Once again leaving from Manchester on our travels, we undertook one of our more ambitious Manchester trips, and for the first time did two cities in one day from Manchester. Our first stop was to the city of Birmingham in the West Midlands. The city is the largest in England after London, and the 2nd largest in the United Kingdom as a whole…
Status: City of Birmingham District, West Midlands, City, England
Travel: Virgin Trains (Manchester Piccadilly – Stoke-on-Trent), London Midland (Stoke-on-Trent – Birmingham New Street), Virgin Trains (Birmingham New Street – Wolverhampton), London Midland (Wolverhampton – Stoke-on-Trent), Virgin Trains (Stoke-on-Trent – Manchester Piccadilly)
Eating & Sleeping: Greggs, Starbucks
Attractions: The Bullring Shopping Centre, Town Hall, St Philip’s Cathedral, Alpha Tower, Museum and Art Gallery, St Chad’s Cathedral etc
When we were on the train on the way to Birmingham, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Whilst I knew it was one of the biggest UK cities, I wasn’t sure whether it would be so big and busy that it wouldn’t have space for beautiful buildings. But after we left the train station and found our way to Victoria Square above, it just blew me away.
This building is made up of two sections, with the very front behind the fountain home to Birmingham City Council. It has to be one of the most beautiful Council Houses in the country and is the stand out feature in the square. Constructed between 1874 and 1879 it is a triumph of Victorian Architecture, and I can find no fault with it.
The whole area making up Victoria Square is awash with interesting things to discover, so let me take you on a quick tour.
Just off to the left from the Council House is the original Town Hall, which looks more like something you would find in ancient Greece or Rome, rather than Suburban England, but I really like it, so Birmingham is full of surprises all ready. Opened in 1834, the building was built especially as a concert hall for the city. Charles Dickens himself (1812 – 1870, Famous English writer) gave readings here.
The building was extended in 1837 and again in 1850. It has been decorated many times including most notably for the Coronations of King Edward VII in 1902, King George V in 1911, and King George VI in 1937. The Town Hall has recently undergone millions of pounds worth of refurbishment, and is now once again sat in all its glory for the public to see.
Sitting proudly outside the Hall is a statue of Queen Victoria (1819 – 1901) and was actually erected before she died, along with the whole square being renamed after her. Sadly, just 12 days later she passed away, but the square is a fitting memorial to her.
One thing to look for in the square, is a small plaque marked by a paw print. One of the workers during the renovation of the square was accompanied by his little Labrador, called Ebony, who even wore her own high-visibility vest. The plaque marks her contribution to the square as she helped carry tools for him, and it reads “On Site – Ebony 1992-93” so see if you can find it!
In the centre of the square is the fountain you saw earlier, called “The River” . In the 1990’s an international competition was held for a design for a new water feature for Victoria Square, and the winning entry was by Dhruva Mistry (Born 1957, Indian Sculptor). There are four pieces of artwork by Mistry in the square, with the fountain being the first. The 2nd is in the lower pool, with a young boy and a young girl looking at each other, known as “Youth”.
The fountain was opened by Diana Princess of Wales (1961 – 1997) in 1994, and you can see past the fountain into the surrounding square with the fine old buildings lining the streets, heading into the pedestrianised section from where we came from the station.
Looking across the square you will find the “Iron: Man” a sculpture by noted artist Anthony Gormley, who also created the Angel of the North and “Another Place” on Crosby beach near Liverpool. It stands 20 feet tall, with the feet underneath the pavement to hold it in place. Added in 1993, it is said to represent the skills practised in the area during the Industrial Revolution, hence why the station is made out of Iron.
It is sat outside Victoria Square House, an office building which was constructed in 1891 as the Head Post Office in Birmingham. The post functions ceased in the 1980’s and it was taken over by TSB Bank PLC in 1992, although they left in 1998. It was actually TSB who commission the “Iron: Man”, however it was allowed to stay in Birmingham when they left. It is a beautiful little building, and I am very thankful it survived a demolition idea put forwards in the 1970’s.
Moving around the square from here is the Great Sphinx. You can see the Town Hall in the background at the edge of the Old Post Office on the left.
There are two of these creatures in the square, made out of the same stone as the Council House. They are known as the guardians and they watch over the square. The are the 3rd of the four artworks by Mistry.
The fourth and final piece of artwork is made up of the two pyramid shaped columns on either side of the fountain you can see in the first picture of this post. Mistry has certainly proved his worth as a designer and a sculptor, as the entire square looks absolutely stunning.
Moving around to the side of the Council House, is another, smaller square, called Chamberlain Square. This side of the Council House is the the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which opened in 1885, and contains over 500,000 objects. It is owned by the Birmingham Museum’s Trust, which also operates at least 8 other museums around the city.
The Clock Tower at the front of the building has been affectionately nicknamed as Big Brum (a play on Big Ben, the clock tower attached to the Houses of Parliament in London), as local people from Birmingham are known as Brummies. On the left, next to the Clock Tower, you can see the start of a stone bridge which links the Museum to the Extension Block which contains all new exhibits.
As Victoria Square is named after Queen Victoria, Chamberlain Square is named after Joseph Chamberlain (1836 – 1914, British Statesman and Businessman in Birmingham). The tall spire surrounding by a small pool is the Chamberlain Memorial, put up in 1880. It just happens to have been designed by another Chamberlain, John Henry Chamberlain (1831 – 1883, English Architect) however he is of no relation. Standing 65 feet tall, it is a fine memorial, and it is constructed out of Portland Stone.
Elsewhere in the square are a number of statues and pieces of art. These include:
1) A statue of Thomas Attwood (1783 – 1856, British MP) sits on the steps in the Square, as he tries to pick up the pieces of paper that fell out of his hand. These include the one above, as well as a few others, that honour the founder of the Birmingham Political Union and a leading figure in the Great Reform Act 1832.
The other two pages read “Full Employment” and “Free Trade”.
2) A statue of James Watt (1736 – 1819) made out of stone, honouring the Scottish Inventor who invented horsepower and developed more efficient steam engines.
3) The Bronze statue of Joseph Priestly (1733 – 1804, English Philosopher and Chemist with over 150 works, and is credited with the discovery of Oxygen).
Our next stop, after having a quick look around the pedestrianed shopping streets, was St Philips’s Cathedral, the main Cathedral in the city, situated on a street called Colmore Row, and making up it’s own park/square.
When Birmingham was granted city status in 1889 by Queen Victoria, it didn’t have a Church of England Cathedral, which was unusual as the old conditions for becoming a city was to have a Cathedral, but that has since been relaxed, or Preston, Sunderland, Southampton, Newport and a few others wouldn’t been cities today.
The Cathedral was originally the parish church, built back in 1715, and elevated to Cathedral status in 1905. It is actually one of the smallest cathedrals in England, with only Derby and Chelmsford Cathedrals being smaller. A Bronze statue of Charles Gore (1853 – 1932, 1st Bishop of Birmingham) stands outside the main entrance.
Inside it is still very peaceful and beautifully decorated, and the building itself is sat in the middle of a lovely park, with plenty of green space to relax on a nice day. The sun was beating down and a number of people were taking the opportunity to sit out on the grass in the sunshine. It is almost slap bang in the middle of the city and most other things of interest are within walking distance from here.
Birmingham is a very modern city, and the 2nd largest in the UK, behind London, with Glasgow coming in 3rd. There are a large number of skyscrapers and modern high rise buildings spread throughout the city, including this fantastic, shining structure called Colmore Gate, built in the 1990’s. The different colours across the glass panels made it look incredibly futuristic and before it’s time.
It stands 230 feet tall, and took 2 years to build, from 1990 to 1992. There are a plethora of similar buildings in Birmingham, and it is an amazing place to explore and an inspiration to budding young architects.
As we explored more of the city, heading in the general direction of St Chad’s Cathedral, we were struck by how well old and new mix in the city centre. We arrived at our next destination, although we couldn’t go inside as there was a service in progress.
St Chad’s Cathedral is a rare example of a brick Cathedral, well the first one we have seen so far anyway. Despite its appearance it is older than St Philips Cathedral, having been constructed between 1839 and 1841. It started life as a church, and in 1852 was granted Cathedral status. In 1941 it was declared a Minor Basilica, by the Pope at the time, Pius XII. During World War II, like the rest of Birmingham, the Cathedral sustained heavy damage, being hit by an incendiary bomb which fell inside the building and started a fire, but at the same time it broke some of the water pipes which then put the fire out.
Standing over the road from St Chad’s we got a fantastic view of the Birmingham BT Tower. Much like the BT Tower (Formerly the Post Office Tower) in central London, a BT Tower was erected around the same time, between 1963 and 1965, to provide telecommunications for the area. It opened in 1967, and stands at 499 feet tall, and remains the tallest structure in the city. It is a landmark in the city and visible from the outskirts.
From here we headed back into the main shopping streets to find one of the most unusual, yet most talked about buildings.
Arguably the most famous modern landmark in Birmingham is the Selfridges store that is part of the Bullring Shopping Centre. The Selfridges part of the centre is shown above, with its distinctive silver circular pattern. It was designed by a firm called Future Systems, it was opened in 2003 and contains at least 15,000 discs on its exterior. There are only four Selfridges in the UK, with one in London, this one, and two in Manchester.
The Bullring itself has existed in two forms, with the first shopping centre opening in 1964, and at the time it was a very modern building. However it soon fell into decline and its dull concrete exterior was disliked by many residents due to the vast concrete motorway network around the city, so just 40 years after it was opened it was demolished in 2000, reopening as the new Bullring in 2003.
The Bullring is made up of the East and West buildings, connected via an underground passageway which is also full of shops.
Overlooking the Bullring is the Rotunda, another famous building in Birmingham. It was built between 1961 and 1965 as an office block for the original Bull Ring centre. It has 25 floors, and when the Bull Ring was rebuilt in the early 2000’s, it was converted into apartments, with 232 regular apartments and 6 penthouse suites on floor 20. It is a simple looking design, but very effective.
The Rotunda also looks out onto St Martin’s Square, in front of the shopping centre and the Birmingham Markets. At it’s centre is St Martin’s, the first parish church to be built in Birmingham, reopening in 1873 after the previous church was demolished.
The original had been built back in the 13th century and by 1547 a clock had been installed. It also contained a spire, and the spire with it’s tower are the only surviving sections, and were carried over into the new building. It’s a beautiful example of Victorian Architecture for the main section of the building along with medieval architecture for the spire. The spire stands at least 105 feet tall, towering over the Bull Ring.
Moving round to the front of the shopping centre, a statue of a Bull marks the main entrance to the Bull Ring, after the name of the centre. It was designed by a sculptor named Laurence Broderic, and stands 4.5 metres long and weights a massive 6.5 tonnes, making one of the largest Bronze animals in the UK.
The Bull has been an emblem of the city for hundreds of years and it is associated with strength courage and pride.
Alas our visit to Birmingham had come to an end, and we made our way back to New Street Station.
One of the biggest and most well connected stations in the UK is Birmingham New Street, the main station in the city. It originally opened in 1854, with an extension added in 1885, and rebuilts between 1964-1967 and the most recent, 2010 onwards with a projected finish date in 2015.
It is the busiest station outside of London, and services to all corners of the UK pass through the station, from Virgin Trains services to and from London as well as to Glasgow and Edinburgh, with CrossCountry having its main base in the city and their routes take them from Penzance in the depths of Cornwall right in the south of England all the way to Aberdeen in the North of Scotland via most of England except the North West and London. Local services run trains around the immediate area and London Midland trains run up to Liverpool and to many other cities. Arriva Trains Wales also operate from the station and run trains into North and South Wales.
14 platforms handle hundreds of trains everyday. There are two other main train stations in the city, Birmingham Moor Street and Birmingham Snow Hill, and further out there is a station called Birmingham International that services the International Airport.
Birmingham as a whole is very well connected, with the M6 Motorway (South for Preston, Carlisle and Scotland, North for the M1 and London) meeting the M5 (For Gloucester, Bristol and Exeter) around the outside of the city, as well as the M6 Toll Motorway being close by. The M42 (For Loughborough) meets the M40 (For Oxford, M25 London Ring Road and London) just below the city as well.
There is lots of to see in Birmingham, far more than I have been able to fit into one post, with the Science Museum, Saint Nicholas Place medieval buildings, Aston Hall, Barber Institute of Fine Arts and many more giving an educational but fun day out. The University of Birmingham is marked by the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial Clock Tower, a towering structure at the front of the campus.
I like Birmingham, it was full of surprises and its a fantastic city with great architecture and modern designs. It is the 2nd largest UK city and well worthy of the title. On the way back to Manchester we stopped in the nearby city of Wolverhampton, to discover what the city has in store…