Getting down and dirty in Birmingham

Birmingham is definitely not on most tourists hot lists. In fact – when we’ve told folks we were headed this way after our visit to Oxford – they were either surprised, stunned, or bewildered. Why would anyone want to visit dirty old Birmingham? It’s not known for anything really – except being the center of Industry for the UK.

But we’re museum buffs – and there are two noteworthy museums in Birmingham. The National Trust Back to Back Houses were on the very tip top of our list of places to see – and the reviews of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery with it’s huge collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings sounded intriguing. So we planned to hop a bus from Oxford and spend 1 day, 2 nights in this under visited part of the UK.

But first we must start at Lovely Lucy’s in Oxford. Our charming hostess bids us good morning and runs out leaving us to fend for ourselves. Breakfast finished, bags packed, and Lucy’s doors locked and the keys put in her post slot – we are off to repeat the walk back to the bus station in Oxford. It goes much much easier this time – there is simply nothing like knowing your way around to make dragging suitcases easier.

I pop in for a quick coffee at a lovely shop called Coco Loco. It’s claim to fame is it’s view of Christ Church Collage – and a lovely view it is too. Suitably coffee’d up – we drag ourselves to the bus station, guided by ‘Maps’ on my iphone. Surprisingly – it directs us into a square that has been taken over by a lively silver market – and while The Intrepid Traveler stays with the luggage – I do a quick round of shopping – finding a delightful buy in a Salt, Pepper and Mustard Silver Plated Service set. Perfect. I have little time to haggle – the bus is leaving – so I make the gal an offer – she accepts – and the service is mine.

Back to Jill who is patiently waiting by the bus driver who has already loaded up our suitcases! I have time to sit down – and we’re off. Our bus quickly gets out of the traffic jam that is Oxford – and soon enough we are driving hell-bent for leather thru the lovely British country-side.

I’m going to tell you now that there is apparently no auto-route from Oxford to Birmingham – at least no auto-route that we North Americans would consider an auto-route. We drove thru village after village – even passing quickly thru Stratford-upon-Avon – on our way. Green fields with sheep dotted on the hillsides like musical scores rolling by, puncuated by traditional british farmsteds. Nary a high-rise, nor glass enclosed modern structure to be seen.

So my first question – do they have rules about what kinds of houses can be built? Or does no one here like ‘modern’ design outside of the big cities – where modern is the go to option? But rules or no rules – there were no modern houses.

And not that much traffic either! Perhaps that’s why our driver chose back roads, but it did make for a very British riding experience.

Eventually we arrived in Birmingham, and at first look the concerns of all the folks we chatted with seemed very valid. The bus station was lovely and modern, but once you crossed that threshold you were plunged into the Bull Ring Market. There’s been a market on this site since Medieval days – and they have the archeology to prove it. The Market was a buzz of activity – one section devoted to fruits, vegetables, eggs of all sizes and to meat, another to the giant ‘Rag Market’ – which sold all kinds of objects – not just ‘rags’, although the cloth merchants were in great number.

What surprised us most was the very different look of the folks wandering the market. In London it was rare to see a hijab, let alone a woman in a Burka. But here – it was almost the norm. And they were young ladies pushing strollers, tugging on the hands of toddlers, and using cell phones. I was reminded – in a good way – of Istanbul. Anything goes, but modesty prevails.

And the street meat prices were so much lower! We enjoyed a lamb kabab, 3 skewers with salad and Nan for just 4 GBP. Definitely on our budget.

Refreshed, we tried to find our lodgings. Birmingham is a city of layers – there are under roadways and upper roadways – and the map you get for free at the tourist bureau doesn’t really have a chance of making this spaghetti easy to naviagate. In fact – they even call this area ‘Spaghetti’. Fortunately – there are traffic folks easily visible, and one of them took time to slowly explain exactly how to get where we were going.

She just forgot to mention one tiny thing. It was up a Steep Hill.

We dragged ourselves past industrial buildings, closed and deserted storefronts, and the occasional homeless asleep on the street to Holloway Circus. This is a giant round-about – under construction. So detour signs for drivers and pedestrians abounded. We navigated this hurdle, and slowly make our way up, and up, and up till we found the “Peace Garden”. This is a garden built on the remains of a church bombed out during WWII, and where our lodging was located.

Relying on the kindness of strangers, we find the conceirge, get the key – and examine our new lodging.

It’s designer minimalist. A two bedroom, two bathroom flat we’ll be sharing with out host – furnished with a combination of Ikea functionality and high design. The airplane coffee table is not terribly useful – but as our host expalins – reflects his passion for high adrenaline sports – from skydiving to road racing.

Floor to Ceiling windows form all the walls on the ‘view’ side of the condo – there are no windows on the other 3 walls. But the view is spectacular. We’re on the 6th floor – overlooking the “Peace Garden” and the city scape. At night, with the city lights aglow – it’s a stunner.

Our host, Sameer, is a charming young man (ok – not so young – probably in his mid thirties) who works for Jaguar in the marketing department, owns 5 fancy cars, another flat in London, and land in India. He’s elegant, well spoken, and fascinating. In our conversation – I ask him why he’d want BnB guests – and he admits – it’s for the chance to meet interesting people. Isnt’ that sweet? We chat over wine and dinner before he annouces that he must work tonight. He works, we sleep – tomorrow will be a busy day.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

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