Birmingham: Britain’s second city and our temporary home. Some say third city, I know, but, lovely as it is, Manchester just doesn’t quite cut it for me, for it never bloody invented its own curry and the BBC is in Salford, not Manchester proper.
Anyway. Birmingham is great. So far I have familiarised myself with less than a quarter of a square inch of this fine metropolis and I can report that:
- It rocks squares. Centenary, Chamberlain, Victoria. Each with its own statue, its own imposing building, its own charm. Move over Trafalgar, goodbye Leicester.
- It embraces the canal. Not for Brum the snobby upturned nose that Rugby, for example, presents to the cut. Birmingham has taken the old working drains and made them its own: places to hang out in or just pass through, places to sit and watch the swans over a sandwich, watery pathways that dissect the city and act as its alternative compass. Gas Street – obviously and famously – is the finest example of this – but there are also odd little corners of enchantment: along the old Soho loop, the charming sign to Bumble Hole, our home at Cambrian Wharf, the Gower Branch. Generous fourteen day moorings in the heart of the city, conveniently next to services. And. at this time of year, any corner might yield the rewarding sight of a Canal & River Trust working boat doing something improbable with a digger.
- It has the best council library I have ever seen. Only opened in September, it is a beauty inside and out. Ample, comfortable working space. A motivating hum (silent of course) of activity. And what a collection! Every magazine going, a whole host of books in and about Chinese, a gallery with Audubon’s Birds of America on display. And other people seem to love it as much as I do: I have been in nearly every day for a week and it is always busy, yet never over-crowded.
In fact, if it only had the beer and the accent of the Black Country, Birmingham would be perfect.
So why aren’t more boats here? We have only seen one boat moving around in the last two weeks – and that vanished so mysteriously I think it might just have been a figment of my imagination. I know it’s been terrible weather, but the towpaths here are proper; the water levels perfect; you can loop the old loops with abandon to explore the old navigations of the city’s industrial past or just hang out in its cosmopolitan present; you can eat sushi or curry or pork scratchings as much as you please; and, I repeat, you can moor up in the city centre for fourteen days without hassle or charge. When it comes to canals, London has nothing on Brum, yet it has more boats than you can shake a stick at. I just don’t understand.