The Evening Mail ran an article about how to spend 24 hours in Birmingham, a few months ago. It sounded fun, so we sent Harry Vale to check out their recommendations. Eventually, after we got him to ask John Chillcot and Pete Townshend for some advice on deadlines, he submitted this. It was worth the wait, a gonzo journalist Jack Bauer, pissed off and hungry in the rain. In the meantime, the Mail took the times off the article, so he was also performing something of a public service in checking out the logistics. Thanks to everywhere he visited for looking after him.
I couldn’t wait to delve into Paradise Circus’ Scrooge McDuck-esque expenses vault and spend all their money following the Mail’s itinerary to the letter. I’d be a tourist in my own city, rediscovering the hidden gems (that haven’t been bulldozed or cordoned off), discovering other gems that weren’t hidden but I just hadn’t heard of them, and gems I’d heard were a bit shit but I’d go anyway, because the Mail told me to.
I picked a humid, wet day to do this, which is just how I like my 24 hour adventures to be. I nudge the missus into giving me a lift, but she rolls back over, murmuring something about a “kidney infection” (the oldest trick in the book), so I jump in a minicab and mentally calculate how much this is going to cost as we slowly slip through the Hagley Road traffic. My taxi drops me off at Broad Street and I head to Marmalade, to try their eggs Benedict. The Mail suggested I get there for 8am, but I am slightly late. Luckily, it doesn’t matter, because the Mail are stupid and the place doesn’t open until 9.30am. This has thrown my whole day out of whack, because they’re sending me to the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter at 9am.
Guess what doesn’t open at 9am? If you said the largest municipal library in Europe, you’d be right. If you also said the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, you’d also be right. Now I don’t know what I’m doing, I feel like I have to work to plan, I need to stick to the schedule. The Birmingham Mail promised me 24 hours in Birmingham and now I’m standing in the rain, confused and hungry. I head to the nearest pub, grab possibly the worst coffee in the world (it looks like the stuff that Papa Shango cursed Ultimate Warrior with) and try and work out an alternate plan.
So my new plan: go back at 9.30am, ram breakfast down my throat as fast as possible, then jump in a cab to the Jewellery Quarter. I’ll spend as much time as I can there, then bus it to the Botanical Gardens at 10.30am, my next scheduled stop.
Guess what’s not open at 10.30am?
Nah, just fucking with you, the Mail actually got this bit right.
Off to Marmalade. The doors are closed. They’re only just setting up the chairs. I go and peer at the menu which has no breakfast listed on it, and then a nice man approaches, wondering if I’m going to leave a Harry-shaped hole in the door, probably.
“Sorry, we’re a bit short-staffed today, so we’re not opening until 10am.”
I am sad. I am hungry. I am starting to hate the Birmingham Mail even more than usual. Back to the pub, for an emergency bagel and a J20. I don’t want to spoil my appetite, but my tummy is making weird noises. Like the noises Ultimate Warrior made when he was cursed by Papa Shango.
I wolf the bagel-shaped thing down and head back to Marmalade. They’re open! I silently curse the Mail as I grab a coffee and check out the menu. Not feeling the eggs Benedict, so I go for the pancakes and bacon. Everywhere in Brum seems to do this now, and I do enjoy bacon, so I go for it. It’s not good. Pancakes are kinda cold, there’s not a lot of maple syrup, and the bacon is just bizarre. It’s about as thin as you could possibly get meat and it’s so brittle and paper-like. It’s like something from a bacon museum, it’s like the first ever bacon. Just looking at it causes it to crack and fall to dust. Pretty disappointing, but your man behind the bar is almost paralysingly charming, so I can’t complain. The building itself is nice enough, good atmosphere, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I’d give it one more go, it might’ve just been an off day. The nearest place for breakfast is a ‘Spoons and it can’t really compare. Not today, at least. 5 arbitrary stars out of 11.
Back into the rain and off to the Jewellery Quarter now. The Mail says it’s open at 9am, but I hope you didn’t follow that, because it doesn’t open until 10.30am. It also says it costs £4 to get in, but it’s actually £7. Got your cheque book? So far the Mail has got me disappointed and soggy, so it’s with a bit of trepidation that I head for the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. I do enjoy seemingly banal museums. Don’t get me started on the awesome postal museum in Budapest. Tobacco & Salt Museum in Tokyo? Oh, man – if it covers something mundane, I’m there.
I’m a bit early for the scheduled guided tour (thanks, The Mail), so they let me on one that’s about to start. Carl is my guide today and Carl is great. He’s the second most cleverest Brummie Carl I know after the Chinnmeister General. We go through the history of the Smith family’s jewellery company. There’s some cool anecdotes about how your man would ply people with tea, cake and booze when trying to get them to make big orders. You’re shown how they made hollow jewellery, how they made charms, you get to wander about the postal room, which is untouched since the 1980s. Carl somehow makes dusty toasters interesting, keeps the banter to an acceptable level (sadly one dude on the tour couldn’t and kept making hilarious jokes about how women are shit and men are the best. I was not allowed to push him down the stairs, something about “health and safety” and “that would be barbaric behaviour”) and he even lets you get your hands a bit dirty with old tools and bits of jewellery.
One little thing I felt was off was the way he batted away a question about the health of people who suffered health problems from gold dust. A slate mine museum (I know, I am a party animal) I recently visited went into great, remorseful detail about the often fatal problems their employees went through with silicosis. Here it wasn’t brought up, laughed away as being “a different time” and we moved on to playing with Archimedes drills.
I don’t blame them for not making everything about people dying and maybe it wasn’t that big of a problem, but something other than a nervous hand waving away of the issue would’ve been nice.
If you’ve any interest in the history of the area or just want to look at where they used to make golliwog charms, I’d recommend it. They have temporary exhibitions and some cool stuff that I didn’t have time to look at upstairs (thanks, The Mail) as well as the guided tour.
I am way behind now. I’m not going to be able to have lunch, thanks to the Mail, so I jump into another taxi to get to the Botanical Gardens. It’s now starting to rain a little bit harder and the sky has gotten a little bit greyer — I quite like it. I’m greeted by two confused women who don’t seem to have any idea what I’m doing there. Thankfully I explain I’m here to be mean to the Mail and they summon a guy called Wayne. Wayne is the Carl of plants and shit. This dude knows his stuff and took me around the glasshouses, showing me the banana plants (with actual bananas), rice plants (with actual rice) and Panama hat trees (no hats, sadly). He showed off his work in progress, an evolutionary history of plants, going from algae (QI fans will know how important algae is, it’s as important to the production of oxygen as Papa Shango’s feud with Ultimate Warrior was to shaping my childhood fears of witch doctors). It’s a really cool little exhibit that I think kids will like. Having been a kid once, I think I would’ve found it interesting.
Like Wagon Wheels and Curly Wurlys, places I visited as a child seem a lot bigger than they actually are. I’m sure there’s a fancy psychology term, but I’ll call it Curly Wurly syndrome. Schools and homes that seemed cavernous as a child are actually tiny when revisited. Roads that twisted and expanded like something out of a fantasy novel are actually just really stupid and narrow and why can’t people park properly in Bearwood, oh my god, people.
My memory of the botanical garden is a small green park and lots of peacocks. Turns out my memory sucks, the Botanical Gardens are massive. While it was a bad day to visit in terms of rain, the colours are just astounding. Pink and orange, green and brown pop from every nook and cranny. There’s koi carp, gorgeous love birds, curious little squirrels, it’s beautiful. I’ve not been for 20 years and I regret not coming sooner and I’ll be back again when it’s not so fucking wet. I tried to find the peacocks (which recently got on the roofs, apparently), but I guess they were hiding. Or they were on the 24 hour trip too and stuck at Marmalade. Idiots.
I’m hungry and the wettest I’ve ever been, so I retire to the empty cafe. I had a panini, because the Mail made me starve. It was a fiver and quite awful, but I’m pretty sure you can’t make a good panini. It’s just not a thing, a panini is either bad, or you’ve eaten something mislabeled as a panini. Next stop, I’m going to literally see life at the Sea Life Centre.
I head for the 29 bus, about an hour and a half behind my schedule. On the journey, while enjoying the chance to dry off a bit, I recall the last time I saw life at the Sea Life Centre. It was with the wife and we’d stupidly picked a school holiday to go. The only things packed tighter than the kids and their tired parents were the fish in the first few sad exhibitions. The main draw was the penguins, and they didn’t show up, apparently they were “sleeping”. We paid £20 to get fobbed off by a bird that can’t even work up the energy to fly. The fish all seemed a bit lifeless and sad, but I assumed the staff knew what they were doing and how much space does a fish need, anyway?
I get in, after rushing through the fucking rain in Brindleyplace, and am delighted to find the place completely empty. It’s like I have my own tropical wonderland, but one made of fibreglass and sadness. What took 15 minutes during my last trip takes about a minute this time. After the first few fish I start to lose interest — there’s only so much enjoyment I can squeeze out of staring at a bored, miserable fish. I get to the top of the first floor and there’s a man looking very bored and lonely. I give him the standard upward tilt of the head and an ‘alright, mate?’ to show him that I acknowledge his existence, even if these fucking fish won’t.
“Would you like to touch a crab or run your finger through some tentacles?” he asks.
“Yes. Yes, I would.’ I reply, and pull my sleeves up.
This isn’t how I thought the day was going to go, touching up random crustaceans and be-tentacled creatures, but I’m going to take it. He explains why the little white thing is grabbing at me with its surprisingly soft tentacles.
“It thinks you’re food, but obviously it’s not strong enough to eat you.”
My man then starts chatting to me about Muse, after spotting my Muse hoodie, and we talk about the latest tour and the new album, all while I’m molesting what I imagine are quite fragile and expensive creatures. I’ve always thought us Muse fans were creepy, obsessive weirdos, and this has only confirmed it.
I get the feeling I’m not so much learning about the creatures as I am scaring them away, so I pull my soaking wet arm out of the sad little rock pond, thank the guy for the chat and the hands on lesson, and head for the hand dryer. Lots of clown fish now, but I don’t care about them, I’m all about the penguins. The stupid penguins better be up this time, they don’t know I’m here on a freebie, they better be ready to perform. I avoid the woman who asks if I want a picture (yes I desperately want a physical reminder of this day, thanks) and stifle a little cry of delight as I spot the penguins. They’re all gathered, about ten of them, on a fake little bit of ice, with a short tunnel of water to dive through. They take a run and dive into the water, do a quick circle, then jump back on the ‘ice’. They stand around a bit, take a run and dive in the water. They do a quick circle, then jump back on the ‘ice’. They stand around a bit, take a- do you spot a theme here?
On and on they go, with a robot-like precision, I can’t tell if they’re enjoying it or just going through the motions, driven insane by the constant excited cries of children looking into their perspex prison.
“Are they okay?” I ask photo lady.
“Yeah, they’re fine. They’re enjoying themselves” she says, not convincingly.
What was initially cute is now just a bit sad. I move on, spot a discarded advert for battered fish (that I’m almost certain was there last time I visited), which I assume is left there as a warning for any penguins that are planning an insurrection or daring escape to the nearby canal. The rest of the visit goes pretty quickly. I’m not really interested in seeing life at the Sea Life Centre. It’s all a bit miserable, but without any actual children or proper human beings it’s at least brief. The 360 underwater tunnel thing is cool, although again, I think some of the sharks and things in their must be animatronic or dosed up, they’re so lifeless.
I quickly pass through the gift shop, which is the final barrier to the exit, which is kinda hidden off to the side of the building, next to the canal, and oh joy, it’s fucking pissing it down still. Thanks, the Birmingham Mail, Website of the Year indeed.
People on Twitter are talking about panini a lot after I slagged them off. You people are weird and have no taste in cooked sandwiches.
Time for some random sightseeing now. Lonely Planet this ain’t. I’m dumped in Centenary Square, where it’s suggested I visit the library.
“The Library of Birmingham is great to see both inside and out” the Mail dribbles out stupidly.
This is true and technically possible. Thanks to the beautiful see-through “windows” I can see how great it truly is, both inside and out. I can’t go in, because this is the 24 hours in Birmingham guide, and nothing is ever open or even exists. It’s a philosophical psychogeographical school trip, where there is no itinerary, merely randomness. No opening times, only perpetual Closed signs. While I can’t go inside the library because it’s fucking closed, I can stand in the darkness and the rain, push pins into my Birmingham Mail editor voodoo doll and look at the sights around me.
This area is particularly poignant as it’s home to so many places I grew up with. The beautiful brutalist, concrete fuck you to Prince Charles that is/was (delete as appropriate depending on when you’re reading this) the Central Library is now inaccessible. Paradise Forum is a no go. For decades this collection of glass and granite was the perfect grey waypoint in my life. It’s where I went to meet friends before heading into town. It’s where I went to buy stickers in that little paper shop that used to lead into the library. It’s where I spent hours playing Area 51 and Soul Edge in the arcade. It’s where I stared into Hooters from my chair in Baskin Robbins, developing a lifelong obsession with owls shaped like breasts. It’s where I spent two years of my life working in Ladbrokes.
Now everything around me is chopping and changing all the time. Walking past the new library I remember touching the Queen’s hand (pretty sure it was consensual) when she opened the ICC. I remember when Cliff turned on the Flame of Hope. I remember when the council turned off the flame of hope, because they like their budget cuts to have a hint of symbolism (£12,000 a year the flame cost us, by the way, or 1% of a Capita library website contract). I remember when Birmingham Municipal Bank was a bank. I remember the registry office and when the Boulton, Watt and Murdoch statue wasn’t gold. I remember that creepy fountain. I remember climbing the Lurpak statue and later being confused by how happy people got watching Raymond Mason cry after it got burned down.
Buildings are torn down and rebuilt because the city loathes itself, hates being old; history is like an itchy scab we keep picking away at. We love saying how much we don’t give a fuck what London thinks, while mutilating the city like a desperate, ageing actress trying to get one more leading role — we get the Tory conference. Everything is new, but kind of shit. Even the good stuff — like the new library — is shit because you can never go in the thing. I know there’s going to be someone in 100 years, using the timeslug burrowed deep into their brain stem to write a blog on the transdimensional web about how they’re annoyed the council are tearing down the new library (we’ll still call it the new library, like how we still say Rackhams). Maybe part of my sadness is that this area is almost a part of me. It’s where I’d wait in the rain to get the bus to school. It’s where I spent every new year’s eve, learning what alcoholism was. Everything is getting older and shittier, and it’s a reminder that I’m getting older and shittier. I’ve watched it rise and fall, brick by brick, statue by statue, never getting a chance to breathe.
Still, Marmalade is nice, right?
Grand Central next. Grand Central is big and reasonably central. It’s a train station and it has shops. I don’t give a fuck. Jon H wrote about it better than I can. Anyway, I can’t afford any of these restaurants, and I know that Paradise Circus can’t afford it, so I head back to Centenary Square, back to my beloved ‘spoons. I eat something. I think it was garlic bread with cheese. I’m sure chips were involved. I am wet, tired and moody now.
An old woman sitting behind me, on her own, is now being confronted by a guy who looks like a villain from Mad Max, and a guy who is barely conscious from all the glue he’s been sniffing. They start shouting at the woman to move, as it’s apparently their seat, but she is politely sitting her ground, brave or oblivious, I can’t tell. Amusingly the two back down, sit with her, and begin having the most depressing conversation in the world. Rape, child abuse, animal neglect, Immortan Dave’s life in and out of prison, dementia, suicide, all the miserable cards are laid on the sticky Wetherspoons’ table. You don’t get this at Leon.
I feel like I’m in the green room of The Jeremy Kyle Show now and it’s really putting me off my reasonably priced beer. I can only listen to so many stories of the guy’s dog losing weight while he’s in prison for the 100th time, so I head off.
What’s next on the agenda?
A show. You’ve got lots of choices but one of the most impressive buildings in the city is Symphony Hall. If you can get yourself into a show there then we would recommend that but the Barclaycard Arena is also in a beautiful setting.
These would be amazing choices, but there are no tickets left for anything. Really, this is less a guide to things to do in the city, and more a list of nearby buildings and businesses. It’s a chatty yellow pages, it’s the what’s what of crap. There’s no care given to actually give you a sane or interesting route, instead mindlessly bouncing you around one end of town and back again. My feet are making squelchy sounds and starting to cry bloody murder. There are no shows (Lord of the Flies is sold out), and I’m not going to the Everyman for Spectre or the Electric because seriously, do you know how much those tickets cost and how little money Paradise Circus has? No one’s buying the badges. Buy some badges, guys, come on.
I settle for a film at Cineworld, whatever the next one is. It’s Hotel Transylvania 2. They all die at the end, fuck you. I leave feeling at least a bit drier and with some expensive popcorn added to PC’s expenses.
It’s still fucking raining, guys. We’re in Blade Runner territory now and I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe or care to recreate. I’m not going to make 24 hours, not that the Birmingham Mail cares. “Go to sleep” it suggests. “Go to Broad Street” it counters, if I’m desperate enough to spend every waking minute in the city.
I choose sleep. I choose fresh, dry and warm socks. I choose wife and The Witcher 3 and a cup of tea. It was an odd idea to start with, wasn’t it? Who spends 24 hours in a city other than Danny? Especially a city as small as Brum? You gotta spread that shit out. The new library alone can easily take a month. Take it floor by floor, check out the bar that’s never manned. Buy a copy of 101 Things Birmingham Gave The World and then pay twice as much for a knackered sandwich. Go to the Shakespeare room. I’ve not been. I think his bones are in there, or something?
Sorry, I’ve been a shit tour guide. I’d mostly suggest going to a pub. We’ve got some alright pubs. Tap and Spile is a fancy gastro pub now. People like The Electric — it’s old as fuck which somehow makes it good. We’ve got canals, you love canals, right? More canals than New York and Tokyo. Peaky Blinders wasn’t filmed in Brum, but bits of it was filmed kinda near. Tolkien took a dump in some local pubs, go check out the blue plaque for that. Check out the Bull Ring and Grand Central for shops like HMV and WH Smith and Eat and Drink and Stuff. Go to the IKON and check out the lift.
Start at around 12pm, most stuff’ll be open. See life at the sea life centre. Buy boots at Boots. Eat some blancmange at the bureau de change. I imagine most places are closed at 5pm, so jump in a cab, watch Jessica Jones on Netflix, get yourself a Horlicks, and have a nice early night. It’s still better than London.