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===Aston Hall and Park, Aston, Birmingham===
Last weekend, a combination of factors; the lovely weather, my partners long weekend off work, and English Heritage running an open weekend, meant we were able to partake in a couple of visits to local historical attractions that we hadn't visited for a very long time. This review tells of my experiences at Aston Hall and Park, on the outskirts of Birmingham. I apologise in advance, for the length of this review.
Aston Hall is remarkably well preserved considering the age of the building. It's a wonderfully statuesque building of the Jacobean period. Now Grade 1 listed; it was built by the Holte family whose descendants lived here for a further 200 years.
The house is set in 50 acres of open land, and was originally built as a Deer Park by Sir Thomas Holte is 1613, for the shooting parties of the Gentry. Aston Hall is one of Birmingham's most treasured buildings and the setting may seem odd today, being outside City Centre, but at the time Aston was of more importance, having 150 families in the town, and Birmingham only 12. Times change and the area, as you can imagine, has become much built upon, yet Aston Hall and Park is an oasis of greenery and calm, in an urban jungle.
===English Civil War===
At 400 years old, its only battle scar can be seen on the main staircase. A cannonball fired during the English Civil War, blasted through the window, and shattered the beautiful carving of the baluster. My eight year old daughter was excited by this fact, but quite disappointed there wasn't more damage. Having shown her the size of weight of the cannon ball in question, she was really quite impressed.
The house, is set over many floors, and as you can understand, due to its age, is not wheelchair/disability friendly. However, many adjustments to the lower floor mean that wheelchair users are not left out too much. There is, apparently a virtual tour, but I didn't see this in action. The main entrance has steps up to it, but a side entrance provides level access to the interior. On the lower floor, there are still steps to differing levels, but here ramps are provided.
There are visitor toilets and baby changing facilities in the main house, which quite surprised me. We've visited lots of houses of this type having held National Trust Membership for over two years, and visitor toilets within the main building, is a rarity. This does go to show though, the scale of this building, it's immense and even once inside, it feels much larger than the exterior suggests.
The weekend of our visit, there were no tours as such. There were however Jacobean re-enactors, dressed in full regalia, acting how they would have at the time the house was built. At the moment we arrived soldiers were performing a drill in the entrance courtyard.
The kitchen wasn't being used for cooking (all meals were pre-cooked off site) but the maids were serving food cooked to the original 17th Century recipes, to the foot soldiers, different members of the household establishment and nobles. Seeing this in action rather than hearing about it, you get more of a feel for the etiquette of the time.
===On Site Events===
With all this going on, there was also a 'Worlds Apart: Parallel Lives' event going on. This celebrated along with the four centuries of the hall, four centuries of the Taj Mahal. There were activities held in several of the lower floor rooms which got the kids involved, and learning about different/their own cultures. Mehndi (henna tattoo), Rangoli (decorating patterns with coloured rice), and making Gajra (Indian flower garlands) were all performed by the kids, and were a great success keeping the kids happy and amused, when the historical aspect of the visit had waned somewhat.
The Taj Mahal experience is not a regular occurrence, but there are regular themed weekends and events held here. These are quite diverse, as this month the Hall is also hosting archaeological tours, and in December the event I'm really looking forward to, is Aston Hall lit by candlelight.
As I have said the house itself is settled within 50 acres of parkland, and with the help of grants from the National Lottery and The Heritage Lottery Fund (nice to see where the money goes for a change), there has been huge restorations projects taking place. These works have ceased now, and it was good to see the whole effect once the restoration had preserved what was there, rather than see it in a dilapidated state.
Lady Holtes garden to the right-hand side of the Hall, has been recently re-created, and provides welcome seating and a place to rest during your visit. Our visit mid September, meant we'd missed the best of the summer planting scheme, but it was still vibrant due to the autumnal colours, of both the trees and plants. The main central water feature and rills, were done in a complimentary design, and absolutely looked of the period of its setting.
The Stables Range, has been recently restored to its former glory, and looks very impressive it its own right. The interior is in stark contrast though, and is clean fresh and modern.
Along with extra toilet facilities, some of the stables have been altered into a tea room with extra outdoor terraced seating, serving drinks, and refreshments. We took time out to sample a 17th Century Marigold pie, and I must say I'm glad I wasn't around during those times. It looked quite appealing, rather like a Custard Tart nowadays.
Following the original recipe, the pastry was solid; the custard had a rather bland flavour and cake-y texture. The inclusion of the flower petals although very pretty did nothing to add anything positive to the experience. I'm glad I tried it though. This was the only item of the period available to eat at the time, but we did take our rest close to closing time, and I believe there were other options available to try earlier in the day.
===Gift Shop and Astonish Interactive Museum===
Also in the Stable range was a gift shop, selling the usual novelty items, and Aston Hall branded goods. At the entrance, there are steps up to the Astonish Museum and disabled access was via a rather elegant glass elevator. 'Aston'ish, was a large airy, open room set within the eaves. Painted white, and wooden flooring laid, this too was modern, and fresh. There are many exhibits here to do not with Aston Hall itself, but the surrounding parish of Aston. This is the most hands on, interactive section of the visit, and one not to miss. The kids could easily be kept amused up here for quite a while. Art work of original photos line the walls, and there are details of the manufacturing history of the town and locality - HP sauce, and Bass bitter anyone? The thing that really got the historical juices flowing though, and even held my eight year olds attention despite the attraction of other exhibits; were the accounts of elderly residents of the Hall, and the town, recounting tales of their lives.
This would and indeed does, make a wonderful wedding venue too. The Great Hall with its magnificent fireplace can seat 80 guests, and for smaller more intimate affairs, the Stable Range can seat up to 40 guests. The spacious grounds and beautiful interiors would make for the most stunning wedding photos I'm sure.
Lottery funding has not only aided the buildings on the site, but also improved the parkland. New pathways, landscaping, lighting and security have been added, to make your visit a more enjoyable experience, along with the creation of a number of new sports pitches, a children's play area and the construction of a new Sports Pavilion. On our visit these were well used by the locals, they are free for everyone to use. The entrance fee charged is applicable to the Hall only.
The Hall is open from April until the end of October, Tuesdays through to Sundays, from 12 noon until 4pm. It is also open on Bank Holiday Mondays. It must be noted though, as this is within the shadow of the Aston Villa Football Club, the Hall is not open on match days. The re-enactments are only done on a weekend so I believe. Admission to the house for adults is £4, concessions £3, and children under 16 is FREE. Annual multi sites pass £16 and will enable you to visit further houses of historical interest in the local vicinity.
Train: The Hall is midway between Aston and Witton Railway Stations if you are travelling from Birmingham City Centre.
By bus: you can catch buses 65, 104 and 105 stop nearby in Lichfield Road, while the 7 and 11 call at the junction of Aston Lane and Brookvale Road. The Hall is then within easy walking distance.
By Car: the address you need for the satnav is Trinity Road, Aston B6 6JD. There is not a dedicated car park, but ample parking space is supplied along the driveway after you've passed the house itself. You can't miss it.
In my opinion, the venue as a whole is a wonderful place to visit, and the four hour opening time is ample to view the spectacular house, and rooms within, alone. As access to the parkland is available to all, this can be done at your own leisure before the house actually opens. This makes a great family day out, at very little cost. You could take a picnic and play in the parkland all day, as I said previously, admission to the gardens, grounds and visitor facilities are all free, but why not take a visit to the Hall too, with kids being free entry, its a wonderful educational and fun, day out.
Many thanks for reading my review. I do hope it has been of some help
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In 1618 Sir Thomas Holte decided to build a home in green Birmingham, he was a prominent landowner of the time with a huge amount of money to spend building Aston Hall. The house was finally finished nearly 20 years later in 1635, no expense was spared in the building or furnishing and it was (and to a point still is) a landmark in the vast expanse of green which was Aston of old.
Any of you who know Birmingham nowadays know Aston is a grotty hole of a place just outside Brum City Centre, but in those days Birmingham was pretty much farmland with the industrial section of the city being close to Aston and the surrounding areas. Looking up at Aston Hall from the front, I can conjure a mental picture of the area before the factories were built and the high rise flats went up. It really is another world just underneath a motorway flyover.
Its certainly an imposing house, a perfect example of the Jacobean era you know just by looking at the stern and subtly elaborate exterior that the man who built this must have been a very important man of his time. Its a really gorgeous building, Im not into architecture but theres something about these beautiful old houses that make me want to grab my anorak and digital camera.
Going inside youre immediately in the hub of the house, the great hallway. Beautifully tiled, this room is huge. Theres a suit of armour, beautiful wood carvings, stone walls, a sweeping staircase Im not going to tell you everything because there are some small pieces in the room which will make you do a double take, and there are surprises everywhere you look I think Sir Thomas must have had a good sense of humour! The furniture is of the era and the Hall makes no pretence that its the original items from the house, the oldest exhibit in the house is a robust looking 14th century wooden box.
I took my children and as we walked through the huge front door members of staff handed the kids an activity booklet, which made the visit more interesting for them as they really had to look around the house to find the answers to some of the puzzles. Theres also a guide book to purchase to help you find your way around the house, and this is worth the couple of quid as it gives a brief history of each room as well as general information about the impact on the house from the various wars that were kicking off around England.
One such war resulted in the Hall being attacked in 1643, during the botched arrest of then Royalist Sir Thomas a cannonball caused damage to the staircase which is still visible today. This area of the house amazes my nine year old daughter (and her dad!) and shell (theyll ) gabble on for ages about how shes standing where a real cannon ball landed 350 years ago!
My favourite part of the house is the beautiful 136ft long gallery room. The sheer size of this area is awe inspiring, the same kind of feeling you get when you walk into a church because of the huge space between the floor and ceiling. The gallery ceiling is intricately carved and painted, and amazingly detailed tapestries from the early 17th century line the walls. I love this room, its quiet even when filled with people and it feels airy and light thanks to the large windows placed the length of the gallery.
Aston Hall is gorgeous from start to finish. The majority of ceilings are the original 17th century carved plasterwork, and the rooms are beautifully quaint; from the overdone velvet of the dining room to the old fashioned crib and milk bottles in the nursery.
Aston Halls claim to fame is probably the bedroom where King Charles I slept on his way to London. He spent one night there, and the room is now named for him. In 17th century England the pomp of having your lord and Monarch stay as a guest must have been extraordinary especially for such a Royalist family as the Holtes.
Surrounding Aston Hall is a massive 50 acres of parkland. In summer this makes for a lovely place to sit down for an hour and have your picnic. Ive always thought the only thing missing from these beautiful gardens is a maze because in the hot weather the flower beds are an absolute riot of colour. The area in front of the house has been made into a large visitor car park, but done with clever and pretty landscaping to disguise what is usually the grottiest part of any visitor attraction. Now and again battle enactments take place on the parkland using local history buff groups, also in the Autumn theres the Aston by Candlelight pageant where hundreds of candles light the exterior of the Hall and actors dress as authentic 17th century aristocracy and servants getting the house ready for Christmas.
The house has a very small gift shop selling uninteresting nick knacks; pencils stamped with Aston Hall, books about the area, all the usual. Very reasonably priced though so I dont begrudge them hopping on the souvenir bandwagon. Also, a less reasonably priced café which specialises in sandwiches and cups of tea anything more obscure than Nescafe is likely to get you a perplexed look from the 80 year old lady behind the counter so dont bother. And dont ask her if she met King Charles as my six year old did
This place really is special. Its a little part of Birmingham which has been untouched by time and its like a small step back into history every time I visit. Its never going to rival the huge budget attractions like Cadbury World and Think Tank but loads of people travel into Brum to visit these and probably drive over Aston Hall on their way into the main snarl of the Birmingham motorway system. Next time youre doing that, take a diversion from the M6 and follow the signs for Aston Villa Football Ground which stands literally 200 yards from the gates of the Hall. Youll see a gem of a place which will add that bit of culture to your Birmingham trip.
If it helps sway you into visiting (and Ive saved this best bit for last) Aston Hall is free to visit. None of your joke £30 admission fees, this is bona fide free and there are absolutely no hidden costs involved. I live roughly a 15 minute drive away and Ive taken the kids to Aston Hall with not a penny in my purse; weve been so many times that weve exhausted the tiny souvenir shop and we can eat our dinner when we get home. It can, and has been several times, a completely free day out. Allow yourself a couple of hours to have a good look around the house, bearing in mind that the house is laid out in a higgledy piggledy way and you have to back track half a dozen times to see everything youll still leave with the feeling that you didnt manage to see that little room just off the kitchen.
If youre travelling by bus you need to get into the City Centre and catch one of several buses, the numbers 7, 104 or 11 being the most straightforward routes to take. Mind you, if youre on public transport youre better off to hop on a train to Aston station and take a short 5 minute walk past the Villa ground to the Hall. Or itll cost you a fiver in a taxi from the main rank in the City Centre, and this way you wont have to worry about being mugged in Aston