Birmingham – Canals, Victorian Splendor, and a lesson in regret we will try to avoid in the future.

We arrived in England with minimal itinerary and plans beyond checking out London and the Museum, seeing our friend in York and getting to the dock before our ship sailed! There were intermittent rail and tube strikes planned during the few weeks we were there which added to the degree of difficulty associated with our no plan planning strategy. So, we decided the easiest thing was to only take direct trains and travel on the non-strike days. Birmingham got on our radar because it had a site where we could use our shiny new British Heritage Membership, it had a direct train from York, and seemed big enough to keep us entertained for a few days. Beyond that, it was going to be an adventure. We got very protective of this city we knew nothing about when the reaction folks had when we answered the question “where are you headed next?” was often “Birmingham? Really? Interesting choice, what are you going to do there?” But we did get one more enthusiastic response from the lovely woman pulling our pints at the pub – “Oohh, I love Birmingham!” When I asked what we should do there, she replied “I have no idea, I went down for an interview, had a really good meal – can’t remember where – and came back, but it was nice.” Good enough recommendation for us.

Birmingham came into prominence during the Victorian Era and a lot of the architecture shows it.
It is also a bustling, modern city and the Main Library shows it!
The monument is to Queen Victoria, and the building behind is part of an impressive block of civic and public buildings.
Our Missed Opportunity. The couple sailing away from us on that canal boat arrived at the lock as we were approaching. She got off and started doing all of the “water level management tasks” as he steered the boat through the canal. As we all waited for the lock to fill, I went over to see what their story was. They were meeting their son in Birmingham to start a longboat trip. He had recently had a hip replaced, so she was managing the locks. We offered to close the lock behind them and as they started up, they said – hopefully – “we have about 7 more locks in the next few kilometers, we’d give you a tour of the boat and a ride if you’d like to help.” And for some reason, we declined. Idiots! They weren’t to the next lock before we were kicking ourselves and wondering if we should race walk back to catch up. We didn’t, but we have spent a lot of time talking ourselves through similar situations so we’re more prepared to say yes to the next opportunity.
This is what “lock management activities” look like, and our help.
We saw several of these stations around town – they are folding electric bikes you can rent. Pretty cool!
The English Heritage Site that tempted us to go to Birmingham was a jewelry factory. It was a place where they carved forms and stamped items that were then silver plated and sold by various jewelers. This place was held by the same family for generations and was in operation from the late 1700s to the early 2000s. It was then sold to English Heritage, but the last remaining family member and company president will still show up and do tours. We didn’t have him for the guide, but it was very interesting. This picture is the display that showed the stages of making their signature candle stick.
The family kept everything, so they have pretty much every form they ever used. In fact, some group was in town to celebrate their 100th anniversary and approached the company to see if they could recreate some piece that had been done for the organization in it’s early days. Well, a little digging in the files, and some rooting around in the shelves, and yes! they could recreate the100 year old design using the original forms! The tour guide had to warn everyone that this was a very old factory, so there were lots of hazards – trip hazards, random nails, and the like – and that it was a bit dirty, because “even our dust and dirt is historic!”
The side of a canal boat, from the canal boat tour.
Another canal boat and one of many pedestrian bridges over the canals. There is also a bridge that was renamed to celebrate a famous Birmingham Group – Black Sabbath.
One of many of the original bridges used to for traffic over the canals. This is at a canal intersection, so there is a tow path below, and that bridge was part of the tow path for the canal we are on.

If you have hung in on this post this long, here is a bonus story. Liverpool has two football teams, Aston Villa and Liverpool FC. During our tour of the jewelry factory we got to the shipping department and were given the option of checking out the shipping room, but our tour guide would not be joining us. Did I mention that they basically turned over the whole place to English Heritage, and by whole place, every item, tool, record, metal shaving, dust, and office decor. Anyway, we entered the room and it was decked out in Aston Villa paraphernalia, posters, articles and player photos from previous decades. Didn’t take much to deduce that the tour guide was a Birmingham FC fan.

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