Page last updated at 04:21 GMT, Wednesday, 9 July 2008 05:21 UK

Hidden gems 'at risk' of decay

By Sarah Portlock
BBC News, Birmingham

Warstone Lane Cemetery, Birmingham
People were housed in Warstone Lane's catacombs during World War II

Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter has long been recognised as a lovingly-restored reminder of the city's industrial hey day.

Many of the original jewellery businesses still thrive there, although many more have been transformed into bars and restaurants.

But shoppers, workers and residents who throng into the Jewellery Quarter's centre every day, probably do not realise they are walking right past another important part of the city's heritage.

Two Grade II Listed cemeteries, Warstone Lane and Key Hill, are important sites for Birmingham.

Not only do they contain the remains of some of the city's industrial leaders but they are also home to some spectacular architecture, which is desperately in need of some care and attention.

'Escaping gasses'

Now the two cemeteries have been placed on English Heritage's At Risk Register - a move designed to highlight the fact that parks and gardens, as well as the country's old buildings, need some love, attention and money spending on them.

Andy Munroe, operations director of the Jewellery Quarter's regeneration partnership, described them as one of the city's best hidden features.

"They are an asset to Birmingham and they should remain so," he said.

Joseph Chamberlain's grave
City Mayor Joseph Chamberlain is buried at Key Hill
All sorts of projects are under way to look after the parks. One of the most important being to prop up the impressive catacombs at Warstone Lane Cemetery, which are in danger of collapsing onto a wall near a busy main road.

"At one stage it was the fashion to put people into the catacombs instead of burying them underground," he said.

"There are all sorts of peculiar stories surrounding them.

"During the second world war families were housed in there, amongst the tombs. And at one point it is rumoured smoking was banned in Warstone Lane because of the danger of escaping gasses from the bodies."

Influential figures

Warstone Lane Cemetery, where printer and publisher John Baskerville lies amidst the catacombs, opened in 1848 as a burial place for members of the Anglican Church.

Across the road in Icknield Street is Key Hill Cemetery - a general cemetery which opened 12 years earlier and was open for burial to all denominations.

Warstone Lane Cemetery, Birmingham
Warstone Lane Cemetery closed to burials during the 1980s
It too has extensive catacombs and houses many of Birmingham's influential figures, which include politician Joseph Chamberlain, Crystal Palace builder John Henderson and the man who invented egg-less custard, Alfred Bird.

It is also the resting place of pen-maker Joseph Gillott.

Both cemeteries are thought of as green havens which contain a wide variety of flora and fauna, nestled in a busy, working area of Birmingham.

A spokesman for English Heritage said: "These areas are extremely important for Birmingham.

"The Jewellery Quarter is very significant as an industrial centre.

"People do not realise what is there on their doorstep, they take their dogs for walks through the parks and maybe do not realise how important the parks are."

Plans are afoot to restore the parks and bring them to the public's attention once more.

Key Hill Cemetery
Key Hill Cemetery is Birmingham's oldest public cemetery
Developers who have been busy transforming the Jewellery Quarter have given 150,000 which will be spent on re-installing cemetery gates and restoring the sandstone pillars at the main entrance to Key Hill.

English Heritage has given 300,000 which will be used to put in a bid for 1m from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

A community group, the Friends of Key Hill Cemetery, have also been working tirelessly to improve the area. They have logged details of every memorial stone and produced a book for nearby schools to use.

"All this money and all this work should help us make the cemeteries into visitor attractions," Mr Munroe said.

Bid to restore historic cemetery
13 Jul 04 |  West Midlands

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