Lucas Owen shares the inside track on Birmingham, an often overlooked gay destination.
Birmingham, England’s second city, undoubtedly has a reputation for being second best – especially as a gay destination. With London and Manchester an hour and a half away in either direction, it’s true that much of Birmingham’s indigenous LGBT population has been tempted away in years gone by. However, that is slowly starting to change. Native Brummie, Lucas Owen, talks us through the best bits.
Centred around Hurst Street in the city centre’s Southside district, Birmingham’s gay village has been the subject of significant investment over recent years – as has much of the rest of the city centre. This year’s Birmingham Pride celebrations, held over the Jubilee Weekend, were the biggest ever, with The Saturdays and Stooshe among the many live acts performing.
At the heart of the Industrial Revolution, Birmingham’s reputation as a depressing, manufacturing nerve-centre lingers on. On the edges of the city centre remain many unused and derelict factories, although these are slowly being replaced with modern glass-and-steel edifices. This is no more apparent than in the emerging Eastside technology and education district, which will soon be home to the first new park in Birmingham city centre for over 100 years. It is also the eventual location of the city’s High Speed 2 terminal near Curzon Street, due to open around 2026.
If you’ve arrived by train in 2012, New Street station soon helps you understand why Birmingham has such a dreary reputation with outsiders. That industrial heritage made Birmingham a prime target for World War II bombing raids, with much of the city destroyed and demolished in the post-war years as a result. Parts of the city centre are a triumph of 60s concrete Brutalism, and this main rail interchange is among its finest (i.e. worst) examples. Thankfully the current subject of a massive redevelopment, the revamped New Street station will be open in 2015 and adjoined by a huge branch of John Lewis.
Shopping And Eating
The Bullring shopping complex, opened in 2003, was the first major project in the city’s redevelopment plan and features the unmistakeable Selfridges building. Loved and loathed in equal measure at the time of its opening, the locals have grown to accept it as a unique symbol of their city, as they have the beloved bronze bull that stands outside the Bullring’s entrance.
The huge redevelopment cost of the Bullring means retail rents are high. Consequently, the city centre’s shopping area is remarkably sparse in terms of independent restaurants and boutiques, although there are plenty of restaurants chains around should you crave the familiar. The business district around Colmore Row serves up some better finds, with Urban Coffee Company on Church Street, and the recently-opened Yorks Bakery being particular highlights.
Birmingham also prides itself as a foodie destination, being home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than any British city outside London. Organic ‘yummy mummy’ types should head to Moseley; Patrick Kavanagh’s and The Fighting Cocks are great places to while away a sunny afternoon, and Sabai Sabai does wonderful Thai food. The real gems, however, are hidden in the city’s so-called Balti Triangle. The birthplace of the curry dish of the same name, the area south of the city centre is best navigated with the assistance of a local, because for each ‘diamond-in-the-rough’ establishment, there is another that is simply ‘rough’.
Should you prefer to stick to the city centre, there are various, more polished destinations to dine. Asha’s in Colmore is hugely popular, if Indian cuisine is your thing, and the numerous authentic Chinese restaurants adjacent to the gay village serve up some delicious treats. Jacky’s Kitchen comes highly recommended.
For such a large city, the city centre is surprisingly small and easily navigable by foot. Head out towards the suburbs and you’ll need to catch a bus, with a standard fare at £1.90. Bus stops have recently been relocated away from Corporation Street, so if you are heading out of town you should check the location of your bus stop online before leaving home. Corporation Street is being pedestrianised and the local tram system – one line, running currently from Snow Hill station to Wolverhampton city centre – is being extended to connect with New Street station as part of its redevelopment.
Head to Hurst Street and you might be surprised at how small the gay village is considering the size of the city. The Nightingale - known affectionately as ‘The Gale’ - is the only nightclub of note, although The Core does host the local edition of London’s XXL night once a month; anyone expecting something comparable to the capital’s version will be sorely disappointed, though.
There is a far greater choice of bars: The Loft Lounge and Sidewalk both offer cocktails and good food in refined surroundings, while The Fox caters to the lesbian market. The Village Inn is hugely popular and is open nightly, with a truly mixed clientele and Top 40 soundtrack, while Eden mops up the bear/cub crowd. Equator is a great place to spend a hungover Sunday morning, but Missing Bar is best left to bottom-feeders (no pun intended).
Lying at the heart of the country’s motorway and rail networks, Birmingham is extremely well connected.
New Street station is the main rail station, with direct connections to all of England and Wales’ major cities, and many of these being less than two hours away. Travellers from London can also head into the much smaller and prettier Moor Street (and significantly less pretty Snow Hill) from Marylebone, with Chiltern Railways offering open off-peak returns for just £27.50. That price drops to under £19 if you have a Young Person’s Railcard, but anyone can save if you book in advance.
The central location means internal UK flights are less necessary, although the airport – which has its own railway station and frequent connections to New Street – does offer flights to Scotland and Northern Ireland through budget airline flyBe.
For more information, see visitbirmingham.co.uk.
Birmingham Pride 2013 is scheduled for May 25-26, with details available from birminghampride.co.uk.