Adventures in Birmingham: Midlands Discovery Tours – Canal walk

Readers of this blog will know how much I have grown to love walking discovery tours. What started as a way of getting to know San Francisco on a short trip there, grew to having  month of to discover my home town, Bedford. In the last year or so, it’s been an excellent way of getting to know about the very Birmingham streets I walk in every day.

A group of us mostly strangers and a few from my girls social network (Out with the Girls) turned up on a wet Sunday – the first in ages! – to meet at the council building and with  warming hot chocolate beverage, set out to discover the stories behind the canals.

You’d think the number of walks I’ve been on with our trust guide Ian Braisby, I’d be doing his job for him (it is actually a secret dream job of mine) and yet I learn new Birmingham facts every time.

Britain’s canal capital

For example, the oft asked question is answered; are there more canals in Birmingham than Venice? How many?

Why there is a round-a-bout in the middle of the canal near Brindleyplace.

What the connection is between cage fighters and canal boat workers.

The generations of canal boat workers and how at one time the canals were privatised and tolls had to be paid to get through.

How the canals link Birmingham up to other towns and cities.

Apart from the imagined stench, we were taken right back to the times when canal boats were the main transportation for companies such as Cadburys (who despite moving away from the city centre still have their base near the canal in Bourenville) and especially for the heavy goods movement of the breweries.

As well as the canal history, we learnt about the beginnings and subsequent uses of a variety of buildings along the canal way, especially what is now The Brasshouse and the beautiful Round House and how Saturday Bridge got it’s name..

This is just a fraction of what I learnt. To book a place on a forthcoming walk, visit the Midlands Discovery Tours website here Then have fun spouting facts to your friends as you walk along the delight that is Birmingham canals.

Follow @MidsDiscovery or @IanBraisby


Adventures in Birmingham: Live music at Six Eight Kafé

Those of you who know me on Twitter will have noticed I’ve been to every single Live Music Friday evening at Urban Coffee Co but now I’m delighted there’s a second coffee house to embrace one of life’s pleasures.

I’ve loved live music in coffee shops ever since I first saw a man and a guitar at a late night coffee shop in NYC in 2000 and have been trying to recapture the experience ever since. Whilst popular in America, I used to go to listen to music every Sunday in New York, the first I’d seen in the UK (I’m sure there have been others) was at Urban‘s first location. It’s not just about having someone play but the right type of ‘coffee shop’ music.

Country, folk and jazz all lend themselves to the acoustic vibe that works best. Many of us loved the gypsy/jazz band (I don’t know the name, the band didn’t carry any cards!) we saw at Six Eight Kafe on their first birthday so we begged the management to run more candle-lit nights in their gorgeously dark basement.

Last Wednesday was the first of those nights when we were treated to more live music. The first band had an excellent acoustic set up and performed a mix of original material with covers and harmonious vocals. There is something special about going to events in a dimly lit room. Perhaps because it smacks of the illicitism of the prohibition era and so feels like we’ve been invited to an exclusive underground event.

This and the amazing coffee that the Six Eight coffee gods seem to produce every time makes it an essential addition to the Birmingham calendar.

Coffee & music, two of my favourite things; more please.

Adventures in Birmingham: Afternoon Tea

After brunch, my favourite meal is Afternoon Tea. Not (Devon) cream tea, which is just scones with jam and cream and not ‘High Tea,’ a large meal with savoury and sweet delights which is served around 5-6pm, perhaps if you are going out for the evening – both of which I also love.

For someone who doesn’t drink tea and who thinks cake is an everyday essential, I still feel this refined British occasion between 3-5pm is a treat. In the last year, I have experienced the Afternoon Tea offerings of Hyatt Regency, Hotel Du Vin and most recently Mint Hotel. All have their good points, despite being very different in styles.

Hyatt Regency £19

I confess I have been here twice, firstly it was the second outing I ever organised for Out with the Girls (the first was a brunch) and then again for one of the girls’ birthdays. The first time was fantastic with the only imperfection they charged for every cup of tea (coffee) but they changed that when I asked; to pay for every little cup at Hyatt prices will mean more than double the cost of the meal. Secondly the price had gone up from what was on the website and what it was when I booked but again, they honoured the original price. That gives them a 9/10.

The Hyatt Regency, despite being extremely modern from the outside epitomises old school charm. The staff wouldn’t look out of place if they were frilly aprons and penguin suits and placed a bell for attention on each table. The food is exquisite in presentation and taste and now the coffee is bottomless, it’s as near perfect as you can get. Of course the sandwiches are sans crusts and cut in two bite portions as expected but the delightful mix of mini scones, bite size brownie cubes and creamy delights served on tiered cake trays is a slice of heaven arriving at your dreamy white linen draped table.

 Hotel Du Vin £11

I wondered if Du Vin could pull it out of the tea cosy for almost half what the Hyatt charge. It’s an awful tag ‘boutique hotel’ but really, Du Vin is more traditional charm than the name suggests. I’d never even had a drink in the hotel bar (just in the pub or the conservatoire) so that fact they serve a delightful tea in a separate room of the bar is a find. We sat at a low square table surrounded by comfy sofas and chairs and watched dish after dish, pot after pot bought to us. It felt like high society in a bygone time. Nothing was too much trouble and the food and drink – no matter which tea – were in plentiful and ready supply.

Du Vin also wins out as they actually offer the cucumber sandwiches and the scones are soft enhanced by the perfect snowy cream. All the cakes were bite size temptations and a rest was needed before contemplating. There is nothing between these two other than price. It’s lovely to sit at a civilised table but it’s also lovely to take it in the drawing room, as it were. 9½ /10

City Inn, at the Mint Hotel £15

Both of these are hard acts to follow and the Mint is still at the aspiring stage. It’s modern so not my taste and perhaps that’s why I didn’t sit right in there but the scones were dry, the sandwiches weren’t exactly full, the cakes were dull (mini Victoria sandwich – big deal) and I had to ask very strongly (beg) for a pot of coffee whereas the tea came in a pot! The coffee did go cold in all three places and I think the only way to go is for staff to come round with top ups or have 1 cup cafetiere  that can be replaced with a fresh hot one.

We are also kept waiting despite being there on the dot; the people that came in after us got shown their table first and it would have been nice to have  a cosy table for two rather than be on the end of a long empty row. The meal needs work and I’m sure, knowing the staff there, they are striving to improve. 7/10

So where shall I go next?

Hyatt Regency

Mint Hotel

Hotel Du Vin

Adventures in Birmingham: OxJam

Last year, OxJam was not only one of my best Birmingham discoveries but one of my favourite days of the year. Last year we caught a few soloists like Neil Ward but the highlight was city favourite Tom Peel at arguably the best venue, The Victoria.

So I am very much looking forward to this year although there are less ‘live music venues’ and more coffee shops. As you know, I love music in coffee shops but feel that should be an addition; we should still have premier venues such the Victoria. Having said that, compared to last year, I got to see a lot in the Yardbird this year; the much talked about Musgraves at the Yardbird were as good as I imagined – they sound so familiar in fact that I feel I have seen them before after all.

The Scholars were as good as I remember them from a This Burning Age gig after which, the schedule was thrown out because Free School had problems setting up their laptops (not rocknroll as we know it). When they were ready to perform, they put on masks which from where we were sitting spooked us out. Furthermore, the impact would have been greater had they come on wearing said masks rather than slipping them on on-stage in full view, but erm, interesting.

The planned highlight of my day is The Young Runaways. I’ve seen both their acoustic and regular sets before and feel it’s a treat to see both on the same day. The late afternoon set at Café Blend was excellent and the Yardbird set to launch the EP was equally good. Then they performed a hateful Beyonce number and I couldn’t see a hint of irony. They played another track after that but unfortunately I already had a bad taste in my mouth (and not from my first ever Ostrich burger from the hut outside which was actually OK).

All in all, OxJam is a fantastic idea and if I’m still in Birmingham, I hope the organisers book early and we get the Victoria back on the menu in 2012.

Domestic Goddess in training (Possibly the first of a series)


Words I didn’t think I’d say part 54: I learnt to sew.

A few weeks ago, I went to a craft work shop with the lovely ladies from Creative Open Workshops. It’s not that I’m a complete novice to sewing, I can sew a button and hem badly and I grew up with my Mum running up frocks for me on her sewing machine for my every choir performance.

Look, I'm preparing to sew!

Erin and Francine are in charge for the ‘Make a Tote Bag’ session. Unfortunately for them, they have a nervous but excitable novice to look after, fortunately for me they are patient, encouraging, fun and amazingly. After being allowed to select my own materials (three different ones to make up one bag!) they let me sit at their best sewing machine which can be set at the lowest possible ‘gear’ setting.

The finished bag

My bag created, I came away wanting a sewing machine. Or maybe a food mixer.

I’ve been trying to get back into cooking for the last couple of years. I’ve owned two mixers in the past as I did used to bake once upon a time and have an ology in cooking.

The domestic goddess in me is coming out and the mixer wins for now; I like food more.

Follow CoW on @COWstudio Follow me on @RickieWrites

Adventures in Birmingham – Entertainment Heritage Walk

Entertainment Heritage Walk

I’ve lost count of how many ‘heritage walks’ I’ve now completed with the knowledgeable and witty Mr Ian Braisby but all have been enlightening and entertaining. The latest, on a sunny Sunday afternoon is to learn about Birmingham’s entertainment heritage.

Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Slade seemed to have played everywhere but we discover the old home of Snackerie. This is where bands in the 60s bands consumed  their pre and post gig unhealthy snacks and generally gossiped about evil promoters I suspect. Evidently a good place to pick up extra last minute gig bookings too!

I learn about Edward Fewtrell, ‘Mr Clubland’ from my earliest memories of my first time in Birmingham. I certainly recall a visit or two to Edwards bar around that time and the reputation Mr Fewtrell had. It’s interesting to hear of the story about an early Texas gig when they played at an Edwards club with a backdrop of a water leak! More so, I didn’t realise Edwards venues went back as far as the 1970s and that where Gala bingo behind New Street station is, was an upmarket cabaret style venue that hosted Tom Jones. Apparently it didn’t work in the early 1970s but with Ronnie Scott’s long gone, I’d love something like that in the city now.

On the theatre side Birmingham’s Theatre Royal on New Street (where Boots is now) is long gone but the gorgeous Hippodrome is flourishing and we learn of Laurence Olivier’s earliest performances at the still standing (old) Birmingham Rep.

We all know the history of the scrumptious once again, Electric being the oldest working cinema in the UK but did you know that the Cannon, formerly the Futurist around the corner was the first to have ‘talkies’? And that where Piccadilly Arcade is now was the Picture House and there was also the ABC cinema on New Street?

Crossroads is well known to have been filmed in Birmingham and we learn there was a famous wedding scene filmed at Birmingham cathedral that not only stopped traffic but received 22 million viewers – beat that x-Craptor! Later, TisWas was filmed in Birmingham launching the mainstream careers of Chris Tarrant (but why does he have a Broad Street star?!) and the eternally brilliant Lenny Henry. I learn my favourite building in Birmingham, the Alpha Tower at the edge of Broad Street was built for ATV, before it became Central Television. Nowadays all TV talk is of the Hustle being filmed on my doorstep whilst pretending it’s in London.

Discovering Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show came to New Street is indeed mind blowing but it’s two hours and towards the end of the tour when we get to Duran Duran, the reason for my coming to Brum in the first place. They are mentioned of course when we get to Broad Street, home of the Rum Runner Club where they first rehearsed and were subsequently managed by the owners.

Incidentally, the same place also hosted Dexy’s Midnight Runners and UB40 in the early years.

Who knew? There is so much more, book in on a tour here

For more information  or chat on Twitter @ianbraisby or follow @MidsDiscovery

Adventures in Birmingham – Music Mayhem

Supporting live/local music

I didn’t set out to break any records but if I did, it will be to hear as much live music as possible. Starting at my own event, Birmingham Vintage Fair to the end of Birmingham Jazz & Blues Festival last Sunday, this is the lowdown:

June 25th        Birmingham Vintage Fair

OK I booked them but I had not seen them live so I’m as impressed as everyone else:

Naked Remedy – does psychedelic blues describe them? Whatever, once I’ve got past how well the lead singer sings, while drumming, whilst keeping hold of the audience I realise this trio can make a lot of noise and all of it good, all of it original.

Dakesis – to bring the other side of the early 1970s in, this 5 piece pull together two electrifying sets incorporating some glam rock covers along with a couple of their own. All bought the house down & I ‘m particularly pleased when I see ‘20th Century Boy’ on their set list. Ever since I saw other local favourites, The Whiskey Syndicate include it in their amazing set, it’s become a bit of an anthem in planning BVF. I’m looking forward to the fireworks they have in their real set!

June 28th         The Actress & Bishop

??? who were they??!

Rebecca & The Roses – one to look out for.

Naked Remedy – again, because they were so good I couldn’t resist a little trip to my local venue to see them (just two of them) unveil their acoustic set. Yes they really do live in the 1970s, it wasn’t just for BVF and the acoustic set just as good with a little hint of gospel in the vocals. LOVE.

June 30th         Hare & Hounds

Pharmatronik –  duo comprising guitarist & bassist/singer with a drum machine(?!), don’t get it but somewhat entertaining

Scholars – pretty darn good although they’re not local!

This Burning Age LOVE LOVE LOVE – you already know how I feel so there’s nothing to add.

But I will anyway. It was a little special going to the shrine that is Hare & Hounds for the first time so I’m not sure if that bought the extra emotion, or just because I’m still in a post-BVF dream state or just because they’re that good.

Of all the gigs on this list, this is the only one I had to go out of town for. All the others are within walking distance proving there is so much in the city, I never need to leave it. Except for this lot, of course.

July 1st                        Urban Coffee Co, Live Music Friday

Fingerprint – On the first Friday of each month, there is no need to miss live music at the local coffee house and this month it’s the entertaining duo Fingerprint. Always a pleasure to support ‘Live Music Friday’ but must I explain every month that we’ve come especially to hear the music?? Musicians always assume we are there for coffee/chat and they’re interrupting us. Have faith!

And now it’s on to a highlight of my year, Birmingham International Jazz & Blues Festival.

July 2nd           Lord Clifden

Zingaros New Gypsy Tango (Argentina) A good start to ‘Jazz week’

 followed by:   Fredericks

New Orleans Jump Band (Spain) My first time in this relatively new place in my ‘hood. I saw these cats last year at Hotel Du Vin. They went on longer this time (past my midnight curfew) and demanded a bit too much (shouldn’t really require anything from your audience other than maybe, attention) but still extremely entertaining and a good spot for music.

3rd                    Hotel Du Vin

Teens Jazz Band Velke Losiny (Czech Republic) Hotel Du Vin was last year’s highlight but this year, they’ve changed the rules and there is no table service and no bar food. Plus, unless you get a seat by the stage, you have to look across Sunday lunch diners to see the band. For me, a formal meal and watching a band just do not mix. A good band though.

4th                    Urban Coffee – JQT

Will Scott (USA) – A first for live music in Urban JQ and it works plus it’s standing room only; pretty good for 4pm on an admittedly steamy Monday afternoon. It has to be an American singer/song writer for Fourth of July and one that sings bluesy country – perfectly.

5th                          Lord Clifden

Will Scott (USA) – he is so good in fact that we go back to see Mr Scott the next day doing a full gig. This is the highlight of the week; supported ably in the promotion and backing singer stakes by the lovely Jan Bell who somehow manages to spot the country fan in me and gives me her details too, when we line up at the back of the queue to buy CDs.

Three sets, one encore and the crowd still want more of the stories in between each song. Value for money, particularly as it’s free.

6th                    Lord Clifden

Brooks Williams (USA/UK) the second of our three nights residency at Lord Clifden and an even bigger crowd for two fantastic bluesy sets from this USA born, UK based guitarist.

7th                    CBD Food Festival & Lord Clifden

Lewis Floyd Henry (UK) – both times late, both times disappointing and yet still the crowd applaud him. There is none of the chat between tracks we’d gotten used to. They really shouldn’t quote Hendrix in his profile.

8th                    Waters Edge, BrindlyPlace

Djabe (Hungary)- the first time I make the live music at the bandstand and these guys are perfect for outdoors music.

9th A night off!

10th                  Hotel Du Vin

Bourbon Street Stompers (Germany) – we save one of the best to last. A full jazz band from Germany with plenty of action and patter to keep us going– who knew? Another highlight and a fitting end to my week of Jazz & Blues.

For each act I’ve seen, I’ve felt as though I have travelled around the world and through time, from New Orleans and Memphis to the 1920s and 1960s. I feel mightily blessed to have all this right on my door step.

16 artists, 16 days, 13 gigs

Right, what’s the next fest, OxJam?