Stephen Pennell ©
My favourite mode of transport into Birmingham city centre is by rail from Marston Green along the West Coast Mainline. A mere eight minutes when the train goes direct with no stops, always sitting on the right-hand side of the carriage to avoid an unsightly blot on the landscape to the left - I’m kidding, Blues fans - and a great view of an upwardly mobile skyline as one approaches New Street.
Over the last twenty years, the vista has been improved dramatically by Millennium Point and the rapid expansion of its next-door neighbour, Birmingham City University. £400 million has been invested, much of it generated by land sales of the former Perry Barr campus, with BCU spectacularly shedding an unfair image as the poor relation amongst Birmingham’s seats of learning. University Locks, The Curzon Building and Parkside all look stylish with their clean, linear and thoroughly modern design, but the jewels in the Eastside crown are STEAMhouse in Belmont Row and its near-neighbour the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.
The campus is host to tens of thousands of students and I’ve strolled through it many times, harbouring a longing to see inside these two magnificent buildings. This week, thanks to the university’s music and PR lead Lyle Bignon, I finally got my wish. Lyle and I have been trying to arrange this guided tour for months, but his schedule is relentless, and I can only do Mondays; we eventually made it work and it was well worth the wait.
Starting off in the £67 million Conservatoire, Lyle reeled off an impressive list of music and acting alumni, including Laura Mvula, Nigel Boyle, Raffertie, Nicola Coughlan, Rhydian Roberts, Catherine Tyldesley, Helen George, Harry Lightfoot and Dhafer L’Abidine.
We visited recital rooms where we had to shut our yap - not easy for me and Lyle - as there were actual lectures taking place; the Eastside Jazz Club where Jamie Cullum once gave the world’s first music lesson over 5G; and the hugely impressive Bradshaw Hall, a 650-capacity concert space with acoustics to rival Symphony Hall. In Parkside are TV, radio and recording studios kitted out with state of the art equipment and rehearsal rooms with more Yamahas than the world superbike championship, an organ that recreates sound as Bach would have heard it, and several Steinway concert and baby grands for good measure. It’s a muso’s paradise - and a music writer’s too.
Talking of writing, the university’s archive room at Parkside is home to half-a-million artefacts - all manner of books, journals and magazines including every Melody Maker ever published bound in volumes by year and a similarly exhaustive collection of NMEs. If someone had supplied me with the odd sandwich I could have gone missing for days.
From the outside, STEAMhouse is even more impressive than the Conservatoire, and the inside is not too shabby either. A beautiful and lovingly restored former factory, it houses the traditional STEM syllabus - science, technology, engineering and maths - with art thrown into the mix to see what happens. It sounds like a confusing collision; 3D printing, artificial intelligence and laser technology rubbing shoulders woodwork, ceramics and metalwork, but it’s less a muddle of oddments, more a vibrant laboratory of ideas. It all leads to the conclusion that across this campus, Birmingham’s glorious history of innovation and musical excellence is sure to be its future as well.
One of my few regrets in life is that I never made the most of educational opportunities in my youth… too busy having a good time. But I can’t help feeling that if I’d somehow found myself in such a well-appointed and inspirational place as Birmingham City University as is now, it would have been a different story.