Shopping in Birmingham has been born again.
Londoners, who like to think that UK style begins and ends with them, might be surprised to discover that women in Birmingham spend more on fashion than in any other UK city. In fact, according to Nigel Godfrey of the Style Birmingham campaign, customers at the city's Harvey Nichols spend more per capita than at any other branch of this famous fashionistas' mecca - more, even, than in London.
It's a far cry from as recently as a decade ago, when busy ring roads and a 1960s, wrap-around architectural monstrosity barricaded the Bullring, the high plateau at the center of Birmingham, in an impenetrable, anti-human wall of whizzing traffic and grimy concrete.
Birmingham - The city as a work in progress
Today's Bullring is a huge, buzzy city center shopping area, including covered malls, vast pedestrian areas, leading department and chain stores as well as 100 independent retailers. Its branch of Selfridges - the first for the company outside of London - is a futuristic, windowless bazaar, covered with thousands of polished aluminum disks. Perched on the edge of the Bullring, it seems to hover like a space ship over Birmingham's markets and older districts.
And the Bullring is just one of Birmingham's revitalized shopping areas. Some, like the markets and the Jewellery Quarter, have been commercial centers for hundreds of years. Others, like the Mailbox, are brand new.
The Bullring, New Street and the Arcades
The Bullring is one of the places that the city of Birmingham began. In the middle ages, it was the city's meat and cattle market - the place where farmers brought their livestock for butchery and sale. In the 16th century, a bull baiting arena may have given this market area its name.
Much of historic Birmingham was bombed out of existence in World War II when it was the most bombed city in the UK outside of London. The radical 1960s replacement turned its heart into a nightmare. Now, all that is changed.
When I visited Birmingham in 2007, it was the first time I'd been there since the 1990s and the place was unrecognizable. Back then, I never saw the center because I could not figure out how to escape the traffic whirling around and over it on elevated ring roads.
Today, the historic commercial center of Birmingham is full of life, light and air. Plus - shophounds will be pleased to hear - hundreds and hundreds of shops.
The new Bullring changed the face of Birmingham. Built at a cost of £500 million, it includes 140 shops and cafes in a pair of linked, glass covered malls covering 26 football pitches. There are more than 3,000 parking places plus easy bus and rail access.
Two of the UK's biggest department stores, a futuristic Selfridges and Debenhams, anchor the shopping area alongside just about every UK high street merchant and loads of independent fashion shops.
And beyond the Bullring
The Victorian arcades, Great Western Arcade and Piccadilly Arcade, off New Street, are lined with exclusive fashion boutiques, chocolatieres, jewelers and stationers.
How to Get to the Bullring
Next: The Markets
The Birmingham Bullring Markets - 850 years of market trading in the same place!
Birmingham's markets reflect this multi-cultural city - 25 per cent of the population comes from ethnic minorities. No where is this ethnic diversity more apparent than in Birmingham's vibrant, cosmopolitan markets, especially the famous Birmingham Rag Market.
Yet the Birmingham markets are not new, nor did they spring up to serve recently arrived immigrants. In fact, there are have been Birmingham Bullring markets for almost 850 years, dating from a charter granted to the lord of the manor in 1166.
Today there are three distinct Birmingham Bullring markets as well as a large wholesale market immediately south of the area:
- The Bullring Indoor Market More than 80 stalls selling everything from meat and fish to fruit and vegetables, sweets, hosiery, lingerie, garden accessories, pet foods, carpets,household linens and fashion. Open every day but Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
- The Bullring Open Market Covered walkways protect customers of the 130 market stalls, buying fresh fruit and vegetables, farm produce, clothing and fancy goods. Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
- The Rag Market The most famous, and perhaps the oldest of Birmingham's markets, 350 stalls sell textiles, haberdashery, clothing and sewing craft materials. In recent years its sari merchants have become world famous. Indian brides from throughout the UK and Europe travel to Birmingham to buy wedding fabrics and trimmings at the Rag Market and nearby shops.Open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Victorian St. Martin's Church, sits on ancient foundations, that have overlooked the Birmingham Bullring markets since the 13th century. Before you hit the markets, visit its stained glass windows by Edward Burne-Jones, a native son and leading Pre-Raphaelite artist who also designed windows for Trinity Church, Boston.
Next:The Jewellery Quarter
The Jewellery Quarter is Birmingham's real gem, sparkling with treasures
They've been working precious metals in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter for almost 350 years. From French shoe buckles and a die casting firm that minted coins in the 1660s, to the 19th century, when the world's first machine made pen nibs were manufactured here, the area was a magnet for craftspeople making jewelry in silver, gold, enamels and precious stones.
The Georgian Square around St. Paul's Church (the last Georgian Square in Birmingham) saw such distinguished residents as James Watt, inventor of the steam engine and Washington Irving - who wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow while living with his sister here. John Baskerville, printer, calligrapher and designer of the famous typeface that bears his name, is buried in St. Paul's churchyard.
By the early 20th century, 30,000 people were employed in Birmingham's jewelry trade. But because the Jewellery Quarter was a tight knit community of artisans, crafts people and manufacturers - with little retail activity, it was, until recently, Birmingham's secret.
Not any more.
Today it is a jewelry buyers heaven. Of the 400 jewelry related businesses in the area, 100 are retail jewelry shops. The area is rich in designer-makers who create custom made items at remarkably reasonable prices. Much of the jewelry that is made and sold in the quarter is also sold on to stylish London jewelers (who sell it at much higher prices). In fact, 40 per cent of the jewelry sold in the whole of the UK is made here. The area's assay office, where gold is tested and given its quality mark, is the busiest assay office in the world.
Get here onthe Birmingham Metro tram, from Snow Hill Station to Jewellery Quarter Station. Cross St. Paul's Churchyard to Vyse Street and the Jewellery Quarter Information Centre at 120 Vyse Street, then just follow your nose.
Take a walk in the Jewellery Quarter.
The Mailbox - Birmingham's newest, exclusive shopping center
Shop here for serious - and expensive - fashions in clothing, home decor and lifestyle.
Anchored by a Harvey Nichols (one of the UK's top fashion department stores), this is a quiet, multi story development with several hair salons and spas, and a small but exclusive clutch of designer shops.
The Birmingham Malmaison Hotelsits alongside the shopping mall and waterside, along the Gas Street Basin, there are more than a dozen restaurants and bars to choose from. The BBC also has its Birmingham headquarters here.
Ring roads, the bane of Birmingham traffic for visitors and pedestrians, still blockade Mailbox from the Bullring and the main city center shopping areas. And I was surprised, when I visited in late 2007, that few local people knew what I was talking about it when I asked for directions.
If you are heading for The Mailbox on foot, proceed down New Street to Victoria Square and ask someone local to point you toward Brindley Place. Then walk back up the canal tow path to Gas Street Basin.