Europe 1999 ???????????

My kind of town

The first B of the B&B, the bed, was very comfy, and we slept well. The second B was a great big artery blocking cholesterol bomb of the full English variety. Thoroughly delicious, and the ladies serving it were marvellously friendly, and promised to call an ambulance if anybody collapsed with heart failure. They had the kind of Midlands accents that reminded me of the old TV adaptation of Adrian Mole.

As planned, we met Ian, who we would come to know by his nickname, "Jelfie", and piled into a bus bound for the city centre.

I often rave on about Telly Savalas and the voiceovers he did for films in the seventies promoting various English cities for business and tourism. The pictures would show the grey boxes and motorways of what passed for good town planning back in those days, and Telly would wax lyrical about how marvellous it all was.

He would never actually appear in shot, and it was pretty obvious from watching them that he’d done the voiceovers from a long way away; probably at home by the pool in Miami, or somewhere like that. In fact it was doubtful that he’d ever even considered going to any of these places. But he’d sign off with an enthusiastic "So long <city name> – you’re my kind of town!"

Clive James showed a number of these promo films on his show a few years ago. And I’d swear one of them was for Birmingham, promoting its terrifically rectangular grey office blocks and cold grey arterial roads as the best thing in Europe since Spam.

Happily for the citizens and visitors of Birmingham, that’s changed. They’ve seen the light. The city’s getting open spaces, the canals are being re-developed, the ugly ring road is being moved underground, and the grey office blocks are being torn down in favour of groovy curved and colourful architecture. And I think that’s what most English people don’t realise: Birmingham isn’t grey any more; it doesn’t smell, and its streets are bustling with people.

The benefit of being shown around the place by Ian, a very friendly soul who is actually a professional tour guide (heck, here’s a plug for his web site – next time you’re organising a trip to that part of the world and have no idea where anything is, drop him a line) was that he knew where everything was, how much it all cost, who designed it, why it was there, what had gone wrong when they built it, and so on and so forth. We tested him later that day when Isaac announced in his usual abrupt manner that he needed a toilet. "Ian, where’s the nearest toilet?" Without hesitation he pointed up some steps. "Right there, it costs 10p". And there it was, well concealed inside an advertising column.

So we roamed about the canals, through the convention centre, around Victoria Square (England seems to have almost as many things named after Queen Victoria as the United States has named after George Washington) and the museum, and along the city streets. We boarded a double-decker bus, and grabbing the optimum tourist seats (front seats on the top deck) rode to another part of Edgbaston, that is, a part of Edgbaston which didn’t contain our B&B. We went past the cricket ground for which Edgbaston is best known at home, and wandered around some gardens and had lunch.

While waiting for another bus back to the city centre, L performed one of the lightning fast nappy changes on Jeremy that she could well become famous for, on a narrow sloping bench in the bus shelter. A true feat of speed and balance. The bus came a minute or two later, and we headed back to Corporation Street, and then down to the brand-spanking new and very colourful Birmingham Metro, though someone from Melbourne such as myself could be forgiven for thinking it was just a tram.

We boarded the tram, err Metro and took a joyride, wondering how long it would take the locals to get sick of the automated voice announcing the current and next stops at every station.

We ended up in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, where all the jewellers hang out, which makes me wonder if they have proportionately more armed robberies in that area. Just a thought. Then we caught another bus back into the city centre and found a lovely little cafe to have afternoon tea. Or afternoon hot chocolate in my case.

A stroll up to Victoria place and back through the convention centre, then the kids had a short play in a park behind it. Then we started thinking about looking for dinner. It was getting dark and had started raining at this point, but we didn’t have to walk far before we found Pizza Express, which from the name sounds like a cheap fast skanky pizza place, but as it turns out is a medium-priced quite nice pizza place. Pizza for the second night in a row? Why not – we were on holiday!

By the time dinner was over, it had stopped raining, and we caught a bus most of the way back to the B&B, getting off a little early to drop past the shops and buy a newspaper. Ian showed us a back way to the B&B, which took us past a strange little tower built in a previous century for unknown purposes, which together with another nearby may (or may not have; we may never know for sure) have inspired J.R.R.Tolkien, a local lad, to write the Lord Of The Rings-series book "The Two Towers". See, if you didn’t have a tour guide (or at least a fairly detailed book) in tow, how on Earth would you learn such a thing?

We thanked Ian profusely for the day, and promised if he ever got down to Melbourne that we’d give him a tour of some of our local sights, though undoubtedly with less reliable accompanying trivia.

By Daniel Bowen

Transport blogger / campaigner and spokesperson for the Public Transport Users Association / professional geek.
Bunurong land, Melbourne, Australia.
Opinions on this blog are all mine.