BIRMINGHAM

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Birmingham cityThe second largest city in the UK after London, Birmingham made its mark on the world map during the Industrial Revolution, when it was at the forefront of many groundbreaking innovations in science and technology. With nicknames such as the “Workshop of the World” and “City of a Thousand Trades,” it is not difficult at all to deduce what the city is most known for. Although contributing greatly to the city’s economic success, the Industrial Revolution did take its toll on Birmingham on the aesthetic front. The effects of the Second World War were no less devastating, as the city suffered significant bombing and went through redevelopment in the post-war years that resulted in ugly tower blocks and ring roads marring the physical character of the city.

Nevertheless, Birmingham today is pulsating with a strong cultural heartbeat, with excellent museums and world-class performing groups like the City of Birmingham Orchestra and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. Despite the traumas suffered during the war, architectural treasures remain in the form of places of worship and civic buildings such as the Town Hall and the Council House.

Birmingham is colloquially referred to as Brum, its residents “Brummies” and their dialect, “Brummagem.” Its increasingly multicultural face can be seen in the seemingly limitless choices of cuisine. Birmingham’s Chinatown and “Balti Mile,” the Kashmiri district, are two popular ethnic cuisine concentrations in the city. Birmingham is also the only city in England, apart from London, with three Michelin-starred restaurants. 

Only two hours away from London by train, Birmingham is easily accessible and a great base from which to explore the West Midlands.

History
Birmingham was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a small village. By the 13th century, however, industry had been established in the town, and Birmingham became prominent in the wool trade. Its proximity to iron ore and coal supplies enabled Birmingham to waste no time in developing to become one of England’s major players in the metal industry by the 16th century. During the Industrial Revolution from the mid-18th century onwards, Birmingham became the centre of industry and innovation - not least evident in the establishment there of the Lunar Society, an assembly of some of the foremost thinkers of the time. 

Birmingham canal networkBirmingham’s canal system was built during the 19th century. That, together with the arrival of the railway, further supported the development of its industries. It was also around this time that Birmingham’s population grew exponentially, making it the second largest city in England.

As a result of the tragic consequences brought by the Second World War to the city, Birmingham underwent significant redevelopment in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Later, the recession of the 1980’s was to hit the city hard, causing damage to its economy and society. Nevertheless, Birmingham has been undergoing yet another phase of redevelopment in recent years, seeing the restoration of streets and canals, as well as refurbishment projects such as that of the Bull Ring shopping centre. 


Layout
Birmingham has, rather confusingly, three main railway stations in the city centre, all three of which are within walking distance from each other. Hence, if making train connections out of Birmingham, be sure to check exactly which station your train leaves from. Birmingham New Street and Moor Street stations are most conveniently located, with a plethora of shopping malls and streets in close proximity. The Bull Ring is probably the most outstanding - you cannot miss it as you walk out of Moor Street station.

 The town hall is on Victoria Square, a little to the northwest of New Street station, with several museums, theatres, and churches within a 500m radius from the Square. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is located right across the street from the town hall. Centenary Square and the Convention Centre are further to the west.

To the south of New Street and Moor Street stations are Chinatown, and the Digbeth bus station.

 

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The Town Centre can generally be taken to be the area encompassing Victoria Square, Chamberlain Square and Centenary Square. These squares are pedestrianised, and contain many of the important landmarks and architecturally significant buildings in Birmingham.

Birmingham City HallOn Victoria Square is, aptly enough, a statue of Queen Victoria, as well as a fountain with a huge sculpture of a bathing woman. The fountain and indeed, the whole pedestrianised square you see today, are relatively recent changes to Birmingham’s cityscape, having been constructed during a phase of redevelopment between 1992 and 1994. Affectionately known by locals as “The Floozy in the Jacuzzi”, she sits right in front of the Council House. This magnificent building was built between 1874 and 1879, and is still used by the Birmingham City Council today. The beautiful Town Hall was initially planned as the home for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival in 1784. Designed based on the Temple of Castor and Pollux in Rome, it has been recently refurbished and is still used as an important concert venue today.

Chamberlain Square is adjacent to Victoria Square, and contains many statues, as well as the Chamberlain Memorial, dedicated to Joseph Chamberlain, one of Birmingham’s most notable mayors. It is also home to the striking Birmingham Central Library and the Museum and Art Gallery (see below).

Centenary Square, another pedestrianised square to the west of the Central Library, was named in 1989 on the occasion of the centenary of Birmingham having achieved city status. On this square you will find the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the International Convention Centre and Symphony Hall (Home to the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra), and the Hall of Memory, a war memorial to Birmingham residents who gave their lives during World War I.

Birmingham Museum & Art GalleryBirmingham Museum and Art Gallery [Chamberlain Square, +44 121 3031966, Free admission, donations welcome] This fascinating museum houses an impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Other collections include the Antiquities, Ethnography, and Social History collections, as well as galleries on Birmingham local history. Additionally, artefacts from the earthshaking recent discovery – the Staffordshire Hoard (see Stoke-on-Trent) – will be visiting the museum until December 2011. The Edwardian Tea Room is a great place to relax and recharge in between galleries.
Botticelli 'Madonna and Child with infant Saint John the Baptist'

Barber Institute of Fine Art [University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, +44 121 4147333, Free admission] This museum will be the highlight of your trip to Birmingham if you are a lover of fine art. It houses a world-renowned collection of European art, including works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Gainsborough, Turner, Ingres, Monet, Degas and Van Gogh. Besides paintings, the Barber also displays collections of sculpture, prints and drawings, and coins. Monet 'The Church at Varengeville'Located in the University of Birmingham, the Barber shares building space with the university’s departments of History of Art and Music. The Music department puts on regular Friday lunchtime concerts at the Barber Concert Hall. To get here, take a train from Birmingham New Street station to University Station, or buses 61, 62 or 63 from the City Centre (ask for the University).

Ikon Gallery [1 Oozells Square, +44 121 2480708, Free admission] Located west of Centenary Square in a refurbished Neo-Gothic school building, this contemporary art gallery houses changing exhibitions of visual art, as well as other events like book launches, talks and workshops. Check the website for the calendar of events. On site, Café Ikon is a modern, cozy place that serves Spanish tapas, cakes and pastries, as well as hot food during lunch and dinner times. 

Cathedral Church of St. Philip (Birmingham Cathedral) [Colmore Row, +44 121 2621840, Free admission, donations welcome] Built in the early 1700’s, the Baroque architecture and stained glass windows, created by the artist Edward Burne-Jones, are the cathedral’s main draws. The cathedral grounds are well-maintained, offering a place to contemplate, relax and escape from the bustle of the city. 

Aston HallAston Hall [Trinity Road, Aston, +44 121 6754722, Free admission] Recently redeveloped, Aston Hall reopened in 2009, displaying splendid furnished interiors from the 17th to 19th centuries. The Jacobean mansion was originally built in 1618, and to this day the Great Staircase and Long Gallery remain impressive features. Apart from admiring the beautiful interiors, visitors can also learn about the history of the Hall and its residents, including royal visits and its part in the English Civil War. A special gallery in the stables introduces visitors to the history of the Aston area. Located in Aston, a suburb to the northeast of Birminham city centre, Aston Hall is a ten to fifteen-minute walk from either Aston or Witton train stations.

Birmingham Back to Backs [55 – 63 Hurst Street, +44 121 6667671, A: £6.00, C: £3.00] Get right into the lives of the working classes in Birmingham over four time periods from 1840 to 1977, on an eye-opening guided tour through the city’s last surviving court of Back to Back housing. This type of housing, built literally back-to-back, and surrounding a courtyard, could be constructed and kept warm at lower cost – they thus became common during the population boom that came with Birmingham’s industrialisation in the 19th century. Visiting the Back to Backs is by guided tour only, and it is highly advisable to book in advance, due to the popularity of the tours. Bookings are only accepted via telephone (at the phone number above).

Museum of the Jewellery Quarter [75 – 79 Vyse Street, +44 121 5543598, A: £3.50, C: Free] Originally the Smith & Pepper Jewellery manufacturing firm, this museum remains pretty much as the factory was left upon its closure in 1981. Lovingly restored by former employees, the museum today is a living and breathing museum, which will give an interesting insight into Birmingham’s strong jewellery making heritage. A visit includes a one-hour guided tour, and demonstrations of how the Smith & Pepper bangle was made. The museum won the Best Small Visitor Attraction in the Enjoy England Awards for Excellence 2010.

Soho HouseSoho House [Soho Avenue (Off Soho Road), Handsworth, +44 121 5549122, Free Admission] The home of the eminent Matthew Boulton, one of the figures at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, Soho House is a beautifully restored treasure that will be a must-see on the itinerary of anyone interested in the Industrial Revolution. This house is believed to be the first centrally heated house in England since Roman times, and is also famous for being the meeting venue of the Lunar Society, a group of forward thinkers who spearheaded the Industrial Revolution. Among the big names who met in this house are James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley.  The visitor today will see the very dining room in which they met, as well as other elegantly furnished Georgian interiors and the 18th century garden. Soho House is about 2.5km (1.6 miles) northwest of the town centre and accessible by buses 74, 78 and 79.

Blakesley Hall [Blakesley Road, Yardley, +44 121 4642193, Free Admission] is a timber-framed house dating all the way from 1590. It was owned by Richard Smallbroke, a wealthy Birmingham merchant and farmer. The house is furnished as it might have been during his time, giving a taste of a well-to-do family’s lifestyle in the Tudor and Stuart periods. Blakesley Hall is located about 5km (3.2 miles) east of the town centre, and accessible by bus – check with the tourist information for details.  

Sarehole MillSarehole Mill
[Cole Bank Road, Hall Green, +44 121 7776612, Free Admission] was built in 1765, although there has been a mill on the site since 1540. It is one of only two watermills that still exist in Birmingham today, although the riverbanks around the city were dotted with more than seventy such mills in the past. A peaceful escape from the modern hectic pace of life, Sarehole Mill is also part of the Tolkien Trail – the author lived in the area during his childhood, and you can see for yourself the landscape that inspired his great work.

National Sea Life Centre [3A Brindley Place, +44 121 6436777, A: £17.88, C: £14.34, Concession: £17.40 (discounts in all categories if booked online)] Part of the Sea Life group of attractions across the UK and internationally, the Birmingham location boasts the UK’s first hammerhead sharks and a 4D cinema. During school holidays it is best to book tickets online in advance and turn up early to beat the long queues.

Shopping
Selfridge's BuildingBirmingham is a haven for those whose interests incline towards shopping – there is no shortage of malls, many of them newly refurbished, as well as smaller niche shops catering to every taste. The Bullring shopping mall, with its striking architecture, is one of the latest malls to reopen after a period of refurbishment. Standing on the site of the city’s traditional market place, it now boasts over 160 shops including many major international brand names. The Custard Factory [Gibb Street, Digbeth], 800 paces from the Bullring, is an edgy arts and media quarter, housing artists’ studios and an eclectic range of independent shops. If its name sounds quirky to you, that’s because the buildings used to house Sir Alfred Bird’s factories, which produced the custard that he invented. The premises only stopped churning out the yellow stuff in the 1980’s, and the artists took over in 1990. Today a visit will be memorable, even if just for the atmosphere – that is, if you can resist the urge to buy something. Brindleyplace and Mailbox are two other developments, just west of the city centre, that sprang up in the 1990’s, both concentrations of trendy shops, bars and restaurants. 

Finally, a Canal Cruise is a good way to relax while learning about Birmingham’s extensive canal network – Birmingham residents will be proud to say that they have more canals than Venice! This canal system was an instrumental aspect of the city’s industrial heritage. Canal tour operators include Second City Canal Cruises at Gas Street Basin, and Sherborne Wharf at the International Convention Centre Quayside.

 


Aztec Jungle, Cadbury WorldCadbury World [Linden Road, Bourneville, +44 844 880 7667, A: £14.30, C: £10.40, Concession: £10.90].   The name says it all – this theme park and visitor centre, devoted to all things chocolate and Cadbury, cannot be skipped over in any chocolate lover’s itinerary. Divided into fourteen zones each devoted to a separate time in the history of chocolate or a part of the chocolate production process, there is enough to keep you occupied for a good two to three hours. There is also a café on-site and “The World’s Largest Cadbury Shop” where you can overdose on chocolate to your heart’s content. Cadbury World is located 6.4km (4 miles) south of Birmingham city centre, in Bourneville Village, a specially built village for employees of Cadbury in the 20th century. Pre-booking your ticket online is highly recommended and also gives you a small discount off tickets bought at the door.

 

 


Black Country Museum (Rolfe Street Baths)Generally understood to refer to the area in the West Midlands north of Birmingham and south of Wolverhampton, the Black Country (pronounced linked together as one word rather than two separate words) is an interesting culturally and historically significant region in the UK. It was where a high concentration of ironworking factories were located, and hence its name is believed to have come from the smoke and soot engulfing the landscape at the height of industrial activity in the mid 19th century.

Today the Black Country is often taken to encompass the four Metropolitan District Council areas of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton, although this can be contentious – some accounts do not consider Wolverhampton part of the Black Country at all. Dudley is the largest town in the Black County, and is sometimes considered its unofficial “capital.”

Black Country Museum (Underground Mine)In Dudley you can visit the Black Country Living Museum [map-1, Tipton Road, Dudley, +44 121 557 9643, A: £13.60, C: £7.10] which makes a good day out.  In this open-air museum you are transported back in time to the mid-19th century, to witness factory workers going about their daily tasks and even descend into an underground mine. The museum consists of original buildings relocated from different parts of the Black Country, and authentic period vehicles such as tramcars and trolley buses ply the streets, offering a fun means of getting around the museum.   

 

Dudley Castle & ZooYou can also visit the Dudley Zoo [map-2, 2 The Broadway, +44 844 474 2272, , A: £11.30, C: £8.90, Concession: £9.90], which sits within the grounds of Dudley Castle. The ruins of the castle form an atmospheric backdrop to the zoo. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Wolverhampton Art GalleryThe city of Wolverhampton is situated about 19km (12 miles) to the northwest of Birmingham. It is surrounded on the north and west by the Staffordshire and Shropshire countryside, and can thus be a good base if exploring either of these beautiful areas. A market town with a thriving wool trade in medieval times, Wolverhampton became an important industrial town during the Industrial Revolution. The city can also claim to have installed England’s first automatic traffic lights, at Princes Square, in 1927. Today the traffic lights at that junction are still marked with the traditional black-and-white bands to commemorate the originals.

Wolverhampton Art Gallery 'Georgian Room'Wolverhampton Art Gallery [map-1, Lichfield Street, +44 1902 552055, Free Admission] holds the second largest collection of pop art in England after the Tate, as well as a range of fine pieces from the 18th century onwards.

Located just 1.6km (1 mile) outside of Wolverhampton, Bantock House [map-2 (west of map limits), Finchfield Road, +44 1902 552195, Free Admission], the Bantock family home since the 1730’s, is an Edwardian period house where you can discover the lives of a family in high society in the early 20th century. The house is set amidst gardens recreated according to the original designs of Albert Baldwin Bantock, the last owner of the house and Mayor of Wolverhampton.

 

 

 

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