It’s the city where cricket’s club league started and the first ever game of lawn tennis was played. And sprint king Usain Bolt once said that the “love” shown to him by its people during training there for London 2012 helped him reclaim his two Olympic titles.
As a city with sport running through its veins, Birmingham is aptly set to host this summer’s Commonwealth Games, arguably the UK’s biggest sporting event since the Olympics 10 years ago.
And its raft of world-class venues, history-laden grounds and novel new activities show that, with just over six months to go, the city is ready for some serious action. Sports fans are certainly in for a treat.
When we visited Birmingham for a taste of what might be in store our first s-port of call was Villa Park, home to Aston Villa FC – Prince William’s favourite team.
Once one of the country’s most esteemed clubs with 19 major domestic honours and a European Cup to their name, Villa were a founding member of the Football League, formed in 1888 when director William McGregor invited other clubs to play regularly. Since then Villa Park has become the first English ground to host international football in three different centuries.
On an entertaining tour with club official Mick Dale, my son Freddie, his friend Ollie and I saw the home changing room – with players’ shirts hanging up – and walked out pitchside through the tunnel.
We also lifted the 2019 play-off winners’ trophy and posed for pictures with player Douglas Luiz, fresh home from winning Olympic gold with Brazil (avfc.co.uk/villa-park).
Later we headed to Edgbaston Stadium, Birmingham’s oldest sporting venue and the England cricket team’s favourite ground, thanks to fervent support from fans in its famous Eric Hollies Stand. Home to Warwickshire Cricket Club, it has been holding Test matches since 1902 – in the first ever game England heroically bowled out Australia for 36 runs.
Edgbaston was also one of the grounds to host last summer’s hugely successful new tournament The Hundred, as well as the Vitality Blast final in September. During this year’s Games the women’s T20 final will be held there.
During our visit we watched England batsman Dom Sibley train with his Warwickshire teammates – and bumped into him outside – and heard how eight groundsmen spend hours preparing the hallowed turf, often cutting it several times a day (edgbaston.com).
Next up was The Belfry near Sutton Coldfield, which has hosted more Ryder Cups than anywhere else. Last year it also held the British Masters.
Its Brabazon course – one of three – is on every amateur golfer’s bucket list. Prizes of a car or £10,000 have even been offered for a hole-in-one on its notorious 10th hole.
We tried out the brand-new 34-bay driving range which has clever Toptracer technology that tracks your golf ball’s flight path. The British Masters will return there this summer (buckets of balls from £5.50, thebelfry.com).
Fun challenges include the child-friendly Go Fish where players aim at virtual sea creature targets on the course.
We also enjoyed the resort’s mini golf – its 12 holes based on iconic Ryder Cup ones – and a round of disc golf, where you toss a frisbee into metal baskets (each game £5 child, £7 adult).
During our three-day trip we stayed at the new Aloft Birmingham Eastside, nestled in an area currently undergoing ambitious redevelopment – including the new HS2 train terminal and additional tram stops – to create a buzzy extension to the city centre.
The vibe was relaxed yet cool, with striking pinks and turquoises, statement lighting and lively music.
My urban king room had a huge walk-in shower with monsoon head, massive platform bed and Nespresso machine; the boys shared a twin room next door. The main lobby’s pool table was a hit too.
In the lively bar area Freddie and Ollie tucked into huge bacon cheeseburgers with skin-on chips while I enjoyed a tasty halloumi, falafel and avocado bowl. It was really good to see a new hotel so popular.
Returning to football, we travelled to St George’s Park in Burton upon Trent, the 330-acre rural training ground of England’s national teams and home to 14 outdoor pitches, including an exact replica of Wembley and a full-size indoor 3G one.
The boys loved seeing the swimming pool where the England players were snapped larking around with inflatable unicorns during Euro 2020 (thefa.com).
Despite Covid setbacks Birmingham is buzzing with new attractions and restaurants. Dishoom, which recreates Bombay’s old-style cafe culture, only opened just three days before the first lockdown but is now booming.
The delicious Indian street food we tried included the fiery chicken tikka, spicy lamb chops, black daal – Dishoom’s signature lentil dish that’s cooked for 24 hours – and chicken berry Britannia, a tasty pot with rice, ginger, garlic and coriander.
We had great service and wonderful food, much tastier and refined than your average curry house, in a stylish setting (dishoom.com).
We also tried Lucarelli in the cool Mailbox canalside development. Our starters of pan-fried prawns in a spicy sauce and fried seafood and courgettes were mouth-watering, as was my main of sea bass in butter sauce and the boys’ pepperoni pizzas. Pretty white blossom, leafy foliage and white marble gave it a classy Italian Riviera feel (lucarellirestaurant.co.uk).
At the new Treetop Adventure Golf, handily situated in the city centre’s Bullring shopping centre, we took on the 18-hole Tropical Trail course which included hidden holes, bumpy fairways and tricky putts (from £10pp, adventuregolf.com).
Afterwards we unwound with mocktails – we loved the Amazonian-style mugs they came in – and hearty slabs of locally baked brownies and rocky road.
MeetspaceVR in the Utilita Arena opened last autumn and offers virtual game players the chance to walk around in cable-free headsets in Europe’s biggest free-roaming experience.
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During Zombie Survival when the undead were attacking us, we were all able to interact with each other and we felt much more part of the action (from £19.95pp, meetspacevr.co.uk).
Singularity saw us battle robots while the fairy tale-like Engineerium challenged us with floating paths, twisting bridges and steep slopes.
Being so centrally located means that Birmingham is well-served by trains and we had an easy trip there thanks to a quick and efficient twice-hourly Avanti West Coast service from London.
Before we left we swung by the Bear Grylls Adventure at the NEC, a paradise for adrenaline junkies.
The outdoor high ropes course, a whopping 65ft high, contains 36 obstacles spread over several layers. Daredevils shouldn’t miss the mid-air seesaw or the barrel that rolls as you cross it (from £32pp, beargryllsadventure.com). On the archery course, we were taught how to load an arrow into a bow and fire, then were set challenges, including one where you aim at other people’s targets (from £20pp).
The perfect hosts for this summer’s 2022 Commonwealth Games showpiece, the good sports and friendly folk in Birmingham are certainly game for it.
Fun and 2022 games in Birmingham
The 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and the West Midlands will be staged from July 28 to August 8 and is expected to attract more than 5,000 athletes from 72 nations.
Sporting venues are across the city and surrounding region – from Cannock Chase Forest, Royal Sutton Coldfield and Wolverhampton to Coventry, Solihull, and Royal Leamington Spa.
The main athletics and the opening and closing ceremonies will be at the Alexander Stadium in Perry Barr, north of the city centre.
It is currently getting a £72million refurbishment for the main events and will hold 30,000 spectators when complete.
Find out more at birmingham2022.com.
Book a trip
Stay: Rooms at Aloft Birmingham Eastside hotel start at £60 a night on B&B, £110 for an urban king. Find out more at aloft-hotels.marriott.com.
Get there: Singles between London Euston and Birmingham start at £8.40 standard, £27.20 first class. Avanti also serves Birmingham from stations in North Wales, the Northwest and Scotland. Find out more at avantiwestcoast.co.uk.
You can also get more information at visitbirmingham.com.
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