Birmingham - the city that for years has played second fiddle to nearby London - is suddenly grabbing headlines, and for all the right reasons.
The largest-ever discovery of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver objects was unearthed in July in a farmer's field at Lichfield, just north of modern-day Birmingham. Announced in late September, the discovery of the seventh-century treasure trove has been touted by historians as the most important find of its kind in Britain, and maybe even all of Europe. People from around the world - and not only scholars - are intrigued about Birmingham as a centre of culture, commerce and hoards of gold.
The Staffordshire Hoard, as the 5-kilogram princely collection of more than 1,800 artifacts has come to be known, has yet to be completely analyzed. The first showing, at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in October, attracted a huge and international audience. A small sample was sent to the British Museum in London. Among the discovered artifacts are golden blades, helmet decorations, coins, jewellery, crucifixes and animal- shaped figurines - all on the auction block. Now, the Staffordshire Hoard is on exhibit (until April 17) at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the nearby Stokes-on-Trent Museum (until April 18).
The new discovery extends the history of Birmingham and surroundings and will undoubtedly yield new insights into early Anglo-Saxon history. But even without the ancient gold, Birmingham has been experiencing a sort of golden age all its own, thanks in large part to a series of initiatives aimed at restoring a city whose history as a manufacturing and commercial centre stretches back to the early Middle Ages.
Not so long ago, this former nucleus of the Industrial Revolution was tarnished with a well-deserved reputation as the most polluted city in Britain. In the 1970s, Canadian newspapers published photographs of Birmingham warning of the evils of environmental negligence. The legendary soot on its buildings was black and thick.
Before I set foot in England's second-largest city, I imagined a skyline dominated by a scrum of industrial smokestacks spewing exhaust on parks, streets and rows of glum houses. But the Birmingham I experienced was far from that: I saw a city where quality of life seemed to take pride of place.
It's easy to see why. Birmingham is an enticing mix of old and new. For those with a taste for history, there is an ample supply of incredibly well-preserved Victorian and Edwardian - and even medieval and Tudor - period architecture providing numerous portals to Birmingham's storied past.
But for the last three decades Birmingham has ridden a wave of economic good fortune, reflected in dazzling new developments which have given the city a distinctly futuristic and affluent vibe. Though still an important high-tech manufacturing centre, the new Birmingham has been built predominantly on the rapid growth of its service economy. Even the global recession has been unable to kill the momentum of growth in Birmingham. A wave of urban development started more than a decade ago has continued unabated to the present, and among these the most important has been the reclamation of the city's vast canal system.
"Birmingham has more canals than Venice!" I was told numerous times.
Until recently, the canals were reminders of the ugly underbelly of industrial growth, but they have recently been transformed into focal points of city life and tourism. Straddling the canal now are ingeniously designed mixed-use developments like Brindleyplace, a busy bazaar of shops, restaurants, offices and residences connected to the western entrance of the International Convention Centre. Among the newer attractions along the canals are the National Sea Life Centre (for kids and adults) and the incomparable Ikon Gallery, a hybrid gallery, atelier and ultra-groovy restaurant savoured by lovers of contemporary European art.
A stroll south along the canal from Brindleyplace eventually leads to another attraction, The Mailbox, a visually absorbing shopping centre, entertainment and residential complex directly connected to the BBC Birmingham building, where one can watch programs in production through large windows in the foyer.
The Mailbox is home to high-end designer stores, art galleries and great restaurants, such as Bar Epernay (www.bar-epernay.co.uk), a Champagne and piano bar highlighting traditional British cuisine with 21st-century panache. The Mailbox offers lofty vantage points from which to view the intersecting jumble of streets and squares which, like a cubist painting, give Birmingham a distinctive vibrancy.
For the first time in decades, many young people are choosing to make a life in their home town rather than follow the traditional migratory route to London in search of fortune.
"Birmingham's the friendliest city in the United Kingdom," proclaims my taxicab driver, a third-generation Brit of Afghan descent. "Forget about the 20 pence if you don't have it handy, mate!"
Though only 20 pence, to me it was gold - and a reminder that buried treasures could be discovered in the most unexpected places.
Pack your bags
Where to stay
Hotel du Vin Church Street; 44 (0)121 200-0600; www.hotelduvin.com/birmingham. From $205. For a truly English experience it's hard to beat this boutique hotel in the Jewellery Quarter, itself worth a trip even if you're just window-shopping. The hotel, in a Victorian low-rise, is something out of an old Sherlock Holmes movie, with a billiards room, library, courtyard and first-rate wine bar and restaurant. Colmore Row, a block of Victorian architectural beauty and the most expensive real estate in town, is nearby, as is St. Philip's Cathedral, adorned by stained-glass windows by the famous 19th-century artist and Birmingham native Edward Burne-Jones.
Nite Nite Hotel 18 Holliday St.; 44 (0) 845 890-9099; www.nitenite.com. From $85. Closer to the boisterous bars and night life of Broad Street, this micro-boutique hotel prides itself on cutting edge design - small, clean, ergonomically ingenious rooms with large plasma TV screens - for very modest prices.
Birmingham tourism www.visitbirmingham.com: www.birmingham-tours.co.uk Book a walking tour of the city or a driving tour to nearby Stratford-upon-Avon, William the Conqueror's Warwick Castle, or the "typically English" villages and hillsides of theCotswolds.
Special to The Globe and Mail