Tag Archives: Birmingham

Can anyone join your tours?

blue badgeI offer two types of tours: public and private. The public walking tours are run by me and a colleague, Michael, and take place in Birmingham on Saturdays, and anybody is welcome to join these. You will find details of times and prices at Midlands Discovery Tours. Michael and I also offer public ghost walks in Birmingham, Sutton Coldfield and Warwick and details of these can also be found at Midlands Discovery Tours.

Private walks are ones I have been booked for by a particular group or organisation, and these are limited to people that belong to that particular group.

Anyone can book a private tour – I have done tours for tourist groups, corporate incentive schemes, schools, birthday parties, business trips, office nights out, book clubs and music fans, to name just a few examples – so if this is something that would interest you, get in touch

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Academic tours…for all ages!

Inside Newman Brothers

Inside Newman Brothers

Guiding tends to be quite a seasonal job, with lots of bookings in the summer but nowhere near to many in the colder months.  But this week has certainly been an exception.

Tuesday and Thursday were school tours for Year 6 classes from Bluecoat School in Edgbaston, who have been learning about Birmingham in Geography.  Having put together a questionnaire for them to fill in with information from the tour, we set off for two and a half hours discovering our city, partly on the coach and partly with a walking section from Brindley Place to Victoria Square.  The children on both tours were enthusiastic, asked lots of questions, asked me about my work as a guide, and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the tour.  They were absolutely desperate to complete their worksheets – in fact I kept having to say “Be patient, we haven’t covered that bit yet” as they tried to fill in their answers!  I find the great thing about working with primary school children is their hunger for learning.  Obviously, I have to slightly change the way I explain things and adapt some of the content from what I would use for adults, but that keeps me on my toes.

Sandwiched between these tours on Wednesday was something very different – an afternoon with students from Oxford Brookes University.  They are doing a project about urban regeneration, mixed use developments and the challenge of maintaining communities when regenerating cities.  To tie in with that, I had put together a route taking in some of the most important projects in the city – Fort Dunlop, The Mailbox, The Cube, Brindley Place, Jewellery Quarter.  I always love doing specialist tours, as it means I get to research familiar places from a new perspective, which freshens it up for me and helps me broaden my own knowledge.

The week ended with another school tour, but something totally different from what I’d been doing earlier in the week.  This time, it was Year 7 students from Harborne Academy, and the brief was to combine a ghost walk with other stories about the Jewellery Quarter, to provide stimulus for their creative writing, art and drama projects.  It was a small group of just 13 kids, which was great in terms of getting the chance to talk to them one-to-one.  The trip began with a tour of Newman Brothers Coffin Fittings Works. I’ve been there plenty of times on ghost walks, but it was fascinating to actually have their guided tour and I learned quite a bit.  I also took the chance to take photos, including a new one I can use to promote our ghost walks!  Afterwards, we made our way through the Jewellery Quarter, with ghost stories and other history and tales from the area, including lots that I hadn’t planned but came up because of requests and questions from the group.  Ending in the two catacomb cemeteries was the perfect way to finish.  It is a day I will not forget – the group were an absolute pleasure to work with and we all had such a great day.  While I hope my stories and knowledge do give them lots of ideas for their work, I have to say that the day was extremely motivational for me too.

As you can see, a varied but very enjoyable week in the life of this guide.

A Day in the Life of a Blue Badge Tourist Guide

I’m up early because I’m doing a Meet and Greet at Birmingham Airport this morning. I’ll be welcoming a group of 6 people from their flight, making sure that they have no problems, such as lost luggage, and then escorting them to their coach. I’ve already checked that the coach is there, so I’ve got time for a coffee while I wait for the flight to land.

After this I’ll be jumping in my car and heading into Birmingham city centre. I’ve been booked to meet a group from a conference in one of Birmingham’s hotels, and to give them a walking tour of the city, finishing at the restaurant where they will be having lunch.

I’ll grab a quick lunch myself, and then it’ll be back in my car and out to a primary school on the outskirts of the city. The Year 6 children there have been learning about their local area in geography and their teachers have booked me to do a coach tour of the city.

Then it will be back home so that I can pack my case ready for a multi-day tour with a group of German tourists. I will be meeting their coach from the ferry tomorrow and accompanying them for the next five days on a trip that will include Oxford, The Cotswolds and Stratford-upon-Avon. The coach company has chosen me because of my fluent German.

Often this would be the end of my working day, but today is Friday which means that tonight I will be dressing up in a top hat and a long black cloak for a public ghost walk. It will start with a few ghost stories in a city centre coffee shop, and then continue with a 2 mile walk around the city with plenty of stops at haunted buildings, streets and graveyards along the way. We always finish at a haunted pub, where I’ll have another coffee to warm up – I’d love a pint of real ale but I’m driving – and then I’ll pick up a takeaway on the way home. I usually read or watch TV for a while to unwind before bed, but I don’t want too late a night. I shall need to be up early in the morning because it’s a long drive from Birmingham to Harwich.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth Tour

A Trip to Middle Earth

With the release of the first instalment of the film adaptation of The Hobbit in December, there is a renewed surge of interest in J.R.R. Tolkien and his work at the moment.  Peter Jackson’s movies are, of course, shot in his native New Zealand, using some of the country’s beautiful and unspoilt scenery.  In fact, both showings of The Hobbit that I have attended were preceded by a trailer using the film locations as an advert for visiting New Zealand.  One of Jackson’s main collaborators – Richard Taylor whose company is responsible for most of the effects in the films – even once claimed that “Middle Earth was created in New Zealand”.  Now while I think the landscapes of the films is stunning and provides a wonderful backdrop to the stories, it is an indisputable fact that Middle Earth was created in Tolkien’s imagination, based not on New Zealand (where he had never set foot) but very much on his own experiences of life in the England of the early 20th Century.  In particular, his childhood in Birmingham had a profound impact on him, and many of the events, scenes and people he encountered in his early years have direct parallels in his later writings.

For those of us who are Tolkien fans and are fortunate enough to live in Birmingham, it is a source of great pride that our city provided inspiration for some of the most popular and enduring books of the 20th Century.  As a tour guide in the city, sharing this Tolkien heritage with visitors and other local people alike is one of my passions.  With that in mind, I have researched and produced my own half day tour of locations associated with Tolkien’s life, and identified how his experiences are reflected in his writing.  I am delighted that Midlands Discovery Tours, in which I am a partner, will be running another Tolkien’s Middle Earth Tour on 24th February this year, giving me another opportunity to help people discover the fascinating events of the writer’s life in our city.

For any new writer, the advice that’s always given is “write about what you know” and that is exactly what Tolkien did, in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and all his other works set in Middle Earth.  People may wonder how an epic fantasy tale full of magic, swords and armour, elves, wizards, orcs and hobbits can possibly be based on a young boy’s childhood in an industrial city in Central England.  Of course, even I would not suggest that the fantasy aspects of Tolkien’s work had much to do with Birmingham – it’s a culturally diverse city these days, but I am yet to see an elf strolling down New Street. But if we look a little deeper into some of the themes that run through the books – such as progress , war, love, friendship, sacrifice – and the attitudes and emotions of his characters, we find a great many similarities between fact and fiction.  Even some of the places and landscapes of Middle Earth appear to be clearly based on Midlands locations where Tolkien spent time during his early years.

From the (at the time) rural backwater of Sarehole to the industrial heartlands of Western Birmingham and the Black Country, we can trace the true origins of Middle Earth.  That is exactly what our tour is all about – combining sections on a coach with several short walks, we really do follow in Tolkien’s footsteps and get a much better understanding of the man and his work.

If you would like to join the Tolkien’s Middle Earth tour, tickets are available online and more details can also be found on the Midlands Discovery tours website.  The tour can also be done as a special event for schools or other groups who want to find out more about Tolkien’s roots in Birmingham.

Birmingham’s Christmas Markets

Birmingham's German Christmas market by nightThe latter part of the year can mean only one thing in Birmingham, and that’s market time!  Since it began more than 15 years ago, it’s become as much a part of Christmas for Brummies as carol singers, presents and decorations.  Seeming to get bigger by the year, it is a fantastic way to get into the festive spirit, although you need to pick your time to go if you don’t like crowds and noise.

Centred on Victoria Square, and extending down New Street in one direction and to Chamberlain Square and Centenary Square in the other, the market includes plenty of stalls, and also plenty of places to get food and drink.  The kind of things you can buy don’t tend to vary much in the main market, essentially what you would find in any German Christmas market – candles, wooden decorations, hats and gloves, ornaments and the like – but the craft market in Chamberlain and Centenary Squares features much more variety and also a number of local craftspeople getting a chance to sell their products.

To be honest, most people go to the market for the atmosphere and to eat and drink rather than on a shopping spree.  Mulled wine is abundant, as are German beers and typical delicacies such as sausages and pretzels.  As with the stalls, there is more variety in Chamberlain and Centenary Squares, with lots of international cuisine and local suppliers too.  Prices are on the high side, especially drinks, but comparable to places like concert venues and sports stadiums so affordable for a special pre-Christmas celebration.

While I enjoy the markets, I am aware that not all Brummies share my enthusiasm.  Certainly it is not to everybody’s taste.   But whether you want to mooch around the stalls for a present, spend an evening getting festive over drinks with friends, or just soak up the Christmas atmosphere, it’s something you should do at least once.

Victorian Restaurant

There is nothing quite like a traditional English breakfast.  Whether you’re about to go to work, shopping, sightseeing or just enjoying time with family or friends, it can set you up for the day ahead.  In Birmingham, one of the best places to enjoy breakfast is definitely the Victorian Restaurant, situated in the Great Western Arcade.  Upstairs, you will find a traditional café decorated with loads of Victorian memorabilia and designs, and a no-nonsense breakfast menu, whether you want a full English, Continental, cereal or their delicious hot buttered toast.  The surroundings are pleasant, the staff are friendly, service is generally pretty fast unless they are absolutely packed to the rafters, and prices are reasonable.  Above all, the quality of the food is consistently high and it is an ideal start to your day in the city, whatever you are planning to do.

Adding to the appeal is the location – the Great Western Arcade is one of Birmingham’s most delightful shopping areas, looking almost exactly the same as it did when it was opened well over a hundred years ago.  It’s a real step back into a bygone age, where you can find a number of very interesting independent shops and businesses before or after your breakfast at the Victorian.

The Pen Room

Situated in the Argent Centre, on the edge of the Jewellery Quarter, just a few minutes walk from the city centre and Brindley Place, The Pen Room is one of Birmingham’s best kept secrets.

It is a privately owned museum dedicated to celebrating and preserving Birmingham’s heritage as a global centre of pen-making. With fascinating exhibits from the great pen makers of the area and a wealth of well-presented pictures and information from the archives, it is a museum that truly captures the essence of its subject.

There are lots of activities to try, and a chance to try out historic pens, ensuring that all ages will enjoy a visit. What really makes it special are the staff whose knowledge, enthusiasm and friendly welcome set the pen room apart.

Because of its location, it’s easy to combine a visit to the Pen Room with a stroll around the fascinating Jewellery Quarter, with its excellent selection of shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants.

To see this month’s “Highlight of the Month” visit www.iabtours.com.