Birmingham: second city sparkle

by Brian.Pedley

Dear old Brum, England`s second city, is successfully living down its image as a byword for grim. The new Birmingham now glitters and sparkles in a 21st-century renaissance

Mick`s little show for visitors involved minimal props. Just a gas jet and a thin length of metal piping that he held in the corner of his mouth. As he began to blow, the flame turned from a ragged yellow to a vivid and unflagging blue jet, which he used to soften a strip of metal. "It`s something that everyone in the jewellery industry was trained to do," Mick said. "You breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. It`s called circular breathing."

Founded in 1899, the factory of Smith & Pepper, in the heart of Birmingham`s Jewellery Quarter, closed in 1981 when elderly brothers Eric and Tom Smith and sister Olive retired. The complex, which specialised in gold bangles, cufflinks, lockets and crosses, survives in the ownership of Birmingham City Council, preserved in its mid-20th-century timewarp as the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. A complex of creaking floors, workbenches and machines celebrates an industry that has flourished uninterrupted in the city for more than 500 years.

Europe`s largest working jewellery quarter evolved from when Birmingham was valued in the Domesday Book at just £1. By the 15th century, blacksmiths were turning out cutting tools for the farmers who crowded into Birmingham on market days. By the reign of Elizabeth I, the city resounded to the clang of hammers on anvils. When Charles II returned from exile in France with a newly acquired fondness for fancy adornments to his shirts and shoes, the forges of Birmingham pandered shamelessly to the royal fashion, turning out buttons and buckles of silver and gold. By 1913, up to 70,000 people earned their living from precious metals and stones. The story goes that errand boys played football in the street using parcels of gold as goalposts.

The quarter remains home to more than 500 businesses involved in the jewellery trade. One hundred jewellery shops and manufacturers trade within a `golden triangle` bounded by Warstone Lane and Vyse Street. The world`s largest Assay Office authenticates up to 70,000 precious metal items each day with the distinctive Birmingham anchor hallmark that adorned the Smith & Pepper bangles.

The new Birmingham now celebrates both past and future glories. Investment totalling £5 billion has hauled the UK`s second city towards a 21st-century renaissance. The regeneration of Birmingham`s 19th-century western canal quarter – which now welcomes three million visitors a year - began in the late 1980s. Brindley Place, with its shops, restaurants and water features, cost £250 million alone. The local flocks of Canada geese, herons and kingfishers now fly against a new and ever-changing skyline.

The rejuvenated Birmingham also happens to boast the best baltis in Britain. An entire district of the city – bounded by Moseley Road and Stratford Road - is loved and respected across the curry-eating world as the `Balti Triangle.` Fast-cooked over a high flame with fresh meat, baltis were introduced into the city by a growing Kashmiri population. Sparkbrook, just 10 minutes from the city centre, now sizzles with more than 50 `Balti houses`. At the legendary Al Frash in Ladypool Road, founded in 1991, a group of us gleefully explored the Archar Gosht (lamb in masala with green chillies), Garlic Chicken and Tandoori Fish Masala – all between £7 and £8 an item – and found a style and quality of cooking that was a whole universe away from the average Friday-night takeaway.

A city that was formerly tarnished with an undeserved reputation for grimness now sparkles 24 hours a day. 


Where to stay
Hotel du Vin, 25 Church Street: 66 stylishly appointed rooms in elegant city-centre surrounds. Double/twin rooms from £160.
The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter is at 75-79 Vyse Street, Hockley. From Easter to October, it opens Tuesday-Sunday, 11.30am-4pm. From November to Easter, it opens Tuesday-Saturday, 11.30am-4pm. It's closed on Mondays apart from Bank Holiday Mondays. Admission free.



A working journalist since 1969, I run my own freelance office in Cornwall, delivering travel and general feature articles to the national and regional press. Assignments have ranged from tours of Cornish communities in Wisconsin and South Australia for The Times to cruising the Galapagos Islands for the Sunday Express. Closer to home, I specialise in history and heritage-based pieces from around the UK. Favourite places: Scotland, Herefordshire, Normandy, Vermont.