Despite the fact that it is the UK’s second city, until now my view of Birmingham has always been rather negative. The boys know it as the obstacle we have to pass before Mr MC will agree to stop on our journeys to London. I relate it to hellish exhibitions at the NEC – and to the time I got lost in my old banger on the way back to uni and ended up stuck in an endless loop of Spaghetti Junction (I was very lost, I was trying to get to Nottingham not Birmingham)!
However, a few Saturdays ago I was invited to a Pinterest event in the city where I met a group of local bloggers. Their passion for their hometown, plus the great walk I’d had from the station to the venue, made me wonder why I hadn’t tried harder with Birmingham.
The Brummie bloggers gave me a few hotel contacts and suggested I come for a weekend to do a review. Everything just worked out from there. The boys were happy to spend some time together in the eldest’s new student flat which left us free to spend 48 hours in Birmingham. So off we went and I have now discovered a whole new city to love. Let me show you why.
Friday Night in Birmingham
We arrived early evening and went straight to our first hotel which was slightly out of the centre. The Park Regis is Birmingham’s newest luxury hotel. It opened last Autumn and is still gleaming. Parking is easy, right beside the hotel and I spotted a cinema complex next door which made me think it would be great for a weekend when you just wanted to relax with a movie in the evening.
The new lobby is impressive as you can see. Check in was swift and efficient. Rooms currently start at £65 per night but check the website for offers.
There was a lovely welcome touch when we arrived in the room.
The room was immaculate as you would expect from somewhere that is so new. I gave it extra brownie points for having a huge full length mirror – so often you have to wait until you’re in the hotel lift before you can check your outfit.
The bathroom was lovely with a great shower and good lighting for doing your make-up. However I did deduct a point or two for there being no bath – I don’t often have the chance for a long soak unless we go away so I’d been looking forward to it. They also have unexciting own brand toiletries.
It is a very tall building and Rofuto’s is a fabulous cocktail bar on the top floor with views over the whole city. It is Japanese and so we had sake martinis with fresh kumquats – now a new favourite.
They serve Japanese food too…
… however we had decided that being in Birmingham we had to go to the famed Balti Triangle. It was Eid so there was a great atmosphere and the restaurants were busy. We headed for Shababs which is one of the four original Balti restaurants.
Faux leather jacket; Coated jeans (M&S past season); Silver lustre linen t-shirt (White Company SS16 – sold out); Silver scarf (Zara past season); Silver shoes (Zara past season); Silver clutch (Whistles past season); Necklace; Earrings
It is a very simple restaurant, unlicensed but they are happy for you take your own wine. They only have half pint glasses for you to drink it from though. The curry was magnificent, I had lamb with spinach and Mr MC had chicken (no sign of me hitting my pre-50 goal of eating poultry yet)!
Saturday morning in Birmingham
After a very comfortable night’s sleep and a fabulous buffet breakfast we checked out. I have no idea what I was saying here but I’m looking bossy so I must have been issuing instructions.
We decided to spend the morning wandering around the city. Birmingham is much more impressive than I expected, probably because it is undergoing a huge regeneration project as you can see below. The modern building is the new library which is one of the largest in the world – my idea of heaven.
We stopped off at the Birmingham museum and Art Gallery for a while.
The interior is as impressive as the exhibits. Look at this light fitting.
These stained glass windows commemorate the bombing of the city galleries during the second world war, fortunately the treasures had been moved away in advance.
We discovered that Birmingham is very much a self made city and relatively new by English standards. Peter de Birmingham bought a charter so that he could hold a market near his castle in 1166 and it all began from there. It is very much a city of trade that has grown since the industrial revolution. The architecture is mostly Victorian onwards and metalworking seems to have been at the heart of its success.
Buttons were a Birmingham speciality.
I smiled to myself when I saw that my post Brexit mantra of “Forward” was one that was used on the Almshouses for the poor- I’m hoping that isn’t an omen…
In addition to the history there is an art collection with two rooms of Pre-Raphaelite paintings (Burne-Jones originated from Birmingham). I was surprised to see the Beata Beatrix amidst other beauties.
Saturday afternoon in Birmingham
After a morning of edification, it was time to head for the shops – in the interests of Midlifechic of course. This is the new shopping centre, Grand Central, which also houses the main city railway station.
It was time for lunch and we found a floor full of the usual sort of restaurants – Giraffe, Nando’s, Ed’s Diner… I didn’t fancy fast food until we came across Pho (pronounced Fu) which offers freshly cooked Vietnamese street food. This is the sort of food that we long for up in the Lake District.
I have since discovered that Pho was launched by a couple after they had travelled through Vietnam. The first restaurant opened in Clerkenwell in 2005 and it has now expanded to cover 6 UK cities. I love the fact that it is still family run.
We started with pork and lemongrass meatballs which came with large lettuce leaves for you to wrap them in. The plate is filled with fresh herbs, dips and sauces to add to your parcel so that you can create a mix of your favourite flavours.
Mr MC had beef wrapped in betal leaves with rice vermicelli and more sauces.
There were differing strengths of chilli sauce so that you could go as hot as you like.
As a main course Mr MC had wok fried noodles
And I had flash fried steak in a broth accompanied again by a selection of herbs to add. It was delicate but delicious and it went down well with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet.
The service was swift and attentive, the food was fabulous and the wine selection was well matched. The best thing was that I didn’t feel too full for an afternoon of shopping. Such a great find – I highly recommend it.
This is the heart of Grand Central and the sight that you see as you emerge from the railway station. Grand Central is home to a lot of Midlifechic favourites including The White Company, Joules, a Foyles bookshop, Hobbs, Kiehls, MAC, Jo Malone and Cath Kidston so it’s a very good place to start.
Moving on, a 5 minute walk away is The Mailbox, an upmarket mall and Birmingham’s answer to Bond Street although it only seems to be about 30% occupied at the moment. Behind The Mailbox there are vibrant canalside restaurants and bars along with a boutique Everyman Cinema.
The flagship is a Harvey Nichols ‘concept store’ i.e. a mini Harvey Nichols.
It is esoteric and very beautiful
Of course then we had to pay homage to Selfridges (below to the right of the shot). This store was the last project that Mr MC and I worked on when we were there. Another chapter in my difficult history with Birmingham was trying to get the planning for this building passed.
The people of Birmingham had envisaged a pastiche of the London store and were horrified when they saw the designs that the architects had come up with. The Chamber of Commerce did everything they could to block the ‘eyesore’ and yet now it is on the front of every Birmingham brochure. It’s beautiful don’t you think, I’m very proud to have played a small part in it.
From Selfridges we ended up in The Bullring, the biggest mall. The best shops are conveniently adjacent to each other – Whistles is around the corner from this shot and Mango is just below.
So Birmingham is a fabulous city to shop in. I hate to say it but in my opinion it’s better than Manchester because the centre is so compact. I think it will be my new first choice for a serious shopping trip, even though it is an hour further to travel.
By this point we were weary and windblown and in need of a rest.
I know you’ll be wondering what was in the John Lewis bag. I raided the sale and bought some Finery culottes and a skirt.
Saturday Night in Birmingham
It was time to check in to our next hotel. Hotel Latour is in the heart of the city, 3 minutes’ walk from the shops.
It is an arresting building with a beautiful lobby.
It is a little more expensive than the Park Regis with rooms currently starting at £89 but then you’re paying for the location, the fact that the design is a little more adventurous and the rooms are slightly more luxurious. It is extremely reasonable for the level of accommodation.
Again there was no bath but I was pleased to see White Company toiletries. The only thing that let the room down was that they had sachets of basic instant Nescafe coffee granules on the tea tray – bad coffee is a bugbear of mine and it simply did not match up to their luxury positioning.
I usually avoid hotel restaurants but The English Chophouse Restaurant attached to the hotel is a Marco Pierre White establishment so we decided to eat there. It gave me a chance to wear my Bombshell dress again.
Bombshell dress (20% off for Midlifechic readers with code CURVE); Zara shoes (past season); Whistles clutch (past season); Majorica grey pearl necklace; Majorica grey pearl earrings
As you would expect, there was an upmarket, foodie clientele and service was superb.
This is the menu – Marco Pierre White, as you probably know, has a particular passion for fresh, high quality pieces of meat. I apologise, we were obviously too keen to eat to take any photos but we both had steak and it was outstanding.
The decor of this hotel is very urban with a full sized twinkling cherry tree in the lobby.
Sunday Morning in Birmingham
Before we checked out (and after another bounteous buffet breakfast) I thought I should pay tribute to Mr MP White – there he is behind me.
Boden blouse (past season); Boden cropped cardigan (past season – similar); Uniqlo jeans; Boden scallop points (past season – this year’s version)
We had a couple of hours before it was time to head home and I’d read about a quirky museum called The Coffinworks so we decided to walk to The Jewellery Quarter to find it.
Until they closed in 1998, Newman Bros made coffin furniture (brass handles and plates for coffins) along with shrouds for the very best funerals, including Winston Churchill and, it is rumoured, Princess Diana.
The building was bequeathed to the city by the last owner who hoped it would be kept as a record of the city’s industrial history. Despite lots of setbacks with grants and funding, a team has worked tirelessly and now it is open to the public. We were given a tour by a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteer who really brought the place to life with lots of stories.
Here is the workroom where shrouds and coffin liners were made.
This is the ‘lookbook’ where the family could choose their design. There are various versions of local football strips as well as more traditional options.
This is an example of a finished piece.
The coffin furniture is all still in its original boxes on the shelves.
The tea station has been left as it was with everyone’s preferred style of tea and number of sugars on the list on the wall.
You come away with the feeling that this was a very happy workplace with a team who were dedicated to making people’s final journeys as good as they could be. What a very gentle and human way to earn a living.
So, it was time to go home. You’ll noticed I had changed – it was colder than expected.
With the effect that Brexit is continuing to have on our business we weren’t really sure whether we should go away but I’m glad we did. We needed to gain some perspective and spending time in a new vibrant city helped. In fact my t-shirt says it all, regardless of politics and the current economic dip, fundamentally, “je suis heureuse.”
A weekend in Birmingham – links
Where we stayed
Where we ate
Balti Birmingham website for other suggestions
Actually we stayed hotel based so we failed miserably on this one although we did pop into Aluna at The Mailbox for a fabulous cocktail
What to do
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (family friendly)
The Coffinworks (family friendly)
Thinktank Science Museum (family friendly)
Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (family friendly)
As first timers I’m sure there are lots of interesting places that we missed or just didn’t know about. If you’re a local or you know Birmingham well – do let us know what you would recommend in the comments.