Kings Heath is one of Birmingham's most attractive suburbs. Shahid Naqvi explains why you would want to live there
To many, not least its inhabitants, Kings Heath is something of an enigma. Situated four miles south of the city centre, it’s Birmingham’s third biggest shopping area (after the city centre and Sutton Coldfield).
According to a recent analysis by Birmingham City Council, the largest proportion of the population is aged between 25 and 44 (35.9 per cent), unemployment is below the city average and the percentage of people educated to degree level is well above the city average.
It contains two of the best grammar schools in the country and an abundance of attractive green space, yet its high street is littered with charity and pound shops.
In the height of summer, it plays host to the epitome of middle England that is the BBC Gardener's World show, and yet there’s not a single bar that its booming young professional populace would be seen dead in.
Some regard Kings Heath as the poorer relation of the more fashionably bohemian "village" of Moseley less than half-a-mile down the road.
Moseley has always enjoyed a status as one of Birmingham's most interesting areas, attracting an eclectic mix of creative sorts – academics, politicians and journalists – to its many drinking haunts.
However, a predominance of large Victorian houses which either remain at the top end of the market or are turned into less salubrious bedsits, coupled with a recent explosion of trendy bars, restaurants and cafes has boosted house prices way beyond the reach of many.
To this extent, Kings Heath – with its far greater stock of affordable housing – has long been something of an overspill to Moseley and preferred by many young families with its more residential feel.
Like Moseley, property consists mainly of attractive Victorian houses, but of more variety, including, crucially, more affordable terraces.
Recent times have seen an influx to Kings Heath of young professionals and first-time buyers.
According to the internet guide UpMyStreet, some postcodes within the suburb – for example, All Saints Road – are comparable to the upmarket districts of Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth, Ealing, Richmond-upon-Thames and Fulham in London.
The site describes the kind of people typically living in this area as high-earning professionals who "enjoy the arts, including theatre, classical music, opera and the cinema" as well as "foreign travel and skiing".
Which makes the preponderance of charity and pound stores, chain pubs and fast food outlets on the High Street all the more puzzling and frustrating to many residents.
There are, however, hints that things are starting to change. A Kings Heath Action Plan produced by the city council last year highlighted a need for more specialist shops such as delicatessens, fishmongers and health food shops while also encouraging cafes with pavement seating.
This year saw the arrival of a monthly farmers' market and there have been a number of new cafes opening, which appear to be doing brisk trade.
One of the most recent has been the Kitchen Garden Cafe in York Road. The cafe provides a tranquil retreat from the rush of urban life with its emphasis on organic food and country garden centre feel.
But the road that perhaps best represents the aspirations of the suburb is Poplar Road.
This relatively short street includes three cafes, three gift shops, a funky independent jewellers, toy shop, aquatics store, florist, three restaurants, a herbal goods store, computer game retailer and two solicitors. Not far around the corner on School Road is an excellent upmarket florist.
The area is a hive of activity most days, fuelled during the week by parents dropping off and collecting their children from Kings Heath Primary School – a large and popular school at the top end of the road.
A recent addition has been Maison Mayci, which serves as a cafe and French bakery during the day and transforms into a bistro restaurant in the evening.
Visit one of the cafes on a Saturday and you might even convince yourself for a moment that you are in one of London's more fashionable suburbs. Of course, it's one of Kings Heath's idiosyncrasies that locals refer to Maison Mayci as "The French cafe".
Allison Sadler, co-owner of People, one of the first independent retailers to move on to the street more than five years ago, said: "It stands on its own in Kings Heath. It would be nice if there were more shops like this on the High Street. You come out of this road and it is completely different.
"The High Street serves a purpose but it doesn't represent Kings Heath with the kind of people that live here."
Though some wouldn't have minded if the Birmingham tornado that whipped down Kings Heath High Street last year had taken half the shops with it, others like the area's unpretentious "charm".
Kings Heath is an important centre for the whole of the southern part of Birmingham and attracts a significant amount of visitors on a daily basis.
Stretched along the A435 – one of the busiest arteries leading into the city – people come to take advantage of its wide range of shops that focus on the functional.
Residents living off the High Street can sometimes be complacent about the fact that they are within walking distance of pretty much all the everyday shops they could need.
The area boasts two supermarkets, a WH Smiths, a Woolworths, Argos, Adams, Homebase, Clarkes shoes, Boots, a number of hairdressers, law firms, estate agents and a video store.
It does not fare so well, however, on the fashion front – Burton's, Dorothy Perkins, Evans and New Look are as far as it goes.
When it comes to leisure, Kings Heath has some of the best park space in the city.
Kings Heath Park has won awards for its displays and is popular with children. It is home to a Horticultural College and the beautifully preserved Victorian Tea Rooms which provide a charming stop-off for refreshments.
A lake area has been beautifully landscaped and there is a bowling green for lazy summer evenings, even if you are restricted to watching the elder statesmen and women of the district showing off their skills.
Each summer the park is really put on the map when people from all over the country descend on it for the BBC's Gardener’s World show.
This involves about two weeks of fevered preparation and much putting up of tents, all for one glorious weekend of bargain hunting and admiration of unfeasibly large fruit, veg and blooms.
Just down the road is the wilder and more rugged Highbury Park overlooked by Highbury Hall, the ancestral home of Joseph Chamberlain and listed in the National Register of Parks and Gardens as an area of special historic interest. It has a faded charm all of its own.
Popular with dog walkers and nature lovers, it has a splendid duck pond and a magnificent array of mature trees.
For those who want things a bit more wild, it's only a ten minute drive south to the countryside.
In the evening time, residents are often attracted to the brighter lights of nearby Moseley as there are few options in Kings Heath.
But one of the most well-known landmark pubs is the Hare and Hounds, a popular venue for live music.
Down the road is The Station, which holds a regular comedy night. Apart from these, the rest of the bar offerings are chain outlets.
Poplar Road is the location for two popular baltis – The Spice Merchant and Pangaea – and there is also the old favourite Kings Balti on York Road.
Until a few years ago there was also an Italian restaurant on Poplar Road called Giovanni's. Decor aside, it was equal in quality of cuisine to anything on offer in the city centre.
Unfortunately, it closed due to poor business. As such, the restaurant renaissance is still waiting to happen.
When it comes to schools, Kings Heath is again something of an enigma. The greater area is served by seven primary schools.
Colmore Infant and Junior Schools get the best results, but Kings Heath Primary School on Popular Road is also a respectable choice with impressive recent results and popular due to its location.
For secondaries, the picture is more complicated. The proximity of the excellent King Edward grammars for boys and girls at Camp Hill helps fuel a frantic drive among many parents for extra tuition to get their children through the 11-plus.
For those who don’t make it, the options are a bit more restrictive. Queensbridge School is beginning to turn itself around under the leadership of a new and dynamic head after many years of poor results and a bad reputation.
The question for many parents with children at local primary schools however, is whether it will turn round in time for their child.
At the other end of the High Street is Kings Heath Boys and Bishop Challoner RC School. There is also Wheeler's Lane Technology College, which is due to undergo a massive facelift.
For girls, there is less to worry about given that Swanshurst, Europe's biggest secondary, offers good results.
So what do people want out of Kings Heath for the future?
A local action plan mentioned an ambitious project for a new village square, community centre, doctor's and dentists' surgeries. Work on the plans doesn't seem to have made much progress, and residents remain desperate to see this neglected corner, with its hideous public conveniences, made over.
In many ways, Kings Heath is a tale of two cities, where the forces of conservatism and modernism meet.
Property prices have risen significantly in recent years. The area’s gentrification means that is set to continue which slowly but surely should start impacting on the quality of shops.
And though residents may grumble about the naffness of shop names such as Fags n' Mags, most of them would probably not want to live anywhere else.
WHAT TO DO & WHERE TO GO
Kings Heath Park: Covering 35 acres off Avenue Road and Vicarage Road, the park has green flag status for the quality of its landscape and displays. A main feature is its Horticultural College and Victorian tea room cafe near to a re-sculptured pool area. In the summer, it plays host to the BBC's Gardeners' World show. Open daily from 7.30am each day until dusk.
Highbury Park: Named after the London suburb where Joseph Chamberlain grew up, the park spreads out from Highbury Hall, a popular place for weddings. More wild than Kings Heath Park, it is popular with dog walkers and contains an attractive lake area. The park is dominated by larger trees and wide open park space.
Moseley: Birmingham's Bohemian area, consisting of a wide range of fashionable bars, restaurants and cafes as well as a number of small independent shops. Less than half a mile from Kings Heath, it's the ideal night out for those without stomach for the mad crowds of Birmingham's Broad Street.
Midland Arts Centre: Popular centre in nearby Cannon Hill Park with cinema and theatre space, cafe and bar, plus a wide range of weekend and evening leisure courses for adults and children.
Eating out: Marci Mayci, Poplar Road
The Spice Merchant, Poplar Road
Pangaea, Poplar Road