Discovering St Martins In the Bullring

Michelle Wright
a photograph of a cityscape with a church in the background and a futuristic silver building in the foreground

St Martins in the Bullring. Photo © Roslyn Tappenden.

Beyond the streams of shoppers and dwarfed by the cold, contemporary glare of Birmingham’s revamped and re-invigorated Bull Ring shopping complex, is a monument that inspires and encourages reflection, not consumerism. This monument is St. Martin’s Church, a historic centrepiece of the second city.

Following a £5 million seven-year facelift, the church is open to visitors once again. By removing the layers of grime that had built up over decades and stripping away the scaffolding, not only has the grand architecture been unmasked, but the city’s historical roots have too.

Officially re-opened on 18th of November 2003, the church offers a friendly, warm atmosphere where visitors are free to look around or reflect in quiet prayer.

St. Martin’s grand, gothic architecture dates from 1873. The original building, founded by the de Bermingham family circa 1290, had become encased in pollution due to the effects of industrialisation. So in 1872, Rector Dr. William Wilkinson decided to demolish this building, with the exception of the tower and spire, which had been renovated in 1855 by the architect Phillip Hardwicke.

Alfred Chatwin, a Birmingham-born architect renowned for his gothic style, was called upon to re-build the church. He decided to build north and south transepts onto the existing tower and spire, making the church 50 feet longer. Before long, St. Martin’s was once again influencing and reflecting the heart of Birmingham.

Following the Second World War, the church was again in need of extensive restoration. The most recent renovation has removed the grime that had built up since then. Now the original picturesque pink sandstone of the 1875 church can be seen once again.

It is inside the church though, where the treasures unfold. Arriving through the west door, the first thing that greets you is the font. This was installed during the recent renovation and you are able to touch the water. Adjacent to this is the prayer chapel. This is the oldest part of the church - upon entering, the warm light generated by the candles promotes a positive, solitary atmosphere.

shows a colour photograph of a church set amidst moden skyscapers.

The St Martin's spire provides a welcome respite in a modern skyline. Photo © Roslyn Tappenden.

The east wing of the church offers both an enlightening historical perspective as well as the most beautiful surroundings. Three tombs represent members of the de Bermingham family. Sir William de Bermingham’s effigy is the oldest monument in Birmingham, dating from 1325.

The east window depicts Jesus’ healing powers and with the sunlight resonating through, it makes the alabaster sculpture behind the altar, which represents scenes from the end of Christ’s life, look magnificent.

The chancel is where a combination of local history and religious symbolism unite. The choir stalls have been carved out of the roof timbers of the mediaeval church and on the floor tiles between the stalls are displays of the quartered arms of the de Bermingham family. Above the choir stalls, 20 stone-carved angels can be seen playing instruments.

Onto the south transept, and you come across the most significant piece of architecture this church holds: the Burne-Jones window. On 10th of April 1941, a bomb landed outside the west door, devastating the church, with the exception of this window. If it were not for the Bishop of Birmingham, Sir William Barnes, ordering its removal earlier in the day, this magnificent piece of art would not be here today.

shows a close up corner of the church with the Selfridges building, with its silver bubbled exterior, in the background.

Central Birmingham is full of architectural juxtapositions. Photo © Jon Hudson/Children's Express

In addition, there are displays inside the church, exhibiting photographs of traders from the former Rag Market as well as showcasing local poetry and photography. This reinforces that St. Martin’s offers a meaningful hub of history and memories of and for the Birmingham people.

Since opening in September 2003, this Grade II listed building has welcomed an average of 25,000 visitors a week. The Rector of St. Martin’s, Canon Adrian Newman is particularly pleased with the way the church has entered the 21st century. He says: “St. Martin’s now occupies a stunning position at the heart of Birmingham’s renewed Bull Ring, and thousands of people are streaming through our doors each day.”

So what else does St. Martin’s have to offer? Canon Newman says: “We offer a beautiful building, counselling for those in extreme need, educational facilities, an innovative arts programme and a great place to eat and relax in our Arts Café.”

You can take a guided tour by arrangement, and then visit the Arts Café which has a space for performing drama, music and experimental arts. So as you have something to eat, you can also enjoy some live entertainment.

Admission is free for all the family and the church is open all year round, Tuesday-Saturday 10.00am-4.00pm. For more details contact the church by telephone: 0121 643 5428 or by email on st.martin@bullring.org.

The church also has a website at www.stmartinscentre.org/

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