Dominic Fisher: A guide to Birmingham for Conference-goers
Dominic Fisher, author of Praguetory offers some tailored thoughts for delegates visiting his home city of Birmingham for this year’s party conference.
THE MAIN VENUE
Conference is being held at the International Convention Centre (ICC), which is located at the top of Broad Street about half a kilometre west of the city centre. Recently, the ICC complex has played host to a travelling circus and an infamous corporate junket. Within the complex, is the sumptuous Symphony Hall – acclaimed as a breathtaking music venue.
The ICC lies within former Labour MP Clare Short’s Birmingham Ladywood seat, which has the highest unemployment of any constituency in the UK. So, naturally, this Conference’s Social Action Project is taking place five miles away in the highly marginal constituency of Birmingham Edgbaston.
The anchor hotel this year is the multi-storey Hyatt hotel which is connected to the ICC itself by an enclosed footbridge. If you’re lucky enough to be staying in the Hyatt, surveying Birmingham through the blacked-out window that forms one of the bedroom walls, is an invigorating way to start the day. The hotel also has a swimming pool and a bar named Pravda! Unadventurous sorts lucky enough to be staying in the Hyatt could conceivably hunker down in the cordoned off zone for the entire conference.
NEAR THE MAIN VENUE
In the immediate vicinity of the Conference area are a few obvious gathering points - top marks for laziness if you pick the Rep Bar on Centenary Square. Better to head to the Brindley Place complex – during Conference this will only be accessible from Broad Street (not the ICC itself). Prominent here, are better than average outlets of Cafe Rouge, All Bar One and Pitcher & Piano. The stylish Cielo Italian restaurant has been getting excellent reviews, but the recent pre-conference session with local media was held at Piccolinos. Birmingham is understandably not famed for its marine attractions, but you may be interested to learn that a Sealife Centre is located here.
From Brindley Place, you can follow the canalside path east to the Mailbox or head back to Broad Street itself. Broad Street hasn’t quite recovered from the butchering it took at the hands of the previous Labour council but, although a 2,500 capacity flagship nightclub has just opened at the Five Ways end of the street. I am also told that Walkabout bar and nightclub will be good fun (and possibly the place to pull for those minded) and don’t let Keith and Jacqui getting jiggy at Shimla Pinks put you off the excellent food they serve.
The Mailbox is an elegant conversion of a building that was previously a massive postal sorting office. As well as being used for the offices of BBC in the West Midlands, it now contains an upscale shopping centre, numerous dining and drinking destinations and exclusive residential developments for ‘city living’ types. For a romantic meal, I recommend Bar Epernay complete with piano.
A city break wouldn’t be complete without visiting the town centre and the most direct route from the ICC is helpfully pedestrianised. Starting outside the Rep theatre, you need to cross Centenary Square which was spruced up and christened to commemorate Birmingham’s 100 years as a city in 1988. You’ll notice the whitewashed Hall Of Memory and Baskerville House as you head towards the funnelled passage known as Paradise Forum. Jazz fans may appreciate the Yardbird pub and fans of sushi can take advantage of the two for one offer on Mondays at Woktastic.
Head straight through the covered area and you will emerge to Chamberlain Square which is named after Neville’s father Joseph who was Birmingham mayor between 1873 and 1876 and helped earn Birmingham the accolade of the best governed city in the world. To your left at the top of the square is Birmingham Central Library, famously described by Prince Charles as ‘looking like a place to burn books rather than keeping them’ and soon to be replaced. Ahead to the right is the newly refurbished Town Hall, with a rich history. Ahead and to the left is Birmingham’s wonderful History and Art museum. Adjoining the museum is the Council House – the public can watch proceedings in its imposing chamber on every second Tuesday of the month.
Chamberlain Square flows into Victoria Square which itself is at the top of New Street. At the other end of New Street is the famous Rotunda landmark building which watches over the Bull Ring - the largest shopping centre in Europe. The Selfridges building is reputed to be the third most photographed building in the UK! Unfortunately, there are few pubs worth recommending in this area. Bennett’s is good for a slouch, Bacchus (in the basement of the Burlington) has some Gothic charm and Red can delight. Those on a budget may note that the Wellington real ale bar is a welcoming place with many local beers that provides cutlery for guests who bring their own food.
ON THE FRINGE
Some of you may prefer Fringe Events and you could easily spend much of your week at Austin Court on Cambridge Street where the Freedom Association are hosting an attractive programme. Right next to this venue is the Malthouse Pub famous for a visit by Bill Clinton, when the ICC hosted the G8 Summit. Unfortunately, this pub is understaffed at the best of times, so don’t go here unless you’re trying to slow down your drinking pace. The Prince of Wales pub on Cambridge Street has a more distinguished heritage. Finally, I should mention the Flapper - a canalside rock pub. Its particular advantage is that it is not easy to find making it a perfect hideaway – it also has a free-to-enter poker night every Tuesday from 8pm.
Inevitably I have focused on the part of Birmingham close to the ICC, but travelling further afield is very feasible given that Conservative Members can get free travel around Birmingham by visiting the Centro Stand at conference, and claiming a complimentary four-day pass for unlimited travel on Centro buses and trains. I would be happy to try to help out with other requests in the comments thread.