Sunday, October 05, 2014

Trainers Go To… Birmingham

So, here we are again - it’s that time of year, when a few of us Trainers get together for a long weekend of drink, food, drink, drink and culture. We started this now regular event, two years ago in Stratford-upon-Avon, and last year, we visited Bath.

It’s the ‘usual suspects’ of Philip P, Antoinette U, Angela C, June P and me. Carey was unable to join us this year - but she was here in spirit!

This year it’s Birmingham. Some of us are doing Friday, Saturday  others Saturday and Sunday. The weather looks a bit mixed, so we might have to spend our time eating and drinking inside! Shame!!!!

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Friday
I was first out the traps leaving Kettering on the 10. 22 for Leicester, then onto Birmingham. All-in-all, the journey was pretty smooth, and I arrived at new Street just after 12.15. Cripes! New Street has changed a lot since I was last hear back in around 12BC :) - the whole station area has been enlarged and I arrived beneath the street level. The one thing that hasn’t changed though, is how busy it is!

Philip, Antoinette and June weren’t far behind travelling out of London, and arriving about an hour later. Catering was distinctly absent from their journey, so by the time the stepped off the train, it was the perfect excuse to find somewhere to chill-out and sample the wares of Birmingham! More by luck than judgement, we chose wisely, in the shape of the Victorian Restaurant in the great Western Arcade. It looked very quaint with its lace table-cloths and old photographs adorning the walls. After a slightly lack-lustre welcome, we headed upstairs and eventually located a menu by ambushing a member of staff.

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Our First Stop

The menu looked impressive - and so were the prices too! The slightly frosty welcome was quickly replaced with one of the most cheery waitresses I’ve ever met. An authentic Brummy with her warm and friendly banter soon took our orders - and nearly took Philip as well, as she’d clearly taken a shine to him.

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The Copthorne

Suitably refreshed we took the shortish walk to the Copthorne Hotel, checked-in, whilst at the same time, reeling from yet another hotel that insists on charging for wi-fi (£5 per night - shame on you Copthorne!). We headed to our rooms, dumped our stuff and then  out into the city for a quick improvised walkabout to get our bearings. First stop was the VERY impressive new Library building. Up the escalator, then the walkway, then the cylindrical, glass lift, took us to the top of the building for a spectacular roof terrace - and impressive views across the city.

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View from the Top

Unfortunately, getting back down to ground level became a surreal experience for two of us! We all piled in the cylindrical glass lift and pressed the button, and waited... and waited,,, and waited. After a bit of spontaneous problem solving, we worked out that if (just) Philip stepped out of the lift, leaving the three of us, the lift sprung into action. He’s not that heavy and anyway, the lift is supposed to allow 13 people in it according to the sign! We tried and tried, but it clearly didn’t like Philip! So, we left the girls to descend whilst Philip and I looked for the other lifts. They proved to be more co-operative, but because we hadn’t noticed which floor we’d originally come from, we didn’t know where to point the lift! Eventually, after a fair bit of faffing, we were reunited! Weird!

All this trauma, was a perfect excuse for a coffee, so we sat down in the Library and planned our next move - to take advantage of the ‘happy hour’ at the nearby Epernay Bar. June’s nimble fingers on her iPad revealed that happy hour (or ‘fizz Friday’ to give it its posh title) started at 3pm and lasted until 6. It was now coming up to 5pm, so we parked our coffees in favour of a more expensive alternative! On the way there we saw a group of local yoof looking shifty and standing in the entrance to a office building. Decked out in the current uniform of hoodie, trainers and tattoos (I feel old!!!). We joked ‘drugs’ and at that moment, a car pulled up alongside them, yoof 1 approached the driver’s side, and a small package was exchanged, and the car quickly left the scene! Oo err missus!

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Pssst!

Friday, 5.15, Birmingham - and guess what? the place was HEAVING! Then we discovered that Fizz Friday actually lasted until 8pm not 6. The main attraction was that champers was half-price, and it certainly looked like it, with most of Birmingham, shoehorned into the Bar and already spilling out onto the area outside.

It wasn’t long before we were reminiscing abut how we all first met (on the BA project, fifteen years ago), how much fun it all was, in spite of the various challenges with the hotel venues we all experienced at the time! Work discussions gave way to a very deep discussion about modern manners (no doubt helped by us now moving onto to our second bottle of fizz!).

The hours rolled by, and after foolishly trying to set up a spreadsheet to work out who-paid-out-for what-and-when, whilst under the influence, thoughts turned to food! There was plenty of choice, and being a Friday night, Birmingham’s residents were out in force, aiming to celebrate the night away. Compared to us, they were easy to spot - the guys looking mega-macho, whilst the girls seemed to be trying to out-do each other with who could wear the shortest skirt with the highest heels. I spotted a few who clearly weren’t used to either the height nor the posture - and were tripping their way literally to their next destination. Hilarious!

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Burgers

After a few false-dawns in the shape of: ‘we’ll give you a table in a hour’, we settled for the Gourmet Burger Kitchen, mainly because it wasn’t quite as busy. It was a new experience for most of us, and we weren’t sure what to expect. I’m happy to report the service was fast, the food delicious, and the prices reasonable.

Being a group of 50-somethings who like to ‘live on the edge’, we decided to have dessert elsewhere - exciting ehh! and after Philip grabbed a dessert menu from the nearby Cafe Rouge, we finished off the last of our burgers, and perused the next menu before taking the two-minute walk to our next foody destination.

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Dessert

We all did our own thing, and I settled for the most chocolatey thing on the menu - with extra chocolate sauce! Scrummy! As Birmingham continued to buzz, we continued putting the world right in our now, slightly inebriated state!! Then, almost simultaneously, the cumulative effect of the alcohol truly kicked-in and we decided to call it a night. Whilst the rest of Brum rocked, we rolled - in the direction of our hotel.

We’ll no doubt make the most of Saturday! Weather permitting, we are thinking of doing the local canal-trip and a walk round the jewellery quarter. Angela C joins us around lunchtime, and Rick A in the evening.

As we headed for our rooms, and realised where they had put us, and it was soon clear that the sounds of Brum’s Party Animals would be a regular companion into the small hours as our room overlooked one of the noisy Bar areas - and as I write this on the morning after, I can confirm they were! Noisy neighbours, a room that was a challenge with temperature control - and a pillow that in a previous life was an envelope, has left me sleep-deprived and slightly grumpy!

Saturday
So, after a noisy and uncomfortable night, what could be nicer than waking up to a lovely day weather-wise. Except here, at 8am, it was p****** down! I think at this stage, our plans for a boat-trip might be scuppered.

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Cafe Bebo

So, we headed for Cafe Bebo, just a spit from the Hotel, with a view to plan the day. In spite of the weather (that seemed to be getting wetter by the second!), we all wanted to visit the Jewellery Quarter. Ordinarily, we probably could have walked- it but the very special Birmingham Rain® meant we were forced to take a taxi. We trundled back to the hotel, grabbed a cab, and after a short journey, we were in the heart of the jewellery quarter. Funny how places look so different in the rain - and here was no different. It all looked very drab - and I think that, in combination with us being the first people in the area, just made it all look a bit bland. Ohh, that and the rather large cemetery which happened to be the first place we saw!

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A Very Wet ‘Jewellery Quarter’

The Jewellery Quarter, as the name suggests, is a massive area full of Jewellers, and in spite of the appalling weather, we decided to take the recommended walking route round the area. In spite of the time - 10am - the whole area was still asleep, but it did give us the opportunity to enjoy Brum at its quietest!

Along the way, we stumbled across St Pauls, located in (spookily), St. Paul’s Square, a rather splendid Church on the inside and out. Wandering around inside, out of the rain, was a welcome treat, as we shrugged off the wet and soaked up the centuries of ‘churchiness’ inside! The Church Warden was very helpful in answering our questions and brining the whole building alive. Beautiful!

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St Paul’s Church

Then, it was back to reality, and the pouring rain to continue our walk. Next stop was the RBSA Gallery - Royal Birmingham Society of Artists - a rather quaint art and crafts gallery spread over two floors. Once again though, the weather meant there weren’t many people there apart from a couple of staff and a few volunteers,

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The RBSA Gallery

For me, the most interesting part of the morning so far was our next stop - the Pen Museum.
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The Pen Museum

Part Museum and part shop, this told the history of the the manufacturer of the pen-nib. Both Antoinette U and June P became volunteers during the tour and helped to create a pen nib - very labour intensive, but the sheer enthusiasm of our tour-guide made it an exciting event in itself. We learned that the whole museum was staffed by volunteers (only three today!) and contained more-or-less everything you could possibly need to know about a rapidly disappearing communication technology! It was a thoroughly fascinating experience and one place I’m sure I’ll come back to.
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I think it’s stopped raining!

After being collectively and individually wowed by the Pen Museum, we then headed for the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter which gave a comprehensive
history of the area
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The Museum of the Jewellery Quarter

Thankfully, the weather was now brightening up, just in time for meeting-up with Angela C. We debated whether to take the Tram or Train, but thanks to Philip P’s eagle-eyes, we spotted a nearby cab and jumped on-board heading for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Wow! what a place! Fantastic artwork, chanting Buddhists and an impressive restaurant! Temporarily, I lost the rest of the group whilst I faffed around taking photographs, but we all ended up in the same place - the restaurant. A few minutes into our meal, Angela arrived, having checked-in at The Copthorne.

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Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

The next destination on our list was The Custard Factory - Brum’s creative, artistic and digital quarter. By now, the Sun was out, and this trendy place looked very inviting, with its vibrant colour schemes, strange architecture (yes, that is a yellow gorilla!) and slightly quirky shops - anyone who calls their Burger stall, ‘The Jerk Off’ certainly has courage! :)

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Scenes from The Custard Factory

Yes, definitely quirky, and great fun! There was even a Jamaican Wedding going on in one of the buildings, adding to the buzz of the area. Philip P treated himself to a silver ring and ALMOST a massive wooden packing-case, but realised that there was no way he was going to be able to transport it back on the train! Maybe next time? The Sun continued to shine, and by now it was actually quite warm. A perfect excuse then to grab a cab back to the centre of town - and a pit-stop for refreshment. All Bar One near the ICC was the perfect spot as it was close to our final tour-destination of the day - the Canal Tour.

We managed to get seats on the last tour of the day -the 4pm and this also included a 65 minute running commentary. The (now) perfect weather, and the lively (if sometimes slightly patronising) commentary helped to give a real sense of the history of the canals in Birmingham and how the restoration process had taken place. It was the perfect end to a rather hectic ‘touristy’ day.

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All Aboard!

We stopped off for a quick drink on the way back to the Hotel, before getting ready for our annual curry event - this year at Pushkar about a 10 minute walk from the hotel.

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Pushkar Indian Restaurant

This was another of those rather up-market Indian Restaurants, and when we arrived just before 7.15, it was already very busy. We were encouraged to visit the Bar, where most of us tried a Mongoose, an Indian Beer that most of us hadn’t heard of before. The Bartender rather spoiled the mystique by commenting that “it was basically the same as Cobra”! A few minutes later, our table was ready, and with our Mongooses (Mongeese?) being transported by our Waiter, we headed off to a large round-table in the corner - Perfect! Rick A joined us not long after and we were soon perusing the menu, which was inconveniently, housed in its own box together with the wine and cocktail list - it was all rather difficult to manage, but we coped! :)

It wasn’t a particularly large selection, but it all sounded delicious. As is the custom in the Uk, we totally over-ordered, and by the time the food arrived, the gazillions of dishes together with the boxed menus and various glassware were all competing for space! Still, a nice problem to have!

We did the tablecloth proud, and an hour-and-a-half later, we’d eaten nearly everything. Nearly! All-in-all, it was a great meal and we even had time to invent anew game: ‘Which Naan Bread Is This One Then?’ - I’m sure it’ll catch-on!

It was now 9.45pm and we attempted to walk back to the hotel. I say attempted, as Brum was now in full ‘Saturday night mode’ and given the number of ambulances, police-cars, bouncers along the route, the punters were clearly having a good time! A plethora of four-foot inflatable penises (penii?) meant that Hen nights were in evidence, either that, or we’d missed a sex-shop somewhere along the way! We said our goodbyes to Rick, who was heading home, and had parked in the opposite direction. Slowly, staggeringly, we began the short walk, avoiding the (other) slightly wobbly walkers also fuelled by a few shandies. Ten minutes later, we were safely back at base.

It’s our final night here, and I’m hoping the nearby Bar isn’t quite so err, ‘energetic’  tonight and I’ll get some sleep!

Sunday
Thankfully, it was pretty quiet night last night, and I’m less ‘scratchy’ this morning! Phew!! 

This is the day where most of us travel home and today, we’re mainly doing our own thing. Angela and I are visiting the Library to take a closer look.

It’s been great to all get together again this year - especially Rick, who is still very busy with his Tea-Shop. Next year, we’ve decided to have our weekend away in Liverpool, and to maximise the chance of better weather, do it about a month earlier, in September.

Cheerio Birmingham - it’s been great! Thanks for getting us organised Antoinette! See you in Liverpool in 2015!!