Lucy Daltroff explores Birmingham and discovers jewellery, a Lunar Society and Lots of Canals.
It’s been years since I last visited Birmingham and I was amazed at how things have completely changed. There is a real feeling of excitement in this, the second city in the United Kingdom with 40% of the population under the age of 25. This new verve is palpable – with trendy restaurants and things to do, add in one of the most intricate canal networks in the world and a whopping 1,000 retail outlets within a 20-minute walk of the centre and its popularity is understandable.
Some of this is due to the HS2 which, when completed in 2033, will mean the journey to London will take less than an hour. I spoke to Ian Ward the Leader of the Council who told me that hosting the Commonwealth Games had been not only an enormous honour but added to the prestige of the city. Big companies such as HSBC and Goldman Sachs have moved here knowing that property prices are 60% cheaper than in the capital meaning that their employees can find good places to live.
As for attractions, I loved the police museum in Steelhouse Lane: a Victorian lockup built in 1891 and in use until 2016 – and of special interest to any Peaky Blinders fans. It’s a fantastic building steeped in history with a look back on how the custody system operated in years gone by. At the front desk, I met Phil who once worked here and now is a museum volunteer.
He had lots of stories to tell. My favourite was about one man in the custody cell who had no criminal record but had gone berserk, smashing up his home, and was unable to be calmed. The following day when he had quietened down, he explained his fury. Every week for years he had religiously ‘done the pools’ and when checking the results, two days before, realised that he had got all the numbers right and had won the life-changing jackpot. He went to the pub to celebrate and came home…… to find the coupon on the kitchen table, which his wife had forgotten to post!
The Jewellery quarter with over eight hundred businesses, one hundred specialist retailers and 50 contemporary designers, houses Europe’s largest jewellery school, producing more than 40% of UK jewellery output, combining traditional craftsmanship with innovative designs, The busy Assay Office hallmarks twelve million items a year. In the middle of it all, hidden behind the frontage of four terraced houses, is a museum run by English Heritage.
It consists of the workshops of J. W. Evans established in 1881, and one of the most complete surviving historic factories, packed with thousands of dies for the manufacture of silverware, as well as the whole of the working equipment. Nothing has been moved since its closure in 2004 so it is easy to get the atmosphere of what it would have been like in its heyday, with more than 70 people employed in this confined space. You can almost hear the noise of the drop presses, feel the heat of the furnaces and the bustle and chatter of the workers.
Afterwards, it was good to visit the jewellery quarter’s best hangout, the converted Button Factory now a contemporary venue featuring Robata grills and probably the best steak and chips I have eaten for years.
Another attraction just out of the centre, is the stately home, Soho House where the Lunar Society met in the 18 th century. Its importance cannot be overstated. It is the main reason that Birmingham exists as a commercial centre, so I was quite upset to find it poorly signposted and unknown to the locals – including the bus driver who passed it on his route. Sorry, Birmingham; this is one thing you have got wrong; you need to change this and be proud of this vital part of your heritage. Four hundred years ago the city did not have its own power sources, so inventions to enable businesses to flourish became essential.
It was here that a handful of famous pioneers, debated, business, arts, science, and commerce. They included manufacturer Matthew Boulton, the engineer James Watt who harnessed the power of steam, Joseph Priestly, and Josiah Wedgewood. Through their ideas, power was harnessed, including the street lighting that made it possible to meet on non-lunar evenings, so making Birmingham a driver of the industrial revolution. All this is explained in the excellent tour visitors are given around the building.
Two outstanding restaurants I experienced during my time in Birmingham were Fume, a contemporary Italian eatery that is part of the San Carlo group and exudes sophistication and fun; and Fazenda, a South American all-you-can-eat meal, initiated at an unlimited salad bar and followed by the waiters bringing high-quality meats on skewers to the table until you surrender by flipping your table coaster from green to red, signalling you have had enough,
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