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Page first written 19 May 2003
Last updated 5 June 2003
My private tourists' guide to Birmingham
This page was based on an e-mail message that I had sent to the participants of Japanese Researchers and Graduate students' Society, which held a meeting in Birmingham on 17 May 2003. Currently Birmingham is placing a bid to host the "European Capital of Culture" event in 2008, and many of the tourists' attractions referred to hereunder are also on the brochure published by the "Be in Birmingham 2008" team. I do hope the bid is successful...
PS: Sadly, Birmingham failed... as expected... (4/6/2003)
Getting to Birmingham / going around in Birmingham
First of all, getting to Birmingham from the capital London.
By train -- The "first choice" will be Virgin Trains, leaving London Euston Station. This service, however, is frequently affected by track improvements works during weekends, so you should seek information before you travel. Virgin's tickets are very cheap when you buy well in advance -- recommended is to buy at least three days before you travel.
If you do not want to get into trouble, I recommend Chiltern Railways from Marylebone Station. Tickets tend to be more expensive than Virgin's tickets with advance purchase discounts (although cheaper than Virgin's peak fares), their fleet of trains, especially those marketed as "Clubman", are very comfortable. Whether your train is to be served by Clubman is shown on the timetable that can be downloaded from their web site (of course, there will be temporary changes from time to time).
The travel time between London and Birmingham will be around two hours, regardless of the service you choose.
If you opt for the coach service, it will leave from Victoria Coach Station near London Victoria railway station and will take you to Digbeth Coach Station which is a few minutes' walk from Birmingham Moor Street railway station in about three hours.
If you drive, I recommend that you use M40 motorway instead of M1. The M6 motorway that diverges from M1 near Rugby and takes you to Birmingham is chronically congested (now a "pay-as-you-drive" motorway is under construction north of Birmingham to ease this congestion). As a tourist, you might want to go through the notoriously complicated Junction 6 of M6, or more commonly known as Spaghetti Junction, which is located north of Birmingham and linking M6 and A38(M) that goes right into the heart of Birmingham's city centre. That said, it is not as complicated as many of the junctions along Japanese expressways...
The transport inside the region is best served by buses. Travel West Midlands, the largest bus company in the region, sells "Daysaver" ticket for the price of GBP 2.50, which is valid on all of its bus for all day on the date of purchase. If you are to go to Jewellery Quarter (see below), you will want to use Midland Metro the light rail system as well, in which case Metro/Bus Day Ticket worth GBP 3.50 is recommended. Both the Daysaver and the Metro/Bus Day Ticket can be purchased on board the bus from the driver, although you should note that you cannot ride the buses operated by any other bus companies other than Travel West Midlands. If you want to ride other companies' buses, or if you want to ride the train as well, you can purchase "Daytripper" ticket worth GBP 4.00, either on the bus or at a staffed railway station, which is valid on all trains and buses in the West Midlands region.
For more information on the public transport in the West Midlands, refer to Centro's web page. Centro is the marketing name of WMPTE (West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive), which supports public transport in the region with the policy and financial support of WMPTA (West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority).
Visiting Museums and Art Galleries
There are various museums and art galleries of high quality and standards in and around the city centre of Birmingham. BM&AG (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), located near Victoria Square in the heart of the city, and Ikon Gallery near Broad Street are admission free. In BM&AG you can find not only fine arts but displays on Birmingham itself. Barber Institute of Fine Arts, located in Edgbaston Campus of the University of Birmingham, is also admission free and has a good collection of fine arts. For those looking for other sorts of attractions, Thinktank at Millenium Point, Birmingham's museum of science and technology, located at the redevelopment site in the east of the city centre, can be recommended.
In the northwest of the city centre is the Jewellery Quarter, where jewellery-related firms concentrate. Birmingham is sometimes referred to as "the town of a thousand trades", which came from the fact that many handicraft manufacturers had gathered. Jewellery makers were among them, and the concentration at Jewellery Quarter is said to be the largest in Europe. And, here too, there is the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter.
If you have time to visit the suburb of the city, Black Country Living Museum in Dudley is another place I would recommend. Dudley was at the centre of the steel manufacture during the industrial revolution. The northwest area of Birmingham, including Dudley, Walsall, etc., is called the Black Country, which is said to be derived from the black smoke from the chimneys of the factories that dominated the area (although some now insist that it is so called because the ground surface is black). The museum is so wide that you can spend a whole day in the museum; you should be prepared to spend a good amount of money, however, because the admission fee is rather expensive and some attractions inside are not covered by it.
Walking around in the city
There are not many "magnificent" buildings in the city centre. "Rotunda", one of the apparent landmarks in the town built in 1964 as part of the development of the old Bull Ring Centre, has not a viewing point on top of the building. Re-developments are under way on various sites around the city centre; among them is the new Bull Ring Centre (you can see my picture of the construction site - although this was taken some time ago and there are no new buildings taking shape at all), which will give architecture-spotters an opportunity. The cathedral in the centre of the city (St. Phillip's) seems to me apparently smaller and less magnificent than those in the surrounding cities, such as Worcester.
One of the major features of recent city centre re-development is the project of extending Midland Metro, the light rail system, through the street into city centre. Recently the procedure has started, and you can now view the related documents, including the planned route, if you go to the central library. Probably, by the end of this year the work should start in the city centre streets such as Corporation Street. The completion of the project, however, does not mean that Birmingham gets a dense transport network like Manchester, where the Manchester Metrolink, with its extensive network, provides a good means of transport...
Walking along the canals, you can feel the peacefulness of the waterfront. The facelift during 1990s made some of the canalside areas, especially Brindleyplace, the centre of tourism in the city. Also, British Waterways calls Birmingham a "canal city", for its extensive network of canals. If you are looking for things like Pontcysyllte in Wales, however, the city centre canals will surely disappoint you, although some "hidden" features like Holliday Street Aqueduct do exist. If you are after "surprising canal structure", you had better go to the Black Country Living Museum to take part in the Dudley Tunnel tour, or take a train from Birmingham's New Street or Snow Hill stations to Smethwick Galton Bridge, walk along the canal and see Galton Bridge, a disused road bridge, or Engine Arm Aqueduct, regarded as the most beautiful small aqueduct in Britain, both designed by Thomas Telford. If you want to spend the whole afternoon peacefully, Edgbaston Reservoir, constructed to stabilise the water level of the canals, will be another attraction.
The University of Birmingham seems to be the tourists' attraction itself, with a beautiful campus which is rather rare in this country. The oldest red brick buildings were designed by Sir Aston Webb, the famous architect of the time when the University moved to the present Edgbaston campus site in 1901.
If you are interested in shopping around, the good thing about Birmingham's city centre is that a large part of the city centre is now virtually pedestrianised; you can shop without minding the cars. There are not many department stores, however, which may be inconvenient sometimes. Things from Japan can be found in the Chinese Quarter in the southern end of the city, or at Wing Yip Superstore in Nechells area which is a little bit apart from city centre (of course you can find more when you go to London, and visit, say, Japan Centre). You can find a larger shopping centre, such as Merry Hill in Dudley, but although I myself love to shop in Merry Hill it is not a "must" for any visitors to Birmingham - it's big, but that's all about it.
Birmingham is probably a fortunate city in Britain because it has the local cuisine of balti. It is said to be born in Birmingham, although it is apparently of Indian or Pakistani taste - then, probably, the Japanese can compare this to "Ramen" in Japan, which is a sort of noodle, born in Japan, but tastes somewhat Chinese. Sparkhill, Sparkbrook, Balsall Heath and Moseley, all in the eastern area of Birmingham, are called "balti belt" according to a book, which says you can find oldest and finest balti restaurants in Britain in those areas. Along Bristol Road in Selly Oak, where the University of Bimringham is in the neighbourhood, is another place where you can enjoy balti.
If you have time, you can enjoy the Symphony Hall or many Theatres in the city centre.
Exploring the suburbs
In Bournville, not very far from the University of Birmingham, the factory of Cadbury, the worldly famous chocolate manufacturer, is located. Bournville was named after the Bourn Brook that goes nearby with the French suffix of "ville", which was used as a trademark as well to compete with chocolate products made in France. The factory is now open to public as "Cadbury World", which seems attractive especially to families with young children. You can enjoy the factory tour and the surrounding beautiful town as well.
Stratford-upon-Avon is apparently the most "touristy" place in the West Midlands, which can be reached by train in an hour from central Birmingham. In summer Sundays (during July and August), Vintage Trains operate the steam hauled train, dubbed "Shakespeare Express", from Birmingham Snow Hill Station.
For the rail enthusiasts, you can never miss the Severn Valley Railway, one of the largest preserved railways in Britain that runs between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth. If you do not want to go too far, Birmingham New Street station itself is another thing (especially for those from Japan), with 12 platforms being divided into two to accommodate two trains at a time to cope with the traffic. Also, at Birmingham International railway station, there is a "monorail" system which is fairly rare in this country - a rope-driven peoplemover system, free of charge. It was recently inaugurated and runs over the existing foundation, once used for the famous maglev system.
Ironbridge Gorge embraces the world's oldest cast-iron arch span (opened 1779) and is now the world heritage site that attracts tourists. The whole area was once called Coalbrookdale, and as the "birthplace of the industrial revolution", many furnaces that produced iron using coal cokes were located. It is approx. 30 miles west of Birmingham. There are many museums scattered in the area, which means you will want to go there by car.
Stoke-on-Trent, where Wedgwood factory resides, is also fairly near. Some will also be interested in Crewe, the world's first "railway town", with another railway museum situated in the centre of the town.
The towns surrounding Birmingham are also attractive. For example, Coventry (known as the site of one of the heaviest bombardments in Britain by the enemy Germany during the Second World War), Warwick (with Warwick Castle - although you have to pay the expensive admission fee to enter), Worcester, etc...
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TAKAGI, Ryo email@example.com (c) R. Takagi 2003. All rights reserved.