Last year, the fastest selling tour in the Still Walking festival was Joe Holyoak’s Walk the Queensway. At the time, it seemed unlikely that the ring road would attract that amount of interest, but it did and looking back it all makes sense. Everyone in Birmingham has an opinion on subways, car-parking, crossing the road and the dynamics and effect of the ring road on the city. It showed clearly that the format of a guided tour needn’t be about showcasing the highlights of the city and that people want to know about the urban planning process – even if that means witnessing the flip side of Birmingham’s bold post-war experiments.
There is a spirit of irony in choosing to walk the ring road too: this route is all about the car and the marginalisation of everything else. Certainly that means the pedestrian but also the environment, the local economy and ultimately the city itself. Zen Buddhists may also reflect on an unintentional double meaning in the term “Middle Way”.
This week, I met ring road aficionado Glen Stoker of Stoke’s Air Space gallery to walk around Birmingham’s Middle Ring Road. I’d never done it before and despite having maps and a fail-safe ‘keep going’ circular strategy for navigation we actually managed to get the route wrong. By the time we came full circle, it emerged we’d managed to skip a significant part of the full route. But this didn’t really matter as we both agreed that encountering and exploring new spaces was the real purpose of the journey.
The three hour journey allowed us to talk about our interests with occasional tangential excursions as we encountered places where we felt motivated to stop. It was intriguing to see what lay either side of the ring road and how that incision seemed to have shaped the city. Some of these areas I already knew and wanted to share with Glen (making this partially a guided tour) but most were places I had never visited before. Having the express intention of visiting these places over an afternoon seemed to make them more visible. Until today, if there had been another route to walk other than the noisy ring road I would usually do exactly that. It’s interesting to think about why exactly some parts of the city are rarely visited, even for the ardent walking explorer.
A particular highlight that afternoon was a leafy avenue of trees leading to a gated enclosure containing a variety of pipes and ducts emerging from the ground. A concourse of hexagonal moss mosaics led away from this installation. All of this was contained invisibly within the central reservation of the Middle Ring Road. When we reached Highgate, I was able to introduce Glen to the culverted section of Rea, at this point handily accessible by steps. I now include the Rea in a walk wherever possible because of the conversations it naturally leads to, but have by now stopped referring to it as a river.
Many sections were unwalkable. We crossed several times either through piqued interest but mostly through necessity. By the end (or what we thought was the end) we knew the city that bit better but also better understood each other’s approach to walking. Glen was interested that my approach to researching a guided tour starts with simply looking while on the move. As a maker, Glen usually maps the journey for further use or simply as an associated aspect of walking. I generally don’t do this. Neither of us were particularly interested in the ‘game’ aspect of walking for its own sake, but rather for its yields.
Find out more about Glen’s work at