Glasgow – not so great – but I’m glad I visited

In thinking back on it – There was no way that Glasgow was going to compete with Edinburgh. Our new friends from last night had told us that we were going from ‘culture’ to ‘clutter’ – and they were of course correct.

Our Glasgow Air BnB is at best adaquate – and totally loses when compared to the palace that is Isaac’s and Derek’s pad in Edinburgh. It’s a tiny 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom flat in a forgetable building above a store that sells wall paper in an industrial part of Glasgow. The living/dining/kitchen space is tiny, and the only table is hogged by our host Neil’s computer. To add insult to injury, he’s ironing when we arrive – so there’s his laundry everywhere. I’ll give him credit for asking what food to buy for our breakfast, but he’s also clear that we are on our own. He works evenings into the night, and won’t be up in the morning. He also has no maps to give us, and can’t even make suggestions on places to visit. Still, he welcomes us warmly, and that’s a good start.

Our room is basic – a bed, a window, a tiny desk, and the best part – an en-suite bathroom. That and the location near the city center are the best parts of Neil’s place. Oh well – this is our 6th Air BnB in 30 days – I guess one had to be 4 star. And after Isaac and Derek’s place – I’m not sure what would be needed to be 5 star.

Surprisingly – Neil tells us that he’s fully booked – and the income from Air BnB pays his rent. Hmm.

Anyway – we make our selves comfy. After he leaves for work, we move the computer off the dining table, fold away the ironing board, and basically create a space we can at least enjoy dinner in! We walk up to a nearby grocery store, get the makings of a nice dinner – and decide to tour Glasgow in the morning. We’re done for today.

The next morning – our one and only day in Glasgow – we opt to start by finding me a place for coffee – and then decide to check out the Cathedral. After that – well – we’ll go from there.

Unlike all of our other locations, this one is mostly industrial and shopping – so no upscale coffee shop to be seen. We hike up hill towards the Cathedral, going thru the ‘university’ section – I’m thinking there is bound to be coffee for the students. And I’m right – there it is! A cute coffee shop, with take-away latte. Color me happy.

The tour of the Cathedral is wonderful. The guide (where do they find these people) is super knowledgable, and very easy to listen to, and the history is very neat. Our fellow tourists are a german choir – and at one point they ask to test the acoustics. Lovely – totally lovely.

We then walk across to the St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art. Seriously – St. Mungo’s of Harry Potter Fame. St. Mungo was a real guy – and he’s the patron saint of Glasgow. The Museum is well worth a visit. There’s a fairly large section devoted to different religions, comparing how various religions treat the same ‘life’ events – birth, death, marriage, coming of age, etc. It’s fascinating. They do lump some religions into big groups – Jewish and Christian are just two groups, there’s no effort to distinquish between variances in these groups, and probably justifably. There is a lot more difference between Christian and Sikh say.

We then stroll thru the University Campus, and wend our way towards downtown Glasgow. We check out the bronze of the Young Queen Victoria in George’s Square, admire some of the truly incredible building designs – and we grind to a total stop to admire one building that features an absolutely huge abstract metal peacock running the entire city block. Naturally, we also visit the Lighthouse – Glasgow’s center for Architecture.

Soon enough, we’re back at our overly cozy pad for dinner, relaxing, and bed. Tomorrow we begin the long – and since I’m writing this after the fact – thankfully uneventful trip back home.

So ends our 31 days in the UK.

We visited at least 28 museums, stayed in 6 Air BnB’s, visited 7 cities (London, Oxford, Birmingham, Morecambe, York, Edinburgh, and Glasgow), met some amazingly interesting people, ate glorious meals, learned a lot of history, rode the tube, took the train, traveled on buses and even managed one uber taxi.

And we did it all UNDER our $3000 Canadian per person including all travel budget.

The Intrepid Traveler and the Soup Lady rock another trip!

Signing off until the next time there’s something to report – The Soup Lady and her sidekick – The Intrepid Traveler.

Getting the Low Down on Birmingham’s History

We wake to the Doves in the Peace Tower just outside of Sameer’s flat when we get up in morning. They make the most wonderful sounds – and as we are on the 6th floor – watching them fly by is up close and personal.

We were joking last night – and asked Sameer if he had bats in his belfrey – but he didn’t get the joke! Instead he told us about how bats are protected animals in London. Nice to know – but not what we were laughing about.

This morning, Sameer dashes out before we are up – leaving us to fix our own breakfast from the fixings he left us – blueberries, bananas, oranges, milk, and an excellent Granola. There are also eggs – but we opt for a simple breakfast, lunch will be a bigger meal.

We have reservations for a tour at 10:15 at the Birmingham Back to Back Houses. We’ve been reading up on these houses – and the ones we will see are the last in existance – as late as the 1940’s there were thousands of people leaving in Back to Back Houses. They could be crammed in – up to 14 in what is effectively a 3 room house – under 900 sq feet in total – and some of that taken up with narrow spiral stairs that go from the first to the third floor.

Today these houses are in the heart of China Town, and adjacent to a large restaurant and bar complex, but in their day they were the key stone of lively neighborhoods. We were excited to take the tour.

The visit starts in front of a sweetshop, and our guide, Jane, begins by explaining that just before these houses were finally demolished in the 1970’s, they were mostly used as shops – and the sweetshop was what was in this location at the turn of the century. Back to Back Houses were built – surprise, surprise – back to back. So there are 3 houses with windows facing the road, and three more built against their back walls. These 3 houses have windows only on the ‘courtyard’ side. The entrances are street or courtyard level – and most of these houses had no running water and no toilets. Instead the toilets are located in the shared courtyard. In earlier times, these shared toilets were modified chamber pots, but eventually they were renovated to have ‘flush’ toilets. But you are still outside! In one of the houses, running water had been added – but only on the first floor. Water was never available above the first floor.

There is basically only one room on each floor – a living/dining/food prep room on the ground floor, a bedroom on the 2nd floor, and a 2nd bedroom on the third floor. The floors are linked by steep narrow twisting staircases – hard to go up, and frightening to go down. There is only one window in each room – depending on the house, facing either into the courtyard or into the street.

There was a fireplace in both the kitchen and ‘master’ bedroom – but while the kitchen fireplace was on from dawn till bedtime, the one in the ‘master’ bedroom was lit only when someone was feeling ‘poorly’. As for those sleeping on the third floor – crowding was the solution to a cold night. Families were known to put 6 kids in one bed, sleeping head to toe, and then renting out the other bed in the third floor bedroom to strangers!

So – no running water, no toilets, no sewer, and a central washing area that each family sharing the courtyard got to access once a week – life in the Back to Backs was not easy. There are audio tapes of folks who used to live here talking about what life was like. There was no reason to go home until bedtime, because there was nothing to do in the house except sleep. So kids ran wild and wooly all over the area – keeping themselves busy until going to bed was unavoidable.

And jobs, while plentiful, were neither well paying nor safe. Birmingham was at the center of the Industrial Revolution in England, and had more than it’s share of stuffy unsafe factories and challenging work environments. So Dad and the older boys would work all day – while Mom and the girls did the washing, cleaning, cooking, and sewing needed to keep the family together. Young boys went to school – a priledge rarely available to young girls in the UK until after 1870.

Back to our tour. The small block of back to back houses that has been saved has been extensively renovated. Of the three houses facing the street on the northern side, the bottom left is the sweet shop – and above that is ‘holiday’ let.. The center one is also a ‘holiday’ let, and the last one is used for storage by the National Trust. Of the back 3 houses on the north side, the one to the right is set-up to show life in 1840 – when this block was first built. The middle house is set-up as 1870, and the left most house is set as 1920. Of the 3 houses on the East side, the left most has been left as it was in 1970 when the last resident – a tailor – left. The center and right houses are now the welcome area, space for staff and an exhibit area. In the exhibit area you can see the 28 layers of wallpaper that were removed from one wall. Turns out it was much cheaper to just paste on new wallpaper – and that’s what happened.

We totally enjoyed the tour – our guide was very informed, the houses are very interesting, and unlike most museums – you are welcome to touch everything. I found the clock making tools in the house from 1840 particularly intriging.

Our tour finished, we decided to visit the rag market – which quickly gets boring, and then stop for traditional English Fish and Chips. Yum.

Now we stroll just a few blocks North and West – on our way to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The city changes drastically as we work our way these few blocks North. As we leave the ‘Rag’ Market – we also leave the majority muslim crowd and the boarded up and abandoned shop fronts. We pass the dramatically new Central Train Station – a huge Silver sphere shape that dominates the western view from St. Martins in the Bull Ring. Once on High Street – we are on a Pedestrian Mall with fancy shops, folks in nice dresses, and a general sense of well-being. What a drastic change from the rather scary feelings of the area near the ‘Rag’ Market!

Within minutes we are at Victoria Square – dedicated by the Princess of Wales (Diana?) in 1970. And just past that is the museum. And a glorious museum it is too. As with most of the museums here, it has a bit of everything – from Egyptian artifacts, a brief history of the Irish in Birmingham, to a room dedicated to the Stratford Hoard. The Hoard is impressive – and the rooms dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite painters contain art that is both extensive and beautiful. But the absolute best part of the museum, despite the lack of any marketing, even on the museum map – is the 3rd floor display on the history of Birmingham.

We’ve seen histories that are as dull as paint drying, but this is not one of them. This series of rooms takes the history of Birmingham and makes it personal – entertaining – and facinating. The curators have used every trick in their books to make these displays interesting, and they are amazingly successful.

The fun starts in the Medieval Past – over 1000 years ago. There’s a model of the town showing clearly that the Bull Ring Market, St. Martin’s of the Bull Ring, and the High Street were already known in those days. A series of short videos featuring kids from a local drama department explains why Birmingham was growing by leaps and bounds in those days – a combination of a belief in freedom of religion, and the lack of a town charter. Without a charter, guilds couldn’t operate – so a free-for-all attitude took hold. Anyone could do anything – and folks flocked to Birmingham in response.

To cover the years during the industrial revolution the display becomes a ‘tourist guide’ to Birmingham. Hints include finding the best places for food, and cover the ‘building boom’ with humor and attention to detail.

Moving historically forward, there is a series of puppets who demonstrate how to make a musket, and a display of the hand made buttons that made Birmingham famous in the 1800s. There are model kitchens from the 1900s for kids to play at, there are build it yourself models to practice town planning in the 1920s, and a multi-screen video presentation on Birmingham’s participation in WWI and WWII.

The display ends with a nod to the issues of the present – including the recent announcement by BMW to close their plant, putting 6000 out of work.

It’s an outstanding example of the curator’s art – and a fabulous examination of the history of Birmingham in particular and England in general.

We are thrilled to have wandered in!

But now the museum is closing around us – and we are gently escorted out by the guides who have appeared from nowhere.

So it’s home, a lovely roast chicken dinner with wine at Sameer’s flat – and early to bed. Tomorrow we travel – and we need our rest.

Signing off to get our beauty sleep – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

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.