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Bostin Austen at Soho House

Now in it’s third year, Jane Austen Day is celebrated each summer at Soho House museum and this year’s celebration took place just over a week ago. Although Austen herself never visited Boulton’s home, the Georgian property provides the perfect setting to bring the world of her novels to life.

Austen was a novelist whose works earned her a place as one of the most widely read writers in English literature. Georgian society is the backdrop of all of Austen’s novels. Set during the reign of George III, they describe everyday lives, social hierarchies, gender roles, marriage, and the pastimes of well-off families. They provide an insight to the English society of this period.

group soho jane austen day

Staff and volunteers at Soho House on Jane Austen Day

Austen lived her entire life as part of a close-knit family located on the lower fringes of the English landed gentry. The support of her family was critical to her development as a professional writer. Her father was a clergyman and after his death, she, her mother and unmarried sister Casandra went to live in a cottage on her brother’s estate. Cassandra was Austen’s closest friend and confidante throughout her life. It was in these later years Austen successfully published four novels which were generaly well-received: Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park and Emma. These works were published anonymously and brought her little personal fame. Austen’s most famous work remains Pride and Prejudice. In this novel her most beloved heroine Elizabeth Bennet must navigate the complexities of life as a young woman of limited dowry. During Jane Austen Day Pattern 23 performed famous scenes from Austen’s books, including Mr. Collins ill conceived marriage proposal to Elizabeth.

Pattern 23 performing proposal scene from Pride and Prejudice.

Pattern 23 performing Mr. Collin’s/Elizabeth Bennett proposal scene from Pride and Prejudice.

When Jane Austen’s characters talk about buying a dress, it means in fact that they are going to buy the necessary fabric, which they will then give to a dressmaker who will make a dress to their specifications. Patterns for dresses in the latest London fashion were found in all the women’s fashion newspapers. In ‘Emma’ Harriet Smith buys muslin cloth with this intention. For Jane Austen Day I asked a friend to make a Regency gown for me to wear. During the day there were also period hair and make-up demonstrations carried out by Julie Stevens.

georgian hair and make up

Period hair and make-up demonstrations


Period dress I wore on Jane Austen Day.

Austen’s plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the dependence of women on marriage to secure social standing and economic security. A woman would have belonged in the first instance to her father and later her husband. She would have been legally subordinate to him, without rights and would not even have even been able to choose where she lived.

All members of the Lunar Society, who regularly met at Soho House, were committed to the idea of education, but what that meant for daughters and wives tended to be different from what it meant for sons. The subjects both Jane Austen and Matthew Boulton’s only daughter, Anne studied formed the main elements of the typical middle-class young woman’s curriculum. While away at school, Anne studied English, French, drawing, history and geography. Later, she learnt music from a Mr Harris in Birmingham, botany from Boulton’s friend Dr William Withering, and embroidery from Mary Linwood, a celebrated embroiderer of so-called ‘needle paintings’. Austen has been described by biographers as an accomplished seamstress and was very fond of dancing. These education topics were highlighted during Austen Day, with embroidery and dancing demonstrations for visitors to take part in.

Visitors learning Regency dance steps.

Visitors learning Regency dance steps.

textile group

Asian Women’s Textile Group are a community group based at Soho House.

Jane Austen acquired the remainder of her education by reading books, guided by her father and her brothers and had unlimited access both to her father’s library and that of her uncle. Like all gentry of the day, letter writing was a favoured and necessary past-time. In an uncharacteristic letter, the usually kind Anne Boulton is scathing about an expected visitor (in tone similar to Austen’s much-loved character Emma Woodhouse):

‘She is neither young, or handsome, has what some people call a pleasing cast with one eye, talks a great deal and would be glad to be thought young, notwithstanding wrinkles and grey hair begin to appear, but with all these perfections and imperfections she is I am told a sensible and entertaining woman.’

 Anne Boulton's writing desk at Soho House.

Anne Boulton’s writing desk at Soho House.

Unlike Austen, Anne was not dependent on the kindness and charity of her brother and relations after the death of her father in 1809. Boulton laid his plans well: ‘I propose to set apart, in my lifetime, as much money, land, stock or good securities as will be sufficient to support my daughter handsomely and comfortable’

Boulton left Anne a combined fortune of £34,000, enabling her to move from Soho in 1818 to a house of her own after her brother married. At Thornhill she kept a very comfortable but modest home. Upon her death in 1829 she left each of her servants one years wages, plus a further £20 each for the two longest-serving. Land she had purchased and the remainder of her fortune she left to ‘my dear brother to whom I now bid a long and last farewell.’

Jane Austen continues to be a huge influence on popular culture and this year’s celebration at Soho House was a great success. Staff, volunteers and visitors had fun immersing themselves in Austen’s stories, etiquette, interests and wit.

Louise Deakin,
Visitor Services Assistant,
Soho House

Quotes: The Hardware Man’s Daughter by Shena Mason, published by Phillimore & Co Ltd, 2005.

Volunteering at Aston Hall

Hello I’m Connie, one of the volunteers at Aston Hall and I have been volunteering as a House Guide since the start season. In this blog I will explain why I chose to volunteer at Aston Hall and I will include some of my favourite stories that I share with visitors.

Connie, a volunteer at Aston Hall

Connie at Aston Hall

Aston Hall is one of Birmingham’s most historic buildings and is Grade I listed Jacobean house. Aston Hall has played a large part in not just Birmingham’s individual history as a city but is part of England’s wider history as a country. The Hall was involved in the Civil war after being damaged after an attack by Parliamentary troops in 1643.

I choose to volunteer at Aston Hall for all the reasons mentioned above, but mostly for the experience and a chance to work in a place completely different to anywhere else I have ever worked. I am currently doing a history and politics degree at Lancaster University and Aston Hall is the perfect place to get some experience in history. The Hall is rich with historical significance and it’s great to work in such an amazing place and be surrounded by such amazing artwork, artefacts and architecture. Aston Hall is conveniently located in the heart of city and a great piece of local history. It’s a great way to get some experience in your local area and find out what part your city played in history.

Aston Hall

Aston Hall

Aston Hall’s famous connections makes it stand out as one of the most significant buildings in the city. The house was owned by James Watt Junior, the son of the important Victorian inventor James Watt. Sir Thomas Holte, 1st Baronet was the original owner of Aston Hall, the Holte family were a wealthy family of some importance in Warwickshire. Thomas Holte was known for his great temper with famous disputes with his son and neighbours, such as he sued his neighbours for accusing him of splitting his cook’s head in two with a cleaver! Aston Hall has also housed Charles I in 1642 and Queen Victoria first came to visit when she was on a tour of the country with her mother, she later visited again in 1858 to open Aston Hall as a public museum.

Sir Thomas Holte

Portrait of Sir Thomas Holte, the original owner of Aston Hall

The house is not only for history lovers but due to its extensive range of paintings is also has its interests for art historians, having minored in art history in my first year at university it was amazing to be surrounded by such works of art. Particularly impressive paintings are ‘King Charles I and his family’ by Remy van Leemput and ‘Lucy Loftus’ by Peter Lely. Lely was a Dutch painter who became the dominant portrait painter to the court in England. There are a few portraits of Charles I such as the one in the world room of Charles on the left, and his wife, Henrietta Maria on the right. When being on post in the Long Gallery, the portrait of Marchioness of Rockingham (d.1761) by Godfrey Kneller has always got a lot of attention. People always ask who the woman is in the painting as it creates a large impression due to its grandeur and size so I’m always ready to answer. Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham being the wife of Charles Watson-Wentworth a British Whig statesman and known for his two terms as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Edmund Burke, the famous philosopher, became his private secretary and would remain a lifelong friend, political ally and advisor until Rockingham’s premature death in 1782. She was very active in the political scene as she contributed to the parliamentary management of the Rockingham whigs and it was her positive influence upon her husband that was her most significant contribution to politics.

Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham (d.1761) by Godfrey Kneller

Mary, Marchioness of Rockingham by Godfrey Kneller

Another story I like to tell is prompted by the portrait of Edward Holte, Thomas Holte’s son. Edward, had gained a position in Charles I household. In his service Edward met and married Elizabeth King, Thomas did not give his permission for the marriage but Edward went ahead with the wedding. As a result Edward was entirely cut out from his inheritance. Charles I pleaded with Thomas himself to reinstate Edward as his heir but Thomas refused. Edward died on military service in 1643 having never reconciled with his family. It was rumoured Thomas locked up a daughter because she refused to marry her father’s choice of husband, the rumour suggests she starved to death.

Portrait of Edward Holte

Portrait of Edward Holte by Cornelis Janssens van Ceulen

Aston Hall’s significance is further emphasised by its architecture as it is one of the last great Jacobean houses to be built in Britain and its location in Britain’s second biggest city. Much of the architecture is original 17th-century plasterwork that has been maintained and the house remains relatively unchanged.

Interior of Aston Hall

Interior of Aston Hall

Aston Hall also manages a wide range of events across the year including ‘Make and Take Craft’ which are craft days every Wednesday in the holidays for children. There’s also historic days organised to explore the English Civil War with a living history re-enactment. Birmingham Tours Museum Heritage Bus also takes visitors around other historic sites in the area such as Soho House and Blakesley Hall. The events are a great way to get children more involved and interested in history, which I think is extremely important and a great active day out away from the classroom which is always needed! Aston Hall takes a lot of visits throughout the year from nearby school children and they are given a special tour. Volunteers are encouraged to get involved and events are organised to keep volunteers up to date with information, also there are fun ideas to get us more involved such as picnic days and tour guide training.

The engagement with the customers is always a great chance to get to hear other people’s views of the Hall. Many visitors have returned to the house having been years ago when they as a child at school. Other visitors have come again for a second or a third time to bring family and friends. Many are amazed by the long gallery, my favourite room and one of the most spectacular rooms in the house. Hands down an extremely different place to work and hope to work in other places like Aston Hall in the future.

The Long Gallery  at Aston Hall

The Long Gallery at Aston Hall

Volunteer at Aston Hall

If you’re interested in volunteering for Birmingham Museums Trust then find out more at:

Stories from the Mill

A lovely blog about volunteer millers at Sarehole Mill.

Sarehole Mill will open again for the season on Saturday 12 April 2014. Please see for more details.

The Iron Room

I used to think I had the best job in the world, education & outreach officer at Birmingham Archives & Heritage; a sublime mix of delving into the past through archival documents and photos and working with young people and community groups to document their lives and our changing city.


Then in January I answered the call for volunteer millers at Sarehole Mill.  Suddenly every waking thought was about millstones and wheel revolutions, about chutes, tuns, hoppers and damsels and I found myself in a new world of the old.  Now of course it all makes sense; a seamless path from researching and recording stories about Birmingham’s history to real life hands on experience.

I am part of a team of volunteers learning how to operate the mill following it’s major  £450,000 restoration and refurbishment project.  Sarehole Mill is one of only two surviving working watermills in Birmingham (…

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A Garden for the middle classes: A tour around Blakesley’s garden

Blakesley Hall was once a modern and fashionable middle-class home, located in what was the countryside, covering acres of land. While the Hall was certainly an impressive feature in the landscape, how much do we really know about its gardens? The original owner of Blakesley, Richard Smalbroke, a wealthy middle-class gentleman, would have wanted his garden to be just as impressive as his home, stopping onlookers in their tracks. In fact, Blakesley Hall was built at a time when the very concept of a garden was evolving and the Smalbrokes would have certainly been influenced by the changing fashions and ideals of the period.

The Herb Garden

The Herb Garden at Blakesley where useful plants would have been grown by the housewife.

The Tudors were very fond of formality and it was this which characterised gardening in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was a time when gardens were designed to demonstrate power, wealth and status, instantly letting onlookers know that you were ‘important’. Certainly, fashions filtered down through society, and a man like Richard would have wanted a garden that reflected his status, maybe even exaggerated it to complement his modern home. Our garden today is probably more formal than the one which would have originally existed at Blakesley, but it certainly reflected the designs which were popular at the time.

Up until the mid 1550s gardens were viewed as practical spaces to grow and produce food, and not as we know today, as spaces to ‘unwind’, relax and grow plants to admire simply for their beauty.

Tudor Garden

It was hard work in the Tudor garden. Notice the formality and straight lines of the beds and borders (Source: Tudor Garden 1485-1603).

The catalyst for this change was the Renaissance where new concepts were emerging from France and Italy, and pleasure or flower gardens, as they were known, were quickly becoming the new fashions of the day. While growing food remained important, the concept of how a garden should be used was slowly changing, and the very idea of a garden solely used for pleasure, was slowly being embraced by society.

Although a very wealthy middle-class gentleman, Richard couldn’t have afforded the kind of luxuries present at the local and wealthier residence of Kenilworth Castle, but would have nevertheless maintained a well-presented garden that certainly impressed onlookers. And not forgetting that because Blakesley was also a farm, most of the land would have been used to grow and produce crops, keep animals and to ultimately be functional.

The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle, depicting the formality of the Tudor period.

The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle, depicting the formality of the Tudor period.

Our garden consists of many parts. From the intricacy of the knot garden, to the formality of the herb garden, families like the Smalbrokes would have used their outdoor areas for both pleasure as well as functional spaces. And the Smalbrokes did exactly this at Blakesley. Just as we beautify our own gardens today, by spending money on the latest plants, furniture or water features, other Tudor families would have also invested money and time into their outdoor areas, making them attractive and pleasant spaces.

We have no documentary or archaeological evidence about the type of garden that existed at Blakesley but we can be certain that there would have been a sizable kitchen garden present for food production. The kitchen garden formed the focal point of daily life and was therefore much bigger in size than the one we have today, probably the size of our herb garden. It was the life-hub of the household, providing necessary food all year round. Our kitchen and herb garden are separate today, but would have been interchangeable in the Tudor and Stuart periods, consisting of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables, or useful plants as they were known in this period. The terms kitchen garden and vegetables would not have been used; rather useful plants was applied to all manner of plants and herbs at this time.

Kitchen Garden

Blakesley’s Kitchen Garden used for food production.

Also known as the pottager, the kitchen garden was located very near to the house. It was both a formal and practical space, with straight lines and geometrically-laid-out beds, intertwined with paths creating a sense of balance which would have been very pleasing to the eye.  But the primary reason for rectangular beds separated by strips of land as the photo above illustrates, was practical so as to allow access to the plants so they could be easily tended to and looked after.  Essentially, this area was a utilitarian space but the period favoured function co-existing alongside beauty. Take a look at the photo below; gardens had a sense of regularity and often included repeated patterns and this is the style that the Tudors and Stuarts loved so much.

The Herb Garden at Blakesley  Hall.

A room with a view. The Herb Garden at Blakesley with lavender in full bloom; a popular Tudor plant.

The population at that time had a great belief in the power of herbs as medicinal remedies so they were widely grown and used by all levels of society, particularly as medical doctors were rare. This was the Tudor housewife’s domain and she would have been responsible for growing and harvesting vegetables for her family, whilst working alongside her servants.


The Tudor housewife tending to her garden alongside her servants at Blakesley.

From the familiar lavender, to rarer herbs and plants like sweet cicely and borage, our garden reflects popular plants present in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sweet cicely produces a wonderful aniseed smell that freely floats through our garden and would have had many uses in Tudor times, but its main use was to aid digestion and soothe stomachs. And according to Nicholas Culpepper, the 17th-century herbalist, it was also “very good for old people that are dull and without courage”. Maybe a little harsh but the point here is that herbs and plants were widely grown and used medicinally because their use was believed to aid health and well-being. Another common complaint, the headache, was treated using a concoction of lavender, sage, marjoram, roses and rue. But fresh herbs were only available in season, so they had to be preserved for use throughout the year by making salves, syrups, candies and sweet waters.

The Still Room

The Still Room was the lady’s domain for the production of medicines for her family.

Essentially the idea of distilling was to try and preserve the essence of herbs all year round. Without question, every lady who could have afforded a still room would have had one, using it primarily for the production of medicines for her family.

Moving on to the aesthetic area, the pleasure  or flower  garden as it was also known, is where intricate knot gardens and rows of tulips were planted for their wonderful display and bursts of colour in spring. Our Friends’ Garden represents this idea with the sole purpose of simply looking attractive, and not necessarily having a function as such.  Colourful, attractive plants played their part in alluring the attention of onlookers and fulfilling the Smalbroke’s desire for simple pleasures. Tulips were a very popular Tudor plant, not just because of their beauty but because they acted as a status symbol for the wealthy. Only the rich could have afforded Tulips and the bulbs were even used as a form of currency in Holland. The Smalbrokes would have most likely had tulips in their flower garden at Blakesley as well as other eye-catching plants such as foxgloves and roses. In short the knot garden at Blakesley is perhaps the most recognised Tudor creation and represents the period’s love of formality, intricacy and structure, and perhaps what best represents a Tudor garden.

tulips in the Friends’ Garden .

Colourful tulips in the Friends’ Garden (Pleasure Garden).

It wasn’t until the 18th century that gardens experienced a rebirth moving away from the straight lines of the Tudor period to a natural curved design that we’re more familiar with today. Yet the period’s influence and legacy is still present today, and lives on through the formal flower borders and beds that we have in our very own gardens at home. So this summer when we sit out in our gardens sipping drinks and pottering around in our allotments, think about how much we owe to the Tudors for embracing the idea of the pleasure garden and bestowing this wonderful pastime on to us. Unquestionably, the Renaissance was truly a period of new discovery that helped to create the modern garden we’re familiar with and love so much today.

Blog written by Anne-Marie Hayes.

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How does an ecosystem work at Blakesley Hall?

When you think of Blakesley Hall, what first comes to mind? Is it the Tudors and old houses, or might it be our wonderful gardens? But in fact, did you know that Blakesley plays a significant role in urban ecology? You might not necessarily think of an ecosystem when a museum garden comes to mind, yet our gardens attract a plethora of biodiversity.

Blakesley Hall herb garden

View of Blakesley Hall from the herb garden, a haven for biodiversity.

But what exactly is an ecosystem and where do they exist? The simple answer is, everywhere. Ecology is all around us, in our garden at home, a derelict building in the city centre and in the pond in our local park. Essentially an ecosystem is a collection of plants and animals, combined with non-living components like water, air and soil that share the same resources and environment and fundamentally rely on each other. A very cyclical process! There are three components that make up an ecosystem; producers, consumers and decomposers.

At Blakesley, the ‘producers’ are our plants and trees, because they make their own food from sunlight and are self-sufficient. We are often more concerned with making our gardens look attractive and fail to notice that while we enjoy the beauty of tulips and roses at Blakesley, these flowers are providing an important food source for an array of animals.

Herb garden flowers

Herb Garden flowers at Blakesley; an important food source and habitat for many animals.

That brings me onto the next group, called ‘consumers’ because they do exactly what their name suggests and consume plants and living things. There are two types present in our garden. First, we have the primary consumers that live off plants. These include bees, butterflies, caterpillars and snails. You’ll always be certain to spot this group especially while wandering through the herb garden, particularly past the lavender.


A snail on the move in the wildflower meadow, one of many primary consumers at Blakesley.

Then there are the secondary consumers. These are the meat-eaters and at Blakesley these include birds like the sparrow hawk, blue tits and magpies, and small mammals such as hedgehogs, grey squirrels, and on occasion, the odd urban fox. Another familiar secondary consumer in our garden is the spider.

A bee collecting nectar from a flower

One of the many workers in our garden. A bee collecting nectar at Blakesley Hall.

The third group, which possibly isn’t as interesting but equally as important as the previous two groups, are known as the ‘decomposers’. These are organisms like worms, fungi and bacteria that break down dead organic matter and return necessary nutrients to the soil. I like to think of this group as the ‘recyclers’, clearing up the waste. In other words, they are the workers that you don’t really see but who are always there working hard in the background. All three groups actively contribute to a sustainable and balanced ecosystem at Blakesley.

A bee collecting nectar from flowers

A bee – one of the many tiny engineers contributing to our ecosystem at Blakesley.

But how else do plants, grasses and trees contribute to our ecosystem? Well, our knot garden might look pretty but it actually provides not only vital plant nutrients, but necessary shelter for birds and tiny mammals over the long winter months. Butterflies and bees also fill our herb garden, attracted by the vibrant colours and aromatic fragrances, but they are actually working as tiny engineers, collecting pollen from flowers and transporting it through our ecosystem. And while bees are extremely proficient at pollination, butterflies are a very important entity in this process too. Although, not as adept as bees at pollination, butterflies act as an excellent guide to how healthy an ecosystem is. Butterflies are extremely sensitive to climate change and habitat loss, so their presence tells us if an ecosystem is working properly, and act as a reliable indicator to an environment’s well being. So if you have scores of butterflies in your garden, chances are you have a balanced ecosystem. And if you want to spot a butterfly at Blakesley, walk around the lavender and daisies in the herb garden, and you might just catch a glimpse.

Blakesley Hall and tuplis in the garden

The tulips in the Friends’ Garden may look attractive, but plants are also an important food source to many animals

Blakesley exists within an urban environment and ecology is not necessarily the first thing you consider when maintaining a garden. Gardens in general are engineered and manipulated by people to look attractive, and Blakesley is no exception. By this, I mean that we cut our grass, trim back the hedges and remove the weeds, therefore indirectly destroying habitats because we need our lawns to look appealing for visitors. But there is one area of our garden that isn’t engineered with an edged lawn and weed free, and that’s our wildflower meadow.

Thistles in the wildflower meadow

Thistles in our wildflower meadow last summer

Wildflower meadows are threatened by extinction so the very fact that we have one is helping to maintain vital habitats. You may not know this, but wildflowers actually are a perfect haven for wildlife because they attract an assortment of species, which either feed on the flowers or the animals found in the meadow, and offer shelter as well. Certainly, wildflower meadows help to maintain a healthy ecosystem, and we’re looking forward to when our meadow springs back to life in a couple of months’ time.

A hedge at Blakesley Hall

Hedges provide perfect shelter for birds and small mammals all year round.

Ecology is an important part of our gardens and we make every effort to encourage wildlife to ‘set up’ home here. Indeed even the bugs and birds have Tudor style homes that Richard Smalbroke would be proud of!

A bird box at Blakesley Hall

Tudor style bird box in our herb garden. See if you can spot it next time you visit.

So next time you visit us and stroll around our gardens, have a think about the many processes that are taking place and what creature might be hiding away in a hidden habitat somewhere.

Look out for our Ecology Weekend in June.

Blog written by Anne-Marie Hayes.

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A Day in the Life of Weoley Castle Ruins – 25th May 2012

Today has been a fantastic day on site at Weoley Castle Ruins, the site looks so beautiful at this time of year!  First thing this morning a couple of foxes were seen taking a stroll around the moat and having a nice sunbathe!  The Hawthorn is in full bloom so the bees have been buzzing and enjoying themselves, and at least two common blue butterflies (they’re not that common really!) have been spotted flitting around our wildflower border.  The foxgloves, aquilegas and mallows that we seeded last year have come up and we can’t wait for the foxgloves to come into flower – they will look stunning and should excite the bumble bees!  


A nest at the ruins

Our Castle Keeper Volunteer Group have slaved away in the heat and the sun this afternoon hand-cutting the grass that forms what is called “soft capping” on some of our walls in the Solar.  This is turf that we have laid on top of some of the walls to help protect the lime mortar from the frost over winter.  The turf was cut from an area of the moat so blends in beautifully with the rest of the site and contains all the same species that we see elsewhere – lovely speedwell, daisies, buttercups and clover.  Today was it’s first ‘haircut’ and we’ve found that it has established well and seems very happy – we shall see how it withstands any drought conditions we may get – so fingers crossed!   


Evidence of woodpeckers – we have seen both green and lesser spotted on site.

We also had a visit from two classes from Weoley Castle Nursery who brought a picnic and spent the day enjoying the site.  In the morning we created a mini timeline of some of the people that had built and lived in the castle and its environs.  Using costume and props we learnt about our Saxon Thane, Wulfwin, the first Lord of Dudley, William Fitz Ansculf, and Joan Bottetourt who commissioned an amazing encaustic tiled floor for her chapel.   This afternoon we looked at come replica artefacts from the medieval period and tried to work out what they made from and what they were used for in the past.  The beeswax candles were found to be very smelly and not to everyone’s taste – there were lots of wrinkled noses from the children!
If you would like to visit the castle, our viewing area is open from dawn until dusk every day, and we have a series of talks and walks over the summer as well as craft activities, open air theatre and a nocturnal bat walk later in the year.  Keep an eye on the Weoley Castle Ruins web page to see what is coming up!

Kirsty Nichol