Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Great Hall

One section of our show is called The Great Hall, and was inspired by an unusual local building...and a chance discovery of this photograph. Great Barr Hall  is located between Walsall and Great Barr, Birmingham, and is a Grade II listed building - though at present it is barely recognisable as the 18th century mansion pictured here.
   I first heard about it around 2007, from my sister who lives not far from the hall - she'd visited a number of times, scrambling over barriers and through holes in chain-link fences with her husband and kids to gain access. Back then there were still plenty of features of the hall intact, even if by that time any architectural details of value had been stripped out. The building had last been owned between 1911 and 1978 by the local hospital board, being for most of that time St Mary Margaret's Mental Hospital. A number of deliberate fires in recent years have eradicated any last traces of grandeur.
   Already intrigued by her explorations, one day I found myself standing in a charity shop in Harbourne, fixated upon a framed black and white photograph - turning it over, I found a small handwritten note taped to the back: 

I don't know why that particular dating. My best guess on the photo itself is 60s/70s.
   Now having a real image to replace the one in my imagination, and a compellingly eerie one at that, I decided it was time to see the hall for myself. We had to clamber through fence holes and trudge for almost an hour along a muddy, debris-strewn trail through the woods... only to find that it was now not only securely fenced off, but had a 24 hour guard on site in a little porta-cabin. With dogs. The fires had caused serious structural damage, he told us, but a wealthy property developer had recently aquired the hall and was determined to restore it to it's former glory. I wonder if, in reality, a housing development or somesuch isn't planned for the site. 
   My idea about shooting some film inside instantly evaporated, but I left with the strong feeling that the hall had somehow succeeded in keeping it's secrets from me, it's mysteries intact.

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