Grace and favours

Moseley was a rural haven from Birmingham for affluent Edwardians, who built grand terraces with vast gardens. But a new breed of developer is threatening its green spaces. By Chris Arnot
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Look out over Birmingham's southern suburbs from the top floor of the Rotunda and what do you see? Surprising spreads of green amid the grey concrete, the darker ribbons of tarmac and the swathes of mellow red brick.

Look out over Birmingham's southern suburbs from the top floor of the Rotunda and what do you see? Surprising spreads of green amid the grey concrete, the darker ribbons of tarmac and the swathes of mellow red brick.

"During the years when the rest of the country sneered at our city centre, our suburbs were some of the best in Britain," maintains the novelist Jim Crace. He cites as examples Edgbaston, Harborne, Hall Green and, above all, Moseley where he has lived for more than 30 years.

Although less than three miles out of town, Moseley has more than its fair share of wide open spaces - for the time being, at least. What was once The Reddings, home of Moseley Rugby Club, is rapidly disappearing under a small estate of Bryant Homes. Other developers, meanwhile, have been targeting the many householders here with substantial gardens at the side of their properties. There is talk locally of "suitcases full of cash" and offers of "30 per cent above the market rate" to buy houses or land, or both. "If the infilling carries on at this rate, there'll be a shortage of the big gardens that are so much a feature round here," Crace warns.

The garden behind his own 1920s semi is particularly impressive. A writer whose imagination roams wild and desolate parts of the globe, he tends his 200ft-long lawn with an obsessive devotion that he attributes to being the son of a sports groundsman. A developer bidding to build on what might be termed "Crace Acres" would be given short shrift.

And there would be an outcry were there to be any encroachment on public spaces such as the Moseley Bog, 22 acres of dense and squelchy woodland whose gnarled trees are said to have fired the boyhood imagination of JRR Tolkien. The academic and author lived nearby with his mother and brother at the turn of the last century.

At the time, Moseley was still part of rural Worcestershire. The great and the good of Birmingham began to move out and build themselves properties befitting their status. Among them were politicians such as Sir Joseph Chamberlain and the industrialists Frederick Lanchester and Joseph Lucas. "They could afford top architects," says historian and writer Chris Upton, a Moseleyan for 24 years, "so no two properties on Wake Green Road look the same."

By the 1970s, many were in multi-occupation. Some were old people's homes or student halls of residence. Others were hostels for battered wives or recently released prisoners. "It seemed a more dangerous place in those days, which had its own excitement," Crace recalls.

Happily, Moseley has retained some of its bohemian and eccentric elements while shedding much of its reputation as a haven for prostitutes (moved on by vigilantes), drunks and down-and-outs (moved on by street wardens).

Gentrification continues apace. There are galleries, antique shops, delis and a dance studio. Not to mention bars of every description and restaurants of many nationalities. "A Moroccan, a Thai and a tapas bar have opened since Christmas," says Crace.

Big houses, with price-tags of £750,000-plus, are returning to single occupancy, and young professionals are clamouring to snap up apartments in new-build blocks or impressive conversions, like Britannic Park in the former headquarters of Britannic Assurance. "Moseley has become cosmopolitan with a buzzing nightlife, and young people with money want to be able to walk into the centre and stumble back," says Stuart Hollier, a partner in the Chamberlains estate agency. His office is in the shadow of a 600-year-old church and at the heart of what is still dubbed "Moseley Village", a conservation area since 1983. Birmingham City Council has just extended conservation status to many of the surrounding roads after pressure from Liberal Democrat councillor Martin Mullaney.

"We don't want to pickle the place in vinegar, but we do need to exert some control," he says, as we set off on a guided tour in his 1972 MG. Mullaney runs a comedy club, but he's not laughing when he points to a ranch-style home with a white-pillared doorway and yellowish walls. Gold-tipped railings come to an end at a gateway bearing the name Dallas.

This is the home of a local developer whose handiwork is all too evident in the neighbourhood. Sudden gaps have appeared between large semis where land has been cleared for buildings that seem unlikely to fit in with the Edwardian vernacular. "There are people round here with a lot of money but no appreciation of the character of the area," Mullaney muses.

Round the corner from Dallas is an imposing half-timbered detached house, which has been narrowly saved from demolition. "The couple who live there wanted to make a fast buck by allowing their house to be knocked down and replaced by a block of flats," Mullaney goes on. "They were stopped by the council." But the garden at the side, a valuable corner plot, is rapidly disappearing under bricks and mortar.

Just up the road, meanwhile, Bryant Homes is preparing to unveil its first show home on what was once The Reddings rugby ground. Prices will range from £190,000 for a two-bedroom apartment to £395,000 for as four-bedroom detached. And the club who played there as Moseley RFC?

Its new home will be on the wide open spaces of Billesley Common, well beyond the borders of Moseley.