Pen nibs and custard!

I’ve always had a fascination with how things are made, whether that be by hand or machine. As I child, I remember watching milk bottles being filled in a factory; it was quite mesmerising! Recently, a group of us went to Birmingham, which is Britain’s second largest city. For many centuries, the main industry was metalworking; the products were small items such as buttons, badges and pen nibs.

The Argent Centre, Birmingham

Our first stop was The Pen Museum in the magnificent Argent Centre. Here we were told how manufacture of cheap pen nibs from steel revolutionised eduction by replacing chalk and slates in schools (so children could keep their work), and improved health (children would often spit on their slates to clean them; not a good idea when there were so many infectious diseases around). At the height of the trade, around 75% of pen nibs were manufactured in Birmingham. We saw displays of pen nibs made by many different manufacturers as well as the hand tools and hand-powered machines used; much of which is similar to that used in jewellery making. We found out about enamel badge-making where each colour is added by hand. And learnt how the highly skilled and specialised workers were also adaptable, so that when the market for one product disappeared, they used their skills to make something else. This was exemplified by Brandauer, a company that started as a pen nib manufacturer. They then diversified into components for the newly emerging motor, electronics and computer industries and now produces parts for the Large Hadron Collider, among other things.

After lunch at Brewsmiths, we walked across the city centre to Digbeth and saw this stunning mosaic.

John F Kennedy memorial mosaic by Kenneth Budd

It was made by Kenneth Budd and Associates for the middle of the St Chad’s Circus concourse, next to the Roman Catholic Cathedral. However, in 2002 the underpass was demolished. The mosaic was dismantled and stored for a decade. The artist’s son, Oliver Budd, finished installing the mosaic at its new location at the end of January 2013, so it’s only been in place for a few weeks.

John F Kennedy memorial mosaic by Kenneth Budd - detail

A little further down the road is The Custard Factory, one of the many redevelopments of industrial sites in Birmingham. Up to one thousand people worked in these buildings making custard! Now, if you’ve never lived in Britain you may not know that custard is a sweet sauce served with desserts. However, you may have heard that in Britain we have three taps; one for cold water, one for hot and one for custard! I can reassure you that this is not true.

The Custard Factory

By the 1980s these buildings were derelict; restoration started in 1990 and gradually bought more of the buildings back into use.

Scott House, The Custard Factory
The Green House, The Custard Factory

The Custard Factory is now a vibrant area filled with artists studios and small creative businesses, as well as a theatre, a dance studio, a cafe and shops.

Glibb Terrace, The Custard Factory

On the day that we visited there was a vintage sale in the theatre. We particularly admired the silk scarves from The Vintage Scarf Room and the ceramics such as Woolworth’s Homemaker tableware. We also enjoyed browsing in vintage clothing shops such as Gingermeg’s Vintage and Urban Village who specialise in 1960s and 1970s clothing, as well a looking a homeware shops, The Vintage Beauty Salon, where a hen party were enjoying a make-over, and The Birmingham Bead Shop.

Fragile Design, The Custard Factory
More by Design, The Custard Factory

One surprise, and one of the reasons I enjoyed The Custard Factory so much, were the sculptures throughout the area.

The Green Man by Toin Adams (Twany Gray)
Sculpture by Toin Adams (Tawney Gray)
The Deluge by Toin Adams (Twany Gray)
The Digbeth Dragon by Toin Adams (Twany Gray)

The day was rounded off with a visit to the Post Office Vaults for a few real ales, then China Town restaurant, before catching our trains home.