Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

14th July 2011

Brum Fun
Posted by at 8.38pm | 2 responses | Out and About

Ticket to Birmingham“You’re going where?”

Such was the reaction from my friends when I told them I was planning to visit Birmingham on Monday. I think I would have earned a less scornful reaction had I organised a weekend break in Basra.

Lots of people say things about Birmingham: it’s a dump, it’s ugly, the local accent is like fingernails on a blackboard. But then again, lots of people say similar things about Liverpool. I was more than prepared, therefore, to give Birmingham the benefit of the doubt; as far as I was concerned it was a place that fulfilled my three criteria for a day out: it was cheap, it was somewhere I’d never been, and I could get there easily from Liverpool South Parkway.

Regular readers will have noted that I was recently forcibly separated from my mobile phone. That was a bit of a downer, and I certainly missed the distraction of music, internet and games during the 93 minute train journey. I had to look out of the WINDOW, for heaven’s sake!

On the other hand, it was strangely liberating to not have the pressure to Tweet my whimsical observations on Britain’s second city every five minutes. I was able to relax and enjoy myself, and save my outpourings for one big enjoyable spurt.

My sole experience of Birmingham prior to Monday was changing trains at New Street station many years ago, en route to a family holiday in Devon. My impression then was that it was one of the few stations to make Liverpool Central look pleasant by comparison, and a decade and a half later it is still grim; a subsurface nightmare of narrow, dimly-lit platforms, polluted by the fumes from a lineup of idling Voyagers.

This may change in the next few years, as the New Street Gateway project is in full swing. Construction is much in evidence all around the station, and when the work is completed it promises to be a much better environment for all concerned.

Birmingham Museum and Art GalleryAs I was phone-less, I needed a map to navigate and headed for the tourist information office. This was located a short walk away from the station, but was closed with a large “We have moved” notice on it. This would have been fine, except the signs in the surrounding streets did not appear to have been updated, and all still pointed to the defunct building. Oops.

Eventually I wandered into Chamberlain Square, home to Birmingham Central Library, which now also housed the tourist information centre. Suitably equipped with a map, I set out to find my first target, The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

…which, as it turned out, was also in Chamberlain Square, directly opposite the Library. Result!

Industrial GalleryAs I entered through the rather grand main doors, a friendly museum staff member greeted me and handed me a plan of the museum. He was so welcoming in fact that I was moved there and then to drop £3 into the donations box. The map proved vital, in fact, as the museum is a bit of a maze of twisty passages and staircases.

Don’t let anyone tell you that there are no pretty buildings in Birmingham. There are plenty, and the Museum, in all its 19th century splendour, is one of them. It’s an impressive structure, both inside and out – the photo to the right is the Industrial Gallery, home to examples of glassware and ceramics throughout the years.

Jake's ProgressOne exhibit that caught my eye was “Jake’s Progress”, a set of ceramic tiles which originally formed part of a temporary LGBT exhibit at the museum, and has now been permanently rehoused amongst more traditional examples of the craft. It purports to show the twelve “stages” in the life of a gay man. A picture is below; click to enlarge, if you’re interested.

I also saw the Buddha Gallery, which is pretty much what you’d expect from the name: lots of statues of the Buddha, including this rather splendid example.

BuddhaFollowing this I spent an hour or so dodging school parties in the art galleries. There are some impressive works here, including a gallery of photos portraying and satirising contemporary Russian life, by an artist whose name sadly escapes me now.

The other great exhibit is that about the Staffordshire Hoard, an amazing find of Anglo-Saxon treasure unearted near Lichfield in 2009. The hoard dates back to the 8th or 9th century and was valued at over £3 million – good news for Terry Herbert, who found it while messing around with a metal detector in a farmer’s field and received half of the hoard’s value for his trouble.

Photography in the Hoard exhibition was not allowed, but I was amused by a cutting from the Sun framed on the wall, which declared that the Anglo-Saxons were just like the Sopranos. I hope you never lose those high standards, News International.

By now it was lunchtime, so I headed to the café for some light refreshment and exited through the gift shop. Where to next?

Midland Metro Route MapOn the edge of the city centre is the Jewellery Quarter, which I had heard had some historic interest. How to get there? It was walkable, but there was also the prospect of… the Midland Metro!

Opened in 1999, line 1 of the Midland Metro (which, so far, is the only line) links Birmingham with Wolverhampton. Although described as a “tram”, there is little actual street running with most of the route using disused railway trackbeds. I hadn’t actually planned to ride it at all, but as I was going to Jewellery Quarter anyway, the transit nerd in me won out, and I headed for the tram stop.

After a little confusion in the city centre – where I managed to forget which of Birmingham’s three main stations the Metro left from – I arrived at the line’s terminus at Snow Hill. If I’m honest, it was rather underwhelming: just a tiny island platform and shelter squeezed in next to the railway station.

I looked around for a ticket machine but could find none. As it turns out, all fares are collected on board the tram by a conductor – a nice, old-fashioned touch, and a world away from the unfriendly ticket machines and harsh penalty fare regimes employed by other systems (*cough* Metrolink *cough*).

Midland Metro ticketWhat it did mean, however, was that I had to sheepishly ask a human being for a return to Jewellery Quarter – only two stops down the line and easily within walking distance for all but the infirm and terminally lazy. It’s probably the easiest £2.80 the Midland Metro has ever made.

I love modern trams, and it’s a continual source of frustration to me that the powers-that-be on Merseyside were never able to get their act together and build the proposed system here. The Midland Metro vehicles are smart and comfortable, and seemed to be popular with the locals – there was a sizeable crowd on board even at lunchtime on a Monday afternoon.

Midland Metro tram at Jewellery QuarterThe doors shut, and we accelerated smoothly away. Just three minutes and two stops later we rolled into Jewellery Quarter. I jumped off and watched the tram disappear into the distance to continue its journey to Wolverhampton.

The Jewellery Quarter stop (again shared with the adjacent National Rail station) appears to be approximately three miles below street level – or at least, that’s the impression I got after climbing up a seemingly endless staircase to get to the exit.

I was rewarded for my efforts with a lovely bit of sculpture business outside the station building.

Jewellery Quarter station

So, the Jewellery Quarter than. It just has a lot of jewellers’ shops. Literally, every shop was selling jewellery of some description. Which was nice, but as a tourist attraction it was a little disappointing. Surely there has to be more to the place than this?

I walked around for a while, hoping that something special would leap out to justify the £2.80 tram fare, but nothing did. There was a Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, which was closed on Mondays, so the secrets of this historic district of Birmingham (it says here) will have to remain hidden from me for now.

Then I saw a sign pointing to the Pen Museum. It amused me, but then I thought it would be an interesting place to while away an hour or so. Unfortunately I couldn’t actually find it, so the ancient history of the pen trade also remained secret to me. Still, I think this museum is marvellous just for existing in the first place.

Sidebar: there is a Lawnmower Museum in Southport.

Pen Museum signBy now the sun was shining brightly and I was feeling the heat. Office workers had emerged from their workplaces to laze around on grass verges or eat their lunch on picnic tables outside.

After an hour or so of exploring the Jewellery Quarter, I was back at the station for my tram back to the city centre. I got to the platform just as a tram pulled out, meaning a 12 minute wait for the next one. I could probably have walked it faster, but where’s the fun in that?

Next I set out to see the Mailbox. All I knew about this place was that it was home to BBC Birmingham, replacing the only slightly less oddly-named Pebble Mill. How could I pass up the opportunity to see where Points of View and the Archers are made?

The Mailbox is a bit of a walk from Snow Hill. I didn’t have to worry about finding it though, as I could see the building looming up before me long before I got anywhere near it.

The Mailbox The Mailbox

The Mailbox is more than just BBC Birmingham. There are upmarket shops (Gieves & Hawkes, that sort of thing), a Malmaison Hotel and – most exciting of all – Network Rail’s offices. I didn’t get a photo because the scariest looking security guard I’d ever seen was hanging around outside the BBC reception area, watching me with suspicion.

To tell the truth, I was rather disappointed by the Mailbox. It looked splendid from the outside, but inside it was rather bland and soulless. There’s clearly been a lot of money thrown at it, and it looks expensive and upmarket, but also rather cold and clinical. I roamed around for a few minutes, past shops where I was unlikely to get any change from £50, and then emerged from the rear of the building.

Rear of the Mailbox, BirminghamNow this was more like it. The Birmingham and Worcester Canal terminates here, and the canalside area has been made into a haven of cafés, parks and towpath walks. It was marvellous, and though I hadn’t planned it, I followed the path some way out. The weather was gorgeous, and I enjoyed a gentle stroll, past Gas Street Basin (where a flotilla of charming narrowboats was tied up) and out as far as Brindleyplace, home to the National Indoor Arena and SeaLife Centre.

My only regret was that it was only early afternoon – had I come here a bit later I would have almost certainly eaten dinner in one of the many cafés or restaurants I saw.

British Waterways sign: "Welcome to the Heart of Britain's Canal Network"Narrowboats on canal, Birmingham

Leaving the canal, I ended up on Broad Street, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. I faced a bit of a trek back into town, so started back, not wanting to waste any time, despite the temptation of the many bars offering £1 shots – is this the student area then?

I stumbled across (almost tripped over, in fact) this paving stone. Apparently Broad Street is home to Birmingham’s “Walk of Stars”, where the city pays tribute to its most famous sons and daughters. Here, we commemorate the host of Golden Balls and one of the top ten purveyors of Robin Reliant-based humour.

Jasper Carrott "Star" on Walk of Stars

Statue of Watt, Boulton and MurdochAs Ie got closer to the city centre again, there was more of interest to see, including this great statue to Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch, whose innovations with steam engines were instrumental in driving Britain’s industrial revolution. It’s a lovely statue, although the gold does make it look (to my eyes at least) like something from a Premiership footballer’s garden.

Just opposite this statue is Centenary Square, where I stopped to rest my weary feet. I watched as a seemingly never-ending stream of foreign exchange students walked past. They didn’t look anywhere near as excited or impressed by Birmingham as I was. Tch, kids today.

Broad Street led back to the Library and Museum where I had started my explorations earlier that day. Having an hour or so to kill before dinner time, I decided to head for the Bull Ring shopping centre.

Ian Allan BookshopEn route, I happened upon the Ian Allan book and model shop, just round the corner from New Street station. Even more exciting, directly opposite it was a branch of “gay lifestyle” store Prowler.

Naturally, I went for a browse in both. Ahem. I’m not going to tell you what I bought though. 🙂

The Bull Ring, in its original 1960s incarnation, became an emblem of Birmingham’s image as an unpleasant concrete jungle. In the 21st century, however, the Brutalist architecture of the original building has been swept away in favour of something much more modern and attractive. I approve most strongly.

Selfridges, the Bullring, BirminghamMy only real exposure to the Bull Ring prior to this was that episode of The Apprentice a few weeks ago, where the candidates had to sell beauty treatments. There was, sadly, no sign of Susie complaining that everyone was too poor – or Leon loudly proclaiming his heterosexuality to anyone in the vicinity.

The Bull Ring is a very nice shopping centre, but it is just that – a shopping centre. I could have found the same stores in Liverpool One. I did venture into Hollister, where I spent five minutes browsing before I realised I was in the “Bettys” section.

Flagging slightly at this point, I headed to one of the three(!) Starbucks outlets in the mall. No sooner had I received my Frappuccino, then the apologetic staff had to start turning away the people behind me in the queue because they ran out of ice. Really, Starbucks? You didn’t expect people to be ordering cold drinks on one of the hottest days of the year?

GWR 2884 Class Loco at Birmingham Moor StreetLeaving the Bull Ring, I took a quick detour to Moor Street station, Birmingham’s third main station and terminus for the alternative Birmingham to London service operated by Chiltern Railways. The station has recently been given a tasteful retro makeover with period signage; a nice touch is the placing of a steam locomotive (a Great Western Railway 2884 Class) on one of the disused tracks. Unfortunately access to the platforms is blocked by ticket barriers, so I had to make do with this shot, taken from the concourse by poking my camera through a fence.

By now it was past 5.30pm and I was hungry. After a little exploration and searching for a suitable eatery, I decided to play it safe and head for Bella Italia. The Calzone I ordered was served up by the friendliest waitress I’d ever encountered (so friendly in fact, that I at first I thought she was being sarcastic).

After that, I just had time for a quick trip to Selfridges, where I managed to drag myself away from the AussieBum underwear concession without buying anything. Then it was back to New Street station at 8pm for my train home.

I had a great day all round. I was slightly hindered by the lack of phone – it would have been useful for navigation purposes, but that didn’t detract from the overall experience. I ended up pleasantly surprised by Birmingham and would definitely go back at some point for a return visit.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses
  1. Comment by Andrew Bromage
    15th July 2011 at 12:58 pm

    When I saw the steam engine pic at Moor st station, was wondering how you got past the ticket barriers, but then read that you didn’t.

    The barriers only went up last year and It’s a shame they’ve had to ruin the retro station with them as every time I’ve taken a train from Moor St there’s always been a conductor on-board checking and indeed selling tickets as most intermediate local station don’t have ticket offices or machines, so really don’t know why they felt the need to install barriers there.

    Oh and I must check out that Ian Allan shop next time I’m passing through Birmingham as it looks like they sell model planes!

  2. Comment by Chris p
    15th July 2011 at 11:25 pm

    I’m glad to see you went to the Jewellery Quarter. It is somwehere that is uniquely Brum – the city of a thousand trades. Sadly these days it is mostly about selling sovereign rings to the locals, rather than actually making jewellery (or pens or keys or buttons), but it is a reminder of the past (see The Jewellery Quarter Research Group) in a city which has demolished just about everything else. There have long been plans to turn it into a sort of ‘urban village’, as it is very walkable to the city centre, but the high rate of muggings and worse helps to explain why many of the apartments which have been built are now empty.

    Your thoughts on Jewellery Quarter station? Admittedly the platforms are about 1000 feet below street level, but for a station built as recently as 1995 in a rather dodgy part of the city, it is very substantial and well designed. It’s not that far to walk to Snow Hill from there, as you mentioned, although there is a fearsome road to cross.