No buses on our estate on Sundays, so a long walk across town to Leighton Buzzard train station. Two hours later we were wandering around Birmingham New Street Station wondering what exit to use. New Street Station has changed beyond recognition, with lots of exits that lead you out into different parts of the city centre.
Things had changed since our last visit three years ago: I wanted to buy a book, but Waterstones is now an Apple store – that’s apple the computer company, not a greengrocer: I wouldn’t know where to buy a bag of Granny Smiths in Birmingham. My wife, Mo, wanted to draw some cash, but the Halifax by the City Hall is now a Nando’s chicken emporium.
The changes became more apparent as we walked towards Broad Street and the canalside. the area between the City Hall and the Symphony Hall is still rather concretey, and there are some new modern buildings. It’s rather modernist and feels like an American city. Has the library moved? There’s a library, but I’m sure it’s in a different position.
Tram lines have been laid out on Broad Street but there are no trams running yet. Just before we went down the steps from Broad Street to the Brindley Place area of the canals we came across a tribute to Birmingham’s most famous heavy rock band, Black Sabbath. The bridge has been renamed Black Sabbath Bridge.
There’s still an identikit parade of chain restaurants on the canal with ever-changing names, but the. Every English city has a food street of familiar theme bars and restaurants, and they’re usually soulless. Brindley Place, at least, remains attractive – though there’s still nowhere to buy a book, or a bag of apples. We didn’t see a Halifax Bank either.
The attractive canalside area has expanded. I hardly recognised it. Walking in one direction you come to the Mailbox development, and in the other direction there’s commercial activity as far as the eye can see. You eventually run out of steam and hit rough and ready Ladywood, where I daresay you can still find some skinheads to kick you into the canal for a laugh.
We were meeting our friend, Martyn, who now lives in Holland, but spent many years in Birmingham. In the preceding week we’d had the usual emailed discussions over where to eat. We all liked the idea of Chinese in the evening, so a pub roast would be nice for lunch. Martyn mentioned having a nice roast at the Tap & Spile, so I booked a table on-line.
For Mash get Smash
I didn’t need to book. The pub was almost empty throughout our stay. Sadly, Martyn’s roast wasn’t available on the pub group’s new menu. Further disappointment ensued when we went to the bar to order our second choice selections. The fish & chips was off, forcing me to make a snap decision of steak. Martyn’s pie was on, but there was no mash. He reasonably pointed out that if you have potatoes you should be able to make mash! The barmaid was silent. Presumably Chef Mike R. O’Wave was manning the kitchen. Martyn had pie and chips, I had steak & chips, and Mo had a lasagne. All decent and inexpensive meals, though we brooded a bit at having missed out on our Sunday roast. I found the pub pleasant and comfortable; Mo and Martyn and thought it was bland.
Martyn led us to the Malt House. I last went there thirty years ago. It’s a nice Green King pub (serving Sunday roasts – Argh!). We secured chairs on the upper terrace overlooking the canal.
Our next stop was the Canalside Bar. This is a shabby-chic caff-type pub. It was nice sitting outside in the September sunshine. Drinking all day was a daunting prospect, but I figured if I only had one a drink an hour from noon it was manageable. We considered activities that might keep us off the booze for a while: bowling was out on account of Martyn’s old man creakiness. We didn’t fancy mingling with hordes of kids in the Sea Life Centre. A boat trip? We considered a narrow boat trip from outside the pub, but it was one of those party boats where you’re encouraged to drink and whoop along to loud music. It would have been fun, but the whole point of a boat trip was to enjoy an hour’s respite from booze. We could have found a booze-free boat but to speak truth, we were enjoying our pub crawl.
We walked through the Mailbox development (probably called a leisure quarter or something). Luxury flats now line the canals here. There are some nice-looking restaurants, but I don’t know if there are any independent businesses. It’s attractive, but a bit soulless.
We were all happy to stop at the Brewdog as we’ve all been there before and find it comfortable. My only reservation is that their beers all seem to be intensely bitter. My Pale Ale was just about acceptable, but Martyn’s was too dry for me. I was sat in front of the huge beer menu board. Throughout our stay I contemplated whether to try a 12% stout – I think it was £6.85 for a THIRD of a pint. For one, I probably wouldn’t like it: for two, this could undo the good work we’d done in keeping our alcohol intake at a reasonable level.
One disturbing thing about the Brewdog was that you couldn’t pay with cash.
I forgot about the 12% stout after we moved across the road to Cherry Reds. Mo and I have been here once, Martyn had been having his breakfast here (they open at ten). I like the pub’s friendly, laid-back, café feel.
There was lots of life on the streets. We were talking earlier about how there never used to be anything to do on a Sunday, especially in Birmingham. In the early-80s the Duck on Hagley Road was about the most exciting place we’d go to. From Harborne to the City centre the pubs were very uninspiring, and restaurants almost non-existent.
It wasn’t just Birmingham that had changed. The people had changed too. On the canals, processions of smouldering black girls and pretty Indian girls sauntered by. Lots of Chinese people too, and many foreign accents (many of the people seen wouldn’t even have been born when I lived here in 2000). People were dressed nicely. They looked good and radiated confidence: in themselves, and their city. Once a bit of a national joke, Birmingham really felt it was happening at last. It was improving twenty years ago, but the city has gone up to another level. It didn’t feel like an also-ran, it felt like a world-class city. We all commented on the buzz and Mo and I were talking about it for days afterwards. There were freaks too.
The confident, free and easy atmosphere was exemplified when we went to Chinatown looking for a suitable restaurant. As we walked through the Arcadian centre, a young Chinese bloke was lying on a bench smoking a spliff. You smelt it before you saw him. This was in broad daylight in the middle of a city. People were looking but he didn’t care. You’d think you were in San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967. I salute him for his audacity.
Looking for a Chinese restaurant, we looked at the Happy Lamb Hot Pot (or something like that). Mo was put off by the duck blood on the menu. We were all happy to go basic so opted for the Malaysian Delight. I’ve been there at least once before. Everyone eating in the restaurant, and the neighbouring restaurants were Asian. I thought it might be because we were eating early, but there were whitefolks eating in the Greek places around the corner.
I had duck, chicken, crispy pork and noodles. Mo had duck and rice. Martyn said his beef in black bean sauce was as good as any he’s had anywhere. An excellent meal and only £40 for the three of us.
Mo had sat out one or two rounds with a soft drink. When we finished our pub crawl at 6.30, Martyn and I had only drank five pints, so mission accomplished. There was still plenty of life on the streets, but there wasn’t much life left in us by 7.45. Facing a long train ride back, and bloated with booze and Chinese food, we opted for the 8.13 train home.
A great day!