Happy Valley, Yardley Wood (with information and photographs kindly provided by Barrie Geens, Colin Scrivener, and Andrew Mealey)
Happy Valley is one of those phenomena which seem so unlikely in the history of Birmingham that the phrase "You couldn't make it up" seems highly appropriate. Here was a leisure area on a canal lasting half a century in various forms, for which there is so much affection that the name Happy Valley continues to be applied to a festival in Yardley Wood, even if that takes place some distance away from the original site. All sorts of things took place there, including outdoor dancing, concerts and camping. There was also a fairground, and rowing a boat round the corner onto the straight section of canal leading to High Bridge at School Road took you into a deep, secluded canal cutting - a veritable valley 'clothed in Nature's fullest generosity'. We need to remember that this part of Yardley Wood was almost completely rural until the mid-1920s. People used to have holiday chalets out here and nearby in Hall Green, some converted from wagons. Colin Scrivener has written an interesting article about Happy Valley, based on conversations with Dennis Hay, who owned a shop at Pendeen Road. The article was published in NarrowBoat magazine, Winter 2013/4, pages 36-7. The images below credited to Colin were copied from originals belonging to Mr. Hay. The farmers at Goodrest Farm and Peartree Farm further along towards Solihull Lodge made money from allowing their land to be used for these chalets and bungalows. According to Colin, there were at least a dozen of these off Yardley Wood Road at Peartree Farm. The 1955 O.S. map at 1:1250 reveals the names of these edifices: for example Farcrae, Edenside, Happy Go lucky, and Train Bungalow.
There is a series of postcards dating from about 1912 to perhaps the mid-1920s which portray this extraordinary venue in great and fascinating detail. However, activity took place earlier and later than this period. In the 1901 directory, Walter Rawbone and William Walker are listed as pleasure boat proprietors under 'Yardley Wood'. This continued until 1911. In 1912, John Taylor has taken the place of William Walker, and from 1913 to 1917 there appear to be no entries. However, postcards sent in 1912 and 1914 already show W. Lea at Happy Valley, and the 1916 O.S. map shows the buildings that can be seen on the postcards. The 1918 directory has Pleasure Grounds (W. Lea, proprietor). Mr. Lea had many adverts in local newspapers during the First World War, which may seem a bit odd to us given what was happening. We have copied out two as examples. The first one is particularly florid:
(Birmingham Daily Mail, 1st May 1915)
HAPPY VALLEY TEA GARDENS
(10 mins. Alcester Lane car, 10 mins. Yardley Wood station).
THESE ARTISTIC GARDENS,
situated in the heart of the beautiful Yardley Wood country,
have firmly established themselves as a real “Happy Valley,”
a place of Song and Laughter and Restful Ease, and Sweet
Content. With an adequate supply of New and Up-to-date
Craft, the Proprietor offers every facility for
BOATING AND CANOEING,
on 10 miles of the prettiest stretch of water in the Midlands.
(Birmingham Daily Mail, 20th May 1916)
HAPPY VALLEY TEA GARDENS, YARDLEY WOOD (near Alcester Lanes End Car),
ARE NOW OPEN with a new and up-to-date Craft of Boats, Canoes and Punts.
Small steamer for Hire for Private Parties. 14 miles stretch of water....A Carriage
is kept on the Ground for the convenience of visitors at the small charge of 3d.
per head to Yardley Station or Alcester Lanes End Car. Prop. - W. Lea
Atttractions included pierrot shows, vaudeville shows, and a variety of concerts. In one advert happy Valley was announced as the Munition Workers' Paradise. A charity concert took place in 1914. Other providers were also active. During the summer of 1917 trips in a Covered Saloon Boat to Earlswood from the Horse Shoe Inn at Mill Pool Hill were advertised. School trips were also on offer from the Cottage, Mill Pool Hill.
An account of a scouting trip to Happy Valley appeared in 1918 in a periodical called Industrial Welfare:
"The principal event during the last month has been the Whitsun Camp, which was attended by thirty-seven of our Boy Scout Troop, and was situated at Happy Valley, Yardley Wood. Twenty-nine of us marched there, through twelve miles of country roads, and arrived in 3 hours 40 minutes. Strict discipline was observed, including military hours, tent inspection, etc., and one result was the complete success of the holiday, from the standpoint of health and behaviour. While there, we played two cricket matches, one against the Dunlop Boy Scouts (won), and the second against the Quagmire team (lost) [Quagmire was an adjacent farm (ed.)]. A boxing contest against Dunlops was won, and a tug-of-war ended in a draw, each side winning two pulls. The site was ideal for its purpose, and swimming and boating were both enjoyed in the Stratford-on-Avon Canal running past the camp. The boys were responsible for the cooking, and acquitted themselves well. Apart from the matches referred to above, the Scout Cricket Team has played six, none of which they have won, although they show promise of early improvement."
Truly another glimpse into a world long gone.
Joseph Boughey has found that In 1925 the entry has changed to Pleasure Grounds (Happy Valley Boating Co. Ltd.), and by 1934 there is no entry. However Barrie Geens found a report of a music licence application in the Moseley and King's Heath Journal. This had been submitted by the fairground for an Easter Fair from 18th to 23rd April 1935. An objection had been made by a man who said that the noise was so bad on such occasions that his three children could not sleep. The licence was granted but the magistrate warned that future licences were subject to the problems not recurring. Further west on the canal, in 1933, and until the 1945 listing, Fred Bird was hiring out boats from Limekiln Lane, near to the Alcester Road. The Society has photographs of boat hire from a cottage west of the Yardley Wood Road canal bridge, donated by the family who lived there. They said they were in business from the cottage until 1949/50. A newspaper article from 1953 says boats are still being hired. The writer's description of the change from rural to suburban is amusing:
"At Yardley Wood, for instance the Stratford canal was a tree-shaded retreat, known as Happy Valley, attracting at week-ends and bank holidays many visitors from that side of the town in search of fresh air and silvan scenes. I was reminded of those days when, during Easter, I found myself on a bridge over that canal. In every direction stretched a wilderness of bricks comprising the estates of Warstock, Billesley and Yardley Wood, and a huge bus depot adjoined the waterway." (Birmingham Gazette, 11th April 1953, page 4)
From 1906 people could travel to the tram terminus at the King's Head at Alcester Lane's End, Kings Heath (known locally as The Knob!), and walk out to the Horseshoe at Millpool Hill and then along the canal towpath to Happy Valley. The number 13 bus went to Bromwall Road Billesley from 1923 and to Haunch Lane from 1927. The aptly named Valley pub opened there in January 1927. After the rural watersplash at the Chinn Brook was removed and replaced by a bridge and Yardley Wood Road was improved, buses went on as far as Glastonbury Road. This was in the summer of 1929. John Lerwill pointed out that people came from quite a distance to Happy Valley:
"Happy Valley was [not just] an attraction for people this side of town, but I [can tell] you that people came from further away. My maternal grandparents lived at Alum Rock and mentioned that they would like to visit (though never did) as their neighbours did and came back extolling its virtues. My mother's family certainly visited the Lickey Hills by tram, so a visit to Happy Valley would not have been beyond them."
There is lively discussion about exactly where Happy Valley was. Some say that it was between the Chinn Brook and the canal, some say it was on the canal banks. Some say it was only west of the bridge, and some say it was only south and west of the bridge, where the bus garage is. It is certainly safer from the map evidence to say that over the fifty years it was on the north bank, and certainly on the southern bank east of the road. There were boats tied up on the bank by where the bus garage was built, but none of the main series of photographs convincingly demonstrates that there were buildings on the bus garage site. However, two personal testimonies do refer to a fairground between the Chinn Brook and the canal. A helter skelter, swingboats and other attractions are also mentioned in one piece, referring to 1926, on John Lerwill's website. John also kindly contributed the following:
"From Pete [Haylor's] and my investigations I would say that the term "Happy Valley" applied to a combination of both [the Chinn Brook and canal areas], the watersplash itself being part of the attraction even though there were probably no amusements as such at the watersplash. Another attraction, of course, was Mrs Andrews cottage, not far up from the watersplash, where H V Watkins parents "met", so it does indicate a place of social gathering for refreshment. Mrs. Andrews, in fact, was quite a caring person, as relatives of mine had to go to school at Yardley Wood from Billesley via the watersplash in the 1920s, and Mrs. Andrews would apparently always keep a look out to make sure they got through safely - which sounds as though they waded through rather than going via the footbridge!"
Such a fairground is therefore likely to have been on more level ground north of the canal, and one of the memories refers to getting ginger beer from Mrs Andrews, whose cottage was by the Chinn Brook. The later directories from 1925 also refer to boat hire being on the west side of the road. Perhaps on the bus garage site as well as by the Dyers?
What certainly happened to the site on the north bank east of the road is that council houses were built over most of the area by 1927. So the Happy Valley owners would have had much reduced space. When this happened is not so easy to determine, since the City had owned the site since 1919, but a postcard from the Barrie Geens collection suggests after 1924. A newspaper article from 1930 has a picture of one of the low wooden footbridges still there. A renowned canal researcher, Joseph Boughey, has unearthed correspondence between the Great Western Railway, which owned the canal, and tenants up to 1935. It appears that business for the then new Happy Valley Boating Company declined from around 1923, partly as a result of lower boating prices on the Corporation's lakes. A new owner named Brown took over in 1929, but had no success, and the tea rooms were wrecked by vandals in 1935. The article was published in NarrowBoat magazine, Autumn 2017, pages 42-3, and is available from them. It contains much additional information and copies of business documents. South of the canal and east of the road houses did not come until the mid-1930s. The City bought the bus garage site in 1937, and the garage opened the year after. The houses on the west side north of the canal are c. 1950.
The postcards below can be compared with the map, and it can be seen that the refreshment rooms and boathouse are on the 1916 map on the north bank of the canal and east of Yardley Wood Road. Other buildings visible on cards are on the south side. The ground falls away to the right on the second card, showing the bridge, which indicates that the photograph was taken from the east side of the road. Furthermore, the sharp curve in the canal visible on several cards is on the east side, not the west side of Yardley Wood Road. The lie of the land, which rises on the bank which has no towpath, confirms this.
Mary Harding has written a booklet on Happy Valley (9781999712174), which has more information and postcards. It is published by Maxam Cards. This would make an ideal present. Other than that, the best place to find postcards of Kings Heath, the Maypole and Happy Valley is in Barrie Geens' two books called 'From Kings Heath to the country', which are sadly very difficult to find. Number one is out of print, but number two can be obtained from the publisher, the Kidderminster Railway Museum. There is also information on Happy Valley in John Lerwill and Pete Haylor's book called "Billesley and surrounds".
A.C. Daws' memories of Happy Valley, Weekly Mail, 1984
"From the Valley pub on the Yardley Wood Road, which in those days was a lane, on the right-hand side of the road, there were fields and allotments, the brook that goes under the road now used to be a ford with a footbridge, on the left-hand side there were hedges where we used to pick blackberries. Before you came to the canal, there was a fairground on the right-hand side, on the left there was a boat-house and refreshment rooms. The bridge was very small, only enough room for one horse and cart. Over the bridge where the bus garage is now, was a farm, also a row of conker trees. By the boathouse there was room enough on the grass where they used to give the children rides on a shire horse (all free). The fishing was very good in those days. The Happy Valley was a happy valley where people could go and sit on the grass, hire a boat or canoe, or walk along the towpath to the tunnel and back. If you took a bottle of cold tea and a halfpenny or two farthings you were made for the day. With my two farthings I used to buy a jaw for one farthing, which used to be a sort of toffee wrapped up, and I would still have enough money left to buy a double apple on a stick, or a bag of stickjaw toffee with coconut."
There is a photograph of wounded Anzac soldiers at the refreshment rooms, in 1917. Other images associated with this one reveal that a soldier, Frederick Staunton Nelson, was a patient at Highbury, which was a military hospital at the time. (Thanks to Mary Harding for this reference)
Andrew Mealey writes:
"The lady in the main doorway is probably the Mrs Andrews who is mentioned in your text. The sign outside says 'Home Made Ginger Beer. Teas provided' and in the window to the right of the door is another sign saying 'Cycles Stored'. On the extreme right of the photo is an interesting old showman's van."