- The Washington Times - Friday, September 29, 2006

BIRMINGHAM, England. — This was the city of a thousand trades. Most of them are gone now, but Birmingham, born of the Industrial Revolution in Britain’s heartland, still holds vestiges of its industrial glory.

Although not an alternative to London (there is none), Birmingham rewards a visitor with its remarkable history, central location and proximity to culture, canals, countryside, crafts, churches and castles. From Birmingham, it’s easy to plot excursions to the Midlands’ most interesting sites, such as Shakespeare’s hometown, the Cotswolds or Royal Leamington Spa.

“Heart of England” is a prettier name than the Midlands, and the countryside surrounding Birmingham and Coventry is particularly lovely. Coventry’s best-known historical figure was Lady Godiva, whose naked ride through town, legend says, persuaded her husband, the Earl of Leofric, to abandon the tax he had imposed on the city.

Riding through town today is easier in a Jaguar, the elegant sports car built in Coventry.

Birmingham, which began as a small Anglo-Saxon farming village, was granted a market town charter in the 12th century, giving rise to the growth of wool, cloth and leather industries. The market was known as the Bull Ring — the name given today to one of its major shopping centers. City status was not acquired until 1899.

Iron and coal made metal trades possible; by the 15th century, local smiths were busy making metal implements for farmers who came to town on market days. Small-arms manufacturing was a specialty; Birmingham foundries supplied guns to Oliver Cromwell for Britain’s civil war, and by 1815, Birmingham produced more guns than did all of France.

BLACK COUNTRY

From 1760, a network of canals was built across Birmingham and the Black Country — so called because of the smoke from its industrial chimneys and its thick, shallow coal seams — to transport raw materials and finished goods. Today, it’s possible to cruise the canals without being besieged by the black smoke.

Metalwork from industrial to fine jewelry was the city’s forte. Pins and needles, buttons and buckles by the millions poured out of Birmingham factories. Jewelry making as a major industry dates from 1660, when King Charles II returned from exile in France after the civil war, having acquired a taste for fancy buttons and shoe buckles. The court naturally followed suit.

The enterprising craftsmen of the town made small boxes and trinkets disparagingly called “Brummagem toys,” meaning rubbish from Birmingham, and to this day, residents of Birmingham are called Brummies.

Most of the industry has disappeared, but Birmingham’s Jewelry Quarter, the city’s ticking heart, continues as Britain’s commercial and artisan jewelry center. Forty percent of Britain’s gold jewelry is manufactured here, and many elegant pieces can be purchased in the city’s 140 retail outlets. Fifty designer jewelers occupy spaces in the quarter.

The Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, established in 1807, supports the work of contemporary jewelers in craft galleries around town, showing designs from local and national artists.

The Jewelry Museum offers a glimpse into the jewelers’ trade of former times. Tools of the trade and cutout benches, which permitted jewelers to sit close to their work, are displayed in the old factory section of the museum.

The assay office, which tests and hallmarks the gold, dates from 1773. When representatives of Sheffield and Birmingham went to London to obtain the right to assay, they tossed a coin to see who would get the symbol of the crown and who the anchor. Birmingham lost, settling for the anchor, and Sheffield got the crown.

PEN MUSEUM

The Jewelry Quarter is home as well to the Pen Museum. During the 19th century, 18,000 nibs were produced daily, mostly by women who were paid little for a week’s hard work. By 1913, 1.5 billion nibs were produced annually. The factory is closed now, but the little museum offers a fascinating display of pens and the equipment used to make them.

Washington Irving wrote “Rip Van Winkle” in a single night while visiting his sister in a house that stood next to the museum. He frequently visited England — his mother was English — and worshipped in St. Paul’s Church, the last remaining Georgian church in Birmingham, once called “the jewelers’ church.”

Pavement trails in the Jewelry Quarter have plaques representing the trades that made Birmingham famous, including the casting of parts for the Supermarine Spitfire, the doughty little fighter that won the Battle of Britain nearly 70 years ago, and the steam whistles for the SS Titanic. Brummies tell a visitor with considerable pride that the Titanic, which was made in Ireland, “didn’t work,” but the whistles, made in Birmingham, did.

Birmingham’s cultural life is outstanding. The Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, performing in the magnificent Symphony Hall, is world famous and remains so even though its celebrated conductor of 18 years, Sir Simon Rattle, is no longer with the orchestra.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet, formerly the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company, moved from London to Birmingham in 1990 with its founder, Ninette de Valois. It performs in the Birmingham Hippodrome, opened in 1899 as the Tower of Varieties. It was the first Birmingham music hall to present two shows nightly. Besides ballet, the Hippodrome offers musicals, theater, opera and pantomimes.

The last of Birmingham’s back-to-back houses, restored by Britain’s National Trust, stand just around the corner. Thousands of these small 19th-century brick houses, with a small courtyard between the two backs, were Birmingham landmarks nearly two centuries ago. Back-to-back placement made these houses less expensive to build and easier to keep warm.

The Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, housed in a grand Victorian building, holds one of the world’s largest collections of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. The splendid collection of sensuous and romantic paintings includes several works by native son Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and John Ruskin. There’s a fine collection of American graphic art.

First-rank restaurants add to the city’s ambience. Simpsons Restaurant is particularly good, and the food is fine on the canal at Bank, where the noise is ear-shattering, the paintings intriguing and the clientele trendy. Trendy is the word for the shopping, as well, in several large malls.

Moving through Shropshire from Birmingham to the west, a visitor arrives first in the town of Ironbridge, where ironworkers fashioned rails, wheels and boats. The Iron Bridge over the River Severn Gorge, a wonder in its day, opened on New Year’s Day 1781, but today the residue of iron is chiefly for tourists. The Ironbridge Gorge Museum and interactive design and technology center (Enginuity) are particularly interesting for young people, as are the china-painting and clay-modeling workshops at the Coalport China Museum.

WEDGWOOD COUNTRY

To the north, Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire is home of the Wedgwood Centre. Wedgwood Co. was founded in 1759 by Josiah Wedgwood, a social and environmental reformer as well as potter, scientist, artist and engineer; he built the village for his workers. His daughter Susannah was Charles Darwin’s mother.

Wedgwood Centre offers an exhibit of lovely 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century china, and a Wedgwood Museum is planned for 2008, in time to celebrate the company’s 250th birthday a year later. Wedgwood — now Waterford Wedgwood — produces fine bone china rather than Chinese porcelain.

Bone china is so-called because the clay incorporates cattle bones, which give it strength. Visitors can tour the factory to watch the throwing, forming, casting, glazing, firing and decorating of the raw clay into the pieces that have made Wedgwood famous.

Glass blowing, another craft perfected in the Heart of England, is on display in Stourbridge, with one of four remaining glass cones from the 18th and 19th centuries. These huge brick cones, employed more in Britain than elsewhere in Europe, housed the furnace around which the glassmakers worked. The cones were mostly abandoned a century ago.

The 100-foot-high Red House Cone, used as a glass house until 1936, is the best-preserved of the four. Glass blowers demonstrate their craft for visitors; for a small fee they will blow a glass replica of a visitor’s hand.

A small museum shows the tools and glass, and the adjoining shop offers glass jewelry and functional pieces by local artists.

Nearby, the Broadfield House Glass Museum displays glass from the 17th century to the present in a stately Georgian house.

SHAKESPEARE HOME

Just south and east of Birmingham stands the house where William Shakespeare was born, and it’s open to visitors, as are several of the other houses in and near Stratford that are owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Stratford-upon-Avon is still a charming small town, not quite ruined by tourist trivia. The Bard is buried in the 13th-century Holy Trinity Church, one of England’s loveliest parish churches. He paid 440 pounds in 1605, a decade before his death, for the right to be buried in the chancel of the church. His self-composed epitaph carries a warning:

Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare

To digg the dust encloased heare

Blest be ye man yt spares

thes stones

And curst be he yt moves

my bones.

Among the beautiful Tudor houses in Stratford stands the spectacular half-timbered Harvard House, the childhood home of Katherine Rogers, mother of John Harvard, whose bequest was the foundation of Harvard University. The Harvard House has become the Museum of British Pewter.

Stratford is home to Britain’s great classical repertory company, the Royal Shakespeare Company — the RSC. The RSC has been staging a yearlong celebration of Shakespeare’s complete works; his 37 plays, the sonnets and long poems are being presented into next year.

The Bard would not recognize some of the productions, such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed by an Indian cast, and the Tiny Ninja Theater from New York performing “Hamlet” with miniature plastic ninja figures.

The Sonnet Project sets Shakespeare’s sonnets to contemporary music; a fantasy production will look to the supernatural in his works, using mechanical sets, film, cartoons and puppetry. “Richard III” is the basis of a Kuwaiti production in Arabic, focusing on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq of the mid-1980s.

Dame Judi Dench will play Mistress Quickly in a new musical version of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre performed “Love’s Labor’s Lost” in August, and the festival will conclude in April with Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear.

What is called “Shakespeare Country” extends beyond the limits of Stratford and the gentle Avon, which flows through the town. The RSC theaters are on the banks of the river; patrons of the Quarto’s Restaurant in the art-deco Royal Shakespeare Theatre can watch the swans a-swimming as they dine before the performance.

WARWICK CASTLE

Warwick is a picturesque ancient small town. Its Lord Leycester Hospital, formerly the medieval guildhall, is a wonder of timbered-framed architecture. During the reign of Elizabeth I, it became a retirement home for aged or injured soldiers and their wives. The hospital continues to provide a home for the Brethren, as they are still called. From Easter to October, morning coffee and afternoon tea are served to visitors in the old Brethren’s Kitchen.

A short walk from the town center is Warwick Castle, showing how a medieval castle functioned. The castle originally was built of wood as a motte-and-bailey fortress (meaning mound and enclosure) by William the Conqueror in the 11th century, and it was last owned by the crown in 1604.

It has been inhabited continuously since the Middle Ages. Stone replaced wood in the 13th and 14th centuries. The castle, now owned by the Tussauds Group, famous for Madame Tussauds waxworks, offers jousting in the courtyard and lifelike figures performing indoor duties throughout the castle.

Compton Verney in Warwickshire is an art museum in a beautifully restored 18th-century mansion in a park. The museum shows temporary exhibits and has a permanent collection of exquisite pieces representing art from around the world and from almost every period, including the largest collection of folk art in the country. It’s a jewel.

The Cotswolds are celebrated for their romantic countryside of forests, gardens and gentle landscapes. Villages, such as the picturesque Broadway with its golden limestone houses, are nestled snugly in the rolling hills.

A traveler enjoys good food, delightful hotels, history that remains vivid and alive, spas for relaxation and gardens to delight the senses in the Heart of England. A vineyard planted in Warwickshire in 1995 produces some pleasant wines; tours and tastings are encouraged.

Birmingham and the heartland make up a land with heart, where visitors are likely to leave a piece of their own somewhere in the gentle countryside.

• • •

The new business-class airline Maxjet (visit www.maxjet.com) flies nonstop from Washington Dulles International Airport to London Stansted Airport. The airline uses Boeing 767 planes and has very comfortable seats and a particularly helpful staff, both in-flight and on the ground. Its reduced business-class fares make it well worthwhile. Stansted Airport is a 40-minute train ride from London’s Liverpool Street Station and a couple of hours by car from Birmingham.

Mallory Court, Harbury Lane, Bishops Tachbrook, Royal Leamington Spa, Warwickshire — phone 44 (0) 1926-330214 or visit www.mallory.co.uk — is a highly recommended, beautifully appointed English country hotel with a fine kitchen.

Malmaison, the Mailbox, Royal Mall Street, Birmingham —44 (0) 121 246 5000 — is a trendy, boutique hotel in the center of Birmingham. Rooms are comfortable; windows do not open; service is minimal; but there is an excellent spa.

Simpsons, 20 Highfield Road, Birmingham; 44 (0) 121 454 3434

Bank Restaurant, 4 Brindleyplace, Birmingham; 44 (0) 121 633 4466

Stratford and Shakespeare Country; www.shakespeare.org.uk

Royal Shakespeare Company, www.rsccompleteworks.co.uk; www.rsc.org.uk

Stratford Town Walks, www.stratfordtownwalk.co.uk

Birmingham museums, www.bmag.org.uk

Compton-Verney, www.comptonverney.org.uk

Red House Glass Cone, www.dudley.gov.uk/redhousecone

Broadfield House Glass Museum, www.glassmuseum.org.uk

Wedgwood Visitor Centre, www.thewedgwoodvisitorcentre.com

For more information on the Heart of England, go to www.visitheartofengland.com or www.visitbritain.com.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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