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Published: February 20th 2012
Though I stopped blogging for a while I've continued my exploration of England which this week took me to Birmingham, sometimes called Englands 'second city' because it has the largest population outside of London. Known for its industrial history a lot of people I've spoken to don't seem to think Birmingham is really worth visiting. I beg to differ! Even in winter there's a fair bit to do here depending on what you're in to. SHOPPING
One of the things you hear about a lot is the famous Bullring,
which not only has nothing to do wiith bull fighting, it doesn't even LOOK like a bull ring (though there is
the ever popular bronze statue of a bull outside). It actually looks like is some kind of futuristic silver parasite has eaten a building, which I think is pretty cool! The Bullring has all kinds of fancy shops inside, the largest and most expensive of which is Selfridges
. If you're someone who loves shopping then this is the place for you. Personally I thought it was just another department store and nothing to get excited about. The lowest floor was pretty cool though with some fantastic diners, cafe's and
sweet shops (there's even a large bull made out of jelly beans!). If you're a stationary whore like myself you'll love the big Paperchase down there and there's a funky alcohol stand where you can choose your whisky or whatever and what kind of fancy shaped bottle you want it in. Perfect as a gift but seriously expensive! There are also some markets near The Bullring. The fruit and veg market has your typical good value on bowls of fruit etc.
If you like your shopping experience to be a bit more original then you'll love The Custard Factory
which is less than ten minutes walk from The Bullring (and has a couple of vintage clothes shops on route). At the moment not all of the shops have been rented but I enjoyed exploring for about an hour. There's a vintage shop, an instrument shop, a couple of cafe's, a bead shop, a gallery/framers with funky screen printed style posters and zines and a few original jewellery and clothes stores. There are also some really interesting sculptures (see my pics). Some of the spaces are used for exibitions but there wasn't anything on while I was there. Definitely a funky spot
The facinating floating sculpture at The Custard Factory
and well worth a visit if you have time. HISTORICAL
If you're the type who prefers exploring the history of a place then a stroll along the canals is nice. These canals were essential to Birminghams industrial success in the 1800's, they also have some wonderfully picturesque corners hidden away (which reminded me a bit of Amsterdam). You'll probably hear that Birmingham has more canals than Venice but this comparison seems rather unfair as Birmingham is much larger than Venice in size and so their canals have room to be spread out. There are a number of boat tours which dock near The Mailbox
(which by the way has some great restaurants and bars and looks quite pretty lit up at night) so if you get a chance then I recommend a one hour cruise.
There are also a few historical houses in and around Birmingham but as I've done everything on foot I only went to Aston Hall
which was the easiest to get to. It's closed for winter but they do run guided tours on some Wednesday mornings. What was supposed to be a one hour tour ended up more like an hour and forty five minutes, which may sound
like good value but to be honest I was very underwhelmed by our guide. She kept asking for questions and then couldn't answer most of them! If you haven't been to many historical properties in England then Aston Hall may be worth a look. However, if you've been to a few of the National Trust
or English Heritage
properties then there's really not much worth seeing. The best I can say for it is that the ceilings and friezes are quite beautiful. One thing I did find interesting was that old oak furniture which appears quite a dark brown to us now was actually much lighter and rather yellow in colour, almost like pine, when it was first carved. So these old houses which seem so heavy with all the dark wood were actually much brighter in their furnishings. Also Sir Thomas Holte who built the property sounded like an interesting but horrible character! He split his cook's head in HALF with a meat cleaver because he was late (and this is actually documented as true) and yet somehow got away with it! NOTE: The Back to Backs looks like one of the best things to do in Birmingham and rates very highly
in reviews. But you HAVE TO BOOK! Unfortunately as I was there during the half term holidays the whole week was already booked up by the time I knew it existed. So get in quick! I'm gutted that I missed out.
I was very uninspired by The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
there didn't seem to be mush 'museum' about it and the art was primarily pre-raphaelite which I'm not keen on. If you're short on time give it a miss. THE JEWELLERY QUARTER
Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter
is one of the largest jewellery hubs in England. There are HEAPS of shops both open to the public and just for trade with all manner of jewellery being locally made. Interestingly the silversmith mark for Birmingham is an anchor. Wandering around the quarter you notice that most of the shops specialise in gold and diamonds, particularly wedding and engagement rings. If you're looking for a wedding ring this is a great place to go. If you're more in to silver or large statement pieces then there isn't a great deal here for you. Most of what's available is quite expensive fine jewellery. It can also be a bit intimidating if you just want to browse
The Pen Museum
An old exhibition display of pen nibs.
because many of the stores have secured doors meaning you have to push a buzzer to be let in and then they kind of hover around and watch you. That said I still enjoyed looking. My favourite store is Artfull Expression
which is not only very welcoming but has a much more original array of jewellery and art made by locals. (See photo for an example of a necklace by my favourite jeweller there Helen Walsh.) Nearby there's also a funky little home accessory/coffee shop called Pomegranate
(they make a delicious apple cake!) which is a nice place to take a break.
If you happen to be in Birmingham on a Sunday and have a spare £90 kicking around Visionary Glass
run 7 hour workshops on stained glass, fused glass or art glass which sound awesome! You get to take your creation home with you and everything. (Alas I wasn't able to actually try one of the workshops but I may come back to do one in the future!)
The main things to do in the Jewellery Quarter other than shop are to go to the The Pen Room
which is a free museum operated by volunteers, and the Jewellery Museum
Smith and Pepper Workshop
This is where the main jeweller and his apprentices sat and worked,
basically a time capsule of the Smith and Pepper jewelery manufacturing company.
The Pen Room isn't as boring as it sounds. It is FREE which is a good start and the volunteers are keen to take people on a tour which lasts about half an hour and they will do for you at any time if you just ask. You get to watch them make an old pen nib using five different machines and then they explain about ink holders, brail and other things associated with pens and type writers. It's actually very interesting! Then it takes about half an hour to roam around the two rooms of the museum. There isn't a great deal of information written to explain things though which is why the tour is so necessary.
The absolute highlight
of my stay in Birmingham has been the Jewellery Museum! The one hour tour is a MUST
at only £4 and is the only way you will get to see the offices and factory floor of the Smith and Pepper firm who closed their doors in 1981 leaving everything as it was (even two half full cups of tea which weren't seen again until 9
Smith and Pepper Workshop
Part of the Jewellery Museum tour. Those belts used to snap regularly and hit the women working on the machines. Ouch!
years later! Ew). It really is like stepping back in time and our guide was extremely knowledgable, able to answer questions in facinating detail and demoinstrate how many of the machines worked. If you're the kind of person who likes to read everything in a museum then the permanent displays outside of the factory will take you about another hour to get around. There's also a very basic tea room (with disgusting coffee it has to be said). NIGHT LIFE Live Music:
Want free live music on a Sunday between 4pm and midnight? Then you want The Free Love Club at Island Bar!
A little bit hippy I really loved the atmosphere here. Most of the bands were excellent and the people were really laid back. And their cocktails are cheap. What more could you ask for? The Yard Bird Jazz Club
in The Paradise Forum doesn't actually play jazz every night but they have a lot of good live music and an open mic night on a Tuesday. I've been there a few times and enjoyed it, though as with most mic nights the acts can be a bit hit and miss. Bars/Pubs:
Owned by the same people as Island Bar, The Jekyll and Hyde
probably has the best atmosphere for all of the bars on my list. If you're a Gin fan they have a dedicated Gin bar though as I'm personally not a Gin drinker I enjoyed some of their other gorgeous cocktails (I recommend the Candied Violet). On Saturday they have some great funk/jazz/soul music played by a DJ.
(NOTE: I didn't go there but also owned by the same people is The Rose Villa Tavern
which looks great in its gallery and has good ratings online.) Bacchus Bar
is a popular but hidden gem. To find it look for the Burlington Hotel on New Street. This bar has awesome Egyptian and Greek inspired decor. Just don't head there too late on a Friday or Saturday night if you actually want a seat! The Old Joint Stock pub
is worth a look as it's very grande and also has a theatre. MARKETS
My favourite thing about Birmingham is its Frankfurt Chirstmas Market
which is HUGE and commemorates the citys close relationship with Frankfurt over the last 40 years or so. Don't be fooled, not everything here is from Germany, however there's some delicious German food (the sausages are the best!) and alcohol (lots of mulled stuff!) as
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star!
A stall at the Christmas market
well as a wide array of craft based stalls. The only annoying thing about it is that some of the stall owners have 3 or so stalls scattered throughout the market which are exactly the same
so it takes longer to explore than necessary. This is a very popular market with people traveling from all over the UK to enjoy it. Saturdays are by far the most crowded and uncomfortable so I recommend you avoid exploring it on this day if you can. FOOD
If, like me, you're on a budget then Eat4Less
is the place to go! There's a few scattered around the city centre. I know there are stores on New Street, in the Paradise Forum (next to the Library) and somehwere near The Bull Ring. You can choose from a wide array of fresh and really tasty baguettes for only 99p each! They're big and filling ones too! (I lived on these for nearly a month last year. I recommend the egg salad.) They also do cheap jacket potatoes and soups. If only this chain was in every major city!! Also in The Paradise Forum
is a lovely place called Cafe Bebo
which serves really nice soup. (They
The Floozy in the Jacuzzi
as she is affectionately known by the locals.
also do baguette's and other sandwichy things but I never tried any of those.) They have two floors of seating as well which means you're more likely to get a table at lunch time. Bonus.
For more restaurant based dining as I mentioned earlier The Mailbox has a good array for evenings and Selfridges has some good places for lunch. Other than that I can't help you because I didn't eat out much! DAY TRIPS
Two good day trips which are easy from Birmingham are Stratford Upon Avon and Warrick (which has a castle worth a visit). Blog on Stratford coming soon. :D
So I hope that has helped to give you some inspiration or ideas based on my own experiences! :D I enjoyed exploring Birmingham and recommend you give it at least a couple of days to see the highlights.
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