Winterbourne House and Garden

One of the hidden delights of Birmingham is Winterbourne House and Garden.

Almost immediately, on entering the garden after buying tickets, an elderly man, sitting on a bench, started talking to us. He had this avuncular tone and seemed to be a permanent fixture of the garden. After some chatting, he recommended that we take this vaguely sign-posted path out of the garden onto an adjoining golf course! This didn’t seem the best advert for the garden. However, he reassured us that this was a slight detour that the garden didn’t advertise and that many people, even regulars, were unaware of.

We took his advice and were greeted by a beautiful lake with a variety of birds, including a heron.

After the short detour, we returned to the botanical garden and walked around it, admiring the plants from around the world and the colours. It’s not the largest garden but it is beautiful and lovingly looked after.

Once we’d seen the garden, we entered the house. Built in 1903, it’s an example of an “Edwardian suburban villa” designed in the Arts and Crafts style, which was developed by William Morris and his followers. The style emphasised local materials and craftspeople — in contrast to mass-produced items. For its time, the house was considered cutting-edge, having electric lighting, hot running water, and a telephone line.

The house was especially built for John and Margaret Nettlefold. Margaret designed the garden. John Nettlefold is descended from one of the founders of GKN, the British multinational car and aerospace company. He briefly worked there before becoming the managing director of Kynoch, an ammunition manufacturer. There are examples of some of their products in the house.

After World War I, John Nettlefold’s company joined other UK ammunition and explosives manufacturers to eventually form Nobel Industries (which itself later became part of the chemical giant ICI). Nobel Industries is probably better known nowadays for its founder, Alfred Nobel, who created the Nobel Prize.

Coincidentally, like Alfred Nobel, John Nettlefold became interested in charitable and philanthropic movements. As a councillor in Birmingham, he was a pioneer of urban planning and authored books on the subject. As councillor and chair of the Housing Committee, he improved public housing for the working classes, for example, by providing low density affordable housing, sometimes interspersed with green spaces.

On exiting the house, we popped into the cafe and sat outside drinking tea. We were, once again, joined by the elderly man who had guided us to the lake at the beginning! He went on to tell us about his family. His daughter had moved to a mostly deserted African island and had a child before returning to the UK and retraining as a software developer!

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