October 13

My Birmingham by David G.K

Birmingham was a real shock to the system when I arrived from London almost twenty years ago.

I’d just got the hang of London’s sophisticated new Pret a Manger sandwich shops and its trendy new “cosmo” cocktails. And here I was in Birmingham which at the time didn’t even have a Gap.


It’s deeply shallow to measure a city by the shopping and drinking options, but it is part of the mix. Living in Birmingham I felt abandoned by modern life. I’d sit in my flat on the Hagley Road with a small BBC issue laptop sending lonely messages to colleagues back in the capital. What had I done?


And yet. I was working at BBC Pebble Mill. At that point still a buzzing centre of programme making. My colleagues were all proper TV people who certainly knew their craft. My working days were full of interesting stories and people.


It was just the nights and the weekends that were a bit bewildering. Sure there was the Nightingale on a Saturday. But there was a big sign inside telling patrons “strictly no cameras”. And none of the gay bars on Hurst Street had actual windows you could look out of. It was like stepping back in time and back into the closet.
So I spent weekends in London with old friends and never really tried to get to know my new home.


But then slowly I changed and, as well know, Birmingham changed too. I moved to the Jewellery Quarter and fell in love with the industry and the history of the place. I began to uncover amazing stories about the city. I was the first TV reporter to film the top secret Anchor Exchange nuclear bunker deep under the BT Tower.


And then I got to go to the top of the BT Tower itself and look out across the city. It’s so much greener than you ever expect. It’s bursting with wildlife. I’ve filmed peregrines, kestrels, parakeets and even black redstarts from the streets of Birmingham. Redstarts are some of the rarest birds in the UK but you probably walk past their nest every day in the city centre without knowing. (Hint: Keep your eyes open around Glenn Purnell’s Bistro)
Then the big life change when I met my future husband at the Christmas market.


Suraj was born in the Maternity Hospital, brought up in Handsworth and went to Birmingham University. He showed me a completely new side of the city. Shopping at the Bullring market or on Soho Road. Visiting the city’s temples both large and small.


And all around Birmingham was no longer the city the big shopping chains ignored. We got an Apple store, Pret a Manger and even a Gap. In fact there was a point where it seemed like the chain stores were taking over. The city centre in danger of becoming a bit of a clone town. After so many years wanting what everyone else in the UK had, when it finally arrived… Birmingham became just like everywhere else.


But then it all began to change again. Suddenly the city was full of cool places to go and get a great meal and a decent martini. It started with Bank in Brindley place and spread out from there. Now you can’t move for Michelin stars and mixologists with espumas, scented smoke and miniature candy flosses. There are even secret rooms hidden behind book cases for those in the know.


Then an explosion in smaller independent shops, cafes, restaurant and pubs. Now we have great food popping up on street corners and under the arches of railway viaducts. And the gay bars have windows now.


Now Birmingham is full of amazing places to hang out, to eat, to drink. It’s as good as everywhere else but with a thriving indie scene on top. But like I said at the top that’s a shallow way to judge a city. In the end it was meeting and marrying my Brummie husband that helped me see Birmingham for the amazing place it always was.

David Gregory-Kumar is the BBC’s Science, Environment & Rural Affairs Correspondent. He blogs at bbc.co.uk/davidgregorykumar and is on Twitter @DrDavidGK