Issue 443
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RECLAIMING AN ICON

“That’s my favourite spot,” says Steve Dodd about where I’m sat. “I like to just sit on that sofa and look through the double doors across the hall into the kitchen.”

The fact that Steve has a favourite spot tells you a lot about how invested he has been in the restoration job and the labour of love he’s masterminded at Old Heaton House, arguably Birmingham’s coolest address. “It’ll be painful to hand the keys over, when the time comes,” he adds, surveying the living room for the umpteenth time. “But that’s the discipline.”
Steve is the founder of Elevate Property Group, the company responsible for the Heaton House Lofts development, a three-year project which included 56 new homes and the reclamation and restoration of a 3500 sq ft Georgian house, now on the market for £2 million, exactly 200 years since it was first built. “There’s something poetic about that,” he agrees of the bicentennial. “Something rather fitting about how the years have fallen.”

The house was originally built in 1823 for William Cotterill, a wealthy Birmingham merchant. It was set in its own landscaped park, but a century of industrial activity had engulfed the building and left it in a state of total disrepair. “Industrial buildings and workshops had sprung up all around it. Buildings which, by the time we arrived, were the only thing holding it up. We assumed it was beyond repair and anyone daring to enter would have assumed the same. But the planning department and conservation officer insisted it had to stay, and that’s where it all began.”
Elevate didn’t take on this job to salvage one of only two fine Georgian residences left in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. The plan was to build townhouses and apartments, which they have done with the skill they have become synonymous with, but sometimes, in Steve’s words “you get dealt a hand you’re not expecting, and you have to play it.”

It was playing that hand, the hand that said the main house in the centre of the site had to be conserved, that began this passion project. “It’s been quite a journey, two and a half years under construction is a long project for us,” he says with a slight chuckle that belies the monster task he’s finally finished.
I was a construction journalist from 2012 to 2015 and in that time I didn’t once witness a developer look upon his work with a fraction of the pride that Redditch-born Steve Dodd looks upon Old Heaton House. There’s a slight smile on the carpenter turned property developer’s face throughout the tour he insisted on giving me in person. “Maybe it won’t sell,” he says, again with a laugh. “That wouldn’t be the end of the world. I’d have to keep it.”

It intrigues me how a South Birmingham chippy has got to the point where he runs his own property empire, having completed well over a thousand new homes in the last decade, with a further £200m of developments under construction. He shrugs a little. "As a carpenter you see it all, from shuttering foundations to putting on roofs, to fitting doors. All the final touches, right down to the door handles. You see the whole process. A bricklayer is likely to only see the bricklaying, but chippies — not a lot passes us by. I guess that played a big part in my ability now, decades on, to be able to visualise a project from start to finish... regardless of the size.”
Steve shows me the photos of the property from day one. It was in such a state that the professional team wouldn’t come into the building for safety reasons. Most of the floors has already collapsed, the roof had caved in. Plaster was falling off the walls throughout, there were trees growing in gutters and roots tearing apart the 200-year-old brickwork. The sheer size of the task at hand was, surely, daunting?

“No,” he says without missing a beat. “it’s what we do. Usually it’s not quite this painstaking, but we do it and, frankly, we really enjoy it. The trick was to pick it apart room by room. We would remove a floor, reconstruct it, introduce steels, new timbers, secure the lateral restraint and then move up a floor and go again. And you move around the house like that. Piece by piece, room by room, only once we had made the building structurally stable were we able to demolish the redundant building around it.”

It doesn’t feel like you are in the centre of Birmingham and not just because of the peacefulness that permeates. It's just a few minutes' walk from the heart of the JQ and just ten-minutes walk from Colmore Row. The interior is finished to a “Mayfair standard” but in Mayfair it would probably cost £15 million. The exterior purposely exhibits its scars giving a hint to its 1823 to 2023 tale.  
We walk into one of the guest rooms (it’s a five-bed house but Elevate have had it designed with four and a playroom) and Steve pauses. “In here we found remnants of the original architectural details amongst the wreckage. Jigsaw pieces from which we managed to recreate the shape of the original ceiling. We used those remnants to recreate a new ceiling that echoes how it would have looked.”

It’s obvious that Steve and his team are forensic about that sort of thing. Granular in how they will recreate and modernise, with this just being one example of hundreds throughout the home. The word “sympathetic” appears on every construction related press release I’ve ever read, but this crew isn't just sympathetic to history. They’re emotionally invested in it. It’s not a box ticking exercise to them, it’s an obligation to the past and to the future, their previous work including the renovation of an old chapel in Malvern where, it’s rumoured, Edward Elgar taught piano. And this job, here in the Jewellery Quarter, has been acknowledged by the Federation of Master Builders as Large Renovation Project and Bathroom Renovation of the Year.  
“Where possible we want to preserve Birmingham’s history,” says Steve. “In truth it really isn’t always possible, but we owe it to the city when it is.”

He’s right, of course. In a city so often criticised with being trigger happy on the wrecking ball, it’s warming to see a bespoke developer doing their bit to avoid the mistakes of the past, however hard the journey.

“We don’t take on the “easy win” projects,” says Steve as he walks me to the gates of the grounds to wave me off. “It takes an element of drive to take something like this on. You can’t throw a job like this into a PLC. They just wouldn’t get it.”
For more information on Old Heaton House or to book viewings of any of the remaining properties on the development, head here

FRESH FISH?


If you read Grace Dent's slightly snippy Oyster Club review, you might have been a little taken aback by her opinion that Brum shouldn't be allowed seafood restaurants. Heck, we have half the nation's seagulls, why not the food? Always at the forefront of ocean eats, Edgbaston's excellent Chapter will launch the first in a series of dinners to celebrate British produce, with host Martin Purnell from Brixham-based Channel Fisheries, which holds the royal warrant. They supply Chapter each morning from day boat catches and the menu will highlight a selection of fish landed the previous day – it’s hard to get fresher. May 18, £65,
0121 200 3020

THE UNDERTAKER WILL SEE YOU NOW


Birmingham’s annual A Matter of Life and Death Festival returns this May with a host of events across the city. Aiming to encourage open and honest conversation about bucket kicking, the festival includes author talks, a remembrance get-together, a walking tour, an interactive tour of a cemetery, a visit to the Coffin Works, the chance to pop in to an undertakers’ plus Death Cafes and Death over Drinks events.

Organised by BrumYODO (You Only Die Once — they’ve clearly never seen Flatliners), the award-winning festival (May 2 to 16) is now in its seventh year and will bring with it To Absent Friends, a small informal gathering in which people come together to tell and listen to stories of their loved ones over dinner. Diners bring an object or photo to help them share a memory and there will be a toast to those we've lost. Taking place at The Junction, this one's free.

The festival also features Campo Santo, where you’ll discover plenty about death in the Jewellery Quarter with two special tours, a picnic and a ‘Death over Drinks’ chinwag! The three-hour event includes an interactive audio wander around Warstone Lane Cemetery plus picnic with food created by Birmingham-based chef and visual artist Alfredo Hau. This will be followed by a tour of the historic Stamp Shop at The Coffin Works.

Brummies are also invited to take a step back in time with the Life and Death in Birmingham tour organised by Birmingham Heritage Walking Tours which will explore the city's last public hanging, the Victorian Eye Hospital and Birmingham Cathedral, The Battle of Snow Hill Station and Birmingham's Nuclear Bunker.

Kings Heath undertakers A Natural Undertaking will be holding an open evening, too. The event will give visitors a chance to discover how undertakers help, to hear stories of inspirational funerals and to ask questions. Carrie Weekes (above), undertaker and co-owner of A Natural Undertaking, says: “It's a business that we don't really think about until we have to. Nor do we really want to. However, knowing what the role of an undertaker is can make planning a funeral a more positive and empowering experience which can lead to a more healthy grief.” Full schedule

MOVIES. MANY, MANY MOVIES!


I'm not sure what they've been putting in the Birmingham water (ambrosia, by the bloody taste of the stuff) but a volley of film-related events are inbound for your discerning selection. The not-for-profit volunteer-run Stirchley Open Cinema have a corking spring line up at interesting locations, starting with the cult comedy classic Withnail & I (April 20) at Birmingham Brewing Company. Your £10 ticket gets you your first drink at the bar and of course the film itself which, alongside The Lion King, are the two movies I get most pilloried for having never seen.

Then, on April 28, at their home venue of Stirchley Baths (above), they'll be screening the creepfest Nope by Oscar-winning director and writer Jordan Peele. If a more chilled-out film is your thing, then their screening of the beautiful Nomadland on May 10 at Yoga Borne, could be what you're looking for — yep they'll transform the yoga studio into a relaxed cinema for the night. May 26’s Friday Feature (again, Stirchley Baths) is the excellent Aftersun starring handsome Paul Mescal in a powerful and heartrending portrait of a father daughter relationship which had me blarting my absolute knockers off, thank you very much. June’s film offerings include Blue Jean and Spielberg biopic The Fabelmans.

Elsewhere, (at Vue Cinema, Star City to be precise) there's a free screening of Polite Society (April 25 — sweary trailer can be watched here) which has been described as the UK's answer to Everything Everywhere All at Once. The movie has a blimmin' admirable Rotten Tomatoes score of 94% and the price is definitely right.

Speaking of Everything Everywhere All at Once, that's showing at the Bull's Head in Moseley, courtesy of ScreenB14 (April 27, £4) while Circle Cinema are showing The Banshees Of Inisherin at Moor Pool, Harbs, April 23, £5 on the door. Finally global movie events hit, Secret Cinema, are doing a terrible job of keeping their first ever Birmingham-screened movie, venue and date under wraps, as they're showing Grease, at the NEC on July 26 to August 13. Tickets don't go on sale until May 5.   

SUMMER SEASON


B:Music, the team behind Symphony Hall and Town Hall, has launched its new Summer programme for 2023 and it's a riot of comedy, music, dance and spoken word on its two world famous stages. From Katie Melua’s mellow vocals to the, erm, distinct humour of Jimmy Carr (pictured) and Phil Wang it's looking really rather splendid.

There are plenty of orchestras to choose from, with the London Concert Orchestra gracing the Symphony Hall stage in June bringing with them The Music of Zimmer vs Williams (fight! fight! fight!), and July sees the return of Anton Du Beke and Giovanni Pernice with their show Him and Me, as well as Encanto in Concert!

The comedy big hitters are of particular note. Phil Wang's Wang in there, Baby! lands on May 4, Jonathan Van Ness is in town June 2 and there are still plenty of tickets in the Grand Tier for Jimmy Carr's Terribly Funny on June 11.

Love live music? Experience two-time Grammy Award-winning musician Rhiannon Giddens with multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi at Town Hall (May 13). Expect pieces from the Great American Songbook, excerpts from Porgy and Bess and a selection of Sinatra numbers in An Unforgettable Evening with Sir Willard White and the Brodsky Quartet (May 14).

Join Black Voices on a musical journey through the musical icons of Black Britain at Symphony Hall in June. The Birmingham-based female a cappella quintet, accompanied by a live band of musicians, take a trip down memory lane performing hits by Soul II Soul, Eternal, Five Star, Aswad, Jamelia and more (June 4).

Talks-wise they've got David Swindle in, he's the detective who brought serial killer Peter Tobin to justice, in The Makings of a Murderer (June 15), and Canadian astronaut and ex-commander of the International Space Station, Chris Hadfield, will be in Brum June 23.

And finally the seriously adventurous West End and Broadway hit Cirque (July 1), will deliver a world where musical theatre meets jaw-dropping circus, at Town Hall. That's just a small selection, would you believe, of the brilliance that's Birmingham-inbound care of B:Music.

Oh and a pro-tip if your event of choice is at Symphony Hall: The left and right ledges often have availability and they are exceptional seats. You're welcome. More
Venue: Indian Cafe Racer, 72 Bristol Street (inside The Wellington), B5 7AH; website 
Choice: Lamb Rajasthani (£14) Chooser: Azad

Since the, if anything, too popular 'You Choose' section was put into a medically-induced food coma at the tail-end of 2022, you have emailed in your ones to have it re-instated as a weekly I Choose Birmingham fixture. We decided it would take something quite impressive to resuscitate this sleeping minnow of freemium media, and something impressive finally came.

If Tripadvisor is to be believed (and on the whole it bloody well isn't) then Indian Cafe Racer is the best Indian restaurant in the city and the second best restaurant, full stop. Is it that good? Probably not, but it is brilliant. Like, properly brilliant.

Let's take the venue for starters, renting as it does about 30% of the ground floor space at The Wellington Hotel, a turquoise-fronted pub you will have seen on Bristol Street (before it becomes the Bristol Road) and, probably but not necessarily, filed under 'unlikely to visit'. You must. 

The restaurant owner (who spent years at Pushkar, if you're looking for pedigree) seems a little reluctant to promote their exact location and even when we were there was almost apologetic that the bare bones boozer is the Ramsays to their Robinsons. It matters not a jot, in fact adding layers of charisma, charm and a little commotion to this plucky set-up. When the Indian Cafe Racer finds its own premises, and it will, a certain sparkle will be lost when they pack up their bags and go. This beautifully bizarre arrangement is unlike anything else in the city such is the contrast of no frills pub on one side of a black curtain and elegant restaurant on the other — a Desi pub set up, this ain't. One can only wonder what Kiefer Sutherland made of it when he
walked in, not long ago. 

On to the food. The easiest way of describing it is 'cheap Dishoom' and I mean that in the most positive of ways. This is sublime, home cooked Indian street food which punches to about 80% of the quality of the multi-million pound Paradise chain operation but, at times, significantly cheaper. The lamb chops at Indian Cafe Racer, for example, are £9.50 for two compared to £17.50 (how much?) for two at Dishoom. Both options will blow your mind but only one will blow your monthly food budget.

Now, not many Brummies will be running a Chilli Chicken League Table™️ but your man here is and ICR's version of the Indo-Chinese classic slots in just below Dishoom (which, to be fair, is immense) and above other cracking offerings from Zindiya and Covered Wagon. Bhel Puri, Rajasthani lamb (the pick of the evening — smoky, dry heat and duvet-tender meat) chilli cauliflower, paneer tikka and some sort of salmon number I can't even see on the menu now, completed a staggeringly good sequence of dishes.

Mark my words, Indian Cafe Racer will find its own home, but you should visit now because you'll be talking about it for years. And somebody, somewhere should pen a sitcom about these unlikeliest of roommates.
Menu 
Next year Hamilton will play a 10-week season at The Hippodrome from June 25 to Aug 21. Tickets go on general sale at 11am on May 10. Synchronise watches.

There are still tickets available for Parenting Hell Live at the Utilita Area. This is the live version of the Josh Widdicombe and Rob Beckett runaway hit of a podcast. They're in town April 28.

Tickets for Mo Gilligan at Utilita (next year) go on sale here at 10am today (April 20). The same venue is hosting the World Trampoline Champs in Nov. Ba-doing!  

Raja Monkey's limited time Eid Celebration banquet menu is Alan Turing-level genius.

Groove Armada will headline Crooked House In The Park Festival at Lichfield's Beacon Park, Aug 27. Tickets

Wall-to-wall anxiety fest, Circus Extreme, comes to the NEC, May 19 to June 4. Their trembling logo alone is enough to put me on edge. 

Since the crushing closure of Pulperia it's hard to know who has taken on the mantle as Brum's best steak joint. The Church (JQ) might be a good place to start as they host a one-off Steak Night on Tuesday (April 25).

The beery goings-on of Brum Brew Fest begin today and run throughout the weekend. Bottoms up.
WORDS: Tom Cullen

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