain remover couldn't get out. Our curtains were not full height and so expressed a two inch gap at the bottom. Our common area had a large coffee stain element. Our retail space was a Chinese Takeaway and a grocery store, 100 yards away, neither of which we could afford to use.

My grandmother casually referred to this accommodation as a hovel.

Hovel - a small squalid or simply constructed dwelling. Example-"people were living in rat-infested hovels", the dictionary writer was obviously there. mid-14c., "roofed passage, vent for smoke," later "shed for animals" (mid-15c.), of unknown origin.

My grandmother was an expert on sheds for animals, she lived on a farm. I rather like the word hovel.

Next to the station and opposite the bright blue wonder anti-hovel is Five Ways House. I have found an excellent article about it here which pretty much sums up my first impression of it.

Five Ways House, in Islington Row, Edgbaston, is an incredibly long building but so discreet you may be forgiven for not noticing it or taking it seriously. However, a closer look reveals this is one of Birmingham's most interesting buildings. Built in 1957 for the offices of various government ministries, it housed 1,000 employees in state-of-the-art accommodation.

The architecture is restrained and wonderfully elegant, demonstrating the influence of Modernist style with an air of Festival of Britain in its use of decorative features. No expense was spared in the design and use of materials with the whole building faced in Portland Stone. The ground floor flaunts terrazzo panels in contrast to the concrete aggregate panels of the other floors. The curved flying staircase in the foyer is decorated with granite. We often stress the importance of windows to the design of a building and these metal windows (thankfully still intact) illustrate the point beautifully. Most of the building is glazed and what could be a rather plain façade is enlivened by the alternating patterns of the windowpanes.

The front of the building is like a huge ocean liner stretching away into the distance, the whole enhanced by the collectively framed windows looking like a huge TV set.

Eric Bedford, chief architect for the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, designed public buildings that graced cities across the country and embassies around the world. He is best known for the Post Office Tower in London and had overall responsibility for the BT Tower in Birmingham (1966). (

Birmingham City Council seem to be on a mission to eliminate cars from the city and the subsequent photos show that it seems to be working. Of course with traffic comes people and commerce and wealth.

My immediate impression turning down Broad Street, a four lane, broad street that I have driven down many times before is that of the opening titles of the film Omega Man, where Charlton Heston is the last man standing in a city wiped out by plague. He roams the empty streets accompanied by the occasional wolf or lion. My walk down Broad Street was not dissimilar considering it was midday on a Wednesday, no wolves or lions on this occasion.

Charlton Heston had plenty of clean air to breathe but not a lot else apart from some looted shops. It wasn't all that long ago that this street below would have been a constantly moving throng of cars, taxis and delivery trucks, for almost 24 hours a day. Where have they gone, where has the commerce gone?

Part of the problem at the moment is the extending of the Midland Metro, which will exclude cars and replace the buses. All of these vehicles below are not traffic frozen by the shutter, they are parked by the construction workers. I didn't tamper with these scenes, it is the middle of the week and there are almost no people.

Here at least are Five Guys.

and here, right where they are working is a sign to prove it.

Broad Street is where all the night life is. Maybe there are people here after dark?

Then I came across this fellow standing alone amongst all the chaos of redevelopment. Of course I had to know why he was here. His name is Field Marshal Sir Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, GCB, GCIE, CSI, DSO, OBE. I thought he must have been born locally or lived locally, but it turned out that although a distinguished soldier he had no connection to Birmingham at all. The reason he stands here is that in his later endeavours he was the chairman of a Real Estate Company that built the Five Ways Shopping Centre in the 1960's.

He was a career soldier who spent much of his military career in India, where he rose to become Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army by early 1941. In July 1941 he was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East Theatre. He served as Commander-in-Chief, India until the Partition in 1947, when he assumed the role of Supreme Commander of all British forces in India and Pakistan until late 1948. In his role he learned several Indian languages and, able to speak fluently with his soldiers, he absorbed a knowledge of local dialects and customs: this familiarity engendered a lasting mutual respect, enhanced by his own personality.

As well as empty streets there seem to be empty rooms.

Here is a sight not seen in this part of Birmingham for decades. Birmingham used to have an extensive tram system which was dismantled as old fashioned in the 1950's.

At its peak, Birmingham had 835 trams in operation. In 1937 Birmingham Corporation Tramways changed its name to Birmingham City Transport, reflecting that it now operated buses and trolleybuses as well as trams. In 1947, large scale closures of the tramways came into effect. Saturday 4th July 1953 was a day of sadness for Birmingham when the last trams ran. (

So now the tracks and cables are back.

I finish this post with these two guys. I heard shouting and turned around to be accosted by these two, who insisted I take their photos. They were standing against the sun so I asked them to move around so I could get the flyover behind as a backdrop. Their look and pose was all their own. They then insisted that I could do anything I liked with the photos. This has to be the first time I have been approached by a passer-by keen to have their photo taken, so it was a refreshing change. My only regret was that I didn't spend a bit longer doing it and take some more and better shots as I think they would have been very happy to play model, but it sort of happened all very quickly and was unexpected so I probably didn't make the most of it.

In part two I will continue my walk down Broad Street on the way to New Street. Still to come in this series, "Hell Fire and Damnation", the theme tune from Titanic and physical jerks to music, and I eventually walk with lions but no wolves.

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