The River Cole is about 25 miles long. It rises on the lower slopes
of Forehill, one of the south-western ramparts of the Birmingham
Plateau, and enters the Blythe just south of its confluence with
the Tame. The name is pre-Saxon and means 'hazel'. The Cole is an
intriguing stream, much affected by post-glacial events. Its south-flowing
upper reaches were once a tributary of the Blythe, captured when
the faster-flowing Cole cut back to Hob Hill.
The contrast between the relatively straight course to Stechford
and the aimless meandering therefrom is explained by the river's
having been diverted from a confluence with the Tame probably near
Castle Bromwich : an ice-sheet or moraine overlying Hodge Hill and
Shard End obliged the Cole to wander eastward into the Blythe valley.
It is notably lacking in tributaries south of Titterford : the largest,
the Chinn Brook, may have been the original source stream.
Due to lack of replenishing brooks, the quick floods to which the
Cole has always been subject subside as quickly as they rise. This
is because of the impermeable clay across which it flows : the former
dense oak forest cover retained heavy rain, releasing it gradually
but the drained meadows of the modern landscape shed water as fast
as they receive it.
The first documentary record of the river is in the Yardley Charter
of AD 972, where it is 'colle'. More recently various stretches
have been known as Inkford, Mere (boundary), Low, Greet, and Hay
Mill Brook. South of Birmingham it is the county bound : Solihull
Lodge was a C13th 'lodgment' in Kings Norton and Worcestershire
west of the river. From Sparkbrook northward it forms Yardley's
border with Bordesley, Little and Castle Bromwiches. There are 12
watermill sites beside the Cole and 8 or 9 on side-streams.
Today the valley is seen to have three major divisions : the upper
rural, the central suburban and industrial, and the lower rural
again. Within Birmingham the central reach can be conveniently sub-divided
into Cole Valley South, from the boundary at Solihull Lodge / Shirley
to Greet Playing Field, The Ackers, from Greet to Hay Mills, and
Cole Valley North. This article is concerned with the first only.
The attractions of the two-mile walk in the Cole Valley South include
wild birds and many varieties of plant and tree : natural and artificial
watercourses, evidence of past and present water action : fords
and old bridges : three millponds, a large fishpond, and a unique
wetland area : sites of farms and mills : old and new roads, housing
estates : and a visit to the only surviving watermill in the city.
Except for The Ackers, a communications and former industrial zone,
the Cole Valley within Birmingham is a green strip bordered by suburbs.
That it is we owe to the determination of Yardley R. D. C. and its
successor since 1912 the City Council, that the Cole should not
suffer the fate of the Rea - confined in a deep artificial channel
and walled away from view.
While their imaginative plan is still not fully implemented, the
river banks are devoted to allotments, sports fields, recreation
grounds and parks, with some waste land.
The building of a footbridge at Greet will open a continuous walk
to Stechford, and with but a short detour from there to Kingshurst.
In the south we can walk in the green from Slade Lane to Stratford
Road, whence allotments bar the way to Warwick Road.
Our walk beings at the gravel ford on Slade Lane, now concrete-paved
and spanned by a girder bridge. Just south of the ford a channel
leaves the river and is culverted under the lane : this is the headrace
to Titterford Mill, which we follow to the millpool. The 'slade'
is the Cole's boggy valley, whose black silt is churned by motorbikes
and trucks. On the right bank illicit dumping disfigures an interesting
wasteland of secondary growth and winding paths.
At Scribers Lane the early C19th bridge survives, much patched.
Wear on the ford has caused it to spread for thirty yards along
the lane. Excess water from the race here returns to the river down
a sluiceway. The lane is a worn holloway up the east slope. Leisure
Gardens and meadows used for horse-training parallel the river and
the 7 1/2 acre pool, now a park amenity, which formerly provided
6 h.p. to Titterford Mill.
Beyond the meadows is the embankment of the North Warwickshire
Railway line, built by the G. W. R. in 1906-7 : a cattle-creep bridge
which gave access for the stock of Oaklands Farm to the riverside
has been removed. 'Primrose Brook' is culverted beneath the bank
and enters the Cole opposite the pool. On the west of Priory Road
is the council housing estate of 1927, which covers part of Yardley
Wood Common. A vestige thereof remains open as churchyard, schools'
playing field, pastures, and sports ground.
Titterford Watermill was in existence by 1779 : four years later
it was advertised as 'a new water corn mill, two water wheels, four
pairs of stones, dressing mill, and a new wire mach (mesh ?), with
garners of upwards of 2,000 bags of wheat. Also a bakehouse and
implements, and about three acres of meadow'.
The large capital outlay on buildings, machinery, and major waterworks
was justified because of the growing demand for flour in Birmingham
and the lack of spare waterpower there. The complex of buildings
stood at what is now the foot of Trittiford Road. (There are many
variants of the name for the river crossing.) Water went from the
great pool in a deep cutting to a small pond beside the three surviving
horse-chestnut trees, which also was fed by a long leat from Chinn
Brook. Map. Cole Valley - South (B)
After turning the wheels water ran down a tail-race which was well
below river level : Chinn Brook had to be diverted far into the
Dingle, flowing at a lesser gradient than the river, until it could
join the Cole at the same level. Near the great incised meander
in the Dingle the Cole has broken into the brook, and the difference
in levels can be seen.
About mid-C19th a steam engine and house were installed at the
mill, adding 20 hp to its power which was thereafter used to roll
steel for pen-nibs. A fire in the early 1920's necessitated demolition
of the mill, but the attached dairy farm survived a few years longer.
The millpool and its environs, the Dingle, and the Chinn valley,
all were opened to the public more than sixty years ago.
Titterford wain bridge is early C19th. The ford alongside has long
since disappeared under silt deposits. Earthen ramps for the new
bridge by which Highfield Road will sweep across the river and up
the hill to Christ Church have been waiting for 46 years, but progress
is expected in '86.
There is plentiful evidence of water action in the Dingle. An advancing
curve which was encroaching on the gravel path has been infilled,
but farther north the incised meander will probably cut into the
bank no more as much of the flow has been diverted into the tailrace
referred to above.
The remains of many former loops, some of them still lined with
willows, may be seen along the valley : just above the weir the
outline of a pool is defined. Between the two entrances from the
Cole Valley Road (part of a riverside highway made in the Twenties
from Highfield Road to Greet) are former hedge lines, and ridges
and furrows made for drainage : in dry weather the ridges go brown
while the hollows remain green.
Foxes use the valley as a route into the suburbs, geese fly between
the millpool and tributary lakes, and a variety of birds may be
recorded at all seasons.
The weir at 'the Whorl-hole' is modern, serving only to keep up
the water level as an amenity. Its predecessor was higher and retained
a pond which fed the head-race of Sarehole Mill. This half-mile
channel, four yards wide, was cut in 1768, to provide a better supply
than that of Coldbath Brook. Its brick inlet, formerly closable
by a plank sluice-gate, is in poor repair but recognisable. In flood
the race used to hold water, which returned to the river at Four
Arches Bridge, but it has been breached at several points and partly
infilled. Small brick arches still cross its line.
Four Arches Bridge was first recorded in 1822 : it formerly linked
Webb and Old Brook Lanes. The wain ford alongside and the side approached
have disappeared. When the North Warks Line was being built, its
embankment cut off both Webb Lane and Robin Hood Lane : to avoid
the cost of two bridges so close together, a single span was placed
centrally and the lanes diverted to it. Both fords then went out
For two decades the Four Arches Bridge continued to be used, but
then Cole Valley Road was built up : thenceforward the bridge led
nowhere, and it was allowed to fall into ruin until only the arch
courses and piers remained. A local campaign succeeded in achieving
its handsome restoration. The race to Sarehole Mill formerly went
under Brook Lane in a culvert, but this has been blocked and the
line of the race is lost to northward. The spillway from race to
river is seen to be still there, and the slots for the removable
plank weir can be seen.
Old Brook Lane and Wake Green Road met at the bridge. Thereby was
a Tudor farm called Little Sarehole in chequerboard timbering with
a very steep-pitched roof and tall chimney-stack. This was demolished
in the Thirties, being then very tumbled-down. On the lane stood
Brook Farm, which also had tall chimneys to clear the usual temperature
inversion of riverside evenings.
From 1810 both farms belonged to the Webbs, after whom the holloway
lane is named. Brook Farm was razed during WW II, and prefabs were
built along the renamed Coleside Avenue. Old Brook Lane was closed
except for a footpath in the early Sixties. Now 43 homes for the
elderly and infirm are being completed beside the Avenue.
New Brook Lane, a dual carriageway intended to be part of the Outer
Ring Road, was made in the later Thirties to connect with the low
girder bridge which had been built between the two ancient fords.
Across it is a stretch of 'fossil road' : this was part of Wake
Green Road until the early Thirties, but was too near the river
to be developed. Its tarmac is largely silt-covered, but overgrown
hedges still define it. A new road was made thirty yards to the
The riverside walk continues along the abandoned track, past the
site of Robin Hood Lane ford, and across Cotterills Meadow. This
has been Colebank Playing Field for the last sixty years. The chimney
and roofs of Sarehole Mill can be seen ahead.
An optional diversion is rewarding. It is a walk up the grass reservation
of New Brook Lane. between the well-grown poplars, to Swanshurst
Park. This, formerly land of Ivyhouse Farm, was sold by 'Squire'
Taylor to Birmingham Corporation in 1922 and opened as a park. There
is a fine view from the Fire Station across the Cole Valley to the
flat Solihull Plateau : on a clear day the East Warwickshire Heights
near Fillongley Castle can be seen beyond.
Swanshurst Pool (Grove Pool, Moseley New Pool) was made in or before
1759 as a fishpond. All local lakes, whether also used to power
mills or not, were harvested regularly : fresh fish found a ready
sale in Birmingham. A fine grove of beech trees is an unusual feature
of the lakeside. The next valley northward is that of the Coldbath
Brook, on which there used to be four pools. The uppermost is a
hazard in Moseley Gold Course and not accessible.
Next below, in the dip of Yardley Wood Road, is almost wholly overbuilt
: it was the pool of Lady Mill, which went out of use 150 years
Downstream, beyond a sports field which overlies a great floodwater
tank, is the ill-drained bed of a pool which supplied Sarehole Mill
until the 1890's. Today it is known, incorrectly, as Moseley Bog,
the wetland habitat of rare plants. Local residents have prevented
intensive development of the north side which would have altered
its character. Lowest on the brook is Sarehole Mill Pool.
The suffix of the district name is properly 'holm', meaning flood-meadow.
Sarehole Mill, probably early medieval in foundation, was rebuilt
in 1542. Until the 1768 leat was cut, Coldbath Brook was its only
supply. A new large mill was built to use the improved power source,
with three storeys of brick. A breast wheel was used for corn-milling
and a smaller overshot wheel for grinding and boring in the workshop
to the south end.
In 1851 the mill ceased metal-working, and the shop became a miller's
cottage. A steam engine was installed in a tall-chimneyed house
to supplement water power. The breast wheel remained in use until
1919. Four decades later the last tenant died and the mill, property
of the City, was left, open to attack by vandals.
Local concern and gifts of money from many organisations saved
the only watermill left in Birmingham (of sixty two centuries ago)
and it has been lovingly restored. Both wheels are working, a single
grindery and a steam engine have been installed, and the lucam replaced.
The cottage is lowered to its original height and equipped as a
rural workshop. Ducks have returned to the dredged pond. The mill
has been open to the public as a museum of rural industry and life
since 1969. Dates given on the Civic Society plaque are incorrect.
In the mill-meadow three channels join a long tail-race. A spillway
from the Cole demonstrates that the race is at a lower level than
the river. Like the Slade and Scribbers Lane fords, that on Green
Road has been concreted : the wooden footbridge is the latest of
many - earlier ones have been swept away by sudden torrents.
When the meadow below Green Road was opened as part of the riverside
walk in the Sixties, the Cole was re-coursed and two weirs topped
by step-stones were installed. At Stratford Road is the site of
the C13th Greet Mill, whose pool was the ponded river. In 1914 two
brick bridges, over the river channel and a flood-race, were replaced
by a two-arched brick bridge with a stone balustrade : this enabled
tramcars to cross the river and go on to Hall Green. The mill went
out of use about 1843, was demolished and forgotten, but the name
'Greet Mill Hill' for Shaftmoor Lane survived.
There is no riverside access beyond Stratford Road : allotments
occupy most of both banks for half a mile. Open space, an infilled
clay-pit, and a schools' playing field, lies to the north, and when
a footbridge is made across the Cole at the far end there will be
access to The Ackers and Cole Valley North.
A further publication called 'Cole Valley South' giving further
detail will be produced in the Brum Trails series.