We’re situated on a lake, more a glorified pond really. The views at breakfast are a delight, as is the fare itself. Quantum amounts of delicious food all cooked to perfection. After I’ve lifted the lid, I could happily stand for minutes wallowing in the wafting scent of the mushrooms, though others might find a similar delight with the adjacent bacon. Tiffany’s can wait as far as I’m concerned. There’s also any amount and variety of cereal, eggs cooked how you like them, fruit, pastries and hot drinks that can be ordered and delivered in seconds.
I’ve got to know our waiter, Filip. He’s so chuffed because I’m the only one who ever suggested he might be Polish at the first attempt. Who am I to disappoint and tell him that I was about to say Czech Republic but Poland just slipped out. Lorraine, ever critical of other’s culinary presentations, is also delighted, so these are happy times, made even more so when we are joined by others of the group involved in the quilt judging course. Lorraine can compare notes as to today’s schedule while I saddle up for a day in Birmingham.
The hotel we’re staying at, one of six, is part of a huge complex, all centred around the National Entertainment Centre, a multi-purpose venue of which the massive quilt show takes up only four of the twenty halls, not to mention concert venues, food outlets and a whole shopping area. If that’s not enough, there’s a train station right in the middle of it and an airport two minutes away via monorail. The train station makes it easy to get to the middle of the city at New Street station and that’s where I decided to start.
With little expectation I watched the suburbs go by until the train went into the tunnel that precedes New Street Station, where trains first visited in 1838, beneath the largest single span iron and glass roof, a record it held until St Pancras opened in 1868. The modern transport hub, with at least 13 platforms plus trams and buses, right besides going in all directions, only opened a couple of years ago. It handles over 140,000 passengers daily, especially trains heading to London.
All of which I didn’t know as I walked out the exit and was gobsmacked by the undulating stainless steel cladding that gives a warped view of the world. It’s simply stunning, a symphony of shapes on shiny metal no matter where you view it from and favourably reflects the roughly 1 ½ billion dollars spent on it. The possibilities for artistic photography are limitless and I started clicking away immediately, though I knew I had things to go and see.
I chose Temple Street, having no idea where I was going, but it was uphill. Past The Shakespeare, an historic and attractive hotel and the unusually titled Revolucion de Cuba, seemingly another place to imbibe. Temple is one of a few ways and, collectively, they’re all entitled the Cathedral Walks because that’s where they lead to. Set in a lovely park, where scattered centuries old tombstones still stand, it’s small by cathedral standards but has some exceptional stained glass windows by Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones set among its baroque style. Dominated by wonderful shades of red, they really are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
I next head down Edmund Street, having no idea where I’m headed but knowing I will come across something worthwhile. For me it comes in the form of the Victorian Gothic style School of Art, completed in 1885 after the architect, J.H. Chamberlain’s death. Considered his finest work, it’s certainly something I would be proud of.
Immediately next on the opposite side of the road, is Birmingham’s Art Gallery and its umbilical cord, The Bridge of Sighs, unashamedly modelled on its more famous cousin in Venice, which was completed in 1912 and joins the Art Gallery and the Round Room across the way via marble and mosaic floors. Me, I was after the gallery but the confusing signage during the massive rebuild of Birmingham central led me towards the excitingly modernistic library building, wandering midst the barriers that blocked the renovation sites. Unimaginatively, they’ve left no Perspex or glass pieces so you can view the works. When I reached the library I saw a sign indicating that I should return whence I came, so I ambled back up and located the correct entry point, to be met by a very helpful lady.
I complained to her about the lack of brochures and she concurred, “We don’t do a very good job of promoting ourselves.” Still, I was now in the gallery and proceeded upstairs to the main viewing room, lit from above by natural light filtering through an impressive glass dome. Here were displayed some of their finer paintings. I was quite taken by those of David Cox who used vast expanses of cloudy skies above people engaged in rural pursuits. They had meaning and character all rolled into one. A work by Walter Langley “While Men Must Work, Women Must Weep”, evoking the tragedy of a missing fisherman as a distraught woman is comforted by a friend I found very poignant. I moved around the rooms, a Greek vase here, a Chimu artefact there and their most prized possession, the Staffordshire Hoard, only found in 2008 in a farmer’s field and dating back to around 650 A.D., were just some of the many items on display.
Upon leaving I turned left towards Victoria Square, looking downhill to the splendidly classic Town Hall surrounded by Corinthian columns, but not able to visit its vast interior and hear its resonating acoustics. The restored 1834 edifice would be a wonderful addition to any town. Looking across to my right was the all glass affair appropriately titled the Alpha Tower. At 100 metres in height it’s had a chequered career after the company that built it, Associated Television, closed in 1982.
Finally I’m at the square where the large fountain statue sits, named The River, but called “The Floozie In the Jacuzzi” in the vernacular, weighs 1.75 tonnes, doesn’t have any water during the renovations and thus a homeless person has moved in. What might cross his mind I ponder, as he lays under the upraised knees of the naked female? I didn’t bother to find out. Who knows what he might think the day they turn the water on again and the 11,000 litres plus of liquid flows every minute.
pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light,
And they were behind us, reflected in the pool.
Then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty.”
This verse from TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton (a cottage he visited in Gloucestershire) is inscribed on the front of the floozie but I dared not get any closer to the vagrant for fear of an adverse reaction. Nearby are two sphinx like creatures that came out of the carving workshop in Cambridge.
I’m still in the square but looking back at the Council building, another classic-styled entry whose pediment features a bas relief of Britannia receiving the manufacturers of Birmingham while underneath, the facade has a central balcony with a niche under the portico that contains a mosaic tympanum by Salviati featuring Municipality giving “Stability” to Liberty and “Power” to Law, while Science, Art, Commerce and Industry look on.
Thus sated and still marginally jet-lagged, I head off back to the station where I still can’t stop looking at the wondrous stainless steel wrap, knowing I’ll be back again tomorrow and can photograph it from even more angles.