Unexpected treasures of a surprising English gem

What I knew about Britain’s second- biggest city before this trip could easily fit on to a coaster.

The Western Australian - 10 January 2017

The ferry glides through the water. We jostle for pole position at the bow, snapping away as we leave Sherborne Wharf to traverse the canals — more than Venice, apparently — past red-brick buildings, under stone bridges and into what I’d swear is countryside if I hadn’t been told we are still in the city.

We spot two fishermen as we round a bend. “What have you caught,” someone shouts.

“Fish,” comes the dry but friendly reply.

Ah, you gotta love the Brummies..

Let’s be clear: Birmingham was not on my bucket list. Nor was the West Midlands city affectionately known as Brum on many other people’s, it seems.

“Why Birmingham,” was the first question whenever I mentioned I was heading there. Well, I was invited and the itinerary proposed by VisitBritain was more than a little intriguing. Even reeling it off to friends elicited surprise. “Really? I didn’t know you could do that.”

Neither did I. In fact, what I knew about Britain’s second- biggest city before this trip could easily fit on to a coaster. Having glossed over this hub of the industrial revolution at school, if it entered my conscience at all as an adult it was via sporting arenas such as Edgbaston Cricket Ground or Villa Park, home of Aston Villa. I’d heard of the Balti Triangle, where people regularly disappear to eat truckloads of the region’s signature curry. And the city popped up as backdrop for the children’s TV series Brum, about a burglar-busting car and featuring a truly irritating theme song.

But I didn’t know Birmingham was where lawn tennis began. Or that it was the world centre of pen manufacturing in the 19th century. Or that it is now home to a mix of stunning historical buildings — its Victorian beauties rival London’s — and modern architectural gems. That its renowned Jewellery Quarter still makes 40 per cent of the nation’s bling (as well as the FA Cup and assorted items for royalty). Or that it’s the perfect base for rev-heads to motor out to the British Motor Museum, then back to tour the Jaguar factory, or for chocoholics to get their fix at Cadbury World.

I didn’t have a clue that someone with such lamentable local knowledge would soon be named an “expert in the field of baltiology” (stay tuned). And I certainly had no expectation of traversing the city by water, the seemingly hidden canals a mere stroll from our centrally located digs. “This is a water city — there are eight canals that meet in the centre,” guide Roger Bailey explains, “and over 100 miles of canals in Birmingham city.”

The city is also a walker’s delight. The autumn air is cool but the sun is shining when Roger leads us out of the Radisson Blu hotel not long after our small tour group arrives in Birmingham. A Blue Badge Guide whose head for facts and figures rivals a London cabbie’s famous Knowledge, Roger isn’t from Brum but is clearly happy to call it home, guiding us through the streets — at turns, gritty and grand — with obvious pride. In between reeling off the names of myriad bands that started here (Duran Duran, the Moody Blues, Black Sabbath, the Spencer Davis Group, Electric Light Orchestra), he points out attractions to explore further.

The striking gold-topped state-of-the-art library, which boasts a million printed volumes and is also where one of our group will later find her ancestor’s records within minutes; the majestic Anglican cathedral, which recently celebrated its 300th birthday; Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, home to everything from Egyptian mummies to one of the world’s finest collections of Pre-Raphaelite art; the 19th century Hippodrome, which boasts more ticket sales than any other UK theatre.

Birmingham is also a shopper’s paradise. Pick up a bargain at the bustling markets or get lost in the high-end department stores, including Selfridges (the silvery “breasted” building a strangely complementary neighbour to St Martin’s Church in the Bullring shopping district), John Lewis (above the redeveloped New Street train station, the busiest outside London, which is only 90 minutes away) and Harvey Nichols (in the luxury Mailbox precinct).

A small number of families, including the famous Cadburys, developed the city in the Victorian era, adding glamour to what I’d thought would be a rather grimy industrial centre. I can see why Roger is a fan of the way the present has been integrated with the past. “It’s just a combination that for me works — it knows how to mix them; not many cities get it right.”

The outsider’s passion also bubbles over in effervescent taxi driver Saj, who our irreplaceable VisitBritain “escort” Fiona Turnbull snaps up as a regular when it becomes evident he’ll add to our experience. The sunny driver moved here from Newcastle with his family and sings Brum’s praises in between dishing out pearls of wisdom such as “I take people as I find them, chuck” and “life’s what you make of it, isn’t it, chuck” (an endearment pronounced chook).

Indeed, it’s the people we meet who really make this place. It starts with the smile we get at customs (surely, that’s not normal) at Birmingham Airport and the bonhomie on show within minutes of our arrival at the Radisson. A local worker from HSBC, which is one of the big companies to recently move its HQ to Birmingham, overhears our accents and is delighted to welcome us to her home town and fill us in on some of its charms.

Then there’s the 21-year-old duty supervisor at the Old Joint Stock Pub and Theatre, a pub with plenty of beer but also an interior to rival any grand hotel. When we pop in for an unscheduled dinner, Brummie Ben happily shares the pub’s journey from library to stock exchange and bank to pub, gives us the lowdown on the pies and pints (excellent, by the way) and obliges with a tour of the theatre in the roof, which stages comedy nights, plays and musicals. I’d wager it’s staff like Ben who helped the Old Joint Stock earn a spot on a recent list of the UK’s top 25 pubs.

And we all fall in love with Connor Fox, the young barista sent from heaven to restore the equilibrium of caffeine-deprived Aussies at the delightful 200 Degrees Coffee Shop and Barista School. It didn’t hurt that he had been guided by Melburnian coffee queen Deb Pease, but she readily admits he has a nose for the brew like few she’s seen.

Then there’s the folks at Hampton Manor, in the leafy town of Solihull (and just a few clicks from the airport, I note for future reference). Led into the salon of this lovingly restored former manor house for pre-dinner drinks, we fancy ourselves landed gentry but the staff at the family-owned boutique hotel are anything but stuffy. They are old mates who clearly love what they are doing, talking us through a divine degustation in the Michelin-star Peel’s restaurant, matching wines with aplomb. Even as the belly reaches bursting point, resistance is useless.

Food is another unexpected highlight of this surprising city. Birmingham has a handful of Michelin-star restaurants but pretty much everywhere we eat impresses for one reason or another. Dining above the canals in Marco Pierre White’s restaurant in The Cube (somewhat disturbingly decorated with enormous portraits of the rock’n’roll chef). A memorable Indian feast at the elegant Lasan (the rich lamb lababdar, inspired by chef Aktar Islam’s award-winning dish on TV’s Great British Menu, is worth the trip alone). A traditional pie and ale at my new favourite pub.

Then there’s the famous balti curry, named for the light metal bowl in which the food is cooked and served — the love child of a Chinese wok and the traditional Pakistani heavy cast-iron karahi.

First, we have to earn it with another good walk. Andy Munro and Anna Gibson from Alternative Tours set a mean pace as they lead us through the city’s last remaining Georgian square, where I can’t resist skipping through splendid autumn leaves, to the Jewellery Quarter. There are more than 100 specialist retailers, including royal jeweller Neil Grant, plying their trade.

There are also bespoke galleries such as Artisan Alchemy, which showcases local furniture that will set you back a pretty penny, and St Paul’s, where I am tempted to part with a similar sum to secure a Led Zeppelin print for the man of the house — one of an eclectic collection of album artwork, prints and posters. My favourite stop is Pen Museum, where I make a couple of amateur steel nibs with the same equipment thousands of women used in the factories that supplied 75 per cent of the world’s pens before the ballpoint came along. The best churned out thousands a day for very little recompense; clearly, I’d have starved.

We climb back into Saj’s van bound for the Balti Triangle. It’s a bewildering array of Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani shops selling everything from heavy traditional gowns and multi-coloured bangles to sweet treats, vegies with names like chikoo and doodhi, a heavenly array of spices and giant boxes of PG Tips tea. But we’re here on a mission, which is why Andy meets us at one of his favourite balti restaurants (there are more than 50 in the triangle alone).

Andy is something of a balti champion — he’s even written a book on the city’s signature dish — so when he takes us to Shababs for a quick lesson in how to make one, we know we’re in the right place. Little bowls of colourful herbs and spices lie on a central table in the tiny kitchen, as the chef fires up the pan (and I mean fires — the flames are impressive) and a chicken balti is whipped up in the time it takes the accompanying naan bread to cook. That is, no time at all. At least for the experts.

Later, Andy gives our group a quick quiz on everything he’s told us about his beloved city in the past few hours. Journos are a competitive lot so there’s no messing about. Before you can sing “Brum, Brum, here we come”, I’m declared the winner.

Why visit Birmingham? Because it’s invigorating, entertaining, and enlightening. And I have the certificate to prove it.

Julie Hosking was a guest of VisitBritain and Qatar Airways.

Fact File

Birmingham is best visited in the warmer months but there is plenty on year- round. It’s also an ideal base from which to explore the marvellous Midlands, visitbirmingham.com and visitbritain.com.

For great central locations, stay at the modern Radisson Blu (radissonblu.com) or the charming older style Burlington Hotel (macdonald hotels.co.uk). For country elegance, see Hampton Manor, hamptonmanor.com.

Qatar Airways flies to Birmingham from Perth, via Doha (qatarairways.com).


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Key Facts

  • Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe, with under 25’s accounting for nearly 40% of its population.