City’s Edge

You’re upstairs on the No. 50 bus in Kings Heath High Street. The traffic always clogs here, as ‎people flock to shops supplied by juggernauts with goods funnelled in from around the world: ‎money pours into the tills. Outside a supermarket, a child’s bike chained to a lamp post serves ‎as a blue plaque: Hope, aged 13, was killed right here by a distracted lorry driver.‎

If time froze on the bus, yet the buildings all around it vanished, taking you back a couple of ‎centuries, you’d see how the land falls gently to the west towards a little river they call the Rea. ‎Over your right shoulder is the brook that sculpted Highbury Park running down towards the ‎river. To the east – your left – instead of the redbrick Methodist church at the top of Cambridge ‎Road, you might spot the source of Coldbath Brook, which falls through Moseley Bog to ‎Sarehole millpool and the River Cole – places where Tolkien and his brother played as children ‎when their rented house, three miles from the centre, stood at the edge of the rapidly growing ‎city.‎

This ancient track (now the A435) became a turnpike road in the 18th century, a toll road, ‎connecting Worcestershire farms to the small but growing town of Birmingham to the north. ‎You see the heathland on either side that isn’t worth cultivating. Time outside the bus moves ‎forward. The road improves, and fields appear around you as market demand in ‎Birmingham swells. The railway cuts deeply through the land in 1840; new buildings appear ‎along what has become a high street; the suburb’s population explodes as Birmingham ‎expands – the city swallows Kings Heath whole in 1911.‎

The present reasserts itself; the traffic moves. The bus stops at a crossroads in a hollow. The only ‎stream you can see here now is made up of half-ton chunks of metal and plastic purring at the ‎traffic lights, belching invisible soot, carbon and nitrous oxides, drinking petroleum and ‎gulping oxygen.‎

The lights turn green. It’s late spring: even the tallest of the street trees are in full leaf. You’re in ‎the northern part of Shakespeare’s Arden Forest, which in his time was a patchwork of woods ‎and ploughland and pasture and unruly hedges stretching to Stratford. Trees have been ‎cleared in the centuries since to grow grain and cattle, to provide firewood for the hearth, to ‎make charcoal to smelt iron, to build tea clippers and Nelson’s navy, to accommodate ‎hedgerow-hating tractors, and to make way for acre after acre of houses, shops and factories, ‎schools, hospitals and churches. You’re glad of your front seat. The leaves brushing the glass ‎lift your spirits.‎

Soon, a steep hill down to a canal. You see the sports centre on your left, but not the little ‎wood tucked behind it. You don’t notice the Chinn Brook alongside the canal at the bottom ‎of the valley: it runs into the Cole by Trittiford Pool, where the mill had four stones for grinding ‎corn in 1783. You don’t realise that on your right the Chinn now boasts a tiny local nature ‎reserve (they call it Jasmin Fields, but much of it is dense scrubby woodland).‎

The bus climbs up the other side. Onto the Maypole, a whirligig of traffic connecting the city to ‎the motorway beyond. You turn sharp right. A dozen thirteen-storey blocks rise around you, ‎surrounded by prefabricated terraced houses. Slum clearances in the 1960s spawned estates of ‎council housing on the city circumference, wherever land was cheap. When the bus drops ‎downhill and stops in the valley bottom you look left and notice a line of trees leading to a ‎row of prefabs. You guess the trees grew by a stream which now runs underground. You alight ‎and follow them. ‎

A sign by a footpath: Walkers Heath Park. You enter. Here’s the stream, not much bigger than ‎a ditch, but graced with trees and rocky interruptions – when you look at a map at home ‎you’ll find out this is Chinn Brook, and follow its course with your finger to the River Cole. ‎You’re surprised how big the park is as you wander round broad mown paths cut through ‎long grass. The hedges are filled with hawthorn flower and blossoming rowan trees abound: ‎two shades of glorious white in the late May evening sunshine which has finally emerged from ‎the clouds to welcome you. Over the stream, up a bridleway: a hayfield on your left, a grazed ‎field on your right. Are you still in Birmingham? Perhaps you’ve crossed the border into ‎Worcestershire.‎

Back to the stream to seek its source. Along a track, across a narrow road, into some very ‎rough pasture. You scramble down to the stream itself and find a muddy path. Soon, you’re ‎blocked by barbed wire. Back through the park, past ball courts, playground and allotments ‎to another bus stop. From the top deck, you notice more partly wooded open space on the ‎other side of the road, surrounded by what you guess is social housing. In a few weeks you’ll ‎return, following the brook downstream in that direction, and find clumps of mixed native ‎woodland; a surprising line of pines on the brook’s bank; the torso of a rusty burnt-out ‎motorbike asking to be photographed: an accidental work of art. Then unmanicured ‎scrubland will lead to a canal – must be the same one the bus crossed over – and you’ll see ‎the stream tunnel under it. It’ll be drizzling, none too warm. You’ll feel like an explorer, absurdly ‎pleased to find this place, to belong to this city of surprises.‎

This was first published in Borderlands, the 2019 anthology of work by students and staff of the School of English, Birmingham City University

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