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Birmingham, The Midlands, UK

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Birmingham is at the heart of England and is the country's second capital. This once industrial giant of a city has officially more canals than Venice - some of which are still perfectly navigable today. In the centre you'll find the Jewellery Quarter, a throwback to the days when Birmingham was a major centre for jewellers, and where you can still find some of the best bespoke-designed jewellery in England. There are many reasons why Birmingham is a fascinating place. And here are just a few of them.

Birthplace of the Balti

A Balti is a sublime curry dish cooked in a heavy iron wok-like pot, called a 'balti' - hence the name - and Birmingham is replete with amazing Balti houses. Lots of places will tell you this is a traditional Indian dish but it was, in fact, invented on the Stratford Road, Birmingham, as a meal for the various workers going to and from the British Leyland factories1. The latter no longer exists, but the makers of Balti curries have expanded to take over the UK fast food market... and are on their way to taking over the world.

If you are ever in Birmingham, visit the Royal Naim restaurant for evidence of this delicious cuisine. Many other fantastic Balti restaurants can be found in the Selly Oak area along the Bristol Road (A38). If you can put up with all the students, then try them out since there's always some sort of atmosphere. The Khanum, just opposite the food store Tesco, is pretty cool. It has no bar, but you can bring in your own alcohol bought from the handily-located 'Liquor Locker' store next door.

Spaghetti Junction

The most famous confluence of roads in Britain is undoubtedly the Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham2. The M6 motorway rides high over this infamous mishmash of major roads, all interlinking with various intersections in a crazy jumble of concrete and tarmac. If you only travel on the M6 you can easily miss the Spaghetti Junction, especially if lorries are ganging up on the inside lanes preventing access. But once on the Spaghetti Junction some commuters have been known to get confused and terribly lost in this maze of roads. However, no one has ever got lost forever3 - the Spaghetti Junction is not exactly the Bermuda Triangle.

Driving on the Spaghetti Junction has been described as a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon and, therefore, avoiding the job of visiting relatives in the West Midlands. But to avoid confusion and the risk of getting totally lost, check out a map before making your car journey across Brum.

We Are Not Brummies

There is a difference between Birmingham and the Black Country4. This is very important. People from Dudley, Halesowen, Lye, Stourbridge, Walsall, Wolverhampton and various other little Black Country gems hate being told by someone that they are Brummies.

Brummies, however, rather disparagingly refer to Black Country folk as 'yam-yams'. This is because those that speak in the Black Country dialect would pronounce the following sentence, 'You're stupid, you are' as, 'Yam stchoo-pid, yow am.' The tendency, then, to truncate 'you are' with 'yam' is the source of the Birmingham nickname for Black Country residents. So remember, the folk from the Black Country and the folk from Birmingham are different... and they'll tell you so, if ever you should ask.

Famous People Associated with Birmingham

Birmingham has given birth to many famous people and had many others spend significant parts of their lives there. For instance, the world famous Scottish engineer James Watt did a lot of his work in Birmingham. His workshop was still stood in the grounds of the Avery Berkel factory in Smethwick until comparatively recently, and some cottages he worked in are still there today.

Edward Burne-Jones, pre-Raphaelite painter and associate of William Morris5, was from also from Birmingham.

The marvellous JRR Tolkein, author of Lord of the Rings, spent much of his life in Birmingham. He went to school there as a boy and today one can find a memorial plaque in his honour at Five Ways junction. What is also interesting is that although Birmingham suffers the occasional jibe concerning what's perceived to be its 'ugliness', as a result of its heavily industrialized urbanisation, JRR Tolkein based his mythical, often extremely idyllic Middle Earth largely on his first-hand experiences of the West Midlands and Birmingham.

One family name that everyone around the world will know is that of Cadbury - for years makers of quality chocolate. This one-man business was opened in 1824 by a young Quaker, John Cadbury, in Bull Street, Birmingham. The Cadbury family were members of the Society of Friends or Quakers6, one of the many nonconformist groups that evolved in 17th Century offering alternative religious practices to that of the established Church. The Quakers were a morally-minded lot who had the interests of the majority at heart, and the town of Bournville was built by the Cadbury family to house their workers. Indeed, they provided better housing than any that was usually available at that time for poor people. But they didn't build any pubs - the Quakers were teetotal. Bournville is now a much sought-after area of the city.

The comedian Jasper Carrot is also a confirmed Brummie, but another famous comedian, Lenny Henry, cannot be said to be a Brummie hailing as he does from Dudley. And Dudley is at the heart of The Black Country, not Birmingham.

The Sounds of Birmingham

So much music is associated with Birmingham - especially rock music. Black Sabbath, arguably the inventors of the heavy metal genre, are a Birmingham band. So are Stevie Winwood and Traffic, The Move, The Fortunes, ELO, The Moody Blues7, UB40, Duran Duran, Wizzard and more recently, Ocean Colour Scene who come from Mosely.

Incidentally, don't be fooled in to thinking that Slade are from Birmingham. Not at all, they're Black Country boys. And so are the majestic Wolverhampton Wanderers-supporting Robert Plant from Led Zeppelin and his late band mate, John 'Bonzo' Bonham.

Changes in Birmingham

As for Brum itself, it has changed dramatically over the years. Though it does have its grotty bits, like any city, it also has some remarkably un-grotty bits. There are a number of very posh private schools in the Birmingham area including the Church of England College for Girls which once expelled 1980s' pop star Toyah Willcox. Most of the land in Edgbaston is owned by the Calthorpe Estate and is rather expensive. Broad Street in the centre of town has transformed out of all recognition. It boasts a Ronnie Scott's jazz club, the only one outside London, and has a host of canal-side bars, bistros etc. It also has the International Convention Centre and a bizarre statue outside that looks decidedly unfinished and rather 1930s in style. There is also the perversely named Paradise Circus, just a big, confusing roundabout.

The centre of Brum is still changing. Out goes most of the inner ring with its road tunnels, roundabouts and subways, and also the landmark Bull Ring centre. In its place will be the late '90s/early 2000 vision of what city centre life should look like, as opposed to the 1950s and 1960s vision which was Birmingham's previous incarnation. One good thing about Birmingham is that it's very easy to get to and from, if not actually across. The UK's motorway network was designed to meet up around the city. The rail network serves Birmingham with services from Aberdeen to Penzance going through Birmingham New Street.

1These were car factories.2The city of Birmingham is often referred to as 'Brum', ie 'Shall we go into Brum today?' People from Birmingham are known as 'Brummies'.3There have been rumours for some years, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not, concerning the disappearance of people who are said to have ended up buried in the concrete foundations that today support the elevated roads of Spaghetti Junction. These unfortunates were apparently the victims of certain notorious Birmingham gangsters.4The Black Country gets its name form the amount of industrial work - chain making, coal mines and the like - that went on there at the height of the Industrial Revolution.5William Morris was the Victorian equivalent of an interior designer.6They got the familiar name Quaker due to sermon in which Justice Bennet told them to 'tremble at the word of the Lord'. The name was used previously to this for a sect to that used to 'quake' through fear and religious emotion.7The Moody Blues' name was originally going to be 'The M&Bs' named after M&B or Mitchell and Butler, an English brewery based in the Midlands. The band, you see, started their life in a pub.

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