The virtues of Britain’s second city, Birmingham, are often overlooked by the majority of Brits who see the city as a place to change trains rather than a spot to linger. Yet the Midlands city with a population nudging a million boasts some of Britain’s most striking modern architecture and cuts a dash in culture, sport and commerce.
The future: high-speed from London to Birmingham
Earlier this week, the UK government announced the route of a new high-speed rail line (dubbed “HS2″) that will eventually get trains from London to Birmingham in less than an hour – good news for a city that has too often been snubbed by London’s elite. Birmingham’s bid to secure a national football stadium was turned down, the Millennium dome went to London and the UK government declined to support Birmingham’s efforts to be designated a European capital of culture.
A mix of old and new
Birmingham has a lot of which it can be rightly proud and the city is ready to wow visitors. Don’t wait for the new rail link, but go now before the crowds arrive. In time Birmingham will surely become a favored day trip for visitors to London.
The city of canals (yes, more than Venice) has been rescued by designers and architects from the evils inflicted upon it by post-war planners. In the 1960s, Birmingham acquired a reputation for having capitulated utterly to the automobile. Ugly ring roads orbited the city centre and dull concrete Brutalist shopping centers dominated the central area.
Now Birmingham has changed and the city offers an engaging mix of old and new. Canal-side restaurants ooze urban chic, the once rather run-down Jewellery Quarter is back in business and the City Art Gallery boasts the largest collection of pre-Raphaelite art anywhere in the world. Sleek modern trams and local trains connect Birmingham with other cities in the West Midlands conurbation.
Some of our favorite spots in Birmingham include the Anglican cathedral of St. Philip (fabulous Burne-Jones stained glass windows), the back streets of the Jewelery Quarter (including the two cemeteries in that area), the Brindley Place development with its two public squares and canal front, the model village at Bournville (an intriguing planned settlement created by the Cadbury family in the city’s southwest suburbs) and Moor Street station.
The latter is a superb period piece restoration of a once derelict railway site. Take the train from London Marylebone and you’ll arrive in Birmingham at Moor Street. The travel time is just two hours, although that drops to just 1 hour 40 minutes from May 2011. Real speed will come only with the new high-speed route, but that is not due to open for some years.
Travelers heading out from London can easily combine a visit to Birmingham with a stay in Stratford-upon-Avon. The two cities are just 30 miles apart. Services to both Stratford-upon-Avon and to Birmingham Moor Street leave from London Marylebone and are run by Chiltern Railways.