Key Hill Cemetery
Some restoration work at Key Hill Cemetery had previously taken place between 2009 and 2012, including the restoration of the railings and Grade II listed gateposts around the cemetery. Therefore, the main focuses of the work for this project were the catacomb repairs, improving access and drainage.
The paths at Key Hill, especially in Section K were very prone to flooding and additional drainage systems were needed. The catacomb masonry needed attention due to deterioration over time, especially due to damage from ivy and other vegetation. The area above the catacombs once known as the ‘sun dial garden’ needed to be refurbished. Pathways needed improvement, especially to ensure level access at the entrances.
Warstone Lane Cemetery
The railings and gateposts at Warstone Lane cemetery were removed in the post-war period when the chapel was demolished, causing a loss of visual identity. Recreating these features, along with the catacomb repairs this would form the main focus of the work in this cemetery.
The new railings and gate posts were designed based on the surviving piers on Icknield Street and the original architects plans. The chapel footprint would be visible once again in the form of a new ‘garden of memory’ on the site. There were concerns that the unique triple-tiered catacombs were at risk, with one section of retaining wall having already collapsed in 2007 which had been repaired and propped since then to prevent further instability. Like at Key Hill, the drainage needed repair and pathways needed resurfacing to improve visitor access.
The work in the cemeteries began in July 2019 when Midland Conservation began phase 1 of the project. Midland Conservation work exclusively on period and historic buildings. They employ skilled craftspeople including stonemasons and bricklayers. Having previously worked on the restoration of the gate piers at Key Hill cemetery they were the ideal choice for this project. Phase 1 included work on the boundaries and catacombs and was completed in January 2020.
All the stonework for the gate piers and boundary walls at Warstone Lane cemetery were hand carved using traditional techniques. Great care was taken to match the tool marks. Stanton Moor stone was chosen to match the surviving piers on Icknield Street as closely as possible. On Vyse Street there is a London Plane tree close to the gateway, which has a Tree Preservation Order, so the pier cap was carved to accommodate the tree. This had to be done during the installation, so the stonemason had carved a full pier cap and then parts of it were gradually removed as it was fitted on site to create a perfect harmony between the stone and the tree.
On Warstone Lane, the original entrance to the cemetery was through the archway in the Lodge building. This building is now leased to a private company, so a new entrance was needed to allow continued access. The new gateway was built from reclaimed blue bricks with stone caps to match the lodge building.
The railings were subcontracted to Oakham Fabrications from Cradley Heath, another local firm with experience of this type of project. The Vyse Street railings were made to closely match the original architect designs which were found in the Library of Birmingham. These iron railings were cast at a foundry in Scotland and then delivered to the midlands for painting. The other boundaries have mild steel railings in a simplified version of the same design. This allows costs to be kept lower, but quality remains high. The mild steel railing bars are cast as one piece including the decorative finials to ensure that these cannot be removed.
The railings are all painted ‘Solemn Red’. This was chosen after research into what the original colour scheme was likely to have been. Pugin’s railings for the Houses of Parliament, which had been made locally by Hardman, have been identified as a likely source of inspiration for the design and colours for these railings.
The new railings were installed overnight and at weekends to minimise disruption to traffic. Our Activities Programme Manager made a special trip to the cemetery at 7.30am one Sunday morning to record these images of the railings being installed.
Warstone Lane Catacombs
These unique catacombs needed extensive masonry repairs and repointing. Vegetation including ivy needed to be removed to prevent further damage occurring. The catacomb doors also needed cleaning because they had been painted grey by the BBC when the cemetery was used for filming an episode of Dalziel and Pascoe in the 1990s.
Mottled Hollington stone was used to match the repairs as closely as possible to the original stone, once again prepared by the stonemasons from Midland Conservation. Whilst rebuilding the crenulations, it was discovered that missing coping stones were crucial in preventing water entering the masonry and causing damage over time. As this was beyond the scope of the original work, cast stone rather than natural stone was used for these elements to keep the project within budget. The colour was matched to the red tone of the Hollington stone. A new safety railing has been installed by Oakham fabrications, painted a light colour to reduce the visual impact.
Investigations inside the catacombs were also conducted, and asbestos lagging was discovered on the ceiling of the tunnel, covering pipes which had originally been part of the chapel heating system. This asbestos has now been removed, but the other corridors were not reopened due the high cost of safe disposal if more asbestos was found. It is hoped that in the future a separate funding bid can be made for this work on the interior of the catacombs.
Key Hill Catacombs
Repairs and repointing were also needed on the catacombs at Key Hill cemetery, which similarly had become overgrown, especially from above with ivy. The bricked-up vault entrances needed stabilisation work which has now been completed.
The interior of these catacombs was also investigated, and no asbestos or other hazards were discovered. It is hoped that the Key Hill catacombs can be opened to the public for hard hat tours before the end of the project.
HFN landscapes began work from late January 2020 on the pathways, drainage and landscaping. The work was due to be completed by Summer 2020 but delays due to COVID-19 may affect the finish date. At present the work is continuing on-site because the contractors can work safely with appropriate social distancing, however they do expect difficulties with sourcing some materials due to lockdown.
Pathways at Key Hill
The first task was to clear the paths and their edgings to assess condition. It was discovered that in most cases the blue bricks used to edge the paths were in good condition but had become displaced. In a small number of cases the bricks were damaged, but some from the former ‘sun dial garden’ could be resued. This means that no new bricks were needed, and the original hand numbered bricks have all stayed within the cemetery. In a few areas, especially in front of the catacombs the path edgings had sunk very badly due to subsidence of the ground over time. During the repair work, the brick arches over the steps to the lower catacomb vaults were seen for the first time in many years. These voids were filled with gravel to improve stability without making any permanent changes to the cemetery. Most of the paths have now been resurfaced using breedon gravel. A light-coloured gravel was chosen to match the stonework in the cemetery. When freshly laid the colour is a vibrant yellowy shade but will soften over time to a light buff colour. The breedon gravel is self-binding because it contains clay and this will stop the gravel washing away and blocking the drains. At the entrances and on the steepest pathways a flexible resin bound gravel will be installed to give extra protection to these high traffic areas. This surface is designed to bend rather than crack so remains durable for a long time.
The work on the drainage coincided with high rainfall from Storm Dennis. This provided a useful opportunity to test the new soakaways with a high volume of water. It was then decided to further increase the amount of drainage by installing additional drainage under the main pathways, especially the intersection of paths which had previously been a flooding hot spot.
Old ‘Sun Dial’ Garden
This area of the cemetery above the catacombs will be fitted out with extra benches to improve its use as a viewing platform. The levels in this area are being adjusted so that there is step-free access to the garden. In preparing for this, an old concrete plinth beneath one of the benches was removed and a skylight into the catacombs was discovered. Originally this was covered with an iron grille and would have been one of several which helped light to the catacomb corridor below. This feature has now been stabilised and covered safely. A new guardrail is being made for the edge of the catacombs, this is currently being galvanised ready for installation.
Pathways at Warstone Lane
At Warstone Lane most of the path edgings were also able to be rebuilt, but close to the Vyse Street entrance the paths were edged with more modern concrete which has now been replaced with new stone kerbs which match those elsewhere in the cemetery. Whilst preparing the paths for resurfacing the drains have also been improved. Like at Key Hill, the entrances will have resin bound gravel and most of the smaller paths will be finished with breedon gravel. The main path which is currently tarmacked will be resurfaced with tar spray and chip which will improve grip.
The stone set paving around the war memorial has been re-laid, creating a lovely setting for remembrance.
Garden of Memory
The location of the chapel, which was demolished in the 1950s after damage during WWII will be the site of a new garden and community hub. The chapel footprint will be marked out with stone edging and an archway will be installed where the doorway to the tower was located. In the centre there will be a Memorial Stone. The stone will have an engraving of the chapel on it and wording agreed by community stakeholders, including verses about memory and nature written by Victorian Birmingham poets. The laying out of this garden has begun, but there may be some delay in sourcing the stonework.
Where the pathway configuration has changed, for example on the avenue leading to the lodge where tree roots had to be avoided, there is an opportunity for new planting to take place. The JQ Heritage Squad volunteers will work with the Activities Programme Manager and Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust to create displays of British wildflowers. It is hoped that these will attract bees and butterflies, and also provide food for birds in the cemetery.
Some trees have been felled in Warstone Lane over the last couple of years, after consultation about their safety with the Conservation Tree Officer. To offset this there will be new trees planted to replace those lost, including Black Poplars which are now rare in Britain. Due to COVID-19 it was not possible to get the trees delivered for Spring planting, so this will now take place in November 2020.