If you’re a friend or follower on Facebook or Twitter, you’ve probably got one question for me: WHY?
OK, OK… I realise it’s not conventional behaviour to spend two and a half hours on a bus before alighting at the very spot you boarded, but there is method behind the madness.
Birmingham’s No.11 Outer Circle is something of a local legend. At 27 miles long, it’s Europe’s longest urban bus route, giving you the option of travelling either clockwise or anti-clockwise through many of the City’s suburbs. Much of its legend comes from its circular, everlasting route. If you were among the few who watched this summer’s series of Big Brother, for instance, then you may have noticed that the bus stop in the garden was marked up as the No.11, symbolic of the near never-ending journey the housemates found themselves part of.
While I’m aware of the sentimental attachment of many Brummies to the route, I cannot claim it has any special significance to me. Having grown up in Aldridge, I’ve mainly travelled routes such as the 997 or the 367 – and all they’ve done is led me into a fervent hatred of Travel West Midlands’ unreliability.
So, what was it that prompted me to board the 11 for the very first time today?
For me, intrigue is often far more compelling than actual desire to do something. I won’t lie, when I woke up this morning, I did consider whether I really wanted to go ahead with this. Boarding the ‘peasant wagon’ when you’re going nowhere in particular isn’t exactly my idea of a good day out. But, John Bounds’ brainchild had intrigued me, and I needed to satisfy that curious itch.
The idea prompted my mind to journey back almost a year when I travelled alone to Birmingham’s twin city of Chicago. After a long flight and an arduous passage through customs, the last thing I wanted to see after hailing my cab was an endless expanse of traffic keeping me from the sanctuary of my downtown hotel. Luckily, my amiable driver was in possession of ‘The Knowledge’, and took me off the beaten track in order to ensure a speedier arrival.
He was almost apologetic as he took me through what he ominously described as ‘the bad neighbourhoods’, but unwittingly, he’d awoken something of an urban explorer within me. Travelling to somewhere like Chicago, you prepare yourself for hustle, bustle, and lots and lots of skyscrapers. Heading off the beaten track, however, offers a cultural experience that isn’t mentioned in any guidebook. Small, lived-in, and functional, there was something appealing about this snapshot of reality. A wise man in radioland once told me that there’s nothing more interesting than real life, and it’s become something of a mantra to me. It might seem odd, but I was fascinated by those ‘real-life’ neighbourhoods, people’s homes and businesses, away from the glistening tourist traps that modern city centres inevitably have to be, and, ultimately, just as interesting as any of the more traditional sightseeing destinations I visited that week.
As well as having a fascination for non-conventional ‘sightseeing’, I’m also baffled as to why we so often venture further afield in order to see the world when there’s plenty to be discovered on our own doorsteps. For instance, I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to some amazing places in my life, taking in sights such as the US Capitol Building in DC, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, the Coliseum in Rome, and the Holy Land in Israel to name only a few… however, I’ve never popped up the road to Stratford-Upon-Avon, proof if ever it were needed that we so often ignore what’s within easy reach of us. One thing was certain – the ride on the 11 would take me to places I’d never been before. Sure, mainly places that are unremarkable, but, just like that taxi ride through the outskirts of Chicago, the ordinary can often be extraordinary if you allow it to be.
And there it was, happening before my eyes as I travelled along, the good, the bad and the ugly. Within five minutes of leaving my starting point near to Villa Park, I saw the Police making an arrest. Over an hour later, I saw a second person being taken into custody. The use of retail space was also fascinating. About 80% were local independent traders, still going strong in the face of opposition from big business. Some carried slight imperfections – two with prominent spelling mistakes on their signage (one a hair salon called ‘Glamerous Ones’, another a newsagent with an electronic sign boasting their ability to ‘Unclock Phones’). Conversely, a huge number of stores had the shutters pulled down permanently, their dilapidated premises remaining as testament to the sad failure to remain as a going concern.
The beauty of the 11 is that while it goes all the way around Birmingham, it avoids the City Centre entirely, showing, one might argue, the REAL Birmingham. This is where people live; this is where families are raised. Real communities, real stories, real life. There’s nothing more interesting, after all.
As the bus entered Witton and Villa Park loomed back into view, the completion of a lap marked the denouement of my No.11 adventure. I’d presumed before setting off on my road to nowhere that I’d be relieved when my two and a half hour journey came to an end. But, do you know what, honestly? I actually felt quite sad that it was over, that there was no more new ground to explore. And that, I’m guessing, is the whole philosophy behind today.
And so, dear reader, here’s a plea of my own: If you ever find yourself with nothing to do, get on a bus, a train, in your car, and head somewhere you’ve never been before – even if somewhere is nowhere in particular. You never know what you might find!
You know you should. You really should.
Thomas T. Parker.
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