Spaghetti Junction has been the world-famous name for the bottom of Gravelly Hill for almost 50 years – but its arrival spelled the end of an entire neighbourhood and one family’s life at the heart of the site.
There had been a near 50-year period when the crossroads there, helping to link the Lichfield Road with Gravelly Hill, was home to a butcher’s shop called J Rowberry & Son.
It was here that Robert Rowberry’s father Frank – and his father James before him – were the real pillars of the local community thanks to their choice cuts.
They ran the thriving family meat and poultry business from around 1925 to the latter 1960s when the land was cleared.
Motorists driving north along Lichfield Road towards the crossroads could turn left for Slade Road, right for Tyburn Road or go straight ahead for Gravelly Hill.
On the right hand side of the corner with Tyburn Road was Rowberry’s.
Motorists heading into the city from the Erdington or Sutton Coldfield side of town couldn’t miss seeing the shop on the left hand corner of the other side of the oncoming traffic lights with its enticing promise of “daily deliveries.”
Today, the area is a roundabout called Salford Circus, surrounded by the giant concrete supports of Spaghetti Junction and its tangle of flyovers best seen from the air.
On the one hand, Spaghetti Junction is an incredible feat of engineering. Officially opened on May 24, 1972, by Worcester’s Conservative MP Peter Walker, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, it straddles the often unseen rail, canal and river networks below while controlling north, south, east and westbound access to and from the M6 J6.
But for Robert and many other families, it simply wiped out the entire neighbourhood that they’d all grown up with.
Today, HS2 is affecting some other communities elsewhere that have simply found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The signage painted onto the wall above the Rowberry shop at 23 Gravelley Lane promised ‘daily deliveries’.
On the other side of the crossroads was the Erdington Arms aka The Muckham which had Atkinson’s Aston Ales over the front door.
The Rowberry family used to park their cars and shop van there during the day.
Nearby were Regent Stores and the Cafe Regent which had a snack bar, milk bar and ice cream. It also had a snooker table, so Robert says his mother used to tell him: “Don’t go in there!”
A family called “the Uptons” used to run a grocery shop at the bottom of Copeley Hill – now off Slade Road’s junction with Salford Circus – which is today a cul-de-sac wedged up against the M6.
Robert’s research shows the property used to be known as 23 Copeley Buildings before becoming 23 Gravelly Hill.
The first owners he can find were a family called Trickle – Frank married Ada from No 19 and the 1911 census showed they had a six-year-old son called Leslie.
Its second owner, when the shop was called Shropshire House, was a man called John Montague Pierce who had a Model T Ford with the number plate JA 1815.
Robert’s parents began married life at 30 Neville Road in Erdington where they lived from the late 1940s before moving to 65 Shepherd’s Green Road.
While grandad James ran another shop in Aston, some of Robert’s earliest memories of his dad Frank’s shop on the crossroad that became Spaghetti Junction are simple ones.
“My dad was called Ronald, but always known as Frank, his second name,” says Robert, now 73 and living in Redditch with wife Liz.
“I’d be on my way home from Handsworth Grammar School and drop by to make my dad a cup of tea and then I’d cycle home from there.
“We didn’t live in the shop then like my grandad James did.
“My mum. Marguerite, used to work in one of the rooms above which was her office and the two attic rooms had become store rooms.”
Following a compulsory purchase order to tear down the lower Gravelly Hill buildings, subsequent Rowberry’s butchers shops were at Chipperfield Road, Castle Bromwich and Reed Square, Castle Vale – before Frank and Marguerite left Birmingham to retire in the New Forest.”
Spell in London
Robert says he missed out on the actual building of Spaghetti Junction by moving to London.
“I wanted to go to butchery college there,” he says. “I remember my dad only got about £6,000 for the shop which he didn’t think was enough for such a well-established business with so much free will from customers.
“Grandad James had another shop on Church Road in Aston and that also got demolished because of developments near to the Villa ground, so that’s how they ended up in Castle Bromwich / Castle Vale.”
Having been to college in London, Robert says his father didn’t welcome his new ideas. So Robert ended up moving to Sussex with wife Liz for a while to be nearer to her parents.
They now have two sons, one of whom lives in Canada.
Robert worked for a butcher in Sussex and later for one in Redditch, but the work he enjoyed most was a heavy goods vehicle (now LDV) driver delivering Zanussi white goods machines all over the country.
“That was really great, because it meant I could spend a night in Hampshire with my parents and also keep an eye on my wife’s parents in Sussex, too.
“I was named “Driver of the year” two years running simply for doing my job – delivering on time, taking old machines away and all the packaging, too.”
As for meat these days, he says he simply can’t get the quality of cuts that his dad used to sell.
“My wife does the shopping and will go to a couple of local farm shops or Tesco or Morrisons. The meat they sell just isn’t the same.
“There used to be nothing better than having a rib of beef that was cooked so that it was half black and would melt in your mouth. You just get used to the other stuff.
“But I’m very proud of Birmingham still and would hope to become a volunteer who can be of use when the Commonwealth Games are on.
“I think the city centre is lovely these days and that the Perry Barr area will look amazing.”
Although he’s still a diehard Villa fan who used to love watching matches from the Trinity Road stand – he’s got autographs from the likes of Sir Doug Ellis, Peter Withe and Brian Little – Robert is strictly a TV watcher these days.
But he does admit he would love to see current captain Jack Grealish playing in the flesh.
“I’ve only just got used to Villa winning the European Cup (in 1982),” jokes Robert. “Jack’s a sensational player and just needs to be squeaky clean, off the field, now to keep it going.”
Although some sandstone cliffs next to Gravelly Hill had the city’s only caves in them – known locally off Slade Road as “dwarf holes” – Robert says he does not remember playing in or near to them.
According to the History of Birmingham website by William Dargue, Gravelly Hill took its name from “gravelly glacial drift” which made travel easier than on the clay of east Birmingham.
William writes: “Gravel was extracted here commercially. The 1889 Ordnance Survey map shows a gravel pit at the junction of Slade Road and Hillaries Road, at the top end of Powick Road and on the north side of Salford Reservoir.”
The area began to develop after the Gravelly Hill Station was built on the Sutton Coldfield branch line in 1862.
Thought to have resulted from the action of the River Tame, the “dwarf holes” were rediscovered around 1900 during sewerage work.
After being blocked up again they were said to have been used as air-raid shelters during the Second World War.