Tours of Brum. They come and they go, some good, some less so. Whatever way you shake it out, though, no single entity has really grabbed hold of Birmingham tours and made them their own. And I don't mean tours for tourists ("look kids, Selfridges!") I mean tours for the likes of you, the Brummie who knows the city, but might want to get to know it that little bit better.
A huge doff of the cap, then, in the direction of Roundhouse Birmingham who have not only come up with a natty hashtag-cum-mission statement, #SeeTheCityDifferently, but have actually delivered upon it. Their new M.O. is guided tours that try to do something a bit different to tell Brum's stories — chances are you've seen their bold blue and red kayaks cruising the canals? Indeed, they're set on exploring our city's streets, its squares and its waterways, using interactivity, tech and top equipment to get the job done, all steered by a team of incredibly clued up local guides.
Birmingham Bingo Walking Tour
Now, I'm no Carl Chinn, (heck, I'm 42 and I can't grow a moustache let alone match 'Old Bulletproof') but I like to think I know a thing or two about Brum. But, when competing (and make no mistake, it is a competition) in Roundhouse Birmingham's new Bingo walking tour, I was astounded at how much I learnt. Our wander took us from the Roundhouse itself, along canals, through Brindleyplace, across Centenary Square, into Vic Square and back across Broad Street and, I reckon, I only knew about 10% of what we were taught. Do you know why there's a roundabout in the canal junction by the NIA, for example? That's no roundabout. Not originally, anyway. In Chris, we had an incredibly knowledgeable tour guide with trademark wry Brum humour, who demonstrated where Brum has excelled in centuries past and, with apt self-deprecation, where perhaps we could have done better. All this against the backdrop of a bloody good game of bingo. Highly recommended. From £8
Introducing the Roundhouse (and the Coffin Works)
So what the bloomin' hell is the Roundhouse? Well, glad you asked, because a story-based guided tour of the site will answer exactly that. Covering the hidden history of the Roundhouse — the base of operations for all tours — from its origins as a working depot and stables, and the competition that ended up with its unique shape, you'll get a gratifying understanding of one of Birmingham's most beautiful buildings. This is no mind-numbing paint by numbers plod-about. The Roundhousers will have you searching for clues and playing games of Victorian Top Trumps, all while unlocking photos and videos with QR codes for a fully interactive exploration of this architectural gem. The tour, costing from £9, lasts about 90 minutes but, on the last Sunday of every month, there's the option to add a tour of Brum's equally historic Coffin Works to your day (from £18.50).
Green Space Walks
Almost 16% of Birmingham is greenspace making it the greenest city in the United Kingdom. London, by comparison, is just 1% green. But, you won't find a Brummie about who wouldn't welcome more foliage into the city centre. A short wander out of town with a guide will open up our emerald space, Roundhouse Birmingham's three walking tours covering Soho Loop (focusing on the impact of industrial Birmingham), Edgbaston Reservoir (a bit of Tolkein, anyone?) or Harborne Walkway which was once a busy passenger and freight line but is now one of our city's most picturesque strolls. From £8
Spaghetti Junction Cycle Tour
She turned 50 last week and although she's hosted over 3.5billion cars in that space of time, cycling below this concrete colossus makes for a slightly more relaxing experience than frantically searching for the M6 South. You'll set off along the canal paths learning as you go, before arriving underneath Gravelly Hill Interchange for some astounding Spaghetti stats and a remarkable view from the ground up. Take your camera for this one and be sure to report back on whether there really is a beach below Brum's coiling confluence. From £12
Stand Up Paddleboarding
More canals than Venice, sure, but have you actually seen many of them? You can now explore the sights of the Brum Riviera, on a Midlands gondola, no less. That’s right, stand-up paddleboard the waters on a guided canal tour and see the city from a completely new perspective. We had firsthand experience of the 90-minute Cornetto-free splash-about and, although a basic level of fitness does help, it's nowhere near as demanding on your core as you may fear. You get a full instructional before you get into the water and support throughout from two experienced guides. It's 12 years and over for this one. From £25
Heritage Working Boat Trip
If you're looking for the easylife and (*gesturing broadly*) in this day and age who can blame you, you can let a canal barge do the work. Step into the cargo hold of a 1930’s heritage working boat and take a gentle chug-chug around Birmingham’s canal loops. The narrowboats are maintained by the Canal & River Trust’s Heritage Working Boat Group, a team of volunteers who will guide you through some of the more hidden stretches of the local canals. Bliss. From £6.50
Ticket holders for all tours get 20% off food at The Distillery and 20% off food and drink at Jonathans cafe on the day of your visit. All tours offer discounts for local residents (B16 postcode) as well as discounts for Canal & River Trust Friends, Independent Birmingham app users and National Trust members. Find all of Roundhouse Birmingham's tours here.
WATCH LIKE SOMEBODY'S DANCING
Go big or go home, right? Well the largest dance festival in the UK, Birmingham International Dance Festival, is back from June 17 to July 3 which means you're out out. The city’s theatres and public spaces are, once again, set to come alive and jive thanks to plenty of free, family-friendly outdoor events, plus loads of opportunities to take part in fun and accessible dancy-dancy. This year's roster includes everything from Hip Hop to Ballet, Silent Disco to a Vogue Ball, a family-friendly rave for tots to South Asian classical dance, plus a world-first inclusive mass participation performance.
Highlights include Mirage by Compagnie Dyptik a free for everyone UK Premiere that takes over Victoria Square, June 17 and 18. Promising to be a real spectacle, expect an athletic performance featuring traditional dances inspired by the experience of the inhabitants of a camp on the West Bank.
Elsewhere Timeless by Joli Vyann (also free, at Victoria Square, June 24 and 25) will see performers balanced inside a 7-metre high rotating hourglass (below) chucking out some daring circus, dance and theatre to tell the poignant story of civilisation’s fragile relationship with climate change.
But if you're in the market for a roof above your head — you big coward — how about the technical feats and dreamlike sequences of Ghost by Tentacle. Contemporary dance meets street dance and martial arts in a physical score that echoes the subtle pulse of breathing. That one takes place June 24 at Birmingham Hippodrome's Patrick Studio and is part of BIDF's Festival Pass which gives you access to three shows for £24 or £12 on its own.
Produced by FABRIC (the new strategic organisation created by the recent merger of DanceXchange and Dance4) BIDF is presented this year in partnership with the Birmingham 2022 Festival, and the programme celebrates dance from around the globe, with a particular focus on artists from the Commonwealth countries. Full details
UNCORK IT AND DORK IT
Aston University, always at the forefront of Brum's iteration of Pint of Science (when scientists teach you a little while you're sat in the cradling surrounds of a pub) have stepped up to the plate again to give learning a lick of lovely with lessons in a wine bar. Welcome to Society Matters: Live, for the intellectually curious. The topic for debate is 'Is net zero worth fighting for? Climate change in the age of emergency' and the brainily endowed Dr Graeme Hayes — a Reader in Sociology and Policy at Aston Uni — will be bringing the clever and the convo to Café Artum, in Hockley Social Club.
Artum, for those who haven't had the pleasure, is one of the city's coolest new(ish) venues, with wine, coffee and vinyl at its heart. The emphasis is very much on a chinwag rather than a lecture and you're encouraged to join is as much or as little as you like. "We want to demystify the research that we do," says Dr Celine Benoit, the uni's Associate Dean for Public Engagement in Social Sciences. "It's an informal chat, not an academic presentation. It's to show how research really matters and actually makes enormously positive changes in the everyday. Academic research is not an impermeable concept and we're here to prove that." June 23 and free, this event will kick off a monthly regular which skips July.
DAWN OF THE THREAD
The extraordinary work of nail and thread artist, Imogen Morris, goes on display for the first time this weekend, in Digbeth's Zellig building. Through her exploration of thread, Imogen likes to subvert historical connotations of embroidery being a material that is solely associated with the domestic, or seen as 'women's work.' She uses thread in a way that elevates the material into serious-bloody-art. My words not hers.
The pieces vary in size from 40cm by 40cm up to 2m by 2m, as Imogen taps nails into plywood as marker points then wraps thread around them as the contours of faces. "I cant make curves, obviously, so I use triangles in their place," says the fine art and art history student. The finished works can take 50 hours to complete. "After university I went into youth work in Redditch when I struggled to make money from art, but in 2018 I started embroidery just while watching Netflix," she laughs, "and it sort of took off from there. If there's one thing Instagram has taught me it's that people love flamingos."
Imogen herself prefers faces. "I like watching faces come to life while I create them. One of my favourite pieces is this one [above]. It's of a mother and daughter interacting. I like it as the two portraits are evidently talking to one another and I feel like it depicts the mother-daughter relationship well. The mother is looking concerned and then smiles and the daughter is smiling and looks slightly cheeky." In Flux opens June 10 from 5pm to 9pm with a wildly named "private view" which is completely open to one and all. Public view — also open to everyone — starts June 11 to July 11. It's all free to see at Digbeth Art Space. More
There's some decent offers available when you make a booking of 6 or more adults for the Birmingham Bears against the Yorkshire Vikings, tomorrow (June 10). More —
Newcastle-born burger chain, Fat Hippo, open on Bennett's Hill next week and bookings are now live. —
Canal Square Market launches this Friday from 3.30pm to 7.30pm outside Juju's Cafe (not far from the Roundhouse, funnily enough). Details —
The Paperdolls Handmade Market returns to the Custard Factory on Saturday (June 11). You can book yourself on to a creative workshop n'all. Or not, I don't make the rules. —
Bearwood's Big Bash is next weekend (June 18) and all this is going on. Family-friendly and free. Come July 2 it's CocoMad's turn, over in Cotteridge Park. —
On Wednesday (June 15) Town Hall hosts The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast (live), with Max Rushden and the ever-ace Barry Glendenning. At £31.08 it's a little punchy on the pricing, mind. —
Aaaand finally, we've teamed up with Brum-born restaurant review app, Revuie, to give away three money-can't-buy tins of Heinz Spaghetti Junction. Only 500 were made and they're flogging for daft money on eBay (£250!). Win two on Instagram or one on Twitter.
WORDS: Tom Cullen
PICS: Tom Bird (Spaghetti Junction), Luke Wicomb (hourglass), Alan Hong (dance lead image)
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