Birmingham, England: Destination of the week
Lace up your walking shoes and get to know England's second-largest city.
Thu, Jan 12 2012 at 8:10 AM
FLOAT YOUR BOAT: Relics of the industrial age, many canals in Birmingham now are lined by walkways, shops and business centers. (Photo: ell brown/Flickr)
Birmingham sits at the center of England's West Midlands region. Though it is not on many international tourists' radar, it is the second-largest city in the country, after London. Birmingham has a history of being on the cutting edge. It was one of the world's first centers of manufacturing and a hotbed for engineering and technology as early as the late 18th century. Subsequently, it became one of the first places to truly embrace industrialization. In today's post-industrial age, Birmingham remains an important commercial center.
But Birmingham isn't all about business. Theater, music and a long literary history make this a good stopping point for culturally minded travelers. Green enthusiasts will appreciate the city, and the wider West Midlands region, as well. A partially pedestrianized downtown makes for a pleasant and safe foot-powered vacation, while greenspaces abound both within the city limits and beyond them.
London is the U.K.'s urban tourism headliner, but Birmingham is also a worthy addition to a European itinerary, especially for people who are looking for a city with traits that make a low-impact, nature-oriented urban vacation possible.
Except for a single-line metro, Birmingham is a city of buses. The National Express West Midlands service has routes throughout the urban and suburban areas of the Birmingham metro. With a bit of pre-planning, getting anywhere in the city via bus is pretty straightforward. For those heading out to explore other areas of the West Midlands, rail travel becomes an option, with lines serving various cities and towns throughout central England. Network West Midlands is a site that can help West Midlands visitors plan their regional rail and road journeys.
One of the most attractive (and greenest) aspects of Birmingham is its walkable central district. The city prides itself on its pedestrian-friendliness. Getting around the downtown area (for shopping, restaurants, etc.) never requires a walk of more than about a mile and a half, while sightseeing walks are also possible for people with a reasonable level of fitness. Some of the city's canals, a relic of the industrial age, have been converted into pleasant pedestrian areas with shops and restaurants lining the waterside walkways.
Sustrans, a sustainable transportation organization in England, has mapped a cycling route through the West Midlands. The route covers more than 160 miles and passes some of the region's best attractions. Urban cycling is possible in Birmingham, but overall, the city is not as cycle-friendly as many of its Mainland European peers.
The Birmingham Farmer's Market is not a daily event (it takes place on the first and third Wednesday of the month), but if it fits with your itinerary, it is a worthwhile gastronomic attraction. Artisanal foods and organic produce are sold by local producers. The main market's website lists other markets as well. These are held around the city in different locations, with each location playing host once per month.
Birmingham has a wide range of small green eateries and organic food shops. The highlights include One Earth Shop, a vegan grocer that sells fruits, nuts, seeds and other whole foods, and the Kitchen Garden Cafe, a small shop and cafe with a deli serving organic goods to eat in-house or take away.
The Warehouse Cafe has a vegetarian-oriented seasonally changing menu that has stood the test of time (Warehouse is more than 25 years old). The kitchen's focus is on fresh, local ingredients that are organically grown. Manic Organic Cafe is still another vegetarian, organic and Earth-friendly option. This eatery sources much of its produce from farms within 25 miles of its front door.
When it comes to eco-friendliness, the Abbey Hotel is West Midlands’ green headliner. Located in the county of Worcestershire, about 20 miles outside Birmingham, it has a host of eco-friendly features. Water for the grounds and golf course is obtained on-site, and an in-house filtration system purifies water for conferences. Other green amenities include biodegradable cleaning products and energy efficient lighting. The Abbey buys much of its produce from local businesses, and also supports local wildlife by doing things like placing bird nesting boxes around its grounds.
Another Earth-friendly sleeping spot near Birmingham is the Moor Hall Hotel and Spa, which is run by Best Western. This plush inn with an old-world vibe has an impressive list of green accomplishments, including a food waste converter that uses garbage to create pellets that can be burned at bio-fuel power stations. Moor Hall also has a heat-saving system that redistributes heat from the on-site swimming pool to other areas of the property.
In addition to these places, Birmingham has a decent menu of small-scale inns and bed-and-breakfasts that are perfect for people looking to green their trip by avoiding large, energy-eating hotels.
Covering more than 2,400 acres, Birmingham's Sutton Park is as impressive for its size as it is for its natural landscapes and on-site programs. One of the UK's largest urban parks, it attracts nearly 2 million visitors annually. A visitors center provides information about hiking paths, boating, horseback riding, fishing and cycling. Within the confines of the park, landscapes include marshlands, lakes, forests, grassland and other wetland habitats. The park rangers regularly hold educational and community events.
Another nature-themed greenspace is Lickey Hills Country Park. This forested public park has a full menu of community and ranger-led events in addition to its walking paths. Some of these paths lead up the park's wooded hills. Lickey also has a sculpture trail featuring works by local artists.
These two parks are definitely highlights for park seekers in Birmingham, but there are a host of other parks and natural spaces in Birmingham that can be enjoyed on foot.
The Birmingham Nature Centre is a zoolike attraction near the center of the city. The venue has collected animals from around the world, but has changed its focus to the protection and breeding of endangered species from exotic climes. Animal inhabitants range from meerkats and lemurs to pythons, red pandas, otters and cranes. The Centre is an interesting attraction for families and animal lovers, but there is also a strong educational and informational bent for those who are passionate about conservation.
SeaLife Birmingham is a another animal-centered attraction. This aquatic zoo boasts touch-and-feel pools and large tanks with hammerhead sharks, stingrays and other freshwater and saltwater creatures. While SeaLife is definitely more of a spectacle than the Nature Centre, it is not a completely commercial venue because it is involved with a full range of conservation projects, many of which have a local or regional focus.
Despite its impressive parks and nature-focused attractions, Birmingham is a largely urban place, with smaller cities and suburbs creating a sprawling metropolitan area. The one exception is the Meriden Gap, a rural stripe of green that sits between the towns of Solihall and Coventry. Despite being threatened by urban sprawl and other construction projects, much of the area in the “gap” remains natural.
The Birmingham Botanical Gardens is a great venue for those who want to appreciate a classic garden. However, this greenspace goes well beyond the basics, with features including a bonsai garden, bamboo maze, woodland, teahouses, ponds, gazebos and wildlife areas. The gardens focus on educating both paying guests and also visiting schoolchildren about the importance of biodiversity and sustainable growing practices.
As an international tourist destination, Birmingham sits in the shadows of London. However, this dynamic city has more than its share of attractions and a healthy dose of green features that make it an ideal base for green-minded tourists who want to explore England’s Midlands.
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