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Travel: Birmingham's disused factories turn into pubs, shops

Romance is rarely associated with Birmingham, but UK’s second largest city is slowly trying to shed its tag of being an industrial city

The canals in Birmingham were used to transport goods to the factories, which have now been refurbished to house stores, offices and pubs.
The canals in Birmingham were used to transport goods to the factories, which have now been refurbished to house stores, offices and pubs. (Nivedita Jayaram Pawar)

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Romance is not a word one would associate with Birmingham, once a manufacturing hub, but there is a sense of rugged romance in this former industrial city, especially if you explore the pocket of Brindleyplace. 

Birmingham is not exactly Venice but Brindleyplace has more miles of canals than the Italian city. The 35 miles of canals that once served the factories, which manufactured everything from guns to malt, now form a beautiful backdrop to the many pubs and clubs that occupy the old factory buildings. This is where the Industrial Revolution kicked off 200 years ago—and today you can drink quirky craft cocktails and eat hearty pub lunches in those same buildings.

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There are no gondolas in the canals here, but there are traditional narrowboats and electric boats for those who want to be their own captain. As I board a narrowboat and slide through the tranquil waterways, beneath arched bridges and past painted wooden barges, I am transported back in time when coal, glass and other goods were loaded and unloaded here. The manmade waterways were eventually superseded by the steam engine, which upped the pace of the Industrial Revolution after Birmingham engineers James Watt and Matthew Boulton made improvements to it. A live commentary tells you that Boulton helmed the Lunar Society, whose members met at full moons and cheerfully referred to themselves as ‘lunatics’. 

There’s enough history in Birmingham to keep you on your toes for days, but nothing comes close to the scale of the Black Country Living Museum. Spread over 26 acres, it tells the story of Birmingham’s industrial past from the 1850s. Many of the red-brick buildings in the museum were transferred from their original locations and reconstructed to portray a working village. There’s also a pharmacy with original supplies, a steam-powered Turner-Miesse car, two mine shafts and a few limekilns. I had a field day wandering in and out of the houses, chatting with costumed staff and riding vintage buses. 

Blinders in Birmingham
It’s impossible to come to Birmingham and not think of a certain blue-eyed gangster. Although the final season of Peaky Blinders wrapped up in 2022, Birmingham still offers a lot for fans of Steven Knight’s TV show. For the uninitiated, Peaky Blinders was a real street gang that operated in Birmingham at the turn of the 20th century. From a massive 50ft mural featuring the main characters to a Peaky Blinders bar, guided tour and set visits, fans can track the gang across the city. Author and historian Carl Chinn, whose grandfather was a peaky blinder, offers tours around Digbeth, where the Sheldons ruled for much of the 1920s. 

The pedestranised Victoria Square is undoubtedly the beating heart of Birmingham. Apart from being a space for tourists and locals, the square has some of Britain’s most eclectic public sculptures. The most famous is the recently restored water fountain featuring a giant naked nymph, known locally as The Floozie In the Jacuzzi. A short walk from here is the Library of Birmingham, the newest and largest in Europe, which has an awe-inspiring view of this city from its rooftop garden. The Town Hall built in 1834 and modelled on Ancient Rome's Temple of Castor and Pollux is steps away, as is the Mailbox, an upmarket retail and dining complex set in the old Royal Mail sorting office. Every part of this city I am visiting reminds me that Birmingham is a city of contrasts, one with an intriguing and sometimes dark history that is slowly reinventing itself. 

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