Walk 109: Birmingham Centre Walk: Traditional Markets & Canals

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 2.5 miles (4.02km)

Time to walk: A city centre walk with shops to visit, cafes & bars to drink & eat in plus, if it’s a sunny day, nice benches to sit on & watch the world go by. Therefore you could take all day!

Difficulty: Flat, easy & all on hard payments

Parking: Plenty of city centre car parks

Public toilets: Public toilets & plenty in cafes, shops etc

Map of the route:

Birmingham is the largest city closest to our Shire & grew from a medium sized market town in the medieval period to international prominence in the 18th century at the heart of the Midlands Enlightenment & subsequent Industrial Revolution, which saw the town at the forefront of worldwide advances in science, technology, & economic development

By 1791 it was being hailed as “the first manufacturing town in the world” with a distinctive economic profile of thousands of small workshops practising a wide variety of specialised & highly skilled trades, encouraged exceptional levels of creativity & innovation, which provided a diverse & resilient economic base for industrial prosperity that was to last into the final quarter of the 20th century

Perhaps the most important invention in British history, the industrial steam engine, was invented in Birmingham. From the summer of 1940 to the spring of 1943, the city was bombed heavily by the German Luftwaffe & the damage done to the city’s infrastructure, in addition to a deliberate policy of demolition & new building by planners, led to extensive urban regeneration in subsequent decades

Birmingham’s modern-day economy is dominated by the service sector. The city is a major international commercial centre, ranked as a gamma+ world city by the Globalization & World Cities Research Network & an important transport, retail, events & conference hub. Its metropolitan economy is the second largest in the United Kingdom, & its six universities make it the largest centre of higher education in the country outside London. Birmingham’s major cultural institutions, including the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Birmingham Royal Ballet, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Library of Birmingham & the Barber Institute of Fine Arts enjoy international reputations, & the city has vibrant & influential grassroots art, music, literary & culinary scenes

We like Brum! Shall we have a stroll?

Let’s Walk!

1. This walk’s pretty much centred around the city centre & starts by the bull itself, right outside the Bullring Shopping Centre

The Bullring has always been the city’s historic trading centre & was first established here in 1166 when the city was awarded a charter giving it the right to hold its own market

In the 1960’s the market site became one of the country’s most celebrated examples of revolutionary urban planning with the dramatic development of the old Bullring, at the time one of the world’s largest enclosed shopping centres outside the USA, & at the forefront of shopping centre design. The three symbols of the era were the circular Rotunda building, the swathe of ring roads encircling the old market centre site &, at its heart, the Bullring Shopping Centre with some 32,500m2 of supermarkets, shops & markets which opened in May 1964

The view towards the revamped New Street Station

By the 1980’s, & despite its trading history, Birmingham had little to offer in terms of the burgeoning growth of new generation retailers & department stores. The old Bullring Shopping Centre was tired & jaded, & the city had only one department store. The redevelopment of the 40 acre site by The Bullring Alliance is another milestone in the city’s history of innovation. The 110,000m2 scheme has been cited as the catalyst for Birmingham’s transformation into a world class retail capital, bringing modern, retail space into the city with department stores for Debenhams & Selfridges, over 160 shops, cafes & restaurants, 3,000 new car parking spaces, new open spaces, walkways & performance areas, & iconic new architecture

Drawing on Birmingham’s historic street patterns, the Bullring is composed of a series of traditional streets, squares & open spaces, which once again link New Street & High Street to St Martin’s Church, the open markets, Digbeth & beyond. Bullring provides a gateway to the east side of the city where plans are in place to regenerate the area & create a public park & learning quarter.

2. The Bull is known officially as The Guardian. This six ton sculpture, twice the size of a real bull in order to give it more impact, was installed in 2003, resting on a hidden plinth beneath the paving

It’s thought that the name ‘Bullring’ came about from the sport of bull baiting which took place here with dogs being set on the bulls & people betting on the outcome

3. Walk slightly left from the bull & between the centres towards the church…

The statue in the distance is of Admiral Lord Nelson & was the first statue of Horatio Nelson erected in Britain. It was made in 1809 & funded by public subscription of £2,500 by the people of Birmingham following Nelson’s visit to the town on 31 August 1802, the year before he sailed against the fleets of Napoleon. The statue was unveiled on 25 October 1809, that being the day decreed as the official golden jubilee of George III

The people of Birmingham took Nelson to their hearts as, although being miles from the sea, his naval victories meant that the city could export safely its goods across the world

4. The church directly ahead’s St Martin’s in the Bull Ring & is the original parish church of Birmingham. The present Victorian church was built on the site of a 13th century predecessor which was enlarged in medieval times. In 1547, although no record is kept to indicate when the first clock appears in Birmingham, during this year the King’s Commissioners reported that the Guild of the Holy Cross are responsible “ffor keeping the Clocke and the Chyme” at a cost of four shillings & four pence a year at St Martin’s Church. The next recorded mention of a clock is in 1613. The earliest known clock makers in the town arrived in 1667 from London

In 1690, the churchwardens “dressed the church in brick” with the exception of the spire. In 1873, the church was demolished & rebuilt by architect J.A Chatwin, preserving the earlier tower & spire. During the demolition, medieval wall paintings & decorations were discovered in the chancel, including one showing the charity of St Martin dividing his cloak with a beggar

5. Turn left to see the amazing Selfridges building which was designed by Future Systems & covered with 15,000 shiny aluminium discs, said to be designed by French designer Paco Rabanne‘s chainmail dresses

Down the hill directly ahead’s the famous Rag Market which we’re going to visit shortly…

…but for now walk down the steps & walk to the left of the church & past the Selfridges building

6. Cross the busy road at the traffic lights…

…& walk down into the area of Digbeth whose name is derived from “dyke path”. However, Digbeth is also believed to have originally been called ‘Duck’s bath’ due to the water supply in the area. It has also been suggested that it comes from “dragon’s breath”, referring to the air pollution during the industrial revolution

The area around Digbeth & Deritend became one of the most heavily industrialised areas in the town. This may have been due to Henry Bradford who in 1767 donated land on Bradford Street to anyone willing to establish a trade there. The street soon prospered & there were over twenty public houses on it catering to its workers. Today there are just three, the Adam & Eve, The White Swan & The Anchor

The area has very close links with the Irish community of Birmingham & is increasingly also known as the Irish Quarter. The traditional St Patrick’s Day parade is held in & around Digbeth, usually attracting crowds at times estimated to be 100,000 strong, making it the largest in the country

7. A couple of 100 yards further down the road on the left’s the rather impressive Digbeth Police Station

We always recommend turning round & having a look at the view that’s behind you as well as the one in front. In this case, architectural-wise, it’s a pretty good one…

8. It’s time to visit the markets so turn right up the narrow Upper Mill Passage into Moat Lane

Turn right & walk up the hill towards the markets. We’re now looking at the church we saw earlier from the other side

9. Welcome to the Birmingham Markets! We always rave about the markets in other cities around the world, but this is a cracker with food from all over the world that really shows the diverse nature of the city’s population…there’s also plenty of bargains to pick up

First up are the fruit & veg stalls with their incredible array of offerings including some vegetables we’d never seen before

10. Walk into the indoor Rag Market which is open 4 days a week, & home to 350 stalls & 17 perimeter shops, selling a massive & diverse range of goods. ‘The Rag’ is renowned for the extensive range of fabrics it has to offer,in addition to general & alternative goods

It’s the sort of place you could spend hours & they have some incredible stores that sell everything you never knew you wanted – we bought a plug for 50p!

11. Walk straight through & across into the equally amazing meat & fish market that would rival any on the continent. Here you can literally buy anything from the snout to the tail…

The quality & array of the fish is also incredible coming from all over the world. We particularly liked these two lads stall…

12. Exit through the far side of the market & cross the road into the Arcadian centre where we’re now moving across cultures again – welcome to Chinatown

The Chinese Quarter in the city first emerged as an informal cluster of Chinese community organisations, social clubs, & businesses in the 1960’s centred on Hurst Street. Its development was fueled by migrants of Chinese Heritage from Hong Kong following World War II. The Chinese Quarter was officially recognised in the 1980s

Walk into & through the Centre to the water feature in the centre. There’s some very enticing chinese cafes along here…

13. At the water feature turn right to exit the centre. the Glee Comedy Club is here. On reaching the road, on the other side is a selection of restaurants & businesses

However, our route is left & then right into Ladywell Walk…

…& then immediately left up Thorp Street

14. There’s a couple of buildings of note in this street. First up on the right’s the Drill Hall. which was designed by Frank Barlow Osborn as the headquarters of the 1st Volunteer Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment & was completed in 1881

This battalion split to become the 1st & 2nd Battalions of the Birmingham Rifles in 1891 & evolved to become the 5th & 6th Battalions of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment in 1908. The two battalions were mobilised at the drill hall in August 1914 before being deployed to the Western Front. In 1936, both units converted into anti-aircraft battalions, the 5th battalion as the 45th (The Royal Warwickshire Regiment) Anti-Aircraft Regiment & the 6th Battalion as the 69th (The Royal Warwickshire Regiment) Anti-Aircraft Regiment. While the 45th Regiment remained at Thorp Street, the 69th Regiment moved to Brandwood House in Kings Norton

Following a re-organisation in the Royal Artillery, 580 (The Royal Warwickshire Regiment) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery was formed at the Thorp Street drill hall in 1947 &, following a further amalgamation, 442 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery was formed there in 1955. The regiment was broken up in 1961 & the drill hall was subsequently decommissioned & substantially demolished. The former frontage now forms the entrance to a car park

15. Next on the other side of the street’s the Birmingham Hippodrome, home of the Birmingham Royal Ballet

Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) is one of the three major ballet companies in the UK, alongside The Royal Ballet & the English National Ballet. Founded as the Sadler’s Wells Theatre Ballet, the company was established in 1946 as a sister company to the earlier Sadler’s Wells company, which moved to the Royal Opera House the same year, subsequently becoming known as The Royal Ballet

The new company was formed under the direction of John Field & remained at Sadler’s Wells for many years, becoming known as the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet. It also toured the UK & abroad, before relocating to Birmingham in 1990, as the resident ballet company of the Birmingham Hippodrome. In 1997, the Birmingham Royal Ballet became independent of the Royal Ballet in London

16. At the top of the street, turn right & walk to the roundabout underpass…

…which we walk through to the centre island to arrive at Holloway Circus & the Chinese garden & pagoda

It’s a 40 foot granite carving of a Chinese pagoda, carved in Fujian, China & donated to the city by the Wing Yip brothers, founders of a local Chinese supermarket chain, in thanks to the city & its people for providing a home for them & their families & for the city’s support over the years

Wing Yip arrived as a refugee by boat from Hong Kong in 1959, aged 19 & with £10 in his pocket. He opened a restaurant in Clacton on Sea & quickly expanded. Ten years later he opened a grocery shop in Birmingham, which has now grown into a food empire that supplies restaurants & supermarkets all over the UK

The pagoda was erected in 1998 & the surrounding area turned into a Feng Shui garden with a large Taijitu embedded in the pavement.

17. Exit the island via another underpass by The Horse Fair mosaic which is the only remaining 1960s mosaic to still be in the original position (as Holloway Circus was never demolished). The mural depicts the activities in Horse Fair from 1215 to around 1911

According to the plaque, it depicts the activities in the Horse Fair which took place in this area until 1911 & was the last remaining fair of the charter granted by Henry III in 1215

18. Walk up the hill that’s Ellis Street…

…before turning right up a steeper hill, Blucher Street

We really liked the look of the traditional pub on the left, The Craven Arms which is a majestic example of British pub history. The exterior, with its blue & gold Majolica tiling, was the pride of the Holder’s Brewery which originally owned the building. It certainly gets great write ups on all the review sites

19. Across the road, on the right’s Singer’s Hill Synagogue which dates back to 1856 & has played a large part in the history of the Jewish community, which has a presence in the city dating back to the 13th century. There was definitely a synagogue here in the 18th century

Many Jews came to Britain from eastern Europe after persecutions in Russia & this swelled population in the city. There were further increases in numbers during the two World Wars following persecution by the Nazis. In the 1930’s the numbers of Jews in Birmingham had risen to roughly 6000 & many tailoring businesses were set up

However, Birmingham was heavily bombed in World War II which caused the community to split & numbers are now much lower as people have moved more towards London & Manchester

20. It’s time to go from the past into the modern as we enter the Mailbox – we loved the extra large lamp!

Previously the location of a railway goods yard with canal wharves off the Worcester & Birmingham Canal leading to Gas Street Basin, the site was the location of the Royal Mail’s main sorting office building for Birmingham (hence its current name) which was completed in 1970, replacing the Victorian head post office (now Victoria Square House), in Victoria Square

On 30 May 2013, Milligan Retail announced that the Mailbox would undergo a major renovation, designed by Sterling Prize winners Stanton Williams, that would see a roof installed over the shopping complex’s atrium. The anchor store, Harvey Nichols, would double in size to over 45,000 sq. ft

21. Go up the escalators to the BBC which moved here in 2004 from its previous studios in Pebble Mill (who remembers Pebble Mill at One?). It’s possible to tour the studios which also host the BBC Asian Network

It’s time to visit the canals so we exit straight through the end of the Mailbox

22. The steps here, on a warm day, are a great spot to sit & watch the world go by. The amazing building straight ahead’s known as The Cube which contains residential apartments, a hotel, business space & a rooftop restaurant. It was designed by Ken Shuttleworth of local architects ‘MAKE’. He’s also worked in partnership on other buildings such as the Gherkin in London

The building is based on a jewellery box to reflect the city’s Jewellery Quarter heritage

23. Walk to the above building & turn right over the canal bridge…

The view back to the Mailbox shows the development & investment that’s been made in Birmingham – they’ve done a great job

24. Continue along the canal for a couple of 100 yards to reach Gas Street Basin

The Birmingham Canal, completed in 1773, ended at Old Wharf beyond Bridge Street. When the Worcester & Birmingham Company started their canal at a point later known as Gas Street Basin, the Birmingham Canal Navigations Company (BCN) insisted on a physical barrier to prevent the Worcester & Birmingham Canal from benefiting from their water. The Worcester Bar, a 7ft 3in wide straight barrier, 84 yards long was built perpendicular to the run of the two canals. Cargoes had to be laboriously manhandled between boats on either side

The Worcester & Birmingham Canal opened between Birmingham & Selly Oak on 30 October 1795, but took until 1815 to complete to Worcester, at which time, after much lobbying by iron & coal masters & the Worcester & Birmingham Canal Company, an Act of Parliament was passed to open up the bar & the bar lock was built. There were toll offices either side of the bar lock & tolls were collected by each company from boats using the canals. The Worcester Bar still exists, with boats moored to both sides of it. It’s connected to Gas Street via a footbridge reconstructed to a design by Horseley Ironworks of the 19th century

The canals made it possible to transport raw materials, like coal, cheaply & this enabled Birmingham to grow as a manufacturing centre – today it’s said to have more miles of canals than Venice. The canals also played a part in the history of one of the city’s most famous manufacturers. In 1847 John Cadbury moved his factory to Bournville & the canal was used to transport raw materials to it until the 1960’s. Cocoa was imported from Ghana & Central & South America & cane sugar from the Carribean. The goods came into Bristol & Liverpool docks & were then brought along the canals to Birmingham. Spices also came from China, wood from Scandinavia, Russia & Canada, oranges from South Africa, brazil nuts from Brazil, honey from Chile & ribbons from France

During the 1990s much of the area around the basin was redeveloped & older buildings refurbished

25. This really is a beautiful area with some lovely canal-side pubs…

We came across a real treat though – a guy that was cycling down the canals picking up rubbish!!

26. We particularly liked the look of the ‘Gin Vault’ just before the tunnel…

Walk through Broad Street Tunnel. It seems bizarre that the road above is one of the busiest areas in the city centre & we’re in a serene area just below it

27. Through the other side we emerge into busy Brindley Place. Where we’re walking now, at the height of Birmingham’s industrial past, was the site of factories, however, by the 1970s as Britain’s manufacturing went into decline, the factories closed down & the buildings lay derelict for many years

Birmingham City Council‘s aim was to create an environment of water features, walkways & new office & leisure buildings, that would open out onto the adjacent canal. The scheme was put together by the council in the 1980s that would also build on the success of  the construction of the International Convention Centre with the Symphony Hall, & the Arena

28. The ICC & Symphony Hall are across to the right & we need to cross the footbridge to reach them…

Stop in the middle of the bridge to admire just how lovely the area is. To the left’s the imposing Arena Birmingham, previously known as the National Indoor Arena…

Arena Birmingham (previously known as The Barclaycard Arena & the National Indoor Arena) is an indoor sporting & entertainment venue, owned by parent company, the NEC Group. When opened in 1991, it was the largest indoor arena in the UK.  The arena hosts a variety of events including concerts, business conferences & exhibitions. It has a capacity of up to 15,800 using both permanent seating & temporary seating configurations

Although you can’t see it in the above photo, the National Sea Life Centre is across to the right

29. Continue over the bridge…

The International Convention Centre is a major conference venue which incorporates the Symphony Hall. The building was designed by Percy Thomas Partnership & Renton Howard Wood Levin & the site was opened on 12 June 1991 by Queen Elizabeth II. The total cost of construction was £200 million. It’s on the site of the Prince of Wales Theatre & Bingley Hall, the world’s first purpose-built exhibition hall, which opened in 1850. Also on the site were numerous houses fronting King Edward’s Place as well as a brewery & inn.

The Symphony Hall is our favourite concert venue – if you’ve never been, you must! Costing £30 million & seating 2,262, it’s home to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra & hosts around 270 events a year. The hall’s interior is modelled on the Musikverein in Vienna & the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. In 2016 the Concert Hall Acoustics expert Leo Beranek ranked Symphony Hall as having the finest acoustics in the UK, & the seventh best in the world

30. Walk out of the other side of the building into Centenary Square which was undergoing a massive redevelopment plan when we did this walk in early 2018. On the left’s another theatre…Birmingham Rep

The Rep is the longest established of Britain’s building based theatre companies & is considered one of its most consistently innovative. Today The Rep produces a wide range of drama in its three auditoria – The House with 825 seats, The Studio with 300 seats & The Door with 140 seats

31. Next door’s the unmissable Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham is estimated to have cost £188.8 million & is viewed by the Birmingham City Council as a flagship project for the city’s redevelopment. It has been described as the largest public library in the United Kingdom, the largest public cultural space in Europe, & the largest regional library in Europe

32. Although it was fenced off when we visited you can still see the Hall of Memory which is a war memorial erected in the 1920’s to commemorate the 12,320 Birmingham citizens who died in World War I

Made from Portland stone, from the Isle of Portland in Dorset, the foundation stone was laid by HRH The Prince of Wales on 12 June 1923 & it was opened by Prince Arthur of Connaught on 4 July 1925. Construction had cost £60,000 & was funded through public donations. The four statues around the exterior are by local artist Albert Toft & represent the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, & Women’s Services

Inside the Memorial is a sarcophagus shaped dais made of Siena marble. On top of this is a casket containing two books which are the rolls of honour for the First & Second World Wars. Given the renovation the rolls were on display in the library

33. Connected to the library is Baskerville House & the site was originally occupied by the home of John Baskerville. He was buried nearby in the area which was known as Easy Hill. When the construction of a canal through the area was proposed, Baskerville’s body was exhumed & found to be in good condition. It was placed on display to the public before being buried at Christ Church. After serving as offices for the Birmingham City Council, it was extended with additional floors in 2007

34. Continue walking towards Chamberlain Square – ahead is the Museum & Art Gallery with its clock tower nicknamed ‘Big Brum’

On the left is the Copthorne Hotel & we wouldn’t normally mention this, but it does have a rather excellent Malaysian restaurant – especially if you go for the early evening deal prior to going to a show. It’s called the Bugis Street Brasserie & we can highly recommend the spicy Laksa

35. Just before the Museum & Art Gallery’s a bridge linking the buildings which looks very much like the Bridge of Sighs in Venices

Next door is Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery that has a collection of international importance covering fine art, ceramics, metalwork, jewellery, natural history, archaeology, ethnography, local history & industrial history. The museum/gallery is run by Birmingham Museums Trust, the largest independent museums trust in the United Kingdom, which also runs eight other museums around the city

36. Continue on into Victoria Square, named after Queen Victoria. To the right’s Birmingham Town Hall which is a Grade I listed concert hall & venue for popular assemblies that opened in 1834. The first of the monumental town halls that would come to characterise the cities of Victorian England, Birmingham Town Hall was also the first significant work of the 19th century revival of Roman architecture. The design was based on the proportions of the Temple of Castor & Pollux in the Roman Forum. “Perfect & aloof” on a tall, rusticated podium, it marked an entirely new concept in English architecture

It was created as a home for the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival established in 1784, the purpose of which was to raise funds for the General Hospital, after St Philip’s Church (later to become a Cathedral) became too small to hold the festival, & for public meetings

The hall underwent a major renovation between 2002 & 2008. It now hosts a diverse programme of events including jazz, world, folk, rock, pop & classical concerts, organ recitals, spoken word, dance, family, educational & community performances, as well as annual general meetings, product launches, conferences, dinners, fashion shows, graduation ceremonies & broadcasts

37. Victoria Square was formerly known as Council House Square, & had a tramway running through it. It was renamed on 10 January 1901, to honour Queen Victoria. She died just 12 days later. A marble statue was erected & unveiled & was later recast in bronze

Part of the square was once occupied by Christ Church, but the church was demolished in 1899. During the late 20th century the square was a busy traffic junction. Plans were made to pedestrianise the area & to create a public focal point. An international design competition was held for a central water feature in the square, which was won by Dhruva Mistry. Construction was completed in 1994, when it was officially opened by Diana, Princess of Wales

Mistry’s fountain ‘The River’ is the largest sculptural piece in the square however, due to the recurring irreparable leaks, the fountain was turned off in 2013 in order to save money. On 6 July 2015 it was filled with plants & flowers & no longer functioned as a fountain. In its heyday it was locally known as ‘the Floozie in the Jacuzzi’

Every Christmas, Victoria Square forms the centrepiece for the Frankfurt Christmas Market & Craft Fair which also extends into New Street with the city’s official Christmas tree, donated each year by Sandvik, also standing in the square

38. To return to the Bull Ring simply walk straight down New Street. We can’t leave this walk without recommending somewhere a bit special to have some refreshments & a bite to eat

Halfway down New Street on the right’s the impressive Burlington Arcade. Walk into it & then down the stairs into the Bacchus Bar which is an amazing eclectic mix of themed rooms & dining areas – simply jaw dropping & not many people know it’s there!

So that’s our rather compact look at the centre of Birmingham which is undergoing massive development. It’s another of those cities that grows on you each time you visit with more & more to see

We love it!

Go Walk!