If anywhere can be described as the first purely industrial conurbation, it has to be BIRMINGHAM. Unlike the more specialist industrial towns that grew up across the north and the Midlands, “Brum” – and its “Brummies” – turned its hand to every kind of manufacturing, gaining the epithet “the city of 1001 trades”. It was here also that the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution – James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) – formed the Lunar Society, an extraordinary melting-pot of scientific and industrial ideas. They conceived the world’s first purpose-built factory, invented gas lighting and pioneered both the distillation of oxygen and the mass production of the steam engine. Thus, a modest Midlands market town mushroomed into the nation’s economic dynamo with the population to match: in 1841 there were 180,000 inhabitants; just fifty years later that number had trebled.
Britain’s second-largest city, with a population of over one million, Birmingham has long outgrown the squalor and misery of its boom years and today its industrial supremacy is recalled – but only recalled – by a crop of recycled buildings, from warehouses to an old custard factory, and an extensive network of canals. With a revamped city centre, and a vibrant cultural life, Birmingham also boasts a thoroughly multiracial population – this is one of Britain’s most cosmopolitan cities. Nevertheless, there’s no pretending that Birmingham is packed with interesting sights – it isn’t – but, along with its first-rate restaurant scene and nightlife, it’s well worth at least a couple of days.Read More
Many visitors get their first taste of central Birmingham at New Street Station, whose unreconstructed ugliness – piles of modern concrete – makes a dispiriting start, though there are plans afoot to give the place a thoroughgoing face-lift. Things soon improve if you cut up east from the station to the newly developed Bull Ring, once a 1960s eyesore, but now a gleaming new shopping mall distinguished by the startling design of its leading store, Selfridges. Head west along pedestrianized New Street from here and it’s a brief stroll to the elegantly revamped Victoria Square and the adjacent Chamberlain Square, where pride of place goes to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the city’s finest museum, complete with a stunning collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Beyond, further west still, is the glossy International Convention Centre, from where it’s another short hop to the Gas Street Basin, the prettiest part of the city’s serpentine canal system. Close by is canalside Brindleyplace, a smart, brick-and-glass complex sprinkled with slick cafés and bars and holding the enterprising Ikon Gallery of contemporary art. From Brindleyplace, it’s a short walk southeast to The Mailbox, the immaculately rehabilitated former postal sorting office with yet more chic bars and restaurants, or you can head north along the old towpath of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal as far as Newhall Street. The latter is within easy walking distance of the Georgian St Philip’s Cathedral.