I'm seven years old (I'm not, I'm 40, but I'm using a clever writing mechanism to wistfully whisk you back 33 years) and the car is silent. My two brothers and I are crammed into the back of a red Renault 5, surrounded by pillows and duvets that were sold to us as "making the journey more comfortable" but only serve to add to the claustrophobia. The radio's not on because, presumably, I'm meant to be asleep, but I'm battling hard against car sickness. Closing my eyes makes me want to vomit. Looking out of my window makes me want to vomit. I look straight ahead and await the journey's end. We're coming back from a place near Sheffield, I think, but to me it feels like we're coming back from Belarus. This has got to be the longest car journey anyone has ever made. I'm going to be sick. Will my Walkman make for a good receptacle? Doubt it.
But then, what? I see them! Gasholders. Giant towering indicators of industry. First in Saltley, dotted red lights across the perimeters flash — a literal beacon that Birmingham beckons — then over the summit of Spaghetti Junction, more — Windsor Street gasholders, the most Brummie of checkpoints that indicate my bed is but ten minutes away. God I loved those things. I didn't know what they were, but I loved what they denoted. You're not going to die of car sickness, Tom. Not today.
I don't know, maybe I'm being ridiculous, but I'm going to write about them. Hell, I've written about car parks twice so gasholders have got to be an improvement. Work has started on the removal of the pair at Windsor Street (above) – the last surviving gasholders in the entire city and I've got all maudlin about it. Painted the Aston Villa colours since the 1980s because, well, The National Grid actually doesn't know exactly why, but Villa Park is only two miles off. I have no footballing connection to them. My warmth for them lies entirely on what they indicated, [*Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk voice*] Home.
You probably know this but Birmingham led the way in the gas industry, thanks to your boi William "Howling Mad" Murdoch, who developed the concept of commercial gas lighting at the factory works owned by his buddies, Hannibal and B.A. No, wait, that's not right — Boulton and Watt. Two gas-lit Bengal lamps formed part of a display on the outside of the works, in Smethwick, marking the Peace of Amiens in 1802, making this the first factory in the world to be lit by gas — and Murdoch (who ain't gettin' you on no plane, fool) later installed gas lighting in all the main workshops. Privately owned gas street lamps started to appear in Brum in about 1811.
Gasworks bring in coal from elsewhere and burn it to make gas. Gasholders, hold it. Probably why they called them 'gasholders'. And the roof of the holder would rise or fall depending on how much of the good stuff was in there. Gasworks had been built within the city at Gas Street, Fazeley Street and Adderley Street. By the 1840s, there was a move for the gasworks to relocate out of the city along the Rea. The Birmingham Gas Light and Coke Company constructed their gasworks at Windsor Street (see below) and The Birmingham and Staffordshire Gas Light Company built theirs at Saltley. The sometimes feisty competition between the two companies continued until 1875 when Joseph Chamberlain enabled the Birmingham Corporation to buy both.
When they were being built in 1885, the twin gas holders at Windsor Street were the largest in the world, each 236 feet in diameter and 165 feet high. When inflated, each held 6.2 million cubic feet of gas, enough to negate the need for the works at Gas Street, which soon closed. The site was chosen for its connections to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal, which enabled coal to be easily imported and by-products to be easily got shot of. At that time, the area of the gasworks was nine acres. Windsor Street was not an ideal site, the land available was used and it had no rail connection — just canal. This changed when Joseph Chambo visited and realised that a large tract of land between the works and Rupert Street was used as a market garden. "No need for market gardens round here," he no doubt blustered. JC arranged for the purchase of the land (probably not much protest was allowed) and then he okayed the North West Railway Company to have part of the newly acquired space in return for extending their railway onto the site. You can see the canal and the train tracks running beside the works...
Joseph Chamberlain decided to leave the gas department and pursue a parliamentary career which, though big, wasn't as big as his son Neville who, of course, made PM. Aaaanyway, The City of Birmingham Gas Department was the largest municipal gas department in the world and by 1928 Windsor Street gasworks filled a whopping 26-acre site and lit the city. Pipelines whittled away at the need for gasholders and, across the UK, they've been coming down. Windsor Street storage was last in use in 2012 and the concern is that trespassers may visit the site. Fair fear given base jumpers hurled themselves from Saltley holders (snapped below, by Tom Bird) before they were taken down in 2016.
And the game, as they say, is finally up for the last of the metal giants of our skyline. There's a poem — of course there is — about the vanishing of gasholders across the country and it makes me feel a little less alone in my peculiar retro warmth for them. Edwin Morgan’s 2002 Gasometer reads:
Morgan didn't think they needed keeping and I get that. And true to Birmingham form there are no plans to salvage our holders and repurpose them. It's curtains for the iron amphitheatres, but in researching this I fell down a gassy wormhole (that's a revolting sentence, I'm sorry) of reworked and re-loved holders. There's the residential areas of Gasometer in Vienna and The Alliance Dublin (above and below respectively).
And there's Gasholder public park, in St Pancras, London. But my absolute favourite is The Gashouder of Amsterdam (below) which has an ace track record as a music venue, TV studio, conference centre and, as only the Dutch can put it, "party location". They've only gone and converted the inner space of a former storage tank for club nights...
But it's not to be for Brum and I'm sure we're all getting used to that. National Grid owns the land, and there are no plans for the site once the gasholders are gone. The work to dismantle them will be done by Spring 2022 and at the end of the work, I'm told, any future use for the site will be evaluated. Before Windsor Street is no more, The National Grid are asking Brummies to put forward their memories of the structures for historical record. Doubt they want my one about battling back vomit, but it's theirs if they do.
THE BEST OF THE FEST
Independent Birmingham's slobberknocker celebration of all things, well, independent returns to the UK's most haunted location August 14 and 15. It's a well known fact that ghosts hate fried chicken, so the annual Aston Hall knees up should pass horror-free. Almost every Brum indy worth its salt has appeared in previous years with the lush grounds handed over to pop-up restaurants, cocktail bars, street food traders, craft beer makers, natural wine purveyors, baristas, independent retailers and skilled artists, as well as a full programme of live music from local bands. Already rumoured to have confirmed — but those who feed on rumours are small, suspicious souls (i.e. me) — include The Pineapple Club, Artisan Street Kitchen, Burning Soul Brewery, and restaurant of the Gods... Zindiya. Unlike any event I've ever put on (you bunch o'bastards) this event always sells out, so save yourself £2 by snapping up £8 earlybirders from here. Children under 12 go free which makes smart business sense as my two demolished about £20 worth of burgers alone, last time round. More
SAY CHEESE... CHEESE, CHEESE
If you can't wait until August, and after a year of this sh*t I can't say I blame you, then Brum's Social Cheese Fest takes place at Digbeth's The Bond, April 17 and 18. Kilder will be bringing their grilled cheese sangers (pictured) while burger superstars and winners of Britain's Best Street Food Burger 2017 and 2019, Flying Cows, are also on site. Baked In Brick will be slinging pizza and The Paneer Wrap Company will be bringing some heat. Bookings are taken in sessions to ensure social distancing with up to 6 people per table for £12 per session and up to 2 people per table for £6. More
My lockdown love is Gary Powndland — pronounced like the shop, but not spelt the same. The chucklesome character from Wolves-based comedian Jack Kirwan is on quite a trajectory. I stumbled across him on Instagram as he gained traction for his on-the-nose brand of West Mids mirth. He properly cheered me up through this whole, as he would call it, "mashmaul pam-derek". Have a watch of his stuff — the language is adult but the humour is somehow child-like and charming. He'll be at Brum Town Hall, December 21 (tickets on sale 10am tomorrow). He'll also be in Sutton C & Stourbridge.
DAD NEWS! Fatboy Slim brings his 'We’ve Come A Long Long Way Together' tour to that canals-y venue where they used to film Gladiators, Saturday 13 November. Tickets go on sale tomorrow (March 19) at 9.30am. —
There's a lido coming to Digbeth. You heard it here 74th. —
I have absolutely no idea why I spent 40 minutes looking at The Doors of Brum Instagram account, but here we are. —
We're approaching the last weeks of the insanely popular Artisan Street Kitchen from the people behind the ICC's Craft restaurant. Two more chefs will take up short-lived residence in a slick Digbeth street food van with Paul Foster from Stratford-Upon-Avon's Salt first up (March 20) and Glynn Purnell cooking March 27. More —
The wonderful Baked In Brick have launched a bakery in Erdington, open Saturdays only. On the subject of BiB they've teamed up with Kray Treadwell's awesome 670 Grams restaurant for what will be an exquisite (takeaway only) collaboration. Mother, may I? —
Modern Clay is a co-operative ceramics studio in Digbeth. Pre-pandemic they ran clay making classes and now they've launched a postal pack version. Available for all ages, they've timed it as an activity to do over the Easter break. From £25 —
The Antiques Roadshow is coming to Brum if you want to become a trillionaire by selling some plates. —
Here, have a third off rooms at the Rotunda in June, July and August. A little well done for getting to the end of the email. Offer ends March 22.
"How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?"
We will never share your email address. Ads and commercial offers are clearly marked. We sometimes run paid for Partnership Emails with selected affiliates. These will be marked as Partnership Emails at the top of the email.