Bookish Walking Tour of Birmingham
This tour is 10.1 km (6.3 miles) which can give you a good day’s worth of sightseeing if you take your time at each stop. Some of these stops require you to buy tickets to get the full experience. However, if you’re simply after a selfie in front of the literary sites, this route is ideal. We’ll walk from the Custard factory to Birmingham’s back-to-backs, the Pen Museum, and sights that may have inspired J.R.R Tolkien’s writing.
This tour starts at the Custard Factory (marked A on the map). Yes, as the name suggests, this used to be a custard factory but now serves as a much more creative venue. Filled with fifteen acres of independent stores, music studios, cafes, art displays, bars, and more. Once you’re filled with good food and drinks, you can head down High Street Deritend towards the South and City College of Birmingham (on your right).
When you reach the big intersection, continue straight down Digbeth Road. Walk for a little bit until you see The Prince’s Trust on your right. To your left, you’ll see a short passageway between two buildings (marked 5 on the map) which you pass through into Moat Lane.
Cross Moat Lane into Upper Dean Street. Continuing down Upper Dean Street, you’ll reach a building on a corner with “Bullring” written on it.
Cross the intersection into Ladywell Walk towards China Town. Continue straight until you reach a three-way where you turn left passed the Hippodrome. To your immediate right, you will see Birmingham’s Back-to-Backs in Hurst Street where you will also find Court 15 Books.
To view the Back-to-Backs, you will need to buy tickets. However, there is a free exhibition space above the bookshop.
Court 15 Books (9 on the map) is a second-hand bookshop whose funds go towards preserving and caring for these buildings. These houses were built in the 1800s in a back-to-back fashion to save time and money. Being built in such a crammed manner, the courts became extremely unsanitary in the 1900s as large families were sharing the houses as well as the communal privies and laundry washing areas.
Continue back the way you came towards the Hippodrome and continue under the bridge. Follow Hurst Street until it becomes Hill Street (10 on the map).
Turn right into Station Street (12 on the map. You will see “The Crown” on your right). To your left, you will see Bullring and Grand Central which you walk straight through to exit on the other side.
On Stephenson Street, follow the tram rails until the street becomes Corporation Street. Turn left at HSBC UK into New Street. Just before Tesco’s, turn right where you will see the Needless Alley sign.
“Needless by name and Needless by nature”. Needless Alley still stands today with its infamous history attached. This was an alley for the “disorderly” and their clients… Hence the alley was needless as other routes were better preferred. However, for our tour, Needless Alley is not so needless.
Walk through the alley until you reach Temple Row where you turn left. At the fork in the road, keep right and continue straight. Turn left into Colmore Row then right into Newhall Street.
Continue straight to turn left into Graham Street then right at Frederick Street where you will see the Pen Museum (16 on the map). The Pen Museum, situated in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, stands as a symbol of Birmingham’s booming steel pen nibs industry during the Victorian era.
It is estimated that Birmingham contributed three-quarters of the world’s pens in the mid to late 19th century. In the museum, you can have a go at calligraphy, write with a quill and ink, or make your own nib using the same 19th-century machinery as before. Once you’re done, turn right from the Pen Museum down Newhall Hill.
At the roundabout, stay left down Parade Street until you reach Fleet Street.
Turn left into Fleet Street. You will see the Newman Brothers Coffins Furniture Manufactory on your right (19 on the map).
Newman Brothers Coffins Furniture Manufactory was originally built in 1894 and is a Grade II listed building. The factory has been fully restored since its closure in 1998. The Newman Brother’s products were used in some royal and non-royal burials such as the Queen Mother, Princess Diana, Winston Churchill, and the Queen Mary.
Head back the way you came and turn right at the intersection to walk down James Brindley Walk along the canal (you’ll see a small sign on a fence). Walk up the steps at the end and walk through the pathway between the trees keeping left. Continue down Brindley Drive where you will see the Library of Birmingham on your right. The entrance is in Centenary Square up ahead.
The Library of Birmingham is an architectural marvel with its net-like transparent glass exterior. The library also hosts outdoor garden terraces and views as one of the highest points in the city.
In the Rotunda rooftop house, you will find the Shakespeare Memorial Room which is lined with wood from the first Birmingham Central Library.
Exiting the library, head towards the ICC building and walk through to exit on the other side at a canal. Turn right at the canal and climb the stairs at Brewmasters Bridge to get to the other side. At the other end, turn right and down the stairs following the canal. Cross the bridge at the Birmingham Contemporary Art Gallery then turn left to follow along the canal again (Part 14).
Head up the ramp at St Vincent Street then turn left down St Vincent Street. When you reach the green area, walk straight through it to get back to St Vincent Street West (24 on the map).
Follow St Vincent Street until you reach Ladywood Middleway to turn left and cross over. You will see another green area with a pathway to cut through to Ladywood Drive (25 on the map) and turn right. Continue down this road through Chamberlain Gardens.
Walk through the park to reach Monument Road and turn left then right into Noel Road (26 on the map). At the end of the road, turn left into Harold Road. Continue to Waterworks Road and turn right towards Edgbaston Waterworks Tower (28 on the map).
J.R.R. Tolkien lived near Perrott’s Folly and the Edgbaston Waterworks Towers as a child, and it is suggested that the towers were the inspiration for Minas Morgul and Minas Tirith respectively in “The Two Towers” in his Lord of the Rings series. Perrott’s Folly (29 on the map) is on the same road, just head back down the road where you came from. There are plans to restore Perrott’s Folly to serve as a community centre for the area. Continue down Waterworks Road away from Perrott’s Folly until you reach an intersection to continue straight onto Plough and Harrow Road (30 on the map).
Plough and Harrow Road is home to Plough and Harrow Hotel (at the end of the road on your left at the corner) which J.R.R. Tolkien visited frequently when he was young. In June 1916, he stayed in this hotel with his wife before he had to leave for France to join the British Forces. You can see plaques displayed within the hotel presented by the Tolkien Society, a great photo opportunity!
Turn left into Hagley Road and cross over when it is safe to do so and head towards the Five Ways Roundabout (Part 20). You will stay to the left to walk under a bridge and through a grassy area. After going under the bridge, turn right towards the standalone tall building where you’ll go under another bridge to your right. Turn left immediately onto Islington Row (33 on the map). Continue following Islington Row Middleway until it becomes Lee Bank Middleway. At the Islington Row Five Ways Station Bus stop turn left towards Bell Barn Road.
Continue along the road to turn left into Chatsworth Way (34-35 on the map). Walk straight until you reach Alfred Knight Way which will lead you into Sunset Park (36 on the map).
Moonlit Park (37 on the map) is to the right of Sunset Park. At the very end of Moonlit Park is Bell Barn Road.
Turn left and continue straight down Rickman Drive (38 on the map). Cross over Bristol Street where and when it is safe to do so, turn left onto the pedestrian section of Belgrave Middleway. At the next big intersection, turn slightly left to walk into Sherlock Street.
The author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Conan Doyle, lived in Aston. Sherlock Street is thus rumoured to be the inspiration behind the famous fictional detective’s name. Try to find a street sign for a great photo opportunity!
The start of our tour is not far from here, should you wish to return. Follow the map below (from B to A) as well as the signs towards the Custard Factory.
For more walking routes in Birmingham, check out the Stourbridge Canal Walk in Birmingham.