Birmingham and Stamford, England

[the first leg of our holiday to Birmingham-Spain-London]

For those interested enough to read about Birmingham, UK – the land of Peaky Blinders, curry and Ozzy Osbourne (and where I lived for 24 years of my life)  – here is part 1 of this journal! By the way, this is from a few years ago, but most or all of the restaurants and bars mentioned are still open.

We were very excited about the trip, especially having 4 nights in my home town of Birmingham, 5 nights in Spain then 4 nights in London. Also getting to see mum and my brother Martyn in Spain along with the rest of the family and some friends in the UK. We had a nice combination of social time and some time to ourselves planned (especially London at the end).

On Friday October 11th in the early afternoon we did the usual apartment double check, Marie took the batteries out of the carbon monoxide detector, we cleaned, checked all was switched off and then watched tv waiting for Marie’s mum to arrive. We locked up – oh, hang on! We’d left the passports on the coffee table and had to unlock the front door again!! Marie’s mum was driving us to the first part of our journey, a rail Station in Queens, and from there we caught a train to Penn Station and then from there taking the New Jersey Transit to Newark Airport. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, we’d just missed the NJ Transit train and it took us 2 hours even to reach the airport. It’s always interesting flying standby. We’re incredibly lucky to be able to do so.

We ended up getting ‘economy plus’ seats, which was great with us. They’re like economy but with about 5 inches extra leg room. Marie enjoyed a couple of films on the flight, mostly the Sandra Bullock comedy, ‘The Heat’. I chose high adrenalin, uncultured films to keep my attention…I couldn’t get on with the new Die Hard but quite enjoyed the new Superman.

Day 1 – Saturday

Once at Heathrow, we’d formed a cunning plan this year to avoid the unbearable tiredness after a night-flight and trying to stay awake til hotel check-in once in Birmingham. Marie suggested we try a Yotel for a few hours at Heathrow and have a nap to sustain us, then get the National Express coach, as usual, to Birmingham (otherwise called ‘Brum”). We found the Yotel quite easily (it‘s right in the airport, not outside). It’s what they call a ‘pod hotel’. Marie’s mum calls it an “igloo’. You get a little cabin. The girl on reception also gives tourist advice and directions to anyone and she was very sweet and helpful. We paid a reasonable sum for a 4 hour stay. Our cabin was quite spacious and we didn’t go for the cheapest option. The bed was extremely comfortable, Lights out and the 4 hours flew but we felt a lot better for it.

The coach to Birmingham took longer than last year (it now goes through Coventry too…oddly, the most notable thing we saw in Coventry centre was a Nigerian restaurant) but – unlike last year – the coach was well air-conditioned. We got off at Birmingham coach station in Digbeth. Even this is now very pleasant! The last time I’d been to the coach station was with Martyn about 15 or 20 years ago and the station then boasted a greasy spoon café, a kind of dark aircraft hanger building feel and maybe the faint smell of urine (a bit like an American greyhound station?). But now it has a Starbucks and everything is shiny, clean and efficient! Many places in town were being renovated, we found out over the next few days.

The past 3 years or so we’d always stopped at the Britannia Hotel in Birmingham, on New Street. This year we’d managed to secure a room at the Burlington, further up New Street and much more elegant (last year the bathroom door at the Britannia didn’t even fit). The Burlington was a bit of a bargain and we loved it straight away. It’s above the Bacchus pub, a basement labyrinth of a bar that we also love.

The amazing Bacchus Bar, New Street Birmingham. This one is from google images.

Our room was beautiful and with a huge bathroom. it’s a historic hotel from the 19th Century and 4 star, chandeliers on stairways etc. When we arrived, staring down the corridor on the way to our room, Marie said to me “what does this remind you of?”. I said. ‘The Shining’. We’d both been thinking the same thing! Only the hotel corridors, mind. It wasn’t spooky though we did wonder if we shouldn’t try to get a kids tricycle from somewhere so I could pose for a photo! You’d have to see the film to get this.

We rested at the hotel, watched a bit of channel Dave but decided not to sleep any more before heading out to Snowhill tram station at about 6pm. We imagined we’d be the only ones for our first meal but knew we’d be seeing a lot of family and friends from tomorrow, Sunday, onwards.

Marie enjoys the dulcet tones of the female voiceover on the tram. ‘The next stop will be Kenrick Park, stop here for park and ride’. Oh yes! We also enjoy the short walk along a nice lane of modern houses in West Bromwich and always look out for the two cats by the doorstep of the end house before turning left for the Vine pub and eaterie. The rain had kept the cats indoors, sadly. Even in the dark, the area feels very safe, though many areas also feel desolate in the Black Country at night.

We love, love, love The Vine in West Bromwich, which has the best curry anywhere. It now has yet more seating, probably enough for 200 punters, all of whom seem to pray to the curry gods. The back rooms were busy and vibrant, but we easily got a table in the pub area at the front. I ordered us a clay pot chicken curry, drinks and then made my way to the tandoori area at the back annexe and reserved us chicken tikka kebab and a chicken methi kebab. The kebab chieftain is the tandoor equivalent of a Vegas roulette table maestro (“three minutes on this one, sir, 2 minutes on this one”). The food was superb as always. A couple on the table next to us said they’d travelled all the way from….I forget where but somewhere like Birmingham for the Vine experience. We said we’d come from New York and they didn’t believe us at first! Next year we’ll try the tandoori spare ribs.

The Vine (back room) from google images.

Back near our hotel, we dived in to Tesco Express in New Street and bought a large trifle to take back to the room for dessert.

Day 2 (Sunday) –

Today we had two rendezvous’ planned: meeting Lisa, Neal and Nathan at the Lord Clifden pub in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham for lunch and in the evening we were joining Chris and Mo at the Bacchus Bar below our hotel,

We had a purty good sleep and skipped breakfast so as to save ourselves for lunch. I can’t remember if we did anything much, then, before getting the short tram ride at around 11am to the Jewellery Quarter. The JQ is yet another of those areas in Birmingham that have become more interesting and attractive over the years. Next year we want to visit the museum, but – aside from that – there are some cracking pubs and eateries now. There’s the Drop Forge and the Clifden’s sister pub – the Red Lion (I think) – not far away either. Then the Villa Rose Tavern is said to be a terrific place, a multi-tiled, grade 2 listed building in the centre of the JQ by the clock, They also do a highly rated Sunday lunch.

Last year, Lisa, Neal and the boys had shown us the Lord Clifden and we’d loved it. Marie and I arrived and it was quiet even though they open at 10.00am for breakfast. I thought the pub might get crowded. Today was rainy and chilly. The LC has a great interior and a decorative patio out the back, where in finer weather they do kebabs. We chose a good table and Lisa, Neal and Nathan arrived shortly after. We had an enjoyable pair of hours and a good staple lunch (you can get a lamb-beef combo with trimmings if you want). Socially a nice gentle way to open the batting on the holiday.

L, N and N left just before us and Marie and I got back to Brum and spent some time in the centre. In the Pavilions upper food court we had tea and cakes at Druckers (very light pastries, so the cakes you can eat inbetween meals), we then browsed a bit at Waterstones book shop. Then HMV at the Bull Ring. Good to see there are still some branches that survive the age of amazon and mp3 downloads! At the Clifden, Neal had tipped us off on some great new British comedies so we wanted to see if there were any in the shops yet. They weren’t released yet (we caught some of ‘Citizen Khan’ on the hotel tv later in the holiday). Instead, we bought two Auf Wiedersen Pet dvd’s: the Cuban series and an early one-off special following on from the 80s series. Uh-oh, I was feeling a bit of ‘Delhi belly’….maybe a delayed curry reaction from last night. Marie suggested she join the queue to check out the dvd’s at HMV whilst I went back to the hotel to use our bathroom. So I did. It wasn’t quite a photo finish but, even so, it was awkward when I rushed back, opened our hotel room door to speed to the bathroom only to find the maid changing the sheets. She said she’d be another 10 or 15 minutes, but that “there’s a (corridor) toilet on the 1st floor you can use”! We were on the 3rd floor. I took the stairs, went in only to find there was no toilet paper in there! So, back up to the third floor. Marie was here now, about to enter our room. She said, ‘just grab that toilet roll off the maid’s trolley and go back to the 1st floor”. I did, only to find the 1st floor toilet was now occupied for ten minutes!! The young teenager eventually came out. Clearly he’d used no paper – as there wasn’t any – and neither had he flushed. Anyway, relief at last.

That was a delightful and unnecessary story wasn’t it?! But all part of a holiday!

We relaxed on our hotel bed, watched some tv and checked our kindle. At 6pm we went down to the Bacchus and met Chris and Mo. They’d got into Birmingham way early, and Chris had had a couple of pints already! He later wrote that he’d thought about hiding in the suit of armour in the pub then jump out to shock us, whilst they had also said to each other beforehand that if I had a beard they’d leave! I think I just have swarthy facial growth (which Marie likes). I feel the same way as I do about glasses; I wear reading glasses for work and a lot of time at home to read, but I don’t think of myself as wearing glasses, just bits of transparent plastic that I look through.

Anyway, it was good to see them and we enjoyed a bit of time and banter before moving on to eat elsewhere. By the way, anyone who hasn’t been to the Bacchus yet should try it.

We chose to go to Chung Ying Garden off Hurst Street in Chinatown, as we had last year (after mulling over whether to go for San Carlo, the Festival Balti House or Chung Ying). Like last year, once again we had great meals – though Mo’s arrived very late – before Marie decided to head back to the hotel whilst Chris, Mo and I headed up the hill to the Old Joint Stock pub by Colmore Row and the cathedral. It was closed! We found the Wellington though, which had its usual wide choice of different beers – 16 in fact. It’s a peculiar and likeable pub, so much like a suburban local’s pub yet it’s slap bang in the city centre. It was about 9pm by now, The pub quiz was on. By the way, you can also take your own food into the pub – whatever you like – and they’ll provide you with crockery and cutlery and wash them for you afterwards at no charge! No one ever does though (we did once).

We were in a stupor by now and conversation slightly dried up for a bit as we stared into the murky depths of our drinks. The Wellington seems to have that effect! I’ve got to say, I also found it difficult to enjoy tepid beer. I know beer is supposed to be drunk at room temperature in the UK – and it certainly goes down smoothly and easily that way – but I find it a lot more enjoyable when it’s chilled!

A nice evening overall and great to see Chris and Mo.

Day 3 –

Today was going to be quite different. Mid morning we were heading to Solihull where Lisa and Neal would be driving us out for a day to a town called Stamford in Lincolnshire. Lisa had spent a couple of nights there researching our family tree a few months previously and reckoned Marie and I would really enjoy it.

Still in Birmingham for breakfast, our heads had been turned the day before by the Victorian Tea Room within the Great Western Arcade by Colmore Row. Marie loved the arcade and the look of the cafe. I remember as kids in the 70s we sat in this arcade on the balcony having a meal or drinks. It’s a vague memory – the type you wonder may have been a dream once. Anyway, we went in for full English and got seats in the quaint and quite large room upstairs. I asked the friendly woman serving if my memory may have been true, if you used to be able to sit out on the balcony. She said yes, but “nowadays it’s all health and safety and it’s closed off to the public…it’s much more boring now”! We enjoyed the breakfast and Marie loved the restaurant.

This year we’d graduated from the Britannia Hotel to the Burlington and for full-English we’d graduated from the Wetherspoons breakfast to the Victorian Tea Room. In the arcade we also bought sweets from an old fashioned style sweet shoppe. The young chap serving was very enthusiastic. We admired his enterprise, as he can’t have been older than late 20s and had already tried teaching surfing in LA, then bought the lease on the shop. For Halloween he was having kids in to the shop to read scary stories. Everywhere we went we saw Halloween stuff, much like the U.S, but this is fairly new to the UK? Even in Spain later we were to see Halloween costumes and decorations! At the shop we bought a bit of chocolate for Lisa, Neal and Nathan including dandelion and burdock chocolate.

Back to Snowhill Station, we got the train to Solihull and Lisa and Neal arrived and we bundled in to the car. An hour and a half drive. Lisa had suggested a choice of a visit to Ludlow, near Wales, or Stamford and we selected the latter. It looked beautiful from internet photos. Apparently, our great great granddad on had been born and raised in Stamford before moving to London and Lisa had researched his roots here. Stamford Connecticut is probably named after the town…or city, as it’s pretty big. In England a place is defined as a city only if it has a cathedral though and I’m not sure if Stamford does.

Anyway, we arrived in a central car park (parking lot) by a brook and park. Immediately Stamford looked a lovely place, with those sandstone coloured buildings that makes a town look especially appealing.

Stamford below (the top photo is one I took, the bottom photo from google images)

We spent about 3 or 4 hours and really loved everything about it! Neal was impressed too and vowed to return. We ate at a tea shop within a converted old church and had cakes, with a great view of a town square and also went into a fantastic pub we found in the Good Beer Guide, the Toby Norris. Whilst looking for it, we ended up calling it Toby Noodles because we‘d forgotten the name. Fine beers too. Marie had a rough cider. The pub has many facets and varying rooms rich in historical feel and it dates from the 12th century!

Also, Stamford is renowned for its great pubs. On the pub table we picked up a version of a mock London tube map but it was a suggested Stamford pub crawl! We walked by the river and pretty much through most of the town. Stamford is really little known but seems bigger than, say, Durham or Lichfield.

Lisa also pointed out to us the house our great, great grandfather had been born in and where he had worked, a carriage house that is now an antiques centre. Both are right near the town centre.

As we were about to leave, Neal said he would be happy to take us on an interesting route home including stopping at one or two places. To start with, we went a bit further North to Oakham, the capital city of the tiny county of Rutland. It seemed pretty ordinary though, especially after the delights of Stamford. Lisa had read about Uppingham – also in Rutland – too. Uppingham was very small but we did stop at another tea shop for more tea and cakes. Marie tried battenburg cake and loved it (like a pound cake covered with marzipan). There was a wonderful old character who came in and put us in mind of the Major from Fawlty Towers. He said to the woman serving us, with a flamboyant flourish “I shall be back for tea and scones and jam” and turned round as he was about to exit and with an extravagant wave of the hand added “rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraspberry!”. He was so English it was almost unreal and Marie wanted to take him home.

On the way back, Neal ended up driving us along the border of Leicestershire and some of Northamptonshire too – I think we saw at least 5 counties in one day!

A great day. Now mid evening, we came back with Lisa and Neal to Solihull for an hour. Then Marie and I got the train back into Birmingham. I can’t remember if we did anything else much that night, I think we got sandwiches from Tesco’s and ate them whilst watching more comedy panel shows on the hotel tv.

Day 4 –

At about 11 in the morning we got the bus to Harborne easily, as – has become the tradition in recent years – we would be meeting my dad, my family and our extended family at The Bell pub. It’s one of the most enjoyable days of the trip, to spend some quality time with family and also to enjoy the rustic charm of the pub. From the bus we noticed quite a few new buildings and small changes in Harborne. Many of the pubs are also much cleaner and swankier than they were when I lived in postcode B17. We made the short attractive walk from War Lane to the idyllic cottages and greenery around by the Bell. We were early and even milled around the churchyard a bit!   By the way, Harborne is where I lived for all the 24 years I was in Birmingham and is one of the nicest suburbs, 3 miles or so from the city centre.

The Bell, Harborne in Birmingham

Marie and I got the same table as last year, and everyone arrived not long after. A very pleasant get-together, we all had quality meals and apple crumble and custard (we grew up having piping hot desserts in the UK; it’s quite different from the U.S in that respect). Beers were excellent as always. We were there for 4 hours, before going to see my sister, Emma’s house. It’s in a quiet cul-de-sac…the only downside being Emma’s incredibly long, windy uphill walk to her bus stop to work each day (which she showed us when we went out to eat later…it‘s not quite as long as the hobbits‘ journey to Mordor in Lord Of The Rings but it‘s close). My nephew Jake was at home so great to see him too.

Back in Birmingham central, Marie and I would have to get up at 3 in the morning the next day to get ready, then get a taxi from our hotel to Birmingham Airport for the 6am Monarch flight to Spain. So an early night for us! Marie was sad to be leaving Brum, as she’s grown to like it a lot over the years, but we had an exciting next leg in Spain once we’d managed to negotiate the journey to Denia! We shall probably spend a bit longer in Birmingham next time (5 or 6 nights) as we didn’t have time for everything or to see everyone.

Published by heathgrip

An Englishman in New York for around 15 years, I met a wonderful, beautiful, cannily smart and talented girl from Flushing, Queens whilst I was living in Manchester, UK, through the internet in 2005 and we married in Spring 2006! We both have a passion for travel, restaurants, history, music, all kinds of fun events. Who doesn't? I'm an artist and photographer, and also love to write. Anything creative really (you can keep your science and technology!). I've sent journals back home to family and friends for many years and they've often suggested I start a blog with writings pasted from my journals. So here it is!

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