Sunday, 2 December 2012


Birmingham?  Why would we want to go to Birmingham?  It's not exactly a tourist hot spot though it is the 2nd largest city in Britain.  We usually have only 2 reasons to go to Birmingham.  The first is the airport.  We flown out of BHX for most of our European adventures (the closer East Midlands airport is more limited). 

The other reason?  For the Korean Food.  This is the closest we've found for a decent Korean food store so Kuk treks down every couple of months to stock up on supplies.  I started looking into tourist sites in Birmingham to see if there were any decent options, particularly for the bleak winter months.  Well, the Korean cupboard was bare, so we decided to make a day (mostly) out of it.

Birmingham is about an hour away along the A38.  Earlier in the week, 17 miles of this major road was closed due to flooding.  Everything is fairly saturated and when we get solid, heavy rain for a few days, it's more than the system (and rivers) can bear.

The first (and only tourist) stop was this cozy corner.  This is the site of the only surviving "Back to Back" housing establishment from the Victorian age.

Back to Backs is run by the National Trust which meant it was free for us (card-carrying members).  A booking/reservation was required though since it is only available via guided tour.

Back to Backs were narrow houses, only 1 room deep, built back-to-back into a communal courtyard.   Most had 2 small bedrooms, a common room on the ground floor, and a cellar.  Some opened to the courtyard and others to the street side.  The small alley shown above is what we walked through from the street to get into the courtyard

The back to backs were Birmingham's answer to the booming population of the 1800s.  [The population increased by 22% from 1841 to 1851.]  They weren't particularly well built and were almost always built for renters rather than owner-occupied (most of the land was actually owned by very wealthy families evidently).  Some were lived in and some were for businesses.  Court 15, which was completed in 1831, is all that remains.  The houses were condemned in 1965 though some of the street facing ones remained open as businesses.

The Birmingham Conservation Trust and now the National Trust have restored a few of houses and take one through on a guided tour.  The tour spans different eras to which the houses have been restored:  1830's, 1870's and 1930's.

Here's a shot of one side of the courtyard which happens to be decorated for Christmas.  The laundry is hung out, knickers and all.

Here's the other side of the courtyard.  The bathtub sits under one window (the 1870's house on the inside).  Milk bottles are outside the 1930's house along with a wash basin.

Our tour group was only 8 so we were half of it (not all are shown in the photo).  Margaret, our intrepid and knowledgeable guide, was wonderful.  It was a real treat to hear about the different eras on how the common man lived as opposed to a manor estate.  She did a good job interacting with the group including the kids.

Note its all of about 1C (33F) at this time.  Pretty cold.  We were ready to head inside!

No photos inside though I was allowed to take this one of Alex on the bed with some toys in the 1870s house.  Quarters were quite cramped with multiple kids to a bed (sometimes 4).  It was mentioned that there really wasn't enough room for everyone so people hung about outside as long as they could.

In the 1830s it was light by tallow (animal fat) candles and no running water.  In the 1870s, still no running water, but they did have some gas lamps (including some piped gas).  In the 1930s, there was electricity and running water but still largely coal heating.

Average life expectancy in the mid 1800s was 24 years though I am sure that was somewhat skewed by the infant mortality rate.  People started work at age 8 and worked an average of 60 hours/week.

There were 3 "privies" (toilets) for 11 families.  Yikes.  The earlier time period was still a bench and a pot.  The pot would hopefully get emptied by the night soil man (nice), but even that wasn't necessarily every night.  You can imagine the fragrant environment.   It was also mentioned how dark it was, candle droppings were everywhere, rats/mice and old newspapers for toilet paper.  Yes, kids, be thankful for being born now.

It was mentioned that the area is now close to "China Town" so we thought we given Chinese a try for lunch.  This place was recommended by saying "a lot of people like it", the food is hot/fresh and cheap.  Hmm.  We don't normally do buffets.  Perhaps this would be different/special?

Nope.  We might as well have been in Indianapolis and the Chinese Food Trough.  I should have known better.  Oh well, we got filled up at least.

To throw salt on our wounds, we passed a nice, simple Korean restaurant on the way back to the car.  Rats.

For completeness, here's our ultimate destination.  We stocked up and headed for home.

We might venture into some other Birmingham sites later.  Glad we did Back to Backs on this trip.  It was a real treat.

Continuing on the food theme, I had another crack at a Jamie Oliver "15 Minute" meal.  This one was smoked salmon on a homemade Yorkshire pudding.   I was pretty proud of myself with this one.  It turned out well though the salmon is awfully strong -- perhaps not our thing for an entree/main.

 with a side of "grilled" asparagus (on my new George Foreman indoor electric grill)

 fancier yet -- beets, cress and basil salad w/ a honey balsamic glaze

Last year, we bought a cheap and cheerful "Christmas in a Bag" tree.  Well, we realized that we lost a key piece to the tree (base) so we were stuck.  Nicole and I went out a bought our own live, potted "Charlie Brown Christmas Tree".  It's evidently slightly bigger than our in-a-bag tree as the lights don't quite make it!  We'll have to get some more.  Trying to get a little Christmas spirit going without breaking the bank since none of this will be coming back home with us.

One more note:  we had the opportunity to visit a relatively new ex-pat family on Saturday.  Thanks to the Kisers for having us over for a great meal and a very enjoyable evening.

Hope everyone has a good week.  Thanks for reading.

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