By ‘unsung’ I mean I can’t seem to find these places talked about specifically when Birmingham is marketed. By ‘best’, I mean that I have personally declared them the best based, as you’ll see, largely on sentiment. This list is not in order of bestness.
Harborne Branch Line Walkway.
What feels like a rural abandoned rail line in the centre of a city – marvellous. This starts in the corner of Summerfield Park and much of the recently improved path is in a slight cutting so you don’t really notice the surrounding busy roads (it goes under the Hagley road at one point). As you get closer to Harborne you emerge on an embankment but it’s not until you get to Chad Valley that you realise that you’re above roof top level as you walk over Park Hill Road bridge that would have taken you into Harborne station (long since demolished and replaced with especially dull housing). The line was ripped up in 1963 and the walkway created in 1981.
Alum Rock Road.
‘The Rock’, as it’s known locally, is where I played my first game of Space Invaders, where I became expert at Pac-Man (I was really, really good), where I drank my first pint. I lived close by and spent much of my early teens in and out of its chip shops, video arcades (though the Pac-Man was actually in a Taxi office), and pubs. In the late 70s/early 80s it had two Tescos, a Boots and a Woolworth’s but in their place now is a vibrant stretch of independent retailers who seem to mostly sell Sarees, food or phones. The road layout and many of the buildings (upper parts at least) remain unchanged since the Victorian era. It remains as astonishingly vibrant now as when I was a lad.
Holder’s Lane Woods.
Running has helped me discover lots of new places. This small wooded area is a diversion off the Rea Valley cycle route and is well worth a look. It’s secluded, boggy and home to a lot of squirrels. The area to its south, off Dogpool lane, was once a housing estate of Pre-fabs, long since gone and, given its location, surprisingly left undeveloped. Once you leave the wood you can drop back on the Rea Valley route or take a right into the wooded area that borders Moor Green allotments.
It’s the most elegant part of what’s left of Birmingham’s inner ring road. The A38 sits on concrete stilts above a large open space which is often populated with skateboarders. On one side is the Children’s hospital, now a bit of a rag-bag of old and new buildings; but on the other is the former Central Fire Station which is very grand indeed. The city centre used to have a lot of spaces like Lancaster Circus, isolated and cut off by subways, but none felt this wide open or imposing. We should list it.
Fazeley/Grand/Digbeth canal loop.
Start where you like but what a great urban 10k(ish) run/walk/cycle this makes. It takes you through the conservation area of Warwick Bar and to the cathedral-like bowels of Spaghetti Junction. Along the way you’ll go through narrow tunnels and get a terrific glimpse into the Birmingham’s industrial present and past. And you’ll see a heron, probably somewhere near Star City. Oh, and I once saw a naked man swimming in the canal near Saltley.
Cofton Park is massive. Hilly and massive. I’ve not participated in my running club’s regular Saturday morning training session there for a while as I’m rather intimidated by it. It sits just past the former Longbridge car plant and is right at the edge of the city. It has a high ridge which is a bugger to run up with tired legs. It’s often used for events (the pope came here once) and there’s no better sight than a 100+ cross-country runners powering over its undulating terrain.
The Cross City rail line.
50 minutes and 19 miles of urban railway through quiet suburbs and busy industry. You get to see the whole city on the Cross City Line. We should be advertising this as a thing to do: “Hop off at historic Aston.” It could be so much more than a commuter line. In order to stay within the city you have to start/end at Blake st. and Longbridge, but extend your journey to Barnt Green and you’re at the foot of the Lickey Hills. In the days when my life was focused around getting the most value out of an off-peak bus/rail pass I did this journey often and enjoyed it every time.
Cole Valley Cycle route.
Glebe Farm used to be the place to go on a Sunday to play/watch Gaelic sports. As the adults did so, us kids would go wandering off along the nearby River Cole. The river could be crossed quite easily and we would spend hours playing on its banks up to the limit of the bridge on Cole Hall lane. Beyond there lay the hinterland of Shard End. When the day’s sport was over we’d often walk as a family back along the Cole to Stechford. There was no cycle path then as there is now but a worn path took us the mile or so back to the 14 bus route and home. You can continue along the Cole as far as Small Heath and it makes up on of Birmingham’s fantastic green, cyclable, corridors.
Hodge Hill Common.
Birmingham like any city still has a few ‘commons’. I can’t remember what the deal is; can I keep sheep on there? Whatever way, I include Hodge Hill for sentimental reasons and for its refreshingly unkept nature. If I ever drive past it it always looks like it need a good mow. Maybe you’re simply not allowed to mow a meadow – I really don’t know. I used to walk past it and over it in my youth as we sometimes ventured to Castle Bromwich to see family friends. Even then I thought it was an odd but endearingly scruffy patch with a row of ‘too posh for Hodge Hill’ house on one side of it.
Is this area still called Duddeston? It may be Nechells. I’m sure we actually used to refer to it as Vauxhall as the station was once called that. Confusingly, the rather lovely local library is called ‘Bloomsbury’. This area is framed by the railway on one side and dual carriageways on the others and is home to Birmingham’s first tower block, built in the 1950s and still standing today. The community centre there was where I learnt Judo and the whole area always felt quite modern to me. The blocks are really imposing and in my young eyes this felt like a perfectly sensible way to reorganise cities. Nearby Alum Rock had tightly-packed terraces whilst Duddeston had, seemingly, space.