Birmingham City Centre
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Page 2 - Start at St Martin's Church
The walk starts at St Martin's Church. Stand on the Bullring plaza, looking towards Digbeth. 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.
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, 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.
Page 3 - New Street
Continue straight on to Victoria Square. As the ice melted 10,000 years ago, the clay areas of Birmingham became boggy and waterlogged. The first people to settle in Birmingham sensibly chose to live higher up, where you're standing now, where the rock underneath your feet is sandstone.
Sandstone is red, yellow or brown and it looks like compacted sand because that's what it is! The sandstone you're standing on formed between 290 and 205 million years ago when the area was a dry plain. The heat and pressure caused the sandy earth to compact to form sandstone. Water drains away easily through sandstone and who'd want to live in the clay bog when you could live on solid rock?
Have you ever wondered why Birmingham doesn't have a subway trains system? It's something the council are looking at, so perhaps one day, we'll have a tube network like London and Newcastle.
Most people think Birmingham is very flat, but New Street is a slope - you can see the land rise towards Victoria Square.
Walking through the heart of the city, it's easy to think there's no wildlife here at all but all around you, creatures are making it their home. Roofs, canals and parks provide a habitat for enterprising birds and animals. The city centre supports an urban 'ecosystem'. Plants attract insects, then larger creatures move in and feed on the insects.
Birmingham is home to some very rare birds - black redstarts. There are only a handful of breeding pairs in Britain, most of them in London and Birmingham. They're about the size of a sparrow; the males are black with a dark red tail which can be seen when they're flying. It's unlikely you'll see them but you might hear them - they make a high-pitched chirping, which, if you're familiar with the songs of more common birds, definitely sounds unusual! Black redstarts nest in rubble walls, cavities and roofs - they like Birmingham's 'brownfield' sites - derelict areas. The Wildlife Trust are putting up redstart boxes which are long and narrow in attempt to encourage more of them to nest here. Their habitats are protected and developers have to take care not to disturb the birds.
Kestrels and sparrowhawks live in Birmingham, especially in older buildings like churches, and recently a pair of peregrin falcons are known to be nesting up the BT Tower! If you're out in the city at night, you might see bats - another of Birmingham's rare creatures. Find out more about them on page 6.
Some animals are pests in cities. Pigeons feed on waste food and all their droppings have to be removed because they damage buildings. Rats are also a city problem. The best way to deal with pigeons and rats is to take away their food - so the public are encouraged not to feed birds and to use rubbish bins.
Some stranger animals are becoming pests... Wild minks (which may have escaped or been released from mink farms) are fast breeders, very resilient and rapidly becoming a pest in the rivers and streams they inhabit. They eat all kinds of small creatures and birds' eggs. They're already living in Birmingham but they've not been sighted in the city centre... yet. Arrive at Victoria Square.
Page 4 - Victoria Square
Make your way up through the square, towards Chamberlain Square. This is the civic heart of the city with the Town Hall and Council House dominating the square.
On geological maps, you can see large parts of the city centre have been constructed on rock brought in by man. This could be to make the ground level or to make a better surface to build on.
Much of the information geologists have about the rock underneath the surface comes from boreholes. Engineers dig deep narrow holes into the ground and extract the 'core' (the stuff which comes out of the hole). The boreholes can be many tens of metres deep or even several kilometres! Geologists then analyse the core and use the data from lots of boreholes to compose maps. In Birmingham, boreholes were very important for map-making because rock cannot be seen at the surface. The handy thing about boreholes is that you only have to dig them once - the rock layers underground don't change (not in Britain, anyway - they might if we were in an earthquake region). The British Geological Survey has a 'library' of borehole records - not just the files about what was found but the actual cores themselves! There are row after row of boxes full of tubular sections of rock.
Victoria Square is full of fascinating public art. A statue of Queen Victoria looks out over the square (and doesn't look amused by the newer statues). Near Queen Victoria is a small plaque which shows a pawprint next to the words "On site - Ebony 1992-3". Ebony was a dog belonging to one of the workers who renovated the square - she had her own day-glo safety vest and helped her owner carry his tools!
'The River' water feature was built in 1993, complete with the 'floozie in the jacuzzi' statue weighing in at a hefty 1.75 tonnes (aka: Spirit of the River by Dhruva Mistry). The fountain is one of Europe's biggest with 3000 gallons cascading down the steps in one minute.
The Iron Man sculpture was a gift to Birmingham from
the Trustee Savings Bank 1993. It was designed by Anthony Gormley - who
also designed the Angel of the North - notice any similarity? The Birmingham
sculpture came first though! It was made in Willenhall, showing off the
skills of traditional industry in Birmingham and the Black Country.
Walk through Chamberlain Square into Paradise Forum (to the left of the library). (Optional detour: Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Both of these are free entry. Definitely worth a look if you have time!)
Page 5 - Centenary Square
Emerge from Paradise Forum and walk across the square towards the ICC. Centenary Square is bounded by The Birmingham Repertory Theatre on the right and the register office on the other side of Broad Street to the left. The pedestrianised square is covered with paving but a few areas have been left as grass. It's important that rainwater can seep into the ground to prevent flooding in the city streets. Water that seeps into the rocks under Birmingham trickles down through the sandstone until the rock is saturated. It then moves along sideways until it can emerge as a spring or drain into a river.
This level where the water moves along is called the 'water table' and at the moment, the Birmingham water table is rising! In the past, Birmingham's industries pumped gallons of water out of wells in the ground to supply their business (for cooling, washing or making steam). Now these industries have closed down, the water in the rock isn't being used so there's more water in the rock. Walk through the mall of the ICC.
Page 6 - Brindleyplace
Exit the ICC mall and cross the canal on the footbridge directly in front of you. (Alternative route without steps: from Centenary Square, take Broad Street and rejoin the route at Gas Street Basin. Or, exit the ICC mall and follow signs to the right for crossing the canal.)
Brindleyplace is named after James Brindley, the engineer who designed and built the Birmingham Canal and others in England. Optional detour: if you continue straight on after crossing the bridge, you can explore Brindleyplace. This whole area was redeveloped, bringing a new lease of life to the canal area. Take a look at the impressive modern architecture, the Sea Life Centre and the Ikon Gallery.
If you're out in Birmingham at night, especially along
the canals, you might see bats. The canals, with their long stretches
of straight waterways, act like 'motorways' for animals and birds. Bats
roost all over Birmingham city centre: in cellars and roofs, in canal
tunnels, in old trees. Experts identify what sorts
of bats live in Birmingham with a 'bat detector'. It works by detecting
different frequencies of sound wave that the bats emit. There are known
to be nine species of bat here - and all of the UK bat species are protected.
It's the roosts which are protected and bats like to return to the same
areas. Even if there are no bats in a building, if it's a roost, developers
have to be very careful not to disturb it.
Turn left after crossing the footbridge and walk along the canal - you need to be on the other side - use the bridge to cross over. Mind your head as you go through the tunnel!
Page 7 - Gas Street Basin
Just inches from the modern architecture of the ICC and Brindleyplace, you're now standing in a 200 year old canal basin. The canal is extremely important in Birmingham's history - without it, our city would not be anywhere near as important as it is today. Gas Street was the first street in the city have gas lighting, hence the rather unsexy name. In 1800, Birmingham was the hub of the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the centre of England's canal network which stretched from Liverpool to London.
There are few raw materials in Birmingham so they were shipped in on the canal and used in factories here. Coal from the Black Country was used in the furnaces of the metal industry. Just above the tunnel, on Broad Street, there was a factory making brass items. The building is still there now - it's now a pub called The Brasshouse. Gas Street Basin would have been buzzing with constant activity, day and night, as cargoes were loaded and unloaded.
In the 1830s, railways opened and competed for business with the canals. By 1960s, road transport and rail was quicker (and therefore cheaper) than the canals and they stopped being used by businesses. Cadbury's in Bournville were one of the last local businesses to stop using the canals. Their fleet of boats only stopped transporting their products in the 1960s. The canal area then became run down, the dirty water lined with derelict warehouses. However, today Birmingham's canals are buzzing with life again. The historic canals sit comfortably next to Broad Street, one of the city's busiest entertainment areas. You can take a canal boat tour, have your dinner on a boat or sit outside a pub on the canalside.
On your right, after the low black and white footbridge is the the Canal Information Centre. (Call 0121 632 6845 to check it's open when you want to visit.) Next door to the centre is a café, and next door to that, the Tap & Spile pub which used to be a warehouse and then a private cottage. The bridge itself is an imposter - it's not an original one! It was made recently using the original Horseley Ironworks design, just like the other footbridges in Birmingham. It links Gas Street with the Worcester Bar.
The basin used to link the 'Worcester & Birmingham Canal' to the 'Birmingham Canal Main Line'. The Worcester Bar, built in 1792, separated the two canals for 30 years so that the Birmingham Canal Navigations company didn't lose water to the Worcester & Birmingham canal. If a cargo needed to continue on the other canal, the whole load had to be taken off one boat and loaded onto another on the other side of the bar which was a major inconvenience. In 1815, a lock was put into the bar to allow boats through. Today, it's much easier to pass between canals - there's a narrow channel under the bridge. Private boats now moor along both sides of the Worcester Bar. Continue straight on and up onto the walkway at the back of the Mailbox.
Page 8 - The Mailbox
Follow the path round past the restaurants and up the steps near Tesco. Continue straight on into the covered area of the Mailbox. The Mailbox used to be Birmingham's Royal Mail sorting office. Now it's been redeveloped into multi-use mall. It's an office block, hotel and apartment building. And also probably the world's most bizarrely-named shopping centre. It's a good example of regeneration in Birmingham. Millions of pounds of public and private money are being spent on updating our city. If you're flagging, the Mailbox is a good place to stop for a cuppa or pint in one of the many bars.
Look out for the BBC Shop & Café! It's open
to everyone - come in to have a coffee, log onto the internet and watch
BBC WM and Asian Network broadcasting through the window. You'll also
be able to see Midlands Today being broadcast. The two floors above the
café house hundreds of BBC staff.
Go past the BBC and down the escalators to Level 5 (alternatively, there is a lift round to the left). Leave the Mailbox at the exit on the right (next to the Hugo Boss shop). Walk straight on up Blucher Street until you reach Holloway Head.
Page 9 - Housing, bombing and redevelopment
At the end of Blucher Street, turn left to walk down Holloway Head. Holloway Head and Bath Row used to contain row after row of back to back terraces which a quarter of Birmingham's residents lived in at the turn of the 20th century. Many of these houses were bombed in World War II and the rest were completely demolished in the 1960s. They were considered slums in 1960s because the houses had outside loos and no bathroom! The city's poorest residents lived in them. However, when they were built in the late 1800s, they were modern and popular houses.
Only one courtyard of back to backs remains in Birmingham city centre - court 15 on the corner of Hurst Street and Inge Street, next to the Hippodrome theatre. It's been restored by the Birmingham Conservation Trust and the National Trust and is now open to the public!
At the roundabout, use the subway to emerge on the right hand side of Smallbrook Queensway. The pagoda on the roundabout was donated to Birmingham by a businessman who owns Chinese supermarkets in the city. A very tall new skyscraper is being built on Holloway Circus. It will contain two hotels and flats. Beetham Tower will be the city's tallest structure - from the top floor, you'll be able to look down on the BT Tower! Continue straight on up Smallbrook Queensway.
Page 10 - The Chinese Quarter & The Arcadian
From Smallbrook Queensway, turn right onto Hurst Street. Continue along Hurst Street and bear left onto Ladywell Road. Look out for Birmingham Hippodrome Theatre on the right - this is the city's biggest theatres and hosts many touring shows. This area of the city centre is know as both the Chinese Quarter and the Gay Village. Looking around, you'll see Chinese restaurants and supermarkets, and the area's bars and clubs are popular with the city's gay population. From its humble beginnings as a clearing in the forest, Birmingham is now a thriving multicultural city with six million people living near the city centre. Continue along Ladywell Road and left onto Pershore Street. Optional detour: just past the Hippodrome on Hurst Street is the National Trust's courtyard of restored Back to Backs.
Page 11 - The Chinese Quarter & The Arcadian
You're back in the oldest area of the city. If you're walking through here in the daytime, it will be full of people buying and selling from the indoor, outdoor and rag markets. It has always been used as a marketplace and Edgbaston Street features on the oldest maps of Birmingham. It was the main route for traders to and from the Bull Ring market. This area was a prestigious place to live - it was near the lord of the manor, close to the church and markets and far enough away from the river to not be liable to flooding, but still close enough for water supplies.
Recently, the area has been completely redeveloped. As part of this work, teams of archaeologists carried out excavations. Just two metres below ground, they found evidence of medieval Birmingham's thriving manufacturing industries. On the site of the Indoor Market, they discovered a 13th century tannery. Fragments of glass, metal and pottery were also found nearby.
Look out for the information board just past Debenhams on the wall on the left - it shows photos of tools, knives and a medieval cooking pot found in Edgbaston Street. It also shows William Westley's 1731 map of Birmingham. You'll see many street names are still the same!
Birmingham has hardly any raw materials - unlike the
Black Country which has rich natural reserves of coal, limestone and dolorite.
Potters were able to use the natural clay to the south east of the city
but everything else had to be brought in.
Continue along Edgbaston Street to St Martin's Church. You're now back where you started. We hope you enjoyed the walk!