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Birmingham, the Commonwealth Games Host City, Finds Gold in Tourism

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An aerialist performs with Birmingham’s “Raging Bull”, a 35-foot mechanical beast that was the centrepiece of the 2022 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Prem Moti pulls his kayak paddle out of the water to take a pause from his trek. As he contemplates the refurbished factories and fresh towers and architectural sharpness of the Gas Street Basin—among the latest of multiple development projects that are rapidly transforming his home city of Birmingham—the tour guide marvels at the novelty of the experience he shares with me —one of drifting between concrete canal banks lined with tourist barges, dawdling past bars with satisfied patrons who steadfastly liberate their mugs from the weight of another pint, exchanging thumbs-ups with onlookers halted in their soles at the sight of us navigating the town in a way that feels like something out of an amusement park. You will want to go on for days joyfully exploring Birmingham by kayak. Even though each tour lasts only 90 minutes, chances are that’s all the time needed for the city to draw you in, making you eager to dive in for more.

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Tour guide Prem Moti slips through Birmingham’s canals, which are surrounded by modern and historic architecture. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“You know, there are people in Birmingham who have lived here all their life and never seen the city from this angle,” says Moti, who guides for Roundhouse, a tour operator whose kayak outings have only been offered since 2020. “The city has had these canals but couldn’t make use of them in this way until now. The waters are busier than they’ve ever been but the activity is because of tours not so much for industry or commercial traffic.”

 

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The kayak tour is a pleasant way to see a city that in many ways is a blank slate when it comes to international tourism. Though Birmingham had achieved more than 1 million annual overseas visitors in the years prior to the global pandemic, business and convention travel was a primary driver of that activity while leisure travellers have considered it a launching spot for visits to the pastoral communities of the West Midlands, including the hiker-friendly Peak District and venerated Coventry. What reputation Birmingham has is as an industrial manufacturing centre but such a perception is as outdated as the century-old car parts manufactured for bygone marks like Ashton-Evans and MG Rover. Of Birmingham’s 1.15 million residents, 40% are 25 years or younger, making the second-most populous city in the United Kingdom the most youthful in Europe. It has attracted new investment and families thanks to real-estate prices that are far more affordable than London. Plus, Birmingham is among the safest cities of its size in the world.

Plenty of promise for growth and tourism awaits as the HS2—a much discussed and expensive high-speed rail project that will connect London to Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh in Scotland—is scheduled to launch in 2026. Once active, trains will whip passengers between London and Birmingham in 45 minutes. HS2 is already propelling a massive level of redevelopment and positive energy under Birmingham’s Big City Plan. Among the initiatives that are transforming the city’s rep as a grimy town for factory workers is the 2022 Commonwealth Games, held in venues throughout the city from July 28-August 8. The event kicked off with a spectacular opening ceremony at Alexander Stadium directed in part by Steven Knight, the acclaimed filmmaker whose violent 1920’s-era “Peaky Blinders” series on Netflix has succeeded in shooting up interest in his hometown.

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The magnificent “Raging Bull” of Birmingham has gone from the Opening Ceremony to being displayed in the city’s downtown during the Commonwealth Games. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Participants in the Commonwealth Games opening included Prince Charles, Duran Duran, and activist Malala Yousafzai who calls Birmingham home, but it was the “Raging Bull” that left spectators snorting words of praise. It took 50 workers five months to manufacture the 35-foot beast out of scrap metal. During the ceremony, athletes paraded around it as if it were a pagan symbol of worship. It moved with a gallop that seemed like a CGI trick, lip-synched the chorus of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”, and cavorted with aerial dancers floating like fairies overhead. The bull punctuated Birmingham’s reputation for inventiveness and its debut will likely stand as a starting point for a new zeitgeist in a city that has known several eras of creativity and entrepreneurship. Going forward, the public can gaze upon it (Birmingham aims to find a permanent home for the bull in the heart of the city) and sharp marketers are likely already contemplating ways to extend its celebrity value beyond the Closing Ceremonies. A £24 million ($37.5 million CAD) business and tourism programme that is meant to maximize the legacy of the games will no doubt come into play as the city seeks a location for the engineering masterwork.

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The Birmingham canal routes have been upgraded thanks to development projects that have brought attractive housing and hospitality services to the area. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“Historically, we have had people come here who are interested to do things that allowed them to explore their interests. They could come and set themselves up and work on a trade of their choice — there were no trades unions in Birmingham so there weren’t those barriers to getting in and getting started. That really drove that element of creativity and ingenuity in the city,” says Jo-Ann Curtis, curator of history at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Her colleague Felicity McWilliams, the museum’s curator of science, notes that the breadth of manufacturing that has taken place in the city also had to do with the spirit of pioneering entrepreneurs who were adept at thinking small as well as big.

“People knew they could come to Birmingham to make something happen. It’s a city that was dabbling in everything and anything, it wasn’t just known for doing one kind of industry,” she says. “There were small component parts that were made here and people with ideas knew they could get good quality here and could try them out easily. That spirit of invention has driven creativity and ingenuity in the past.”

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Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran sings to the athletes and volunteers at the Opening Ceremony of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The museum is devoted to showcasing the overwhelming amount of brainchild projects that went from Birmingham to the world, including notable creations that impacted automobiles, cinema, publishing, and housewares. You would think this city of invention would have no trouble reinventing itself. The shift from industrial manufacturing to a metropolis focused on knowledge and service hasn’t been easy, though. London has a stranglehold on the attention of global travellers to England, attracting 19 million visitors in 2021. Foreign visitors who venture beyond the capital lean to the Lake District and Stratford-upon-Avon. To increase its market share, Birmingham has to announce its calling card and “Raging Bull” may have done it during a made-for-TV debut. Yet tourism is tied to experiences and it is experiences like the city kayak tour that will drive increased and sustained visitation.

As the tour slides through the gentle canal waters of Birmingham, the activity of humans enjoying their strolls or stopping on a bridge overhead to take in the city is a unique thrill while the attractive skyline captures your eye the way a waterfall might on a paddle through nature. Redevelopment of derelict factories has led to condominium projects and a dining scene revered by locals and connoisseurs. Lily Sheppard, one of those younger residents and a kayak guide like Moti, says Birmingham is attractive because of its calmness relative to London and the number of activities that can be taken in without contending with traffic or crowds. “It’s just so vibrant. There’s loads of things to do here and there’s a real mix of culture and so much history. I don’t think people necessarily realize how much Birmingham was responsible for historically and that adds to the experience of being here,” she says.

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Prince Charles, reading a letter from his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, opened the 2022 Commonwealth Games on July 28. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The Big City Plan will broaden that scope of experiences. It is dubbed “the most ambitious, far-reaching development project ever undertaken in the UK.” Among its goals are the creation of 65,000 square metres (700,000 square feet) of new or improved public spaces and 28 kilometres (17.4 miles) of “enhanced walking and cycling routes”. The two-decade goal is to build a world-class city centre. While Birmingham will never be London—nor does it aspire to be—it already has an impressive amount of reasons to visit, including:

  • A dazzling street-art scene that has been impacted by Banksy, whose reindeer mural is among the sights that attract contemporary art fans.
  • The rise of Digbeth, an industrial neighbourhood that has transformed into a hangout for the young and begrooved, with clubs, murals, and gathering spaces similar to London’s hip Shoreditch area.
  • Screen tourism, centred around Knight’s “Peaky Blinders”, contributes to 20% of the city’s tourism market. Knight is building a film and animation studio that will increase production in Digbeth.
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The Digbeth neighbourhood of Birmingham has transformed from a manufacturing site to a cool arts and culture destination filled with street murals. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

  • The shopping finds include three significant areas: the Bullring Centre, whose name is tied to the original market where animals for sale would be paraded around a corral populated by bovines; the Jewellery Quarter, where 75% of the jewellery in Great Britain is either created or handled before it reaches the market, making it the largest jewellery hub in Europe and one with affordable prices; and the Pakistani shopping area where you’ll find exquisite, inexpensive saris and kurtas.
  • The diversity, captured by Yousafzai and the increased support for new voices, is exemplified in the street art and the museum’s “We are Birmingham“ project whose aim is to involve more young people of colour in the sharing of perspectives of the city.
  • An eclectic collection of dining choices suitable for various budgets; notably the city has five Michelin-starred restaurants, including Purnell’s, which champions Birmingham and its blend of cultures. And the city is also famously the place of origin to Balti, a fast-cooked curry dish whose creation in the 1970s is credited to a Pakistani immigrant who succeeded in attracting local clientele with efficient service.
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At Purnell’s, creative fine-dining dishes include cheese placed atop a pineapple gelatin and topped with edible silver. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“I had Indian and Pakistani friends when I was growing up and they’re the ones who introduced me to the flavours of their heritage. That influence is a massive part of what I’ve always done. We do lean on using eastern spices, in a western way; I educated myself on how to do it and adapt to the dishes I serve, of course,” says celebrity chef Glynn Purnell of his eponymous restaurant. “But for the most part, if you would have asked anyone about food in Birmingham 30, 40 years ago, you would think it was a culinary desert in the UK, except for Balti.”

Londoners chuckle at Brummies’ accents and many will chortle if a visitor tells them they plan to visit the unsung city. But experienced travellers know there is joy and value in exploring destinations on the cusp of mass recognition. Thirty years ago, Copenhagen was a tourism wasteland, but for a decade it has been one of the hottest destinations for foodie travellers on earth. Closer to Birmingham, Liverpool has catapulted in stature thanks to a series of investments and sports tourism.

If you enjoy places like Dublin, Berlin and Philadelphia—perpetually youthful university-rich urban centres with a history of art and industry, and more budget-friendly activities—you will adore Birmingham. Its spirit of invention has instilled a sense of pride in a city that is clearly ready to make a splash on the global travel scene.

Travel Tip: Stretch Your Budget in the UK

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Roundhouse kayak guide Prem Moti leads a guest beneath one of Birmingham’s bridges. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

For North Americans, the UK remains an expensive destination despite recent movements in foreign exchange rates. Traditionally, visits are planned around London, with a day trip perhaps to Stratford-upon-Avon or Brighton. While you will immediately think of focusing your UK visit around London, it might be more sensible and certainly more affordable to base your trip in Birmingham and the West Midlands. You can find urban experiences and easy adventures to the countryside and small towns, several of which are tied to the history of art and industry, and still take a National Rail train to London for two or three nights.

Kayak Tours: The “Bustling Birmingham” tour from Roundhouse starts at £25 ($39 CAD) per person for a 90-minute trip and includes use of kayak equipment. The speed limit on the canals for all watercraft is just 4 km/h, ensuring your paddle will be stress-free.

Where to Stay: The Aloft Birmingham Eastside is a 20-minute walk to the heart of the city and 10 minutes by foot to Digbeth. It’s a three-star hotel with comfortable beds and low rates. The city has many hotel options, including several notable brand names.

Note: VisitBritain hosted Vacay.ca Managing Editor Adrian Brijbassi. It did not review or advise on the contents of this article before it was published.

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.