A little trip to…Birmingham

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I’ll fess up before this begins – I am, purely for the sake of clarity, a Brummie, yet as the son of a soldier I never grew up there. It’s where my family came from and it’s where I identified as home. But don’t think I’m Birmingham’s biggest fan; I’ll only get angry with people when they slag it off because that’s my job, which is becoming something I’ve less reason than ever to do after my visits over the last 6 months have left me impressed.

It’s not all concrete!

If you can show me a city more maligned than Birmingham, I’ll show you a liar. Many people seem to have a natural kneejerk reaction to Birmingham, even if they’ve never been. There’s that dreadful accent (which I happen to love) there’s all that concrete (the city with the most parks in Europe) there’s the fact that it’s a cultural wasteland (ignore the ballet, the orchestras, opera company, the galleries and universities) there’s the fact that it offers nothing identifiably Brum (there’s the jewellery quarter, the spaceship that is Selfridges, the balti)… And of course, there’s the accent!

P1190541My issues with Brum stemmed from my overriding memories of finishing uni and ending up working in a call centre, feeling glum and not seeing that the city had anything to offer me. To really make me feel negative, I had two attempted muggings in a week followed by a phone theft and started to wonder what on earth I was doing. Over time I’ve come back, visited new venues and grown a new appreciation for the place. With the launch of the new library, the city has basked in attention and projects a new confidence that is at odds with the old arrogance or slight malaise that made me think of Brum as a sad place.

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P1190508Generally I find the people to be great, but when I visited in November ’13 I was shown just how kind-hearted people can be; sitting with my Dad as he sold poppies for the British Legion, people were clamouring to give money away –  a few people chucked fivers in and the glitter poppies he made sold out quickly. The soldier at Euston cut a lonely figure in comparison. London might be home now, but it’s always great to go back and remember that London isn’t the world.

It’s really encouraging to see new independents opening up quality venues in the city – Bitters ‘n’ Twisted venues operate venues as diverse as Island cocktail bar and The Victoria pub which showcases Birmingham’s excellent Victorian heritage – despite pints of Meantime selling at London prices, the pub was packed with a great atmosphere.

P1190515I made sure I had time to visit the new library which is a wonder; child friendly, buzzing with ideas and events and busy with people studying and reading. The gardens gave big views over the city and the Shakespeare memorial library needs to be seen to be believed. As much of an advocate for concrete as I am, the old library was grim. Dark, uninviting and stuck in the past, it failed to lift the spirits in any way. I always wished they could have taken the building and done something inspirational with it because it had the potential to be great, but that never transpired. The new library is bright, airy and a great example of what a city can do when it puts its mind to it. I spent an easy hour there.

P1190549I popped by the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery too and was pleased to realise that the collection is richer than I’d imagined. Yes, it’s a slight collection of just 500,000 objects when compared to the Tate but the main draw is the Pre-Raphelite collection which is the largest in the world – though if that’s not your bag, there’s enough in the collection to keep you occupied. IKON gallery remains a mainstay of any visit to Brum and on this visit I saw work by Michael François with lots of neon lights all smashed up in the middle and a brilliant structure held together by magnets – I really wanted to nick one of the balls and see if it all fell apart but apparently that would be rude.

For food and drink, my friend Graham has taken me to some excellent places and for drinks, Pure Bar and Kitchen really hit the spot, with a huge selection of beers on tap. I, ever the adventurer, had the only imported beer on the menu. The Karczma, which has had rave reviews, is more expensive than it used to be, but the food was plentiful and delicious. It took my Lemon sole virginity; my continued experiments at eating fish are yielding results with the Trout I tried being equally yummy. It’s a strange place is The Karczma…a cross-between a country retreat inside a community centre, but it works. It doesn’t try and be hip, which in itself probably makes it the coolest place to eat in the city. The location is a bit out of the way, but if you’re travelling from Moor Street station, it’s a few minutes walk away.

P1210048Outside the city, Brum excels in its suburbs. Taking mum out for lunch in King’s Heath I came across two excellent cafes; Maison Mayci is a gorgeous venue for food and cake and while I never got the chance to sample the lunch, I tried one of their pear and almond cakes which was excellent, and the pistachio eclair was a revelation. A few minutes walk was Kitchen Garden Café where I had the hash brows with chorizo and egg. The presentation wasn’t great but it tasted brilliant. Mum had a farmyard of a full English and Ryan had Welsh rarebit, not that the waiter had a clue what it was. The venue was a mixture of garden centre, a shop selling lots of lovely things and the café, plus an outdoor seating area surrounded by plants that makes you forget you’re in a busy town.

I’ll never say Brum is the world’s most beautiful city, or it’s worthy of a week-long visit but it’s a completely underestimated gem of a city with more to offer than most realise, with excellent transport links to pretty places like Stratford and Warwick. It’s high time people stopped saying they won’t go to a place they don’t know at all. Hey, if the New York Magazine is praising it, it’s worth a peek. Oh, and Malala loves it.

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A little trip to…Brighton

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As you walk down Brighton’s pier, you enter a realm that time forgot – or pretended it forgot but actually loves ‘cos it’s secretly ace – The Dome! Inside this dome are games for the stingy (me) and the nostalgic. Alongside the Air Hockey which I lost 7-0 to the 2p and 10p slots, I found myself loving the sheer memories these arcades brought back to me; only, as a kid we never went anywhere like Brighton. I do remember being utterly miserable somewhere like Clacton pier as my parents pushed me onto a swing ride of death that seemed to jut out into the grey murky sea on a tremendously foggy day. As a kid, my seaside memories evoke terror and dread. As an adult, my seaside resort memories are a mixture of sadness for the loss of the glory days and an enjoyment of these innocent arcades, scalding cups of tea and constant fearful glances at vengeful Seagulls.

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In the Pier’s dome, the 10p slots only took old 10p pieces, as the new ones are too thick. It’s almost a metaphor for Brighton in 2013.  The city might like to think it’s the coolest of the seaside resorts, but it’s still steeped in the past and it’s all the better for it. In fact, as soon as we arrived at the train station and bagged our M&S mojitos – hello you sweet, strong beauty – there was a city of two tales on display, from the football fans and ever-ready coppers to the dual protest outside a shop about Israeli’s making soda stream on Palestinian territory, accompanied by pro-Israeli’s and their own leaflets. Whatever is going on with soda-stream, I don’t think anyone in Britain is going to be cracking open the bottle of 99% fizz and 1% disappointment anytime soon.

As we headed towards the beach we went for Fish and Chips at Bankers, which did a cracking cod and chips for a fiver. The chips were moreish and the fish was a delight…but why should this be anything out of the ordinary? Sadly, Brighton seems to have a fair few chippies that rely on their location rather than their ability to cook. Bankers might be a little out of the way of the town centre, but it’s worth the extra 10 minutes walk.

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As we headed towards the beach, it seemed remarkably quiet for a glorious late summer’s day, but a look on the map shows we were just outside the main beach area, around the lawns near the Kingsway, itself just a stroll away from the first of the many restaurants along the beach front leading past the hulk of the old pier. As you head towards the remaining pier, everything gets busier with throngs outside the usual chain bars and clubs pumping out questionable music even in the afternoon. Happily it’s not all hen do’s and staggering stags; the Artists Quarter offers arches full of local art and the quality I saw as I passed seemed high though I was rushing to see watery creatures at the Sealife Centre.

I do like to be beside the seaside

I don’t make a habit of visiting aquariums, but as teachers had a free entry in August, I was all up for it and the visit reminded me of how bizarre nature is. One fishy thing was just a block of muscle that presumably spends its life opening its mouth and hoping for some food to just appear, there were the cute little worms that pop up from the sand to stare and then the starfish. They may look cute but they eat their food by popping one of their many legs into the shell of their prey, prying it open and inserting their stomach into the hole in the shell. Then they liquidate the poor creature and suck it all up. I used to have a colleague who ate like this and it’s not a pretty sight.

At the Sealife centre I saw lots of Sharks not biting the heads off anything and it just reminded me that the whole world is a fraud. I wanted to see tanks of blood and maybe a giant squid attack. The sharks seemed pretty amiable but the Octopus’ were the coolest thing in the whole aquarium. In a quirky twist, the Sealife people decided to hurl a bunch of kids toys in the Octopus tank, perhaps to remind us how clever they are. That, or a mother really wanted rid of her kid’s toys.

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Post-aquarium we headed back to the sea, ran about in the sea until the pebbles hurt too much and retired to a pub in Kemp Town. After falling in love with a Pug and drinking some average wine, we emerged to darkness and into a takeaway Pizza paradise called Pizzaface. We had the Alberto, with Salami and Pancetta and fell into a bliss known only by crack addicts and people who just found an amazing pizza place. It was so damn fine, it requires a trip back to Brighton – no hard thing as Brighton’s charms grow on me every time I visit. It’s maybe not as cool as it thinks, a local quoted Nick Cave’s assertion that it was a culture desert, hen do’s were terrifying all in their wake, but it’s still a great place to visit.

Post-apocalyptic beach adventure!

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Being of sound body and mind, I found it desirable to visit Dungeness nature reserve on a hazy spring day. The journey there was a testament as to why people drive cars! I got a tube to St Pancras, a Javelin train (so smooth! so quick!) to Ashford, where I was born, and then a slow train to Rye. This was followed by a lovely lunch and cheeky half pint at The Ship Inn before a bus to Lydd, followed by another bus to Lydd-on-sea.

From here, we were able to head to the enormous and frankly, weird, beach which headed down to the sweet humming symphony of Dungeness Nuclear Power station! Enjoy the pics!!

Rye – gorgeous

What Rye could boast in the timeless beauty of Britain in Spring, Lydd-on-sea and the nature reserve gave back in bleakness and intrigue.

Lots and lots of abandoned stuff on the beach as far as the eye can see

The old justapositionaroony trick

Any idea what these tiny mini rails are for? Did they carry boats?

This reminds of the second album by the Longpigs. What a brilliant caravan!

Ahhh, lighthouse family!

This article in the Guardian inspired me to visit Dungeness in the first place!