Canal tour of Birmingham

These days I don’t get back to Birmingham all that often. However, we were in the area over the Christmas break so I took the opportunity to visit the city centre. The weather was freezing (there was still snow lying on the ground in the suburbs) but the sun was shining and the light was perfect for photography, and I wanted to try out my new camera on some of the sights. Most of all, I wanted shots of the area around Gas Street Basin, which is where large chunks of my new novel ‘Gravy Train’ are based.

And I wasn’t disappointed. I wandered all over the city centre, snapping away, and ended up at the back of the International Convention Centre, where Brindley Place meets Broad Street and where the canal network suddenly blossoms into the vast and picturesque Gas Street Basin.

It’s an amazing sight at the best of times, and very unexpected for the centre of a city that sadly, doesn’t have the best reputation for heritage, architecture, or anything much else. It’s not a reputation it deserves, as you can see from some of these photos. The area around Gas Street has recently been tidied up and the wonderful juxtaposition of old and new buildings, bridges, wharves, hoists, tower blocks and walkways gives it an atmosphere that’s hard to find anywhere else.

And if you believe the events in ‘Gravy Train’, it’s perfect for hiding the odd body or two as well!

Here’s a taster of the scenery:

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Gas Street Basin through the Broad Street bridge. The main thoroughfare of Broad Street, complete with Victorian buildings, runs straight across the top of this bridge; if you’re walking along the street you’d hardly know this was there.

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Picturesque canal-side buildings – many turned into bars and restaurants – line the towpath, which as I mention in ‘Gravy Train’ is edged in places by no more than a line of different coloured bricks.

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A view across the barges to the old Canal House (complete with hoisting gear) and some of the city’s swankier office blocks.

I took a whole heap of photos of other parts of the city and will hopefully share those over the next few weeks.

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Beautiful pubs

I wouldn’t normally associate the word ‘beautiful’ with a pub, but actually some of them are amazing buildings, whether chocolate-box thatch in the depths of the countryside, or brick and tile edifices in our cities.

The BBC has an interesting piece today about some of the best, which have either been newly listed or had their listing upgraded by English Heritage.

I’m delighted (of course!) to see several from Birmingham on the list.  But baffled that The Bartons Arms in Aston doesn’t seem to feature.  I was lucky enough to visit it once, during a road-show for an old job, and I can say hand on heart that it’s one of the most gorgeous interiors, pub or otherwise, that I’ve ever been in.  Virtually every surface inside is covered in expensive Victorian Minton tiles; there are old light fittings sprouting from every wall; and the bar is a magnificent timber edifice that wouldn’t be out of place in a stately home.  I can only assume it wasn’t included because it’s already listed as Grade II* status.  This is the second highest ranking possible and only buildings of real national importance (the Tower of London, say) are listed any higher so presumably it couldn’t be upgraded any more than it already is.  It would have been nice to see it mentioned, though…

The all-new New Street Station

So, the all-singing all-dancing brand new station-plus-shopping-centre, re-labelled ‘Grand Central’, is due to open on 20 September.  Great news for the city, no doubt, and for the thousands of commuters who use the station every day, and who have been shunted from pillar to post, from gantry to back alley, while the work has been grinding on.

Judging by the artists impression, the outside will be every bit as impressive as any massive new big-city development needs to be.  The inside, though, might be a different story.  Last time I saw it, a few months ago, it was all rather depressing.  Fair enough, the works hadn’t yet been finalised, but they were finished enough to see what the end result was likely to be.  And it wasn’t prepossessing.  In fact, the planners seem to have managed to take a dark, dingy, dated and desperately crowded 1970s concourse-cum-shopping centre, and suck all the charm and life out of it.

Yes.  That really is possible.  Where there were shops (albeit small and rather scruffy) there now seem to be miles of blank, empty, concrete corridors with nothing much travelling along them except an icy draught.  The lighting is stark, the signage poor to non-existent, and all landmarks have been swept away into a sterile open space that could exist at any airport in the world.  Except this isn’t an airport, it’s a city centre shopping mall.  It’s supposed to attract people indoors to, you know, shop.  If it stays like that, people won’t so much be flocking in to the shops as flocking outwards to find the nearest exit.

Of course it may all change once they get some more shops open, including a vast new John Lewis anchor store.  I really hope so.  Because at the moment it’s about as attractive as a concrete nuclear bunker.  And what a waste of £650 million that will have been….

A Bridge Too Far

I’m putting the last few flourishes to a brand new novella, A Bridge Too Far, which is an unconventional noir escapade set around the back streets and canals of Birmingham.  (Hence the sudden appearance of the new header image, which I thought was rather appropriate.)

It’s an area I know quite well, having lived in the city for several years.  In the old days, it was strictly a no-go area of dark back alleys, litter-infested canals, strange people and sudden, violent encounters.  Muggings, drunkenness and begging were rife; the streets were smeared with a disgusting mixture of vomit and stale beer; and all in all you really didn’t want to hang around.

Then, in the 1990s, vast acres of old streets were cleared and the whole area refurbished, rebuilt, and generally spruced up.  Thanks to the proximity of the entertainment quarter along Broad Street there’s still the occasional drunken fight, but with the opening of the Symphony Hall, National Indoor Arena, Sealife Centre, and various posh shops and restaurants, the whole area is pretty much unrecognisable.

Even better, the developers left many of the more interesting old buildings in place, so there’s an eclectic mix of old and new which adds to the atmosphere.  After dark on a summer night, the canals and basins ring to the sound of laughter, pounding music and the chink of glassware.  But go at a quieter time and you can still find surprising tranquillity amongst the lock gates and boats.