Birmingham winner of the Commonwealth Games: what tourists need to know

Impressions of the 2022 Commonwealth Games host city, Birmingham. Video / Thomas Bywater

Birmingham, “B-Town”, the heart of the English Midlands. The host city of the Commonwealth Games has stepped onto the podium of a major sporting event transformed. After 11 days of athletics, one can’t help but wonder how they managed such a feat.

The rambling outsider has emerged from the back of the pack as a serious contender for Britain’s coolest city. I am very serious.

So what has changed to reinvigorate this Canal Capital, once shunned for being “dull as ditch water”?

For ages, Birmingham was the undisputed second largest city in the UK.

It served as the hub at the center of a network of canals that stretched across the UK like the legs of a spider. The riches of the world could be found on a fleet of narrow boats, which criss-crossed the waterways. Iron foundries ignited the tactile paper of the Industrial Revolution, coating buildings with a layer of coal soot. “Black Country” became a term that sparked pride in the hearts and emphysema in the lungs of Midlanders.

There is a local myth that dates back to this period. It inspired the stories of “Rip Van Winkle” and “Iron Man” by local metal chef Ozzy Osborne: a man falls asleep under a tree and wakes up, decades later unable to recognize his surroundings. For many Midlanders, the experience must not have been far away. Birmingham has gone from a bucolic market town to smokestacks and foundries in a generation.

Victoria Square: The host city of the Commonwealth Games, Birmingham, has challenged the preconceptions of tourists.  Photo / Thomas Bywater
Victoria Square: The host city of the Commonwealth Games, Birmingham, has challenged the preconceptions of tourists. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Brum has been through a lot, fast. Yet over the past few decades, it feels like the city is going through an extended second siesta.

Since the 80s, the Bummies have ironically called their home the “Venice of the North” – although you were more likely to find an abandoned shopping cart than a vaporetto in the Digbeth Branch Canal.

The post-industrial slumber saw Birmingham overtaken by Manchester in terms of population and perhaps cultural status. For most tourists in the UK it has completely slipped off the radar.

So when a billion viewers watched the opening ceremony of the 22nd Commonwealth Games, it was a revelation. We were given a vision of a weathered city beyond Rip Van Winkle’s wildest dreams.

Black Sabbath Bridge: Birmingham's heavy metal heritage is worn with pride.  Photo / Thomas Bywater
Black Sabbath Bridge: Birmingham’s heavy metal heritage is worn with pride. Photo / Thomas Bywater

The giant, mechanical Raging Bull, first seen at the opening ceremony, has established itself as the country’s most popular free attraction. Stationed in Centenary Square, his daily displays, glowing eyes and 17-tonne crane-mounted mechanics have appeared in hundreds of thousands of selfies. By popular demand, Birmingham is now looking for a permanent home to keep the 10-metre-tall mobile sculpture.

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Brum is back on the world map and in the imagination of athletes and tourists.

To quote Ozzy: “Iron man lives again!”

The host city of the Games, Birmingham, might be the coolest city in the UK this summer - no bull!  Photo / Thomas Bywater
The host city of the Games, Birmingham, might be the coolest city in the UK this summer – no bull! Photo / Thomas Bywater

Word in the street

There was a cultural revolution in Brum on the scale of that of the 1700s. So what rekindled the fires of the Black Country?

It is not advisable to set foot in the city limits and Small Heath without paying homage to a certain organized crime syndicate. Peaky Blinders are everywhere. The hugely successful period drama about 1920s gangsters in the Midlands is hard to ignore. They’ve done the impossible – to make flat caps and the Brummie accent sexy again. Not a small thank you to Cillian Murphy.

He also transformed the Black Country Living Museum from a provincial museum and destination for reluctant school trips into Birmingham’s hottest ticket. The 11 acres of preserved canals and buildings host sold-out 20s events in September and November.

Sam Neill on the set of Birmingham gangster film Peaky Blinders, filmed at the Black Country Living Museum.  Picture/File
Sam Neill on the set of Birmingham gangster film Peaky Blinders, filmed at the Black Country Living Museum. Picture/file

Digbeth, the city’s creative quarter, has also seen a boom. By order of Steven Knight – a new BBC studio is being built in the Typhoo Tea Works – to create some more Midlands mythology on Chicago’s typewriters.

It’s a loud screaming drama with a Black Country accent, but it’s not the only story that belongs in town.

Amerah Saleh is the “voice of Brum” – or at least the Commonwealth Games.

The spoken world entertainer has invited the world to Birmingham, performing at the handover ceremony at the Gold Coast 2018. In the four years since she has followed the torch relay around the world during his long 294-day trip around the world and recorded voice-overs. for 2022 games coverage.

“If you were in one of the stadiums and heard a voice explaining the rules, that’s me.”

His “Tourist in My City” was a poem that invited visitors to challenge themselves and explore. From Queensland Beach to Brum, it was all about getting ready – telling visitors they might have to think a bit to find the real Birmingham.

Birmingham poet Amerah Saleh accompanied the Queen's Torch to Commonwealth Games countries, spreading her love for Brum.  Photo / West Midlands Growth, Supplied
Birmingham poet Amerah Saleh accompanied the Queen’s Torch to Commonwealth Games countries, spreading her love for Brum. Photo / West Midlands Growth, Supplied

“There’s an old joke from the 60s that’s still true today: ‘Birmingham will be great, when it’s over.'”

It is a maze of canals, tunnels, old warehouses and quays. Although 250 years after the industrial revolution, everything seems to be a work in progress. At the end of a high-speed rail link from London, HS2, the city is a riot of roadworks and construction at the best of times.

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“We’re the goofy town,” she nods.

Awkward City: The Bull Ring adjoins St Martin's Church in central Birmingham.  Photo / Thomas Bywater
Awkward City: The Bull Ring adjoins St Martin’s Church in central Birmingham. Photo / Thomas Bywater

“It’s the fact of our infrastructure – it’s quite hilly. You walk around the city and you can find pockets of different architecture and cultures along the canals.”

An army of volunteers in gray gaming tracksuits have been enlisted to guide lost tourists from Stratford Road in Somali Town, to Victoria Place, the arenas and the fan zones.

“We’re not fake. We’re nice whether the games are here or noteworthy,” she insists. It’s like every nation has home support.

It’s something she’s seen as she follows the Queen’s baton around the 72 associated countries that enter athletes for the games.

“I was in Dubai with the Batton earlier this year to visit the Dubai Expo village – I loved the concept, they literally built a pavilion to celebrate all the cultures of the world.

“We don’t need to build a global village. It’s already here, we just need to join it.”

Kilo Ziro: A zero waste bar and faucet room.  Photo / Thomas Bywater
Kilo Ziro: A zero waste bar and faucet room. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Brum’s best art

Digbeth – a huge area of ​​old warehouses teeming with art, music and trendy bars. “You will find it in Digbeth,” she said.

The Custard Factory – a former Birdseye Powdered Custard factory – has been transformed into a hub, containing studios and quirky companies like Kilo Ziro, a zero-waste bar that lets customers sample and take their favorite drink from a raft of local beer, gin and wines from micro producers. Yes, it’s plugged in.

A work in progress: The Kennedy Memorial in trendy Digbeth overlooks the city's infrastructure works.  Photo / Thomas Bywater
A work in progress: The Kennedy Memorial in trendy Digbeth overlooks the city’s infrastructure works. Photo / Thomas Bywater

Brum’s best food

Ladypool Road – The Balti Triangle road is said to be the birthplace of Anglo-Indian dish. A mile and a quarter of storefronts and restaurants dedicated to Southeast Asian cuisine, Ladypool has found room for many other foods and fusion cuisines.

“Just off Ladypool Road there is a place called Tipu Sultan which has the best Indian in Birmingham.” A bold claim.

The best day trip in Brum

The Malvern Hills – While many day-trippers take the 50-minute train to Stratford-upon-Avon to visit the birthplace of Midlands playwright Bill Shakespeare, Amerah says to avoid the crowds and head west . The spa town is home to the Queen’s favorite water and an imposing 13km ridge of Iron Age forts.

“They are absolutely gorgeous on a good day – go get some water.”

The Black Country Living Museum in north Birmingham became a surprise hit after the Peaky Blinders TV series.  Photo / West Midlands Growth, Supplied
The Black Country Living Museum in north Birmingham became a surprise hit after the Peaky Blinders TV series. Photo / West Midlands Growth, Supplied

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