Birmingham, Gloucester, Plymouth, and their Trans-Atlantic Twins

Birmingham 

Birmingham, Alabama’s towering skyline (elements.envato.com)

The ‘Magic City’ was founded in 1871 and was planned from the very beginning to become the massive manufacturing hub it burgeoned into. Today, it is Alabama’s premier metropolis and is regarded as one of the US’s best places to earn a crust. Because the city was always planned to be a centre of industry, it was named in homage to Britain’s own hub of enterprise and industry.

Across the pond in England’s West Midlands, Birmingham city vies with nearby Manchester as Britain’s ‘2nd City’. Outside of the heady superlatives of London, Birmingham is the country’s powerhouse of economic diversity which is why it’s dubbed ‘The City of 1001 Trades’.

The name ‘Birmingham’ (pronounced ‘Birming’um’)  comes from the Old English ‘Beormingahām, meaning the home or settlement of the Beormingas – an Anglo-Saxon tribal name meaning literally ‘Beorma’s people’. Founded in 1154, its profile rose as Britain’s profile burgeoned throughout the world, being but a market town until the Industrial Revolution plugged it in to England’s vast canal and rail network and propelled it into a teeming metropolis.

Today (2021), Birmingham is a city of a million people known as ‘Brummies’. It hosts a royal ballet company, the Repertory Theatre and Hippodrome that are all nationally renowned. Its National Exhibition Centre (NEC) is 190,000 m2 (over two million square feet) large and its library is the UK’s largest. The city also hosts no less than four top football clubs. Birmingham gave the world music bands Electric Light Orchestra, Black Sabbath and UB40. Formula One World Championship and the CART Indy Car World Series winner Nigel Mansell; Prime Minister Nevil Chamberlain and Homeland actor David Harewood all hail from Birmingham too. 

Iconic canal boats moored up in the city’s 35 miles (56km) of waterways (birminghammail.co.uk)

Although Birmingham is not exactly festooned with Renaissance architecture, the city likes to boast that it has more miles of canal waterways than Venice in Italy. So, if you’re ever in the neighbourhood you should absolutely take a tour the city in a traditional canal boat. Birmingham also boasts five Michelin starred restaurants and numerous festivals, including one of the world’s largest St Patrick’s Day parades. A stay in the city should also include heading to Victoria Square, with the Council House, Symphony Hall and Town Hall, all built as triumphs of Victorian architecture. There are top museums and galleries throughout the city and visitors can also stroll through Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter or satisfy their sweet tooth at Cadbury World.

The grand Victoria Square, Birmingham, England (en.wikipedia.org)

Gloucester

This hardy Massachusetts city is synonymous with the North Atlantic deep sea fishing industry and it’s where Rudyard Kipling’s Captain Courageous and movie The Perfect Storm were set. Gloucester is one of the USA’s most historic settlements, founded way back in 1623. Today, it is still a working fishing port but also a popular tourist destination. 

Gloucester, Massachusetts’ bustling harbour (tripsavvy.com)

England’s namesake is similarly a smallish, historical port in an out-of-the-way corner of the country. Gloucester, England sits on the river Severn, close to the Welsh border. And it is the UK’s furthest inland port. Its docks are accessed by the Gloucester and Sharpness Ship Canal connecting it to the Severn Estuary then the seas beyond.

The City’s original Roman name was ‘Glevum’ but later took the Welsh name ‘Caer-loyw’ meaning ‘fort-bright/light/glowy’. ‘Loyw’ pronounced ‘gloyw’ by some had the Anglo-Saxon ‘cester’ (old fort) added later to become ‘Gloyw-cester’, then Gloucester. This ancient city was founded in 48 AD as an important fort and Roman colony. It remained strategically important during the Dark Ages, with St Peter’s Abbey being built in 680 AD and King Edward the Confessor holding court there in 1051. Later, it was in this strategic hub King Henry III was crowned and Gloucester’s significance in the Middle Ages is underlined by the fact that many monastic orders flocked to the city. Gloucester grew during the 16th-17th Centuries and construction of its canal began towards the end of the 18th Century, but was only completed in 1827. By that point, however, shipping of the industrial Age had largely outgrown Gloucester’s port facilities.
In the 20th Century, Gloster Aircraft Company would manufacture the UK’s first jet aircraft. In 2007 the city suffered biblical flooding that ironically disabled its water supply for 17 days.  

Famous residents of Gloucester include Methodist Church founder George Whitefield and the founder of Sunday Schools, Robert Raikes. The composer of America’s national anthem John Stafford Smith, Comedic actor Simon Pegg, not to mention the infamous serial murderer couple Fred and Rose West also called Gloucester home.

Gloucester Cathedral, opened in 1089 (gloucestershirelive.co.uk)

This city, within easy reach of the Forest of Dean to its west, and the quaint Cotswold Hills to the east, is a modest one of about 130,000 people but its rich history can be seen throughout its streets. The city centre street layout is the same one the Roman legionnaires laid down all those centuries back and visitors can view half-timbered Tudor shops, the tailor’s house from Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester, and the city’s very fine 11th Century cathedral where scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed. Gloucester’s best place is its Historic Docks where you can explore the bars, shops and eateries nestled among the renovated red-bricked warehouses around the harbourside. With so much history there is as much to discover within this ancient city’s borders as there is in the bucolic splendour beyond.

Gloucester Docks (aboutglos.co.uk)

Plymouth

Another Massachusetts city, dubbed ‘America’s Hometown’. Although a small city on the fringes of America’s economic development, Plymouth is at the root of its cultural development.

Downtown Plymouth Massachusetts (joesretirementblog.blogspot.com)

It was at Plymouth Rock the fabled Mayflower Pilgrims made landfall in 1620 and, after surviving that first brutal winter, celebrated Thanksgiving the following Fall after a successful harvest restored their vigour and durability. This signified the moment the newborn USA came off of life support to begin its own baby steps. 

Of course, it was England’s port of Plymouth that the Mayflower set sail from. This longtime home of the Royal Navy is all the way down in the south west of the country and now hosts the largest naval base in Europe aside one of the world’s most impressive natural harbours.

Plymouth’s etymology derives from its position at the mouth of the River Plym; ‘Plym’ meaning ‘plum tree’ in Old English (and ‘ploumenn’ in Cornish). Plymouth was an important trading port for tin from prehistoric times well into the Middle Ages. Meanwhile, it managed to retain its Cornish culture distinct from the rest of England. It wasn’t until England’s coming-of-age when the Spanish Armada swept up the Channel that the city came to be an important base of naval operations, and the Naval Dock was established in 1689. From then on, its long seafaring tradition flourished. It was from this Cornish bastion in the late 16th Century Sir Francis Drake made a name for himself on his many voyages and forays. The Plymouth Company was issued with a royal charter by James I of England to establish settlements on the coast of North America, and the Pilgrim Fathers aboard the Mayflower set sail for the New World in 1620 to found the 2nd permanent colony in N. America. The city became ever more economically dependent on the Royal Navy thereafter which certainly kept the city busy over the centuries. On 28 May 1967, another intrepid Francis – Sir Francis Chichester – returned to Plymouth after the first single handed Clipper Route circumnavigation of the world and was greeted by an estimated crowd of a million spectators.

Today Plymouth is a city of over 250,000 whose citizens are called ‘Jenners’. Famous residents includes the great globetrotter Francis Drake as well as actor Donald Moffat, known for his portrayals of US presidents real and imagined.

It is rapidly diversifying its economy from one servicing the ‘Fleet’ to one that services its ballooning numbers of visitors instead. Visitors who are fascinated by aquatic creatures really should spend a few hours at Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium, the deepest in Europe. Just a short walk away is the historic Barbican area of town. There, explorers can visit Plymouth’s very own Gin distillery, grab a bite to eat at Jacka – the oldest bakery in the UK, or simply wander the cobbled streets and take in Barbican’s old-world charms.

The Old-World narrow streets around the Barbican district

The place where Admiral Drake finished his game of bowls as the Spanish Armada crested the skyline is a bracing and awe-inspiring park that offers panoramas of Plymouth’s vast natural harbour; gateway to the deep, blue sea beyond. Plymouth Hoe is the no.1 spot to crash out on the grass with a picnic. Perhaps even take a dip in the Tinside Lido – Plymouth’s landmark outdoor, art deco swimming pool.

Plymouth Hoe on which Admiral Sir Francis Drake infamously finished his game of bowls before sailing out to attack the Spanish Armada (historic-uk.com)
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