Thinktank is Brum personified – innovative, eclectic and full of hands-on surprises. It’s a “science museum with a difference”...Thinktank
Home of balti, the Bullring and one of the most revitalised city centres in the UK, Birmingham has come a long way since the dark days following the Second World War. Once reputed to be one of the worst-planned towns in the country, Birmingham is now a byword for urban regeneration and enjoys a nightlife and cultural attractions to rival any other destination in Britain.
There’s still plenty of interesting architecture, a reminder of the 1960s rebuild of a bombed-out centre – and the famous network of major motorways converging on the city at Spaghetti Junction has to be seen to be believed. Visit Birmingham (or “Brum” as the locals call it) now, and you’ll find a thriving metropolis packed with galleries, swanky eateries and some outstanding new buildings. This isn’t the sooty heart of the Midlands anymore. It’s a brand new ball game, and you’re invited to come and play.Read more
by Brian Clift
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Birmingham City council has played a big role in regenerating the area, taking the bones of its industrial heritage and covering them in modern clothes.
Things to do
Go out for a night on the tiles and you’re as likely to be throwing shapes in a tastefully-converted factory as a purpose-built club. The old canal network, originally built to serve the city’s Victorian industries (and totting up to more water than you’ll find in Venice), has been cleaned and turned into lovely public thoroughfares. There are plenty of parks, including the wonderful Botanical Gardens – and, surprisingly for such a sprawling industrial relic, you’re never more than half an hour away from the countryside.
Birmingham has one of the most culturally diverse populations in the UK, and is home to a rich and vibrant collection of local communities. You’ll see mosques, synagogues, peace pagodas, Buddhist centres and Sikh temples. The city’s cuisine is correspondingly colourful – hence the legendary balti, which was born in Birmingham during the 1970s, a taste of home created by the incoming Pakistani workforce using local ingredients.
The same diversity is responsible for Birmingham’s thriving music scene, which spans everything from underground reggae clubs to massive mainstream superclubs. When the sun goes down and the city’s million lights come on, you can go see and be seen by the beautiful people at the legendary Gatecrasher – or dance the night away in the basement bar of a pumping pub.
It isn’t just music that benefits from the melting pot – Brum has made her mark on the literary universe over the years. J.R.R. Tolkien was born in Birmingham, Conan Doyle got the idea for Sherlock Holmes’ violin playing here, and Washington Irving wrote Rip van Winkle while in residence.
No introduction to the “London of the Midlands” would be complete without mentioning chocolate, of course – Birmingham is the home of Cadbury’s chocolate, and you can find out how the magic happens at the ever-popular Cadbury World attraction.
Huge, sprawling, metropolitan, interesting: all of these words describe Birmingham. But none of them alone do justice to the spirit of the place. It’s only fitting that the heart of the UK should be so contradictory, so multicultural and so much fun.
Birmingham is one of the best-served cities in the UK. Birmingham International Airport is only 8 miles from the centre of the city, and is excellently connected to Europe. The airport also receives some daily flights from major destinations in the Middle East, Asia and the US.
Train services are outstanding: Birmingham New Street is one of the most important railway stations in the UK, connecting all points of the compass. Be aware that New Street’s size makes it advisable to get to the station in plenty of time for your train.
By bus and coach
National bus and coach networks terminate in the city centre, at the Birmingham Coach Station. The UK’s biggest motorways converge on the city, serving – like the trains – every point in Britain. The M5, M6 and M42 account for Brum’s legendary traffic delays, which can put hours onto an ill-times journey. Birmingham is the home of the renowned Spaghetti Junction (part of the M6, at Gravelly Hill).
Travel within the city is done by Metro (the city tram service), bus and train. Almost all city transport is run by Network West Midlands. Local trains serve the city very well, and there are hundreds of taxi firms operating in town. As with all taxi services, it’s inadvisable to use unmarked taxis or to flag cabs down without booking them in advance. Expect to contest with large parties of happy revellers for cars on Friday and Saturday nights.
By water taxi
You can also use the city’s water taxis, which make use of the extensive canal network. These leave from the Gas Street Basin.
Central Birmingham has been revamped to include large pedestrian areas. While the sprawling nature of the town as a whole makes walking inadvisable, attractions in the hub can all be accessed on foot. Thanks to the rejuvenation of the canal network, it’s also possible to make a number of city centre journeys without seeing a single car. The route between the ICC and the shopping area known as The Mailbox is particularly recommended.
Birmingham’s history is defined by industry. Originally a tiny hamlet on the edge of a forest (the Forest of Arden), Brum’s contribution to the Industrial Revolution turned it into a sprawling edifice of factories, waterways and migrant work.
The iron foundries that were to spawn Birmingham’s dominant 20th century automotive industry earned the area its Black Country name, and its central location ensured dominance in all forms of manufacturing and goods transportation.
Birmingham’s historic reputation as an industrial hellhole, full of smoke, noise and anvil sparks, is offset by the surprising amount of social mobility that occurred during the Industrial Revolution and the Midlands Enlightenment. A seemingly endless procession of new trades, fuelled by the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, sprang up in the sooty streets – while the famous Lunar Society, formed in 1765, was responsible for the astonishing variety of scientific, philosophical and industrial advances in the Midlands during this period. Key scientists like James Watt and Matthew Boulton (whose inventions and improvements in the field of steam engine technology were the driving forces behind the Industrial Revolution) were responsible for revolutionising industrial processes, making the Midlands’ greatest city one of the biggest manufacturing powerhouses on earth.
Two Great Wars
The two Great Wars of the 20th century fuelled Birmingham’s industrial expansion, while claiming many of the lives of its erstwhile workforce. The city’s automotive industries turned to the production of munitions and aeroplanes – with notable flying legacies including the Spitfire, the Hawker Hurricane and the Avro Lancaster bomber. Such was the importance of Birmingham’s manufacturing prowess during WWII that the city was bombed with severity by the Luftwaffe – a blitz that took the lives of more than 2,000 inhabitants, and destroyed nearly 13,000 buildings.
Post Second World War
Brum continued to flourish in the 30 years after the Second World War. For three decades, the city was the biggest, most affluent and technologically important UK location outside of London. In the early 1970s, however, manufacturing and industry underwent a sudden and radical slump as newer technologies and centres of innovation sprang up at the start of the electronic era. Birmingham’s recent regeneration dates from the 1990s.
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