5 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Birmingham

March 22, 2016

The home of Cadbury's chocolate and the nation's jewels: Emma Poolton explores Birmingham beyond the guidebooks.

Just a short train ride from London lies the vibrant and bustling city of Birmingham, the second largest in the UK after the capital. As a result of its skilled tradesmen and industrial prosperity, Birmingham put itself on the map during the Industrial Revolution and was subsequently dubbed 'the city of a thousand trades'. Today, Birmingham is known for the distinctive accent of its locals, the 'Brummies'; a legendary shopping scene; its annual German Christmas Market; and a rich history of resident rockers (think Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and many more). But did you know that the city is home to Pre-Raphaelite beauties and the UK's favourite chocolate? Read on as Emma Poolton uncovers some of Birmingham's lesser known claims to fame.

1. Birmingham has more canals than Venice

A  Birmingham canal at night with boats docked up on either side.

Built in the 18th century, the Birmingham canals brought valuable trade to the city during the height of the industrial revolution. Today they serve as a picturesque waterway lined with restaurants, bars and attractions. While it's true there are more miles of canal in Birmingham than Venice, narrowboats rather than gondolas are the order of the day. Take a boat tour for a unique way to see the city and stop for tea at one of the many narrowboat-turned-cafes if it floats your boat.

2. Its landscapes inspired Tolkien

Sarehole Mill in Birmingham.

It’s a little known fact that J.R.R. Tolkien, illustrious writer of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, spent his childhood in Birmingham. Many believe that this early period in Tolkien's life inspired his later writing. One of the most important sites is Sarehole Mill, a 250-year-old working watermill, where Tolkien would often play. Today, Tolkien’s legacy lives on at the mill which hosts events in the writer's honour throughout the year including Tolkien walks and the well-known Middle Earth Festival that takes place each September.

3. 40% of all the jewellery made in the UK is made in Birmingham

A goldsmith in the process of making a piece of jewellery.

Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter attracts visitors from far and wide who come to the city in search of fine, handcrafted pieces made by some of the most talented gold and silversmiths in the country. With a long and glittering history, the Jewellery Quarter has been the jewel in the country's crown for more than 250 years. Another gem worth discovering is the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter. Occupying an old jewellery factory which was abandoned in the 80’s, the museum includes a preserved jewellery workshop where visitors can see live jewellery-making demonstrations.

4. Cadbury chocolate is a Brummie brand

Different varieties of chocolate stacked on top of each other.

Britain’s best loved chocolate brand, Cadbury, was established in 1824 by Brummie John Cadbury. In the 19th century the brand blossomed from a small shop business in the city centre into a large-scale production factory. The Victorian factory, still in use today, was opened in 1879 in Birmingham’s sleepy countryside (now a Birmingham suburb); a town which would come to be known as Bournville. The factory is now open to the public and visitors are taken on a chocolatey journey through Cadbury’s history to learn about the production of the nation's favourite chocolate. A stroll in the village doesn't go amiss either. A pretty town of chocolate box houses, Bournville still holds the values of its traditional Quaker past - the village has remained dry for 120 years with no pubs and shops prohibited from selling alcohol. 

5. It's full of Pre-Raphaelite beauties

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

It's an easy presumption to think that London's famous galleries hold the majority of Britain's artworks. But a little know fact is that Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery boasts one of the largest public collections of Pre-Raphaelite art in the world. The Victorian museum is brimming from ceiling to floor with more than 3000 drawings, paintings, prints and decorative art of enchanting, realistic subjects from one of the most influential movements in the history of art. In addition to ever-changing exhibitions, the museum also houses permanent collections of Egyptian and Greek artefacts and displays celebrating local history. And, if you begin to get museum fatigue, the on-site Edwardian Tearooms is a great spot to take a break. 

Emma Poolton Travelling since a child, Emma’s passport photo may have changed but her love of travel has remained untouched. Her favourite destination is Italy, where she has both worked and lived, and her travel highlight is seeing Niagara Falls by boat.