ARCHIVE: Tourism Comes Full Circle in the City's Suburbs; Birmingham's Attempt at an Integrated Transport System Turned into a Tourist Phenomenon, Discovers Chris Upton

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Byline: Chris Upton

A recent survey declares Birmingham the third most popular tourist destination in the UK, and those of us who have lived in the city for more than a decade or so will know what an astonishing turn-around this is. Birmingham and tourists? They once went together like rhubarb and gravy.

Not so long ago the sum of Birmingham's visitor offer (I've picked up this phrase from the people at Marketing Birmingham, but I wish they hadn't) was a trip to the Art Gallery and a box of faulty chocolates from Bournville.

So, when did this sea-change occur? I believe there's an early inkling of it as far back as 1926. In fact, I can be more precise than this: the date was April 7, 1926.

It was on this day that Birmingham's Outer Circle bus (No. 11) began its eternal circling of the city.

The service had an entirely practical purpose at the outset.

All of Birmingham's tramways were on radial routes, heading out of the city like the spokes of a giant wheel, and if one wanted to travel from, say, Erdington to Yardley, it was necessary to travel into the city on one line and back out again on another.

And, of course, the further from the city one went, the further apart were the tramways. It was impractical to connect them by tramline, but the advent of the petrol-driven motor bus, capable of negotiating the country roads of the outer city, offered that opportunity.

From 1923 (when a service was introduced between All Saints' Chuch in Kings Heath and the Kings Head on the Hagley Road) the spokes of the wheel began to be joined up.

Once the circle was complete three years later it was possible to circumnavigate the whole of Birmingham -a journey of 25 miles -in one single journey.

Perhaps for the first time, the people in Birmingham's distant suburbs discovered that there were other people -looking just like them -who lived in other suburbs -just like theirs.

As we have said, the Outer Circle bus was introduced to interconnect transport systems (an alien concept today, I know).

But from its beginning the Corporation Tramways and Omnibus Department realised with shock that it had something of a phenomenon on its hands.

For one thing, this was the longest bus journey within a single municipal district in the world, a claim that may still be true today, though I haven't checked all the bus routes in Mexico City. For another, passengers were hopping on board not simply to change tramlines or to visit their relatives in Harborne, but simply for the ride.

This was an earth-shaking concept, but one that the Transport Department embraced with pride and alacrity.

Firstly the company had to replace its single-decker buses with double-deckers to meet the demand.

By 1930 it had also introduced an excursion ticket, which allowed a complete circuit of the city for just one shilling (5p), as long as you boarded the bus before 2.30pm.

Otherwise the fare shot up by a shocking three pence (1p).

And thus, with a packed lunch (and, if you were wise, a cushion, since the seats on the buses were not designed for this long a journey) Birmingham set off to see itself from the top deck. …