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Birmingham, first-rate 'second city'

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[Photo: Warwick Castle]
Considered England’s finest medieval structure, Warwick Castle rises alongside the River Avon, close to Birmingham.

By JACK MCGUIRE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 6, 2000


Forget everything you ever thought about this bustling English metropolis: Gone are the soot, belching factory chimneys and dreariness of past centuries; here are extensive parks, museums and great dining and shopping on the banks of the old canal system.

BIRMINGHAM -- There's a move afoot in Britain's second-largest city to change the name of Birmingham International Airport to "Shakespeare International." The idea is to help boost the region's trans-Atlantic appeal.

Like second cities everywhere, Birmingham overcompensates for its imagined shortcomings with a display of guts and pizazz. Yet there is also a friendly citizenry, bursting with civic pride, ready to share their many treasures.

The antiquated image of Birmingham must be overcome, one of rows of sooty industrial silos and soaring smokestacks belching fumes into a dingy atmosphere. But the gloomy, blackened buildings of yore were dusted off or torn down long ago. The streets are squeaky-clean, earning it the official title as the U.K.'s cleanest city.

This once-premier city of the Industrial Revolution, still the United Kingdom's largest manufacturing center, today goes about its daily business with regard for the environment and with a renewed sense of pride.

Casualty of war
The village of Tyneham, in the peaceful, green English countryside, was not a victim of German bombs during World War II. It was destroyed instead by friendly fire.

Picturesque Cornwall calls to tourists
"It's spelled Mousehole. It's pronounced Mewz'l. We were sacked and burned by the Spanish. And," the shopkeeper says with a sly grin, "it's our turn to sack the tourists."

Under London's Millennium Dome
Is this huge extravaganza a stately pleasure dome or a warren of haphazardly maintained vignettes of a future whose time already has passed?

Seeing London's truly remarkable sights
LONDON -- The Millennium Dome is worth a visit if for no other reason than to see how a government can spend over $1-billion and produce so little that's truly remarkable.

London it is not. But Birmingham does offer its share of culture, fine dining, first-rate accommodations and plenty of shopping. It is also the perfect hub for exploring the attractions that fan out from the city's center.

It also claims more public parks than any city in Europe. Although completely landlocked, Birmingham's ancient canal system is more extensive than you'll find in Venice, with 33 miles of canals dating back to the early 1800s, when they were important arteries of trade. Today, they're used mostly for recreation, dotted along some stretches with trendy pubs and restaurants, and ideal for water-side walks.

With a colorful history dating back to the Middle Ages, Birmingham retains much of the Victorian and Edwardian architecture of its civic buildings. Mingled with these edifices are high-rise, glass-and-chrome office buildings, the result of an ongoing rejuvenation of the city begun after World War II, when huge sections were devastated by Nazi air raids.

At the center of it all is Birmingham's International Convention Centre ("the ICC," to locals), which is big and glitzy. It is also a vibrant marketplace bustling with pedestrians, situated in the heart of town on Centenary Square, an imaginative piazza dotted with shops, coffee houses, restaurants and bars. Dominating this multipurpose complex is Symphony Hall, home of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Other attractions at the great hall include a robust schedule of renowned visiting orchestras and artists. Meanwhile, the Birmingham Royal Ballet performs year-round at the Hippodrome, and the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company appears at the Alexandra Theatre. The innovative Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the oldest such company in England, offers a program of classic, contemporary and original plays.

Among the city's collection of museums, the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery houses an outstanding display of glass, ceramics and period costumes in a Victorian setting, along with an impressive collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings.

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[Photo: Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau]
Dominating the heart of Birmingham is Victoria Square and the Council House.
The University of Birmingham's Barber Institute of Fine Arts features an idiosyncratic display of Old Master and modern paintings, including major works by Bellini, Rubens, Gainsborough, Renoir and Monet.

The 200-year-old Jewelery Quarter, a brisk 15-minute walk from the city center, has a large selection of manufacturers' showrooms, with good buys if you shop around.

A factory workshop at the Discovery Centre, still much as it was a century ago, offers demonstrations by a goldsmith plying that ancient craft.

Within a short drive of Birmingham are some of England's most popular sites. The No. 1 tourist attraction is Stratford-upon-Avon, the riverside village where William Shakespeare was born. A must: the half-timbered house where the Bard was born; it is part of the so-called Shakespeare Properties, all five of which can best be seen in an open-top, double-decker bus with guide.

Stratford's other big attraction is the celebrated Royal Shakespeare Company and its Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The adjacent Swan Theatre offers more of the same on a smaller scale, with The Other Place nearby, presenting more contemporary works.

Close to Stratford is the unassuming village of Warwick, dominated by the beautifully preserved Warwick Castle. Considered one of England's finest medieval structures, the castle rises majestically above the River Avon and dates to the days of William the Conqueror.

Today, however, its commanding battlements, towers and dungeon, complete with torture chamber, are embellished with waxworks-type figures (the Madame Tussaud company owns and operates the castle). Sound effects, background music and voice-over narration permeate a series of tableaux depicting preparations for battle.

Before you head for nearby Bournville and the famed Cadbury chocolate factory, know that sanitary considerations preclude viewing the actual manufacturing process, although a packaging operation in a "demonstration area" can be seen, and a few product samples are passed out along the way. Unless you're a chocoholic, you may think the $8 fee for adults, $5 for children is not worth it.

For travelers who have already explored the U.K.'s other high-profile tourist destinations, Birmingham and environs are the perfect next place to go.

-- Jack McGuire is a Chicago-area based travel writer.

If you go

  • Staying there: The Birmingham area has an excellent selection of hotels, stately homes and inns ranging in price from $35 to $240 per night. Among the best:
  • Hyatt Regency Hotel, located in the city center, linked by a glass-enclosed bridge to the ICC complex. Ultra-modern 24-story, 319 rooms.
  • Forest of Arden Hotel, in a country-club setting on a 10,000-acre estate, four miles from the airport, featuring two superb golf courses and trout lakes.
  • Nailcote Hall Hotel, a beautiful and stately home in the heart of the Midlands.
  • Arden Thistle Hotel, notable mostly for its great location, opposite the famed Royal Shakespeare and Swan theatres.
  • Dining: Birmingham and the surrounding area offer a cosmopolitan diversity of fine restaurants reflecting their rich ethnic mix:
  • Lygon Arms, in the ancient village of Broadway, is one of the Cotswolds' most famous hotels and dining venues. The 45-minute drive from the city is rewarded with excellent cuisine presented in a welcoming atmosphere.
  • Moor Hall, 15 minutes from the city, offers old-fashioned country-house elegance and an imaginative menu in a parkland setting.
  • The Dirty Duck, in Stratford-upon-Avon, jam-packed with the town's cadre of actors, is a good place to soak up the local character over a late-evening pint and a reasonably priced snack.
  • The Slug and Lettuce, once you get by the uninviting name, is another popular Stratford pub with a decent menu.
  • For more information: Most guidebooks give short shrift to Birmingham. The writer recommends Britain, from Lonely Planet Publications.
  • For additional information, contact the British Tourist Authority, 551 Fifth Ave., Suite 401, New York, N.Y., (800) 462-2748. BTA's Web site is http://www.visitbritain.com.

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