Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

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.

article summary —

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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Nicky Gardner is editor of hidden europe and also the principal author of the magazine. Where a text is not specifically attributed to an author, it is the work of Nicky. Below, you’ll find a small selection of her articles in hidden europe magazine. Nicky also writes regularly for other media. She is co-author (with Susanne Kries) of the book Europe by Rail: The Definitive Guide, the 17th edition of which was published 2022.

Nicky Gardner was liberated from a life enslaved to performance indicators and business plans to become a travel writer. She gives thanks for that daily. Nicky writes about culture and communities, about memorable landscapes and also about journeys. Over the years she's picked up a thing or two about product life cycles, the book trade and publishing, ticketing APIs, how libraries work and the high theology of grant giving.

Nicky reads geography books, railway timetables and maps entirely for pleasure - and lots of real books too! She loves nothing more than a slow meander by public transport around some unsung part of Europe. Nicky is particularly interested in issues of identity and culture in eastern Europe and the Balkans, in linguistic minorities and in island communities. Her pet loves are public libraries, Armenian food and anything coloured purple. Nicky cannot abide suburban sprawl, supermarkets and fast trains. Nicky has since 2007 been a member of the British Guild of Travel Writers. Nicky is especially keen on historical travel writing: Edith Durham, Gertrude Bell and Isabelle Eberhardt are among her favourites. Nicky can be contacted at editors [at] hiddeneurope.eu.

This article was published in hidden europe 33.