Brum roaming

Fast-changing Birmingham rolls with the times but has windows to the past, as Helen Werin discovers.

Birmingham at first glance? Dull and functional; a sea of cranes, building sites, derelict factories and some ugly 1960s concrete monstrosities. But a few twists and turns here and there reveal grand Victorian buildings and stunning modern architecture such as the International Convention Centre and Selfridges' landmark faade of 16,000 silver discs.

It's all set amid a rich pattern of well-used canals and thriving quarters, each with a unique industrial history and the reason why Brum was known as "the city of 1,000 trades".

It required a walking tour with Blue Badge guide Roger Bailey to appreciate the city's eclectic character. Roger whisked us along some of the towpaths of the city's 103 miles of canals, skirting vast malls packed with every type of restaurant and across impressive squares with fountains, statues and colonnaded halls. Dominating the city centre, we found the neo-classical Town Hall, not a place for pen-pushers these days but musicians. It's an acclaimed concert venue where they have spent 35m on restoring it to its former glory. St Phillip's Cathedral, small by most cities' standards, is renowned for its four fabulous jewelled-effect windows by Edward Burne-Jones.

Then there's the Mailbox, still looking, from the outside at least, like Europe's largest sorting office. Built to withstand a nuclear bomb, it's now a posh and pristine mall of designer shops and eateries. At the city's quirky heart is Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, with the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelites in the world. We visited an old bracelet factory frozen in time, where the workers hung up their coats and shut the door on a fascinating time capsule. It's now the award-winning Museum of the Jewellery Quarter where 400 specialists ply their trade.

In the Museum and Art Gallery, past the magnificent paintings, 2,000-year-old Peruvian pottery and whistling kettles sculpted like seals and cats and displays of silver, sculpture and ceramics, we found the story of Birmingham. It's a place which shot up as a result of markets and the entrepreneurial spirit of one Peter de Birmingham who, 900 years ago, bought a market charter from the king.

It's fascinating to see a drawing from around 1800 showing the Bull Ring with a modest water pump, jumble of small shops and market stalls and, in the centre, the iron ring. The artist, Samuel Lines, described the area as being "choked with filth". Nearby, I found a rather poignant ode about the relentless progression of development in Birmingham, albeit written in 1825. The author, William Dobbs, was reflecting on how the city used to look.

"There's hardly a single place I know and it fills my heart with grief and woe, for I can't find Brummagem," he lamented. There must be plenty of people nowadays who share a similar sentiment, but this is also a city which is focused on the future.

At Think Tank we found a children's paradise of experiments, buttons to press, problems to solve and thought-provoking creativity. There were working models of micro air vehicles which could be used by emergency services to help them see what is hidden in dangerous environments. We could even have built our own "alien" to withstand life on different planets. I loved the "blood station", which likened the circulatory system to a train and all the things that blood carries to passengers. Children could consult the destination board to see where "everyone" was going. Scariest of all were the Jaguar robots, like something out of War of the Worlds.

We found plenty of novelty with a visit to BBC Open Space on the seventh floor of the Mailbox. Here we were free to wander round, watching the presenters of BBC WM at work and peeking in the TV production studio.

Children love it here. We watched as budding newsreaders and weathermen recorded a bulletin which they could later download from the website to show their friends.

Sadly the blinds were drawn on The Archers' studio. If we'd booked a guided tour we could have taken part in an interactive Archers drama operating such sound effects as boots scrunching on gravel or glasses clinking.

Of course, there isn't a farm gate – it's that old yellow ironing board hanging on the wall. The sound of hay rustling is really a tangle of audio tape and the sink in the corner is used as a brook, river, trough and shower – as well as for kitchen scenes.

The sound effects technicians have to don high heels to simulate the women characters walking. Most of the technicians are men. Die-hard Archers fans often refuse to go in to the studio for fear of it spoiling their picture of Ambridge.

City of industry and heritage

Birmingham has the world's largest canal system, so exploring by water is a great way to see the city. 0121 236 9811. www.secondcityboats.co.uk

Ikon, in Brindleyplace (free), is one of Europe's leading contemporary art galleries. 0121 248 0708. www.ikon-gallery.co.uk

Birmingham Hippodrome, in Hurst Street, is the UK's busiest theatre outside of London's West End. 0844 3385000. www.birminghamhippodrome.com

Take an organised bus tour along the Tolkein trail. JRR Tolkien gained plenty of inspiration for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings in Birmingham. 0121 427 2555. www.birmingham-tours.co.uk

Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Glasshouses are a tranquil oasis of colour with tropical and sub-tropical houses. 0121 454 1860. www.birmingham botanicalgardens.org.uk

For a guided tour through the city's last remaining courtyard of 19th century Back to Back houses, near the Hippodrome. 0121 666 7671. www.nationaltrust.org.uk

WHERE TO EAT

Poppy Red's chocolate and raspberry fondant is to die for and it's just around the corner from the Hippodrome Theatre. Arcadian Centre, Birmingham.

0121 687 1200. www.poppy-red.com

Bank, overlooking the canal at Brindley Place, has all the atmosphere of a lively continental brasserie. 0121 6334466. www.bankrestaurants.com

WHERE WE STAYED

Staying Cool serviced apartments at the Rotunda beside the Bull Ring mix swinging 60s style with contemporary cool. Our Maxi apartment had floor to ceiling windows and quirky newsprint-covered polyprop chairs by Lou Rota. 0121 6430815. www.stayingcool.com

www.visitbirmingham.com

www.marketingbirmingham.com

www.thinktank.ac

www.bmag.org.uk (museums)

www.birminghamheritage.com

bbc.co.uk/showsandtours

www.birminghambigcityculture.com