A lot has changed since the first WDC was held in Birmingham (Brum), England in 1988. A lot hasnít. Even more has changed since the fourth WDC was held in the same city in 1994. In 2004, WDC XIV will be held in Brum once again! Come and see whatís changed and what hasnít!
Following are three short essays: Getting to Brum the Easy Way gives you some ideas on how to get to the Con site as quickly and inexpensively as possible. Pleasures and Treasures of Brum is full of ideas on how to enjoy Englandís first eurocentric city. London: Worth a Detour tells you whatís changed in London in the last fourteen years, from the cosmetic to the profound.
Thatcher is out. Blair is in. Walkerdine is out. Norman is in. But, some things never change. Fish, chips, and peas are still there, and although Britannia no longer rules the waves, she still makes them!
Getting to Brum the Easy Way
If you arenít already laughing, thereís no hope for you. There is no easy way to get to Birmingham, West Midlands, especially if youíre coming from overseas. Like Rome, Britain is Londoncentric. Still, there are ways to make the trip a bit easier. It may not be faster and it may not be cheaper, but it will be easier.
First, note that this is written for non-Brits, people who are planning to attend WDC who will be coming from across the seas or across The Channel. Second, if youíre planning on driving, move on. Third, if youíre planning on taking The Chunnel or ferries, move on. If youíre planning on flying, however, then read on. Of course, if you plan to take a cruise before or after WDC, let me know.
No matter where youíre starting from, begin at the end. Look up the Birmingham International Airport web site. Work backwards from there. Once you know what airlines fly into Brum and from where, youíll find it much easier to find a link to your own gateway airport.
There are many, many ways to purchase airline tickets now. It really depends on whether time or money is more important to you. If you absolutely must have the cheapest ticket and have lots of time to spend finding it, get online and search. Check out the bucket shops. Visit the airline web sites. If saving a few bucks isnít worth hours and hours of work to you, find a good travel agent and let them do the work for you. The chances are that in ten minutes they can do what youíd spend days doing online.
You should still do a bit of online research yourself. Check out the major airlines and the new upstarts, but remember that the upstarts usually use airports away from the city centers. They will be cheaper, but then you have to spend time and money getting to and from those airports to where you want to go. If you want background information on travel or the UK I suggest you check out the travel sections of The New York Times and Washington Post online.
When all is said and done, most WDC attendees fall into one of two groups: There are those who are going to and from the event ONLY, and there are those who want to combine WDC with a tour of England. If youíre in the first group, plot your trip through the Birmingham Airport, using whatever airline gives you the most direct and cheapest fare. If youíre in the second group, look for a link that gets you to the event and still fits in with your general travel plan. If youíre coming from the States, for example, and you can find an airfare from your hometown to Birmingham that is within a hundred dollars or so of a ticket to London, take it! Youíll save time and money avoiding the transfers, rails, etc. Try mightily to keep your trip simple. Avoid multiple stops and avoid changes in your mode of transportation. If you can get to Brum with only one stop, take it. If you can do the whole thing by plane, take it. Try to avoid using a plane, a train, or a bus with stops in multiple locations, especially if more than one country is involved.
If you want to spend some time in London before or after the Con that should be easy to arrange. Once again, if you work with a major airline youíll have more flexibility and better support. British Airways may not be the cheapest but when it comes to putting the whole package together, they are pros! Look for code share partners. Above all else, use your frequent flyer miles for upgrades, not to buy your ticket!
Coming from Europe the airlines and fares are all over the place. You just have to check yourself or find a good travel agent who knows which airlines serve which cities. You may find that Manchester or even Edinburgh is a better destination for you than Birmingham or London. Just remember, the more money you try to save, the greater the potential for problems along the way.
Keep in mind that itís summer and itís England. You wonít be finding any USD 99 each way airfares. On the other hand, airfares will be reasonable. Youíll do better to focus your money-saving efforts on finding a good, reasonable hotel wherever you go. When you get home and realize you paid as much for a two star hotel in London per night as it cost you to cross the Atlantic, youíll realize you over-spent.
Welcome to England!
Although WDC events held in Birmingham (known as Brum, and locals and expats are known as Brummies) have had their ups and downs since the first event was held there in 1988, for the City of Birmingham and the West Midlands, as the area is now known, the last fifteen years have in general been a period of continuing ups! From its traditional status as Englandís ďsecond cityĒ, Brum has evolved to become ďthe first European-oriented city in the UK.Ē Barely worth a detour a generation ago, the Brum of today is worth a trip in its own right. Combining the visit with a WDC class event and, perhaps, a side-trip to London makes it an appealing summer holiday (thatís vacation to Americans) destination.
Indeed, the only limitations on your trip are those imposed by the amount of time and money you have and your own interests. No matter how much time or money you have or what your interests are, youíll find many, many things to see and do in and around Brum. Iíll leave it to the locals to cover the details. Instead, let me give you a few suggestions based on my five trips to the area over the past fifteen years.
Close-by the WDC site is one of cricketís major shrines, the Edgbaston cricket grounds -- Englandís equivalent to Wrigley Field or the Rose Bowl. Stop by, observe, and, if you can find one, talk to one of the groundsí keepers and find out how and why the grass does grow so beautifully there.
Located on the University campus is the Barber Institute of Fine Art, which is one of the finest university art collections in the world. Alongside the occasional Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Rembrandt; are some wonderful Poussins and one of the best rare coin collections in the world. Those of you who have attended the WDCs held in Chapel Hill may note the similarities between the Barber and the Ackland Art Museum on the UNC-CH campus. If you take a few minutes and read the biographies of the two women who founded the two museums, youíll be amazed at the similarities. The Edgbaston area also offers several Botanical Gardens, a Nature Centre, and an Arts Centre for those interested.
The City Centre of Brum offers the usual tourist attractions: These include a Cathedral, a Museum and Art Gallery, the National Sealife Centre, etc. The real attraction is the vibrant life of the area itself which has evolved as the city has restored its canal system. It is a network larger than Veniceís. Take time to visit the ďnewĒ Bull Ring and its shopping and entertainment offerings. When the locals tell you how horrible the old Bull Ring was, believe them! For the scientifically oriented, the Thinktank, as the Museum of Science and Discovery is called, offers much of interest.
Donít spend all your time in Brum, however; there are many fascinating attractions in the surrounding area. If you must indulge your sweet tooth, go ahead and visit Cadbury World, a must see for some. Frankly, Iím not a milk chocolate fan, so Iíd save my money and calories for Bruxelles chocolate shops. Do make the trip out to Aston and visit Aston Hall, an old Jacobean mansion. You probably wonít run into many American tourists, but you will see a lot of the locals exploring the place and learning about a period of English history most people know little about. If youíre a golfer, make the pilgrimage to Sutton Coldfield, one of golfís great courses. If you want to splurge for one night, arrange to stay at New Hall, Englandís oldest moated hotel. Keep in mind that anything you come across in England that is named ďNewĒ is probably the oldest thing in town! Ask Carolyne to put you up in the LP Suite (LP stands for Luciano Pavarotti or Larry Peery, take your choice) or the Cher Suite. Both come complete with fresh cookies, a carafe of sherry, and a bathtub you could float the entire British Navy in! If you donít want to deal with the way Brits drive, use the hotelís helipad and limo service to whisk you about.
Even if you arenít a churchgoer, be sure to visit the famous Coventry Cathedral. The original structure, destroyed by bombs during WWII, stands next to the newer one which was almost destroyed by fire some years ago. The new cathedral is seen as a symbol of peace and reconciliation. Perhaps the WDC Society meeting should be held there? If youíre up for a bit of a drive and thereís anything worth seeing at the Royal Shakespeare Theater, go on down to Stratford, but only if youíre a real Shakespeare buff. Just remember that it will be peak tourist season and Stratford is one of the three top tourist destinations in England.
This inevitably brings us to the subject of castles. England has more castles than the USA has Wal-Marts and in many ways they are similar. Warwick is the famous one of course and it looks like what Disneylandís castle would have looked like if Walt had ever visited Warwick. See it because you must and not because you should. As you wander through it keep one thought in mind: THIS CASTLE IS PRIVATELY OWNED AND OPERATED WITH A PROFIT MAKING MOTIVE! Iím not saying that is bad. On the other hand, if you want something a bit more authentic -- a place where youíll actually feel like youíre in a real castle -- then you should visit Kenilworth. Most of it is in ruins. It is useful as backdrops for nighttime performances of Macbeth or Lucia di Lammermoor. When you stand on the ramparts and look out over the countryside below, you can almost feel the history of England flowing in your veins. If Warwick is Sir Laurence Oliverís Henry V, then Kenilworth is Kenneth Branaghís version. Take your pick.
In the other direction from Brum is a place called Iron Bridge. If youíve heard of it, youíre probably planning to visit it anyway. If you havenít, look it up and go. This is where Englandís industrial revolution began. From here came the raw materials that went to the factories of Brum that made England the great power it was. Today you can see the actual Iron Bridge, visit a real mine and see how people lived and worked. Ironically, on the rim of the valley sits a symbol of another age, a nuclear power plant.
I think that it was these two spots, the Cathedral at Coventry, old and new, and Iron Bridge, old and new, that have most moved me during my travels around Brum. No doubt you will find other places that effect you similarly.
All of the places that Iíve mentioned have their own web sites. Seek them out. For general information the following sites should be helpful:
ďWould to God that Willy Shakespeare had lived longeror been blessed with the gift
No less a thespian than Vincent Price proclaimed, ďLondonís a manís town and Parisí a womanís town.Ē After multiple visits to each, I have no argument with that. One goes to London (in contrast to one passes through London) for one of three reasons: The Museums, The Gardens, or The Theater. Without them, itís the pits. With them it becomes one of the truly great cities of the world. Anyone going to or coming from WDC in Brum who doesnít spend a few days in London is a fool!
Londonís been around since the time of the Romans, although itís hard to tell. In point of fact, until England acquired an empire and began looting it to construct a city worthy of an empireís capital, London didnít amount to much. Dippers note: The French, Italians, Russians, and Turks did the same thing. The Austrian capital, Vienna, was a labor of love on the part of the Habsburgs. The Russian capital, St. Petersburg, was the work of a megalomaniac -- a genius, it is true, but still a megalomaniac.
So much for ancient and modern history.
My purpose here is to discuss the changes in London that have occurred during the interval between WDC I in 1988 and this yearís WDC. Anyone who attended any of the previous WDC events in Brum might assume that London had changed not at all or very little just as the Brum Diplomacy event have changed hardly an iota. Wrong! The London of 2004 is far different from the London of 1988! In 1988 London was firmly in the hands of the Thatcherites and would continue to be so for another two years. Ah, the horror of it, a Queen on the throne and a woman with more balls than most men on the front bench in Commons! By 2004, little has changed. Tony Blair has been around forever it seemed and given the number of lives he has had, he might well continue on and on and on.
But London had changed, and radically so. I attribute this to three factors, namely The Millennium, Canary Wharf, and Sir Trevor Nunn. The three combined gave London its biggest facelift since the days of Queen Victoria.
The Millennium gave the British Government and the London establishment a chance to do what they do best, which is show off. The Brits were determined to show off their best. Old buildings and collections were given a sprucing up, a facelift, or radically overhauled. Where needed, or not, new ones were built. IMAX theaters, the British Airways London Eye, the British Museum, the Millennium Bridge, Shakespeareís Old Globe, the Tate Britain, the Tate Modern, and the Victoria & Albert to name a few. Some of the changes and additions worked well. Some did not. The Millennium Bridge and the Dome were two of the biggest failures, I suppose.
Perhaps the best comment on the whole to do was from the architecture critic who lobbed a particularly nasty shoulder-launched missile into the new headquarters building of MI-5, or was it MI-6 or MI-7?
Still, all these buildings and whatís in them are worth a visit. Whether itís art or not is for you to decide.
Canary Wharf, a massive complex of new office buildings and apartments located in a slummy area of London was a disaster waiting to happen. It had already bankrupted its major financial backer when a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. The British gave Hong Kong back to the Chinese! Tens of thousands of dual passport Hong Kongers took the opportunity to come ďhomeĒ to London. Already accustomerd to the worldís highest real estate prices, they bought up business space and flats all over Canary Wharf, pouring hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of pounds into the area. In almost no time theyíd recreated the Mid-Levels and Peak on the bank of the Thames. As soon as these ex-pats had established their British residency and acquired a home base in the UK, they did what any smart Chinese business person would do --- they went back to Hong Kong where they could make the usual 25% a year profits they were used to.
If you get the chance, visit the area and eat your heart out when you check out the current real estate prices.
I believe itís Londonís reputation as the theater capital of the world that really makes it special. When I was there in 1988 I saw 14 performances including Cats, Les Miserables, Mousetrap, Driving Miss Daisy, Julius Caesar, Kiss Me, Kate, the Royal Opera, and the Ballet. Time magazine wrote in its 2001 review of the last millennium that 1988 was perhaps the best year for theater in London in the last century. I canít disagree. At that time London theater was dominated by the productions of Cameron Macintosh and the music of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. One of Sir Andrewís major contributions to London theater was his policy of refurbishing theaters when his productions moved in including, thank God, the installation of modern air-conditioning!
The real titan of the three key figures of the period was Trevor Nunn, who as head of the National Theater has raised the bar for all those coming to it. So if youíre visiting London in conjunction with WDC in Brum you wonít see Cats. Theyíve all gone to the Great Cat House in the Sky. You will see Jerry Springer, the Opera or Tom Stoppardís Jumpers, so not to worry. Check out the half-price ticket booth in Leicester Square or check out Keith Prowse on the internet. I used Prowse to pre-purchase my London theater tickets and I was very happy with the results.
Great buildings, great contents, great theaters, great drama, and great gardens! Forget the Rule Britannia and all that crap! Itís their green thumbs that make the Brits a wonderful people! And itís appreciation for a green open space that makes London a wonderful place to visit.
So, if youíre going to Brum for WDC 2004, plan to spend a minimum of three days and, if you can afford it, three weeks in London. Ninety museums, nearly as many theaters, and gardens too numerous to count --- how can you resist?
WDC 2004. The worldwide hobby waits, wonders and watches. Will this be the year the Brits finally do it right? The QM2 set the example. Built in France with a $400 million loan from the French government, operated by Cunard, the famous British line, now owned by an American corporation, and staffed by a crew of which 30% had never been to sea before, the QM2 has attracted more interest in the cruise industry than any ship since the Titanic. Interest? Yes! Participation? Thatís up to you. Be there and see for yourself.