Few English cities have as many nicknames as Birmingham. In its evolution from medieval market town to industrial powerhouse to multicultural metropolis, it has been known as everything from Brummagem, City of a Thousand Trades, The Workshop of the World, Venice of the North, Brum, Britain’s Second City and, most recently, Home of the Peaky Blinders.
For those who haven’t seen the series, streaming on Netflix, Peaky Blinders is loosely based on the exploits of a violent, flat-cap wearing “razor gang” based in crime-ridden post-World War I Birmingham. For the record, there was a gang called the Peaky Blinders but much of the award-winning series is fiction.
What is not fiction, says Blue Badge guide Mary Moore, is the poverty and unrest that existed in Birmingham after the First World War.
“Gangs were everywhere,” says Moore. Disillusioned young men fighting for king and country “had been promised everything but received nothing when they returned from war.”
For upper-class entrepreneurs, Birmingham in the early 1920s was still the prosperous place it had been since the 18th century, but workers’ wages were shockingly low, tenements were squalid and many “people lived in abject poverty,” says Moore.
While the locals – known as ‘Brummies’ – have embraced the limelight and increased tourism Peaky Blinders has shone on their city, today’s thriving Birmingham couldn’t be more different from the dirty, dangerous place depicted on screen.
In fact, Britain’s second largest city is heading for a renaissance. Already home to a growing, youthful population (40 per cent of the 1.4 million Brummies are under 25), a new high-speed rail link is expected to significantly boost economic development, population and tourism, says Moore. When the first stage is completed in 2026, it will take passengers from London to Birmingham in just 50 minutes.
And an ambitious 20-year municipal master plan ensures the city is ready for its close-up with major redevelopment projects for the city center and abandoned industrial estates. The changes have already begun.
Birmingham is very walkable, and these days its extensive industrial canals are mainly used for recreation. The centrally located Roundhouse – a canalside building once vital to the transport of goods from across the West Midlands region – opened last year as a hub for exploring on foot, cycle or water. Hiking and biking tours, stand-up paddleboarding, group kayak tours and narrowboat tours are offered.
In Digbeth – Brum’s industrial ground zero – construction is everywhere. These days, this is where the cool kids come to party, eat and shop, says Moore. Red brick warehouses contain an eclectic mix of indie shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, dance clubs, flea markets, creative spaces and more. Street art and colorful murals are everywhere.
The former Byrd’s Custard Factory, which once employed 12,000 people, is now an arts center with eateries and a movie theater. The old Typhoo Tea factory will soon be home to BBC Birmingham. There are plans to build hundreds of new homes. And Peaky Blinders creator Steven Knight recently announced that a Peaky Blinders movie will be shot at the studio he is building in Digbeth.
North-west of the center is the Jewelry Quarter, where 40 per cent of jewelery made in the UK is still made. There are more than 700 jewelers and retailers concentrated in about 1 square kilometer. It’s also home to the Museum of the Jewelry Quarter, the somewhat macabre Coffin Works museum, and the St. Paul’s Gallery, where a large collection of original album covers is on display.
Another area of dramatic change is the restaurant scene. Once known mainly for Balti – a delicious Pakistani-style curry, quickly cooked and served in a thin wok-like pan – today it is easy to find good meals in various cuisines.
Our group has lunch at Purnell’s, one of five Michelin-starred restaurants – the most of any UK city after London.
Between courses, chef-owner Glynn Purnell – a bubbly restaurateur and TV personality often referred to as ‘Yummy Brummie’ – stops by our table to talk about his home town’s metamorphosis from ‘the UK’s culinary desert’ to a burgeoning haven for foodies.
“People used to drive through Birmingham. Now they drive to Birmingham,” he says, noting the quality of the local restaurants, the recent hotel openings and the excellent value for money compared to expensive London.
It seems Britain’s second city has its perks.
Black Country Museum
It’s impossible to visit the West Midlands and not learn something about its starring role in the Industrial Revolution. A fun place to do that is the outdoor Black Country Living Museum (BCLM) about 9 miles from Birmingham.
The Black Country includes towns within the boroughs of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton. All kinds of consumer and commercial goods were manufactured there, including the chain and anchor for the Titanic. Depending on who you ask, the term Black Country refers either to the polluting black smoke that once emanated from thousands of foundries and factories or the area’s rich seams of exposed coal.
Visitors to the 11-hectare BCLM can stroll through 300 years of history, step into original buildings, interact with costumed characters, participate in demonstrations and explore the Boat Dock, Anchor Forge and other locations where key scenes of Peaky Blinders were filmed. Don’t miss the delicious fish and chips – cooked the traditional way in beef tallow – at Hobbs and Sons.
BCLM also holds ticketed events for holidays and Halloween, as well as Peaky Blinders Nights. A new area focuses on the 1940s to 1960s.
Adjacent to the BCLM, the Dudley Canal Trust runs narrated narrowboat canal tours.