Thursday 23 November 2023

How to Visit Frankfurt Without Leaving the English Midlands

Day Trip by train to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market

We have visited a number of Christmas Markets since we began our "adventures" by train a few years ago.  There were the real German ones on the Great Rail Journeys Christmas Markets Rhine Cruise, the big local one in Lincoln and those in Bath and Bristol. I had also taken a group by train to the Birmingham one a little while ago, but it was so cold that day that I did not see much of the Christmas Market that time! The Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market lasts almost two months (Lincoln's, now ended, was just two days but was very much bigger), from the beginning of November until Christmas Eve, and occupies New Street and Victoria Square in the heart of the city of Birmingham with German-type stall selling German and German-influenced gifts, food and drink. There is a more locally-inspired market in the Cathedral grounds with smaller stalls selling local crafts, food and drink, and some of the shops join in the Christmas theme or the German theme as well. My wife had never been to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market but has always been a fan of German culture, and so, Birmingham being an easy trip by train from our home in Stamford we decided to visit it this year. My adventures are having to be a bit simpler at present for health reasons, so a day trip with no change of train fitted the bill nicely: it is quicker and easier to visit Birmingham, several counties away, than to visit our own county town of Lincoln!

Looking at the train timetable and the peak and off-peak fares, it seemed that a good day out, giving enough time for all we wanted to do, could be had by taking the 10:07 train     to Birmingham, returning by the 15:22: if we stayed later than that, the next train on which an off-peak ticket could be used would be the 18:22, three hours later. Looking at our diaries, there were not many days when we could do it! In between our voluntary jobs and our family commitments, and not wanting to leave it to near Christmas we thought that this Tuesday would do nicely and so we kept the date free. I did not actually buy the train tickets until the day so that we could change our minds if the weather forecast were poor.

All was well and we set off for the station. Although I could have bought the tickets at the ticket office for a trip like this, the last two times I had been to the station the ticket office had not been open and so I used the Cross Country Train Tickets iPhone app which gave me our tickets on my smartphone. We had to remember to take our Senior Railcards with us! In the event the ticket office was open, a corollary of which was that the waiting room was also open and heated, which was just as well because the weather in Stamford turned out to be both colder and damper than expected, and the train was late. It had been delayed by "operational issues" around Cambridge or Ely and the slippery rails made making up for lost time impossible. You could hear and feel the wheels slip as the train pulled away from each station. There did not seem to be a catering trolley on the train, but our intention in any case was to have coffee in Birmingham.

Like all east-west lines in central England, this is not a fast line (and not a straight one, either!) but the trains are quite quick, when they can get a grip, and comfortable and the time soon passed. Fifty years ago I used this line to and from university and it was much slower and less comfortable then. We were soon in Birmingham, and New Street station is right in the thick of things in the city centre, so we were straight into the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market. 

We walked along New Street towards Victoria Square, looking cursorily at the stands we passed while seeking an indoor café for our morning coffee. We ended up at Albert's Schloss, and Alpine-inspired restaurant beyond the Town Hall: we had sen this place when we visited Birmingham in the summer but had not been inside. Seeing the menu and enjoying the service and the "German" and "Austrian" atmosphere we thought we'd have to return some time for a meal, but today we wanted to eat from the Frankfurt Christmas Market - it would have to be a frankfurter, wouldn't it?

We looked around the food and drink outlets in Victoria Square and decided where our frankfurters would be bought at lunchtime and then walked off to the Cathedral grounds where there were smaller stands selling more local things, and we bought a glass Christmas tree decoration from a local craftswoman before returning to Victoria Square for lunch, "serenaded" by a singer singing many of the usual Christmas pop songs. It was all very atmospheric, and although it did remind us of our time in the real German Christmas markets a couple of years ago it was a very English interpretation! After our sausages we moved on to gluhwein. The bar we chose served gluhwein in very good glass mugs, for which we had to pay a hefty deposit, so it was much easier to drink than in thin wine glasses too hot to hold. We could take our time drinking it and then we moved on to New Street, buying some chocolate-covered marshmallow on the way. 

We walked the length of New Street, studying the stalls in much more detail now. These are much bigger than the stall you find at most Christmas markets and sell a wide range of goods as well as a lot of German and German-inspired food and drink. We had all we now wanted to buy from the market and were close to the Bull Ring shopping centre, so we paid a brief visit to Selfridges and Marks & Spencer and then it was time to make our way to New Street station to take our train back to Stamford. We bought take-away coffee at the station and it was just as well because there did not seem to be a refreshment trolley on the train home either! If these facilities are not reliable they will be underused because we shall all make other arrangements and buy little if anything from the trolley on the train. We found some good seats together again and had a comfortable ride home, leaving Birmingham on time but arriving in Stamford a couple of minutes late.

It had been a really good day out and we needed very little for supper after our small but sustaining "German" feast at lunchtime. The train to and from Birmingham really is very convenient for us and everything is so close to New Street station that a day out is so easy. We really must do it again.

There is, of course, no other city like London, but when I look at Birmingham now it is so much more London-like than it ever was fifty years ago when I was studying there and it felt like an overgrown market town. I am not sure that the city has caught up with its own new image, though, and it does not live up to its Second City status as I think it could. I intend to return in the spring or summer to hear a concert at its world-class Symphony Hall and, if it is open after its repairs and refurbishment, visit to world-class Museum and Art Gallery, too.

Birmingham Pins

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