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Published: September 5th 2014
A visit to Birmingham (also known to the locals as 'Brum'), the UK's second largest city, probably does not figure on many tourists' schedules when visiting England. It's had a tough life. But there's no reason for it not to be on the itinerary and the local tourism machine now promotes a 're-invented and reinvigorated' city.
If you look past the very impressive 'Bullring' shopping centre, by no means the 'largest' or 'newest' in the UK but something of a local icon of which the locals are very proud, the city has plenty of history and culture on offer. In particular, in a city which was at the centre of the industrial revolution in all its gritty glory, you might not expect to find the most modern and largest public library in Europe.
Built with some local controversy given the price tag (of £188m or about a quarter of a billion Aussie dollars) it was opened in Sept '13 by Malala Yousafzai, the young girl shot in the head by the Taliban, who has now made Birmingham her home. The Duke of Cambridge, William, (not sure if Kate was bothered) did not show up until
Nov 13' but is somehow commemorated with his own plaque, above Malala's.
The library has a 'wow' factor both inside and out and is packed with locals and tourists when we visit. It is a disservice to call it a library given all that term conjures up - musty books, a sombre environment and librarians waiting in the stacks to 'shush' you. This 'library' is the antithesis of that image. It's brash and even a bit rowdy. It's cool and hip - and full of young people. Again, this is a library.
For me, one of it's chief attractions is that unlike the British Library in London (where bizarrely you can't actually touch, let alone look at, any books unless you are a 'member') the Brum library's books are on shelves you can get to, browse pick up and - wait for it - read. It's a novel concept. Sorry. Bad pun.
The building itself is a massive improvement on the bland 70s concrete structure it replaced, still visible in the town centre a coupe of hundred metres away. Externally, it's clad with an impressive blue and gold geometric metal lattice.
The interior is a striking as the exterior, with an atrium lined with books in cast iron galleries and floating escalators and travelators lined with electic blue lights whisking visitors and readers to the equivalent of the 10th floor. It's a bit 'space age meets steam punk'. The building incorporates a number of outdoor gardens - into which you can take books to enjoy on one of the UK's annual "sunny days". Each garden is progressively higher above the city. From the very roof you get a commanding view of the city - its industrial heritage and more recent additions, including some monstrosities built in the 70s, and some of the more avant grade constructions of the new millennium. This includes something called The Cube, which is shaped like - well you know the rest.
Just in view on the horizon is 'Perrott's 'folly' - usually a building or structure constructed on a whim by ye olde English gentleman with more money than sense - and a now abandoned waterworks tower. Taken together, local folklore has it these were the inspiration for the Two Towers in Tolkein's ring cycle novels. No sign of Sauruman and there's no
suggestion he was modelled on the Mayor of the time. Nearby you can also glimpse the canals which were the city's life blood in the 18th century and turned it into an industrial powerhouse. They are now lined by warehouses which once held the city's industrial wealth but now house restaurants, loft apartments and hotels. A walk all the old towpaths is a journey through the city's history.
Also near the library is a statue commemorating Brum's 'Golden boys' - and they aren't gold medalists. The three are James watt, Matthew Boulton and William Murdoch. Watt and Bouton invented the steam engine and gas light respectively, while Murdoch put the 'technology' to work. Together, the three did more to kick off the industrial revolution than almost anyone else, changing the world in the process.
Dotted around town during the WWI anniversary are memorials to various aspects of the conflict, which was marked by the city in flowers at the Chelsea flower show this year. Their award-winning entry featured stories told in flowers, including an ambulance train and recreation of a trench. It's a bit like the produce displays at the Sydney Easter Show, in
which fruit and veg is used to create an image, only in flowers.
Telling such harsh stories with flowers is rather poignant - during the conflict, 762 ambulance trains unloaded more an 130,000 military casualties for treatments in the city's hospitals and convalescent homes.
For the UK's second largest city, Brum has a surprisingly small Cathedral - it's more of a large parish church. When we gate crash a wedding at the invitation of a church usher (we miss the ceremony complete with a Scots groom in kilt, but witness the reception in the church complete with grog) we discover why. The Church was built as the parish church of St Patricks in the early 1700s. When the new diocese of Brimingham was created in 1905 due to a boundary redistribution, the new archbishop decided the poor of the city were in great need and the money would be better spent on them that a new grand cathedral. So he simply re dedicated an existing church as his diocesan HQ. Ahead of his time (and perhaps still ahead of the modern Church).
In a side alcove is an unusual memorial, again in flowers.
This time it's to a pigeon awarded France's highest military honour, the Croix De Guerre. Said pigeon saved the lives of dozens of allied troops in WWI by carrying a message across enemy lines to stop a 'friendly fire' attack from allied artillery. In the process Cher Ami lost a leg, was blinded and shot in the breast but delivered the message. She did not survive. Not quite the happy ending portrayed in Valiant, the movie featuring Ricky Gervais voicing a carrier pigeon of the same name in WWII (which was very funny all the same).
Before leaving the West Midlands we enjoy a couple of traditional pubs with family, sadly noting some are soon to close, joining the thousands already gone from British Streets. Dad also indulges in an old pastime - blackberry picking. Unlike home where they are usually determined to be a noxious weed and sprayed out of existence, he's able to gather enough late in the local season for a home cooked pie which tasted terrific as a farewell gift (yum - thanks Dianne!)
Off to the Yorkshire Dales next...
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