Some cities draw you straight in from their edges by dint of gravity or beckoning pathways – officially designated walking routes or desire roads shaped by regular footfall. Not so Birmingham: here the momentum at the city’s outer limits is largely centifrugal – a manic rotation of cars and passengers around the city rim; a spinning Catherine wheel of inertia that is hard to break through. Much of England’s second city is, as Jonathan Meades and other commentators have observed, purpose-built for motor transport; unrepentant walkers may struggle for footing away from its pedestrian-friendly core around Centenary Square, Victoria Square and the newly appointed Jewellery Quarter. Birmingham’s obeisance to the internal combustion engine has long had comedic value: the Gravelly Hill Interchange, aka ‘Spaghetti Junction’, is infamous for its confusion of tangled asphalt pasta subbing as roadways, and parts of the outer city can give the appearance of an apocalyptic Ballardian landscape in which the motor car has unfettered dominion.
There are chinks in the armour here and there though – safe passages on foot towards the centre that can be discovered by close scrutiny of the upper right hand side of the Birmingham 1:25,000 OS Explorer map. One such pedestrian wormhole occurs beneath the M6 Motorway at Chelmsley Wood at the far eastern edge of the city close to Birmingham Airport. Chelmsley Wood is actually part of Solihull rather than Birmingham but that’s another story.
I approach the city from Coleshill, a north Warwickshire market town that lies on a ridge just beyond the M6. A brownstone settlement with a high street lined with pubs that once might have been coaching inns, it gives little clue to the vast West Midlands megalopolis that lurks nearby. I weave my way down from the high street through a new housing estate to approach the traffic roar that comes unseen from beyond a protective belt of trees. A muddy footpath leads through to the A446, the Stonebridge Road – a busy dual-carriageway that I have to cross carefully, resting briefly like a human bollard in the central reservation before continuing to the other side where the track continues though more din-blasted woodland.
The footpath soon joins a farm track that rises over a bridge that spans both the M42 and the M6 Toll. Traffic roars underneath – more than a dozen lanes of cars and lorries heading north and south, their road-dazed occupants oblivious to the ancient forest that once stood on the territory they are speeding through. This motorway island, like Chelmsey Wood, its high-rise blocks now within sight to the east beyond the pylon wires that frame them, was once part of the vast Forest of Arden – a leafy tract of Merrie England across which squirrels (red, of course) could travel for miles without the inconvenience of having to touch the ground. But such romance is now long dead, despite the subterranean presence of 2½ million Mills & Boon novels pulped to provide bulk for the underlay of the M6 Toll road – bodice-rippers recycled in such a way that their female protagonists would now genuinely be able to feel the earth move beneath them.
Even here, in plain earshot of the hum and thrum of the motorways, the landuse remains determinedly rural: the hedgerows cheep with edgeland birds, flowers deck the drainage ditches, isolated oaks stand proud soaking up CO2 and less desirable hydrocarbons; wheat fields stretch productively to the very edge of the motorway. A timely reminder of the close proximity of Birmingham Airport comes when a jetliner suddenly swoops into land, hugging the horizon – a trick of perspective giving the momentary illusion of the plane perching on the roof of one of the Chelmsley Wood blocks that lie just beyond the motorway ahead.
I follow the farm track under the pylons and a tunnel comes into view ahead. It is, in fact, a subway, a passage that leads beneath the third of this triptych of motorways, the M6. Graffiti daubs the walls of the subway – it would feel very wrong if it didn’t – and at the other side a staggered, anti-motorbike gate leads directly into Chelmsley Wood, streets of tidy new-build to start with (the estates posh end?) and then its high-rises. Chelmsley Wood doesn’t have the best or reputations – a clergyman was attacked and car-jacked outside a church here in broad daylight recently – but it does not seem too threatening on first glance. The high-rises – 39 in total, one of the biggest development schemes in Europe when they were first erected as an overspill estate on green belt in the late ‘60s – seem well-maintained; grassy landscaping softens the territory between the blocks, cycle-ways trace curving routes to the meandering River Cole that delimits the estate’s northern boundary.
Kingshurst Brook, effectively a damp ditch enlivened by a blousy pink display of Himalayan balsam, leads away from the river, skirting the perimeter of the estate to pass Alcott Wood, a remnant pocket of ancient woodland that now serves as a local nature reserve. A few local youths in grey tracksuits have gathered at the wood’s entrance, although their interest in botany is probably negligible.
I veer left along roads into Marston Green, a very average sort of suburb, and make my way to the railway station. A train has just departed but there will be another along in just twenty minutes. The only other passenger on the platform is a beautiful and elegantly dressed young Asian woman who shouts gleefully into her mobile phone with a posh, distinctly non-Brummie voice, asking of her unseen friend, “You said that would fix me up with a nice man. When are you going to do it”? The train arrives on time and we immediately become anonymous occupants of a fast-moving bubble that speeds us southeast away from the city, past the airport, past the cow-grazed fields of bucolic Warwickshire, through the ghost territory of the ancient Forest of Arden. Already Birmingham seems far behind.