Birmingham – The centre of England

Posted by admin | April 12, 2009 2
The Bullring

So, off on Easter Saturday for a leisurely rail trip through some of the lovely countryside of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire from Prince’s Risborough to the city which bills itself as the Heart of England. Birmingham has changed quite dramatically in recent times and the city centre has undergone huge changes. For this trip we went on the more civilised route to Birmingham picking up the train from Marylebone at Prince’s Risborough for a scenic trip through Shakespeare Country and the heritage towns of Warwick and Leamington Spa. Regular Blogistas will know I particularly dislike Euston Station where the alternative and more expensive Virgin Trains depart from but this was not an option on this busy Bank Holiday weekend as once again, disgracefully, Network Rail had been allowed to shut down Britain’s main West Coast railway line just when people would want to travel!

Plaque commemorating the restoration
of Moor Street

Another advantage of taking this route is that you arrive in Birmingham not at the soulless 60’s concrete disaster known as New Street Station but at the wonderfully restored Moor Street which was the Great Western Railway’s (GWR) Birmingham Station and has been restored in authentic 30’s style with paintwork in GWR brown and authentic signage. Birmingham Moor Street railway station is one of three main railway stations in the city centre of Birmingham, England. The Grade-II listed building has been partially renovated to its 1930s condition at a cost of £11 million. Original architecture was preserved and some remaining pieces of the old (demolished) Snow Hill station used to further enhance it. Refurbished in 1930s style, the station now has reproduction lamps, clock, seating and signage. Passengers are routed through the old station, which now provides the booking office and ticket area for the new station. Passengers for London-bound trains cross a new footbridge to platform 1. The renovation won the Railway Heritage Trust award for 2004 and The Birmingham Civic Society’s Renaissance Award for 2005. The station became home to the second GWR 2884 Class 2-8-0 No. 2885 steam locomotive.

Moor Street Station Concourse

GWR 2884 Class 2-8-0 No. 2885 steam locomotive

Strange then to think that this station lay unused and crumbling for many years with one wall dangerously cracked after a bus crashed into it! In a reversal of fortune the post war redevelopment which resulted in the destruction of the Victorian New Street and its replacement by a precast concrete horror with the Palisades Shopping Centre above it, which is equally past its “sell by date”, looks peculiarly short sighted as New Street, scene of many a brief encounter, is limited in capacity by the sharp turn on the approach tunnel and the commercial development and cannot cope with increased passenger numbers. As a result additional trains are being routed into Moor Street. This state of affairs is even sadder when you consider Birmingham’s unique place in railway history. For in the Curzon Street Station you have arguably the oldest mainline rail terminus building in the world. It was here on 17th September 1838 that the first London to Birmingham train arrived at the very birth of railways. Built to the designs of Sir Philip Hardwick the architect of Euston Station, London, it echoed his magnificent design there which was so crassly demolished in 1962. It was designed in the style of a triumphant Roman Arch to echo his Euston Arch and provided two dramatic visual bookends to the first railway route between London and a major city. This Grade 1 listed building is currently unoccupied and at risk.

Curzon St. Station
Birmingham’s New Street Station

The other advantage of going to Moor Street Station is that it is directly opposite Selfridges and the Bullring Shopping Centre. Out of towners are discovering what Brummies have known for years that Birmingham is a great and well priced shopping destination but more than that it offers great variety and human interest. For it has six main shopping centres, a whole complex of indoor and outdoor markets, atmospheric Victorian arcades, a jewellery quarter where 40% of Britain’s jewellery is manufactured, a Chinatown and interesting waterside developments such as Brindleyplace Square and the Mailbox. All this against a backdrop of ethnic diversity which sees shopkeepers and restaurants from many traditions and cultures makes for a highly engaging mix.

Bullring Centre

Birmingham is home to one of the largest shopping centres in Europe – The Bull Ring, whose most dramatic feature is the Selfridges Department Store. The British architects Future Systems designed this new store with the blob-skin of the building is clad in 15,000 aluminium discs. According to the architects the facade refers to the dresses with metal discs of designer Paco Rabanne of the sixties, but also to the stonework on the facade of the 16th century Gesu Nuovo in the city of Naples, Italy. In the 16th century a man called John Cooper was given the right to bait bulls at a site opposite St Martins Church, this became known as the Bull Ring, hence the name of the shopping centre and the rather robust sculpture of a snarling bull which adorns the public space.


Opposite the Bullring Shopping centre you will find the veritable Aladdin’s cave of markets which lend so much athmosphere to shopping in Birmingham and provide such an antidote to clone town Britain. The original Market Hall, with room for 600 stalls and an ornamental fountain, was built in 1835 but destroyed in WW11, like much of Birmingham’s centre. So today the replacements are not of the same (or indeed any!)architectural merit but here you will find the Bullring Indoor and Outdoor Markets, The Rag Market which reminds us of the textile manufacturing heritage of the Midlands, the New Street Farmers market and the bohemian Custard Factory is a discovery in itself. Its Sunday Flea market is an arts and crafts fest where you discover the remarkable. Sometimes the extraordinary. And occasionally, the downright ‘I’ve not seen one of them in 20 years’. It’s slap bang in the middle of Birmingham’s art quarter. This 5-acre sprawl of riverside factories was built 100 years ago by Sir Alfred Bird, the inventor of custard. At one time he had a thousand people making the stuff. Some even say it helped create the British Empire. But by the early 1980s it had long since lost its mysterious appeal and the factories fell derelict. Alfred Bird was a chemist who invented baking powder and invented his instant custard as his wife was allergic to eggs.

A Jelly Belly Bully!
Outdoor Markets

Covered Market

Birmingham’s many immigrant communities from Asia, Caribbean and Africa have embraced and animated the markets to which they have literally added spice and their own unique brand of entrepreneurship. Six days a week, stallholders sell while they yell their great deals. The Indoor Market is famous for its selection of fresh meats, fish and produce – no supermarket can touch it for choice, price or atmosphere. Discover oodles of goodies; sweets, lingerie, bits and bobs for your gardens or pets. You name it. They’ve got it.

The Midlands of England

Generally the ambience in the pedestrianised city centre is relaxed with the characteristic Brummie friendliness and familiarity to the fore. I discovered a dramatic example of this in the manic Primark store in New Street. For those who don’t know Primark it is an Irish managed company (The original store where the business model was developed is Penneys in Dublin) which is Britain’s most successful fashion retailer specialising in “instant” fashion of well priced items. Suffice to say the ambience is minimal, the footfall huge and the stores get trashed, particularly today at 4.30 on a Saturday. In the menswear department I asked the girl who was tidying the trashed displays did they have a certain size of jacket which was not on the display. To my amazement (cos, I wouldn’t have dared ask in London!) she went off to to the storeroom and came back smiling with my size. So really excellent customer service at the end of a tiring day young Monica in menswear and I hope Primark’s MD Arthur Ryan picks up on an employee they can be proud of! People from Birmingham are known as ‘Brummies’, a term derived from the city’s nickname of Brum. This comes in turn from the city’s dialect name, Brummagem, which is derived from one of the city’s earlier names, ‘Bromwicham’. There is a distinctive Brummie dialect and accent, both of which differ from the adjacent Black Country.

Birmingham City Centre

Other shopping options for the visitor are the elegant Victorian arcades such as the Great Western and Piccadilly Arcades. The Great Western Arcade is an important part of the City of Birmingham’s proud Victorian heritage. Built in 1876 to a design influenced by the Great Exhibition at London’s Crystal Palace in 1851, the Arcade spans a tunnel created for the railway line between Snow Hill and Moor Street stations.

Piccadilly Arcade

The Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham is a bustling reminder of the metalworking skills of the midlands (Jewellery in Birmingham, watches and Clocks in Coventry) which drew industrialists to the skilled workforce at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. The Jewellery Quarter still makes 40% of UK jewellery and many shops have their own craftsmen and women, so if you are not tempted by the wide variety on offer you can also commission something to your own design. Whether it is birthstone jewellery for a gift, a necklace or a diamond ring for somebody special, from Valentine’s Day and Christmas to Engagements and Weddings, the Quarter is the place to shop. The Quarter also boasts Europe’s largest School of Jewellery and many of the graduates have set up business in the area. Their contemporary jewellery can be seen at outlets in the area such as Artfull Expression in Warstone Lane, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, St Paul’s Square and the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Vyse Street. For a different experience try a visit to Fellows Auctioneers in Augusta Street, the UK’s largest jewellery auction house which also holds auctions ranging from antique furniture to watches and clocks. This tradition of fine metal working is reflected still in the Birmingham Mint and that Birmingham has one of the four official Assay Offices for the U.K. whose marks on jewellery certify the quality of the precious metals used. The shops of the Jewellery Quarter are centred around the Chamberlain clock tower on Warstone road and spread out over about half a mile or so. Most of the shop only date from the 1970’s and are therefore not exactly architectural gems themselves.The gems themselves are of course the draw – the standard of diamonds that you can purchase here, after a bit of shopping around, often equate to about half the purchase price in a high-street Jeweller.

Gas Street Canal Basin

Birmingham is ‘Britain’s canal city’. As such, it has many canal-side walks and much industrial heritage is still present with canals that were built over 200 years ago. The same is true of buildings that site alongside. Birmingham was, until the 18th century, a small and relatively insignificant settlement on the banks of the River Rea. However, it shot to prominence with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, not least because of its natural position at the crossroads of a canal and river system which extended from London to Liverpool and from Bristol to the Humber estuary. There were also rich mineral deposits around the Black Country. The effect of this was to produce the most extensive urban waterway in the world – over 160 miles of navigable canal, mostly between Birmingham and Wolverhampton but also extending some way northwards into Staffordshire, with vast numbers of basins and wharves. Five canal systems converge in Birmingham as the BCN, the Birmingham Canal Navigation, giving the city the most waterways of any city in Britain. Birmingham’s Gas Street Basin and the whole of the waterfront area has undergone something of a radical change in recent years, with tumbledown warehouses replaced by low level offices and trendy pubs, restaurants and many other leisure orientated buildings. The once derelict land giving way to glaring multi-storey hotel and conference complexes. This has brought new life into these canal side areas and the new appearance coupled with easy access walkways, has rekindled public interest in these once forgotten city centre cuts. Some idea of the complexity of the BCN can be gained from the fact that it contains 27 navigable junctions within the city.

The arrival of the railways in the mid 19th century heralded a change in fortunes for the waterway network nationally. However, the subsequent widespread abandonment, decay and dereliction did not extend to the BCN as a whole, partly due to the fact that local industry was heavily canal orientated. So whilst goods were rail bound for longer journeys, Birmingham and Black Country industry was encouraged to collect cargoes by boat from numerous rail/canal interchange basins which sprang up around the region. Birmingham became a hub of the railway system with many competing and overlapping lines which even after the depredations of the Beeching closures in the 1960s still provide an extensive Birmingham commuter belt with travel times London commuters would envy. For instance, Codsall beyond Wolverhampton in South Staffordshire is only 28 minutes from Birmingham New Street. It still retains the characteristic GWR style rural station building which, in a sign of the times, is now a pub!

Codsall Station

Today Birmingham is at the centre of the UK’s motorway network being surrounded by a complete ring of motorways which connects all the major routes. The most famous or notorious of these junctions and a notorious traffic blackspot is the Gravelly Hill Interchange or more commonly known as Spaghetti Junction.

Spaghetti Junction

The good transport links have made Birmingham the UK’s distribution and Exhibition Centre as well as a popular corporate location with lower costs than the Greater London area. Birmingham is a city and metropolitan borough in the West Midlands county of England. Birmingham is the most populous of England’s core cities, and is the second-most populous British city, with a population of 1,010,200 (2005 estimate). Often considered to be the second city of the United Kingdom, the City of Birmingham forms part of the larger West Midlands conurbation, which has a population of 2,284,093 (2001 census) and includes several neighbouring towns and cities, such as Solihull, Wolverhampton and the towns of the Black Country.

The city’s reputation was forged as a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution in England, a fact which led to Birmingham being known as “the workshop of the world” or the “city of a thousand trades”. Although Birmingham’s industrial importance has declined, it has developed into a national commercial centre. It is also the fourth-most visited city by foreign visitors in the UK. In 1998, Birmingham hosted the G8 summit at the International Convention Centre, on the site of Bingley Hall, the world’s first purpose-built exhibition hall, and remains a popular location for conventions today along with the National Exhibition Centre in nearby Solihull. The Birmingham Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in the 1940s is one of the country’s leading non-professional symphony orchestras, with members from all walks of life throughout the Heart of England. It enjoys close links with both the Birmingham Conservatoire and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Chamberlain Memorial
Statue of Joseph Chamberlain
The Council House

Birmingham has a wealth of splendid architecture in its older buildings, around the centre of the city, of the muscular Victorian variety championed by the late Sir John Betjeman. Among those not to be missed are The Town Hall, built in the 1830’s it is a magnificent example of Victorian Architecture, inspired by the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum it has 40 Corinthian columns of Anglesey marble. The great hall can seat 2000 people, and has one of the finest organs in the country. The Council House, built in Renaissance style in the 1870’s has a clock known locally as “Big Brum”. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, is one of the finest outside London. Among its vast art treasures is one of the finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art, there are interesting displays relating to the history of the city and a changing programme of exhibitions and events. Art lovers should also visit the Ikon Gallery, one of Europe’s premier venues for new art; also the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, situated at the University of Birmingham, this is one of the world’s finest small galleries, with works by Degas, Gainsborough, Monet, Renoir and Turner.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
City Hall

Although best known as the Victorian ‘workshop of the world’, Birmingham has a rich heritage dating back to the Middle Ages. Highlights include the Jacobean splendour of Aston Hall (due to reopen in July 2009 following a £12.5 million restoration project), the remarkable industrial time-capsule of the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter and Soho House, home of Matthew Boulton and meeting place of the world famous Lunar Society. To fully appreciate the extraordinary range of the city’s heritage, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is a must-see. It’s internationally significant collections of art and history include the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelites in the world. Outside of the city centre, visitors can enjoy delightfully restored Blakesley Hall, an Elizabethan yeoman’s house in Yardley, and magical Sarehole Mill in Hall Green – which formed the inspiration for local boy JRR Tolkien’s ‘Hobbiton’ in The Lord of the Rings.

The Blitz Memorial – “The Tree of Life”

Birmingham and nearby Coventry were integral to the British war effort, producing a vast share of the arms, machinery and military supplies for the allied forces. Throughout World War Two more than 6,000 Birmingham homes were destroyed along with many of the city’s grandiose Victorian public buildings. The worst of the bombing raids occurred between August 1940 and May 1941 and on August 25 1940 Birmingham’s city centre was bombed, gutting the market hall which once occupied the site where the Bull Ring now stands. The aftermath of that night was recorded by war artist Roland Pitchforth whose paintings are currently displayed at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. During the Blitz in Birmingham 2,241 people were killed, and 3,010 seriously injured. A further 3,682 sustained lesser injuries. 12,391 houses, 302 factories and 239 other buildings were destroyed, with many more damaged. Overall, around 2,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Birmingham making it the third most heavily bombed city in the United Kingdom in World War II, only behind London and Liverpool. The massive bomb damage on civilian housing in Birmingham led to the development of many large housing estates across the city for some 20 years after the Second World War. These neighbourhoods included Castle Vale and Chelmsley Wood. Some of the bomb-damaged inner city areas such as Ladywood and Highgate were redeveloped with modern housing after the war. The blitz impacted on my family as my father was born in Coventry, the centre of the UK motor industry just 10 miles from Birmingham. Ireland was neutral during the Second World War but many served in the British forces and many also worked in England both to survive and help the war effort. These included my Grandfather and two uncles who travelled on British Legion travel warrants and worked for the electronics firm Lucas in Birmingham during the war whilst living in a company dormitory during the Blitz.

My father at the age of ten and his family on the other hand came in the other direction as refugees from the devastating blitz on Coventry which destroyed their home and business.

St. Philip’s Cathedral

Today’s Birmingham is a more cheerful and positive place but there is no gainsaying its place in history. Along with the “Dark Satanic Mills” of Lancashire and Yorkshire this was the crucible of the industrial revolution which launched the modern industrial world. From the motor and cycle manufacturing city of Coventry, to the “workshop of the world’” of Birmingham, the steel mills of Wolverhampton, the foundries of the Black Country, the coal mines of South Staffordshire and the kilns of The Potteries this was the manufacturing heartland not just of England but of the British Empire. One change has been the demise of coal and of heavy industry in since WW11 – as they say locally the Black Country isn’t so black anymore!

So you could do worse than visit this interesting friendly, bustling and thriving city situated right in the heart of England. Whether you come to Birmingham on business or pleasure, you will be delighted by the variety of things to see and do. Eating out in Birmingham is a cosmopolitan experience; you can sample the best food from countries around the world. There are many specialist restaurants in the city centre offering food from countries around the world to simple good food in old fashioned English pubs. Birmingham’s China Town has a choice of restaurants, supermarkets and cafes offering great Chinese food. For authentic Kashmiri food, discover Birmingham’s “Balti Mile” a short distance from the city centre, where there are over 40 restaurants in the space of one mile. My own personal favourites are both overlooking the Bull in the Bullring. Mount Fuji Japanese Bento Restauraunt attracts both Japanese and knowing locals for its superb and authentic bento boxes and its superb Japanese deserts and pastries, preferably washed down with plum wine. It also offers a mail order service for Japanese specialities.

Just opposite in the Bullring stands St. Martin, the parish church of Birmingham. Its Arts Café at the side of the church provides a respite from the hustle and bustle outside as well as good value beverages and snacks – toasted tea cakes appear to be the local favourite.

St. Martin

So this is no mean city and certainly a lot less darkened and smoky than my father remembers as a child. Being home to the famous City of Birmingham Orchestra, and Birmingham Royal Ballet, Birmingham is a city of world class culture. You can discover Birmingham’s history in the museums and art galleries, stroll through its centre and enjoy the diversity of shopping, from well known department stores to intriguing shopping malls and street markets. Birmingham is also the perfect base to tour from with Shakespeare’s countryside and many more attractions close by. And if you use the scenic train route from London Marylebone to reach the Heart of England you’ll save money and be delivered relaxed into the centre of the city.

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