Tips & Ideas

Tips & Ideas

Birmingham’s Cinderella City

submitted by: Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every

Jonathans Hotel and Restaurants: The Consummate Illusion

The last time we stayed in a Victorian hotel I persuaded Richard to sleep on the side of the bed nearest the door to be offered up as the human sacrifice in case the resident vampire fancied a midnight snack. Any similarly inclined demon would have a hell of a time finding us in the quirky warren wren of rooms that make birmin1the world of Jonathan’s, a distinctive Birmingham landmark, unless of course they were armed with the “passport” – a color coded guide much like a subway map that is absolutely indispensable for any guest who would like to find his room again after checking in.

Founded in 1977 by Jonathan Baker and Jonathan Bedford (known forever afterwards as the two Johns), the property at 16 Wolverhampton Road was originally a tiny 1930s shop just big enough for a six table restaurant and small bar. The two Johns had already made a reputation for fine traditional English cuisine running a restaurant called The Three Tuns in an old Jacobean coaching inn, which they ultimately lost to an unscrupulous landlord.  But when Jonathan Bedford received a surprise inheritance from a great uncle to whom he wasn’t actually related, they were suitably financed to undertake renovating and expanding Wolverhampton Road to include bedrooms, bars, and sitting rooms, each individually designed and decorated with antiques.

Almost as much a pocket museum as a hotel, Jonathans is the ultimate illusion – Victoriana perfectly recreated from its award-winning restaurants to its charming but quirky bedrooms. Visit the Victorian “shopping mall” – the cobble-stoned Baker Street lined with shop fronts of the time like Cadbury’s and Jane Hamilton Smith’s curtain and drapery shop, all now part of the hotel. Kids will be particularly fascinated by the replica 1930’s kitchen filled with cooking implements and ingredients of the period, and the bookcase which opens to reveal a secret bedroom. Around every corner is a curiosity.

At Jonathans, guests certainly have room to stretch – there are a surprising number of guest lounges with fireplaces, antiques and books on every topic and description. Every inch of wall space inthis incredible period hotelbirmin2 is hung with posters upon posters depicting British royalty, floral still lives, banquet scenes, pets and paintings of every day life in Victorian England, while every bit of floor space showcases antiques and bric-a-brac.

Our two bedroom suite had a full parlor with a 20” television that predated the invention of the remote control, as well as his and hers rag dolls, which like name tags, spelled out exactly where we were to lay our heads.

Described by guests in the hotel comment book as “nostalgia at its best and a lovely walk back into the past,” from what we observed during our stay, Jonathans’ biggest fans appear to include well-heeled guests in their 30s. “The sweetest and warmest hotel I’ve ever been in, a delightful hotel full of curiosities and teddy bears to keep me company,” wrote one visitor from Cologne, Germany. Food also gets high marks: “Brilliant food! Highly elegant setting!”

A bit off the tourist track, Jonathan’s is only a 10 minute hop from the city centre. With a big free car park, it’s also enormously handy for buses – one stops every few minutes to whisk you down town.

England’s Second City Gets Millions of Pounds Makeover

Long dubbed England’s second city, Birmingham was foremostan engineering city,image002 boasting “If it’s not made here, it can’t be made.”  Before it was rejuvenated by the European Union and corporate investment, Birmingham was a gray, uninviting metropolis, the last place you’d look to book a Cinderella holiday.

Today with its razzle dazzle line-up of big name high-end shops in the Mailbox (including Selfridges, Emorio Armani and Harvey Nichols); its more than 200 restaurants(especially the Balti Triangle featuring over 50 Indian restaurants); impressive public outdoor sculpture, art galleries and museums, theatre, symphony hall and music venues, Birmingham now is one of England’s hippest, most sophisticated city. Definitely the place to savor the best that money can buy. In fact, one of England’s leading newspapers, the Guardian, dubs the city the third best place for shopping!

It certainly deserves the epithet – England’s Cinderella City.

Dine Like A Diva At Discount Prices 

When you’re out and about exploring Birmingham, the trio of dining experiences at the Birmingham College of Food*Tourism*Creative Studies is an absolute must.  Unique in so many ways, the fine dining Atrium restaurant, the more casual Brasserie and the pub, The Cap & Gown, are probably the city’s best kept dining secrets. And that’s a shame because birmingham3as one guest put it, “The food and the service were so good it deserves a Michelin star!”  Impressive, as the students do all the cooking at all three restaurants. And you won’t believe the price!

The Atrium offers Modern European cuisine weekdays from 7 p.m. A two course dinner costs £18; £20 for three courses. The menu boasts a wide variety of choice – five starters, four choices of fish and shellfish, three meat dishes and a choice of eight desserts. The college is located in the city centre with the bus stop just across the street.  Reservations need to be made for The Atrium a month in advance by calling 0121 604 1010.

Tiffany’s At Discount Prices 

But what we loved most has changed the least in the city’s long history. Some 250 years old, the Jewelry Quarter is a wren of lanes and alleys where you can find stunning architecture, arresting museums like the Pen Museum and the Museum of the Jewelry Quarter and unobtrusive little workshops to buy or commission drop dead gorgeous pieces. Described by EnglishHeritage as “a unique historicbirmingham5 environment in England which has few, if any, parallels in Europe,” the shopping experience is as fascinating as what you may ultimately purchase. And you certainly will be spoiled for choice –  400 jewelry businesses, 100 plus specialist retailers and 50 contemporary designers. Hidden away up the stairs through archways and down lanes, the specialist jewelry workshops will create pieces as well as repair ones.

But the best kept secrets are the Quarter’s second-hand jewelry shops and its School of Jewelry, where students learn traditional skills to produce outstanding contemporary work. Graduates have their end of year show mid-June, and it’s worth stopping by to see if you can commission a special piece or even persuade them to sell something on display.

We did. On our way to poke our heads into the School of Jewelry, Richard spotted a glittering emerald ring surrounded by tiny diamonds in the window of a second hand shop. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, and an irresistible price, it is a breathtaking reminder of a city that can steal your heart and empty your wallet!

Whatever you buy in the Jewelry Quarter, it will be akin to shopping at a top notch jeweler but at bargain prices. Even with a weak US dollar! 

Don’t leave without taking s self-guided tour of the area’s Pavement Trails, where you can learn the history and discover the best shops for your Cinderella trinket. Developed by Groundwork Birmingham to lead visitors into the heart of the City’s famousJewellery birmingham2Quarter, the Trails have been designed by two sets of artists – Renn and Thacker (Newhall Hill/ Frederick Street Trail) and Laura Potter (Newhall Street/ Graham Street Trail) – to provide visitors with an opportunity to unlock some of the area’s secrets. Even better, stop in at the information centre and see about going on a guided tour.

Ring on finger, we made our way to where we thought we entered the Quarter, only to find ourselves, even he, the Human GPS, hopelessly lost, just as it was starting to rain.
But as the Brits are fond of saying, “No worries.” We asked a young man just going into the bank for directions, and he offered us a lift when he had concluded his business. This wasn’t the first act of random kindness we’d birmin3experienced in Birmingham, where locals seem on a mission to show off Birmingham hospitality.

Forget the jewellery, the shopping, the gorgeous canal and gondoliers, the restaurants, the art galleries, the theatre.

Birmingham’s biggest treasure is its people. 

If You Go: 

For everything you’d want to know about Birmingham, visitwww.visitbirmingham.com.

In depth information on the Jewellery Quarter is available atwww.jewelleryquarter.net.

Check out Jonathan’s at www.jonathan.co.uk

Dining information for the three restaurants at Birmingham College of Food, Tourism and Creative Studies can be found atwww.bcftcs.ac.uk

Sheila Sobell and Richard N. Every are professional travel writers. Visit them at www.writersobell.com .

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