Aston Hall in Birmingham

I went to Aston Hall today.

Built between 1618 and 1635, its showy Jacobean architecture is a bit of a surprise in north Birmingham. The hall overlooks Villa Park and the Hall is closed on match afternoons. It is not far from spaghetti junction and the A38M Aston Expressway runs along one edge of the park, generating a constant buzz of traffic noise. However some clever tree planting has created a leafy environment from which the surrounding city seems distant.

The house has a long and complex history, being attacked during the civil war, and once the home to James Watt junior. The house has been owned by the city of Birmingham since 1864 and has been used as a museum since that time. However, it was only after the second world war that the house has been furnished as a period house, very similar to a National Trust property.

According to information panels in the house, during the 1990s the Hall and Park suffered from “reductions in funding and problems with vandalism and failure to respond to the needs of the local community.” In 1996, following the establishment of the Heritage Lottery Fund two years earlier, a £12 million redevelopment programme was planned.

In 2002 an application was made to the HLF, co-funded by the local development group Aston Pride. This is a local body set up with government money to tackle the area’s poor job prospects, high levels of crime, educational underachievement, poor health and problems with housing and the physical environment.

In October 2006 the Hall closed for the work to begin, and it re-opened earlier this summer. Having last visited the hall before it closed for one of the popular Aston Hall by candlelightevents, I wanted to see what had changed.

Most obvious was the new entrance in the old stable block. This now has a new reception area and shop, cafe and toilets. It is fully compliant with Disability Discrimination legislation, providing a route into the Hall which avoids the front step – really useful when pushing a buggy.

On the first floor, accessible by a shiny new lift is an exhibition called ‘Astonish’ which engages with the history of the local area, and particularly with its significant history of immigration, industrialisation and urbanisation. The refurbishment has also focussed on the park with the construction of a number of sports pitches and an impressive looking new Sports Pavillion.

As well as the Astonish gallery, the redevelopment has attempted to engage with the area’s diverse community in a number of ways. A new garden draws on 17th century European and Persian forms, with fountains reminiscent of the Alhambra, and bright new benches designed by the artist Anu Patel.

In addition the ‘World Room’ includes displays on the ‘Influence of the East’ on design and furniture styles. There are also sections on ‘oriental carpets’ as well as tea drinking and the relationship of European sugar consumption to transatlantic slavery.

Despite these touches, and the Hall’s free admission it’s hard not to feel a bit like Aston Hall is not entirely comfortable with its position in the middle of north Birmingham. The overwhelming focus of the room settings is still on the Jacobean period, when the Hall existed in a largely rural English landscape.

The local area is felt most strongly in the stable block, but according to the Duke of Wellington, being born in a stable does not make you a horse. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the children born in Aston, with family roots elsewhere, would grow up thinking of Aston Hall as their heritage or not.