Welcome to the site of the former Birmingham Hilton Metropole, once a flourishing centre of Jewish learning, sadly and mysteriously burnt to the ground by dozens of people simultaneously lighting unauthorised oil-fuelled channukiot one winter night over 300 years ago.
Excavations began here in 2297, and the historians still keep discovering more and more discarded handouts and purple lanyards. Who knows, you may be lucky and find a valuable artefact yourself!
This self-guided walking tour will take you around the fascinating finds that archaeologists have been making across the site, much of which as been reconstructed as it was in its heyday.
To begin, enter the main lobby. You’ll notice that the doorway is now an open arch. Originally, this would have been a ‘revolving door’: a spinning glass plate which would only allow a few people in at a time before stopping abruptly and causing a pile-up. It is thought that trapping people inside this door may have been a form of population control.
Turn left. At the end of the corridor, you will find the lifts. These were a unique form of transport in early 21st-century Britain: unique in that they were literally compulsory because, for some reason, this building was constructed without stairs. It is thought that, at peak times, the wait for a lift could be over one hour (six hours for Ashkenazi Jews), and there are historical accounts of brawls and fisticuffs over who should get priority in the lifts’ use when they did arrive.
Those who were waiting, though, would be well-looked-after. To the left of the lifts would have stood a Tea Station. For decades, archaeologists have been unearthing a steady stream of plastic-coated cardboard cups from this area. Interestingly, though, there is no evidence that there was ever any hot water.
When you’ve finished exploring this area, turn around and go down the corridor to your left. This was known as the Red Corridor, possibly a reference to the animal sacrifices that took place in the Meat Dining Room behind the glass panels. In later years of the building’s history, this space was renamed the Alternative Dining Experience, probably as a form of apologism for the animal slaughter that continued to take place.
Go into one of the rooms opposite. Take a seat. Imagine yourself a British Jew from the past, sitting down ready to learn from one of the era’s most celebrated and inspiring speakers. And then… hear that? That’s the sound of the lecture in the room next door, far better amplified than your chosen teacher. You can’t hear your chosen teacher at all, in fact. And whoever’s speaking next door is getting far better reactions, too: louder laughs, more applause, appreciative sighs. Some records suggest that participants learned far more through the walls than they ever did from the lecture actually going on in the room they were in.
You’ll also notice that these rooms are quite small. These were thus reserved for the most popular and sought-after speakers, and students would sit on every vacant inch of floor to ensure that they could hear what was going on in the room next door. Latecomers who could not find space would, by tradition, glower at those who had made it in, and sulkily stand by the entrance door, leaving it open so as to let noise in from outside.
Go back to the beginning of the Red Corridor, turn left, and keep going until you reach a clearing on your left with two enormous rooms on its far side. This is the Yellow Area. This is where a small, select group of participants would be allowed to attend a formal channukiah lighting each evening. Archivists believe that this space was the equivalent of the Holy-of-Holies in the Second Temple: not just anyone could wander in and be present for the lighting ceremony. Entrance was strictly controlled and common folk were turned away. Imagine their cries of frustration and disappointment. “I can just squeeze in at the back!” was a standard plea. But this was not their place, and they were not admitted.
Keep going along this corridor (it bends to the right) until you reach another clearing with an even more implausibly large room on the left. This is The Monarch’s Dining Room. Despite the astonishing size of the space, only the king or queen of the day would have been allowed to eat here. Everybody else would queue up outside – with varying degrees of patience – and take it in turns to enter, pay homage to the queen, and leave gracefully. The queen herself, meanwhile, must have had a prodigious appetite. Handwritten kitchen records from the head chef, Coeliac Cline, found in a local geniza, show that on a single day in December 2019, The Monarch’s Dining Room got through more than 1,000 jacket potatoes, 700 cups of soup, and 1,300 packets of vaguely onion-flavoured kosher crisps. (It is thought that the total amount of individual E-numbers in these crisps may have been four or five times that.)
Participants would not, however, have drunk much. Glass fragments that have been painstakingly reconstructed suggest that although orange juice was available, it was stored in tanks with complicated tap mechanisms which required at least three hands to operate. And, this being a time before the great Explosion and the consequent genetic mutations, 21st-century Britons would have only had two hands.
This brings us to the end of our tour of Historic Birmingham Hilton Metropolis. We hope this has given you an insight into what life would have been like in the home of Anglo-Jewish life in the distant past.
Remember that your entrance tickets are also available for other historic sites in our group for the rest of 2314:
- JWtree, formerly a community centre, and home to some of the last remaining natural plant life in the south of England.
- Bevis Marx Synagogue, which hosted the inaugural meeting of the Jewish Communist Party of Great Britain, paving the way to their 14-year stint in power.
- Grodzinski & Johnson’s, site of a 20th-century bakery which we believe was, uniquely, jointly run by an old Anglo-Jewish family and the Prime Minister of the day. Visit on the first Sunday of each month for one of our family activity days: try your hand at baking a traditional bagel, learn to plait a holler bread, and maybe your kids will even meet ‘Boris Johnson’ on his way to Brussels to request another Brexit extension.
We hope to see you again soon!