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.
The colour research also revealed that touches of gold and blue were used on the railings, so the main gate on Vyse Street has these added as a nod to the original railings.
The final stage of installation - the gate piers, gates and final section of railings on Pitsford Street, weren't installed until after Phase 2 was completed during Summer 2021, to ensure the gates weren't damaged by the vehicles needed during the work on the Garden of Memory.
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.
Originally, the replacement of some of the missing stonework in the centre of the top tier was not part of this scheme, but contingency funding was utilised to undertake these works in Spring and Summer 2021, giving the catacombs the perfect finishing touch, and making them a superb backdrop for events.
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.
A new safety floor was fitted inside the catacombs in Summer 2021 and hard hat tours of the catacombs now take place monthly between March and October (closing over the winter for bat hibernation).
Although not part of the original project, new doors have been commissioned to replace the green wooden doors. The new design will be more in keeping with the original aesthetic of the cemetery and also improve security and access. Installation has been delayed due to a shortage of materials but should take place in early 2022.
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 affecting supply chains led to the project being completed almost a year behind schedule in July 2021.
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 were 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 drainage channels and soakaways. It was also chosen because it is permeable and therefore water can pass through it into the soakaways under the paths and prevent flooding and puddles on the surface.
At the entrances and on the steepest pathways a tar, spray and chip surface was used instead - where a gravel surface is applied to tarmac, because this is more suitable for use on steep slopes where breedon gravel would wash downhill over time and in high traffic areas.
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 has been 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.. 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 has also been made for the edge of the catacombs.
The existing WWI centenary bench has returned and a second bench added to make this area into a peace garden. Volunteers planted the borders with Spring flowering bulbs and shade tolerant wildflowers. Another old bench - at the foot of the catacombs was also refurbished and reinstalled alongside all the new benches.
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 most of the smaller paths are surfaced 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 is the site of a new garden and community hub. The chapel footprint is marked out with stone edging and an archway has been installed where the doorway to the tower was located. In the centre there is be a Memorial Stone. The stone has 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 began in 2020, but due to delays with sourcing the stonework - especially granite for the memorial stone, it wasn't completed until July 2021 and officially unveiled in August 2021.
The garden of memory is now a popular space for people to relax, chat or eat lunch- with benches in many of the alcoves which correspond to the location of the original windows. It has also been a very useful space for community events including Open Days and art workshops.
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 and local school children worked with the Activities Programme Manager and the Patchwork Meadows project to create displays of native wildflowers. It is hoped that these will continue to improve every year- attracting bees and butterflies, and also providing 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 new trees were planted to replace those lost, including Black Poplars which are now rare in Britain. Other native species chosen include Yew, Weeping Ash and Weeping Birch which are all traditionally associated with churchyards and cemeteries.
Slow food Birmingham also donated 3 heritage fruit trees - 2 pear varieties and an apple tree, to expand the orchard area.