From the ramparts of stone castles in Wales to the awe-inspiring presence of Stonehenge, the United Kingdom is full of wondrous sites with rich histories.
My husband and I moved to Birmingham from Fort Worth about two years ago. We love being in the heart of England and have gone on many adventures throughout the immediate area and the rest of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Just a few hours on a train transports us to new vistas across the British Isles. So, when my sister-in-law and her family of six planned a visit, we immediately suggested Birmingham as a central location where the group could stay and enjoy short day trips to some off-the-beaten-path locations.
There is so much more to the United Kingdom than its capital city. London may be the first choice for most people when visiting England, but the crowded streets make the city less than ideal for a family of tourists.
Birmingham, on the other hand, is less expensive, less crowded and provides a better glimpse at daily life in England.
Birmingham’s local gems
The second-largest city in England, Birmingham, often called Brum after the local accent of the Brummies, has a lot to offer families.
Explore the City Centre and visit the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The museum has a fantastic, interactive exhibit about the history of Birmingham, from its medieval beginnings to its Victorian splendor and later its suburban expansion. It also houses an impressive collection of Pre-Raphaelite art and part of the Anglo-Saxon treasure known as the Staffordshire Hoard.
Stop by the shops at the Bullring, including the iconic Selfridges “monster” building. Then, walk down to Brindley Place to see the Birmingham canal system at its best. Birmingham boasts more canal mileage than Venice.
The nearby Jewellery — this is how the Brits spell it, and is its official name — Quarter is a prime example of Birmingham’s manufacturing roots. Visit the Pen Museum, which is situated in a former pen factory, to learn about quill-tip production and try your hand at pressing a tip from a sheet of metal. Also, stop by the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter to see history come to life with demonstrations of traditional jewelry and metalworking skills.
Just south of the City Centre you will find the Winterbourne House and Gardens. The house is fitted up to show life in Edwardian England, and the nursery with children’s toys is especially of note.
After having tea in the Winterbourne tea room, stop by the University of Birmingham to see the clock tower, Old Joe, which served as the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers. Tolkien attended the nearby King Edward VI School and recalled much of Birmingham and the surrounding counties in his works.
Of course, every visit to Birmingham with family must include a day at Cadbury World. Start off your tour in the Aztec Jungle and learn about the origins of cacao, then see the beginning of the Cadbury story.
Head up to glimpse the manufacturing of the chocolate, then try a pot of warm, liquid Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate with a choice of treat at the chocolate demonstration area. Take a ride on the 4D Chocolate Adventure and then let the kids burn off all the sugar on the African Adventure play land.
Lastly, stop and shop at the largest Cadbury store in the world.
Delightful day trips
There are so many destinations within an easy distance from Birmingham. A few examples of kid-friendly attractions include Sherwood Forest in Nottingham; the Roman city walls and Chester Zoo in Chester; hiking and beautiful scenery in Derbyshire’s Peak District; Cardiff Castle in Cardiff; the Roman baths in Bath; and the many Tudor houses that make up the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon.
All of these places offer a different look at life in the United Kingdom, but there are still many more towns with their own fascinating stories. Some favorites include Stonehenge, Warwick and Conwy, Wales.
Stonehenge: Stonehenge is in the nearby county of Wiltshire. My family took a train to Salisbury and then hopped on the Stonehenge Tour bus to the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre.
Completed in December 2014, the center has an interactive exhibit that provides a greater perspective and understanding of the famous stones. Children will especially enjoy the hut village with demonstrations of the lifestyle of the Neolithic people who constructed the henge over four and a half thousand years ago.
You can even try to pull one of the massive bluestones to see if you could have made the long trek from Wales to the Salisbury Plains. Next, visit the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral, then take in the charming city and end the day with a tasty meal at the Mill Pub.
We enjoyed delicious fish and chips, mouth-watering gammon (a ham steak) and eggs, and perfect “American-style” macaroni and cheese. Most pubs are family friendly before 7 p.m., but check at the bar to make sure they offer food and have menu items children would like. If so, find a seat to peruse the menu, and then head to the bar to place your order and pay.
Warwick: With many shows to choose from and amazing grounds to explore, Warwick Castle is a fantastic experience for kids and adults.
Watch the longbow demonstration and learn about the origins of the “thumbs up” gesture, then try your hand at archery. Take a step back in time to the 1890s and see what a weekend party would have been like for important figures in Victorian society, then enjoy the majestic Birds of Prey display featuring eagles, buzzards and an Andean condor.
For a look at the dark past of Warwick Castle, enter the castle dungeon, which dates to 1345. In the dungeon, live actors present a scarily funny experience of the plague, torture, the court and the witches of Warwick. During the summer months, hear the thunder of hooves and the crack of lances splintering during a jousting tournament.
Of course, our favorite show was the firing of the trebuchet. Nicknamed “Ursa” for the bear, the trebuchet is 60 feet high, weighs about 24 tons and can launch a 300-pound projectile an impressive distance of up to 980 feet.
After a long day at the castle, stop by the Roebuck Inn pub for fish and chips or, if it’s Sunday, a wonderful beef roast with Yorkshire pudding (a type of bread bowl) and gravy.
Conwy, Wales: A trip to Wales entails a long trek on the trains, but it is definitely worth the journey. We chose to see Conwy Castle, which is one of many gorgeous castles built by Edward I in the 1280s to maintain his hold on the Welsh.
Stop for lunch at the Press Room Cafe — located outside the entrance to the visitor center — for quiche or soup with roasted potatoes. Afterward, climb the castle walls and learn about the history of the castle. Enjoy the wonderful views of Conwy River and the old city walls, which remain functional.
Also, head down to the quay, or harbor, and see inside the Smallest House in Britain. It has a floor area of 10 by 6 feet and was used as a residence from the 16th century until 1900.
Finally, stop for high tea at the Pen-y-Bryn Tearooms. This is the oldest teahouse in Conwy, and it is situated next to the train station. Refresh yourself with hot chocolates or tea and some delectable scones. For the full experience, be sure to order the scones with cream and jam.
A day trip to London from Birmingham is easy enough to accomplish with a short train ride of an hour and 20 minutes, but you might also consider the possibility of staying overnight to allow more time for viewing the area’s wealth of historical landmarks and attractions.