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Weekend: VILLAGE IN THE CITY; Notting Hill! Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts should have come to Moseley "Village", says Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie.

Obviously the writer Richard Curtis missed a trick when he decided to set his latest film in the London suburb of Notting Hill - he should have chosen Moseley.

Looking for a village atmosphere in a big city? Step this way.

Want a multi-cultural population happily rubbing shoulders with each other? Jump on the Number 50 bus and ask for the Alcester Road.

In search of wooden-floored cafes, trendy bars and quaint shops? Browse at your leisure.

This corner of Birmingham, stuck between the no-man's land of tin-shedded Highgate and the quieter suburbia of Kings Heath and Hall Green, is the city's answer to Bohemia.

In the first scene of Notting Hill we watch an absent-minded Hugh Grant (William Thacker) walk down the Portobello Road waving happily at the market stall holders, stroll by the tattoo parlour and the Duke of Wellington Pub before arriving at his place of work, The Travel Book shop.

We are invited to believe he lives in a village within a city. A small friendly place where you can walk to work and the locals actually know each other. Indeed, the only inkling that we are in London is the bit of graffiti daubed on the wall by the set designer.

Apart from the absence of the market he could have taken a similar stroll through Moseley. He could walk down the Alcester Road, past the Moseley Emporium antique shop, wave to the owner of the Cinephilia video shop, have a quick half in the Prince of Wales before entering his fine art gallery on St Mary's Row.

St Mary's Row dissects the Alcester Road at the junction of Salisbury Road. This crossroads is known by the locals and eager estate agents as "The Village".

Of course, the perfect city village only exists in the same way as George Orwell's perfect pub The Moon Under Water exists - in the imagination, but Moseley's little centre with its pubs, cafes, chemists, newsagents and antique shops is as fine an inner city community as you could wish to find.

Donald Gardener who owns a MBS shop (mind, body and spirit to the uninitiated) called Zen on Woodbridge Road says there is a real community feel to the area.

"We open at 10.30am. We wouldn't do that anywhere else. We still find it's a lazy, village morning. We know everybody" he said.

It even has its own village green if you can call the triangle of scruffy turf on St Mary's Row a green. More often than not it is home to the tramps and drinkers who have failed to find a place outside Kwik Save.

Not that the locals mind the odd boozer. They just add to the colour of what any Moseleyite will tell you is an exciting multi-cultural place. When you ask people what they like about living in Moseley you can guarantee the first thing they will say is its diversity.

Again and again I was told it was a "a rich brew", "a great mix" or a "vibrant" centre. The drunks were just part of its charm.

One local even went so far as to suggest the down and outs showed how kind the people of Moseley were - they gravitated here because the people of Moseley were too generous. Bless, as they say in Dorset.

Like Notting Hill, which also trades on its racial and social diversity, Moseley has become the suburb of choice for Birmingham's artistic community. Upwardly mobile media types rub shoulders with students and brooding musicians, writers live next door to young offenders' hostels, rich businessmen own houses which are just a couple of hundred yards away from tenements from where the noise of Bangra and drum and bass can be heard. Perhaps a little too loudly at times.

In the Moseley square mile you can find the chief executives of the Birmingham Rep and the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the novelist Jim Crace and various Post and Mail journalists (what is the collective noun for journalists? A scoop? A sensation?).

The manager of the Prince of Wales Pub often serves the group Ocean Colour Scene who made the area famous with their album Moseley Shoals. The playwright David Edgar is just down the road while members of UB40 are still seen knocking around years after they used to practice behind a butcher's shop on the Alcester Road.

Admittedly, there are so many members of UB40 you would be hard pushed not to find one of them living in the area.

It could be said that half of Pebble Mill live off one side of Wake Green Road and most of the CBSO live on the other.

Jim Crace, who has lived in Moseley for 25 years, believes the arty set is attracted to the Village because it reflects their own personality.

"I think that people who are successful in the arts are going to seek somewhere like Moseley because of their own self image. They are not going to enjoy living in Solihull, it's a different culture," he said.

The author believes the area is closer to "a cheap-skate Hampstead" rather than Notting Hill.

"It has all the delights of a north London, socially mixed area without any of the pretension. I have lived in Cambridge which is a preservation area. It's very beautiful but everything you see is about the past.

"In Moseley you feel the future is being built out here. The problems that we face in this country - immigration, bad town planning, pollution and noise - all these things are exemplified in Moseley and we accept that. You don't encounter them in nice little provincial towns.

"You have a very mixed community of people. It's an immensely rich brew and it's hard to think of an area of Birmingham with that mix."

Maurice Dorney, manager of the Moseley Emporium antique shop, says the diversity is part of its charm.

"It's a lively place because it's multi-cultural. There's a bit of everything, people from low-low and people from high-high too. You do get your alkies but you also have those with a bit of money," he said.

The first immigrants to Moseley were the Jewish community, who were followed by the West Indians and more recently the Muslims.

To understand the changes which have occurred in Moseley you could do worse than walk down Park Road which links the Village with Balsall Heath.

When I walked down this street 15 years ago there was synagogue at the top, then a casino and a few yards down from that there was a convent. At the bottom there were usually a couple of prostitutes.

Today only the convent remains. The synagogue is now a Buddhist temple, the roulette wheels stopped spinning at the casino and the prostitutes have been driven to another part of the city.

The rest of village has also changed considerably. The infamous Fighting Cocks pub, a haunt of serious drinkers, has been transformed into the quaintly and geographically-erroneous named Fieldmouse and Ferkin. The Trafalgar Pub, in its time another insalubrious den, is now an Irish theme bar called Patrick Kavanagh while WH Smith's is O'Neill's Bar.

Just as in Notting Hill there has been a marked gentrification. Opposite the Trafalgar an up-market housing complex is being built. In the Village can be found a new French restaurant, a cafe-bar called The Cross with an al fresco seating area and a Mexican restaurant.

Two-bedroom terraced houses on Trafalgar Road, which sold for pounds 50,000 five years ago are now on the market for pounds 75,000. A large Victorian house on the majestic Chantry Road has an asking price of more than pounds 200,000.

The estate agent's brochure tells of "a popular and convenient residential area within short walking distance of the comprehensive shopping facilities that Moseley 'Village' offers together with its wealth of antique shops and excellent local restaurants.

"Recreational facilities include Moseley Private Park and a key is available for approximately pounds 25 per annum."

The private park, between Chantry and Salisbury Roads, is another link with the film Notting Hill which has a scene set in a similar park in the London suburb.

To many it is the large Victorian houses which give Moseley its character. Just as Notting Hill is noted for its multi-coloured Georgian terraces so Moseley is known for its tree-lined streets of elegant red-brick homes.

Too large for today's small families, they have been broken up into flats and apartments and filled with students and young professionals.

There is a danger this social mix may soon come to an end. The students are being driven out by the high rents and the struggling artists are also struggling to afford the rocketing house prices.

Despite Jim Crace's view that the issues affecting Moseley were pollution and planning, most of the people I spoke to were more concerned about there being too many pubs. Moseley could be becoming too trendy for its own good.

"Notting Hill?" said Donald Gardener dismissively," We want to be like Chelsea."
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jun 12, 1999
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