Best Birmingham Bullring born?

Thousands of residents and tourists recently flocked to Birmingham city centre for the grand opening of the new-look Bullring.

Billed "Europe's new shopping capital", the freshly unveiled Birmingham Bullring is the product of three years of demolition and building work at a cost of £500m.
But despite the creation of 8,000 new jobs and three floors of shops, restaurants and cafés covering an area equivalent to 26 football pitches, does the modernised centre live up to the hype or indeed its historical obligations?

The site is certainly one of great historical importance.

When Birmingham was a 12th century market town, the Bullring was its main trading centre, overlooked by St Martin's Church, a landmark still instantly recognisable to the city's residents.

The area reached the height of its popularity in the 1950s and underwent its first re- development in the 1960s.

However, it was seen as outdated and had little to offer shoppers in recent years, so a dramatic "make-over" was planned, the result of which is now being seen.

The historical aspect of the site has not been lost.

The famous church has been restored and provides a backdrop to the centre.

Although most residents are agreed this is a positive move, some argue it looks odd next to the extremely modern-looking Selfridges, which is covered in aluminium discs to resemble what some describe as "a giant squashed golf ball."

In actual fact its design was inspired by a Paco Rabanne chain-mail dress.

The hype and the interest in this project led me to make my first, and much anticipated, visit to the country's new temple of shopping.

Once inside, the centre's three floors - spanning a very wide area - are striking in their scope.

Glancing down over the modern metal railings of each floor reveals thousands of hungry consumers ceaselessly wandering from shop to shop below.

Above their heads is a glass roof through which there was - on this rare occassion - a glorious blue sky.

Whether this feature will be quite so amazing in the midst of our impending dreary winter is yet to be determined.

The sheer mass of people was stupifying.

The Bullring is expected to attract some 30 million visitors in its first year.

The huge electrical appliance store on the middle level was having an opening sale, which actually had people queuing around the centre.

The echo of their collective voices from the Bullring's floors to its high ceilings and their ceaseless movements combined to form an ocean-like roar of humanity.

It is definitely not a place for the claustrophobic.

The shops themselves are a mixture of new and familiar.

Many of them can be found elsewhere in the city centre, but others are new to Birmingham.

The latter were the more interesting to most of us, while department stores Selfridges and Debenhams make a welcome addition to the city.

Some of the others have long been advertised in magazines everyone reads here, but many residents had never visited them because there were no local branches.

There is something here for everyone.

From a massive branch of old favourite, Sweden-based fashion retailer H&M International to record shops HMV and Music Zone to new names such as Zara, Faith and Office Shoes.

That's not to mention the various restaurants and cafés throughout the centre (and perhaps unsurprisingly, yes, there is a Starbucks).

Staff situated around the area handed out very useful and very necessary maps and showed an authoritative knowledge of the huge site.

But others visitors were not so easily impressed.

Some argue that another shopping centre is not what the city needed, and that the Bullring should have been preserved as a historical site, while others claim the new version will put Birmingham on the map.

This rings especially loudly for those hoping the city will fight off stiff competition to be named European Capital of Culture in 2008.

It is true that many of the stores incorporated in the new development can already be found nearby.

Yet, the Bullring has featured in the national media since its grand opening last week, indicating that it is not only local interest that has been stirred.

It is noticeably quieter in the other, previously frequented shopping areas in town.

One man's silence is another man's music and traders in the former areas will no doubt be feeling the difference since the shopping behemoth opened its doors.

It cannot be denied that the new Bullring is going to have a major effect on Birmingham city centre.

Whether that is a positive or negative thing in the long-term remains to be seen.