MidlandMetro, the light rail system connecting Wolverhampton to Birmingham, first opened to passengers in 1999. Three months ago the line was extended through Birmingham city centre so that trams now run all the way to the freshly-refurbished New Street station, and the shinyshoppingcentre perched on top.
But what if you're not in the West Midlands for retail, what if you're after some culture? Fear not, I've taken a ride along the entire 13 mile route seeking out galleries, heritage and museums for tram-travellers to enjoy.
[I know I know, probably not the article you were expecting]
It's a city now, Wolverhampton, and has been since the millennium. A ring road wraps round the former town centre, with an Anglo-Saxon-founded church on the highest ground and a cluster of civic buildings close by. One of these is the Wolverhampton Art Gallery, a late-Victorian confection, and a symbol of how seriously the local authority has always taken the aggregation of art. Upstairs are the Victorian and Georgian Rooms, high gabled galleries with a distinctly retro feel, showcasing a series of old masters and locally-crafted artefacts. Downstairs the art is more temporary and rather newer, including at present that perennial favourite - chocolate bars, crisp packets and ketchup brands stitched out of fabric. The WAG has long embraced the modern, indeed in the 1970s it was regularly vilified by the national press for forking out hundreds of pounds of taxpayers money on Pop Art trash. But now the Gallery's having the last laugh, as its collectionof works by Warhol, Caulfield, Paolozzi, Blake et al has attained national importance. I thoroughly enjoyed the current exhibition in the ground floor extension, showcasing several of these Pop Art acquisitions along with their critical reaction at the time, including a packet of cigarettes (disgraceful!), a (baffling!) sculpture with teeth and a gorilla maquette. [free] [5 photos]
Bilston's in the Black Country, the coalfield that helped bring the West Midlands to industrial prominence. The Bilston Craft Gallery exists to celebrate the region's creative flair, in particular the decorative enamels for which the town was famous in the late 18th century. Economics now dictate that the gallery shares its two-storey premises with the local library, but the mosaic floor at the foot of the stairs by the lending desk is a beautiful reminder of times past. Out back is a long gallery where a succession of temporary exhibitions are hosted, at present focusing on Wolverhampton's motorbike heritage (ooh, a Norton, a Diamond and a Wolf) and an eye-opening look at the acrimonious demise of the local steel industry (which survived 200 years until British Steel shut the smelters down). But I was really hunting for the Craftsensegallery - BCG's pride and joy, according to its website and Wikipedia. I looked everywhere but found no trace, eventually deducing that the cases have been permanently whisked away to make space for a Craft Cafe, where children come to make and paint while their parents enjoy tea. It's a brilliant idea, especially during the summer holidays, but when every table is empty and the two staff on duty entirely untroubled, simultaneously a crying shame. [free] [3 photos]
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Wednesbury:Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery
Doubling up as Sandwell's museum, this purpose built Victorian gallery has one of the world's largest collections of Ruskin pottery. It's also closed four days a week, so I missed out, but it is, obviously, open on Wednesdays. [free]
Sometimes you arrive too late. The Public was West Bromwich's attempt to jump on a post-millennial bandwagon, an architecturally striking arts centre to place the town firmly on the cultural map. But where Margate, Hastings and Eastbourne succeeded, West Bromwich fell flat on its face with an expensive 'digital arts centre' nobody wanted. By the time it opened its doors in 2008 both the architects and the charitable foundation in charge had gone bust, and the interactive galleries weren't properly up and running. Visitors came and were bewildered, following a twisty ramp through the cavernous space, staring at mysterious lights and pressing intermittent buttons. In 2013 the council gave up and shut the place down, ripping out the exhibits and transforming the interior into a much-needed sixth form college. What remains is a monolithic black box with cloudlike pink-edged windows, looming invasively over the shopping centre, accessible only to students. Simultaneously amazing and disastrous, I wish I'd been earlier, while the taxpayers of Sandwell wish it had never been built. [free] [4 photos]
Handsworth gets a bad press, whereas it was once the very model of Staffordshire respectability, and arguably the cradle of industrial Enlightenment. The resident who helped change the world was entrepreneur Matthew Boulton, who lived at Soho House from 1766 to 1809. Across the fields his Manufactory churned out buttons, buckles and boxes, and it was here that Boulton teamed up with James Watt to build the first economically viable steam engine. The West Midlands was home to several other great thinkers at the time, including Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgwood, a group of whom met socially once a month on the night of the full moon and called themselves the Lunar Society. One of the venues was Soho House, in the 1990s rescued from use as a police hostel and restored to full Georgian glory. Visitors are now shown around a building miraculously fitted out with most of Bolton's original furniture and fittings, including the very table around which the Lunar Society met, and some rather fantastic ornaments made from Blue John. My guide was excellent, and really made the house come alive, but also expressed regret that not enough people seem to make the effort to visit. I must say the initial trudge up from the tram stop hadn't looked promising, but the leafy neighbourhood at the top of the hill was charming, Soho House an unexpected pleasure, and they do tea and cakes too. [£7] [3 photos]
Grand Central:The Birmingham Back to Backs
The National Trust's only property in Birmingham, a rare survivor of cramped working class housing, lies a short walk south of New Street station. How the city's architecture changes along the journey, from thrusting gleam to decorated terracotta to plaintive brick. An example of the latter, I also visited the Back to Backs last year, and can also recommend. [£7.85]
Midland Metro's due to be extended again next year, nudging through the civic centre of the city to terminate in front of the Library of Birmingham. Now three years old, this glittering bookstack is already much loved, even if the council's already had to cut its opening hours through lack of funding. But the real casualty is the old Birmingham Central Library, a brutalist concrete ziggurat which divided opinion, but has now been almost completely demolished. A single grey-stepped section remains, smashed open to the elements, due to be replaced by a modern mixed-use urban centrepiece laughably named Paradise. [free/dead] [photo]
It may be 2023 before Midland Metro reaches out to Edgbaston, and even then not especially close to the University, but hey, I needed an excuse to nudge these last two attractions onto the list. Birmingham's campus is huge, centred around a sweeping Albertopolis-esque court with a thrusting brick clocktower at its heart. To one side is the Barber, an arts complex with a first floor cloistered gallery, and a collection of paintings that punches well above its weight. One circuit passes several treasures, and feels all so terribly refined and enriching, if somewhat dated. Much more up-to-date is the the Lapworth Museum of Geology, in the listed Aston Webb building, a Victorian collection reopened barely a month ago in a strikingly updated space. A sequence of fossil displays tells the Earth's history era by era, while carefully classified stacks of rocks and minerals should satisfy casual visitors and querulous students alike. I spotted a number of degree-educated dads attempting to inspire their offspring with scientific fervour, with varying degrees of success, and with just enough to push and poke in the Active Earth gallery to keep everyone happy. [free, free] [7 photos]