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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-effect 19th century stained glass windows designed by Birmingham artist Edward Burne-Jones

In Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery we gaze in awe at the largest public collection of Pre-Raphaelites in the world. And, in the Jewellery Quarter, where 400 specialists ply their craft, we visit an old bracelet factory frozen in time where the workers literally hung up their coats and shut the door on an intriguing time capsule. It’s now the award-winning Museum of the Jewellery Quarter.

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-ups and Brylcreem – just in case any male workers thought about getting away with a few bobs’ worth of gold dust in their slicked-back hair or trouser bottoms – Sophie is busily scanning the floor. Factory bosses recycled every last speck of their precious gold dust and £10,000 worth of it was sold off when the cellars were swept out. They even had the water from the workers’ hand basins filtered.

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-year-old Peruvian pottery and whistling kettles sculpted like seals and cats and displays of silver, sculpture and ceramics, we come across The Stranger’s Guide to Birmingham. This tells the stories behind the city. And what a history! This is a place which shot up as a result of markets and the entrepreneurial spirit of one Peter de Birmingham who, 900 years ago, bought a market charter from the king. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the city’s growth was immense. As a mecca for gifted entrepreneurs and hard grafters, Birmingham’s population rose from an estimated 11,500 to around 147, 000 people.

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-provoking displays, from the science of genetics and the medical and social issues it raises to the latest in brain research from the city’s surgeons. I love the ‘blood station’, which likens our circulatory systems to a train destinations board and all the things that blood carries to passengers. Steam engines, aeroplanes and traction engines dominate The Past section, whilst in another area we find micro air vehicles which could be used by emergency services to help them see what is hidden in dangerous and enclosed environments.

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-fashioned sweetshop on the corner”. He’s practically drooling. We’re not; we’ve just eaten the most gorgeous fish stew (me) and a huge mound of brownies with chocolate sauce and cream (daughter Sophie). I think something’s a bit fishy when our guide at the Back to Backs holds up a seemingly incongruous oyster shell in these homes for ‘poorer people’ who could not afford fresh meat. The fact that shellfish were cheap is just a taste of the quirky information imparted by the National Trust volunteer guides as we make ourselves comfortable in front of a cosy fireplace. And yes, the Back to Backs are not like other NT properties where you are most certainly not allowed to touch; here you mostly can. These homes were built as a cheap solution to the problems of housing the large number of people who moved to the city in the 1800s. We travel through time from an 1830s-styled house to 1966, when the buildings were condemned. Another gem of information, which Sophie finds highly amusing, is that the three Back to Backs in the front – now holiday lets – have chamber pots under the bed which guests can use.

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.


Ever-changing Birmingham may roll with the times at astonishing speed, but it has plenty of intriguing windows to the past

WORDS: Helen Werin


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-classical Town Hall now an acclaimed concert venue and the Grade II* listed landmark that is Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Then there’s the stunning modern architecture such as Selfridges’ façade of 16,000 silver discs, the International Convention Centre and the Library of Birmingham, said to be Europe's largest public library. The Mailbox still appears, at least from the outside, like Europe’s largest sorting office. It was built to withstand a nuclear bomb, but now it’s a posh and pristine mall of designer shops and eateries. All this is set amid a rich pattern of well-used canals and thriving quarters, each with a unique industrial history, as befitting a place once known as ‘the workshop of the world’ and ‘the city of 1000 trades’.

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.

More photos

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. www.visitbirmingham.com/what-to-do/things-to-do-for-free


* www.visitbirmingham.com

* www.visitsealife.com/birmingham

* www.cadburyworld.co.uk

* www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birmingham-back-to-backs

* www.thinktank.ac

* www.hotelduvin.com

* www.bmag.org.uk (museums)