Whether you are a first-time visitor to the City of Birmingham or returning after many years, Birmingham in 2012 comes as a very pleasant surprise. Today it is a modern city with great pride and ambition, a cosmpolitan centre driven by a forward-looking city council, appreciative of its rich history and all that goes with it, and determined to make the West Midlands capital one of the top most liveable cities in the world within 20 years. After a day spent in the city centre the visitor will quickly realise it is well on its way already to achieving such a status.
But let’s actually arrive there first before we take a look at all that England’s second largest city with a 1.1 million population has to offer.
For those of us living in the south east of Ireland Waterford Airport is without doubt the most convenient gateway to Britain. Located at Killowen just a few miles outside the city, the airport’s proximity to commuters from Waterford, Kilkenny, Carlow and Tipperary isn’t made use of often enough. From Clonmel to the airport is a leisurely 45 minute spin even allowing for slow traffic. Door-to-door, so to speak, allowing for the compulsory airport security schedules, one can be in Birmingham city centre and ready to enjoy all that it has to offer four hours after leaving home. Quite simply, coming from South Tipperary, you won’t get that service from the south east at any other airport.
Flybe, Europe’s largest regional airline, operate the Waterford Airport to Birmingham route since last March, offering daily flights to Irish leisure and business passengers as well as offering a wide range of onward travel options in Britain and beyond to the likes of Paris, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Dusseldorf in particular. Birmingham Airport was recently voted the UK’s best large airport, so when it comes to efficiencies they don’t come any better than this hub.
According to Graham Doyle, CEO, Waterford Airport, speaking at the launch earlier in the year: “Flybe will offer a convenient and affordable option to those flying from the southeast to one of the best located airports in Britain. The daily frequency will allow us serve more leisure and business passengers and offer convenience and time savings as well as the option of onward connections from a hub airport.”
So far so good the 1 hour 15 minute route both ways is proving a great success and hopefully even more so as we move in to the height of the summer and beyond its first year of association with Flybe, the UK’s No. 1 domestic carrier.
And so to our destination. Birmingham city is today a major international commercial centre and an important transport, retail events and conference hub. It is a diverse and dynamic city that has changed its image greatly over the years, learning from the mistakes of the 1950s and 1960s when many of the Victorian buildings were destroyed by the city planners. Ring roads, shopping centres and high-rise tower blocks became the fashion of the day, and with it the dreaded “concrete jungle” tag which hindered the city for almost a full generation.
But all that has changed in the last 20 years or so and the city is in to its second “Big City Plan” which aims to make the city centre most attractive in every aspect and ultimately make Birmingham one of the top most liveable cities in the world. Today if offers a world class cultural scene, superb shopping, music and nightlife venues and also access to some of England’s most glorious countryside.
In recent years, and this can be fully appreciated with a walking tour, the whole living centre has been totally transformed with the construction of new squares like Centenary Square and Millennium Place. Old streets, buildings and canals have been restored and the Bull Ring Shopping Centre has been completely re-developed. Indeed the iconic 160-shop Bull Ring houses the equivalent of 26 football pitches of high street retail space - Heaven on Earth it seems for the shopaholic! And in the unlikely event that you can’t get what you want in the Bull Ring, the Mailbox is another uber-cool shopping centre within a stone’s throw. And these are just two of a dozen scattered around the wider city area.
The single biggest factor in the rejuvenation of Birmingham city centre over the past two decades has no doubt being the foresight of good planning decisions. The anti-Victorianism drive of the 1960s which saw many impressive buildings of earlier eras fall into decay and ultimate ruin has been reversed. Now the city planners save everything, and even when a building itself is beyond redemption the facade and streetscape is restored and maintained separately. Examples are everywhere where the Edwardian and Victorian buildings mix in with the modern, no better than St. Martin’s Church at the Bull Ring, perfectly positioned almost beside the stand-out Selfridges store.
Canalside regeneration schemes such as Brindley Place have turned the canals into popular tourist attractions. The 102 miles of canals running to and through the city, constructed to fuel the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, have now been re-invented to a tourism amenity with walks and barges and tours. Indeed the local Brummies take great pride in telling the visitor that Birmingham city has more canals than Venice - and it has!
Besides it’s rich heritage, now proudly protected and in safe hands for the future, the city has an amazing amount to offer to everyone. All ages, all tastes, all pockets.
For kids and kids-at-heart a visit to Cadbury World at Bourneville is choc full of fun for all ages. Over half a million visitors pack in every year to discover the Quaker history of the place and, of course, to see how the yummy stuff is manufactured. The average visit time is around three hours. Be aware though that booking is essential in advance (cadburyworld.co.uk).
Another treat for the kids in the city centre is the National Sea Life Centre at Brindley Place. A one-million litre tank aquarium with over 60 displays of freshwater and marine life including giant green sea turtles, blacktip reef sharks, stingrays, seahorses, jelly fish, etc. All under the one roof - definitely one not to be missed.
Children are spoiled for choice visiting Birmingham - the Science Museum at Millennium Point offers fun events and activities from May to August. There’s also Drayton Manor Theme Park with everything for an action-packed family day-out. And Twycross Zoo, one of Britain’s major zoos, with over 1,000 animals is just over the road at Alveston.
For adults Birmingham has everything. Whether it’s culture, shopping, food, after-dark or sport, it’s endless
Culture vultures have museums and art galleries galore and top class theatres and venues such as the Hippodrome, the New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the Symphony Hall, to attract all the world’s best acts.
The city boasts over 200 mouth-watering restaurants to choose from, including three Michelin Star houses - Simpsons, Purnell’s and Turners of Harborne, and dozens of other top class restaurants catering for every cuisine from every corner of the globe.
And special weekends away such as ‘Stag and Hen Party’ weekends have a world of nightlife to get through and increasingly the attractions gain in popularity.
Sports fans have Premiership side Aston Villa with their Irish contingent, and Championship sides Birmingham City and Wolves to follow. For golfing enthusiasts The Belfry is nearby. The city also hosts Edgbaston Cricket Ground for tests, and world class ladies tennis held each year at the AEGON Classic.
Before leaving Birmingham a trip to the world-famous Jewellery Quarter on Frederick Street is an absolute must. It is estimated that 40 per cent of all the UK jewellery originates from here and is the place to go if you’re looking for something that sparkles. Another idea for visiting Birmingham!!! The Jewellery Quarter has two free museums also, several art galleries and over 100 jewellery shops and 200 listed historic buildings.
My own two little favourites.
The Anglican Cathedral Church of Saint Philip, the seat of the Bishop of Birmingham and the third smallest cathedral in England. Beautiful on the outside, the huge and magnificent pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows, viewed from the inside, are both huge and magnificent, and worth a stand-alone visit. All created by world renowned Sir Edward Burne-Jones, born locally and baptised in this very church.
In keeping with the city’s preservation crusade, the National Trust Back to Back Housing Museum on Hurst Street in the city centre is a trip back in time. Here the city’s planners preserved and beautifully restored some 19th century working people’s houses. The museum gives the story told through experiences of people who lived over four periods from 1840 to 1977. So very interesting and such an example of what other cities could learn from Birmingham. Booking is a must for this one.
All in all the city of Birmingham is definitely worth visiting and even most certainly coming back-to-back to visit again. And with Waterford Airport and Flybe combining to make it so attractive and convenient for everyone here in the south east, you’d be mad not to check it out soon.