Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2010/33 posted by hidden europe on

Head out along the Bristol Road and you get an eyeful of Birmingham's suburbs. Leaky ipods and restive mobiles mix with discarded newspapers and chip wrappers on the upper deck of Bus 61 that runs all the way out to Frankley. An empty Red Bull can dances beneath the seats, rolling back and forth as the bus brakes and accelerates.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Head out along the Bristol Road and you get an eyeful of Birmingham's suburbs. Leaky ipods and restive mobiles mix with discarded newspapers and chip wrappers on the upper deck of Bus 61 that runs all the way out to Frankley. An empty Red Bull can dances beneath the seats, rolling back and forth as the bus brakes and accelerates. "Teeth whitening while you wait" shouts an ad as the bus cruises south past nail bars, curry houses and yoga institutes. There is the University of Birmingham on the right, its striking red brick clock tower a dominant landmark in this part of the city. And Selly Oak railway bridge - "built circa 1931" says the sign as if the engineers really had no idea what year it was when they bridged the Bristol Road.

Beyond Selly Oak, edgy grime gives way to leafy suburb. Traffic flows more smoothly on the dual carriageway, its progress moderated by a long sequence of speed cameras ready to trap any motorist who is tempted to take advantage of what is potentially quite a fast stretch of highway. "Slow, slow," implore the road signs as the traffic sweeps down the gentle hill towards Woodbrooke.

You could so easily miss it and most folk on the 61 bus are more interested in their mobiles than in what goes on along the Bristol Road. The former home of chocolate-maker George Cadbury is a gracious old building set in splendid grounds. Woodbrooke is on the edge of Bournville, the model community that Cadbury established around his chocolate factory. Bournville still has a village-like feel, a little piece of rural England improbably planted in Birmingham's suburbs.

No Cadburys live at Woodbrooke nowadays, but for over a hundred years the house has served as a Quaker Study Centre, perpetuating the Quaker commitment of the Cadbury family. It has a superb library devoted to Quaker history, faith and practice. And it is a place to find that peculiarly Quakeresque silence.

The travel writer Wilfred Thesinger wrote of the silence of deserts. "It was very still," he wrote of Arabia's Empty Quarter, "with the silence which we have driven from our world." And silence is a difficult commodity to find in busy Birmingham. But we found it at Woodbrooke, just as we found it at the little baroque church, dedicated to St Paul, in the Jewellery Quarter. We had a delicious encounter with silence late one evening at the beautifully restored Moor Street railway station, which is so refreshing an antidote to bustling New Street station just a stone's throw away. And we savoured the silence of Bournville's Serbian Orthodox church, an engagingly exotic Balkan exclave on a suburban street.

But of all these Birmingham silences that at Woodbrooke was the most special. No surprise perhaps that, when Mahatma Gandhi visited Birmingham in October 1931, he stayed at Woodbrooke where he shared Quaker silence and spoke of India's peaceful struggle for freedom. No surprise perhaps that the signs on the Bristol road implore motorists to slow. Woodbrooke is certainly worth slowing for.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Our discounted Advent sale of hidden europe magazine continues through till Thursday this week. Too late for Christmas delivery perhaps, but rest assured we'll still dispatch all orders before Christmas.

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.