Having worked in The Second City for 20 years, I was looking forward to visiting this weekend – so much so that we were going to have a two-night stopover for this one.
We set off from Blackpool at 0800 on Friday. As always, I checked the forecast before we set off – and the outlook was grim. Alexa informed me there would be a ‘high’ of five degrees and a low of zero degrees. Therefore we packed our fleece-lined trousers, thermals, woolly hats and fleeces. Of course we were bound to have forgotten something – having not been exposed to winter conditions for two years – but we felt we were pretty well equipped.
So, what playlist for the journey today? Well it had to be Birmingham tunes!
After Duran Duran, we switched to Ocean Colour Scene. I’d somehow never seen the former live, but I went to see OCS in Birmingham many times. They were a huge favourite of mine (along with Pulp) from the indie scene in the 90s.
This was to be our last journey in our little Fiesta, which is being part-exed for our new car this week. She isn’t the comfiest and we are racking up a lot of miles on our travels. I must remember to clear out those half-eaten chocolates from the glovebox…
The weather was unpleasant all the way down, with the bright sunshine reflecting off the wet motorways, making visibility very difficult.
No service station stop today as we were running a little behind schedule – plus this was pretty much a short hop, compared to Swansea last week.
It was around 1030 when we pulled into Millennium Point Car Park. Unlike Hull, where the weather had been kind, waiting for us to enter the car park just before leaving until it started raining, in Birmingham the heavens opened just as we arrived. You know those trips – like Swansea last week – that are so brimming with joy that you just know you’ll get a result at the match? Well we already knew this wasn’t going to be one of those…
Mercifully, our first calling point was very close by. We legged it (whilst taking care not to slip on the stairs) across to Millennium Point.
As we shook ourselves dry, I was delighted to be greeted by an enormous Christmas tree.
I just love this time of year, with its pretty lights and joyful music and great food and setting aside time to think about other people and what might put a smile on their face by way of a gift.
This is my favourite museum in Birmingham. It’s packed with interesting items and covers not only Birmingham’s great history but there is also a floor dedicated to future advances in science. I learn something new every time I visit.
I know that Birmingham famously has ‘more canals than Venice’, but I did not know that the first canal between Birmingham and the Black Country was designed by engineer James Brindley. That must be who Brindleyplace is named after (more of that later). Work started on this canal in 1768.
I love old railway and tourism signage and there is a good selection here.
I almost missed the ceiling display (at 5’2 I am a long way away from most ceilings).
There was a Spitfire display upstairs and I got to sit in the cockpit of one.
Birmingham is home to Jaguar Landrover and is rightly proud of its history of car manufacturing.
Next was a great display on natural history. I love animals so this was my favourite bit.
The piece de resistance for me was an actual dinosaur skull.
And this was not the only dinosaur skeleton in the museum. Here is the Thinktank ichthyosaur.
There was also a model of a velociraptor skeleton, which I found terrifying and fascinating in equal measure.
If dinosaurs are included in my awayday ranking scores at the end of the season (which is pretty likely, as I seem to be finding them everywhere we go), Birmingham will surely get top marks.
Later there was an impressive Giant Deer.
And a Shit Taxidermy Cat.
Perhaps I’m being a little harsh there. The disdainful look on this cat’s face is pretty accurate.
‘If you haven’t got Dreamies, move along, sweet cheeks.’
I liked this aardvark (although aren’t they blue?).
I was interested to see a section on ‘the ongoing story of Birmingham during the pandemic’ which will, of course, be an important feature of museums and history lessons of the future.
Next up was the ‘future’ section. I love the Robothespian, which you can control by selecting actions on the monitor in front of him.
We got him to sing a song, laugh, cry and mimic Robocop and C3PO. See the accompanying Football Tourist Guide video on Lee Charles TV for more of him.
In the shop, which we passed through on our way out, there were more marbles (are they making a comeback?), including these great tangerine and white ones.
And a big Lego fireman.
Outside, we called into the final section of the museum – the science garden. Mercifully it had stopped raining now.
The first few activities were tough. I tried in vain to pulley myself up but it hurt my hands too much.
I never did like climbing that rope in the school sports hall.
But this rubber duck race was one of my favourite things of the weekend – it was so exciting!
Exiting the museum we walked alongside the site of HS2, which is now being masterminded from Birmingham. Who wants to go to Leeds anyway…?
But now it was time for matters of food and drink…
This was my Birmingham local when I worked there.
I had anticipated its opening following a great social media campaign and was delighted with the warm welcome I received on my first visit. Hence I kept going back.
There had been a few changes since my last visit and I was puzzled to see the beer list missing from the wall. Questioning of the barman revealed these were now on each table.
I opted for a third of the campfire stout. There were some fabulous sounding sours on that list but you never know with sours quite how sour they’re going to be…
Now to pinball! With such a great selection of games, we couldn’t stick at just one. We plumped for the Star Trek, Batman and Mandalorian.
While Lee was taking his turn, I snuck off for a look in the fridge.
Ooh there was a beer for me, if ever there was one!
Well that was fun! After a compulsory snap of the amusing spelling mistake (with the incorrect correction) in City Arcade, we headed for our lunch venue.
Oh…via the Apple Store. Check out the new tangerine range!
I opted for this Nicholsons pub for lunch because its menu was Slimming World friendly (ish) and it was great eye candy for the accompanying video. The pub was rammed and we were fortunate to be seated at the only available table – squashed in a corner right at the back of the restaurant, where I had to breathe in to get into my seat. I was starving by now though – it was 1420 and I had only had a cereal bar for breakfast – and beggars can’t be choosers (which is a terrible saying, really, isn’t it?).
Known locally as ‘The Lovers Bar’, this dimly-lit cellar pub is full of little nooks and crannies where people can meet for secret trysts. I couldn’t even get a phone signal down here, so it’s great if you don’t want to be interrupted. Bacchus was the Roman god of fertility, wine and pleasure – and the walls here are adorned with images of (largely naked) people enjoying themselves. There’s nowhere else quite like it.
I like Nicholsons pubs – and Birmingham is home to a couple of good ones (The Old Contemptibles is also excellent). They serve good real ale – and here was the range in Bacchus today.
For diet reasons, I am trying to not drink beer for the sake of drinking beer in pubs where there is nothing on offer that particularly excites me. With no dark beers on here, I ordered a Diet Coke.
Foodwise, I was very tempted by the turkey dinner – I love to extend Christmas as long as possible – but instead opted for the ham, egg and chips, swapping in steamed greens for the chips.
Gap duly filled, we headed out into a very cold Birmingham on an exploratory mission.
I love, love, love a good public art trail. They are free and are a great way to explore a city, whilst meeting others following the same trail and enjoying art at the same time. My first experience of this was in Ventspils on a pre-season tour to Latvia in 2007, where there was frankly little else to do other than (drink and eat and bask in the sun and switch off and) get excited about spotting decorated fibreglass cows in random places. Since then I have travelled all over Bristol and London in search of Shaun the Sheep; spent my 40th birthday hunting down elephants across Sheffield; and had a long weekend in Lincoln this summer on the Lincoln Imp Trail.
Birmingham does these art trails very well. In previous years I have collected all the owls in The Big Hoot of 2015 and sun bears in The Big Sleuth of 2017. These took me to parts of Birmingham that I never knew existed, including some lovely parks, as well as out to Cadbury World, where I naturally had to take the tour and enjoy the chocolate while I was there. They also took me to some areas that I would take pains to avoid in the future, including a particularly terrifying trip to Aston, where I couldn’t find the bus stop to get home because not all bus stops have physical stops round here and how ridiculous is that?
Well this Christmas, Birmingham is home to 12 Snowman sculptures, dotted across the city centre. I wished I had known this, so I could have factored this trail into this weekend. As it was, we happened across five of them by accident over the next couple of hours on our whistle-stop tour of Birmingham.
I was a regular visitor to Birmingham’s old library – a hideous 70s building that has now mercifully been flattened and replaced with a fabulous new building that is home to offices and eateries, including the delightful Dishoom. My reading habits have also changed since that time, with the cheaper and lighter option of the Kindle being a more amenable travelling companion (i.e. not snapping the strap on my handbag, like a certain Stephen King tome once did). Thus I am quite ashamed to report that I only visited the new Library of Birmingham once – on its opening day back in 2013. It had been crowded on that occasion – and I do not like crowds, which I suppose must have illogically put me off the place.
I had passed the library many times on my walk to my Russian classes at the Brasshouse Language Centre – at that time the largest language school in Europe, now also demolished and rehomed inside this library. It is an impressive and imposing building.
We were visiting today to not only showcase its fabulous interior, which looks like something from a movie set…
…but also to admire the views from the higher levels.
At the very top were some signs from its previous incarnations.
We had taken escalators and travelators much of the way up but the higher floors were accessible by lift.
The lifts were the most exciting I have ever travelled in – certainly up there with the lift inside the aquarium going up through the sharks and sawfish at The Deep in Hull. Why? Well, on every journey, the lift read out a rhyming couplet from a famous poem. It was quite delightful. Indeed I loved it so much that I now cannot travel in a lift without hearing a rhyming couplet. More of this later.
We did take the stairs down a couple of flights to show willing – only to be insulted by a sign mocking my height.
As always, I did not even need to duck here.
I wanted to show Lee the canals, so we headed through the International Convention Centre (ICC) towards Brindleyplace. I also wanted to show Lee (and you, dear reader) the stunning interior of Symphony Hall, but sadly we were not allowed inside, as Katherine Ryan was rehearsing ahead of her show that night. Here’s some footage I found on t’internet so you don’t miss out.
And here’s where you come out on the other side of the ICC.
Now I always but always get lost on the Birmingham canal network. It’s not like the sea, which is just there, to the West, and easy to navigate, with three piers and a bloody great big tower to help if you should somehow lose your bearings. So, today, I consulted Google Maps, which sent me in the right direction for our next port of call – The Mailbox. So we turned left and headed under Black Sabbath Bridge…
…which in turn provided further musical inspiration for my Birmingham playlist.
Oh dammit – the Canalside Bar was on the opposite side of the canal…
…and this bank seemed to veer off round to the left when we wanted to go straight on…and so I had got lost on the canal even with the aid of Google Maps. There really was no hope for me. We retraced our steps, crossed the bridge at Brindleyplace and continued on the other side.
I was disappointed to see Pennyblacks closed – the pub on the ground floor in the above photo. I used to enjoy visiting there, enjoying their food, ale and views.
We did, however, find more public art…
…and the Dalek, who lives at the BBC, who was the reason for our visit.
Now it was time to head out of Birmingham to our hotel for the night. On our way back to the car park, here’s what we saw.
The World’s Biggest Primark
They run coach trips here from Scunthorpe and that’s a true story.
We saw a few gangs of scooters across the city – but no-one riding them.
We have marvelled at scooters across a number of cities on our travels this season – most notably Bristol, where they are buzzing around everywhere. Why weren’t the people of Birmingham taking advantage of them? Was it because everywhere was walkable or the public transport was so good? Was it too cold and was Uber too handy? Were the roads simply not scooter friendly?
We would find a road perfectly suited to them tomorrow…
I’m always surprised to see that HMV is still a thing in these days of digital music. This place looked so alluring that we couldn’t resist popping in for a nose.
There’s an oxymoron if ever I saw one.
But look who we found in here!
That was such a treat, seeing Chewy like that, and we smiled as we made the ascent back to Millennium Point Car Park. Birmingham had been an absolute delight…so far. But there was much more to come…
Next up: One Night In Walsall