The West

City of surprises
City of surprises

After being convinced for years that the English city of Birmingham had nothing much worth seeing, I'm realising the error of my ways. And I'm finding myself thinking that Bill Clinton was right. The former US president stayed in Birmingham for a G8 summit in 1998 and declared himself astonished how beautiful it was, labelling it "an extraordinary jewel of a city".

It's easy to laugh, especially when you see some of the post-World War II concrete high-rises which blight this Midlands metropolis - and the ugly web of ring-roads and flyovers that sprawl across it, including the brain-scrambling Spaghetti Junction, voted by motorists as the worst junction in Britain.

However, once you get into the city centre, you'll be pleasantly surprised by how photogenic Birmingham is. I was anyway.

Overlooking the adjoining Victoria and Chamberlain Squares are civic buildings as grand and elegant as any I've seen in England.

Gazing past a sculptured fountain of a lady bathing - dubbed the Floozy in the Jacuzzi - I admire the town hall, built in 1834 and modelled on Ancient Rome's Temple of Castor and Pollux, then wander towards the canals.

I almost have to pinch myself that I'm in Birmingham, or as the locals say, in a nasally accent often voted England's worst, Birminguum, or simply, plain old Brum.

More Canal: CRUISING ON THE CANAL

I pinch myself some more as I drift down the pretty Birmingham and Worcester canal on a traditional narrow boat, ducking beneath arched stone and iron bridges, and drifting past folks enjoying tea, cakes and pints outside Canalside Cafe, an old lock-keeper's cottage facing a cluster of moored, strikingly painted wooden barges.

And I wonder why Brum doesn't have a better reputation.

A Birmingham blogger, Annabel Clarke, tells me that the city just isn't very good at promoting itself.

"Brummies are known as pretty self-deprecating and that doesn't help. The city has so much to be proud of but sometimes it seems it needs to be coaxed into celebrating itself," says Clarke, whose website, More Canals than Venice, exposes the city's thriving arts and cultural scene and generally attempts to paint the city in a more favourable light.

But more canals than Venice? This unlikely-sounding feat can be explained by Brum's position at the crossroads of England's once-thriving canal network.

At its peak, when Birmingham was a crucible of the 18th century industrial revolution and known as the City of a Thousand Trades, it could boast more than 200km of navigable canals - twice that of Venice.

After a long spell in the doldrums, Birmingham's canals are enjoying a renaissance. Trendy waterfront apartments, cultural spaces and conference centres have sprouted alongside stylish shops, cafes, bars and restaurants.

The towpaths are ripe for strolling, while rumour has it that an enterprising Italian turns up canal-side some evenings, offering gondola rides for £100 ($151) a go. More, previously redundant, canals are being restored throughout the countryside edging the city.

As our narrow boat skirts beside Gas Street (the first stretch of the city to have gas lighting), we ogle a pair of pecking blue tits - just some of the birdlife tweeting around these parts.

Our guide explains how these man-made waterways were eventually superseded by railways fired by the steam engines pioneered in Birmingham by Scottish inventor and engineer James Watt and his friend, Matthew Boulton, during the industrial revolution.

Boulton helmed the intellectual Lunar Society, whose members - including Erasmus "Grandfather of Charles" Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood and Joseph Priestley - met at full moon and cheerfully referred to themselves as Lunatics.

While Birmingham once flourished in matters of science, technology and industry, it's now one of Europe's leading centres for modern, cutting-edge architecture.

Ahead of us, the sun glints off the audacious 23-storey Cube, the sparkling exterior of which was inspired by Birmingham's 250-year history as a jewellery-making centre.

The Jewellery Quarter, in the city's north, is jammed with working emporiums staffed by goldsmiths, silversmiths and artisans plus dozens of heritage buildings.

The Cube nudges the Mailbox, an up-market retail and dining complex fashioned out of the old Royal Mail sorting office. It challenges the cylindrical Rotunda and the globular Selfridges for the title of Birmingham's most eye-catching modern building.

Studded with 15,000 aluminium discs and dubbed the "Blob" or the "Digbeth Dalek" (it shoulders the edgy suburb of Digbeth), Selfridges is one of Birmingham's myriad cathedrals of commerce.

Cut-price high street stores, markets, malls and boutiques sit cheek-by-jowl in this shopaholic's paradise of a city which is really showing the fruits of its multibillion-pound regeneration program.

The heady aim of the Big City Plan is to transform Brum, a city that had been wallowing in post-industrial decline, into one of the world's 20 most livable cities. According to the City Council, it's the "most ambitious, far-reaching development project ever undertaken in the UK to create a world-class city centre".

In addition to making the centre more pedestrian-friendly, future projects include the construction of a new library, grassy city park and a radical overhaul of shabby New Street railway station, which will be complemented by a new high-speed rail line, chopping journey times to London to just 49 minutes (it's between 90 minutes and two hours now).

Between Selfridges and the spired St Martin's is the Bullring Church, around which Birmingham grew in the 12th century, I come across another the recently revamped grocery and meat trading area of Spiceal Street, which boasts a string of glossy new brasseries and restaurants.

A stone's throw from the Bullring is the lively Chinese Quarter, serving everything from Cantonese to Szechuan fare.

A 10-minute bus ride from the centre brings me to the Balti Triangle, a residential neighbourhood of more than 50 balti restaurants and takeaways. The area is a little rough round the edges but it has recovered well after being heavily damaged by a tornado in 2005.

"Balti" means "bucket' in Urdu. A round-bottomed wok used in the Baltistan region of Pakistan, it was brought to Birmingham by Pakistani immigrants and is used to serve sizzling curries.

As well as the city's clutch of Michelin-starred restaurants, the Asian flavours are a big part of why Olive, the BBC's food magazine, declared Birmingham the UK's "foodiest town" - ahead of London and Edinburgh.

Back in a Birmingham city centre liberally sprinkled with theatres, pubs, jazz houses and clubs, I while away an afternoon in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.

It houses an impressive collection of classic antiquities, a renowned collection of paintings from the Pre-Raphaelites plus the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest-ever find of Anglo-Saxon treasures, excavated from a field near Birmingham in 2009.

Archaeologists claim the gold and silver-strewn haul, dating from AD700, is the equivalent of unearthing a new Book of Kells or Lindisfarne Gospels.

I leave Birmingham feeling that I've made a discovery of my own. I always regarded Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh and York as Britain's must-visit cities outside London.

I now add Brum to that list.


  • fact file *

·Emirates flights connect through Dubai direct to Birmingham - a good way to arrive in the UK. For example, the 6am Emirates flight from Perth arrives in Birmingham at 6.45pm. Travel agents, emirates.com/au or call 9324 7600.

·The three-star Britannia Birmingham hotel is a decent budget choice near New Street station. Web-based deals are available from £29 ($43). britanniahotels.com/hotels/birmingham. Hyatt Regency (birmingham.regency.hyatt.com), Radisson Blu (radissonblu.co.uk/hotel-birmingham) and Malmaison (malmaison.com/hotels/birmingham) are among the city's up-market chains.

·A glut of balti houses - from cheap cafes to smartly designed restaurants - are strewn across the Sparkbrook district; baltitriangle.com

·For more on Birmingham, see visitbirmingham.com.

The area is rough round the edges . . . after being damaged by a tornado.

The West Australian

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