Be it JRR Tolkien’s fantastical tales of Middle Earth, or Henry Green’s realistic documenting of factory workers, Birmingham has inspired countless literary tales over the years. But Birmingham writing exploits aren’t just confined to dusty old bookshops. Just walk around the city and you’ll discover so many lovely places for book lovers to visit. See the city jump off the page with this guide to the most lovely literary spots in Birmingham.
1. Moseley Bog
We could write a whole article about the influence Birmingham had on a young JRR Tolkien. (In fact, we have.) Moseley Bog, which Tolkien grew up near at 264 Wake Green Road, was an inspiration for The Old Forest in The Fellowship of the Ring. Home to the enigmatic Tom Bombadil, The Old Forest is a wild and mysterious place, just like the real Moseley Bog. Also close by is Sarehole Mill, which inspired The Old Mill in The Hobbit.
If you want more Lord of the Rings-inspired locations, Edgbaston Waterworks is supposed to have inspired Minas Morgul, home of The Witch King. While Perrott’s Folly is thought to have influenced Saruman’s Orthanc. Two candidates for the titular towers from The Two Towers, although this is still up for debate. All some of the best literary spots in Birmingham.
2. The Library of Birmingham
The Library of Birmingham is the largest public library in the United Kingdom and one of the largest in the world. So this should be among every Birmingham book lover’s dream literary spots. There are ten levels to explore too, plus outdoor garden terraces, children’s areas, a panoramic viewing gallery, an outdoor amphitheatre and a studio theatre. So whether you want to get cracking on your own novel in quiet or check out the Library’s numerous events, don’t skip out on this. Our tip: Grab a good book and head to the secluded rooftop garden on a summer’s day.
Birmingham’s iconic ‘chocolate village’ is the setting of Annie Murray’s Chocolate Girls and its many sequels. The model village was purpose-built for employees of Cadbury – now the second-largest confectionery brand in the world – with the novel following three women working together at the Bournville factory during the Blitz. Bournville is just as lovely today, filled with beautiful architecture, stunning village green and tree-lined streets – and of course Cadbury World.
4. Merry Hill Shopping Centre
Published by Tindal Street Press, a now-defunct Birmingham publisher that ran out of The Custard Factory, Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost was inspired by her job at the Merry Hill Shopping Centre in Dudley. It tells the story of a girl who went missing in a shopping centre in 1984, and the attempts to discover what happened to her twenty years later.
5. Court 15 Books
Birmingham is full of great independent bookshops. But our pick of the bunch has to be the unique Court 15 Books, which runs out of the Birmingham Back to Backs. Birmingham’s best second-hand bookstore gives our old books some much-needed love. All funds raised through sales go straight back into the maintenance of the 19th-century building, keeping it alive for generations to come. Drop off your surplus copies or find a lost gem here.
Often considered one of the greatest novels of all time, Henry Green’s Living follows the lives of factory workers in the city. It was partly inspired by his experience on the shop floor of his father’s bottle factory. While the language itself, which through a deliberate lack of conjunctions, sounds distinctly Brummie. Honestly? We could have picked a number of former industrial areas in Birmingham. But Digbeth is one of the few places that still offers the smells, sounds and tastes of that era… while still having plenty of cool things to do!
7. The Leasowes
The Leasowes is a huge estate in Halesowen and the former home of the poet and landscape gardener, William Shenstone. He was the ringleader of the Shenstone Circle, also known as the Warwickshire Coterie, a literary circle of poets living around Birmingham between the 1740s and 1760s. Other members included John Scott Hylton, John Pixell, Lady Luxborough, Richard Jago and John Perry.
Considered one of the first natural landscape gardens in England, The Leasowes is of far greater historical significance than any of their poetry. A diverse landscape full of wooded valleys, open grasslands, lakes and streams created by Shenstone for wildlife. It’s a poetically-inspiring place, to say the least.
8. University of Birmingham
Every good university needs an equally good ‘campus novel’ to complement it. Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses by David Lodge, a former literature professor, fulfils this role for the University of Birmingham. Set in the fictional Rummidge, which is modelled on Birmingham, it tells the story of the six-month academic exchange programme.
9. Black Country
Wench, yowm the colour of ower town:
concrete, steel, oily rainbow of the cut.
Ower streets am in yer wings,
ower factory chimdeys plumes on yer chest,
A small snippet from Liz Berry’s poem Birmingham Roller should give you a sense of the language employed in her work. Her debut collection Black Country relies heavily on her melodic West Midlands dialect. For those who fail to see the beauty in the Black Country, this is an eye-opener. For those who know it to be a wonderful, poetical place, this might be the poetry book you’ve been looking for. Bringing to life the Black Country with lyrical loveliness.
10. King Edward’s School
Inspired by author Jonathan Coe’s experiences at King Edward’s School, The Rotter’s Club follows three teenage friends growing up in the 1970s. The Birmingham pub bombings play an important role but so does the city’s punk rock scene and British Leyland’s Longbridge plant. (It also contains one of the longest sentences in English literature, at 13,955 words long.) The Rotter’s Club has also spawned two sequels: The Closed Circle, where one of the characters works for the Birmingham Post, and Middle England, which is set in Shropshire.
11. HM Prison Birmingham
You might not know it, but few literary spots in Birmingham have had as much impact as this novel. HM Prison Birmingham only opened in 1849. But by 1856, Charles Reade had already attacked the harsh conditions of prisoners in his novel, It’s Never Too Late to Mend. The Victorian novel was based on reports of cruelty at Birmingham Borough Gaol. It played a part in reforms that took place later that century.