Birmingham Introduction Walking Tour (Self Guided), Birmingham

The word Birmingham derives from the Old English term "Beormingas." A Beorminga was a person who was one of "Beorma's people." Who was Beorma? Who knows? Something was always stirring around Birmingham.

In 1166, Peter de Bermingham received a charter from the King, Henry II, to build a market at his castle (Peter's castle, not Henry's). As Lord of the Manor born, Peter felt he should have a market town in his demesne. And he did and it had a Bull Ring. People could shop and bait the available bulls.

With the collapse of the de Bermingham lordship in 1547 the town experienced a time of social and economic liberty. Relationships were developed from commercial ties instead of feudal paternalism. Birmingham became a haven for mavericks.

In the 18th century Birmingham became a leading center of literature, music, arts and theatre. There was a close association of manufacturers and creative thinkers that persisted throughout the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions.

The effects of the World War II blitz were devastating. But the city has been vastly transformed. The reimagining of the Bullring Shopping Centre, the building of the Library of Birmingham and the rebirth of old industrial areas like Brindleyplace and the Mailbox have wrought a phoenix-like change in the old Birmingham.

Old streets and buildings have been restored, pedestrianized squares created and industrial canals have become majestic waterways.

Brilliant examples of Classic, Neo-Gothic, Renaissance, Victorian, and even Brutalist architecture abound. Here is History, culture, lifestyle and shopping. What more could one want?
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Birmingham Introduction Walking Tour Map

Guide Name: Birmingham Introduction Walking Tour
Guide Location: England » Birmingham (See other walking tours in Birmingham)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 13
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.2 Km or 2 Miles
Author: VictoriaP
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Chamberlain Square
  • Central Library
  • Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
  • Birmingham Town Hall
  • Victoria Square
  • New Street
  • Bullring & Grand Central
  • St. Martin's Church
  • Birmingham Hippodrome
  • Birmingham Back to Backs
  • The Mailbox
  • Gas Street Basin
  • Brindleyplace
1
Chamberlain Square

1) Chamberlain Square

The Chamberlain Memorial, a Victorian neo-gothic spire 66 feet high, was unveiled in Birmingham, England on October, 1880. Joseph Chamberlain was there, watching the proceedings. The Square and the Memorial were named in honor of his services as statesman and Mayor. The memorial was designed by John Henry Chamberlain (no relation).

The crocketted spire and the carvings of capitals were done by Samuel Barfield of Leicester. There was a portrait of Joseph Chamberlain by Thomas Woolner on one side. The finished product was criticized by some as an "architectural scarecrow" and as a "hash of ornamental details." As late as 1966 it was called an "ungainly combination of shapes."

The Square was drastically remade in the 1970s. Most of the neo-gothic Victorian buildings were demolished and replaced by brutalist architecture. The Square was closed from 2015 until March, 2021 for more remodeling and re-landscaping. During this time surrounding buildings were demolished, including the brutalist Central Library.

After five years the Square has reopened. It is completely reformed with more open space, new paving, stairs and lighting. Statues have been moved. The statue of James Watt moved from Paradise Street to the Town Hall. Thomas Atwood is off his plinth and now reclines on steps of the Square among his scattered papers. Joseph Priestly is steadfast.
2
Central Library

2) Central Library (must see)

The Brutalist Central Library of Birmingham is no more. The building was brought down and replaced by the new Library of Birmingham. The inverted Ziggurat of the Central Library ended its 41-year career as it began. Some cheered, some were horrified by its looks. The Central was never truly accepted by the city.

The Central was designed by architect John Madin in the Brutalist style. It was part of an ambitious project of the City Council to build a civic center on the new Inner Ring Road. The Library replaced by the Central of John Madin was designed by John Henry Chamberlain. Chamberlain's building opened in 1883. It was demolished in 1974.

All hail the Library of Birmingham. Architectural design is by Francine Houben. Structural Engineering is by Buro Happold. The new Library has been described as the largest regional library in Europe. The library nestles between and connects to the Birmingham Rep and Baskerville House at Centenary Square.

The Shakespeare Memorial Room, designed by John Chamberlain in 1882 has been reincarnated with each demolition. It has been carefully dismantled and reassembled three times. It is constructed in a Lombardic Renaissance style with a clerestoried reading area. The collection houses 43,000 books, including the First Folio of 1623.

The library was opened in September, 2013 by Malala Youafzai, who was savagely attacked by the Taliban for attending school. She said, "Let us not forget that even one book, one pen, one teacher can change the world."
3
Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

3) Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (must see)

In 1829 the Birmingham Society of Artists opened a private exhibition venue on New Street. The Factory Act of 1833 initiated government funding for education. In June 1880, Allen E. Everitt became the curator of the Free Art Gallery, the precursor of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The Prince of Wales officiated at the opening of the new Museum and Art Gallery in 1885. The building occupied the Council House, above the Gas Department (gas was a coming thing in the 1880s). Elaborate metalwork covered both the interior and exterior of the building, including the impressive cast-iron columns in the main gallery space.

The most stand out features of the exterior were the clock tower and the high portico and a pediment demonstrating Birmingham's contributions to the arts. The main entrance is in Chamberlain Square under the clocktower, referred to locally as "Big Brun." The entrance hall plaque reads, "By the gains of Industry we promote Art."

The Arts promoted by Industry include the Gallery collections, ranging from the 14th to the 21st century. The Gallery holds works by the legendary Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood, including the largest collection of paintings by Edward Burne-Jones.

Schools of art expression in oils in the Gallery are: The English School, with Gainsborough, Hogarth, Turner, and Constable; the Flemish School; the French School; Impressionists Degas, Pisarro, and Renoir. German, Italian and Spanish artists are also represented.
4
Birmingham Town Hall

4) Birmingham Town Hall

The Birmingham Town Hall, opened in 1834, looks very like the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The Temple once stood in the center of the ancient Forum. The look-alike Town Hall also stands in the center of things, on Paradise Street at Victoria Square.

It rests on a podium of rusticated stone. The columns are finished on top with carved Acanthus leaves below a simple architrave and dentil cornices. The Great Hall has high windows with eared architraves. At the south end of the podium there is an arcade as the main entrance.

The Town Hall was built as a venue for concerts and popular assemblies. It offers more events of jazz, folk, rock, pop and classical music, recitals, dance and educational performances. Not content with that, it goes on to general meetings, product launches, dinners, fashion shows and graduations.

Two construction workers, John Heap and William Badger were killed on the site by a falling crane in January 1833. They were buried in St. Philip's churchyard. Their memorial was a pillar base originally made for the Town Hall.

In 1853 Charles Dickens gave his first reading in the Hall. The visit of David Lloyd George triggered a riot. Mendelssohn's Elija received its premiere. It was the home of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra until it moved in 1991.

Popular headline acts made their appearance. There has been Buddy Holly, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Queen (!), Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath, The rolling Stones and naturally, Bob Dylan (perpetually touring).
5
Victoria Square

5) Victoria Square

Often considered to be the center of the City, Victoria Square is a pedestrianized square. It is the location of Town Hall and the Council House and neighboring Chamberlain Square. St. Philip's Cathedral is nearby on Colnore Row. And it is within walking distance of the Bull Ring and Brindleyplace.

Once known as the Council House Square, it was renamed Victoria Square in 1901. Unfortunately the Queen died about a week later.

During the last century the Square became an ongoing traffic jam. It was determined to redevelop the square, making it a pedestrianized area. It was opened by Diana, Princess of Wales in 1994. A fountain in the Square designed by Dhruva Mistry was called, "The River." It was a nude in a fountain. Locals called it "The Floozy in the Jacuzzi."

Other statues were in the square before redevelopment. Queen Victoria is the only one that remains. It was created by Thomas Brock in 1901 and recast in bronze in 1951 by William Blove.

During the Christmas season the square becomes the venue for the Frankfort Christmas Market and craft Fair. The craft fair connects to another similar fair in Chamberlain Square. The Frankfort fair features wooden huts as stalls selling Jewelry, artwork, ornaments, and German food.

In July 2012 the Square was visited by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip while on the West Midland Diamond Jubilee Tour. They had a royal walkabout and accepted gifts from the City.
6
New Street

6) New Street

Known as Novus Vicus in the Borough rental records of 1296, and later in 1345 as le Newstret, New Street probably began earlier in 1166. It was established as a way from the Bull Ring, the center of the new town, to Dudley Castle, the home of the de Bermingham family. Every castle must have a road. Every road must have a town.

The street experienced massive growth through the 18th and 19th centuries. It was described as "the Bond Street of Birmingham". It was noted for its shops, schools, theatre and Arts.

New Street is now mainly pedestrianized. It is more than ever a popular shopping street, connecting the Bullring Shopping Centre to Corporation Street and High Street. A farmers' market is held monthly on the first and third Wednesday. The Christmas Frankfurt market of Victoria Square is also held on New Street.
7
Bullring & Grand Central

7) Bullring & Grand Central

Two major shopping malls in Birmingham are connected by a link bridge. They combine to form the United Kingdom's largest city shopping area, the Bull Ring (currently Bullring) and Grand Central.

Big things start modestly. The area originally was called Corn Cheaping. The was a corn market here and there was the bull ring. In the ring bulls were tied to await baiting by dogs and slaughter. This was a savage but popular spectator sport for everyone except for bulls or dogs.

The market became a legal market in 1154 when Peter de Bermingham was granted marketing rights by King Henry II. By the 18th century food, cattle and corn markets were located there.

The market areas had their ups and downs, but world War II was devastating. Revival efforts began in 1955. In 1964 The Birmingham Bull Ring Centre was complete. The Centre extended to some 23 acres with 350.000 square feet devoted to retail trade, and the complex was visited by the Queen.

After more major development Bull Ring and Grand Central opened in 2003 and 2015 respectively. The malls are connected by a link street. Shoppers can move from one to the other without stepping outside.

The Bullring Bull is a bronze sculpture of an aggressive looking bull, as yet unbaited. The sculpture is the work of Laurence Broderick.

The malls are the site of an annual Christmas Market in the streets. The best time to visit is around four pm, when the malls light up in color.
8
St. Martin's Church

8) St. Martin's Church

St.Martin's is the original parish church of Birmingham. It stands by the Bull Ring Shopping Centre and the markets. The church is a Victorian neo-Gothic building. It has a high nave and chancel and a spire. The spire was rebuilt many times and thrice struck by lightning.

The church was demolished and rebuilt in 1873 by the architect J. A. Chatwin. The exterior is of Grinshill stone. The inside is of sandstone. Victorian floor tiles by Minton show the arms of the de Bermingham family.

The Blitz of World War II destroyed all the stained glass windows except the near irreplaceable Burne-Jones window. The other windows were replaced by 1954.

The church is provided with 16 bells. This is unusual. Other than St.Martin's, only three rings of sixteen bells exist in the world.

The pipe organ in use today is by Harrison & Harrison. It dates from 1906. Since 2004 the church has stopped using the organ for the 11am service but it is still played at the 9.30am communion and at the 6pm Choral Service.
9
Birmingham Hippodrome

9) Birmingham Hippodrome (must see)

Home of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Hippodrome also hosts visiting operas and dance companies, and drama. It has an annual attendance of more than 600,000. It is the busiest venue for theatre in the country outside of London.

The first venue on the site was the "Tower of Varieties" in 1899. This effort ended in failure. The house was rebuilt as a variety theatre with the name "Tivoli." Finally, in 1903, it became "The Hippodrome." Today It is managed by the Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre Trust, a non-profit arts producing organization.

The Hippodrome currently has presented big productions, touring musicals, plays and children's theatre. The theatre was closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic but it reopened for the UK premiere of Total Immersion/Vincent Van Gogh, a major art event.

The City Council has approved a redevelopment of the theatre. There will be a new facade with a first floor terrace and an outdoor seating area.
10
Birmingham Back to Backs

10) Birmingham Back to Backs (must see)

Following the industrial revolution in Britain, there were great migrations of landless people flocking to the cities for work. Birmingham, always the foremost city of industry, built thousands of so-called back-to-back houses to accommodate the influx. The houses were overcrowded and built around shared courtyards, "back-to-back."

Also known as British terraced housing, the back-to-backs were declared unsatisfactory. No more such housing was built after the Public Health Act of 1875. They were replaced by byelaw terraced houses that were not much better.

The back-to-back houses were two to three stories high. They were found mostly in depressed inner-city areas of Birmingham. In the early 1970s most of the back-to-backs had been demolished. Many tenants were moved to council houses and flats. Most of them however settled in housing estates.

The combination of two houses back to back and sharing a common yard was referred to as a "court." Many of the courts were occupied by workers who worked at home in specialized tasks. They labored at such things as button making, glasswork, woodwork, and leather tailoring. There were also skilled trades including jewelry.

Overcrowding was common. In Court 15 for instance, now on display, there had been over 500 families. (Not all at one time, naturally.)

Ground floors were often converted into shops. Trades practiced included cycle maker, hairdresser, ticket writer, fruiter seller, and furniture dealer. A pearl button driller, working at home in court 15 shared her workplace/home with her mother and five children. A glass eye maker also lived in court 15 with his wife and eight children.

This type of housing remained in use until 1966. The buildings were finally declared unfit for human habitation and the tenants were forced to leave.

Heating would come from fireplaces, water from a pump in the yard, and sanitary needs from an outhouse. All things considered, perhaps the tenants did not mind leaving.

Why you should visit
To see how far ordinary people have come and appreciate the blessings we enjoy.
11
The Mailbox

11) The Mailbox

The Mailbox, a mixed-use development beside the Worcester and Birmingham canal, gets its name from The Royal Mail's sorting office. The old Victorian postal facility was moved to Victoria Square and is now the Victoria Square House.

A public square was created in front of the Mailbox under the Suffolk Street Queensway. The square was paved with natural stone. It serves as a social area as well as a throughway to and around the building. In back of the Mailbox a bridge leads to the canal towpaths. The Cube, a mixed-use building, houses a restaurant, hotel and flats.

The Mailbox development scheme creates 689,000 square feet of office space and related retail. It sits on a 4.8 acre canal side site. Prominent tenants would include BBC Birmingham, WSP, Associated Architects, Harvey Nichols and other notable stores and restaurants. The Mailbox is 980 feet long including the Cube.
12
Gas Street Basin

12) Gas Street Basin (must see)

The squares, the shops, the crowds, the traffic and all the rest of it burns you out. What to do? Don't want to toss it in just yet. Take a tranquil stroll along the canal towpath into Gas Street Basin. When the Basin is reached there are shops and restaurants to visit, away from the hassle and the mobs.

Want to give the canal a try? There are water taxis. Cruise through the heart of the city hidden behind a screen of trees and shrubs. Factoid: Birmingham has more canal boats than Venice. They're less expensive too.

Gas Street Basin is the place where the Main Line meets the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. They meet at Worcester Bar, A barrier seven feet high installed in 1795 to keep the Worcester and Birmingham Canal company from "stealing" water from the Main Line.

The walk follows a circular pattern: Soho Loop, Smethwick Locks, Engine Arm and Spin Lane Locks and then returning to Bromford Junction to those old friends, Main Line and Worcester and Birmingham.
13
Brindleyplace

13) Brindleyplace

18th century canal engineer James Brindley is remembered in the mixed-use canal side development named Brindleyplace. It is the UK's largest such development. It occupies 17 acres and it is home to National Sea Life Centre, Royal Bank of Scotland, Orion Media, Ikon Gallery of Art and the Crescent Theatre.

The Birmingham Main Line Canal comes between Brindleyplace and the International Convention Centre, but there are connecting bridges. The site of Brindleyplace was formerly the site of Birmingham's factories. After the decline of industry in Birmingham the city council came up with a development scheme.

Different architects were employed to create designs covering a range of architectural types. Twelve buildings are numbered. All the buildings are low rise. The tallest is Eleven Brindleyplace at 194 feet.

Water's Edge was the first building in the Brindleyplace scheme. I has retail space at the canlside location. Two million people visit Water's Edge each year. Symphony Court is on a triangular shaped site across the Brindsley Loop Canal.

Brindsleyplace takes up three public squares: Central Square, Oozells Square and Brunswick Square.

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Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 3.6 Km or 2.2 Miles