This is also a city where we only have to scratch the surface a little to find some
extraordinary gems. St Philip’s Cathedral, for example, appears small from the outside
by most cities’ standards. Yet, inside, are the four fabulous jewelled-
In Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery we gaze in awe at the largest public collection
Sophie, my teenage daughter, is stunned in to silence for once by the tales told by our guide about the days when the museum was Smith and Pepper’s factory. The most disturbing story concerns the woman who used to make the tea here. She also used to keep a jar of potassium cyanide on her desk as part of her gilding and electroplating work. In case you don’t already know, this horribly poisonous stuff looks just like sugar. ‘Not a lady to get on the wrong side of, then!
As we learn about the bans on turn-
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has to be one of the best museum and art galleries
that I have ever been in. Past the 40 or so galleries of magnificent paintings, 2000-
It’s fascinating to see a drawing from around 1800 showing the Bull Ring with a modest water pump, jumble of small shops and market stalls and, in the centre, the iron ring. The artist, Samuel Lines, described the area as being “choked with filth.”
I read a rather poignant ode about the relentless progression of development in Birmingham, albeit written in 1825. The author, William Dobbs, was reflecting on how the city used to look.
“There’s hardly a single place I know and it fills my heart with grief and woe, for I can’t find Brummagem.” he lamented. If only he could see his city now!
During our long weekend in Birmingham we jump from past to present and to the future
– and back again – with alarming speed. The Thinktank Birmingham Science Museum is
Sophie’s idea of paradise, with loads of experiments and buttons to press. We spend
ages building our own ‘alien’ to withstand life on different planets. There are thought-
As he serves our lunch, our waiter at the Birmingham Marriott Hotel tells me how
he likes to buy 1kg bars of Dairy Milk from the world’s biggest Cadbury shop at Cadbury
World in Bournville and dunk the squares in peanut butter. We’d been discussing just
how many chocolate bars and tastings we’d enjoyed as we toured Cadbury World that
morning (rather a lot and mostly by Sophie!). When I tell him that we are about to
visit the Back to Backs – the city’s last surviving court of houses built around
a communal courtyard – his reaction is; “Ooh, there’s an amazing old-
Fish – succulent sea bass this time – is on the menu again on our last night, at cosy Del Villaggio in Broad Street and the next day as part of our four course Sunday brunch at the Hotel du Vin in the former eye hospital in Church Street. We’re told to take as much time over brunch as we like – and don’t we need it! Sophie passes over the fresh seafood and crustacea amid the artistic centrepiece of charcuterie and salads which provide the second course. Perhaps it’s something to do with having got very close to 2000 or so marine creatures, including Hammerhead Sharks and an enormous turtle at National SEA LIFE Birmingham earlier in the day.
Centuries ago the people of Birmingham used to bait bulls with dogs for fun. Apparently it made the animals’ meat more tender. It seems that peoples’ main occupation nowadays is shopping or sipping coffee in the Bull Ring, the swish centre built around the spot where the bulls were once tethered. Close by is the Birmingham Rag Market, where, I’m told by a friendly local, you can “get anything” and “things you didn’t even know that you wanted”.
This makes me recall a visit to the Bull Ring back in my schooldays. For years I’d harboured this vision in my head of Birmingham as a grey and grim concrete city centre surrounded by subways. Now that illusion is well and truly shattered. The ‘kaleidoscope’ city has shown me far more enticing views.
WORDS: Helen Werin
PHOTOGRAPHY: Robin Weaver
Birmingham’s a curious city to behold. It’s a bit like a kaleidoscope, constantly
changing. At first glance, it’s a sea of cranes, building sites, factories and some
ugly 1960s/70s concrete monstrosities. But a few twists and turns here and there
show grand Victorian buildings, among them the neo-
To truly appreciate the eclectic character of Birmingham we explore some of the towpaths of the city’s 103 miles of canals; in fact, there are more miles of canals here than in Venice. Our route skirts vast malls packed with every type of restaurant imaginable and across impressive squares with fountains, statues and colonnaded halls.
My initial impression? This is a city which doesn’t stand still for a minute. There’s something either going up, coming down or going on around every corner. Locals must go away on holiday and have a few surprises when they get back.
Brindley Place and the Birmingham Canal
* Birmingham Marriott Hotel, 12 Hagley Road, Five Ways, Birmingham, England B16 8SJ. Tel: 0121 452 1144, www.marriott.com
* There are lots of free things to do besides those mentioned, including lovely parks
and free concerts and events at the Town Hall and Symphony Hall throughout the year.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
* www.bmag.org.uk (museums)
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