REVIEW: Key To The City - the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival headline event

Hidden corners of Birmingham are being opened up as part of the Commonwealth Festival, but is the tour worth your time?
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As Birmingham gears up for the Commonwealthwealth Games, people around the city are enjoying art, music, theatre and more as part of the Commonwealth Festival. With over 200 events, there’s something for everyone, but one of the biggest draws is the flagship Key To The City project, which unlocks twenty-one venues and experiences across Birmingham.

Key To The City is the brainchild of two creative greats – Fierce, who have been organising events in Birmingham for 25 years, and Californian artist Paul Ramírez Jonas. Usually, keys to the city are handed out to celebrities, heroes or dignitaries - but Fierce and Paul Ramírez Jonas don’t believe that fame is the only reason you should be granted freedom to your city.

As part of this project, anyone can be granted a key “for private reasons that exist outside of history”. That could be being kind to a neighbour, working hard on a project or even being a great dancer.

But where does your key take you? And is it worth the treasure trail? To find out, I followed my key from panoramic views of the city to secret menus and hidden art – here’s what I saw. This article does contain spoilers for what you’ll see with your key, so read with caution!

The Key

First, I had to get my key from Birmingham New Street Station. If you go with a partner, you can nominate each other for your keys, but if you’re solo like I was, the check-in team can nominate you. Once I’m given my Yale key and Key To The City ‘passport’, I’m off.

The Locations

1. New Street Station

The first stop on the tour isn’t far from the key pick-up point. All I need to do is walk to the end of platform 1B, where a guide takes me to a secret underground tunnel. I walk underneath the train tracks and see where staff used to walk between platforms, hearing from my guide about how New Street works.

2. Symphony Hall

Next, I head to Symphony Hall, where a yellow post box sits at the corner of the Box Office. I try my luck and unlock the door, where I have the chance to find a “special offer.” Unfortunately, I’m out of luck – rather than a prize, I get a QR code, which I can’t scan because my internet is down. Better luck next time!

3. Ikon Gallery

I walk to Brindley Place and head to Ikon gallery. I read in my passport that the lock I’m looking for is opposite the reception desk. I’m promised a “private view of the public collection,” so I expect a small exhibition in a secret room. Instead, I see a neon artwork from Savage. A little smaller than I expected, but a nice surprise.

4. 103 Colmore Row

I walk back through town towards Colmore Row and venture into the business district. Normally I’m at Pigeon Park to catch a bus, not get a birds-eye view of the city, but that’s exactly what happens.

The top floor of this office block is currently under construction, leaving it free for key holders like me to walk across to the terrace. Looking down, I see the library, our beloved Floozie in the jacuzzi, the Symphony Hall and Birmingham Cathedral. It’s my favourite stop so far.

5. Selfridges

Back across town to Selfridges, I head to the menswear department. I follow the yellow speakers and end up facing what looks like a yellow tardis. I step inside and see an iPad, where I can choose the music I want every Selfridges shopper to hear.

From Pride playlists to local legends and staff picks, there are a range of sounds to send to every speaker in the store. I go for Prince, browsing the beauty aisles to the sounds of Raspberry Beret.

6. Saint Margaret’s Church

The next day, I drive over to Ward End to unlock “a cabinet” in a church. The top shelf is dedicated to Metro-Cammell and trains in the area, where I see a connection between the trainline behind the church and the tracks my Grandad worked on in East Africa.

The following two shelves house old pamphlets from the church, and books related to William Hutton, who wrote the first history of the city. Lastly, the bottom shelf holds an embroidered dedication to those who donated towards the church.

After I’ve locked the cabinet, I walk around the church and get to hear more about its restoration and history. I love this peek behind the scenes of a building I would never normally visit.

7. The Lapworth Museum of Geology

I pull into The Lapworth Museum of Geology for my second stop of the day. I didn’t know it existed until I got my key – that’s what I’m loving about the project as it introduces me to new spaces in the city.

I search between dinosaur skeletons and fossils for a secret set of drawers, unlocking them to reveal rainbow agate slices, glittering rocks and a selection of other fascinating objects.

8. Northfield Community Garden

It’s drizzling as I pull up to the next stop, but it’s worth getting wet. This lock opens up a bright garden and allotment space where I’m invited to “wander, explore and relax” and even take a pot, soil and seeds to grow along with the gardeners at home. It’s a charming escape from the hustle of the city centre.

9. Minworth Green Bridge

I have to drive to the edge of the city for my next visit – but I’ve heard from other Key To The City holders I’ve met that it’s worth it. The directions in my passport send me down a towpath and under a bridge. Behind the door is a stop plank store, with a sign explaining exactly what they’re used for on Birmingham’s famous canals.

10. Gatehouse, Streetly Gate

Now I’m off to Sutton Park, unlocking a wooden shack at the Streetly entrance. Inside, the gatehouse is set up as it would have been in the 1950s, with vintage maps, hand-written logs of who’s passed through the gatehouse, examples of fishing tickets and more.

Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival Key To The CityBirmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival Key To The City
Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Festival Key To The City

11. The Blydens’ Garden

On my final day of the tour, I start in someone’s back garden. My passport directs me round the corner of a weathered green gate, where I let myself through a bright pink door into The Blydens’ back garden. It’s lined with herbs, plants and flowers, signs around the fence asking the ‘question of the week’ and reminders to slow down and enjoy life.

12. Legacy Centre of Excellence

I have three more stops to go. Next, was Legacy Centre of Excellence, an independent Black-owned arts centre. My key unlocks a glass door to a private exhibition by Dr Martin Glynn. The collection, Moments and Memories, is a powerful exploration of reflection during COVID-19.

13. Aston Hall

I’m at Aston Hall now, where I’m told to look for a grandmother clock, with a wooden door on the left. I unlock it and step through to a secret set of rooms, with a view overlooking the grounds. As the passport says, the rooms are “humble,” but they tell a great story and add to the tour.

14. The Hawthorns

My final stop is West Bromwich Albion stadium, where I unlock a small blue door at the corner of the car park. As I walk in, I’m greeted by the empty stadium. It’s pretty impressive (even for someone who isn’t a football fan), and something I’d never have seen without my key.

The End Of The Tour

After three days of criss-crossing the city, I didn’t manage to get to the Jewellery Quarter to get a private tour and demonstration at Acme whistles, where the world’s first police and sports whistles were invented. There’s even rumoured to be a ghost.

I’m also saving the secret menu at Raja Monkey and midnight visit to Touchwood (where you get a free drink and a chance to explore the empty shopping centre after dark) for later this summer, as well as a visit to an above-ground vault at Solihull’s Robin Hood Cemetery and watching prayers at Green Lane Masjid. I’ll wrap up the tour by leaving my thoughts in a journal at my local library.

With the venues spread out across Birmingham, I definitely don’t recommend packing everything into 72 hours like I did. One of the best things about the Key To The City tour is that you get to explore places you’d never normally head to, so take your time, enjoy these little surprises while you discover new corners of your town and take your family along for the ride – some venues would be great for kids and spark their imagination.

I loved my experience – so what are you waiting for? Go get your key!

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