An Easy Day in 'The Workshop of the World'
Wednesday, 25th May
My itinerary was the result of weeks of planning, not only by myself but by my British friends. I started off by making a list of things I wanted to do. This list got so long that it was then subdivided into 'Must See', 'Want to See' and 'Would be Nice If There's Time'. Nearly everything on the island made it onto the third list, so it was tossed out. That still left me with enough places to visit for several 16 day vacations. Finally, I gave up and cheerfully accepted the fact that I couldn't see it all and was going to enjoy myself no matter what we did.
As much as I wanted to see the sights, spending time with as many h2g2 friends as possible was equally important. I wanted to hang out with Z and so gladly accepted his invitation to stay with him in Birmingham. His flatmate, A, was away at college in the south, so I was able to take over his room. Z seemed rather apologetic and said something to the effect that he didn't know why anyone would want to visit Birmingham. This rang a bell with me because I am always amazed when people visit the area where I live. The difference is that there really isn't anything to do in Webb City while there are loads of things to do in Birmingham.
I knew that Birmingham is the second largest city in England but didn't know a lot about it before my visit beyond the role it played in the Industrial Revolution. I suppose I expected belching smokestacks, dark concrete pedestrian tunnels and general urban blight. Birmingham figures prominently in English history, but it didn't seem to go with tourism. I'm happy to say I was wrong on all counts. I liked Birmingham and was impressed by the things Z showed me.
After so much walking in Warwick, I was ready for a lazy day. One of the things I wanted to do was shop for placemats similar to some Teuchter had that I liked very much. I had never seen any like them before. I had the regular fabric ones, vinyl ones and even some made from jute. But these are solid and heat resistant, so they can double as trivets. And they have matching coasters.
I'm almost positive Z had no interest in shopping for placemats, but he was kind enough to humour me. I was also sort of looking for a porcelain tea set, which is something nearly impossible to find in the wilds of the Ozarks. It turns out that they aren't particularly easy to find in England, either. You have to pick out a china pattern and then buy the open stock pieces and create your own tea sets. Heck, I could do that at home. We went several places, including Selfridge's. I really wanted to see it and expected to find all sorts of things I'd like to own there. Surprisingly, they didn't have a thing I was interested in buying. You know that old saying, 'A fool and his money are soon parted'? I think that applies to Selfridge's. They think a lot more of their merchandise than I did. Perhaps my tastes are not refined enough to appreciate it. We have better department stores in Kansas City in Country Club Plaza. It's quite a unique building, however, and I enjoyed browsing.
Z took me to Debenhams where I found not precisely what I wanted, but some placemats I liked. Apparently they don't get too many American tourists in the housewares department at Debenhams, because the clerk was suspicious of my US Bank debit card. I explained that it was one of the largest banks in the United States, but he clearly didn't believe me. I think he was disappointed when the transaction went through without any problems.
I also wanted to (God help me) browse through Waterstone's. I told myself that I absolutely would not buy any books to have to take back on the plane. If you can't lie to yourself, then who can you lie to? I am addicted to bookstores. But it was going to be all right. I'd go in, browse, smugly tell Z how much cheaper I could buy books at home, and leave without making a purchase. Right. And it snows purple in July.
There should be a law against bookstores running buy two get one free sales. Under the circumstances, I think I did very well. And, to be fair, I had two solo train trips scheduled and needed something to read. Anyway, I only spent £37 which is about $67. For me, that isn't bad at all.
We left Waterstone's and found a street vendor selling another item on my foods to try list – Cornish pasties. It was neither excellent nor dreadful. I couldn't make out any distinct flavours and the filling was gray in colour, but it was hot and filling1. Z had a veggie pastie of some kind that looked better. We set on the steps in Chamberlain Square outside the City of Birmingham Council House to eat our lunch. It is a pleasant location with a large fountain created by Dhruva Mistry called 'The River' which is referred to as 'the floozie in the jacuzzi' by the locals.
Although Birmingham was settled over a thousand years ago, its real growth didn't begin until the Industrial Revolution. Consequently, most of the architecture is from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. I liked the fact that much of the area is pedestrianized. It seems more welcoming that way than having to worry about dodging cars and buses.
We were on our way to the nearby Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery which is in Chamberlain Square. It was constructed during the Victorian Era and was opened to the public in 1885 by the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII. We had planned to spend an hour there and then visit some other sites, but I enjoyed the collection so much and spent so much time looking that I ran us out of time.
I have visited many, many museums and art galleries in my lifetime, and I must say that I was very impressed with this one. The collection contains over 500,000 objects and is diverse enough to offer something of interest for everyone. The antiquities collection contains items from Egypt and the Middle East, classical Greece and Rome and from Romano-British, Saxon and Medieval sites across the Midlands. The Egyptian collection alone contains nearly 10,000 items and illustrates all facets of Egyptian life. There is an extensive collection of religious and folk art from India and the Far East, Europe, Africa and the Americas. And Birmingham is the home to one of the most important coin collections in the country – over 50,000 items dating from 2nd century BC Celtic coins to the present day.
We saw a magnificent terracotta cult chalice circa 2600-2300 BC from an Early Bronze Age tomb at Vounous, Cyprus; a Neo-Sumerian foundation plaque circa 2094-2047 recording the construction of the Eanna temple in Uruk; a 6th century BC stylized figure of Persophone from Boetia, Greece; a tin communion cruet from the 14th century found at Weoley castle near Birmingham; then a beautiful Glascote torc from the 1st century BC unearthed in a boatyard on the Coventry canal; a 3rd century Moche pot from Peru; the Sultangani Buddha from 6th century India, which is the largest known complete Indian metal sculpture, and much more. There is jewellery, tapestries, an impressive manuscript collection, clothing, furniture, stained glass. And we hadn't even gotten to the art galleries yet.
Birmingham's art collection ranges from 14th century masters to the present day. It is best known for its collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings and drawings, which is the largest in the world. The collection contains works by Petrus Christus, Giovanni Bellini, Orazio Gentileschi, Antonio Canaletto, Thomas Gainsborough, Ford Madox Brown, Joseph Southall, Camile Pissarro, Patrick Caulfield, Bridget Riley, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt and sculpture by Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Anthony Caro.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the BM&AG were the many hands-on exhibits for children. It is clear that the curators recognize the importance of making art and history both accessible and interesting to kids. They were preparing to open an exhibit on Beatrix Potter that I missed by 2 days. I'm still disappointed over that. This museum is definitely worth a trip to Birmingham to visit.
While we're talking about Birmingham, I feel compelled to address a very important subject – chocolate. For as long as I have been a member of h2g2, I have had to listen to people remarking that the Cadbury bars sold in the US are not the same quality as the Cadbury bars sold in the UK. Those sold in the US are said to be inferior. All chocolate sold in the US is said to be inferior. So, as a matter of national pride, I must report to you the results of an experiment I conducted with Cadbury chocolate bars purchased in Birmingham, the home of Cadbury.
This came about because I have always liked Cadbury bars and wanted to see how much better the 'real' thing was to what I was used to eating. I always buy the fruit and nut bars at home, so we popped into Woolworth's where I bought a fruit and nut bar and eagerly took a bite. Smooth, creamy, tasted just like a Cadbury bar. Amazing. I really expected there to be a distinguishable difference, but it tasted exactly like all the other Cadbury bars I'd ever eaten. Maybe it was my palate.
I purchased several Cadbury bars before I left Birmingham, as well as some Toblerone and some Green & Black's at Heathrow and took them home with me. Once back in Webb City, I went into Walgreen's and bought the American equivalent of the Cadbury and Toblerone. I took all of them to the library, put the UK chocolate on one tray and the US chocolate on another and offered it to staff and patrons. (It is very easy, by the way, to get people to participate in a chocolate taste test.) Only one person claimed to detect a difference in the chocolate bars – and he preferred the one that came from Walgreen's. Everyone else thought they tasted exactly the same. Almost everyone preferred the Toblerone. I personally think it's too sweet, but that's just me. So, I can sit in my comfy chair in my little town in the middle of nowhere and munch on a Cadbury fruit and nut bar or some Dove dark chocolate and not feel sorry for myself because the folks across the pond even have better candy bars.
Once again, I had had a pleasant, interesting day, even though there were several places I missed seeing. Up next was a trip back to London to meet Teuchter and Agapanthus for more sightseeing in the capital.