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A Sunday Ramble in Leamington Spa and Birmingham

My last free weekend in England (next two are in the Netherlands) so I tried to make the best of it.

I started with a stroll down the high street here in Leamington Spa as the Sunday christmas street market set up. Nothing starts a drizzly Sunday better than Harissa Lamb on a bun from a street vendor. (I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – I love the food in England.) I think that bun kept me warm for hours. After also buying some fine aged cheese (resisting the urge to channel Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch) plus crackers and bickies, I set off for an extended stroll through the Jephson Gardens.

The trees in the Jephson Gardens probably date back to its creation in the early 1800s.

The trees in the Jephson Gardens probably date back to its creation in the early 1800s.

The Jephson Gardens are right in the heart of the town and they’re big, stretching along the river Leam for a half-mile or so. They were also private when they opened for patrons of the fancy Spa across the street, but were opened to the public once the Spa business started to hit the skids. They’ve had their ups and downs, but are pretty lovingly refurbished now. Pity I had to tour them in a November drizzle….at least they were green.

This is the big tree in the previous picture, seen from under its canopy.

This is the big tree in the previous picture, seen from under its canopy.

Passageway through Jephson Gardens

Passageway through Jephson Gardens

Fall colours in the passageway through the Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa.

Fall colours in the passageway through the Jephson Gardens in Leamington Spa.

After I exhausted the walking possibilities along the river, I hopped the train to Warwick (one stop, travel time about 4 minutes) to visit an interesting looking tea shop I passed the previous weekend. Had a nice chat with the shopkeeper, who was from eastern Germany by way of Edmonton(!) but settled down in Warwick with a local lad. Bought some scruptious smelling single-estate Assam and some “Golden Monkey” Chinese tea (so good, she said she named the shop after it.) She also gave me directions to a great local brew-pub with great craft ales (I had a pint of the Winter Ale because buying tea always makes your throat so dry, you know?) and old men playing dominos. I’ve said it before but it bears repeating – I love the drink in England.

From Warwick, it was another train on a short hop to Birmingham, where I thought I’d see the shops and the “Frankfurt” Christmas fair, billed as the largest German-styled Christmas fair in England. Yes, the English l-o-v-e German themed christmas traditions, and you can practically see Basil Fawlty hissing “Don’t Mention the War!” behind every Gluhwein stand. Birmingham, btw, has done some pretty nice re-inventing of itself since manufacturing and heavy industry collapsed, and it has a pretty interesting mix of prestige architecture in the city centre. The chrome-plated Harvey Nichols is still under construction, but Selfridges is finished.

Birmingham has some pretty modern buildings -- this is Selfridges.

Birmingham has some pretty modern buildings — this is Selfridges.

The Christmas market was centered on Victoria and Chamberlain Squares, close by the city hall and the Birmingham Museum.

Birmingham City Hall, at night (well.....5pm on a November afternoon.) The Frankfurt Christmas market, in the foreground, was in full swing.

Birmingham City Hall, at night (well…..5pm on a November afternoon.) The Frankfurt Christmas market, in the foreground, was in full swing.

Ersatz German Christmas decorations on New Street in Birmingham.

Ersatz German Christmas decorations on New Street in Birmingham.

Christmas decorations in one of the old shopping arcades just off New Street, Birmingham

Christmas decorations in one of the old shopping arcades just off New Street, Birmingham

Now, I wandered around the market and then ducked into the Birmingham Museum for about an hour. That gave me a chance to walk right past the many galleries of Pre-Raphaelite painting (Burne-Jones was a local boy and they have rooms full of his stuff) to see the Staffordshire Hoard. The Hoard was only discovered in 2009 and was first put on public display last month here at the museum. It is the biggest single find of stuff from the Dark Ages of Britian ever. Much is still be interpreted. But the story so far seems to be

  • It dates from 640-660 AD when the area was called Mercia (before the Danes/Viking beat them into submission.)
  • It is not a ceremonial burial or tomb or anything. In fact, they really don’t know why this stuff was buried.
  • There are literally thousands of items, including lots of garnets, gold (11 lbs) and silver (3 lbs), intricately worked.
  • Much of the stuff on display seem to be the remains of ornaments of war helmets and swords, including silver foils with battle motifs and intricate cloisonné goldwork inlaid with garnets from swords hilts.
  • All the indications are this was not just ceremonial gear — the wear on the materials shows it saw active duty.

The most mind-boggling thing to me about the hoard was the swords. As they pointed out, back in those days, making a sword was very hard work and swords were rare. They passed down through generations and had individual names. The will of one King of England from around that time specified who was to get each of the ten swords that he owned. But based on the remains they’ve found, they figure that it represents the buried remains of over 150 swords! And no one has a clue yet why they buried them.

So after seeing the hoard (and pausing for a lovely pot of tea in the Museum’s tea room — I really do like the food and drink in England!) I left the museum at 5pm only to find that it had gotten dark already. But that really changed the feel of the place, as the before and after pics below should help you see.

Birmingham, with the city hall on the right (the "Parthanon") and the Museum in the center-rear (with Greek columns now managing to look Victorian.) Around the base of the tower in the foreground, you can see the "Frankfurt" Christmas market.

Birmingham, with the city hall on the right (the “Parthanon”) and the Museum in the center-rear (with Greek columns now managing to look Victorian.) Around the base of the tower in the foreground, you can see the “Frankfurt” Christmas market.

This panorama was taken only about an hour after the previous one.

This panorama was taken only about an hour after the previous one.