Solihull - facing the future with confidence

09:48 08 March 2012

Solihull - a town with its heart in the past, is grappling with the challenges of the 21st Century

Solihull has always been known for being posh. These days, its also known for being a great place to shop. Although Birmingham Englands number one retail destination outside Londons West End is just up the road, many Midlanders eschew the city for the smaller, but perfectly-formed Solihull.


With the award-winning Touchwood centre and the only John Lewis for miles, the town has become an upmarket shopping mecca.


But, this year at least, Solihull will be the focus of pilgrimages of a more spiritual kind: St Alpheges parish church, which sits anciently and elegantly on the fringe of the modern shopping precinct, is busy planning a series of celebrations to mark the millennium of the martyrdom of St Alphege, who was captured by Viking raiders in 1011 and killed by them in Greenwich on April 19 the following year after refusing to be ransomed.


No one is sure why the red sandstone church, with its distinctive 168ft spire, came to be named after this particular saint, but its parishioners are proud to be associated with a man regarded as a martyr for social justice and reconciliation.


Stephen Linstead, a reader at the church who is heading up the millennium celebrations, says there will be national as well as local events, as there are about eight churches in Britain dedicated to St Alphege.


Among the local celebrations will be a parish festival Eucharist on April 22, at which the Bishop will preside, to dedicate a new icon of St Alphege made by Aidan Hart.


There will also be a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral on June 9: a large contingent is going from here and probably from other churches too.


The parish church, founded in 1220, is a reminder that Solihull has been around an awfully long time.


Its motto is Urbs in Rure, which means town in the country a phrase that isnt quite as appropriate as when it was founded.


There is much that is still quaint and semi-rural about Solihull the town is dotted with historic architecture, including timber-framed Tudor houses and shops, such as East in High Street; nearly three-quarters of the borough is defined as Green Belt and it is surrounded by picturesque and quintessentially English countryside but it has been unable to resist the demands of modern-day living.


The explosion of retail outlets is one example; the encroachment of housing development another. And, of course, being where it is, there is one of the UKs busiest international airports and the world-famous NEC now on its doorstep, not to mention the M42 humming on the periphery. Now the Government is forging ahead with HS2, in little more than a decades time, the countryside will be further eroded by the high-speed train link between London and Birmingham that will cut a swathe through 13km of Solihull an issue that, unsurprisingly, is proving divisive among Silhillians.


Joy Woodall, a member of Solihull Local History Circle and well-known author, has lived here since the 1950s and seen it change quite dramatically.


Theres been quite a change in the past ten years, since Touchwood opened, she observes. And John Lewis brings a lot of people into the town people who may never have visited before. Before that, we didnt have many shops. The change started in the Sixties, when Mell Square was developed.


Despite the changes, there is continuity. The now-pedestrianised High Street is the same width as in medieval times.


That Solihull has become a 21st-century shopping haven also resonates with its history: for nearly 300 years, it was a successful market town.


With the coming of the railway in the mid 19th-century, Solihull started to attract wealthy industrialists from Birmingham who wanted to live in gentler, more rural climes. One of the few remaining such residences is the old part of The St Johns Hotel on Warwick Road.


When Solihull became a metropolitan borough in 1974, the housing development got going and the population doubled overnight.


Solihulls population is now about 200,000 and continuing housing development suggests it will only keep rising.


I came here in 1956 and I think, inevitably, there had to be change, says Joy, whose books include Solihull and its Villages. But we lost a lot of the sites from medieval times there has been a loss of green space.


Theres been an awful lot of pressure from central government; because of the motorways, they thought we could do more in the way of development.


She continues: There has been a lot of building in Balsall Common development is just eating into it. Solihull is still a very nice place to live; there are very nice properties and the local council keeps it very well, but I think people wish the building would stop.


Solihulls Liberal Democrat MP, Lorely Burt, echoes Joys sentiments. Its a big concern, she says.


Her fight, five years ago, to protect parkland from development was dubbed Lorelys Law in Parliament. She has also worked to hard to curb back gardens being sold off for housing.


People care very much about where they live, she says. Another issue is that its very expensive to buy property in Solihull. Theres a big housing shortage that needs addressing. Developers are buying back gardens but not building affordable homes.


Indeed, Solihulls posh tag isnt likely to be rescinded any time soon. Last year, Alderbrook Road was named as the most expensive street in the Midlands with an average house price of 850,000. In fact, four out of the ten priciest residential streets in the region were in Solihull.


No wonder, then, that it is home to various celebrities, including the comedian Jasper Carrott. Other famous names were born here; among them, Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond, ex-rugby union international Martin Johnson and former British tennis number one Jeremy Bates.


What people love about Solihull is that its a great place to come and shop, says Lorely. We also have beautiful parks. You get a great sense, when you talk to people on their doorsteps, that its residents are very proud to live here. Its a relatively safe place to live crime is the lowest its been for ten years it has great schools, low unemployment and its very green. I wouldnt want to live anywhere else.

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