When considering a visit to Birmingham, I had visions of heavy industry, busy roads and a dated, unimpressive city centre. Not exactly Short Break territory.
A little research soon showed that to be a completely unfair view of modern Birmingham.
Over the last few years the central area has greatly improved as the 20 year Big City Plan rolls forward. The city has world-class galleries and museums, including the unusual Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, and the newly opened Library of Birmingham, reputed to be Europe’s largest public library, is a stunning piece of architecture at the heart of the city. The many miles of canals in Birmingham are also well worth investigating, with many stylish pubs and restaurants lining the towpaths.
However, that is not what attracted me to visit Birmingham, but rather I was fascinated to learn that it had two renowned botanic gardens, quite close to one another and not far from the city centre. I decided that a Short Break was the ideal way to investigate them, and, along the way, to see some of the other Birmingham attractions.
The larger of the two gardens, covering 15 acres, is managed by Birmingham Botanical & Horticultural Society. The gardens date back to 1832 and have changed little from the original design, other than the addition of glasshouses. They now contain over 7,000 plant species and are home to the British National Bonsai Collection.
There are four glasshouses, which range from the hot, humid atmosphere of the Tropical Glasshouse, through to the Subtropical, Arid and Mediterranean Glasshouses. The latter is very typical of a Victorian orangery.
Indeed the whole garden has very much the feel of a Victorian public park. A large lawn sweeps down from the glasshouses to a bandstand and a domed birdhouse, containing many exotic bird species.
Around the lawn are a wide range of beds, shrubberies, rock gardens and water features. I particularly enjoyed the woodland walk, leading past the fern garden and bog garden to the rock garden and pool. I then relaxed over a drink at the Pavilion Tea Room, musing on the fact that Clinton, Yeltsin, Blair et al. had sat here 16 years ago at the G8 Summit Dinner.
Just a mile or so down the road, but of a very different style, is the 7 acre botanic garden at Winterbourne House.
The house was built in 1904 by the wood-screw manufacturer John Nettlefold. His wife, Margaret, developed the garden over the following 10 years. The house and garden are perfect examples of the Edwardian period being designed in the Arts & Crafts style popular at that time.
Winterbourne is now owned by the University of Birmingham and was first opened to the public in 2010.
The beautifully landscaped garden contains over 6,000 species set out in neat beds and small glasshouses. Of particular note are the rock and water garden planted with Japanese maples, rhododendrons and azaleas. The 1930s Japanese Bridge is dwarfed by the rhubarb-like Gunnera manicata.
I enjoyed strolling through the nut tree tunnel to the woodland walk and on further out of the garden to Edgbaston Pool. This massive pool (17 acres) is a Site of Special Scientific Interest; public access is only via Winterbourne Garden.
Two storeys of the house are open and illustrate well what life was like in an Edwardian household. It was only when looking at some of the house exhibits that I realised why I knew the name Nettlefold. It is the N part of GKN, one of the UK’s largest engineering companies.
For refreshments and light meals, visit the delightful Terrace Tea Room overlooking the gardens.
Which do I prefer?
Well, I strongly recommend visiting both! The beauty of having these two outstanding botanic gardens so close together, is that you can readily experience both a Victorian Garden and an Edwardian Garden without having to travel miles and miles.
However, if your appetite for historical gardens has been whetted, then why not visit the Elizabethan Garden in Kenilworth Castle just 20 miles away. This faithfully restored garden is managed by English Heritage.
Both the Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Winterbourne House and Garden have free parking and both give Senior discounts, so in each case it is less than £5 to enter, including gift aid. There is good wheelchair access to most parts of both gardens, although the Japanese Bridge at Winterbourne is not suitable for wheelchairs or those unsteady on their feet. Members of Historic Houses get free entry to Winterbourne House and Gardens. See our special offer for annual membership of Historic Houses.
Most of the major hotel chains have properties in the city, but see my Hotel Deals for Seniors before booking. I stayed at the newly-opened Holiday Inn Express Birmingham South, which was convenient for both motorway access and the botanic gardens.
There is plenty of accommodation near the botanic gardens in small, independent hotels which can be booked through trivago; search for hotels under Edgbaston.