Category Archives: West Midlands

Birmingham

As a wannabe historian, I’m wary of making pre-judgments of people, places or events based on paltry, secondhand information. It wasn’t always thus: time was that I was quick to judge places that I’d never been, in particular, and for the sake of winding up the (later-to-be) wife, Birmingham came in for quite a bit of derision. It’s a city of ring roads and concrete, I argued, like a town planner in the 1960’s tripped over and spilled all his tools onto a relief map. It’s all sinister canals and derelict factories, mid-table football teams and easily-ridiculed accents.

As it turns out, since moving to the vicinity, I’m quite a fan of sinister canals and derelict factories and I’m quite enjoying the accent. I draw the line at Aston Villa mind. I live in the Black Country, it should be noted – on a local scale, there’s plenty of rivalry there. But when it’s the Midlands against one of the other regions, those from the conurbation tend to be pretty proud of their big city. Not proud like the self-aggrandising Liverpool, and not the parka and monkey legs swagger of Manchester; Brum has always been strong on the self-deprecatory humour and it means that despite being the second city of the nation Birmingham is more often a figure of fun than a serious contender for a global city.

It’s a pity. I, like Telly Savalas, have become a big fan. Like him I can appreciate the Aston Expressway and New Street station of course, but to be honest they’re as much as most people know – or want to know – about the city. If you’ve never taken the time to get to know the city, you may well associate Birmingham with mind-numbing delays through Spaghetti Junction, on the M6 to anywhere else. Or you might have tried to negotiate the equally epic M5/M6 junction in Walsall, or got lost around the ring road. Birmingham is Motor City UK for sure: its wide roads matching the vast car factories such as the now-departed Longbridge plant; not, perhaps, the most elegant city to approach. That’s true by rail as well – entering New Street Station (even/especially after the recent renovations) is an ennervating experience as you descend into black tunnels, all watched over by brutalism’s cheerless eye.

That’s Birmingham – centre of the Midlands, on the middle of your journey to somewhere else. But Birmingham’s joys are just different to those of other cities, not less. Wander a while in the Jewellery Quarter if its gas street lights and old-fashioned workshops you’re after. Explore the canals which radiate in all directions from the hub beneath Broad Street – you’ll find waterside living and pavement restaurants every bit as pleasant as anything London can offer. Bit of culture? Try the (free) museum, the festivals in Moseley, the coffee and fine dining in the Colmore Row area, the balti triangle in Sparkbrook, join a revolution in Handsworth. Take your pick of monumentalist Victorian architecture, of Brutalism, of Georgian, of Tolkein-ian or of Jacobean. For as long as it’s been a city, Birmingham has been a centre of Enlightenment and industry, radicalism and controversy. It’s shaped in the popular mind by the bulldozed concrete behemoths of the city centre and the Birmingham Six, but in reality it’s more diverse and more interesting than you could hope to discover.

In fact, as I understand it, Birmingham has not only become a foodie destination but a shoppers one also. The Bullring is no longer the concrete hulk where a young Godber fell in love over jars of pickled onions; it’s high-end and fancy. It’s not to everyone’s taste mind – Birmingham’s alt.culture finds itself increasingly marginalised into the Oasis centre, for example, while Reddington’s Rare Records and Swordfish end up having to relocate – but if you like carrying giant paper bags with string handles, you’ll probably do well here. One area for improvement is charity shops. Historically there’s always been a handful, but more recently I could have had no justification to write about Brum at all. That was until the arrival of two British Heart Foundation stores in close proximity to one another. The first is a large, well-stocked and – unusually for BHF – they seem to have got the floorspace designers in so there’s far fewer “scuse me”s needed to get around the shop. The second shop is the really handy one. It’s huge for a start – possibly the biggest charity shop I’ve ever been in, occupying the site of the former Virgin Records store. And it’s full to the brim with every kind of homeware, from sofas to digital radios, fridges to rugs, bookshelves to spin dryers.

Birmingham is, sadly, not much of a charity shop destination. The suburbs are another matter, but the town centre is a bit too swish these days. These two BHF shops though are great and surprisingly well worth an investigation – much like Brum itself.

Find: Birmingham @ Google Maps
Get there: easy by any means – try out the new New Street station if you dare, but I prefer Moor Street.
Consume with: a vast range here, depending on your taste or budget, running from the awesome 99p baguette shops, to meat-heavy Brazilian grill Rodizio Rico, to the Balti Triangle, to Purnell’s, to the Flapper on the canal.
Visit: free museums? The centre of Britain’s waterway network? Bit of art at the MAC? Bit of animal at Cannon Hill Park?
Overall rating: three washing machines

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Filed under 3/5, West Midlands

Stourbridge

Arches by Nickster 2000, used under a Creative Commons license. Click pic for link.

Arches by Nickster 2000, used under a Creative Commons license. Click pic for link.

Today, you’ll find Stourbridge as the westernmost compass point of a sprawling West Midlands conurbation, butting right up against some glorious Staffordshire/Worcestershire/Shropshire countryside. But it wasn’t always so: the Black Country isn’t like London with its endless 1930’s ribbon developments radiating out from the centre; rather, each town is a definable centre, each with a purpose (at least, orginally). Cradley is called the home of chain-making, Walsall’s famous for its leather trade, Wolverhampton for its steel. Stourbridge is no different and became, particularly during the nineteenth century, a world centre for the glass industry after significant Huguenot in-migration. The twenty-first century is a very different era and the Black Country is becoming a post-industrial society – though certainly not out of choice. Stourbridge retains an artisan-led glass quarter (around Kingswinford and Amblecote), but today finds itself as much a dormitory town for Birmingham, just the other side of the M5.

Stourbridge holds a particularly happy place in this blogger’s heart, however: it’s where he and his Charity Shop Partner (slash wife) have just moved, so chances are you’ll be hearing plenty more from the West Midlands and its environs over the next few months. Its location right on the edge of the countryside makes it a very appealing place to live – as accessible for the urban delights of Birmingham as for the craggy heights of Shropshire or the Malverns. If we fancy a breath of fresh air these days, we don’t have to drive to a gloomy Essex coast or wander through a crowded Epping Forest: we can ascend the overlooking Clent Hills and have our breath removed by a view spanning to Wales or the Cotswolds.

But that’s enough about me – more importantly, this is a charity shop shopping blog and has its priorities. Happily, Stourbridge punches pretty well. In a less touchy-feely era of civic government than our own, a Nascar styled ring road (see below) was built around the town centre and it’s within the ring road that you’ll find the bulk of the town’s shops. Note though – there are other charity shops scattered around, notably a couple in Wollaston that I may or may not touch on another time. Within the pretty attractive town centre I count a good nine charity shops as well as various other amenities and local shops. You wouldn’t come to Stourbridge for a day’s shopping experience any more, as you wouldn’t go to Dudley, Brierley Hill, Halesowen, or any other community within the catchment area of the monolithic Merry Hill centre, so be warned of that.

There’s a stretch of charity shops on the High Street including a pretty sweet and not-too-expensive Oxfam: we located a pile of cheap Jo Nesbo books and, happily, three Granta magazines for £1.50, which are now populating the landing bookcase. Having brokenheartedly sold several hundred books in the move, we now appear to be doing our best to counteract that. There’s also Barnardos, Marie Curie, Acorn’s Hospice and British Heart Foundation, and best of all the huge Mary Stevens Hospice Shop, fundraising for the hospice which is located in Stourbridge itself. There’s a second huge Mary Stevens shops in Victoria Passage, a sneaky cut also containing cafs, restaurants and little boutiquey shops. This Mary Stevens, as with the main one, sells plenty of furniture as well as clothes and books – the one on the high street has an entire upstairs bookshop. Look out for cast iron fireplaces and patio sets. On Lower High Street you’ll find Cats Protection League, just up from King Edward VI college – educators of Robert Plant and Samuel Johnson, no less. Then back up Market Street to find Happy Staffie Rescue and Scope. That just leaves the very mid-century Ryemarket Centre where you’ll find Waitrose and Smiths and the like, as well as PDSA and Salvation Army.

While Stourbridge is hardly remarkably beautiful or noteworthy, it turns out that it’s a very pleasant place to wile away some time. It’s a bustling little town centre with some gorgeous buildings – King Eds, the Town Hall and St Thomas’ church are all very attractive. It makes a great stop on a day out to the country as well – it’s only a short hop from here to Bridgnorth or the Wyre Forest. Best of all, a whole heap of charity shops – if this was the Grandstand vidiprinter, that would be 11 (eleven).

Find: Stourbridge Google Maps
Get there: Plenty of buses end at the bus station, and you also have the shortest branch line in Europe terminating at Stourbridge Town with its funny little trains.
Consume with: There are plenty of coffee and food places around – there’s a Caffe Nero, and The Well looks quite nice. If you’re willing to expand your horizons, there’s many pubs doing a wallet-friendly £3.69 carvery (The Old White Horse), some doing some lovely food in a lovely location (The Vine, Kinver) and of course, plenty of curry (I recommend Balti Bazaar in Lye).
Visit: The Glass Quarter is full of museums and things to do – the Red House Cone is basically a big red cone for making glass, and if glass is your thang, you’ll find plenty of interest at Broadfield House or the Ruskin Glass Centre. If not, take a wander along the canal or to the lovely Mary Stevens Park.
Overall rating: five antique fireplaces

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Filed under 5/5, West Midlands

Halesowen

Just like a concrete spider by abrinksky, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Just like a concrete spider by abrinksky, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

My visit to Halesowen was somewhat unusual for me: an edgy, nervous visit, which was nothing to do with the town itself; and stranger still, a solitary excursion. My loyal wedded wife would normally accompany me everywhere and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the reason we were anywhere near Halesowen at all (hardly a glamorous destination itself) was for an interview for her and that involved me exploring the area and doing plenty of pacing around.

Fortunately, I know how to entertain myself around charity shops, and Halesowen has a whole slew of ’em. These are focused on the (very) 1960s pedestrianised shopping precinct which hardly does justice to Halesowen’s history: at the time of its mention in the Domesday Book Halesowen was larger than Birmingham and was known as Hala until it was gifted to David Owen (not the SDP one) in the twelfth century – hence Halesowen. It grew from a market town to a thriving industrial centre on the outskirts of the Black Country coalfield, being particularly noted as a centre of nail manufacture (not quite as thrilling as Cradley, home of chain-making, just up the road, but still good). It remains very much in post-industrial no-mans-land:  a new bus station development and Asda hardly make up the ground in this bleak, concrete outpost of the West Midlands.

The conglomeration of charity shops makes sense then. First to be noted are Age UK and Beacon Centre for the Blind, opposite the churchyard. Fairly standard in appeal, the shops set the tone for the town: the produce is reasonably priced, the shops are reasonably busy and the staff are reasonably friendly. Very reasonable. I parked above Asda and found these two first because I didn’t really know where I was going, but it’s a fair way to enter the town: turn right down the slope into the precinct for the full slew. On your right will be Cancer Research (closed on the Thursday morning of my visit) and to the left Acorns Hospice and British Heart Foundation. Further along the street you’ll find a large and well-stocked British Red Cross shop, near the entrance to the ugly Cornbow Centre which dominates the town centre. The remaining trio of charity shops are on Peckingham Street, all in a row: Scope and Mary Stevens Hospice bookend a large Save the Children, the best of the bunch in Halesowen (and I’m not just saying that because the aforementioned wife used to work there).

It’s a pretty bleak outpost, as I say: Halesowen reminded me of, say, Basildon or Waltham Cross, with the epic range of charity shopping and painfully dated architecture of the latter, in particular. If you have an hour to spend it’s probably a profitable place to sniff out a bargain, as long as you’re not in it for quaintness…

Find: Halesowen @ Google Maps
Get there:
Old Hill station or many buses
Consume with: various shoddy delights – my cappucino in Coffee2 was OK, or thereabouts
Visit: nothing much in Halesowen, but make a break for the Clent Hills, just down the road.
Overall rating: three Stephen Kings

  

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Filed under 3/5, West Midlands

Harborne

Harborne Farmers Market, from Pete Lewis' photostream under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Harborne Farmers Market, from Pete Lewis' photostream under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Harborne is, I suppose, the West Midlands equivalent of Muswell Hill or Crouch End, or multitudinous other gentrified districts. More ethnically homogenous than, say, Bearwood or Smethwick just up the road, your typical Harborne resident is more academic from the nearby (and huge) University of Birmingham, or medical staff from one of the several large hospitals close by, those that can afford a little classier than Selly Oak. Harborne town centre is fairly innocuous and unambitious – Waitrose territory for certain – but take a quick detour into surrounding residential streets and you’ll soon see the appeal.

My auntie lives in Harborne, in a large house with a large garden, a drive and a garage, on a wide, quiet road. But if I lived there, without drifting into being an estate agent blog, I’d fall for one of the very red-brick Victorian terraces. They’re very distinct to this part of the country (believe me, I have spent enough time studying Victorian terraces of late), a burnt, dusty brick in cottage style. I’d be fairly content setting up shop there, I think. The high street is less inspiring, though not without merit, and certainly not without charity shops.

We visited a very healthy seven of the eight charity shops open on a snow-and-ice infested Harborne High Street, three days before Christmas. I say very healthy in that it was fairly miraculous that we escaped with no broken legs – apparently Birmingham is not a city that prides itself on snow clearance. But healthy and wealthy they were, most notably in the very well-stocked, very academic and literate Oxfam bookshop – overpriced as normal, but nevertheless painfully tempting. Most of the rest are, if you will, chain charity shops: British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research, Barnardos, Marie Curie and PDSA. Not that this is a problem: none was a wasted visit, with a goodly number of Stephen Kings purchased to feed a growing fetish, and a wide and varied array of tat (I say this in a friendly way: by tat I mean bric-a-brac; collector’s items; etc.).

Headway was closed, leaving only the most interesting of the bunch, Birmingham Settlement. This is a large, long shop, filled with not just cheap paperbacks and the usual assortment of clothes, but small furniture at the back, lots of picture frames and stacks of Playstations and the like. Good for a rummage.

Harborne is a pretty posh area and has a high-standing reputation as such. Many such places frown on charity shops, but Harborne seems to have embraced them, and quite right. As a result: thoroughly recommend a swoop by.

Find: Harborne @ Google Maps
Consume with: Nero as usual, but there’s the whole gamut of easy-to-understand coffee here.
Visit: The Birmingham Botanical Gardens are just down the road, and they’re plain lovely.
Overall rating: four Christmas trees

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Filed under 4/5, West Midlands

Moseley

St Mary's Church, St Mary's Row, Moseley by Elliott Brown. Click pic for flickr link.

vSt Mary's Church, St Mary's Row, Moseley by Elliott Brown. Click pic for flickr link.

For many years, my only frame of reference for Moseley was the venerable Ocean Colour Scene – truly I am a child of my time. In typical Q fashion, the band’s Moseley Shoals was named thirty-third greatest album of all time two years after its release in 1996. At that time, Moseley was quite the swinging place – although the album title was a reference to the legendary Stax studio in Memphis (somewhere altogether different to South Birmingham), I have it on excellent authority that the ‘burb was a really quite lovely place. You can see that today: some beautiful Victorian housing in Birmingham’s red brick, faded Edwardian embellishments and parks. But sadly it seems in decline to me: a quiet (alright, it was probably too early for students to be up when I visited) backwater more than a epochal, cultural hotspot.

Nevertheless, it’s another step in the rehabilitation of the West Midlands in my own consciousness. Just down the road from the exquisite Bournville, Moseley is again proof – as found in abundance in London – that the Victorians knew how to do suburbs nicely, when they chose.  Though there’s little to come to Moseley for, these days, it would be a very pleasant place in which to live and to commute into the centre of the bustling West Midlands conurbation that was just sprouting when the place was established. There are private parks,

Unless my memory is deceiving me (given the amount of statistics I’ve had to look at recently, this wouldn’t be a surprise), there were two charity shops in Moseley, both Oxfam.The ordinary Oxfam is pretty non-descript, to be honest, home to the usual array of better-than-usual bric-a-brac and overpriced secondhand clothes. Oxfam Books and Music though, as usual, is pretty excellent. Although priced with more nous than most charity shops, there’s always a worthwhile selection of things to buy. I came away with two academic texts, ostensibly for my dissertation. This was the extent of my consumer impulses in Moseley, and I don’t think I’ll feel much need to return. Who knows though?

Find: Moseley @ Google Maps
Consume with: we had a breakfast sandwich in Subway, which I don’t recommend. 
Visit:
Cannon Hill Park is right there and it looks lovely.
Overall rating: two butter dishes

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Filed under West Midlands