Peter Ormerod visits Edgbaston in Birmingham - and has his preconceptions of the city transformed
Birmingham. It's a place for a good night out, certainly. A shopping destination, definitely. But it may not feature very highly on lists of obvious places to spend a weekend. That plainly needs to change.
My time in Edgbaston converted me from something of a Brumosceptic to an evangelist for the place. It was only a couple of days but it made me see the city afresh.
For the uninitiated, Edgbaston is more than just a cricket ground. It feels like a small town in its own right, and an especially attractive one at that: green, spacious and replete with fine architecture, most notably its assortment of Regency villas. It has been known since the 19th century as "where the trees begin," and it is striking how suddenly Edgbaston appears: turn off the hectic A456 and you're suddenly in a very different world. If you had just been teleported there, you would have no idea you were only a mile or so from Broad Street.
The area in which we were staying has come to be known as Edgbaston Village. It is quiet enough to merit its name but surely few villages boast quite so much to do. We checked in to The Edgbaston Boutique Hotel and were instantly bedazzled; it is a beautifully executed homage to 1920s glamour and style. It is far from the bling overload it might have been in lesser hands; rather, it is an exercise in bold elegance, its attention to detail never failing to impress, from its crockery to its teapots to its music. It avoids the twee and the kitsch, embracing the vibrant and the modern. And as befits the era to which it pays tribute, it prides itself on its cocktails, the menu for which is quite breathtakingly exhaustive and its signature drink being The Edgbaston, blending raspberry Tanqueray gin, Lanique rose, rose champagne, English garden aromatics and fresh lemon.
The Edgbaston Boutique Hotel has 20 rooms. Ours was as comfortable and well-appointed as we could have wished for, its decor again immaculate, a gorgeous sash window inviting plenty of light and with the rather daring feature of a bath a few feet from the bed - and not in the bathroom. It was all rather swish and striking.
Having settled in, we made our way over to one of the treasures of Edgbaston: Winterbourne House and Garden. The Edwardian property was built in the Arts and Crafts style for John Nettlefold, a pioneer of housing reform in Birmingham. His family devoted themselves to good deeds but were no mere do-gooders: they involved themselves not just in relieving the plight of poor people, but in reimagining and rebuilding their environment, with all the benefits of fresh air and open space. Their house was designed and constructed most lovingly, and it has a tremendously warm, welcoming and humane atmosphere, quite different from the distant feel of more aristocratic abodes. Its sense of great care carries in to its botanical garden, a gloriously colourful and soulful place, which is grade II-listed. Its paths and lawns abound with delightful features, including its Japanese bridge and Nut Walk. The house and garden are perfect place to spend an autumnal afternoon.
It also prides itself on its afternoon tea, which was a mini feast in itself. Along with a selection of sandwiches were two rather charmingly dainty warm treats: a chicken and mushroom pie and a cheese and mushroom tart. The customary scone with jam and cream was accompanied by a small chocolate pudding and berry dessert; although classed as tea, it all made for a hearty lunch. Credit too for their fine gluten-free efforts.
It all kept us going until dinner, which was a most charming experience in a place some may overlook. We ate in the Brew Bar Lounge of the Marriott Hotel. Any preconceptions of identikit, mass-produced fare should be cast out of one's mind: this was food cooked with great care, diligence and skill, created and served by a team exuding friendliness and hospitality. My wife's pan-fried cod was a fine balance of delicateness and bite; my penne arrabiata was rich in texture and pleasingly sharp in flavour. It is an informal and relaxed place to eat, made all the more pleasant by the staff; and, after enjoying a plate of good local cheese and crackers, we were really quite sad to have to leave.
Having slept deeply on our plush bed, our appetites had recovered sufficiently to enjoy a fine breakfast. I had the house speciality: poached eggs on sourdough with streaky bacon and a dash of hollandaise. It was a joyous wake-up for my palate: rich, smoky, mellow, tangy, crunchy. Along with the loose-leaf tea, granola and yoghurt, it made for as good a start to the day as one could dream of.
There was time after breakfast for some more exploration of Edgbaston Village - with its bars, spas and unique boutiques - before lunch at the Michelin-starred Simpsons. Set in one of Edgbaston's Regency properties, it is fresh and bright and far from the intimidating, haughty place a restaurant of its calibre might be. Proceedings began with an Ugo, a deceptively simple cocktail comprising sparkling wine, fresh mint and elderflower; it was a sweet yet snappy affair, bracing and perfectly balanced. My wife's Seedlip Grove cocktail proved that alcohol is not a prerequisite for a great drink, evoking a particularly invigorating gin and tonic. Then it was time to eat; and to eat at Simpsons is a very special thing indeed.
Following an amuse bouche - a wondrously intense take on bacon and eggs, along with parsley oil and carrot sauce - my starter of onion broth with smoked cheese dumpling, black garlic, hen of the woods mushroom and chickweed was every bit as light as it was punchy and earthy, the dumpling smooth and sumptuous, the mushroom pleasingly rough and crinkly. The dish had a heft that belied its size. My wife's Cornish mackerel with baby beetroots, iced wasabi, red vein sorrel and oxalis was a plate of food pieced together with an exquisite touch, the mackerel gently warm, the beetroots in particular something of a revelation.
Chicken does not get much better than my main: Cumbrian chicken with truffle gnocchi, leek, yeast and nasturtiums. The meat had a fine coating of crumb to contrast with its delicate texture and beautifully rounded flavour, while the the leek hit the sweet-spot of mellow and sharp and the gnocchi added a welcome chewiness. My wife had Newlyn plaice with courgettes, white beans, seaweed butter and sea herbs; it tasted vastly more exciting than that sounds, packed with bright and potent flavours, the plaice being cooked with customary excellence, its accompaniments adding breadth and depth in perfect proportion.
I have eaten few things, however, that have left me quite so enraptured as my dessert: an apple and blackberry souffle with oatmilk ice cream. It was somehow not quite of this world; I have never eaten a cloud from heaven but I imagine it might be quite similar. There was something of the sublime in its softness and gentle warmth, given shape in the mouth by the sharpness and bite of the fruit. One hears food described as 'divine' but that seems quite insufficient for this. The menu told of a 20-minute wait for this particular wonder of the universe but that felt like less of a warning and more of a promise. I'd happily wait 20 years for it. I'm not sure anything will ever be quite the same for me, food-wise. I was so engrossed in my own ecstasy that my wife's evident delight at her pudding - variations of blueberry, served with cake - passed me by somewhat at the time.
And so our weekend in Edgbaston came to an end on a note so high it almost exceeded the range of human hearing. There is plenty more to do than we managed, too, not least a visit to Cannon Hill Park and the Midlands Arts Centre. And it's so easy to get to: London Northwestern Railway runs trains direct from the likes of Leighton Buzzard, Milton Keynes, Northampton and Rugby, with Edgbaston a few minutes' taxi ride from the centre of the city. Think you know Birmingham? Think again. It turns out it can be a city of wonders.
* Peter Ormerod was a guest of the West Midlands Growth Company Limited