Saturday 28th April 2012
This suburban pub has one of the finest interiors in the whole country. It should be right at the top of the list to visit for anybody who has an interest in classic pub architecture. Yet more than that, it is a comfortable place to relax with some very good beers as it is tied to a highly renowned brewing company.
It was built between 1900 and 1901 although there was a popular pub with the same name on the site that was first recorded in 1840. That hostelry was purchased by Mitchells and Butlers brewery of Cape Hill for £13,292 and demolished.
The new Bartons Arms was constructed at a cost of £12,000 and was designed by Henry Brassington working for the architectural company, James and Lister Lea.
There are many striking features of the pub, yet most noticeable are its fantastic coloured ceramic tiles made by Minton-Hollis. This was an offshoot of the famous Minton Pottery, created especially for tile-making.
It’s not just the interior as the exterior is pretty impressive as well. The pub lies between Aston High Street and Potters Lane. The building is at its narrowest where the two roads meet. At ground level it is clad in stone and the first and second are rendered with red brick.
About half way along the High Street side stone reasserts itself in the form of clock tower above the second floor. The pub’s name is displayed in a bas relief style underneath the clock. Attached to the tower are brick-built chimney stacks and there are many more of these on other parts of the building. There is an attic floor under the slate tiled roof.
The ground floor consisted of several rooms and dining areas as well as the kitchen. The first floor is reached via a curving staircase and here were rooms for meetings, private dining and a ballroom.
The second floor housed bedrooms as the pub was a hotel until, I believe, the 1970s. Many well-known personalities have stayed here, see below.
There are two entrance doors. One directly below the clock tower and one at the apex of the structure which sports a clock above the door.
Including the timepieces on the sides of the tower the customers and passers-by will not be chronologically challenged around here.
However, it’s a pity that none of these five clocks display the same time as each other, or even a correct version. I guess that the “twice in every day” rule applies here.
Entering the pub through the entrance door under the clock you find two doors, turn right into what was the Public Bar or Vaults or go straight on through the door that leads to the saloon bar (see photo above top left) However when you get inside you see that the internal dividing wall between them has been removed. Walking along the Saloon bar room you notice the impressive long bar back with its etched glass mirror back.
A very distinctive feature along the counter are the “snob screens”. These are etched glass panels at head height that revolve to enable those drinkers standing up at the counter to perform a slight adjustment so that they could observe those in the Public Bar.
It has always been suggested that this allowed bosses to spy on their workers. Of course it also shielded the faces of those in the Saloon from the Public Bar customers, hence “snob screens” (see photos, above right and left).
The walls here and throughout the pub are covered with flat white tiles with the occasional feature tiles of yellow in two shades.
The front of the bar counter displays a different type which is three dimensional. They are about two thirds red, lined in green and yellow, with some blue feature tiles, please see photographs. Leaded glass windows look out to the High Street. These are stained at the top and etched below.
Continuing along the room and up one step we discover a door out to the High Street on the left. The step represents the incline on the road outside.
We go through a tiled archway and the bar counter continues at a different angle and surprisingly there is what appears to be ivy growing up the wall at one end of it.
The snob screens above and the tiles on the counter front extend to here (see photo above right).
This area is the central part of the pub. If we go on further, parallel to the road outside, we access the former Smoke Room, now the dining room.
This is the largest room in the pub and we have entered through another arch. This is a beautiful space, ideal for a restaurant. Just inside on the left is a fireplace facing up the room (see photo above right).
The leaded windows are still with us on the left. Everything looked stunning when I visited as the tables were laid up for lunch, with fresh flowers on each one.
Every room has fitted settles around the outside walls covered by a dark red moquette. The rest of the furniture is loose wooden tables and chairs.
A stunning feature of this room is the stained glass feature at the far end. This is most impressive and depicts an old tavern scene at its centre (see photos above right and left). If we retrace our steps to the centre entrance door and turn to our right we see the stairs leading to the first floor through two curves.
There are black wrought iron railings all the way up and these are picked out with gold paint. They are surmounted by highly varnished wooden rails. Many more yet different, tiles line the walls on the climb and you pass the bottom of a very large stained glass window (see photos left and below right).
The staircase treads are covered with the same red moquette as found downstairs on the bench seats and this forms the carpet on the first floor. At the top you can see all of the magnificent stained glass window. In the centre is the logo of Mitchells and Butlers, also the words “Erected 1901” Most customers would ever see this, I felt privileged.
I was visiting for a CAMRA meeting and award presentation which was held in the “Palace of Varieties”, the largest room on the first floor. This has a stage and is half carpeted and the other part is varnished. There is no doubt about its normal use as a sign over the entrance door says it’s “licensed for music, singing and dancing”. On the original floor plan this is shown as the “Club Room”.
Retracing my steps to the bottom of the staircase I then went right to another room at rear of the building on the Potters Lane side. On the way there is a nice little alcove on the right underneath the staircase (see photo below left).
Continuing through a wooden arch I found another comfortable room with the usual red moquette covering the furniture. The centrepiece is another beautiful fireplace with a mirror above (see photo, below right).
From here there is access through a large flattened archway to the Dining Room, once the Smoke Room. The Gentlemen’s toilet facilities are also found here.
Like everywhere else in the pub the lighting was electric with glass shades, some single and others in chandeliers. It’s worth mentioning that every room on the ground floor had varnished wooden floorboards.
After opening trade slowly built up but there was a massive increase in its fortunes on 7th December 1908 when the Aston Hippodrome opened opposite. Many of those appearing there stayed overnight at the Bartons as it was a hotel.
Probably the most famous were Laurel and Hardy on their farewell tour in 1954. It is said the landlord had them behind the bar serving pints. Other stars who were on stage at the Hippodrome and stayed at the pub were Marie Lloyd, Enrico Caruso and Charlie Chaplin.
In February 1939 there was large fire at the Hippodrome that was eventually repaired and it reopened. It closed as a variety theatre in 1960 and this must have affected the footfall at the Bartons Arms.
Thereafter it was variously a venue for bingo, wrestling bouts and some less salubrious “entertainment”.
The doors closed in 1980 and it was demolished in 1988 (see photo left with the Bartons Arms in the left foreground. Licence from Creative Commons).
These ups and downs obviously affected the pub and it went into a slow decline after 1960. It didn’t help that the High Street was converted to a dual carriageway in 1967 and the only access from the other side of it was via a subway with all the problems associated with them, especially at night.
In fact there was soon not many reasons to cross as all the houses and shops around the pub had been demolished.
In 1979 scaffolding was erected around the building and the exterior was steam cleaned. It appeared the M&B wanted to relaunch the pub as a destination and held a well publicised reopening in 1980. It didn’t work though and the fortunes of the pub declined and it became associated with crime and drugs.
It passed to Enterprise Inns and they didn’t care for it. Its final step into degradation was when it became the property of Taverna Inns based in Nottingham, who barely acknowledged that it existed.
In 1999 the inevitable occurred and it closed. No immediate buyer was found and the worst was feared. In May Oakham Ales of Peterborough expressed interest and then purchased the pub at a knock down price in 2002. A lot of work was done in restoring it to its former splendour and it reopened (again) in 2003.
Business was slow in the beginning but it changed when a Thai family took over the catering. Within a year it was reservation only at weekends. Two major incidents had occurred between then and my visit.
Firstly there was a big fire caused by an electrical installation on 7th June 2006. Second and even more serious were the Aston riots of 2011 when the property was entered and looted. Windows were broken and fires started. Luckily the intervention of the manager prevented it getting worse.
When I visited there were just three cask beers on offer: JHB (Jeffery Hudson Bitter) (3.8%); Inferno (4.0%) and Bishop’s Farewell (4.6%).
These beers are permanent residents and subsequent visits to the pub confirm that Citra (4.2%) has joined them. They also have a regular seasonal ale these days so I think you can expect a selection of five offered.
A fantastic pub on all levels with beers from a great brewery, you must visit.
Bartons Arms, 144 High Street, Aston, Birmingham B6 4UP Tel: 0121 333 5988. Web: thebartonsarms.com
Pub hours: Monday-Saturday: 12.00-23.00; Sunday: 12.00-22.30
Restaurant hours: Monday-Saturday: 12.00-14.30/17.30-22.30; Sunday: 12.00-15.50/17.30-21.30.
The pub is served by West Midlands bus routes 33 and 51. Both are frequent.
The 33 starts at Bull Street in Birmingham City centre. The 51 starts from nearby Lower Bull Street.
Alight at the Swimming Baths stop. Walk back towards the city and go to the other side via the subway. Now walk away from the city with the Bartons Arms in full view.