Day 1. The start of our weekend in Birmingham

Meeting my son for a weekend away in the U.K. has usually resulted in trips to London or Edinburgh so for a change  we decided to explore Britain’s second city, Birmingham.   Strangely, Birmingham isn’t a city I am familiar with, in fact I’ve only ever visited three times and then only to attend courses and conferences with little or no time to look around.

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Main concourse, Grant Central, Birmingham New Street Station

Birmingham is located in the West Midlands, right in the middle of the country making it easily accessible from all parts.  My rail journey from home took approximately three hours including one change onto a Cross Country train for the longer part of the journey.  I’ve passed through Birmingham New Street station many times but as it is underground it never looked very appealing so I was quite interested to see what lay above.

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The Place to Eat, John Lewis, Grand Central, Birmingham

After taking the escalator up from the dreary platform level I was transported into a glitzy modern shopping mall called Grand Central which includes a range of high quality shops, bars and restaurants.  Grand Central has only been open since September 2015 and its design is impressive with large circular balconies overlooking the New Street station concourse.  Noticing a branch of John Lewis I decided to take a look around and then proceeded to their top floor cafe for tea and cakes as I had some time to pass before my son was joining me.  The cafe was surprisingly very quiet on this a Thursday afternoon but they had a good selection of cakes and pastries on offer to tempt me.

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 Birmingham Central Bullring Travelodge

Feeling ready to move on, I studied my map to find the way to the Birmingham Central Bullring Travelodge where we were staying.  It looked near to the station but not knowing which exit to leave from resulted in me walking slightly further to find it.  Checking in was quick and I was soon in the room unpacking my weekend bag and ready to continue looking around the city centre.

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St. Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham

A few steps from the hotel lies Birmingham City Markets, a collection of indoor and outdoor market stalls selling almost everything.  I glanced in the enormous Bull Ring Rag Market and found it stocked with a mix of fashion, fabrics, haberdashery and household items.  The Bull Ring Indoor Market is one of the UK’s largest fish markets and also sells meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables.  It was a warm, sunny afternoon when I started my tour around the city, but all too soon dark clouds threatened followed by a heavy downpour sending me back indoors.

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Interior of the Bull Ring Indoor Market, Birmingham

Between the markets and the Bullring shopping centre lies the Victorian church of St. Martin in the Bullring which contrasts beautifully with the contemporary modern buildings surrounding it.   The Selfridges department store featured below has an exterior which was inspired by a Paco Rabanne sequinned dress and is made up of 15,000 spun aluminium discs.

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Selfridge’s Department Store, Birmingham

Standing proudly outside the Bullring shopping centre is a six tonne bronze statue of a bull.  It was created by Laurence Broderick and is officially known as The Guardian but is simply called The Bull.  The sculpture measuring 2.2 metres is two and a half times the size of a real bull to produce more impact and was installed in 2003 resting on a hidden plinth below the paving.

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Bronze Bull sculpture outside the Bullring, Birmingham

The Bullring shopping mall is one of the busiest in Britain and consists of two main buildings, the East and West Malls which are bright and spacious with more than 160 stores and kiosks offering a wide selection of goods and services.

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The Bullring, Birmingham

After enjoying some time shopping in the Bullring it was then time to meet my son at the nearby station and have a light supper ready for a full day’s city sightseeing the next day.

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Day 2.  Exploring Birmingham 

After a leisurely breakfast we were ready for a morning of sightseeing in Birmingham’s city centre.  Our first stop was to the Great Western Arcade, an elegant Victorian shopping arcade built in 1876 over the Great Western Railway line.  The arcade has two entrances, one on Temple Row and the other on Colmore Row, the Temple Row end being very ornate.  It’s now home to a selection of boutiques and small independent retailers and features a clock which strikes a set of five exposed bells on the quarter of each hour.

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Great Western Arcade, Birmingham

Leaving the arcade at its Colmore Row exit we strolled the short distance to St. Philip’s Cathedral which was constructed in a Baroque style in 1715 as the parish church of Birmingham, not becoming Birmingham’s cathedral until 1905.  It is England’s third smallest cathedral which is surprising as Birmingham is actually England’s second city.  What the cathedral lacks in size it certainly makes up for in elegance with its beautiful stained glass windows and oak panelled galleries.  Volunteers were on hand to answer our questions and we very much enjoyed our short visit.

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St. Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham
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Interior of St. Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham

On leaving the cathedral we continued towards Victoria Square where Birmingham City Council House dominates the square.  This is the home of the city council whilst next door lies the Town Hall which is used as a concert venue.  In nearby Chamberlain Square we visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, a Victorian baroque masterpiece which was completed in 1885.  The building was designed as a museum with the basement Water and Gas Halls being set aside for local people to come along and pay their utility bills.  These halls retain their original names and are now used to host temporary exhibitions.  The museum has free admittance and features numerous galleries on the history of Birmingham, taking visitors back in time from the city’s medieval beginnings to its more recent expansion.  The galleries were all very interesting but the highlight for me was the industrial gallery with its examples of old machinery.

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Industrial Gallery, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Moving on to Centenary Square we were interested to take a look inside the Library of Birmingham which opened in September 2013 at a cost of £188m and is now the largest public library in the U.K.  Designed by the Dutch architect Francine Houben it is said to resemble a gift box.

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Library of Birmingham

The library features two outdoor terraces, the Discovery Terrace on the third floor includes beds of fruit, vegetables and herbs to help promote healthy eating and encourage gardening whilst the Secret Garden on the seventh floor terrace has landscaped flowerbeds with wooden patio seating to enjoy the far reaching views over the city.

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The Secret Garden, Library of Birmingham

On the top floor is the Shakespeare Memorial Room, which was interestingly designed for the first central library in 1882.  After being dismantled in 1974 when the original building was demolished it was put into storage until it was refitted into its present location.  The room has been restored to its former glory and contains Britain’s most important Shakespeare collection.

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Shakespeare Memorial Room, Library of Birmingham

After a late lunch in Grand Central we decided to take a trip out to the University of Birmingham by train, the journey taking around ten minutes.  Birmingham’s the only university in the U.K. to have its own railway station known as University Station.  Local trains operated by London Midland run from Birmingham New Street at frequent intervals to the edge of the university campus.

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The Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock, University of Birmingham

The campus is attractively landscaped and at its centre stands the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, affectionately known as ‘Old Joe’.  Overlooking Chancellor’s Court, it is one of the tallest free standing clock towers in the world standing 110 metres tall.  Built in 1900 it was named after the university’s first chancellor.

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The Lapworth Museum of Geology

One of the reasons we wished to visit the university campus was to take a look in the Lapworth Museum of Geology.  This museum holds an extensive collection of fossils, minerals and rocks dating back to 1880 and is one of the oldest specialist geological museums in the U.K.  The museum re-opened in 2016 after a complete refurbishment and in addition to rocks and fossils there are zoological specimens and galleries providing insights into how the Earth formed and changed through time.  Admission is free and we found the galleries to be very interesting with exhibits catering for both adults and children.

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Inside the Lapworth Museum of Geology

Leaving the museum we continued our walk through the campus to the Vale village student accommodation overlooking an attractive lakeside setting.  Returning to the station we strolled along the canal towpath of the Worcester and Birmingham canal where we noticed that the university even had its own landing stage.

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The Worcester & Birmingham Canal

Returning to the hotel for a short rest we then enjoyed fish and chips in the Dragon Inn and had planned a late evening stroll but it began raining heavily so instead we went back to our hotel for the night.

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Dinner at the Dragon Inn, Birmingham

Day 3.  Exploring the Black Country Living Museum

The weather forecast seemed reasonable so we decided to spend the day at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, West Midlands, ten miles west of Birmingham.  Although the museum’s postal address is Dudley,  the nearest railway station is Tipton.  We bought return rail tickets costing approximately £5 each for the 20 minute journey from Birmingham New Street station, Tipton being on the Wolverhampton line with trains departing every 30 minutes.

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Old trams in the Black Country Living Museum

On leaving the station it was a mystery which way to go as strangely the museum is not signposted from there although it is only a one mile walk to reach the entrance.  Glancing at our phone map helped us find our way to the main entrance where there is also a large museum car park costing £3 per day.  Entrance to the museum is quite expensive at £17.50 but we were able to take advantage of a 2 for 1 admission price by downloading a voucher from the Days out in the UK by train website.  Visitors just need to have valid rail tickets to Tipton for the day of their visit and bring along the accompanying voucher to receive the discount so please bear this in mind if you are considering a visit as it is a much cheaper alternative than arriving by car.

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The re-created village centre at the open air museum

The museum first opened in 1978 and since then more than 50 shops, cottages and other buildings from the surrounding Black Country have been moved there brick by brick.  The main focus of the museum covers the period 1850-1950 and is located on former industrial land where coal pits, disused lime kilns and an old railway goods yard used to be.

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Inside a Victorian classroom

The main entrance is in the old Rolfe Street Baths and here we found displays of local artefacts that were made in the industrial heartland of the Black Country.  These included vehicles, anchors, chains and enamels.  Stepping outdoors, vintage buses, trams and trolley buses were waiting to take visitors on the short journey to the village centre.   It’s possible to ride on these vehicles as often as you wish as there is no extra charge for using the transport.  The Victorian school of St. James was our first stop, the bus dropping us off nearby.  Entering the building, the cloakroom looked bare and uninviting with its rows of metal coat pegs attached to the walls.  Whilst in the classroom, the antiquated desks complete with slates, chalk and inkwells must have been uncomfortable with their hard, wooden seats lined up in rows facing the teacher’s blackboard.

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Parade of shops in the village centre

Leaving the school we looked in each of the small shops which had all been authentically recreated and fitted out with stock that would have been available at that time.  The village shops include a general store, a chemist and a gentleman’s outfitters.  Each shop had a member of staff dressed in character to answer questions and relate stories of local life in those days.  The ‘sales assistant’ in H. Morrall’s outfitters demonstrated a bowler hat stretcher for us and showed us separate collars that could be clipped onto shirts each day.

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Inside the gentleman’s outfitters

Alongside the shops and cottages there is also a working pub called ‘The Bottle and Glass Inn’ set out as it would have been in 1910 where people were enjoying pints of beer and pork scratchings. Across the road from the pub stands the village chapel which has been recreated with wooden pews and a carved wooden balcony for the choir.

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The fish and chip shop and gentlemen’s outfitters

A little further along we came to Hobbs & Co,  a fish and chip shop just as it would have been in 1935, with an original frying range.  The fish and chip shop was open and seemed popular as the queue was snaking around the corner.  There were a few seats inside but most people were walking round eating their meal wrapped in paper.  It looked tempting  but as we had eaten fish and chips the previous evening we didn’t want the same again so soon afterwards.  Other working shops included a bakers selling freshly baked bread and cakes made from old recipes and a sweet shop selling traditional boiled sweets and humbugs weighed out on old fashioned scales from tall glass jars.

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Tin baths outside the Hardware Store

Along the canal a typical dock basin has been re-created with several narrowboats on display on the nearby canal arm.  Around the dockyard we explored the 1880’s brick blacksmith’s forge.  There was even a lifting bridge between the ironworks and boat dock which was moved to the museum from Tipton.

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Narrow boat at the open air museum

In one of the dockside sheds we were able to watch a demonstration of traditional chain making and how a strong link was forged before automated machinery was introduced.

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A demonstration of chain making

The museum includes visits down an underground mine.  Tours run at 20 minute intervals and last about 30 minutes.  There is a small waiting room for tours as only 25 people can descend into the mine at one time.  We visited on a Saturday and managed to get on the next available tour, so equipped with hard hats and torches we descended on foot into the underground drift mine where we explored the life of a coal miner in the mid 1880’s.  Our guide was very informative and explained the principles of drift mining as we navigated the narrow tunnels by torchlight.

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Life down the drift mine

There was so much to see at the museum, an old garage and petrol pumps, a 1930’s fairground and a worker’s institute.  Several times a steam engine trundled past pausing to allow visitors to inspect the engine.  It’s a splendid museum and definitely worth a full day’s visit on a fine day for anyone visiting Birmingham and the West Midlands.

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Steam engine at the Black Country Living Museum

It started raining heavily as we walked back to the station but fortunately we only had to wait a few minutes for our train back into the city centre.  After enjoying tea and cakes in Grand Central we returned to our hotel for a short rest before going out to a nearby pub for dinner.  Thankfully, the heavy rain showers had cleared so we enjoyed a late evening stroll alongside the canal and were fortunate to witness a beautiful sunset.

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Sunset over one of Birmingham’s canals

 Day 4.  Visiting the Birmingham Back to Backs

After checking out of our hotel and leaving our luggage to collect later, we set ourselves up for the day with cooked breakfasts in a nearby pub and then made our way to Hurst Street where we had booked a tour of the Birmingham Back to Backs terraced houses which are now operated as a museum by the National Trust.

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Birmingham Back to Backs

Tours last approximately 90 minutes and are limited to around 8 people as the rooms are very small.  We had booked by phone a few weeks in advance as we thought Sunday mornings would be popular.  The tours cost £8 per person but are free of charge to members of the National Trust.

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Court 15 of the Birmingham Back to Backs

It was suggested that we arrive 15 minutes early to take a look in the small museum before starting the tour.  This was worthwhile as it provided us with background information about these types of terraced houses and their occupants.  These houses are preserved examples of similar homes built around shared courtyards, constructed for the rapidly expanding population of Britain’s industrial towns.  The houses were restored by the Birmingham Conservation Trust and opened to the public in 2004.  Each of the four homes is decorated and furnished as it would have been in a different era, 1840’s, 1870 ‘s, 1930’s and 1970’s.

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Inside the 1840’s living room

Meeting our guide, we were escorted down a dark, narrow alleyway to the Back to Backs courtyard . Here we viewed the communal area where families did their washing, men brewed their beer and where we glanced in the ‘privy’ shared outside toilets families had to queue up to use and take a candle if it was dark so that they could see where they were going.  The first home we explored was the 1840’s which was lit by candlelight and because of wallpaper taxes being payable at that time, families applied stencils to their walls.  Each of the Back to Backs has just one room downstairs with the only outside door leading into this room.  There was a small kitchen corner but water had to be brought in from the well, with heating and cooking coming from the cast iron range.  A very narrow, winding staircase led upstairs where we found a bedroom with basic furnishings.  In this room a cloth separated the beds, with the householders sleeping at one side and their paying lodgers at the other.

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Shared bedrooms in the Birmingham Back to Backs

In the 1800’s the court was occupied by button makers, woodworkers and tailors many of whom worked from home.  By 1900, the ground floors had been converted into shops and many buildings remained as homes until 1966 when they were declared unfit to live in.  The tour highlighted the overcrowding and hardships people had to endure and it is so pleasing that the National Trust were interested to buy these homes and save them for the nation as they are such a contrast to the majority of their stately home properties.

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The Mailbox, Birmingham

After our tour ended we headed for The Mailbox, an exclusive shopping mall in the city centre which opened in 2000 on the site of the Royal Mail’s main Birmingham sorting office which at one time was the largest mechanised sorting office in the country.  A branch of the designer department store Harvey Nichols is to be found here alongside wine bars and restaurants with their terraces overlooking the Worcester and Birmingham Canal.

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Inside the BBC Birmingham Visitor Centre

On Level 3 we came across BBC Birmingham which has a visitor centre with free admission.  The visitor centre covers two floors and was very interesting with its interactive exhibition showcasing content from the BBC.  We were also able to look through virtual reality glasses at a BBC 360 degree video.  Upstairs we glanced through the windows of the BBC West Midlands studios, tested our skills at reading the weather forecast using the autocue and had our photos taken with a mock up of the Strictly Come Dancing judges.  It was all good fun and for those interested, guided tours can be taken around the studios.  We actually went on a similar BBC tour at MediaCityUK and you can read about our experience there from the link at the end of this post.

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Brindley Place Birmingham

Strolling along the canal towpath, it was just a short walk from The Mailbox to Brindley Place which is a canal side development named after the 18th century canal engineer James Brindley.  Formerly this area was the site of Birmingham’s industrial past but when British manufacturing declined in the 1970’s factories gradually closed down and the waterfront buildings became derelict.

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Brindley Place, Birmingham

It has now been transformed into a vibrant part of the city with pleasant landscaped walkways, squares and footbridges making it easy to access the many bars and restaurants that line each bank.  The area is also home to the National Sea Life Centre, the Crescent Theatre and the International Convention Centre.  Short pleasure boat trips can be taken along the canal and we found it to be a very attractive place to take an afternoon stroll.

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Canal side pub at Brindley Place, Birmingham

It was then time to head to a cafe for a light snack before returning to the hotel to collect our luggage for the train journey home.  Our long weekend in Birmingham had been lovely, we’d planned in advance what we hoped to see and do and our days were fun filled and busy – just as we like them to be.  I would recommend Birmingham for a short break, there’s no need to bring a car, using trains to the university and the Black Country Living Museum is easy and the city centre is compact enough to be able to walk everywhere.  Hopefully it won’t be too long before we make a return visit to Birmingham as the city has much to offer visitors.

Related Posts:

The Black Country Living Museum
MediaCityUK Tour