Tag Archives: things to do

Q and A Part 2

So here are some more questions about me and my work as a guide…

What do you do when you’re not guiding?

Alongside my guiding, I work as a freelance German-English translator.  I am fluent in German – which I am also fully qualified to guide in – and the combination works well as I can do as many tours as possible and take translation work for other times.  When I’m not working I love to read, either novels or books on history and travel.  I also spend a lot of time listening to music – varied styles but rock music is my favourite – and attempting to play the guitar.  I am a keen sports fan, especially ice hockey, which I have been watching since the age of 7, cricket and football.  I try to keep fit by running, swimming and walking.  As you might expect, travel is a big passion and I am always finding new places to explore, in this country and others.

What is your favourite castle?

To be honest, I think that most castles are fantastic places to visit, as they have links to some of the great people and events in history.  Many are also very impressive buildings in scenic locations too. If I had to pick one, however, it would be Kenilworth Castle.  Mainly in ruins, it has enough of its buildings left to retain some of the atmosphere of its glorious past, while its countryside setting and sandstone construction make it extremely picturesque, especially when the sun shines on its walls and makes them glow.  I prefer exploring ruined castles with my imagination and a good guide to visiting better preserved or reconstructed ones with costumed staff and the like, as I think this helps to bring the place to life much more effectively.

And what about stately homes or country houses?

Again, they are fascinating places, as each has its own stories.  While I am keen on what I would call “big history” – kings and queens, great events and so on – my real love is social history, and I am intrigued to discover as much as I can about the people who lived and worked in places, what they might have been like and how they lived.  The best houses manage to convey this effectively through their choice of how they present themselves.  Generally, I tend to prefer smaller ones to the huge palaces, but I have to make one exception here as my absolute favourite is Burghley House near Stamford in Lincolnshire.  Everything about it is impressive, from the architecture to the gardens to the absolutely stunning paintings and wall decorations to the presentation of the house and the family who created it.  Every time I go there, I am amazed all over again and I highly recommend a visit if you haven’t had the chance yet.

Where do you most like to unwind with a well-earned drink after a tour?

My drink of choice is real ale, and I’m fortunate that I get to sample the delights of local pubs and brews throughout England.  It is hard to mention just one favourite but if I had to choose it would be the Red Lion, in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.  It is a small local pub with a long tradition, and serves superb food and a great choice of regional ales.  Our Birmingham Graveyard Ghost Walks finish there too, so I do literally get to unwind and refresh my vocal chords after tours there on quite a regular basis!

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Top Ten Things to Do in Birmingham

Birmingham is such a huge, thriving city that it’s hard to choose just ten must-do things. My original list was much longer, and it took a long while to whittle it down, but (in no particular order) here goes…

1     Pay a visit to Cadbury World. Amongst its many claims to fame, Birmingham is home to Cadbury’s chocolate, and Cadbury World is one of the city’s biggest attractions. Discover how the chocolate is made, find out more about the Cadbury family and the impact they had on work and social conditions in Birmingham – and of course eat plenty of chocolate.

2     Wander around the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Here you will find the Staffordshire Hoard, ancient Egyptian relics, silver goods made in the city, Victorian toys, the world’s leading collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings and the recently opened Birmingham History Galleries, so wherever your particular interest lies you’re bound to find something to please. When you’re ready for a sit down you can try out the museum’s delightful Edwardian Tearoom for drinks, snacks or even a hot meal.

3     Have a drink in the Old Joint Stock. This former bank is possibly the most ornate pub you will ever enter. Make sure you look up at the ceiling while you are waiting to be served, and be sure to check out what is on at their little theatre upstairs.

4     Go shopping. You’ll definitely need your wallets as Birmingham has some of the best shopping around – from the Bullring, the largest indoor shopping centre in Europe and home to Selfridges, and the Mailbox, home to Harvey Nicholls, to the Rag market where you can pick up vintage clothing at bargain rates.

5     Have a look round one of the small but fascinating museums in the Jewellery Quarter. Choose between the JQ Museum, where you can discover what a small jewellery factory looked like a hundred years ago, and the Pen Museum which tells the story of one of the city’s most lucrative trades – or why not visit them both?

6     Relax with some of the city’s greatest talents: watch the Birmingham Royal Ballet perform at the Hippodrome theatre, or listen to the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at the spectacular Symphony Hall, which was designed to give the best acoustics possible.

7     Go for a balti. This is Birmingham’s signature dish, and we have a whole area, known as the Balti Triangle, devoted to this particular cuisine. No visit to Brum is complete without a taste of one!

8     Head over to Aston to see Aston Hall and gardens. The house holds the history of the English Civil War as well as a ghost or two, and the gardens are beautiful in the summer.

9     Stroll around Sutton Park – 4 square miles of woodland, common land and lakes. It’s only a short bus ride from the city centre, but the trees screen traffic sounds so well you will find it hard to remember that you are in Britain’s 2nd largest city. Keep an eye open for the wild ponies while you are there.

10  Book a walking tour with Midlands Discovery Tours. I admit I am a little biased here as I run these, along with my business partner, Michael, but you don’t just have to take my word for it. They are a good way to see parts of the city you might otherwise miss, and to find out some interesting facts to impress your friends with. Choose from a variety of routes and themes: City centre, Canals, Jewellery Quarter, City of 1000 Trades, Heroes and Villains, Ghost Walk.

Above all, enjoy your visit to the city. If you would like a private tour with a Blue Badge Guide, tailored to your individual interests, you can always get in touch with me at IAB Tours.

Think we’ve missed out something that would have been in your Top Ten? Let us know in the comments below.

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.

Sarehole Mill

Tucked away in the residential suburbs of South Birmingham is a hidden gem.  Worth visiting in its own right, and linked to two of Birmingham’s most famous residents too – that’s Sarehole Mill.  Starting life as a rural mill several centuries ago, it was used for rolling metal by Matthew Boulton’s family business before he became a giant of industry, then reverted to its original use and became the childhood playground and inspiration for local lad JRR Tolkien.  These days, you can visit the mill to see for yourself how it works and learn more about the industrial heritage of the buildings and their famous connections.  As well as the authentic and well-preserved mill buildings, Sarehole is the perfect starting point for a walk around the local area, following in the footsteps of Tolkien to discover what is left of the countryside in this part of the city – the meadows behind the mill, the tree-lined River Cole and the unspoilt English woodland of Moseley Bog nearby.

The film adaptations of Tolkien’s works may have been shot in New Zealand, but it was Sarehole and the other places he lived that our city’s most famous writer turned into The Shire, The Old Forest, Mirkwood and the rest of Middle Earth.

If you want to find out more, why not join our Tolkien Tour on 24th February, which includes the mill and its surroundings, as well as many other locations that inspired the young writer during his Birmingham childhood.

Wolverhampton Grand

For a night at the theatre, the Wolverhampton Grand is a great choice. It’s smaller than many theatres, which means you are closer to the stage and feel more a part of the action, but you don’t feel closed in and there is plenty of leg room.

It has a good range of shows including musicals, drama, ballet, opera and of course pantomime, all at very reasonable prices.

The facilities are also good, with a bar area on every level. You can pre-order interval drinks, and as there are fewer people there it is easy to find your drinks when you come out.

Best of all – the ice-cream sellers come into the auditorium with trays of ice-creams, in the proper traditional way, instead of you having to go outside to buy them from a kiosk!

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

Outdoor theatre

Open-air theatre is a great experience. There are several companies that do it, but the ones we recommend are Heartbreak Productions and the Rain or Shine Theatre Company.

They perform their plays in some of the most beautiful gardens in the country, and it is remarkable to see how they can bring the stories to life without the elaborate set changes that indoor theatre so often relies on. The cast is quite small, with each person taking on several roles. It is amazing how they not only manage to remember the lines for several parts, but also switch between the characters seemingly effortlessly.

Since there is no auditorium, you have to take your own chairs or blankets to sit on. Then you choose your spot, unpack your picnic, relax and enjoy the show.  Some of the venues we’ve enjoyed in the Midlands are Birmingham Botanical Gardens, Shugborough Hall, Wightwick Manor (in photo above) and Charlecote Park.