Sunday, February 01, 2009


This was my third or possibly even fourth visit to Birmingham, but the first time I managed to venture beyond hotel and conference centre. With a free afternoon I took full advantage to explore on foot where I have never yet ventured by water.

My first purchase on arrival was an A-Z (it is my intention to build a complete library of these) and with the help of this, a lot of brow-furrowing, and the helpful pedestrian fingerposts (which I am convinced are designed to funnel you to your destination via the shops, a bit like the signs that tell you you can only get to the end of the pier by going through the amusement arcade, even though this is clearly a lie) I eventually found some canal, and by dint of following some more signs on the towpath, arrived at Gas Street Basin. This was smaller and less glitzy that I had anticipated, which was far from being a disappointment; quite the reverse in fact.

In all my waterside perambulations I believe I saw only one other boat moving, and that was a BW tug and mud hopper (is that the right term? A boat full of mud anyway). Not a single pleasure boat was underway, and the visitor moorings were all empty.

I took a bracing stroll down the Farmers Bridge flight, and even now it is possible to see why this route was so hated by boatmen; even without the chemical outfalls, evil smelling sludge, dead dogs and factories it was dank and forbidding. So I loved it of course.

Making my way back through the city centre, I found England's second city rather disappointing. Although there are some very fine buildings, there are many more appalling ones, and there seems no sense of cohesiveness. Grand pieces of public art - including a Gormley sculpture and many lesser pieces - seem to have been dropped randomly about the place; as did the buildings themselves. The pedestrianisation of the city centre leaves it, as is so often the case, feeling sterile and artificial, and enormous shopping centres abound and dominate. There is still a great deal of dereliction, interspersed, again apparently randomly, with shiney regeneration. There was none of that sense of grandeur that you feel in, say, Manchester.

There was, however, a splendid memorial to Joseph Chamberlain, reminding us that this was the epicentre of Victorian civic pride, the municipal powerhouse driving the development of English local government and its mission to improve the lives, physically, educationally and spiritually, of the inhabitants of England's great industrial cities. Sadly, like its physical, architectural, manifestations, that mission is now but a shadow of its former self.


Simon said...

agreed - although having passed through last August, it's improved greatly since I was at university there twenty years ago... ;-)

Anonymous said...

Since leaving Manchester to live in Hereford over 20 years ago Birmingham has become my nearest "big city" (despite being 60+ miles away!). I agree with Simon that its vastly better than it was 20 years ago, although pedestrianisation has been a major factor in this. Manchester, on the other hand, seems to have gone downhill fast.

Good to see the photos of the B'ham & Midland boats though.