For a long time I was feeling an urge to escape the city, to wander beyond the orbit of its motorway collar, and explore the surrounding countryside. It would not have to be far, just a bit beyond the city. Of course, I had been there many times before but as a car passenger driven around on aimless days or enforced diversions from the A roads in and out of the city; occasional expeditions to car boot sales, or pub lunches. But I had never actual been there.
From my home in Cotteridge, Birmingham, I summoned up the courage to pass through Kings Norton, with all its memories, and head south, late in the autumn of 2013. Masshouse Lane took me to the gracefully named Primrose Hill, past dilapidated council houses of the 1920s, past a cemetery and into the first sign of countryside. It is difficult to get muddy in a city unless you are somewhere you shouldn’t be, even some canal towpaths are gaining the urban respectability of tarmac. Immediately I realised my work shoes were wholly inadequate as the mud came over the top. And this was the first field; a city boy squirmed with embarrassment.
The dominant animal at the edge of the city is not the cow or sheep or pig, but the horse. These elegant, four-legged investments are dotted around the fields, quietly contemplating their indifference to solitude. There are also numerous riding schools on the outskirts. One need not go short of opportunities to part with good money to sit on top of an animal.
The city oozes out its wealth past the slum-clearance estates, and out into what is only regionally Birmingham, i.e. as viewed from London, or narratively Birmingham, i.e. when it suits me. My destination for this initial leg of my journey was to be Barnt Green, a satellite village due-south of the city, just past Longbridge. This was once the home of the atomic spy Allan Nunn May whose father was a brassfounder in the city, that is to say, he owned a brassfoundry in the city which allowed him to live way beyond the consequences of its noxious factories. Incidentally, Nunn May was not the only atomic spy ever to reside in Birmingham. Klaus Fuchs began passing the details of his work to the Russians when he lived in Edgbaston.
The atrocious path from Primrose Hill came out to a road edged with trees and swampy pools. It was the first road I had been on in years where I could walk down the middle undisturbed by traffic. It felt good. It felt glorious. Already my wellbeing was improving. To mark the occasion I took some blurry photographs of discarded objects with my phone.
It wasn't long until I was back on an obscure public right of way - a narrow, overgrown path running up the side of a house. Clearly no one had walked there for some time. I had to stoop under branches as I stumbled forward, alerting a large, protective hound only inches away; growling and barking behind the fence immediately to my right. Once past the house and another of the many swampy pools I would grow intrigued by, the path joined a lane taking me to the top of Wast Hill. There was a slight view of the now distant city behind me and my first panorama of the comparatively sparse valley in front. The path turned right and descended pleasantly through woods beside the Wast Hill Autism Centre, then there were a couple of muddy fields to cross before crossing a road and onto the next path. I was acclimatizing to having wet feet and called it stoicism.
The path had a Richard Long appearance of a clean line swooping down toward the end of the Wast Hill Tunnel. From there it was a steady trek along the Worcester canal to the Bittell reservoirs where Bruce Chatwin’s father would go boating. My map was old, very old, having been purchased from the Hogg’s Lane car boot sale for twenty pence, and did not even feature the M42, the southern part of the collar around Birmingham. This ensured confusion and for a short while I was lost on my way into Barnt Green. As I staggered on, I was delighted to be welcomed by three little piggies who came squealing to their gate. They had no problem with the mud, and I was beginning to get used to it.
The next leg of the journey was straight down to Bromsgrove, mostly continuing along the Worcester canal. It felt liberating to emerge from under the bridge of the motorway. I felt a surge of pride to be beyond that suffocating collar.
At the moorings of Alvechurch a prehistoric crane was dangling a barge over the works. Alvechurch is one of the hubs of the canal tourism industry, but today I wasn’t stopping.
Further south Network Rail had pinned notices onto trees to the east of the canal. With news of the HS2's go-ahead, it is hard to look at the fields without a projection of what will be in store for them. It is an image of the future which is hard to bear while standing in such pleasant surroundings. I think it was this, combined with a drop in blood sugar, which prompted a sense of pointlessness and despondency about my journey. And this was only the second leg! I wasn't walking anymore, I was marching at a pace with my eyes at my feet.
Not until the canal disappeared into a tunnel, and I was left alone to find my way through Shortwood, did I recognise a new feeling of excited isolation, the awe of the environment and the enjoyable illusion of adventure. A city boy living out a fantasy. The wood had an atmosphere of Twin Peaks. The damp, the quiet, the piles of lumber. I climbed to the top of the hill and the edge of the wood. The re-emergence to the canal was hidden by a clump of trees far below. A cold wind whipped around me as I made the slippery descent.
The canal path did not last for long. As I negotiated a dual carriageway, the canal was making its way to Tardebigge, the spiritual home of the reborn canal network. Instead I was veering along footpaths toward Bromsgrove. A Dyno-Rod truck sat grazing in a field alongside a couple of tired old horses and an impressive collection of digger scoops. A wider collection of farm machinery and materials was revealed further down the path. It was very impressive. A mausoleum of agriculture.
Right turn to Bromsgrove, along quiet country roads punctuated only by the genial whirl of a cycling club passing by. Their friendly waving indicated a bond between those who like to get out in the middle of nowhere for the good of their health. Or so it was in my imagination.
From this way in, the edge of Bromsgrove is Aston Fields, where the railway station is located. The actual centre is another mile westwards. I had walked far enough for that leg but I returned in the spring of 2014 to take up the walk to Blakedown.