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28 October 2014

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You are in: Birmingham > Your Birmingham > Walk Through Time > Birmingham City Centre > Page 2
St Martins Plaza
Bullring plaza & St Martin's Church

Birmingham City Centre

The walk starts at St Martin's Church. Stand on the Bullring plaza, looking towards Digbeth (see photo, left).

View map of this stage
St Martin's Church
St Martin's Church

You're standing in the oldest area of the settlement of Birmingham, on a slope. The land dips down towards the church and then down again out towards Digbeth where, less than a mile from where you're standing, is the River Rea. It now runs in underground tunnels (culverts) under the city. The river is one of the main reason why people settled in Birmingham - people needed a good supply of water.

At the foot of the slope, the buildings of Digbeth are constructed on clay. This area was once a boggy swamp. The most recent Ice Age ended 10,000 years ago when the thick ice sheet retreated from Britain. As the ice moved, it carried with it clay, sand and rock which got picked up and stuck in the ice. This is why some of Birmingham sits on boulder clay - as the ice melted, it was left behind.

Geologists have also found gravel and rocks here which match the rock in Scotland and Cumbria - they must have been dragged and left here too. Bigger rocks which have been carried far from their place of origin by the ice are called 'erratics' - there are a few of these in Birmingham. It's easier just to leave them where they are! (There's one on the University of Birmingham campus near the Physics department.)

audiopFind out more about the glaciers which covered Birmingham. Listen to Ed Hough »

Modern exterior of Selfridges

Walk up around the curved walkway and stand on the balcony.

As you stand on the ‘balcony’ at Selfridges, look down the slope towards the Rea Valley. Have a go at imagining how the area would have looked over the last 15,000 years... Imagine the church, shops, markets and all signs of modern existence fade away.

Back in 3000 BC, mixed oak woodland stretches out from where you're standing in all directions to the horizon. Oak, birch, elm and ash trees surround you, with an underlayer of hazel, holly, elderberry and bluebells. Wild wolves, boar and foxes roam in the woods. In clearings, small groups of Neolithic farmers are cultivating wheat, barley and vegetables, and smoke rises from cooking fires.

Further back in time, to the Atlantic Period (5000 – 3000 BC), it's warmer and wetter than today. The ‘wild wood’ covering Birmingham is dense - oak, elm, lime, and alder trees with no clearings. A small numbers of Palaeolithic people are hunting the wild animals and birds, and gathering fruit and nuts (like crabapples and hazelnuts) to eat.

In 9000 – 10,000 BC, this area looks very different. The climate is cold as the last Ice Age comes to an end. Soils are forming on the boulder clay (left by the ice), sand and gravel (deposited by meltwater). Plants are growing from seeds carried by animals, birds and wind from the south and Europe. The area you're standing on is a tundra covered with vegetation - moss, lichen, grasses, dwarf willow and birch trees.

In the Glacial Period before this (13,000 BC and earlier), the area is even colder and all the land you can see is covered by thick snow and ice. The small numbers of humans and animals have moved south beyond the edge of the ice. The landscape is bleak, white, silent, awesome...

Now, surrounded by the modern architecture, the landscape hides its past under the ground. Hopefully, that trip back in time hasn't tired you out too much...

Turn around and walk up to the Rotunda. Turn left and walk along New Street.
View map of this stage of the walk.

(If you need thawing out after imagining yourself in the Ice Age, there are plenty of cafés here!)

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Map of Birmingham city centre (© Crown copyright. All rights reserved. BBC licence number 100019855, 2004)
© Crown copyright. All rights reserved. BBC licence number 100019855, 2004

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WATCH/LISTEN TO WALKS Realplayer required
audio   Glaciers in Birmingham
Black Country Walk Through Time
Your Birmingham
On bbc.co.uk
Warwickshire Walk Through Time
Derby Walk Through Time
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Birmingham Council
Be In Birmingham
Walking in Birmingham
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Contact us about this walk
On Science & Nature
Fox illustration, on Science & Nature
Big Chill - are we heading for another Ice Age?
British Bats
Birds - cams, sounds, facts
Visit Open2.net's Natural History section
bullet point Glossary - not sure what a term means? Look it up here
bullet point Toolkit - explore the rocks of Britain with this cool interactive feature
bullet point open2.net index

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