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Four days in Birmingham

This section of my trip report covers the four full days I spent based in #Birmingham. It includes day trip visits to #Coventry, #Northampton and #Lichfield.

Ø June 24 – Coventry and Birmingham (Monday)

Awake and up before the late alarm, even moving slowly getting ready to leave the room, and descend those two flights of narrow stairs, followed by the downward sloping walk to the Oxford station, I still had an hour before the full 9:40 train to Coventry. This would be another “day trip” type visit, so my first stop was the Ashleigh House, a B&B that also held luggage for travelers for the day. It was here that I learned about, a “for fee” service with similar establishments worldwide.

Waiting for me outside the door was Roger, a guide I’d found online and booked for a walking tour. Our correspondence had him focused on cathedral history in Coventry. We returned toward the station, with me trying to mentally note landmarks for my later return. Roger noticed, and began pointing out features to guide me back. There is a lot of history in Coventry, although it suffered much damage during the Second World War blitz, as many factories were and are present.

Onward to the central square passing Coventry Market, a large modern shopping mall, on a path pretty much due north of the station, passing some reproduced ancient runes. As it was approaching the hour mark, our first stop was at Broadgate to watch the mechanical clock. On the hour, a figure of Lady Godiva, naked on a white horse, appears from behind a door and circles. Above, Peeping Tom views the spectacle. Legend has it that when she rode through town, to get her husband Earl Leofric of Mercia to ease his demands on the townsfolk, all diverted their vision except Tom. There is a full-size statue of the ride in the square.

Coventry clock

Up a slight hill to the east, we entered Holy Trinity Coventry, an early Medieval Anglican church. Quite dark, it has some splendid stained-glass windows and an intricate reredos at the main altar. Outside, recent excavations have begun to uncover the remains of the old priory and Cathedral of St Mary. It had been the city’s cathedral from 1140 until Henry VIII’s Act of Dissolution in 1539. The structure was allowed to tumble into ruin with its stones used for other buildings. Roger pointed out the column base of an original Norman footing.

Please note that I have blogged about the cathedrals in Coventry while I was in Britain. That blog covers the history of the three sites and includes some pictures.

Still heading north, we passed a statue to Sir Frank Whittle, the inventor of the turbojet engine. It stands in front of the plaza of the Coventry Transport Museum, a car museum located there due to Jaguar and Chrysler being based in the city. Manufacturing skills from clock making, to bicycles, motorcycles and car parts were critical to this city’s development.

Returning towards the center, our next stop was the Guildhall. A marvelous preservation of middle of the prior millennium, the carvings, wall coverings, floors and furniture are to be seen. In an upper room, stained glass and an ornamented ceiling were awesome. Then crossing the street, we entered the ruins of the first Cathedral Church of St Michael. A pre-dissolution parish church, it became a cathedral after World War I. It was destroyed in the blitz, and the ruined shell serves as a reminder of the futility of war. The West Tower survived the bombing, so after I was guided around the old hallowed space, I climbed to the top at bit later, after a tour of the new building and Roger left.

Adjoining the ruin is the Sir Basil Spence-designed very modern cathedral, running on a north-south axis so that the view out the rear/entrance is of the old cathedral-a constant reminder of the folly of conflict. Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was written for the opening of the cathedral in 1962. With a red brick exterior, the staggered white walls bring your focus to the high altar and the tapestry of Christ Triumphant.

After climbing the West Tower, I returned to the new cathedral at 1pm for a half-hour organ concert. Speaking with two attendees, I continued to learn, as I did when speaking with chaplain and a guide after the 2pm prayer. I was directed over the dip to the Art Museum to see a piece of art; however, it had been on loan to York Minster, and was in the process of being returned.

Seal of the City of Coventry

After finding my way back to Coventry station, I retrieved my luggage and just missed a train to Birmingham. Ten minutes later was the next, a train very full with folks heading to the international airport, the stop before mine at Birmingham New Street. A quick half hour ride. Probably because Google Maps has difficulties inside buildings, and that station is huge, Maps wanted to have me walk around the outside of the station, but I figured out how to get to my B&B. It took several calls and texts to get established, but Daniel came down and opened the gate, and we walked back to his entry and up a flight to his one bedroom flat. I had the bedroom while he bunked on a futon in the main living space.

After settling in and getting on his WiFi, Daniel suggest that I seek dinner in the Mailbox, a large modern complex practically in back of the building. Out, through a gate, to the waterside, I climbed a ramp to a walkway over the canal which put me on the second level of a waterside wall of restaurants and watering holes. French sounded promising, and there were available tables, so I went into Café Rouge. Starting off with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet, I perused the menu and ordered a sourdough flatbread “Mediterranée”: chargrilled peppers, aubergines and courgettes for a first starter. To follow, chicken liver paté with shallots and raisin chutney on chargrilled sourdough, and a main of pea and asparagus risotto with baby spinach, courgettes, green beans and sundried tomatoes. All accompanied by a glass of viognier. My notes relate that I’d not heard a single French accent during the full dinner experience.

Mailbox struck me as full of glass and chrome, but Café Rouge featured space between tables, dark wood tables and bar, and a bit of ambience. Out on the patio, the chrome tables just continued my feelings of urban renewal on steroids; it looked towards the setting sun, behind looming clouds. My first starter was like a veggie pizza. The paté was superb, with rich, complex flavors and textures. The risotto suffered my frequent complaint – lack of flavor. I asked for parmesan, and they brought me a plate of freshly shaved cheese, which helped punch the dish up. The wine was fine, a nice accompaniment. For dessert, with a decaf cappuccino, a chocolate torte with a sponge cake base, cherry coulis on top.

Ø June 25 Northampton (Tuesday)

According to my itinerary, this was to be the day of exploring the three cathedrals in Birmingham. However, my terse notes indicate that I took off for the Cathedral Church of Our Lady Immaculate and St Thomas of Canterbury, the Catholic cathedral in Northampton. I suspect I made the change because of the weather, as I remember that it rained lightly all day.

After the morning ablutions and a banana, I set out through the Mailbox for the Royal Mail post office nearby. I’d collected all sorts of flyers, handouts, brochures and the like, along with some extraneous electrical stuff, and stuffed it into the box the Nikon camera had come in. At the post office, I purchase brown wrapping paper and tape, and prepared the package for transit to Florida. A helpful staff member helped me as far as he could, but since it required a customs form, I needed to queue for the counter. Although it really didn’t need to be “home” until August, my choices turned out to be £50 for one-week delivery.

Back out into the rain, I headed down the hill to Birmingham New Street (BNS) station and caught a train east by southeast through Coventry to Northampton. I chanced to sit with a young actress/teacher returning through London to her home in Arundel (through London.) We had a great chat, and the trip went quickly. A bit over an hour later, I exited and with my yellow parka and “pound umbrella”, proceeded up the hill past the University to spot an intriguing church off to the right. The street gate was closed and locked, but I did get a shot of St Peter’s Church, and the sign explaining its Saxon and Norman origins. To the top of the hill and then headed north along Horse Market and Barrack Road for about a mile, arriving at my cathedral destination.

Built of lighter red brick with a contrasting black slate roof, I presumed the floor plan from the street to be compressed cruciform with a tower-like structure at the crossing. Entering, the baptismal font was placed as almost an obstacle, but was situated in the north transept. The north aisle in the nave had whitewashed Gothic arches and dark wood pews between he stations and the columns. In the central nave, the contrast of the dark wooden timbers supporting the vault and the white ceiling itself put me in mind of the Cathedral of St Peter in St Petersburg in Florida.

Northampton ribbed vault

From the back of the nave, the “tower” at the crossing was a source of natural light for the chancel, which has a large red altarpiece behind the gilded cathedra. Composed of painted layered wood, it seemed to represent the Ascension. The throne was similar, with a relief of Pentecost on top; I discovered the chair and the altarpiece were created as a single piece. As I was nearing the end of my circuit, the parish priest came in with a parishioner, and, seeing me, turned on some of the lights.

Departing, I took a few more outside shots as the rain had paused. All my early shots were with the phone, so I was pleased to be able to use the Nikon. I crossed Barrack Road and walked to the bus stop, as it had started to sprinkle. Deciding to ride rather than walk, I hadn’t anticipated a convoluted route into the market area, and then a bus driver change. Of course, the driver picking me up was friendly and helpful, while his replacement was a curmudgeon, definitely short on service skills. I go off near the station, and was able to get a train back to Birmingham after a brief wait.

At 3:30 when I got back, I got a couple shots of the train station from the outside. A brilliant curved chrome structure, it stands out at the bottom of the hill rising into the commercial district. My back was bothering me, possibly a rib head had popped, so I collected some bananas, cheese, bread and a bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape to bring back to the flat. Daniel had been to his office in the morning, returning to work from home and bringing two chicken curries to share. Daniel offered to run a load of laundry through his washer/dryer, so I was able to delay a laundry day. So we had a peaceful, relaxing night in, sitting in the living room watching TV and chatting until it was time to crash.

Ø June 26 Lichfield (Wednesday)

Awaking to sullen gray skies, I moved carefully, as my back continued to bother me. Daniel set me up with an appointment the following day with his osteopath after I asked him about getting a massage while in Birmingham. Lifting and pulling a 50-plus pound suitcase, wearing a backpack and being on my feet all day, I just needed a little TLC.

Getting to the station before 10, I took a 40-minute ride to get to the Lichfield City station. Walking along St John Street for 15-minutes through the damp and fairly empty downtown, I got to the close for the Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St Chad. The free 11am tour had been cancelled, as the guilds were busy with paid sessions with school children. For the next hour, I walked the interior, taking about 80 pictures. Leaving to get more outside shots and find the facilities, I returned for the 12:30 celebration of the Eucharist. A second tour was scheduled for 2, so I hung out gazing and probably checking my phone. Pamela led the 40-minute tour which just covered the highlights. Exiting, I took a handful more of outside shots, trying to get the three steeples in the same photo. Passing along the Minster Pool and back through this pedestrian-friendly town on a slightly different path, again the streets were near empty. A train back was just about to pull in as I arrived at the station, so I was back to Birmingham before 4.

Lichfield Cathedral has the standard cruciform floor plan, although the transept crossing divides the nave from the quire to about equal lengths. Built of a light red-brown stone, there are two massive steepled towers at the west entrance, and a third back over the Shrine of St Chad and the high altar at the east end of the presbytery. Above the single pointed arch and large iron-work adorned wooden entry doors were, on the first tier, at least 24 statues of kings and princes of the church. I’d passed the south entrance, similar, but only 8 statues of sainted bishops and popes. Set very near the top of a rise, an oval drive surrounds the building, with the Erasmus Darwin house and gardens to the west.

Lichfield Cathedral from Minster Pool

Inside, the three aisles of the nave are brightly lit, with the stone arches framed by a painted white ceiling. The side aisles are lower, as there are galleries running the length of the nave, with a doubling of height for the center. At the crossing, the nave altar sits on a slightly raised platform in front of an open red metal screen depicting St Chad’s angel visitors. An octagonal chapter house is off the north aisle of the quire, with a beautiful center column arching to the ceiling. The Lichfield Angel, a Medieval wall carving, and the St Chad Gospels, dating back to 730CE, had been relocated to the chapter house, allowing them better presentation than the aisle outside the high altar. Opposite off the south aisle and up a short flight of stairs is the St Chad’s Head Chapel, a sacred space of pilgrimage.

Nave altar at Lichfield Cathedral

At the head of the quire is the Lady Chapel altar and a brilliantly carved and gilded screen of the five scenes of the Joyous Mysteries of the Rosary, with paintings of 4 saints on the enclosing doors. A wall is opposite this chapel, which is the back of ornately carved high altar reredos, with flanking statues of apostles and bishops. Also in the quire sits the dark wooden cathedra, a canopy over the red cushions of the seat. The south transept is used as the memorial chapel to honor the war dead, sporting the retired banners of local regiments.

Once back in Birmingham, I began my hill climb, passing the Apple Store, presumably an old bank building on a corner. In the city center, the streets have been made pedestrian walkways, so strolling the commercial district is vehicle free, except those omnipotent bicycles. Cresting the nearest rise, I came to the Cathedral Church of St Philip.

Birmingham Cathedral - St Philip

A Georgian baroque building, it sits near the center of a large green square surrounded by commercial buildings. Consecrated 50 years after the Great Fire of London, the former parish church reminds me of St Paul’s London on a smaller scale. With Birmingham becoming a city in 1889, a Church of England diocese was created in 1905 and the new bishop elevated St. Philip’s as his cathedral.

With a single bell tower at the west entrance sporting a clock, its doorways flank a central stained-glass window. The south side was open, bringing me into the space on the south aisle below a gallery. Square ribbed columns supported the galleries and the arches supporting the ceiling vault. Round columns were set holding the dome over the quire and presbytery. The organ is on the north side. The interior is colored in shades of ivory, white and gold, while the stained-glass windows for which this cathedral is known introduce rich reds and deep blues. The cathedra is a wide seat, carved of what looks like walnut, and set behind the quire stalls.

With an hour before Evensong, I crossed the street to The Alchemist to have a pint of QPC, an IPA, and padron peppers. Fueled with some liquid and my favorite Spanish tapas, I returned to St Philip for services. Brief, lasting a half hour, both the Nunc Dimittis and creed were omitted. The choir of a dozen boys sang the Psalm 73 as the Anthem, which was lovely. I left the cathedral glad that I’d adjusted my plan to visit it then, rather than trying to squeeze in three and a doctor’s visit into the following day.

Departing the Cathedral Square, I decided to try to take an alternate route back towards the flat. Rather than returning to New Street Station and The Mailbox, I wandered southwest past some stunning architecture. Of particular interest was the library with its exterior dressed in overlapping circles.

Birmingham Library

And over towards the station was a building whose façade was a hodgepodge of square tiles forming various crosses. At the International Convention Centre, adjacent to the Symphony Hall, I wandered into the lobby. Curious, I checked and found a concert was planned there for the evening. Asking at the ticket office, there were a few single seats available at £40 or more for the performance of the Berlioz “Damnation of Faust”, beginning in less than an hour. Not wanting to rush to eat, and not really wanting to listen to 90-minutes of French bombast, I opted to continue in my search of a leisurely dinner.

A vast urban renewal process is going on in the center of Birmingham. Trying to get through it was impossible, so I continued to walk its edges, which put me over near a branch of the Birmingham Canal Old Line and not far from the flat. I entered Bistrot Pierre, a rambling multi-floor building on Gas Street. Seated in a room with floor-to-ceiling windows with views of the canal, I started with a glass of Red Bear, a bobal from Spain, and spiced chicken beignets. The wine didn’t “jump”, it had a fast finish and a lot of acid. The three pieces of pastry were tasty, spicy and warm. Two bites per, the sauce was good too. To accompany the Moroccan lamb, I asked for a Rioja Crianza from Ramon Bilbao. The Rioja was superb, pleasing me greatly, an excellent accompaniment to the lamb. The lamb had a strong meat flavor, served with a couscous new to me but good. Roasted carrots, courgettes, broccoli and small roasted white potatoes completed the course.

The couple sitting next to me were intrigued by my journaling. We started chatting, and I found out the George, a doctor from Hong Kong, and Molly, a ginger-haired teacher from Bristol, had been married a month. They were moving “north” soon, as he was beginning a residency, after a visit from his parents. The most pleasant surprise was that Molly’s mother is Bishop Emma of Carlisle, the last of the English cathedrals on my trip. They encouraged me to have dessert, and I opted for an Eton Mess, a strawberry meringue concoction, and a decaf cappuccino. A good dessert, but a great cap.

Ø June 27 Birmingham (Thursday)

Leaving the flat about 9, I started walking towards the northeast along the canal. At the Malt House, I took a pedestrian bridge and turned right at the Arena Birmingham, still following a branch of the canal. Left onto King Edwards Road to a rotary, then Summer Hill Street took me to the busy, multi-lane Summer Hill Road. Finding a crossing corner to the left, I walked up Summer Hill Terrace to Arthur Place, my first destination.

St Andrew Greek Orthodox Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of the Dormition of the Mother of God and St. Andrew sits on a corner behind a wrought iron fence. A red brick building in the Gothic revival style, in 1958 the redundant Anglican building became a Greek Orthodox church, elevated to a cathedral status in 1980.

Perched as it was with descending hillsides on the southwest towards the Terrace and long southeast side towards another rotary, and the narrow Arthur Place, it made finding a good angle difficult. Expecting to perhaps use an interior shot, I was disappointed to find the building locked with no one at the office or school. So the nearly dozen shots were the best I could do.

Onward. The Catholic cathedral was about a mile away, and rather than Google Maps zigzag route through residential areas, I returned to the canal and enjoyed the water and 6-to-8 barges moving through a dozen locks and half dozen tunnels. At the point the walkway got strange, I was to return to surface streets via a double-back onto Old Snow Hill. Up a slight incline, and a turn onto Queensway, the Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St Chad shared the block with the Salvation Army Citadel. The main entrance, with two tall thin spires, faces more south than east. Designed by AW Pugin and completed in 1841, it is one of the first four Catholic churches constructed after the English Reformation. Elevated to cathedral status in 1852 by Pius IX, it is one of only four basilicas in England.

Considered purpose-built, the red brick Gothic Revival building is narrow but tall. The dark stone arches of the nave support a stenciled beam roof. The large, ornamented organ sits above the main entrance. The apse with the traditional high altar and altarpiece is bowed, with three tall stained-glass windows reaching to the vault ceiling. Situated at the gospel-side ornamented ribbed column, the cathedra is a simple armchair with a peaked covering and crest affixed above on the column. Talking in the shop, I was sent back to look at the floor tiles, the St Edward the Confessor chapel, and the relics of St John Newman, who had been a bishop here.

St Edward the Confessor Chapel - St Chad Cathedral

Mission accomplished, my next item was to get to Walsall for the doctor’s appointment Daniel had set up for me. As I returned to the New Street station, I ran into Dr George from dinner the night before. I boarded a Trent Valley train and rode two stops. Maps’ direction took me through a bright, sunshine filled pedestrian shopping walkway of High Street. Viewing a good set of stairs up a hill, I decided to take a break and dropped into the Black Country Arms for a pint of Pig on the Wall ale and fish and chips. The ale was dark and from Black Country, the section of England where I was. Not a ginormous piece of fish, the chips were a nicely crisp and seasoned with a spicy salt mix. The peas were a variation on what I’d heard called mushy peas: rather than mashed fresh peas, usually with mint, I had a version of split pea soup. I left full without finishing my chips or peas.

Again into the warm sunshine, I proceeded to climb the hill to St Matthew’s Church of England. Walking around it and across the church green, I descended on Birmingham Road, walking past two parochial schools and into the building housing the doctor’s office. About an hour early, Six Ways Clinic welcomed me, took a perfunctory medical history, and I was led into to see the osteopath, whose name I failed to record. As my back (and neck) were my major issue, he used his mass to roll me around on the examining table to loosen muscles and cause joints to snap back into place.

I left feeling great, albeit a bit bruised (but in a good way.) Back up towards St Matthew’s, down the hill and through the shopping arcade, I caught the return train back to Birmingham. Here’s where it gets very confusing. I have no notes or memory for what I did the rest of the afternoon. I apparently go back about 4, walked around. Using the Nikon, I returned to St Philip and took some pictures, then went to St Chad and took more pictures. And per the timestamps stored in the pictures, all within 5 minutes. And the picture numbers decrement. Go figure. That would be a three-quarter mile walk, taking at a minimum 15 minutes. [Figured it out. I must have returned to the flat and proceeded to upload the pictures to DropBox. When I couldn’t find one of the chips, I apparently used a download, and those files were stamped with the time of the upload. All better now.]

Daniel had suggested going out to dinner together for Indian, so we caught an Uber to go perhaps a half mile (by foot) to Taj Mahal, where he is a known customer. Seeing as he knew the menu, I allowed him to order, and just enjoyed. Lamb tikka to start, tikka marsala, papadum (bread) and a Cobra beer. One out-of-focus picture of the starter. Too much food, we wound up bringing the leftovers back. We walked back, through the Mailbox, and stopped at Starbucks for decaf coffee – actually an Americano with cream and hazelnut syrup. We had a great conversation, and I honestly feel he’s a nice guy.

Returning to the flat, I focused on packing initially, and then we settled in watching a National Geographic special on the building of St Paul’s London.

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