On 8th August 2004, Kings Norton’s medieval buildings won the BBC2 Restoration television series after an intense and widely-supported campaign. It was astonishing. We shall always be grateful for those who supported us and even more for those who have stayed with the long hard work to ensure that the joy of that unforgettable night turned into the reality we now see.
The victory was hugely significant for all of us. It was however only the biggest moment in the struggle to ensure that these precious buildings remain safe and open for all.
For over 80 years, the church’s role in the survival of these buildings has been utterly vital. The Old Grammar School has, in different ways, been part of the St Nicolas' Church story for over 500 years. The complex of Tudor, Georgian and Victorian buildings which came to be known as the Saracen’s Head did not enter the church’s story until 1930.
In 1926, Mitchell and Butler closed three of The Green’s four pubs, The Bell, the Plumber’s Arms and the Saracen’s Head. Only the rebuilt Bull’s Head remained. The church refused the offered gift of the Saracen’s Head in the same year, recognising that its upkeep would be a very heavy burden. In 1930 however, Canon Dunn and the wardens had raised enough money for the Kings Norton Parochial Church Council (PCC) to feel able to accept the gift, believing that such an important building should not be lost to the community. No-one else would take it on.
In 1930, The Green still had a rich collection of medieval buildings. Apart from some hidden remnants in the Spar shop, all but ours have now gone. The Saracen’s Head and the "Old House" next door would have joined the others in oblivion were it not for the church’s costly shouldering of costs and management of this vital heritage on behalf of community and city.
The Saracen’s Head, as Canon Dunn foresaw, had by 1950 become an insupportable burden for the Kings Norton’s church. It did not provide appropriate room for church needs and all requests for external support for essential conservation and maintenance were refused. The answer to provision for church needs came, on the initiative of the Revd Edward Ashford, with St Nicolas' Hall on Westhill Road, opened in 1959. This was built largely through voluntary donation and was in regular use for many years as a large but increasingly expensive traditional church and village hall. Demand for the Hall’s use as a large community space and theatre however declined as church and community needs changed.
Maintenance and refurbishment costs greatly increased as they did for the Old Grammar School and Saracen’s Head. The burden foreseen by Canon Dunn therefore now extended across all three buildings. At the same time, Kings Norton was changing rapidly as extensive estate areas transformed the nature of the parish, its population and its ministry.
From 1970-1990, led by the PCC, there was a hugely committed and strenuous campaign to renew the Saracen’s Head complex. It offered more variety of spaces than St Nicolas' Hall with greater potential for housing a full range of uses and facilities, although not to the standard now required for public buildings. The North Range was converted from Verger’s residence to public use.
On completion of the campaign in 1990, it became harder and harder to realise the buildings’ full potential, despite the faithful work of so many church members. Maintenance, repair and running costs continued to increase and usage decline.
By 2000, despite all the labours of church members and friends, the maximum annual usage of both Saracen’s Head and St Nicolas' Hall had dropped to 33%. Patterns of use and quality of spaces restrained income. The consequent annual deficit of £10-15,000 was met wholly by the PCC from its own funds over and above bearing all running costs and staffing. The buildings now required urgent major repair and redevelopment in order to survive, to comply with legal access requirements and respond to still changing church and community needs.
Despite the fact that income was less and less able to approach running costs, planners refused to consider any adaptation of the Saracen’s Head. In 2002, following detailed studies commissioned from the Davidson Partnership, the PCC therefore resolved that the only feasible option was to sell the Saracen’s Head site and build a wholly new church/community facility on the St Nicolas' Hall site on Westhill Road. Despite the wide preference of PCC, church and local community for retention of the Saracen’s Head, all sadly acknowledged that the PCC then had no other available option. Planners remained negative.
Then, in March 2003, a site visit by the English Heritage Regional Inspector of Buildings encouraged us to look again at extensive remodelling or new-build provision on the Victorian South Side of the Saracen’s Head complex. It was recognised that, without such a rethink, there was no possibility of providing the spaces, services and access to heritage and community uses of the buildings; it would simply not have been possible to sustain them as a public asset within the continuing life of church and local community. This enabled the planners to change their view.
With fresh City Council encouragement, the PCC were able to develop the Restoration Project. Three intensive months of research, campaigning, events and a telephone calls led to the great night of victory.
But the real work had only just begun. There followed an intensive year of research, consultation and design. The four large boxes of the final application were submitted in November 2005.
A further year’s preparation and detailed design by APEC, the appointed architects, led to the award of the construction contract to Linford Bridgman. Still more negotiation and planning followed. Construction began in February 2007 and, at last, the restored buildings were opened in June 2008, on budget and more or less on time.
One major aspect of the project was the huge voluntary commitment by church and community members to every part of the work. Like the Restoration 2004 campaign, it was a deep partnership.
Another surprising aspect of Restoration was how much was not known about these buildings. Extensive survey, research and digging have at last given us accurate knowledge for all to discover.
The most crucial aspect of the whole project for the church was however the necessary replacement of the decrepit Victorian South Range with a new building. Without this we could not enable the full access to the restored heritage or house the community, function and corporate uses essential for survival. We would have had a wonderful building which would have been very hard to use.
This essential work was however then deemed mostly ineligible for main heritage or other grant, despite its crucial role in sustainability of the whole project. This core aspect of the Project therefore had to be largely funded by the church itself. Without the church's determination to find the additional money, the buildings could not be made to work.
The total project cost was £4.3 million. Of this, the total grant was £3.2 million. The PCC therefore had to raise £1.1 million from its own resources, in addition to bearing continuing running costs. It had been hoped that the vigorous further fundraising campaign by church members and Restoration volunteers would produce some £300,000. Our victory in the BBC's Restoration series proved, however, to be a major stumbling-block to this. It was widely (but incorrectly) assumed that we had received all the money required for completion.
Nevertheless, we did it, at much cost in time, energy and church resources and in partnership with so many dedicated community members and volunteers.
The local church still bears final responsibility and still contributes heavily to ensure that Saint Nicolas' Place is there for all, now and for the future. Without Restoration 2004, we could not have done it; but every year we still need to work together in the same way to ensure that these precious buildings remain alive to inspire and to welcome at the heart of Kings Norton. Each year, that requires well over £100,000. After some challenging times, income is now growing slowly. We make every effort to keep running costs as low as they can possibly be; but if these buildings are to remain open for all to enjoy, we need the same support now as we received so wonderfully in 2004.
Saint Nicolas' Place, 81 The Green, Kings Norton, Birmingham B38 8RU
Website and most photography by David Ash
Site contents © Saint Nicolas Place 2013