What are the features that make a place unique? That make an experience meaningful? What is it about a particular city that draws me in and makes me want to stay longer? City planning contributes to making a city easier to navigate and creates positive flows where they need to be. Long histories lend to a wealth of historical architecture and fascinating back-stories as to how a place came to be as it is today. Financial success can add impressive buildings and well-maintained spaces. Civic pride will hopefully lead to the creation and improvement of green spaces. But behind all of this it is the people that make the place.
My readers may have noticed that my travel adventures do not hinge-upon the sights before me but on the people that I meet. I would be far more comfortable in a slum that has friendly locals than in a world-class city that has hostile residents. (I’m thinking about my travels in 3rd world countries and refer to actual slums, this is not a metaphor.) I do appreciate the finer things, but things do not make the experience for me. Environment is important, but the people are paramount.
For my Introduction to Birmingham I will highlight my experiences as they were sculpted by the people I met. Welcome to Birmingham, England’s Second City.
Frank and Marg
Although not Brummies, Frank and Marg are a newly-retired couple who live within 30 minutes of England’s second most populous city. I boarded our shared Amsterdam to Birmingham flight at 4PM after having departed Toronto the night before. Tired and worn-out, after saying hello to my seat-mates I quickly fell asleep.
Joe and Bob
Just Kidding! Did you think I had moved on?! That would have been quite funny, to have a section for my in-flight neighbours only to tell you that we didn’t speak. Anyway, back to Frank and Marg who entertained themselves throughout the flight with their tablets, an iPad and an iPad mini. They didn’t seem very chatty, but when I woke-up I asked them if they had traveled very far. Well they immediately opened-up like old friends who had just bumped into each other in the street cheerfully sharing tales of their travels.
“Oh my, have we ever,” says Marg with a touch of well-deserved pride, “we boarded our first flight yesterday at 8AM, didn’t we.”
“Wow, that’s an entire daytime longer than my journey, you must be knackered!”
“It’s true, we’ll get home from the holiday and need to take a holiday!”
“Was it worth the effort?”
“Oh yes, we spent for days here, then had an 8 day cruise, then another 4 days there. It was lovely, have you ever been to the Galapagos?”
“Good afternoon, Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. . . . . . . . .sunny 21 degrees Celsius.”
“Isn’t that lovely! When we left, the snow had barely gone and now we have the full summer to look forward to!”
“We went to Borneo in December,” her husband adds,”coming home in the cold, frozen, dark winter was quite a shock.”
“Quite the welcome home,” I suggest.
“Yes, welcome home indeed,” Mary agrees.
“Have you been anywhere?” she asks.
This strikes me as such a funny question that it takes me a moment to think of an answer. I already told them I’m travelling around the Midlands for 10 weeks and for me, this is somewhere. The Midlands is their own backyard but for me it is foreign travel. I’ve probably visited near to 30 countries but after a pause I mention India, since it was my most recent travel. Brief conversation about taxi scams and harassing shop keepers and we have landed.
“Enjoy your stay!” they call as we divide in to separate EU and Non-EU Immigration queues. I should have given them my card but I didn’t just in case. If I end-up having a nasty time in Birmingham I don’t want these nice people to read about it.
“I don’t look a lot like my photo,” I admit, removing my glasses so she can get a good look at me.”
“That’s alright, I can see it’s you,” she cheerfully offers after looking under her own glasses to compare my face to my upheld passport photo. I think that perhaps women are better at seeing faces more thoroughly than are men. Guys see blonde curls where cropped white hair once stood and facial hair on what used to be a clean-shaven face and become baffled. Photo-Me-photo-Me-photo-me their eyes moving back and forth looking for resemblance. Not completely convinced, they let me go on account of having no other information that would prohibit my entry. I look at my own photo and wonder what they see. I think I also look healthier now that I’m a non-smoker, in my photo I have remarkable circles under my eyes and my skin is pallid.
“What is the purpose of your stay?”
“I’m spending 10 weeks in 10 cities and writing about my experiences. I did the same thing in India earlier this year.”
She flips through my passport to verify that story. It’s probably not the usual itinerary of an overseas visitor to Birmingham. Two separate India Visas, various stamps and dates. “How long were you here (in the UK) before you went to India?”
“Just over a week. I spent New Years with friends in London before spending a week in Cardiff. I didn’t like Cardiff very much.” I’m not sure why I added this extra commentary on that city, for all I know she could be from there herself.
“I have friends who went to Cardiff, they enjoyed it,” she mentions, “What didn’t you like about it?”
“I found the people to be harsh. I can only guess that maybe they don’t like North Americans? Everywhere I went as soon as I opened my mouth it was like I felt hate emanating towards me.”
“Oh, I don’t know, ” she ponders, “apparently they’re not fond of the English either though.” she adds in recognition of the possible truth in my account.
“So how long were you in India?”
I had thought of it as 10 weeks, but now that she is asking I realise she is seeing an in-congruency as she flips through the pages. “I left Cardiff on January 8th for Mumbai, then I departed from Kolkata on March 3rd to Los Angeles, then I returned to Canada on March 10th but I didn’t get home to Toronto until March 25th.” (I was away for 11 weeks and thought of the trip as being mostly to India, but in fact I was only in India for about 8 weeks.)
“Okay, I can see that. So, how are you funding this?” she asks, her head tilted.
“With illegal sex-trade workers I have working for me in Stratford-Upon-Avon.” I think but don’t share. This is the kind of slip-up she is looking for. Not really, but she does need to rule me out as being some sort of an illegal hoping to support myself by working under the table in the central UK, as unlikely as that sounds to me at my age. I explain my situation of settled-down security traded-in for blissful freedom to pursue my passions and she understands.
“So where do you plan to stay in the Midlands? You’re not staying in the Copthorne for 10 weeks, I’m sure?”
“From Birmingham, maybe Coventry, Northampton, Norwich (“Nor-ich,” she corrects with a smile), Nottingham, Leeds, York, Manchester, Lincoln, Liverpool, and if I have time I’d like to visit Northern Wales.”
“Where in Wales?”
“Oh, one of those names, yes, they are difficult to remember,” she laughs.
“And what will you write about?”
I give her a card with my blog while I briefly explain.
“I’ll check you’re blog out tonight!” she says, enthusiastically. I am now the last person at Immigration, there is no one left to immigrate, so she chats a bit longer. “Enjoy your stay and good luck with your writing!”
My entry verified in a friendly and welcoming manner, my first impression is favourable. Made welcome pre-arrival, now made welcome directly post-arrival. I’m feeling good about this adventure.
Sara and Jane
Having collected my considerable luggage, nearly doubled by having brought with me a folding bicycle, I follow signage towards the taxi queue. Enroute, I stop for a moment at the Discovery Centre.
“Can I help you find anything?” a friendly staffer asks as I am looking at shelves of pamphlets.
“What would you recommend for someone who is visiting Birmingham for the first time, would like to make some day trips, and will be spending 10 weeks in total visiting the region?”
She turns to her colleague and the two of them make helpful suggestions as to what information might be most useful for me.
(“Silly cow, these people make minimum wage, you can’t judge Cardiff by how these kinds of people treat you,” someone had commented on my Cardiff postings. Actually, I can, I am comparing oranges to oranges pretty much everywhere I go. Same sort of job, here-friendly, there-begrudging. Seems comparable to me.)
“Do you know the Copthorne Hotel at Paradise Circus?”
“Yes, Sir,” he claims as he opens the doors to the large interior of a typical British black cab. I say,”claims” because in recent months I very often got into taxis after being assured by the driver that they knew exactly where I wanted to go when they had no idea whatsoever.
“The weather is wonderful today!” the driver offers as way of a conversation starter. He is clearly very pleased as he excitedly mentions it.
“Amazing, I wasn’t expecting it!” It feels like a summer afternoon, after 5PM on the 2nd of May.
“Where are you from, Sir?” And the usual banter ensues except that I can barely hear him through the plexiglass barricade between us so it’s a bit strained.
Some time later I am dropped to the front entrance of my hotel within the budget I had researched to be the honest fare. I have learnt not to trust cabbies so I am very pleased when they are true. It speaks well of their city. Last time I was in London I was well taken for a ride and the driver argued his innocence of having to take the greatly lengthened route he took that cost 120 pounds by metre that I know should have cost less than 70 quid. It leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth.
“Do you live in the UK at all, Sir?”
“If you could just fill in this form then, Sir, with your passport information and such.”
An older four-star hotel, it’s a bit aged but excellent value and the perfect location for my Birmingham adventures.
Strangers from my Window
Introduced to my room, the first thing I do after dropping my considerable bags is go straight to the window with my camera. I’m on the 4th floor looking down to a courtyard-like area that is at the rear of the Paradise Forum. A main pedestrian thoroughfare continues through the building as if out-of-doors creating considerable foot traffic. A neighbourhood pub, Wetherspoons, has an outdoor seating area that is well-in-use on this lovely sunny pre-summer afternoon. Opposite another patio seating area of Woktastic is less populated. My eye falls-upon some activity. Two guys in an argument are getting physical. A punch is thrown. Another. Oh, dear. Someone steps in to break them up. They settle-down and one of them puts his suit jacket back on.
A moment later and they’re back at it again. One lunges at the other and they’re on the ground, quickly out of view behind a little BBQ fast food hut. Again they are coaxed to cease. Moments later they start-up again, first with yelling followed by blows. Somehow now on the pub patio a table crashes. An older couple stand-in, both husband and wife trying to disarm the situation.
The fight doesn’t leave the biggest impression on me, the reaction of the people nearby does. Several people have put themselves in harms way to try to stop this dispute. No one reacted as if this were a sight they were used to, people stopped, police were phoned. Clearly this was unacceptable behaviour and locals were trying to do something about it. If I had been down there I reckon I would have stayed clear so I am rather impressed as to what has motivated people to step-in.
Nowhere is perfect. But notice in these clips how standers-by don’t just stand by, but they actually get involved and try to stop the quarrel. I think the Brummies have real guts.
I exit the main doors of the hotel where I came in and stare at the map that I picked-up at the airport. The hotel is labelled on the map, but it is not drawn. I am not sure which direction I am facing. I want to go towards Victoria Square which will lead me to New Street with all the shops and services that will be useful to me. I want to set-up my iPad with a UK SIM straight away. The hotel charges 5 pounds ($8) per day for using WIFI, and I can activate having my own portable internet for an entire month for only 15 pounds ($24).
A small woman near to my age with pink/purple hair walking very quickly notices me looking dazed and confused. It’s true, I was not to bed last night and now having just arrived, I am unable to orient myself on the map. “Where are you trying to go?” she accurately ascertains. “Victoria Square.” “Come with me, I can show you.” Although she is not going into the square herself, she is going nearby. We exit the car-only driveway of the hotel and enter a pedestrian path, up some stairs, and down an exterior corridor. “It doesn’t really look like an entrance from this direction,” she explains as we enter a side-door of the Paradise Forum. At a Fork in the corridor we take a left. She walks a bit out of her way so that she can point me in the direction of the square at the appropriate exit before she continues in her own direction.
“Thanks very much!”
“You’re very welcome!” she shoots back with a smile.
(I later find a more sensible exit/entrance for the hotel through the restaurant/lounge that connects directly onto the rear walkway of the Paradise Forum. This is the way that pedestrians come and go from the hotel.)
Doris and Laura
Paradise Forum is a small ground-floor arcade of mostly food purveyors that is topped by the city library. Also within the library on the main level is a tourist information office. Inside, two cheerful ladies help me as I ask for several items. I eavesdrop as one of the ladies explains to a visitor before me the maps they have available. The visitor is readily content and on her way. “Could I also get a civic map please?” “Sure you can,” and she’s off to get one. Oh, and could I get a copy of the Cycling map as well? “Certainly, just a moment.” Maps in hand I wander over to the racks of brochures that I had not noticed before. Self-service, it’s probably where the welcomer had walked over to each time to get my maps herself. I return to the desk once more to purchase a few post cards, where the three of us joke about the weather being so changeable in the UK. Hot and sunny one minute, cold and raining the next. “We can have four seasons in a day!” one of them boasts.
Paradise Forum opens up onto Chamberlain Square, a beautiful outdoor space flanked by the library, the rear of the Town Hall, and the Museum and Art Gallery. The Museum and Art Gallery was built between 1884 and 1889 by the Gas company in an asymmetrical Classical style. A large clock tower, “Big Brum” rises on the left. In the centre of the square a fountain with a tower that looks like a steeple adds to the charm of the space. Taking one up a grade, a very wide rounded staircase runs much of the width leading up to the entrances of the Forum and the Library.
Town Hall is a Roman-looking Grade 1 listed building. Passing between it and the Museum one happens upon adjoining Victoria Square. This space provides one of the most iconic scenes of Birmingham which I recognise from photos. Council House stands as the prominent resident of the square, it is actually another wing of the same building which is the Museum and Art Gallery. A statue of Queen Victoria stands in the square, which stands at the top of another stately staircase with water features and lovely flower gardens. Below, some of the main shopping streets of Birmingham are accessed.
New Street must be considered the High Street, essentially a link between Victoria Square and the Bull Ring Shopping Complex. A plethora of small shops, both chain and independent, as well as other services, pubs, restaurants, coffee shops, and cafes line the streets and back-streets between the two anchor landmarks. Mid-point is the New Street Station, the main railway link of the city.
After 6PM on a Thursday, I am surprised to find many shops in this very well-populated pedestrian zone to be recently closed. I buy a Big Issue on the street and the friendly sales person, James, explains where I can find mobile phone stores that will be open longer, they are inside the Bullring. “Big Issue, Sir?” “Sure, how much is it?” (I am embarrassed by this question, I regularly purchased this weekly paper magazine when I lived in the UK many years ago. Back in the 1990’s, I think it may have been a pound at the time.) “Two pound-fifty. I know, it’s a lot, isn’t it.” “No, it’s fine. I just arrived to the UK today, that’s why I didn’t know the price.” I give him 3, thank him for his help and continue on my little mission.
The Big Issue is a charitable publication that helps unemployed people to make some money by selling them on the street. At the current price, the vendors make 1 pound 25 for every issue they sell. I find many of the stories interesting and I think it’s an excellent way to spend a few quid. I believe it is available all throughout the UK.
The Bullring is a large and very impressive shopping complex. Although there is just over 160 retailers, many of them are large tenants. I make my way down to the bottom level and find a recently-merged mobile phone company store that is still open. There I am immediately served by a helpful-enough Billy. He’s not Mr.Personality but he gets the job done with little fuss. I’m a rather easy customer, I want to buy a phone, don’t really care much about what it is although if it can take nice photos that could be handy. Samsung Galaxy is sold out in all three versions, I don’t want another Blackberry, so after a 3-minute selection process I end up with a Windows smartphone made by Nokia. Soon, I’ll figure out how to use it.
I wrote this chapter broken into the interactions I had with people simply so readers could see how it really is the interactions with individuals that creates the feeling of a place.
I am happy to report, with loads of things to do and friendly locals, after only 24 hours I realise that one week will not be enough time for me here. I think Birmingham might just be a bit of a hidden gem. As England’s Second City, it does not get the attention abroad that it deserves. No one has ever suggested that I visit this city, yet it really seems to be a great place.
*The names above have been altered to protect the privacy of the individuals.
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