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Three Months in Birmingham
January 27, 2010 9:40 AM   Subscribe

On Friday I'm going to Birmingham (Sutton Coldfield) for three months (until early may) for an engineering internship. What should I know? What's the Birmingham area known for amongst Britons? What should I absolutely not miss in my down time? What social norms (at work or otherwise) might be unusual to me? What do locals do for fun? What parts of the city should I wander around in to get a sense of the place (and in which areas would doing so get me killed or served with an anti-social order)?

I'm a 21 year old American who grew up in the Virginia suburbs of DC. My mother is Belgian, so I've spent a lot of time in western Europe, but have never been to the United Kingdom outside a few Heathrow layovers.

So as not be too open ended, here are some things that come to mind, but don't limit yourself to these:

I love electronic music, particularly dubstep and electronic/experimental music in the vein of Autechre/Aphex Twin, though I'm not averse to the more typical house/trance/four to the floor stuff. I know dubstep is primarily a London thing, and plan to make the trek down as often as possible, but I'm hoping Birmingham or the surrounding areas have something to offer in that regard as well. My last.fm account is linked in my profile if you're feeling particularly motivated.

I know Birmingham industrialized very early and is still known as an industrial center. What interesting technology-related things could I see? Any worthwhile museums? Industrial architecture (or interesting buildings generally)? Abandoned factories? Factory worker row-home subdivisions ala Monty Python?

I like Indian/Carribean food, and my image of the UK features a lot of immigrants from former colonies - any exceptional places to eat or buy groceries in the Sutton Coldfield area? Any ancient stereotypical British pubs I should see? I'm looking for things I couldn't easily find in DC.

What interesting landscapes or geological features are a reasonable train ride away?

Finally, any really out-there linguistic eccentricities I should be aware of? When I think of a Birmingham (or midlands) accent I think... Ozzie Osbourne and something a entirely unlike John Lennon's accent. Is there a reference to any regional idioms or slang terms I might not be aware of from my copious BBC/Monty Python/Mitchell and Webb/Guy Ritchie film research?
posted by phrontist to Travel & Transportation around Birmingham, England (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Balti Curry, in particular the Balti Triangle
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:07 AM on January 27, 2010


Mad O'Rouke's Pie Factory and other pubs in the chain. The Crooked House.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 10:10 AM on January 27, 2010


Have a look around the Custard Factory (previously a custard factory): "Six hundred paces from the Bull Ring is The Custard Factory, Birmingham's revolutionary new arts and media quarter. Built 100 years ago it is now home to a hive of young creative companies, galleries, fine artists, independent shops and terrific restaurants. One of Birmingham's biggest nightclubs and a number of renowned live music venues are located here."

Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice (35 vs 26), they tend not to be so pretty, though they can be an interesting scape if you are interested in industrialisation and post-industrial landscapes.

Faggots.
posted by biffa at 10:31 AM on January 27, 2010


The Cadbury factory, of course!

Electronic musicwise, Birmingham is the home of Bobby Bird of The Higher Intelligence Agency. Elsewise, a somewhat-recent thread on Discogs points to some potential sources of tips for things happening in the area.
posted by rhizome at 10:54 AM on January 27, 2010


Don't wander round Handsworth at any point during the day or night.

If you're looking for an interesting museum, check out the Black Country museum. Whatever you do, though, don't suggest to a Brummie that he comes from the Black Country, or vice versa.

It might be worth having a look at the Birmingham Mail newspaper's website to get a feel for the area.
posted by Solomon at 10:54 AM on January 27, 2010


For 'Factory worker row-home subdivisions', you simply must go see the Birmingham back-to-backs (Check out other National Trust properties nearby too).

For 'ancient stereotypical British pubs', it has to be the Bartons Arms.
posted by hmca at 11:30 AM on January 27, 2010


Hey Phrontist! I live just outside of Birmingham (Dudley) and have done all my life, and I work in the city, so I know it pretty well.

Sutton Coldfield is, sadly, as boring as fuck.

A quick geographical run-through of the rest of Birmingham:

- The city centre. Used to be famous as a monument to concrete brutalism, it's recently been 'regenerated'. Everyone calls the centre of town "the bull ring" (if someone says that, they mean the exact centre of town.) The Bull Ring is both a large modern shopping centre and a geographical area.

You'll know when you're in the centre of Birmingham because it's full of big, beautiful buildings. There are two cathedrals. Also it may be a hollow monument to capitalist indulgence, but seriously dude, the Birmingham Selfridges building has to be seen to be believed.

There's two notable are galleries in Birmingham town centre: the Ikon, and the Birmingham Art Gallary. The Ikon is a small but intensely lovely modern art gallery, with a constantly changing series of exhibitions. The Birmingham Art Gallery is big, Victorian, and stuffed full of pre-Raphaelite work.

There's also several very good theatres: the Birmingham Rep is slap bang in the middle of town, it's a huge glass building impossible to miss. The Crescent Theatre is a small community run theatre that's good. There's also the Old Rep theatre, the Alexandra Theatre, and the Hippodrome Theatre, all in walking distance of the centre.

There are a lot of bars and clubs in the centre of town, but they mostly play fairly cheesy dance music and pop, and are overpriced to boot. There are a couple of good goth/metal/'alternative' pubs (Scruffy Murphys, the Swinging Sporran and Eddies) within close proximity of each other.

The main place to go to gigs/live music in the centre of town is the 02 Academy. This is at a new venue that I haven't seen, I'm still mourning the old Carling Academy/Hummingbird, which was my favourite venue in the world and recently got closed down. There are generally a good selection of bands playing and it has DJs and club nights.

The National Indoor Arena is also technically in Birmingham, but you have to take a train to get there, it's overpriced, overlarge, and has a bad rep.

If you want music I suggest going to the bits of Birmingham outside the centre.

- Digbeth. Right on the edge of the city centre (ten minutes walk from the Bull Ring and you're there.) This used to be a heavily industrialised area and is mostly full of old decomissioned factories and warehouses. It's my favourite bit of town. There's a weird ongoing semi-regeneration going on, where the old factories/warehouses are being turned into clubs and bars and art galleries and raving spaces. It's not really what you'd call 'gentrification', though.

From what you've said about music, the Custard Factory (a large club/rave area by night, weird art gallery complex by day) and the Rainbow Warehouse are your best bet. Tickets are generally about a tenner or cheaper if you get them earlier, the music's good, crowd is vibrant.

- Moseley. Maybe a mile or two outside the city centre. This is the middle class hippy area. Think green parks and health food shops. It's got a reasonable selection of good pubs and clubs. The Boar's Head sounds like the kind of music you're into. I really recommend it-- it's got this amazing smoking garden/fire escape type thing on the second floor, where you stand on wrought iron and look out over the city.

- The edges of Moseley shade into Balsall Heath, which is solidly working class. It used to be infamous as the red light district, a couple of decades ago.

- Sparkhill and Sparkbrook. Solidly working class, largely Asian areas. Maybe fifteen minutes bus ride away from the city centre. I spend most of my weekends in Sparkhill as my best friend lives there. Amazing food but nearly no bars or clubs. Sparkhill/Sparkbrook/Balsall Heath are absolutely the places to go if you like Asian food. (NB, I don't know if you know this or not, but in the UK 'Asian' largely refers to people of Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi descent, rather than people of Chinese or Japanese descent.)

- Selly Oak. Middle class and full of students. Home of the University of Birmingham. I find a boring area.

- Aston, Perry Barr, Handsworth: areas with reputations for high violence, though I've never encountered any. Aston is also home to one of Birmingham's three universities (there's Birmingham University, Birmingham City University, Aston University.) I don't know this area very well, as I've mostly stuck to Moseley, Balsall Heath, Sparkhill/Sparkbrook and Digbeth.

- The Black Country. This is not Birmingham, but it's joined to Birmingham as part of urban sprawl. The two areas have highly defined regional identities and it's a bad idea to confuse the two. The Black Country is so named because it used to have a lot of coal mining industry, which died the death of Thatcher, and because there was a lot of smoke and slag heaps around. The most notable parts of the Black Country are Dudley and Walsall. Dudley has a zoo and castle: it's a ZOO in a CASTLE. It's seriously awesome.

Dudley also has an incredibly high rate of poverty, deprivation, unemployment, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy. While you are over here there is going to be a violent riot by some members of the far right in Dudley, on the afternoon of April 4th. (I'm actually not kidding about that.)

Walsall has a really good art gallery with a large Jacob Epstein collection.

Linguistic things:

- Someone from Birmingham is a Brummie. Someone from the outlying areas (the Black Country, specifically Dudley) is a 'yam yam'. To the outside observer the differences in accent/dialect are minute, but to local people they are instantly recognisable. As has been said above: never confuse the two and never make light of the differences. (It's like walking into a pub in Hartlepool and asking 'who hung a monkey?')

- There's a local tendency which I've never noticed anywhere else in the country to drop the word "the" when describing going to a place: not "I'm going to the Custard Factory" or "I'm going to the market" but "I'm gonna go Custard Factory" or "I'm gonna go market."

- Innit.

- People often find the Brummie accent incomprehensible, but you're moving to an area where it's going to be less pronounced. As a guide, "Yow" = "you", "yam" = "you are."

Other things:

- Faggots are a kind of haggis-like food stuff. They are a delicacy of the Black Country, and most butcher shops in Dudley and environs will have signs outside reading HOME-MADE FAGGOTS. They are not common in Birmingham itself.

- In the UK, it's generally called 'football' not 'soccer'-- everyone will know what you mean when you say soccer, but people will probably think of you as more polite if you say 'football'.

The local football teams in Birmingham are the Blues (Aston Villa) and Birmingham City. The Sky Blues are a team from Coventry. People take football incredibly seriously-- if you're thinking of buying a random team shirt because you like the design and wearing it out drinking that night, check with a friend first. Often team shirts serve as political/religious shorthand. It's a very bad idea to wear a Rangers shirt to Celtic bar, for instance, and it's often not immediately obvious which pubs cater to what sort of clientele. Generally, this isn't a big problem in Birmingham, though, and I feel kind of patronising for even saying it.

- If you wear a Manchester United shirt and you're not actually from Manchester, you are automatically a complete cunt and everyone knows it. Sorry.

- IF ANYONE ASKS "WHERE'S THE SECOND CITY" DO NOT SAY "CHICAGO" AND DO NOT SAY "MANCHESTER," THIS IS IMPERATIVE. Birmingham is the Second City, as any fule know.

- Birmingham is not in the South and it is not in the North. It is in the Midlands. People take this v. seriously.

Lastly, Birmingham has a reputation for being the friendliest city in the UK. It's totally true.
posted by somergames at 11:35 AM on January 27, 2010 [11 favorites]


Wow, stellar answer somergames.

Can I also suggest that you take a trip to Warwick Castle. It's amazing. It looks like a Hollywood movie castle, but it's real.
posted by essexjan at 11:43 AM on January 27, 2010


I so envy you. I lived in Birmingham for 16 months and it was one of the best places I have ever lived. The friendship and warmth of the people of Birmingham is practically European and hardly English.

If you like Dubstep, definitely checkout Subway City in the Jewelry Quarter.
posted by parmanparman at 11:51 AM on January 27, 2010


somergames nailed it. I grew up in Lichfield, small cathedral city, good for photos to send home to the folks on how quaint the UK is. Also, like Sutton Coldfield, boring as all get out.

Train connections to the rest of the country are pretty good (if not timely) so use the opportunity to get out and about and see the surrounding area.

Oh yeah, take a raincoat as it will piss it down until May.
posted by arcticseal at 12:08 PM on January 27, 2010


Dubstep - it's not been confined to London for years and years now and there's a massive nationwide scene nowadays. Bristol is marginally closer and cheaper and has a healthy amount of electronic music too. Not sure what the squat scene is like in Birmingham, but it would be saddening and surprising if there weren't a few good parties going off every now and then.

From your last.fm, you also seem to be into a lot of generic indie stuffs and psy-trance - again, Bristol and London probably have more to offer than Birmingham here. Still, look out for Kanyini, a great underground night of psychedelic music in Brum.

Finally, the UK's a small place and has a half-decent train network - check out interesting things around the whole country, not just in the locality of Birmingham.
posted by turkeyphant at 12:21 PM on January 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


You should find it fairly easy to take a few day trips to Stratford upon Avon. Don't miss out. It's full of Shakespeare tat, but a lovely place to visit on a nice day and you can catch some RSC productions.

Kenilworth Castle should be easily accessible too.

And London's only a few hours away by train.
posted by Ziggy500 at 12:34 PM on January 27, 2010


- IF ANYONE ASKS "WHERE'S THE SECOND CITY" DO NOT SAY "CHICAGO" AND DO NOT SAY "MANCHESTER," THIS IS IMPERATIVE. Birmingham is the Second City, as any fule know.

For extra points, an alternative answer to this question is:

"London"

Works in Manchester and Birmingham too.
posted by BinaryApe at 3:13 PM on January 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


You probably already know these, but, some important English / US translations:

fag means cigarette
pants means underwear
rubber means eraser
fanny means girl's parts

Also, in the UK it is generally considered polite for newcomers to a group to hang back and wait to be introduced rather than to introduce themself.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 4:41 PM on January 27, 2010


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