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Birmingham Walking Guide: Exploring the Alternative Commonwealth Games Circular

Birmingham hidden walks


Robert Ankcorn grew up in Birmingham and his passion for its history and folklore emerged from exploring by bike as a teenager. In 2016 Rob co-founded the walking tour company, Real Birmingham, and have since delighted thousands of guests with tales of the UK’s second city.


2022 is Birmingham’s chance to show itself to the world and let the secret out once and for all - Brum is brilliant. For 6 years, I’ve been giving tours of Birmingham’s City Centre with Real Birmingham, the social enterprise myself and the other author of Birmingham Hidden Walks cofounded. With all the construction work racing to completion before the Commonwealth Games, running the tour often became an exercise in finding creative routes to circumvent building sites.  It is therefore really satisfying to blog about one walk in particular: The Alternative Commonwealth Games Circular. Thousands of international athletes and spectators will be descending on the City to experience this festival of sport with the epicentre being Perry Barr. This 12km walk commences there before taking you on a journey to some of the City’s most unique hidden gems. This walk might not be everyone’s cup of tea but it definitely rewards the adventurous explorer.  

The Greyhound Racing Club 

Starting at Perry Barr railway station, future walkers will be able to visit the athletes village-that-never-was. The Covid-19 pandemic delayed construction meaning athletes will be housed in University accommodation but the scheme will eventually make a new centre to the suburb. Following Aldridge Road you will see the Greyhound Racing Club. During the Second World War, this stadium accommodated Italian Prisoners Of War and used to house athletics club the Birchfield Harriers. You can still see their logo, a running stag, on its façade. Rendered in art deco style, the stag was carved in 1929 by prolific city sculptor William Bloye. Out of the 20 Birmingham Hidden Walks, William Bloye provides more public art than any other. He made his mark all over the City and is a common thread throughout the book joining lots of walks together.

Greyhound stadium

 

Perry Park and the Alexander Stadium 

Now for some relatively ancient history for the City of Birmingham. Largely hidden from view, you will walk across the historic packhorse style Perry Bridge (1709) which sits beside the busy road. There has been a bridge on this spot since Roman times and now serves as a charming pedestrian footbridge. The walk then takes you to Perry Park and the Alexander Stadium. This Summer 40,000 people will watch Steven Knight, the creator of Peaky Blinders, further challenge the outdated view of beleaguered Brum in his Commonwealth Games opening ceremony. I can testify that the Alexander Stadium used to host sports days for schools across the City. Let’s hope spectators witness more impressive sporting achievements than me scraping 3rd place at the 1500m in 2007. 

Behind the stadium you can join the Tame Valley Canal – the motorway equivalent of the 1800s joining industry in Birmingham and Walsall. Now it offers up a surprisingly bucolic scene. Cross the handsome Perry Barr Locks Bridge and you’ll discover a quaint lock keepers cottage built in 1834.  Hiding beneath the A34, I wonder how many drivers above realise it’s there. Turn back around and you are treated to a descent past the 10 Perry Barr Locks. 

Perry Barr lock

 

Witton Cemetery 

The tour then takes you through the City’s largest cemetery: Witton Cemetery. Teetering on the edge of the M6, it can be eerily beautiful as you explore the tangle of paths. At one point over 20 burials a day would take place but it was declared “full to capacity” in 2013. The 459 Commonwealth War Graves tie us back into this walk’s theme but lots of the history of this cemetery is yet to be uncovered. Make your way along the tree lined central boulevard to its highest point which is marked by the stunning chapel. From here is one of best and most unique views over the City Centre – the ever-changing skyline, congested motorway and Victorian gravestones make for a bizarre sight.  

Witton cemetery Witton cemetery

 

Gravelly Hill Interchange and the Witton Works Factory 

Rejoin the canal via unspecified directions (that’s what the book is for *cough cough*) and now the sheer scale of the Gravelly Hill Interchange begins to loom into view. I walked this on a bitterly cold day as a coming storm cast the sky in a brilliant electric blue – it made for an exhilarating and slightly monstrous sight. The canal itself is really peaceful and lined either side with trees. You’ll catch glimpses of the towering industrial chimney from the former Witton Works Factory – look hard and you can still see the old magnet logo on the top. A former employee once came on the tour and told me tales of all the company’s old sports clubs – sounds like the company could have fielded teams for half the events at the games! Further along the canal, inside a long but well-lit tunnel there is a curated street art spot asking profound questions such as “Who ate my uncle?”. Food for thought indeed. 


 

Aston Reservoir 

Emerging from underneath the junction you’ll quickly arrive at Aston Reservoir – a former 19th century reservoir for drinking water that is now a park. Nestled in-between the motorway bridges it feels peculiarly stranded – you need to walk through it to get what I mean. The final stop on the walk is then the centre of Aston where the grand Jacobean mansion Aston Hall sits atop its grounds. Constructed in 1635, it has been open to the public since 1858 when Queen Victoria performed the opening ceremony during her first ever visit to the City. From the grounds you can see the soaring 198 foot spire of The Church of St Peter & St Paul. Spot the gothic gargoyles on the pinnacle representing the seven deadly sins. There’s a quick stop at the City’s first purpose built tram depot and then it’s a short walk back to Perry Barr.   

 

Birmingham can often feel built for the car and this is most starkly expressed by Spaghetti Junction. That makes walking this route pretty radical. When walking underneath that monument to car culture you can find a surprising amount of peace and tranquillity. You are traversing this part of the city in a way the 60’s city engineers probably did not envision. Birmingham Hidden Walks contains many more conventionally ‘nice’ walks but few that are quite this varied. Canals, motorways, cemeteries, factories and a suburb being rebuilt once again. This walk definitely explores real Birmingham. 

A-Z Birmingham Hidden Walks is the perfect way to explore the city in a new light. It features 20 walking routes in and around the city, including lesser-known gems and popular circuits.