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Home Towns

Welcome to my home town: Why there’s more to Birmingham than the Bullring and a distinctive accent

Brummie Richard Franks explains why he keeps falling back in love with the UK’s misunderstood second city

Wednesday 18 November 2020 17:56 GMT
Birmingham is not the grey, drab city that some seem to think it is
Birmingham is not the grey, drab city that some seem to think it is (Getty)

During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from. After all, it could be a while before we can go anywhere else…

To those in the know, Birmingham is a shining beacon of all that’s best about the West Midlands. To the less enlightened, it’s often grossly misunderstood – viewed as nothing more than a dull void of connecting trains, a grey metropolis of intertwining escape routes, or, to be blunt, a boring city with very little going for it (and they’re just the censored ones).

This befuddling reputation of the UK’s second city even fuels the long-running retort of repeating the city’s name back in a droning, elongated manner when a Brummie says where they’re from. “Biiiiirrrmmiinnggghhhaaam”. We get it – we talk a bit funny.

Although much of the mockery is no thanks to Benny from Crossroads, it’s a gag that does get tiring for those of us on the receiving end. The accent regularly polls low and was even once ranked worse than staying silent (which is just rude, frankly).  

I’ve always been an advocate of my city’s proud industrial heritage, hotpot of cultures and understated beauty – and I’ve always been fond of my fellow self-deprecating citizens. However, I admit that I, like many Brummies before me, had planned to flee to the capital. Nearly a decade ago, I rejoiced at my unconditional university offer, packed my bags, hopped on a train and was ready to settle into my new east London digs.  

Two months later, homesickness got the better of me and I headed back to Birmingham. And eight years after that, when the pandemic hit, I was very glad I’d resisted London’s charms and come home. If Covid has taught me anything, it’s that I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by good, honest people who defy the city’s bland reputation.

Northfield – where I live – houses the highest percentage of children on free school meals in England. When MPs voted down Marcus Rashford’s bill to continue providing meals over Christmas, the city’s largest street food event, Digbeth Dining Club, collaborated with community groups to form the Northfield Food Service. The scheme has already delivered thousands of meals to struggling families and will provide a further 300 every Thursday going forward.  

In nearby suburb Stirchley, cafes, bars and restaurants like Caneat, Cork & Cage and Eat Vietnam have been allowing other restaurants and chefs to use their kitchens for takeout during both lockdowns, while co-working space The Old Post Office provides a safe HQ and donation centre for Baby Aid, an integral food bank-style service for struggling families in need of essential baby products.

If Covid has taught me anything, it’s that I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by good, honest people who defy the city’s bland perception

More than anything, it’s been refreshing to see so many local people support the businesses repeatedly forced to jump through hoops and dodge red tape. I’m perpetually impressed by those effervescent Brummies doing their bit to keep local businesses afloat – and at some expense too.

Although I wanted to leave eight years ago, I never really thought Birmingham was dull, grey or boring. And if your perception of Birmingham matches those three words, I implore you to visit this resilient, generous underdog. We’ve got a point to prove.

England is under national lockdown from 5 November until 2 December. During that time all non-essential travel, both domestic and international, is banned, while all non-essential shops will have to close. Pubs, cafes and restaurants will also be shut except for takeaway food. For more details on the rules around travel, see our lockdown guide. 

Take a stroll

Concrete jungle? Not on your nelly. Birmingham thrives at the heart of the country’s canal network and provides plenty of trails for all abilities. Short on time? Take a 15-minute canalside stroll from the city centre and join the short 0.6-mile circular route around the newly-formed Port Loop “island” development. For those with more time to spare, amble for six or so miles along the Worcestershire and Birmingham Canal from the Mailbox to Bournville, where Cadbury World makes for a satisfying final destination. Not content with more miles of canal than Venice, Birmingham also boasts 571 parks with a combined 14 square miles of public space to explore: Sutton Park is one of Europe’s largest municipal parks; Cannon Hill Park is a sprawling green space of beautiful blooms and large lakes; and the 524-acre Lickey Hills provides a glimpse of country life on the city’s edge.  

Birmingham has more miles of canal than Venice (Getty)

Hit the water

For such a landlocked city, Birmingham is at one with the water. Regular narrowboat trips depart from Sherborne Wharf, paddleboarding classes can be taken at Edgbaston Reservoir, and wild swimmers can take a dip at Upper Bittell Reservoir, near Longbridge. In 2022, a surfing lagoon will open near the NEC.  

Have a pint

Two of the city’s most impressive boozers are, conveniently, a short stumble away from each other. Housed within a former bank, The Old Joint Stock is an impressive pub with theatre and one of my first ports of call whenever I’m in town. Round the corner, The Old Contemptibles is one of the city’s highest-rated watering holes: think real ales aplenty, snug interiors and Victorian street corner architecture. Special mentions must also go to my two favourite “hidden” pubs, Bacchus Bar and the Post Office Vaults.  

Eat up

Birmingham has a cuisine for everyone. For a fine dining experience, I’d wholly recommend Opheem, Aktar Islam’s boundary-pushing Indian restaurant and the newest recipient of one the city’s five Michelin stars.  

For solid pub grub and exceptional lunches, you’ll want to settle in at Birmingham’s oldest inn, the Old Crown. Alternatively, ditch the cutlery and spend the evening at Digbeth Dining Club, a pioneering street food event that slings dripping burgers and dirty fries into the mouths of hungry Brummies.  

Go shopping

Swerve the Bullring and visit the city’s independent-led shopping arcades. In the Victorian splendour of Great Western Arcade you’ll find Birmingham’s leading wine merchant and tasting room at Loki Wine, Europe’s largest pen and writing specialist The Pen Shop and delectable macaroon retailer Miss Macaroon, among others.  

Great Western Arcade offers independent shops (Getty)

Rest your head

Boutique hotel The Edgbaston offers a slice of serenity on the outskirts of the bustling city centre. One of the city’s more luxurious retreats, this lavish property provides spacious and individually designed double rooms, Victorian-style freestanding bathtubs and regal furniture in each of its 20 suites that reflect the building’s Romantic era past. Guests can also kick back in the hotel’s award-winning cocktail lounge as some of the best bartenders in the country serve classic drinks with modern twists. Doubles from £105.

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