In the vanguard of history
Located at the heart of England’s Midlands, Birmingham has a long, rich history, stretching right back to the stone age. The Romans constructed a fort here and opened the area up with their roads, but it was the Saxons who established the first permanent settlement, in around the 6th century AD. Following the Norman invasion of 1066, the area was lorded over by the aristocratic de Birmingham family, and throughout the medieval period Birmingham grew into a bustling market town. By the 1640s and the Civil War, Birmingham had shrugged off its old feudalism and grown into a booming commercial hub, the citizens of which enjoyed an unusual degree of freedom and social mobility. It developed a reputation first for Puritanism, Nonconformism and political radicalism, then as a centre of freethinking and scientific inquiry, the epicentre of the Midlands Enlightenment. By the time of the Industrial Revolution, the so-called ‘City of a Thousand Trades’ was on the cutting edge of technological innovation and development, one of the economic engines of the British Empire. It was an economically diverse and prosperous centre whose locally manufactured goods reached a global market, and whose social structures anticipated the modern age. When the Second World War broke out, the city converted its car plants to munitions factories, producing everything from jerrycans to Spitfires. Surviving some of the heaviest bombing of the Blitz, Birmingham soon began to rebuild itself, putting its manufacturing know-how to good use as a cornerstone of the British automotive industry.
Today, Birmingham is considered the UK’s second city, a vibrant cultural hub and regional centre, proud of its history of dissenters, manufacturers and inventors. With an energetic nightlife and food scene, driven partly by the large student population attending the several local universities, the city has in recent years blossomed into a desirable destination for conferences and city breaks. Known affectionately as ‘Brum’, especially by the resident ‘Brummies’, Birmingham is the birthplace of the Balti curry, and home of some of the best and longest-established curry houses in Britain, located in the nationally renowned Balti Triangle of world-class Indian restaurants.
Things to do
There is no shortage of things to do in the city, from the Peaky Blinders tour, inspired by the BBC’s BAFTA-winning drama about the street gangs of interwar Birmingham, to the gentler environs of the Bullring for an afternoon’s shopping – or even a visit to a Victorian gin parlour. At Cadbury World, visitors with a sweet tooth can sample Britain’s favourite chocolate and explore its nineteenth-century origins in Quaker entrepreneurism. There are guided tours to suit a variety tastes, from the historical houses and courtyards of the old industrial workers, to the Jewellery Quarter, home to the largest concentration of jewellery shops and workshops in Europe. The famous canals, which linked the city to London and other major ports, now form a picturesque legacy of the industrial past. The canals can be explored on foot, or by canoe or narrowboat – or simply enjoyed by sitting in one of the numerous cafes and bars that line the waterways and watching the world go by.
While canal barge is no longer the transport option of choice, fortunately Birmingham is extremely well connected to the rest of the country by rail, air and motorway. London is only two hours away by train; Oxford a mere eighty minutes. If you should wish to explore the Midlands more thoroughly, the city of Coventry with its famous postwar cathedral is not far. Similarly, the picturesque towns of Warwick and Kenilworth, with their medieval castles, and Royal Leamington Spa, with its Georgian baths, are all a short drive or train ride away.
The Shakespeare Express steam train delivers passengers from Birmingham to Stratford-upon-Avon, the heart of Bard Country, where England’s national poet was born and lived until his twenties. It leaves twice a day and takes just over an hour. Aficionados of the Industrial Revolution and Midlands’ traditional craftsmanship can visit World of Wedgwood to find out about Britain’s finest ceramics. The Black Country Living Museum, named for the soot that covered the area throughout the nineteenth century, and the Ironbridge Gorge Museums are both just a short journey from Birmingham. For nature lovers, meanwhile, Licky Hills country park is ten miles west of the city. Or visitors could simply set out by train, car or bus for any of the idyllic villages of ancient Warwickshire, and enjoy a hearty meal in a country pub, followed by a long, peaceful walk in the fields and lanes of the English countryside.
Getting to Birmingham
Travel by air
Birmingham International airport, which flies direct to destinations around the world, is 9 miles east of the city centre, easily accessible by train or car. For more information, please see the airport website.
Direct flights to and from America operate out of Heathrow airport (3 hours via London by train), Gatwick airport (2 hours 20 minutes via London), Luton airport (2 hours direct) and Manchester airport (1 hour 40 minutes direct).
Travel by train
Birmingham city centre is served by three major train stations, New Street, Moor Street and Snow Hill stations, of which Birmingham New Street is generally most useful to international travelers. More information about trains to and from Birmingham can be found on the national rail enquiries website.
The Visit Birmingham website is full of useful information for the visitor. The Lonely Planet guide may be worth a look as well. And here’s what the Rough Guide has to say. Not forgetting tripadvisor, which has plenty of information, too.