Birmingham, the urban epicentre of the West Midlands, is Britain’s second city and was once the world’s greatest industrial metropolis, its slew of factories powering the Industrial Revolution. Long saddled with a reputation as a culture-hating, car-loving backwater, Birmingham has redefined its image in recent years, initiating some ambitious architectural and environmental schemes and jazzing up its museums and industrial heritage sites. Within easy striking distance are the rural shires that stretch out towards Wales, with the bumpy Malvern Hills, one of the region’s scenic highlights in between; you could also drift north to the rugged scenery of the Peak District, whose surly, stirring landscapes stretch out beyond the attractive little spa town of Buxton.
Change was forced on Birmingham by the drastic decline in its manufacturing base during the 1970s; things were even worse in the Black Country, that knot of industrial towns clinging to the western side of the city, where de-industrialization has proved particularly painful. The counties to the south and west of Birmingham and beyond the Black Country – Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire – comprise a rural stronghold that maintains an emotional and political distance from the conurbation. Of the four counties, Warwickshire is the least obviously scenic, but draws by far the largest number of visitors, for – as the road signs declare at every entry point – this is “Shakespeare Country”. The prime target is, of course, Stratford-upon-Avon, with its handful of Shakespeare-related sites and world-class theatre, but spare time also for the town of Warwick, which has a superb church and a whopping castle.
Neighbouring Worcestershire, which stretches southwest from the urban fringes of the West Midlands, holds two principal places of interest, Worcester, which is graced by a mighty cathedral, and Great Malvern, a mannered inland resort spread along the rolling contours of the Malvern Hills – prime walking territory. From here, it’s west again for Herefordshire, a large and sparsely populated county that’s home to several amenable market towns, most notably Hereford, where the remarkable medieval Mappa Mundi map is displayed in the cathedral, and pocket-sized Ross-on-Wye, which is within easy striking distance of an especially scenic stretch of the Wye River Valley. Next door, to the north, is rural Shropshire which has Ludlow, one of the region’s prettiest towns, awash with antique half-timbered buildings, and the amiable county town of Shrewsbury, which is also close to the hiking trails of the Long Mynd. Shropshire has a fascinating industrial history, too, for it was here in the Ironbridge Gorge that British industrialists built the world’s first iron bridge and pioneered the use of coal as a smelting fuel.
To the north of the sprawling Birmingham conurbation is Derbyshire, whose northern reaches incorporate the region’s finest scenery in the rough landscapes of the Peak District National Park. The park’s many hiking trails attract visitors by the thousand; the best base is the appealing former spa town of Buxton. The Peaks are also home to the limestone caverns of Castleton, the so-called “Plague Village” of Eyam and the grandiose stately pile of Chatsworth House, a real favourite hereabouts.