It’s early evening on a dark miserable wet Wednesday in November but 1000 Trades on Frederick Street is an oasis of calm as I step into the low lit bar with the soothing beats on the stereo. I order a local beer called ‘Gentle Zephyr’ because its name is great and makes very little sense to me.
The girl dressed in white across the room is telling her friends about a new ping pong place that’s just opened up somewhere. After I sit down at an empty table two conspicuously-dressed men perch themselves on bar stools not far from me with a bottle of red wine between them. The older man is wearing a pork pie hat and an absurdly long scarf that goes down to his knees while the younger man with the beard and long shaggy brown hair is wearing a burgundy leather jacket, black flairs and brown boots. Tonight at 1000 Trades is the very first Birmingham Music Archive Meetup. I presume this is what these two men are here for when I hear them telling tales of being on the road with bands and bemoaning how far the drive from London to Edinburgh is. Taking a sip of my beer I look around at the handsome brick walls of a building that is one of over 200 listed buildings in the Jewellery Quarter and wonder what life was like here 100 years ago and how wildly different it is now.
It might not have the subversive graffiti and the streets bathed in fairy lights of Digbeth or the glamour and pretty canal scenes of the city centre but the Jewellery Quarter has a charm that is unique not just in Birmingham but perhaps the rest of the country too. The past, present and future strikingly collide in this area that, despite being so close to the city centre, always feels a little detached thanks to the big and brash Inner Ring Road slicing its way through Newhall Street and Livery Street.
Although now home to shiny apartments, creative spaces and tech firms, the ghosts of the industrial past inhabit every corner of every street. The Jewellery Quarter became a manufacturing hub in the late 18th century therefore large factories and workshops were constructed for the goldsmiths and silversmiths of the time. Allegedly half of the gold and silver products on sale in London were produced in Birmingham. A lack of demand and the growth of foreign competition meant a decline in industry for most of the 20th century but the old Victorian redbrick buildings and works still remain.
The industrial past isn’t likely to be immediately obvious if you are pointed toward the Jewellery Quarter from the city centre as you will most likely come across the exquisite Georgian setting of St Paul’s Square with the compact yet elegant St Paul’s Church at its epicentre. Residing at the head of Ludgate Hill, St Paul’s Square is surrounded on three sides by smart three story buildings housing start-up companies, wine bars and gin parlours while the church grounds are a haven for photographers and dog-walkers. Behind it the freshly-enhanced Caroline Street used to house grimy workshops but now counts hotels, barbers and a fine dining restaurant (the acclaimed Folium) among its latest residents.
Perhaps these are some of the things one would expect to see when flicking through a ‘newly-gentrified’ playbook but the Jewellery Quarter also counts among its ranks oddities such as a floating spa and a museum dedicated entirely to pens. A walk down the quiet and unassuming Regent Place perhaps best illustrates what this neighbourhood is in 2018. Snaking away from the refinement of Caroline Street, it’s a narrow collection of imposing three-storey former workhouses that retain their majesty but have exchanged the noise and machinery for a calmer white-collar climate. 16 Regent Place, for example, houses firms specialising in architecture, financial services and communications. If you fancy a beer after work on a Friday you can head to the wonderfully quirky Rock&Roll Brewhouse which is 100% vegan.
If Regent Place represents the present then perhaps the developments on Legge Lane are emblematic of the Jewellery Quarter’s future. Recently built modern apartments contrast bizarrely with the beautiful terracotta façade of 5 Legge Lane just across the street and the tragic windowless dereliction of the tired old buildings further up. It’s an odd street to walk but in an allegorical sense it represents what’s coming – people. There’s an ugly barren no man’s land near the top where it converges into Dayus Square that is strewn with bricks, traffic cones and discarded beer bottles while also offering fine vistas of the city skyline. It won’t stay that way for long. People want to live in Jewellery Quarter and people should live here.
This is a neighbourhood makes its past a part of its future. Think about that the next time you’re enjoying a drink on the roof of the 200 year-old former button factory on Frederick Street.