A diverse industrial and commecial heritage, makes Britain’s second city a rich place to visit.
Abundant attractions and sparkling entertainment make Birmingham a gem of a destination for groups, Val Baynton finds out more on a recent trip.
I was a student living in Birmingham for around four years, and, naturally, I have a great affection for the city, but it was great to have the chance to return to appraise its offer as a destination for groups. My initial impression was how easy it was to travel around the centre, with attractions all well signposted, and once the development work on New Street Railway Station, the Metro and city bus interchange is completed, (all due by 2015) access both into and around the centre will be further improved. There are a number of coach drop off points and a map showing coach parking is available online, see details below.
Birmingham’s evolution into one of the premier cities within the UK is the result of its leading role in the Industrial Revolution. In the 19th century Birmingham was a ‘city of one thousand trades’ and was ‘deemed the workshop of the world’, and so it is fitting that groups, when visiting today, can explore aspects of this past – from the businesses themselves to the housing and social conditions of factory workers, and from the art and culture that industrialists invested in, to the canal network that wraps around the city.
The Jewellery Quarter
This part of Birmingham has been home to jewellers as well as allied crafts and trades since the 17th century when local artisans began to fulfil King Charles II’s and aristocracy’s demands for fancy buttons and shoe buckles. Making these ornaments from steel, silver and burnished gold inlaid with coloured glass and gems, the craftsmen also began to make ‘Brummagen toys’, (small decorative objects) and jewellery. During the 18th century development continued; famous industrialist, scientist, inventor and Lunar Society founder, Matthew Boulton, campaigned for the city to have its own Assay Office, and this opened in 1773 adopting an anchor for the its hallmark, which ever since has denoted Birmingham made products. The following centuries saw the jewellery trade expand, and other industries especially pen nib making, coffin furniture manufacture, watch, gun, lock and silver making all become established in this unique area. Many of these skills can now be discovered by groups on a visit to the quarter, which is centred on the Chamberlain Clock , built to honour the former mayor of Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain.
The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is the perfect way to start this experience with displays about gems and where they come from as well as a tour around the former Smith & Pepper factory that is little changed since the beginning of last century. The guides – many of whom are practising jewellers –offer an insight into how the factory would have worked. Groups of 10 or more should book in advance and larger parties will be split into groups of 15 to ease access around the site. There is a special discounted rate, coaches can park nearby for free, (first come first served on the day) and GTOs are welcome to visit in advance free of charge. If you wish to travel by rail, the area has its own station – the Jewellery Quarter – with links north and south. Heritage walks around the quarter and workshops run throughout the year.
Groups can also visit the Assay Office, J W Evans Silver Factory, now run by English Heritage, and The Pen Museum. From the summer of 2014, the Coffin Works will open. This will allow groups to tour the former Newman Brothers coffin fitting factory, another step back in time giving a glimpse into a business that supplied fittings for coffins for the likes of the Chamberlains, Winston Churchill and Diana Princess of Wales. Tours must be pre-booked at all venues. Walking distance between the furthest apart of these attractions is around 10 minutes, but, with plenty of eateries in the area and many enticing jewellery shops to explore, there’s much to keep your group occupied throughout the day.
Celebrate Birmingham’s culture, history and art
In the city centre of the city, groups can explore the imposing Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which offers free entry except for exhibitions in the Gas Hall. The collections of metalwork, textiles, and ceramics formed from the late 1860s onwards with the aim of inspiring Birmingham’s craftspeople and industrialists. It also has the world’s largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art, a striking collection of stained glass windows, and is one of the permanent venues for the Anglo Saxon Staffordshire Hoard, which is undergoing extensive conservation at the museum. Tours available to groups include ‘Butcher, Baker and Candlestick Makers: Birmingham Trades in the 18th century’, the ‘Pre-Raphaelites’, and tours of the museum collection stores There’s a maximum of 25 people per guide, although two parties can tour at the same time. Upcoming exhibitions include ‘George Catlin: American Indian Portraits’, a National Portrait Gallery exhibition running from 12th July to 3rd October and ‘Photorealism: 50 years of hyper realistic painting’ running from 30th November to 30th March 2014.
Year round shopping
There’s much retail therapy to enjoy in this city too, from the famous Bullring shopping centre to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market that is the highlight of the festive calendar. With around 200 stalls, selling gifts, jewellery, decorations, handmade toys as well as delicious delicacies, this is one the UK’s largest German Christmas Markets. This year’s market takes place daily from 15th November to 22nd December. What makes the market so attractive is its small village feel, yet it’s within the heart of the bustling city centre in Victoria Square. Visitors can enjoy German specialities such as beer, Glühwein (mulled wine), traditional sausages, meats, sweets and marzipans. Live music every lunchtime and evening adds to the seasonal feel.
Birmingham’s Little Treasure
Having looked at and understood the history of some of the many objects made within the city, why not take your group to discover the cramped housing conditions in which many workers lived by visiting the Birmingham Back to Backs. This complex of 11 houses with outbuildings arranged around a central courtyard is typical of the back to back terraced housing dating from the early 19th century, and is the only example of its type remaining in Birmingham. The Back to Backs have been restored and renovated by the National Trust, and they reveal a lifestyle that’s in great contrast to the grand country houses and stately homes the Trust is more usually associated with. In the 1831 census, 60 residents lived in the 11 houses and there were three outside privies for them to share. Three of the houses have been restored to show conditions, furnishings and decorations typical of the 1840s, 1870s and 1930s, and, to bring each era to life, the story of a family who lived there during each of these decades is vividly told by the guides who lead tour parties around the buildings. The buildings were declared unfit for domestic habitation in 1966, but businesses continued to be based there until 2002, and a tailor’s shop, along with the story of its owner – one of the last businesses to close – also forms part of the tour.
The Back to Backs can only be visited as part of a guided tour, and because of the room sizes and narrow and steep stairways, numbers in each tour party are restricted to eight. However, tours depart every 15 minutes and there’s plenty in the vicinity to keep your group occupied – including a small museum telling the fascinating history of the wallpaper found on the walls of the houses as they were restored, as well as numerous cafes and restaurants nearby for a drink or snack whilst you wait for your tour time. Disabled visitors can tour the ground floors of the Back to Backs and there is a special audio visual room with films to show the upper storeys and exhibits in each house. Coach drop off points are close by and there are discounted rates for groups, plus one free place in every 10 – outside of National Trust membership. For rail travellers the Back to Backs is ¼ mile away from New Street Station.
One part of Birmingham that has been developed in recent years is Brindleyplace. Now a vibrant area with a wide choice of restaurants offering cuisine from all over the world, it’s also the place to board a traditional canal barge and explore some of the eight miles of canals, dating back to 1769, that wind their way through the centre of Birmingham and out into the countryside. Away2Canal’s trips, for example, use heated boats with pre-bookable catering and on-board toilets. An informative commentary whilst you sail along, ensures your group will find out more about the hidden waterways of Birmingham.
Extended stays and evening stays
There’s lots more reasons to extend your stay in Birmingham as within a 20 minute coach journey there are a host of other attractions from the sweet temptations of Cadbury’s World and the tranquil haven of Birmingham Botanical Gardens at Winterbourne House to museums such as the Jacobean mansion of Aston Hall, the Barber Institute of Fine Art at the University of Birmingham, the Warwickshire Cricket Museum, Sarehole Mill – an old working watermill with links to famous author, JRR Tolkien – and Matthew Boulton’s former home, Soho House, which contains important collections of ormolu, silver and furniture. Thinktank at Millennium Point is Birmingham’s science museum, where visitors can discover the city’s rich tradition in technology and science through iconic exhibits such as The Smethwick Engine – the world’s oldest working steam engine dating back to 1778. Regular exhibitions and hands on activities make this a good destination for groups of all ages.
If you are looking for an evening visit then your group can sample some of Birmingham’s spectacular night life. As well as the acclaimed, and recently renovated, 2,000 seat Birmingham Hippodrome, home to the Birmingham Royal Ballet and hosting the best West End shows, there’s the Edwardian New Alexandra Theatre, which welcomes many of the UK’s top touring companies. Meanwhile, Birmingham Repertory Theatre celebrates its 100th birthday this year, and is due to return to its base in Centenary Square following refurbishment of its building as part of the Birmingham central library development. Opening the debut season in the renovated theatre, will be the National Theatre’s production of Alan Bennett’s play People, which will run from 3rd to 21st September and a varied programme follows on for the remainder of the season. Birminghams’ theatres offer a range of group discounts and special offers including dining options and meet the cast and backstage tours. The city’s Symphony Hall is regarded as the finest concert hall in Europe and its resident orchestra, the CBSO, performs regularly. The Town Hall also has an extensive music and recital programme and its historic 6,000 pipe organ is impressive to hear, while there’s a varied programme of events and shows at the National Indoor Arena. If movies are more your group’s style then the Electric Cinema, the oldest working cinema in the UK, could be the place to while away the night hours. You can even chose to watch films from a luxury sofa where you can order refreshments by waiter service by text, so you don’t have to miss any part of the show. And, if you want an overnight stay, then Birmingham has a wide choice of hotels from budget options to boutique, luxury accommodation.
Further Information To find out more and for help with itinerary planning, opening times, which do vary for attractions throughout the year, coach parking and booking tickets. Telephone 0844 888 3883 Web www.visitbirmingham.com/group-travel