If this tour guide had been written 130 years ago, it would almost certainly have been produced using a ‘Birmingham nib.’ At its peak,... more » almost 75 percent of the writing in the world was scribed using a nib manufactured in the city. That jaw-dropping statistic is just one of many that surrounds the history of the City of a Thousand Trades, where the innovations of the Industrial Revolution were forged into items that touched the lives of ordinary people – from pen nibs to buttons, jewellery to motorcycles, buckles to locks.
As in most of England, there are medieval origins, though most of the architecture is Victorian, 20th-century and beyond. Since the days when the ‘Lunar Men,’ a group of philosophical, scientific and engineering innovators (including Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, steam power pioneer James Watt, and pottery magnate Josiah Wedgewood) met on ‘full moon’ Mondays to perform intellectual jousts, all eyes have been on the future.
When the Luftwaffe unleashed the Birmingham Blitz, it gave the post-war City Fathers a chance to dramatically re-envision the 19th-century city. Surviving landmarks and public buildings regarded as over-embellished were torn down in favour of stark, clean-lined Brutalist buildings in pre-cast concrete, and six-lane highways were gouged through the city centre. Time and popular (and most critical) opinion have not been kind to these once-futuristic buildings, which are now targets of demolition or transformation.
Today, the past can be celebrated through museums and attractions like the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter and Cadbury World (which feature in other tours within this series), while conservation efforts like the restoration of the Back to Backs (a unique example of working class housing built in the 1820s, but presented as the resident families might have lived in 1841, 1871 and 1931), and the regeneration of the areas around the canals that played such a crucial role in building the city’s economic fortunes, are now causes of civic pride. The most comprehensive overview of the city's history - and its pride in its resilience during times of adversity - can be found in the new 'Birmingham: its people, its history' galleries at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Make sure you factor in time to spend there, particularly the terrific exhibit devoted to the city at war.
Birmingham’s love affair with the future is not over. The new 21st century Bullring with its flagship Selfridges store, a dazzling example of strangely voluptuous ‘blobitecture’ shimmering under its chainmail of metallic discs, lays legitimate claim to being England’s most interesting building of the new millennium. less «