Thursday, 13 December 2012

Beer and Barges in Birmingham

One Christmas we were given a vineyard or brewery tour, which we opted to take at the end of May. When we looked at the locations of the possible places to visit one stood out as easy to visit by train from Stamford, so we worked out an itinerary for another adventure which would have as a centrepiece a visit to the Banks's brewery in Wolverhampton. We would stay in the centre of Birmingham and include some of the many other activities available there during the rest of our time. A holiday in Birmingham may not be an obvious thing to do, but our three days and two nights were far short of the time needed to see all that this city has to offer the tourist, and getting to the heart of the city at the Heart of England is simplicity itself from Stamford!

At the time CrossCountry were offering Advance First Class Singles and by booking well in advance (once the brewery tour was confirmed) we were able to travel in more comfort. Regrettably this fare is no longer on offer - presumably because there is so little First Class seating on these trains - but Standard Class is perfectly satisfactory and comfortable enough. There is trolley catering all the way between Stamford and Birmingham New Street, and only the coffee is free for First Class ticket-holders anyway! We left on a mid-morning train direct to New Street and were able to leave our luggage at our hotel before lunch, giving a full afternoon in the city centre. As it happened we had good friends who were also visiting Birmingham at the time and whose holiday overlapped with ours, so we spent that afternoon with them and I need not bore readers with the details of catching up on life once lived in Birmingham! The evening meal was to be a special one together with our friends at one of the amazing number of restaurants by the canalside off Broad Street. There is something there for everyone and we settled on a Thai restaurant and went for a canalside stroll afterwards. You do not need a beach to be on holiday!

The following morning after breakfast at the hotel we walked to Snow Hill station for the Midlands Metro tram to Wolverhampton. Between the two cities this tramline follows the route of the former Great Western main line but has several more stops than the railway used to have. It runs through regenerated metal-working areas and it totally different from the run-down and decaying urban sprawl that I remember from the seventies. The tram is not the quickest way to Wolverhampton but it gives a chance to see local things on the way and it terminates in the street not far from where we were heading.

Banks's Brewery tours require a minimum number of bookings to run and when we turned up at the reception by the brewery shop we were told that there were a dozen others expected, prizewinners from a pub competition who had won the tour as a prize. After waiting until well after the booked time, we were still the only two so we were taken round on our own! Possibly the most personal tour they had ever run ... we saw more, could ask more questions and still took less time than if we had been in a big group. Round here the beer from that brewery and the others in the group is normally sold as Marston's, a better-known name in the East Midlands, Banks's being very much a Black Country name little-known outside the West Midlands, but the company owns half-a-dozen breweries whose products are well-known throughout England, and lorries bearing advertising for all sorts of great beers were busy loading in the yard. We saw where the beer is brewed and we watched cask ales being put unto their metal casks for distribution.

The tour finishes with a chance to try a couple of pints of the beer and then we bought some as souvenirs to bring home - and when you see me in my Banks's polo shirt you now know where I bought it!

The nearest pub for lunch was at the end of the short street leading to the brewery, and then after a look at some of the shops in Wolverhampton we made our way to the station and caught a fast train back to Birmingham New Street and took our shopping back to our room. Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent in Birmingham city centre, including a visit to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where the Staffordshire Hoard was on display. Tea in the splendid Edwardian Tea Room makes a visit to this place worthwhile on its own! I went for short train ride to where I had lodged as a student - we had network tickets to cover all our travel for the day. Dinner at our own hotel - not that we needed much after the breakfast and lunch.

Entrance to Court 15 and the rear houses
Our last day had been unplanned when we arrived but we had soon identified some things we wanted to do. In the morning we visited a National Trust property unlike any other was have seen, a preserved courtyard of Midlands back-to-back houses (details which have to be seen by pre-booked guided tour and are well worth a look. The history of our industrial way of life includes this way of squeezing huge numbers of workers into a small space.

These houses are on a street corner just a few yards from the Bull Ring Shopping Centre, an easy few minutes' stroll from our hotel. Fascinating - and when I was studying town planning here in the seventies some were still in use!

In the afternoon we took a canal tour, seeing another aspect of Britain's industrial past which has been made accessible and is within easy reach of Birmingham city centre. Our tour operated from the quayside at the International Convention Centre and took in the new "main line" canal towards Wolverhampton (we saw the railway line on which we had returned the previous day) and meandered via the older, narrower canal which served the industries which once thrived along here. An informative commentary taught us a lot about the history of the midlands canals and there was a bar on board to keep us fed and watered as we cruised. Beside the canal is Britains largest Sea Life Centre whioch had queues right round it. At first it seems odd to have it there, as far from the sea as you can get in Britain, but perhaps that is the very reason why it is there!

We soon collected our luggage and returned to New Street for the last train home, leaving much for future visits: the rest of the Museum and Art Gallery, the Museum of Science and Industry, Aston Hall (a Jacobean Manor House), the Jewellery Quarter and lots more shops. As a change at Birmingham often fits into longer trips we may tick some of these off as we travel about the rest of the country and have already done some shopping as we passed through on our way home from one journey - New Street station is right in the heart of the city centre so it is not difficult to do this, and an overnight stay here would easily fit into a trip to Wales, the West Country or the North-West.

There are photographs of our time in Birmingham at as well as some I took forty years ago in my student days; an interesting comparison.