Birmingham and London, Oct 2022

Here is an article on our latest visit to my old home city of Birmingham, England and London. From October. It’ll be a celebration of food (and drink) as always, but also some cultural events and sites!

Birmingham (or “Brum”, or even “Brummagem” to locals)

Announcing ourselves at the Staybridge Inn on Corporation Street is always a welcome moment, with the giant painting behind reception of a Cadbury crème egg melting over the Rotunda building.

Obviously jet-lagged, we kipped down for several hours, setting the alarm for around 5.30 or 6pm.

We were to be meeting my sister and brother at Comptoir Libanais at 7pm. Friday, so a lively night to arrive in Birmingham city centre.

We dined at Comptoir Libanais, a chain restaurant I’ve mentioned before on my blog but a smallish chain and absolutely beautifully and tastefully done. It’s Lebanese, and delightfully decorative and colourful inside. Tonight Marie and I enjoyed their food perhaps more than ever. We had a lamb tagine, an aubergine burger and fries, Marie a chicken taouk wrap and I the chicken kofta. And rosemary mint tea. Glistening, succulent meat amongst some of the healthiest food you’ve ever eaten. Marie took a photo of the framed Mister Bean in a fez.

from google images above

Afterwards we wanted a drink somewhere. We expected most places to be packed, it being a Friday night. We thought the Roebuck, on Church Street off Colmore Row, would have some free seats. Amazingly it was three quarters empty! I asked for a beer called Neck Oil – a session IPA. I was a bit shocked that it cost 6 pounds fifty pence of his Majesty’s sterling! Over the whole holiday we saw Neck Oil, which is very popular right now and is nearly always the most expensive beer at any bar/pub.

At least there’s no tip required in the UK on drinks, and the pint is 20 ounce as opposed to 16oz in the States. And the beer was great.

Day 2 –

A cracking self-service breakfast at our hotel – the Staybridge have upped their game – we had a leisurely morning and overcame the jet lag more. At about 11.30 we met my brother and a friend in Coffee 200 Degrees. We walked over to get a number 33 bus to Aston, and to the historic Bartons Arms pub for lunch. It’s only a few minutes ride. The Bartons Arms dates from 1901, and famous patrons have been Ozzy Osbourne (Aston is where he’s from, so obviously) and also Laurel and Hardy used to be customers when they played at the local, long gone theatre.

It’s all ornate Victorian tiling and impressive stained glass windows. Marie loved it, and we all enjoyed the Thai meals (they only do Thai food). Marie had half a Guinness and the rest of us ales.

Fans of Peaky Blinders may enjoy the vibe and classic nature of this pub!

my brother’s sizzling beef (listen closely and you can hear it still sizzling!)

Sometimes…head out of town!

We relaxed in the hotel room, then back out to get a number 101 bus for the short ride to the Jewellery Quarter. We love to choose parts of Birmingham outside of bang in the city centre. It’s more tasteful, laid-back, often more interesting and less boisterous then the centre on a Saturday night. The JQ is a haven now, with some wonderful places to eat and drink. In-between you still have many of the jewellers, then small industries, terraced houses and apartments (now quite expensive) and a few museums like the Jewellery Museum and the Coffin Works. It still looks like times-gone-by, but in a clean and attractive way with the odd coffee cafe thrown in.

We found the Rock and Roll Brewery directly opposite the Rolling Mill, which would be our dinner destination soon. The R and R Brewery is curious and fascinating. Family and friends were already there. It’s small, elongated with a bar at the end, and a dj playing alternative music vinyl at the front. Marie and I really had to squeeze in. A comical event next: my brother tripped on a step near the dj, tried to steady himself and ended up unplugging the sound system so the whole place went from rocking loud to silence!! It took them a while to fix everything whilst he looked on, embarrassed!

The Rock and Roll Brewery above, good times

Oddly, the R and R Brewery closes at 7pm so last orders were at about 6.20. It’s only opening for comparatively short spells and for about three days a week. What a find though.

Then to dinner. The Rolling Mill is cavernous, a former mill with industrial catwalks between different rooms. It looked great! We were walked to the back section. The staff were lovely, and amazingly they gave us a semi-private room (but also open so you could see the rest of the pub-restaurant) with elaborate Halloween decorations! It was atmospheric, beautiful and an ideal spot. Marie made sure she and I were sat in places where we could talk to friends. A fine pair of hours were spent with great camaraderie and food. The pizzas looked top notch and the fish and chips were just the ticket, chips chunky as Mister Creosote’s fingers.

We weren’t even a tiny bit rushed over the bill and they brought it to us two hours or so after we arrived, and only when we asked.

Raining quite heavily outside, we all did okay with the walk back to the city centre (about twenty minutes). Pretty Saint Paul’s Square is also nearby to the Jewellery Quarter.

Really a perfect afternoon and evening!

The Rolling Mill, below

Day 3 (Sunday) –

Harborne day! Harborne is a village about four miles from the centre of Birmingham and where my brother and I and my dad spent many, many years. We met mid morning in Coffee 200 again and we got day bus tickets, and onto the 24 bus. We had a table reserved for 1.45pm at the White Swan in Harborne and would be meeting close family. We couldn’t resist a quick drink at the Bell first, though, at the other end of Harborne. The beautiful, traditional and leafy walk then to the countrified spot by St. Peter’s Church and then we got drinks in and sat out the back by the bowling green in cool sunshine. Marie enjoyed petting a young couple’s big dog. Then a walk through the cricket pitches and a short bus ride to the Swan (otherwise known as the Dirty Duck, depending on which way you approach the pub sign). A lovely time with my sisters and brother-in-law there and very good Sunday roast lunches. Marie had pork, myself the beef. I couldn’t resist a hot British pudding too: damson crumble and custard. Some British desserts (or “puddings” if you’re less posh) should be served piping hot. My brother and I had red wine because real ales (or craft ales) were only served in a mysterious part of the Swan out-of-reach apparently, we were told!

Sunday roast at the White Swan

We did our separate things for a couple of hours later in the afternoon then we were to be meeting at the Jewellers Arms, back in the Jewellery Quarter. We really loved the Jeweller’s Arms as it turned out, and – as a friend put it – “it felt like we had the whole pub just to ourselves!”. Another really relaxing, quality family and friends time and we guzzled a few beers, ate scotch eggs and cheese and onion cobs and rock hard pork scratchings. It’s a time capsule of a pub, with the best of both old world in feel but also smart, and with very friendly staff. We could have stayed there all night, but they were closing at 10pm which is when we left. They do pork pies too, but no organised food or kitchen. That was good enough for us!

Day 4 –

We’d had some brain posers trying to think of what to do this morning that would be something other than eating and drinking places! We settled on a barge cruise scheme. Marie and I did one from Sherborne Wharf years ago. Birmingham has more canals than Venice, and you’ll probably hear that said more than once if you read about the city! We all enjoyed it, and it made for a gentle chugging hour. There is a history commentary about the local canals on board and even a bar at the end if you wanted a beer or wine. Most exciting was the Black Sabbath Bridge at the end of the cruise, on Broad Street, and of course it was a fantastic photo opportunity!

photo by Adam Hardy

photo by Adam Hardy

Then over to the Birmingham Art Gallery Museum, and specifically to the Edwardian Tea Rooms. Marie loves that. Bill Bryson mentioned it to be the best art gallery/museum cafe in England.

We got a big, comfy sofa and surrounding chairs and ordered up individual items (sausage bap for some, Marie and I a coronation chicken sandwich and a cosmic banana toffee ice cream and custard dessert in a yorkshire pudding), teas and coffees.

As you know, every UK journal when we visit Birmingham we have to go to the Vine curry pub in West Bromwich, on the tram! Tonight kept up the tradition. The clay pot chicken curry and lamb clay pot chicken were probably voted the best curry on Earth by the United Nations! As we entered the pub, our nephew was already in there. He’s almost a D list celebrity now after the band he’s in, Friendly Fires’ “Brum Ting” was kind of the official song for the Commonwealth Games this year, held in and around Birmingham!

In our hotel room tonight, Marie and I watched The Sweeney and Minder (an episode that involved a fun fair, and dodgy Irish 50p pieces). And we ate cream cakes.

Just a random side-note about observations on driving in Britain and the U.S, by the way:

Many Americans drive much more aggressively on motorways (highways) than British people do, but Brits drive more aggressively on small, back roads than Americans do!

In the U.S you can get ridiculously impatient, speeding drivers on highways weaving dangerously in and out of other cars. Whereas generally there can be more patience on B roads. In the UK when we’ve been on motorways drivers are much more respectful, but on other roads these little British hatchbacks round corners at great speeds (onto high streets or whatever) and don’t even consider than a pedestrian might be crossing! We both notice that.

Terry Thomas, from google images

Day 5 –

Our last full day in Birmingham! We were actually going to be sad to move on from Brum, as we’d had an amazing few days and it’s always heart warming to link up with family and friends again.

Today was a sunny day at last, after quite a lot of rain so far. My brother had to leave about 2pm today for the airport, but we made the most of it by walking together to St Paul’s Square mid-morning. We looked for squirrels to feed in the square, but found none. We did have a very pleasant time having coffees at ‘Coffee On The Square” corner cafe though, a humble favourite of ours. We chatted with the owner, who has friends who lived in Rochester, New York but recently moved to Wales!

A funny anecdote here. So we’re walking back through Saint Paul’s Square, and we stop to admire the Saint Paul’s House restaurant, which always looks stunning from the outside. We notice to the left of it and set back within a courtyard of what I think are flats (apartments), is a giant Thomas Shelby (Peaky Blinders) mural. Naturally we want to go in and take photos of us posing in front of the mural. We do so, then as we turn around the automatic iron gates to the courtyard have now shut, locked! The gates go up the ceiling, and you cannot get over them or through them. We let out a uh-oh, but don’t really have time to get nervous (as mentioned, my brother’s flight is in a few hours) and with relief the doors open as we get close so they must be on a motion sensor within. Phew!

Next, to lunch at the Indian Brewery five minutes walk away, near to the old Snowhill train station. Marie and I hadn’t been for years. It’s expanded a little. Think Bollywood posters, their own beers and lots of Indian meals from “Indian fish and chips” to meat stuffed naan (“fat naans”) to a couple of traditional curries etc. But very casual. Very good. We had the Indian fish and chips, myself a chicken roti roll and beers, whilst Marie was not too hungry and just had a glass of water.

For Marie and I, after the hotel we went our for more shopping: Simms Sweet Shop in the Great Western Arcade (toffee bon bons for me), a charity shop (The British Heart Foundation, I bought a great turquoise checked shirt for 4.50), Pep and Co – which is Poundland’s clothes shop next door to Poundland – and Marie found a beautiful orange light jumper, then Slaters Menswear. I didn’t think we’d buy anything, but worth a look. We walked out having bought me three terrific shirts!

And a coffee and cake at Caffe Nero.

After packing ready for London, a little later we had a good couple of very enjoyable hours or so at the Old Joint Stock below, with pies, ales (a golden and a caramel porter) and violet and coffee gins. Very nice if you can get a bit of it.

the wonderful Old Joint Stock, above (photo by Marie Hardy)


Marie found us the President Hotel, which is a modest budget option for such a great area – about half a dozen squirrel leaps to Russell Square! We’d stayed not all that far away from here last year, and we love the square and the nearby Bloomsbury/Fitzrovia streets and even the Brunswick Shopping Centre close by. Plus, by coincidence – as we’d thought about doing it anyway – the “Faulty Towers Dining Experience” is within the President Hotel! They drop the ‘w’ in Fawlty for copyright reasons. It was on the West End for a long time, and moved to the President last year. It gets 4 and a half stars out of thousands of reviews.

a squirrel in Russell Square (photo by Adam Hardy)

We arrived late afternoon, and got an electric black cab from Marylebone. The President is swish in the lobby and quite modern, and the lifts and corridors are in contrast very outdated but we didn’t mind. The Beatles stayed here for a good length of time. The rooms are small but without the clever storage of new small hotels/pods (like drawers under the bed would have been good). We had to put our big suitcase in the corner by the window and tv, but we liked the room. 125 pounds is the best rate you’ll get for this area. It had a view of the plush Kimpton Hotel next door, Marie’s dream hotel and which she would like to stop at one day, maybe a special occasion.

We walked through the square (there is a insect hotel in the square, sponsored by the Kimpton) and it felt good to be back y’all. Next to the Brunswick Centre, where we looked in Waitrose supermarket to

note what quality products they had for later. For American readers, Waitrose is comparable to Marks and Spencers food hall.

Then to our favourite pub from last years visit, the Lamb on Conduit Street. Marie had also chosen the President because it’s a short walk to the Lamb! Although they didn’t have the Young’s Winter Warmer ale on yet, we were very happy with the Special. Marie had a taste of mine, and drank a elderflower gin. The bar staff this year weren’t as good as last year, when the slightly more mature bartenders seemed passionate about the pub. The girls were functional, but that’s all. They automatically bring a credit card machine over when you pay. They do take cash though, which we did. And we found a small table over by the dumb waiter, and had a lovely couple of hours. Tables filled up. There is an outdoor area with heaters too if we ever need to.

We decided to order the “Chicken, Baron Bigod and gammon knuckle pie, beer mustard mash, and charred savoy cabbage”, and Marie asked me to get something else for us to share too. I picked the Cumberland sausage roll. Their food is outstanding, and very much old fashioned English fare. Baron Bigod turned out to be a…hang on, this from the tinterweb:

“This is a truly exceptional cheese; made with milk from Jonny and Dulce’s herd of Montbeliarde cows. It is the only traditional milk Brie-de-Meaux style cheese produced in the UK. In fact, even the French would be jealous, as this cheese is one of only a handful of its type in the world to be made by the farmer on the farm and can genuinely be called a true farmhouse Brie. Baron Bigod (pronounced by-god) was, named after a 12th century nobleman.”

Sounds right posh! Oh, and we shared a sticky toffee pudding and ice cream. We’re on holiday!

Day 2

Up at 9.15am and out to Russell Square. Rainy probably – it was for much of the whole holiday – but London looks great even in the rain, especially the lush squares and parks. There is an Italian cafe actually in the square – Tropea – which we’d passed last year and is highly recommended. We ended up going every morning! Delicious, robust cappuccinos and we had light pastries, Marie a sfogliatelle and I an almond croissant. Very nice family run and with beautiful views of the outside.

Our plan was to go to Regents Park next to view some new, quirky temporary sculptures. And later to go down to the Silver Smith Vaults in Chancery House, in Holborn.

And in-between we would have lunch somewhere, and of course we had our meal tonight already booked.

We got a tube to Regents Park (we walked down spiral steps at the tube station and the steps went on and on seemingly forever; some of these tube stations are in the bowls of the Earth!). We ended up not being able to find any of the sculptures, but the park was a gorgeous and relaxing escape. We walked a tonne though (Marie wears a pedometer, and we walked well over 20,000 steps today and tomorrow…probably about 8 miles a day I’m thinking).

We did come across the Inner Circle and Royal Rose Garden etc, where we took a lot of photos and enjoyed everything really.

photo by Adam Hardy

We exited the park by the big Central Mosque and the old Oval Cricket Ground, and got a bus. We were ready for lunch soon. I eschewed the option of eating in the park and uhmmed and ahhed at a couple of other cafes we passed, so Marie was getting foot-tired, hungry and annoyed at me. It eventually worked out though. Marie said we should get a tube and do the Lebanese/Palestinian ‘Hiba’ for lunch then, in Holborn, and it was great (better than another one we went to last year on or by Charlotte Street)! We had schwarma wraps.

Next we also walked through the very attractive and historic Lincoln’s Inn Fields law court area. Charles Dickens’s London really.

We then strolled on to the silver vaults. We like to do non touristy and unexpected things sometimes. We were virtually the only customers there that afternoon. You announce yourselves and walk down, where there are 30 plus shops and vaults around a square corridor. On the outside, for each vendor there are glass cases displaying some of the rarer pieces. There were even spoons and other silver objects from Tudor times! Inside the ‘shops’ – if you can call them that – was mostly displayed larger pieces like candlesticks, plate collections etc. If we were to buy anything – and we were mainly just browsing – it would likely be a small, animal thing. There some endearing mice pin cushions. Prices go from around 60 pounds to many multiple thousands. If we had seen something truly affordable, especially from Birmingham (and with a good age) we could have been tempted. A very nice, gentle old chap was especially kindly and informative. An interesting diversion anyway.

We got chocolate from a Tesco Express and more peanuts to feed squirrels. We then dropped in to the Lamb to reserve a table for our last night, Saturday, and we had pints of Young Specials (I helped Marie a little with hers).

A hotel re-group again in the evening, and down the lift to the Faulty Towers Experience! We weren’t quite sure how it would go. At first everyone is sat in a side room where you can buy over-priced drinks. We opted to sit next to a nice couple who share some of their time living and working in Cyprus so we chatted with them.

The show had already started when we realised just behind us Manuel was acting up! He didn’t look like the actual Manuel from the tv series but we grew to like him a lot and he certainly relished his role!

Then you’re taken into the restaurant room, and share tables with a few other people. A whole load of various incidents – some inspired or based on scenarios from the real Fawlty Towers – are acted out as you eat your way through the three courses. The actress who played Sybil and Fawlty were excellent and invested, and it was all great fun. There was no Polly, just Basil, Sybil and Manuel but they had a lot of energy. The food is less than mediocre – we left most of the broccoli soup and the cheesecake – but it wouldn’t have been authentic if the food had been good!! If you know the 1970s tv series you expect food you can complain about.

A great crescendo, ballistic performance at the end from Basil.

It took a little while for me to get really into it, but we had an amazing time and we think friends might like it.

Day 3 (Friday)

Today we were to do that side-trip we’d talked about. We chose to do Richmond-on-Thames in the end! Marie had done her transport homework for us. After breakfast at Tropea, we caught a tube train to Hammersmith and from there a bus. It was a slow crawl through heavy traffic at times, but we had no pressing agenda.

We’d been to Richmond, Yorkshire and now we’d be seeing the other Richmond which is also said to be very nice indeed. David Attenborough lives there, and at least one of the Rolling Stones did or still does. It’s one of the nearest attractive and interesting places to visit from London, and we put aside other options like Bletchley, Cambridge and Canterbury for the future.

It was raining quite a bit again, and we had umbrellas up when we arrived on Richmond High Street. Nice town, but it’s the back streets, green parks and especially the riverside that are the best things about it. We had a quick look at Mary Magdelene Church from the outside, which as it turns out is the Attenborough family’s church.

Marie had also researched pubs. The White Cross, overlooking the river, definitely did not disappoint! We had more Young’s Specials, studied the lunch menu and chose an ox cheek and blue cheese pie to share (only subtle on the cheese). A beautiful old pub.

below, photos by Adam Hardy

We then walked along the river, through empty fields (Old Deer Park, where we also sat and shared a small Gregg’s Halloween cup cake) and slowly wound our way back along past the rugby club and to the town.

We spent a bit of time around the entrance to the remains of the old palace – in fact scarcely anything remains, but there are some really delightful, very English-style old mews and flats.

Altogether a most pleasant half-day visit to Richmond then.

Back in London at Russell Square via Earls Court, we fed squirrels.

At the hotel at around 5.30, I left the camera behind for once. We walked about fifteen minutes to Charlotte Street but couldn’t settle on anywhere and just enjoyed having another look at the area we spent a lot of time in last year. We like Russell Square even better though.

Marie had suggested we try a semi-casual Greek restaurant, sat outside in this great-looking spot in the Brunswick Centre, under a canopy and fairy lights. We did, and we loved Nostimo. Really friendly, and the gyro sandwich and moussaka is as good as anything we get back home in New York.

Then Waitrose where we bought a lot of crumpets to take home and some malt loaves. We also bought lots of mince pies from Greggs and supermarkets for me to enjoy back home too. I feel spoiled!

We had a quick, late drink at the Marquis de Cornwallis, Marie a violet gin and me a mojito.


Sadly our last day!

Tropea again, we had a sausage bap.

Then we went to a free museum we’d had in mind, the John Soane House. He was a celebrated architect who designed the Bank of England. Soane was passionate about collecting art, sculptures etc on his world travels, and his home is extraordinary. The whole bottom section is packed with exhibits, and so much so it was like he lived in a museum almost. Or at least had his own cultured man-cave.

We still had a big treat or two lined up for today, including afternoon tea at Kensington Palace Gardens. We got a tube to Queensway and once at Kensington we had a walk around the gardens/park. A sunny day at last and a lot of people enjoying the park. We looked at Princess Di’s Sunken Gardens.

The afternoon tea is temporarily in a pavilion. It was a very fine experience and we both enjoyed it very much, but it was I’d say a generous 7/10 for the actual cakes and tea. The best we’ve ever had so far were at Dean Street Townhouse (2013) and the Wolseley (2018) and we’d seek those out again though we also like to try different ones.

photos by Adam Hardy

We got another tube back to Holborn, and tried the Ship Tavern. It could compete with the Lamb as a cracking pub and dates from 1549! Marie tells me we went there many years ago, but I forget.

I’ll round up the rest of the day by saying that we had a wonderful fish and chips meal and drinks at the Lamb, cream cakes from Tesco and some more Channel Dave at the President. Marie ordered us a taxi for 6am tomorrow at reception, but we didn’t do the sensible thing by going to bed early, but instead were happy with five hours sleep.

The Virgin flight back, though an hour and a half longer than flying out, was wonderful. The staff were the happiest flight crew we’d ever experienced and the young air stewardesses couldn’t stop smiling. And the Uber Scottish steward brought out ice lollies (that’s popsicles to Americans I think?) and was chortling away when he declared, “it’s like frozen baby food on a stick!”.

A great trip, both the Birmingham and the London leg!

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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