On the way out, we spoke to one of the museum staff. Credit where credit’s due – the Museum Department of Sandwell Council deserve huge credit for undoubtedly working with an extremely tight budget, but coming up with great results.
Since its inception in 1994, one of our favourite times of the year has been Heritage Open Days, taking place each September throughout England. Having recently been very critical of Coventry’s City of Culture offering, I will repeat that one of our favourite days out ever was a day spent in Coventry some years ago. Pre-pandemic, we had a great time with the undoubted highlight being a tour around the amazing Council House which is full of hidden secrets.
As we slowly but steadily come back out of our shell, we are still avoiding busy places and being very careful about going indoors. Our usual wanderlust has been well and truly dented. As lots of well-known venues throw their doors open for free for Heritage Open Days, it’s easy to forget this can also be a chance to see places not usually open to the public – or places you forget to visit as they fall off your radar, even if they’re just round the corner. This year one of the main themes is Edible England and many venues are highlighting our food history.
Living just on the Sandwell border of Birmingham, we’re as guilty as most of overlooking some amazing spaces nearby. When having a look at how to benefit from Heritage Days, we were delighted to see Haden House and Haden Old Hall on the list of participating venues. It’s only a few minutes’ drive from us and a world away from the city scape and suburbia in which we live.
It was exactly what we were looking for and absolutely fascinating. We’re now kicking ourselves for not going sooner, if only to sit in the grounds when restrictions allowed that to happen. The site actually incorporates two main buildings, Haden House, fully restored by Sandwell Council into its former Victorian glory and the much older Haden Old Hall next door along with both very well-manicured gardens along with a nature reserve, covering no less than fifty five acres. All bang slap in the middle of an urban jungle.
Our visit started with the House. Incorporating some special features for Heritage Open Days, there we found a very interesting history of the property’s various owners. Sometimes, the finer details and real history are left to the imagination. For example, one of the owners of the House, Reverend Barrs apparently locked up his step-daughter in her room so she didn’t get the chance to marry. Another, Mr Haden Best, has a very intriguing tale of never getting married, but “adopting” two young girls, with whom he often went travelling. It’s unlikely the truth will ever be discovered, but the House certainly gives budding authors a huge array of ideas for stories they might like to write, loosely based on the history. On the first floor, there is also a temporary circus exhibition, part of a wider exhibition throughout Sandwell’s museums. In keeping with the Edible England theme, some rooms in the House have been laid out as if a summer soirée was taking place.
Two in one
On leaving the House, we then went to the Old Hall “next door”. The two buildings are virtually semi-detached, but unlike the House, the Hall, an older building brought back from dereliction is operated by a team of volunteers who mainly rely on donations. Along with lots of furnishings of historical significance, the Hall also included an exhibition of crafts by local people made during lockdown and a “World According to Cradley Heath”.
Children are very well catered for with lots of activity areas. We were very impressed with Covid precautions and felt safe. Plenty of hand gel was available and you were encouraged to think of others by checking in on the app and wearing a mask which were provided for those who had forgotten to bring one.
A shout out for the volunteers
On our visit, we were exceptionally lucky to bump into one of the volunteers, John Bellingham who, belying his 81 years, explained about the history of the area with a huge passion, also informing us of how the volunteers work and raise money. My overwhelming worry when I heard him speak was to ask if there was any succession planning in place for when he might not feel up to doing as much. Thankfully he told me that he’d written scores of notes for future generations – and you can even catch his enthusiasm in a Youtube video.