This afternoon I’m off to an Instagram meet-up, a get-together of some of the gorgeous gals that I’ve got to know virtually over the last couple of years. So excited to be able to hug them in person! We’re largely scattered around the Midlands so our gathering is in the UK’s much maligned second city, Birmingham.
I lived about twenty miles away for the first eighteen years of my life and spent many a happy hour trudging the shops with my friends, bank notes rolled up in my bra for fear of being mugged! I’d also visit Rackhams, the large department store, with my parents, buying small Kookai purses (anyone else remember Kookai?!) and listening to James Alexander Gordon reading the classified football results as we drove along the rain splattered M6 on the way home.
Born of the industrial revolution and with more miles of canal than Venice as well as plenty of recent investment, there’s lots to keep you busy on a Saturday afternoon there. Here are my five art-and-architecture themed suggestions:
(1) Visit St Philip’s, the Anglican cathedral. Take a pew on a nearby bench and watch the city’s teenage sub-cultures in action before heading indoors to marvel at the amazing set of stained glass windows designed by local boy and pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and manufactured by Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris.
(2) Straight opposite the cathedral is The Old Joint Stock, a Fuller’s brewery pub that also houses a surprisingly stunning interior. Built in 1862, it was originally designed as a library but has spent most of its history as a bank (hence the name).
Fill up on a good pub lunch (their speciality is pies but the desserts are pretty decent too) surrounded by Victorian grandeur at its very best. It’s very popular and gets particularly busy on match days but it’s worth hovering for a table. There’s also a small venue upstairs that still hosts the old tradition of pub theatres.
(3) The cathedral and pub aren’t the only examples of Victorian art and architecture in the area. In many ways, Birmingham is the archetypal nineteenth-century city, publicly demonstrating the confidence of its municipal leaders during that period.
Wander from The Old Joint Stock down Colmore Row to Victoria Square and, if you suspend your prejudice about the place, you’ll see imposing civic buildings that express pride and status. The Council House in particular echoes the neoclassical style that you’ll see in European cities such as Austria (yes, really!).
(4) Around the corner is Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, free to enter and full of cultural and artistic highlights from across many centuries. You can view local collections and an Ancient Egyptian display as well as the Staffordshire Hoard (the largest stockpile of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found) and the world’s most important collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Yes, you read that correctly. The world’s most important collection of Pre-Raphaelite art is housed at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and you can visit it for free on a Saturday afternoon, or any other time of the week. There’s a lovely tea room too.
(5) A short walk from the museum and gallery is a more recent addition to Birmingham’s arts and culture scene: the Library of Birmingham. Described by its architect as a ‘people’s palace’, many go just to see the building’s striking interior and exterior design; in 2015, there were almost two million visits, more than any other tourist attraction outside of London. Work your way around the central atrium like a modern day Alice in Wonderland then check out the city’s skyline from the 360° roof terrace. From that vantage point, you’ll see the varied architectural styles that have become part of Birmingham’s built environment, surrounding the Victorian core where art and architecture helped to forge the fast growing city’s new identity.