We were looking for time travel. My six-year-old daughter Nina has recently gotten into history, and it looked like the West Midlands of England would deliver. So in four days, we went princess, dragon, Victorian, steampunk and Time Lord. We saw the 1400s, 1800s, mid-twentieth century and a glimpse of the future. And I think we'll be back.
All this came within a quick jaunt of Birmingham, the UK's second-largest city and an up-and-coming tourist destination. Birmingham is close enough to London for a day trip (90 minutes each way and £25/$39 round-trip on Chiltern Railways), but far enough away that prices are much lower, and people much, much friendlier. Birmingham is a big, muscular and sprawling city, but locals seemed occasionally amazed to see a foreign tourist; one waitress even took time to sit down with us and ask us about our trip. I lived in London for two years. That would never happen in the jaded capital. So, settling into our apartment in Birmingham, we went in search of history.
The biggest hit for our six-year-old travel critic was Warwick Castle (Warwick CV34 4QU; tel. +44 871 265 2000; www.warwick-castle.com; £15.12 adults, £10.92 children when booked 7 days in advance; open 10am-5pm, to 6pm from Apr-Sept) is the unmissable tourist attraction in the region. It's the best kind of tourist trap: undeniably cheesy, but with a rich, true and proud history that's illuminated rather than hidden by the Madame Tussaud's wax figures stuffed into nearly every corner.
Warwick's owners definitely segment their audience; the "princess tower" where a beautiful young lady chats about weddings for ten minutes is laser-focused on 4-to-8-year-old girls, while a Merlin-themed show where you talk to a simulated dragon was more for tweens and teens. A Downton Abbey-era setup aims at moms. We watched re-enactors demonstrate archery and falconry, and hurl a flaming bale of hay from a trebuchet. Nina drank it all in, even proclaiming that she was "blown away" by a view from the top of one of the towers. Near the entrance, an adventure playground with a zipline and climbing equipment lets kids burn off steam. We only left because the castle was finally closing for the day.
Because you'll pass it on the way from the train, you might as well stop in St. John's House (Warwick CV34 4NF, open 10am-5pm Tues-Sun; tel. +44 1926 412132), at the foot of the road leading into town from the train station. The historic house holds a smattering of toys, costumes and household items from various eras, along with a small toddler playroom. Upstairs, a military museum presents a jumble of artifacts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with an eager docent ready to tell you the stories behind each one.
Within a short train ride of Birmingham are two "living history museums," themed towns where people dress up and act like they're from a past era. With limited time, we regretfully skipped the 1930s themed Black Country Living Museum to spend a day at Blists Hill (Legges Way, Telford TF7 5DU; tel. +44 1952 433424; www.ironbridge.org.uk; open 10am-4pm daily; £15.45 adults, £10.25 children), part of the rural Ironbridge museum complex -- ten museums arranged around an old industrial area in the Shropshire countryside.
Blists Hill has a cheerful array of shops and businesses, winding down a hill to a schoolhouse and collection of Victorian carnival games (only open during the summer, alas.) You can eat a spectacular £5.20 fish and chips fried in beef tallow while sitting by a canal, get your picture taken in Victorian garb, and talk to volunteer reenactors including a banker, baker, printmaker, tailor, postman, policeman, dentist/pharmacist or tinsmith.
The staff don't pretend to be time-travelers, but they have a deep knowledge of the period, and are enthusiastic about sharing it. Most shops sell trinkets and souvenirs. The Ironbridge complex contains a dozen other museums, from an airy science museum to one devoted to ceramic tile, but they're widely separated down winding country roads.
Getting to Blists Hill without a car can be difficult. On summer weekends, there's a shuttle bus; otherwise you have to take a £10 taxi from Telford, which is itself a 35-minute, £9.40 train ride from Birmingham.
Closer to home in central Birmingham, we found the Back to Backs (55-63 Hurst St, Birmingham B5 4TE; tel. +44 121 666 7671; www.nationaltrust.org.uk/birmingham-back-to-backs/; hourly tours most Tue-Sat from 1-5pm for £6.30 adults, £3.20 children), three local tenements kept in the style of an 1840s Jewish family, an 1870s Irish family, and a single man in the 1930s. The 90-minute tour starts in a vintage sweet shop on the corner, and history-minded kids will find their imaginations sparked by details of how the children in these middle and working-class families slept, played and worked. Nina loved it for the first hour, but the sheer length of the tour tried her patience; she and I were the two youngest people on the tour by a good 20 years, and it wasn't paced with kids in mind.
The perfect ending to a 19th-century day was dinner at The Bull (1 Price St, Birmingham B4 6JU; www.thebull-pricestreet.com; open Mon-Sat noon-11pm), a cozy, traditional pub in Birmingham's old gunmakers' district. Founded in 1729, the Bull still attracts crowds of working men and serves up high-quality traditional dinners of pot pies, fried fish, and various vegetables for under £10 in a space that looks oddly like your grandmother's sitting room. The deserted streets around the pub recommend a £5 taxi ride to wherever you're staying in the city center.
Twentieth Century and Today
When the Smith & Pepper jewelry factory shut up shop In 1981, the owners locked the doors and walked away, leaving ledgers open on tables, machines stopped in mid-press and teakettles ready to boil. Two decades later, a community group turned the whole thing into the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter (75-79 Vyse Street, Birmingham B18 6HA; tel. +44 121 554 3598; www.bmag.org.uk; open Tue-Sat 10:30-4; £4 adults, kids under 16 free), an eerie, just-stopped-out-for-a-smoke slice of industrial life. While the hour-long guided tour was a little slow for six-year-old Nina, it was well-punctuated by interesting stories and hands-on demonstrations.
To see how things have changed, pop into James Newman Jewellers across the street (49 Vyse St, Birmingham B18 6HF; tel. +44 121 245 1555; www.jamesnewman.co.uk; open Mon-Sat 10am-4:30pm) where Newman's young, attractive crew of jewelers design avant-garde pieces using computer-aided design and 3D printing, but finish them by hand, just like their 1930s predecessors.
... And The Future?
The ground floor of Thinktank, Birmingham's science museum, is covered in epic machines, demonstrating the history of factory work from the industrial revolution to today (Millennium Point, Birmingham B4 7AP; tel. +44 121 202 2222; www.thinktank.ac; open 10am-5pm; £12.25 adults, £8.40 children). Working steam engines and nimble auto-assembling robots wowed the steampunk-loving adults, but Nina was more enthusiastic about the exhibits upstairs covering biology, recycling, and the future of robotics.
Pulling Nina away from Thinktank's life-sized, kid-directed, performing "RoboThespian", we caught a bus across town to BBC Birmingham (Level 10, The Mailbox, B1 1RF; http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/birmingham/hi/tv_and_radio; Mon-Sat 9:30am-5:30pm and Sun 11am-5pm; free) in the upscale Mailbox shopping-mall complex. Nina found a table full of coloring pages and video games based on children's BBC shows, while my wife and I browsed the gift shop and a tidy little broadcasting museum upstairs. Tours are focused on shows Americans don't know; that said, technically minded teens might find it interesting to see how BBC artists create the various sounds in a radio drama.
The real treat for sci-fi fans, though, is the opportunity to take pictures with props from the long-running and immensely popular British show Doctor Who. There's both a TARDIS (the Doctor's improbable timeship) and a Dalek (menacing alien) tucked into the lobby.
Finally, to see how the future eats, we tucked into a bowl of noodles at the Wagamama chain on Spiceal Street, the outdoor food court that's part of Birmingham's futuristic Bullring shopping center. Wagamama (B5 4QL; tel. +44 121 633 3033, www.wagamama.co.uk; open most days 11:30am-10pm) operates in a techno-communist fashion; the waiters all carry handheld computers and work together as a unit. More importantly for our family, the service is quick, the lineup of noodle soups ranges from the bland and plain to the kicky and spicy, and kids get a coloring page with crayons.
How to Get There, Where To Stay
Birmingham has an airport, but its sole U.S. nonstop is a single daily United flight to Newark. You'll find many more options by flying into London's Heathrow airport. From there, you can take a National Express bus to Birmingham (2h30, departures pretty much hourly for £22-35/$35-56 per person each way) or -- we prefer -- take a £40/$63 taxi ride booked through Neales (tel. +44 1494 522 555) to High Wycombe station for the hourly Chiltern Railways train (approx. 1h30, £15/$23.80) to Birmingham Moor Street. While the bus route is a tedious run of highways ending in a depressing bus terminal, the train runs through beautiful countryside studded with horses and sheep, and terminates in a gorgeous turn-of-the-century railway station.
We stayed at Arc Apartments (Hurst St, B5 4TD; tel. +44 121 622 7020; www.arcapartments.co.uk), part of the Arcadian Centre nightlife complex in the city center. With one-bedroom apartments starting at £63/$100 per night, this is probably the best deal in the city. Our apartment had a spacious bedroom with a double bed and a long, narrow combined living room/kitchen with a dining table and sofa bed. The place was clean, but showed a bit of wear. The washing machine was welcome, but we had to take showers rather than baths as the hot-water heater couldn't fill the spacious bathtub. (It had no problem with three consecutive showers, though.) Arc's staff were prompt and helpful and offered to switch our apartment, but we stayed where we were.
Families should demand apartments facing the Bromsgrove Street side of the building, as the Arcadian Centre gets very busy with drunken singles on some evenings. On our side of the building, we didn't hear any nightlife noise.
Families with slightly deeper pockets and a taste for design can upgrade to Staying Cool at the Rotunda (150 New St, Birmingham B2 4PA; tel. +44 121 285 1290; www.stayingcool.com), recommended by Frommer's England With Your Family. On the top floors of the Rotunda building, opening directly onto a pedestrianized shopping street right in the center of town, the Rotunda's "Maxi" apartments have two bedrooms and sleep four. Upscale amenities include a Macintosh computer, organic breakfasts, an espresso machine and orange juicer. Rates start at £150/$238/night.
And finally, if spending a day traveling through time isn't enough, you can take a room at the Back to Backs (52-54 Inge Street; http://www.nationaltrustholidays.org.uk/holiday-cottage/54-inge-street-birmingham-west-midlands/) the two historic rowhouses maintained by the National Trust in the style of the 1870s and 1930s. They cheat a little -- yes, you get a fridge and a DVD player -- but it's your best chance to spend a night in the past, complete with lumpy period beds and very steep stairs.
Sascha Segan has been writing for Frommer's since 2001, authoring the books Fly Safe, Fly Smart and Priceline.com for Dummies. He's also the managing editor for mobile at PCMag.com. He lives in Queens, NY with his wife and daughter, who frequently accompany him on his trips.