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Birmingham: Gateway to the Heart of England
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be in New York to see an outstanding performance of “A Winter’s Tale” brilliantly staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Park Avenue Armory in an exact re-creation of their new theatre back in Stratford upon Avon. While watching what many would agree is probably the world’s finest English-speaking acting company, I thought of how close those in the northeastern U.S. are to the home of the Bard and the starting point for the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival, which runs from his birthday on April 23 until Sept. 9 next year.
I flew home on Continental’s 7 p.m. flight CO26 from Newark to Birmingham (BHX) which landed ahead of schedule at 6.30 a.m. and true to form (and even from my seat at the back of the plane), I was curbside with my luggage in just 29 minutes. This speed of access is a real plus for anyone heading to the U.K. because, given a normal arrival time, within 40 minutes of clearing the airport your clients can be in Coventry Cathedral, getting ready for a walking tour of Shakespeare’s Stratford upon Avon or preparing for a full English breakfast in a classic English country hotel in Broadway or Chipping Campden.
Of course, BHX is not just about fast access to the heart of England, Shakespeare Country and the Cotswolds. The city of Birmingham itself offers some exceptional experiences for corporate and culturally minded customers as I discovered when I recently spent a couple of days there.
For business travelers attending the many international events, trade shows and conferences at the National Exhibition Centre (NEC), Birmingham is home to an internationally renowned list of top hotels, including the Radisson Blu, Hilton Birmingham, Hotel du Vin, Hyatt Regency, Malmaison, Crowne Plaza, and just off the city center, Coombe Abbey, which is truly no ordinary hotel. From luxurious decadence to boutique chic, Birmingham has it all. Leisure travelers who fly on a Thursday can take full advantage of some of the great weekend rates in the city, which leave valuable funds for special visits, fine dining and performing arts experiences that are on offer.
Birmingham is at its very best when you take full advantage of its world-class visual and performing arts. It will really tick all the boxes for the friends of the opera, symphony, ballet and theatre. Sir Simon Rattle made the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra a world-renowned name and the Birmingham Royal Ballet (formerly the Sadlers Wells Ballet) also is based here. With the Royal Shakespeare Theatre on the doorstep in Stratford upon Avon, these are names that will make you clients sit up and take very serious notice of a program that starts in Birmingham and finishes in London.
If you’re considering an English garden tour, a special visit to the Birmingham Botanical Gardens, a 15-acre oasis just off the city center makes a very good start to a program, especially when you follow it with a head gardener-led tour of Winterbourne House and an Edwardian English afternoon tea. Add visits to nearby Hidcote Manor, Kiftsgate Courtand Coughton Court, and you can see why Birmingham works for a garden tour that finishes in London with the Chelsea Flower Show.
Visual arts groups will be knocked out by the curator-led tour of the world’s largest collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The same will happen during the VIP tour of the more intimate Barber Institute of Fine Arts, which The Observer calls “one of the finest small art galleries in Europe.”
A walking tour and canal cruise of the city center gave me my bearings and I saw a fascinating temporary exhibition at the Ikon Gallery where a cool glass of wine went down very well. Further visits can include a closer look at the inspirational genius of William Morris at Wightwick Manor and the internationally renowned Garman Ryan Collection at the Walsall Art Gallery. I also enjoyed a journey through history at the beautifully restored and very atmospheric Back to Backs (National Trust)courtyard of working people’s houses from 1840-1977, as well as the nearby Black Country Museum, which vividly portrays how daily life was endured 100 years ago.
And let’s not forget the shopping! Travelers based in one of the top city center hotels will find Birmingham is a shopper’s paradise for Girls Getaways. Harvey Nichols, Selfridges, bustling shopping malls and vibrant markets offer head-turning chic to eye-catching value. Unique to the city is the Jewelry Quarter where an estimated 40 percent of all U.K. jewelry is made by more than 400 specialist businesses. This area also is home to the Museum of Jewelry Quarter, the Royal Society of Artists, the delightful Pen Museum, St Paul’s Gallery and the Birmingham Assay Office.
As the U.K.’s second city, Birmingham’s got quite the lot – easy access, top hotels and restaurants, attractions that match niche markets and quality shopping. Early in 2014, BHX’s runway extension will be complete and I’d hazard a guess that a number of transatlantic carriers will be looking seriously at this very user-friendly gateway into the center of England. I think you should, too!
Paull Tickner, creator of Special Interest Britain and an affiliate of Greatdays Travel Group (www.greatdays.co.uk), is an expert in developing customized niche travel programs for the United Kingdom and Ireland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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