‘Distant’ Voices: in defence of Birmingham

You would think from the way certain Oxford students talk about it that Birmingham was one of the most distant parts of the UK, or even the world. The number of times that students have complimented me on my lack of ‘Brummie’ accent, the references by ‘Southerners’ to the city as part of the ‘North’ (you’d think that people who have got into Oxford would know basic geography) among other remarks demonstrate their distinct lack of knowledge on the subject. Of course I am biased, but the beauties of Birmingham have not just touched me; the New York Times placed it in its list of top destinations to visit in 2015 and it made the top ten of a similar list in Rough Guide.

Birmingham is also extremely convenient to visit, well-connected via the motorways, buses, and coaches. Of course trains are perhaps the most convenient form of travel; it’s roughly an hour from Oxford to Birmingham, though the notorious New Street Station, one of several stations around the city, does put some people off. Do not despair, the work is meant to finish this year and the new station has been marketed as spacious, modern, clean and light, although with British weather the last is unlikely to occur often!

The food, which is evidently the most important reason to visit anywhere, is outstanding not only its quality but its variety. Birmingham restaurants hold more Michelin stars than any cities in England outside of London. For traditional British choose Simpsons in Edgbaston, but for a more creative take Purnell’s is excellent. Carters of Moseley offer a more relaxed vibe, and Fumo some deliciously rated Italian food and atmosphere. Yet, these are all classic choices, the multicultural nature of Brummie society is also reflected in its cuisine. French cuisine prepared by French Brummies, can be found at ‘Annexe’, or at the two ‘Maison Mayci’ cafés in Moseley and Kings Heath. Most indicative of Birmingham’s alternative food scene is the sheer number of South Asian restaurants which has led to another of the city’s names, the ‘Balti Triangle’. Some claim that balti was invented there but regardless of its origins, the Brummie chefs are still masters; the Itihaas Brasserie in Snowhill or Selfridges is particularly recommended. Although, if you’re looking for a Hassan’s equivalent, ‘George and Helen’s’ is the place to go.

If you’re in search for a sweeter sensation then the borough of Bournville is the way to go. Home to the original Cadbury factory and the village that George Cadbury built for his workers, it feels quaint with its village green, upon which Maypole dances are still held and a May Queen elected, home to late Victorian to early Edwardian architecture. ‘Cadbury World’ is the main tourist attraction and the experience includes with an interactive tour through the factory and Cadbury history – great if you want to occupy younger siblings!

Shopping in Birmingham normally brings up two names, the Bullring and the Mailbox. Both have quite a standard selection of shops though the Mailbox contains to a Harvey Nichols and other high-end brands, as well as restaurants and bars which have a fantastic view of the canal. However, Digbeth is the up-and-coming area for vintage clothing, old-fashioned bookshops and niche shops. The historic site of Bird’s Custard Factory was renovated to house some of these, but you can also find ‘The Medicine Bar’ which hosts funk, hip-hop, techno and acid jazz events.

Perfect for a student budget (after you’ve spent it all shopping and eating) are the free galleries, particularly the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which currently has an exhibition on the Staffordshire Hoard, and The Barber Institute of Fine Arts. Contemporary art can be found at the stunning Ikon gallery, which also has free entry. Birmingham is not short on parks either, notably the Lickey Hills, which give a great view over the city, and Cannon Hill Park in the city centre which is a minute’s walk away from the Midlands Art Centre, which has a lovely café if you need a rest.

Birmingham, in short, despite appearances (and terrible geography – maybe there is something to be said for colouring after all…) is not so distant after all, in fact it’s well worth a visit.