Sunday, January 18, 2015

A Riverboat Fantasy kind of Town

As I said in the last post, I did so little research into the city that was going to become my home-away for the next three years, that Birmingham's most obvious features are a delightful surprise to me.

A canal and one of the bridges
on my ride to the university - so low
I worry about scraping my helmet
Take the canals, for example. Locals do not seem be excited about the canals (unless they're just being English about them) and they were mentioned to me with a sort of bored ho-hum attitude, but I find the idea of a city that is far from the ocean and any noticeable lakes that has a complex system of canals to rival Venice quixotic at the least. To rival VENICE?! The city that's famous for its canals! Though not as old or legendary, at least Birmingham's canals share one very clear feature with those in Venice: one should never, ever touch the 'water.'   

Canals in the downtown
area near the Gas
Street basin
Birmingham's canals sprung up in the middle of the 18th century, and at the full development and use of the system, there were almost 260km of waterway. Currently, there is about 160km of navigable canal. I take it that the main purpose of these canals was moving goods, particularly coal from the Black Country (so named for the collieries), to Birmingham and Wolverhampton. They were so busy at one point that gas lighting was installed along the waterway to keep traffic moving at all times of day.

The canals are pretty narrow, and seem fairly shallow. The boats that ply their waters are similarly narrow and shallow. Every time I see one, David Wilcox plays in my head. It seems that there are some tourist companies that provide river cruises, but there are also some residential river boats. I find the idea of living on a river boat totally romantic, and I'm curious about how people solve problems like water and toilets, and cooking, and refrigeration. I don't think these riverboats share much of the glamour that the Mississippi riverboats have, but it's a neat idea anyway.

This is my Birmingham bike! It needed a little TLC,
but it's in great shape. Now to get used to riding on the left.
January! Ha! 
Yesterday was gloriously sunny, and I walked to the Bull Ring with two housemates. The Bull Ring is the historic market centre of Birmingham. Trading started there in the 12th century with textiles and spices, and then moved into produce, corn, and, of course, cattle. The name comes from a ring which was inside part of the market, where bulls were tied up before slaughter or sale. The ledge that part of the city sits upon ends at the market, and there's a 15m drop between the old high street and the rest of the Bull Ring. Now, there is still a market on the low-graded area, beside a church called St. Martin in the Bull Ring, and two big shopping malls have taken over the ledge overlooking this. 

St. Martin's from the open pedestrian
walkway in the Bull Ring - you can see
how low the church is in comparison
St. Martin has been sitting in the middle of all the action since the 13th century. The original church survived until the end of the 1800's, when it was purposely demolished and rebuilt, saving the tower and spire. It's coated in green... lichen? Something organic. I've never seen so much growth on the outside of a building. There is another church in the Jewellery Quarter that is similarly coated. Let this be an indication of the dampness of the city, when the outside of buildings look like the inside of a fish tank in need of cleaning. 

The manor house which would have been the residence of the person 'in charge' of Birmingham, way back in the day when lordships (etc) actually had a bureaucratic purpose, used to sit beside St. Martin, and the market took place within or beside the manor's yard. This house was torn down in the 1800's as well - apparently there was a time when no one cared about preserving these things - but, in a nice touch of historical continuity, the foundations are still underneath the current market building.

Totally mossy over here.
Birmingham's a small city, and I've seen a lot of it in one week, but I'm still looking forward to getting to know it better. There's a lot of interesting history here, and it's quite a photogenic place. Seeing my Cowichan sweater and fingerless gloves, my housemates ask me every time we go out, "aren't you cold!?" No. No, I am not cold. Did you see the flowers blooming? Can you believe that blue sky? Besides being incredibly windy, the weather is nice. I do wish that it really would get cold, so that we could skate on the canals around the city.

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