We set off from my uncle Hew’s place, not excessively early, but early enough. Our eventual destination this day was Birmingham. All the English people I spoke to wanted to know why on Earth we’d want to go to such a hell-hole, but as it turned out, Birmingham’s reputation for being grey and very nasty is unfounded. At least, it’s not very nasty.
But more of that later. We trudged to the station, and caught the train into London Victoria, followed by a tube ride on the aptly named Circle Line to Paddington Station to catch a train to Oxford. Why Oxford? Well, apart from the fact that it sounded like a delightful place to do a bit of sightseeing, it was also because it’s roughly on the border of the area covered by the BritRail SouthEast passes that we had in our possession. We’d bought them when we’d thought we’d be doing a lot more rail travel than we actually ended up doing. So we thought we’d better use them at least a bit.
We’d actually tried to get the passes stamped at South Croydon. The bloke there had no idea what they were, and we waited until reaching Paddington to do it. A tip when at Paddington: there’s a really long, slow queue for people booking tickets in advance. And there’s a very short quick queue for people travelling that day. After a 5 minute wait, I looked around and found the latter, which proved to be suitable for my pass-stamping purposes.
The Thames Turbo train zoomed out of Paddington, and we got to Oxford around an hour later. I’d had the crazy idea of putting the rather heavy backpack into the left luggage lockers, but in a country in fear of IRA bombs, wouldn’t you know it, they were closed. So we went for a walk around Oxford, the type of walk that you generally take when you’ve got a big heavy backpack on your you-know-what, a four year old whose saying of the week is "I’m too tired of walking" and a sleepy toddler in a stroller: a short and slow walk, but not too slow.
Oxford reminded me of Cambridge, because it looked almost the same. Narrow streets, bicycles, canals, punts, and picturesque spots just about everywhere you turned. We stopped at a pub and enjoyed some fish’n’chips’n’Guinness, which was a mighty fine thing, even when the rain started. After a quick look around the shops, a listen to some extremely skilful buskers, and a look at some of the local constabulary dealing with a drunk, we headed back to the station and caught a train on to Birmingham.
Birmingham is apparently known as "Brum" by the locals. A curious shortening, it sounds like they just can’t be bothered pronouncing it in full, in much the same way that people in Melbourne call the Melbourne Cricket Ground not the MCG, but simply "The ‘G".
It was mid-afternoon by the time we rolled into Brum New Street, stumbled out of the station into a cab and headed for our B&B, a little place going by the name of "The Kennedy" in Edgbaston, a place I’d only ever heard of before in relation to cricket.
I’d booked the B&B a couple of weeks before after having found it on the very marvvy British Tourist Authority web site. The bloke on the phone had sounded pretty cheerful, and hadn’t even asked for my name, a deposit, a letter of confirmation, or even a return phone number where we could be contacted. He was obviously very trusting.
The place looked a bit dishevelled from the outside, but it was very nice inside, very clean and tidy, and the manager bloke was very nice in person, too, even though he reminded us somewhat of Basil Fawlty. He gave us a little map of the area, and pointed out where the shops and things were, and we wandered off down the road to find them. We settled on a pizza shop, and ordered a pizza to take away, because it was just about time for my friend Ian to meet us, but he was expecting us back at the B&B.
We trotted back with the two pizzas (they threw in a second one for free), found Ian and sat on the wall outside the B&B, chatting with him and munching happily on pizza. Ian foolishly volunteered to be our tour guide for the next day (at least we knew he was qualified to do it – that’s how he makes a living) and before saying goodnight, we agreed to meet up bright and early(ish) the next morning for a look around the sights of Brum.