hidden europe 33

Orbiting Birmingham

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Assertive modernism in Birmingham city centre. But the suburbs reveal another side of England’s second city (photo © hidden europe).


Birmingham's Outer Circle bus route is a veteran among urban bus routes, dating back to the nineteen-twenties. How many Brummies who ride the Outer Circle realise that this is Europe's longest urban bus route? Probably very few. But this extraordinary bus route provides a wonderful kaleidoscope of Birmingham life as it makes a great orbit through the suburbs of England's second city.

Birmingham’s Route 11 is a bus journey for urban explorers. It tracks a route through Birmingham’s suburban web, encircling England’s second city on a run that is full of cultural colour. hidden europe editor Nicky Gardner takes an upstairs seat on the double-decker that plies Europe’s longest urban bus route.

Were it not for the complete absence of pubs, I could easily stay in Bournville for ever. It is a happy spot, made all the better by the gentle smell of chocolate that drifts from time to time over the park. “We should not really be part of Birmingham at all,” explains the lady at the bus stop. She goes on to confide that Bournville is more rural in spirit. “They’ve even shut down the village post office,” she says, inferring that a disused post office is sure evidence of consummate rurality.

It is indeed as if a little corner of rural England has been parachuted into the suburbs of Birmingham. There are certainly no dark Satanic mills to spoil the honeyed sweetness of this earthly Jerusalem. Just the Cadbury factory. George and Richard Cadbury — brothers, philanthropists and chocolatiers — knew the ingredients of human happiness: Tudor beams, indoor toilets, decent plumbing, education, the village green and chocolate. In a community so brimming with Quaker virtue, were it not for want of pubs and post offices, surely no-one would ever need a bus to the outside world.

Bus Route 11

That’s the beauty of Route 11, often dubbed the Outer Circle, which is the boomerang of British bus routes. Climb aboard outside the Friends’ Meeting House and it matters not if you head north or south. Whichever direction you choose, Route 11 resolutely brings you right back to Bournville. But not before having orbited the entire city of Birmingham.

Route 11 comes in two flavours: 11A (anticlockwise) or 11C (clockwise), each affording two hours or more of orbital delight as the bus circumnavigates the heart of the city known for chocolate, custard, commerce and culture. Route 11 never touches the centre of Birmingham nor the city boundary, instead maintaining a creative tension between the two as it tracks a circular trail through the suburbs.

Culture comes in many guises in modern Birmingham and Route 11 touches them all. Rachmaninoff and rap, mosques and Sikh temples, halal and hijab, pawnbrokers and bingo, hair weaving and glamour nails. This is a provocative orbit through Birmingham’s edgy and neglected territories, a journey that plunges through deepest Yardley and distant Handsworth before returning inexorably and inevitably to the little Utopia that is Bournville.

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