Dear America, here are 3 things I love about Birmingham….
I am writing to you to set the record straight. A couple of weeks ago I was shocked to hear one of your own on Fox News (a “terrorism expert”) describe Birmingham as a “Muslim-only city”, a place where people who are non-Muslim “don’t go”. I’m afraid America, you have been misinformed. Birmingham is an exciting, vibrant city and I say that not just because it was the closest city to me when I was growing up. I have been privileged to visit some amazing cities including Paris, Amsterdam, Cairo, Durban, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Atlanta, and whilst each of these hold very fond memories, the city that I love the most is Birmingham.
I am not sure what you really know about Birmingham, but you have probably heard it said that it has more canals than Venice. I’m not going to harp on about this as, although they were important to the city as they, in part, helped Birmingham and the surrounding Black Country to develop, they don’t define the city in the way that Venice is by its waterways.
Now I will admit that I am biased when it comes to Birmingham. I was born and grew up nearby, and Birmingham was my closest city and a regular destination on a weekend. But this aside Birmingham is a brilliant city to come and visit, explore and experience. Here are the three things that I love about it and make me want to keep going back to it again and again now, as they did when I was sixteen.
Commerce is at the heart of most cities, and a teenager it was the shops that took me into Birmingham. It is a shopper’s paradise with a vast array of different shops to suit everyone. I particularly enjoy the markets. At the Bull Ring you will find the Indoor Market, the Open Market and the Rag Market, the latter being my teenage self’s shopping venue of choice! I spent hours of my weekends and school holidays mooching around in here and trawling through the second-hand clothes. I would frequently return home with a “vintage” skirt or an “army shirt” which my mother would insist go straight into a washing machine as she muttered something about “fleas”.
Despite being a city, Birmingham also has a Farmers’ Market – the Fine Food Market – which runs twice a month. There are plenty of yummy treats available here such as homemade cakes and traditional hand made cheeses in addition to the expected fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables and meats. For the 30-something me, this would now be the place I would spend my shopping time in the city, bringing home a bag full of cheese and meats to fill my fridge rather than a bag of “retro” clothes to be immediately flung into the washing machine.
On the subject of food, did you know that Birmingham is the home of the balti? Do you know what a balti is? It is a type of curry, served in a metal “balti bowl”. It is the perfect meal to be enjoyed with friends (with rice, naan and a mountain of popadums) at the end of an evening after experiencing Birmingham’s night life.
Birmingham is also home to one of the most highly-rated Christmas Markets in the country. Every year at the end of November, many stallholders from Birmingham’s twin city of Frankfurt set up for the largest Christmas market outside of Germany. Here you can buy toys, jewellery, craft items as well as German food and drink. It is wonderful to wander around and soak up the sights, sounds and smells, especially after a hard day hitting the other markets and shops. You can’t help but get into the Christmas spirit with a warm Gluhwein whilst a huge moose’s head sings Christmas songs behind you.
If the markets aren’t to your taste, then there is the famous Jewellery Quarter, the major brands and independent shops you would expect to find on any city high street and several fantastic shopping centres. The Bull Ring is in the heart of the city centre and is one of the largest shopping centres in the UK. The Selfridges store at The Bull Ring is now one of the city’s most iconic buildings. Harvey Nichols department store is found in the upmarket shopping venue that is The Mailbox. After all that shopping, you can eat in several restaurants which overlook the Worcester and Birmingham Canal – oops! I wasn’t going to mention the canals was I?
When I go on holiday I want to immerse myself in the culture of the city. Birmingham’s culture can rival that of any other city. There is something to cater to everyone’s tastes. It has its own Symphony Orchestra, Royal Ballet and Opera Company. The Library of Birmingham opened in September 2013, replacing the Birmingham Central Library. It is not only the largest public library in the United Kingdom, but the largest public cultural space in Europe. It is another distinctive building for the city and not only houses some important collections but has a Secret Garden on the 7th level.
The new Library is connected to the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and it is just a short walk from here to other important cultural venues such as Symphony Hall, the NIA, The ICC, the Town Hall and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is one of my favourite places in the city. It is said to be home to over 500,000 objects which date from 200,000 years ago to the present and originating from each continent. It contains artefacts from Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. The Art Gallery has a huge range of paintings, including some by Constable, Hogarth, Rubens, Degas, Botticelli, Canaletto and The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Currently on display there is the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found, discovered near Lichfield in 2009. It is a lovely place to spend an hour or more, to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, nose around and unearth something you’ve not seen before, and apart from some of the temporary exhibitions, it is free!
Birmingham is a city for the people, catering for everyone. It has truly embraced multiculturalism – it is home to people from many different cultures and religions, and what they bring to the city, enhances it and makes it what it is. Birmingham welcomes all – regardless of who you are, what you believe, where you are from and what you already know – or don’t know, about it.
3. The people
Finally, the thing that sets Birmingham apart from other cities is the people who make the city their home. Brummies help make Birmingham the city that it is. To an outsider, it’s the accent that most people will associate with the people of Birmingham. It is distinctive and regularly comes out as UK’s least favourite accent in surveys. Those who speak with a strong Brummie accent are often thought has being “thick”, although not if you are from a different country where the accent rates as being “beautiful”. Brummies are warm, and friendly and have a fantastic sense of humour. If you don’t believe me, remember that “The River” outside the Town Hall and Council House is known by the locals as “The Floozie in the Jacuzzi”. And then there is The Bull sculpture at The Bull Ring which has a new outfit each Christmas.
But most of all Brummies aren’t boastful – which is probably why you may not have even considered Birmingham to be such a fantastic city. It is a vibrant and exciting city, with something for everyone. Brummies love their city, and rightly so. They know it is a great place to live and to visit, but you have probably never considered it to be as Brummies just don’t make a song and dance about it!
So please America – come and experience it for yourself. I promise you, you won’t be disappointed!
A Brummy-Lover x
All photos courtesy of my father – John Fletcher – thank you Dad!