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.
Top image © Gail Johnson/Shutterstock
If anywhere can be described as the first purely industrial conurbation, it has to be BIRMINGHAM. Unlike the more specialist industrial towns that grew up across the north and the Midlands, “Brum” – and its “Brummies” – turned its hand to every kind of manufacturing, gaining the epithet “the city of 1001 trades”. It was here also that the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution – James Watt, Matthew Boulton, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) – formed the Lunar Society, an extraordinary melting-pot of scientific and industrial ideas. They conceived the world’s first purpose-built factory, invented gas lighting and pioneered both the distillation of oxygen and the mass production of the steam engine. Thus, a modest Midlands market town mushroomed into the nation’s economic dynamo with the population to match: in 1841 there were 180,000 inhabitants; just fifty years later that number had trebled.
Britain’s second-largest city, with a population of over one million, Birmingham has long outgrown the squalor and misery of its boom years and today its industrial supremacy is recalled – but only recalled – by a crop of recycled buildings, from warehouses to an old custard factory, and an extensive network of canals. With a revamped city centre, and a vibrant cultural life, Birmingham also boasts a thoroughly multiracial population – this is one of Britain’s most cosmopolitan cities. Nevertheless, there’s no pretending that Birmingham is packed with interesting sights – it isn’t – but, along with its first-rate restaurant scene and nightlife, it’s well worth at least a couple of days.
Many visitors get their first taste of central Birmingham at New Street Station, whose unreconstructed ugliness – piles of modern concrete – makes a dispiriting start, though there are plans afoot to give the place a thoroughgoing face-lift. Things soon improve if you cut up east from the station to the newly developed Bull Ring, once a 1960s eyesore, but now a gleaming new shopping mall distinguished by the startling design of its leading store, Selfridges. Head west along pedestrianized New Street from here and it’s a brief stroll to the elegantly revamped Victoria Square and the adjacent Chamberlain Square, where pride of place goes to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the city’s finest museum, complete with a stunning collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. Beyond, further west still, is the glossy International Convention Centre, from where it’s another short hop to the Gas Street Basin, the prettiest part of the city’s serpentine canal system. Close by is canalside Brindleyplace, a smart, brick-and-glass complex sprinkled with slick cafés and bars and holding the enterprising Ikon Gallery of contemporary art. From Brindleyplace, it’s a short walk southeast to The Mailbox, the immaculately rehabilitated former postal sorting office with yet more chic bars and restaurants, or you can head north along the old towpath of the Birmingham and Fazeley Canal as far as Newhall Street. The latter is within easy walking distance of the Georgian St Philip’s Cathedral.
Over the Malvern Hills from Worcestershire, the rolling agricultural landscapes of Herefordshire have an easy-going charm, but the finest scenery hereabouts is along the banks of the River Wye, which wriggles and worms its way across the county. Plonked in the middle of Herefordshire on the Wye is the county town, Hereford, a sleepy, rather old-fashioned place whose proudest possession, the cathedral’s remarkable Mappa Mundi map, was almost flogged off in a round of ecclesiastical budget cuts back in the 1980s. Beyond Hereford, the southeast corner of the county has one especially attractive town, Ross-on-Wye, a genial little place with a picturesque setting that also serves as a convenient gateway to one of the wilder portions of the Wye River Valley, around Symonds Yat, where canoeists gather in their droves.
The low-key county town of HEREFORD was long a border garrison town held against the Welsh, its military importance guaranteed by its strategic position beside the River Wye. Today, with the fortifications that once girdled the city all but vanished, it’s the cathedral – and its extraordinary medieval Mappa Mundi – that catches the attention, lying just to the north of the river and at the heart of the city centre, whose compact tangle of narrow streets and squares is clumsily boxed in by the ring road. Taken as a whole, Hereford makes for a pleasant overnight stay, especially as it possesses a particularly fine hotel.
Hereford Cathedral is a curious building, an uncomfortable amalgamation of styles, with bits and pieces added to the eleventh-century original by a string of bishops and culminating in an extensive – and not especially sympathetic – Victorian refit. From the outside, the sandstone tower is the dominant feature, constructed in the early fourteenth century to eclipse the Norman western tower, which subsequently collapsed under its own weight in 1786. The crashing masonry mauled the nave and its replacement lacks the grandeur of most other English cathedrals, though the forceful symmetries of the long rank of surviving Norman arches and piers more than hint at what went before. The north transept is, however, a flawless exercise in thirteenth-century taste, its soaring windows a classic example of Early English architecture.
The Mappa Mundi
In the 1980s, the cathedral’s finances were so parlous that a plan was drawn up to sell its most treasured possession, the Mappa Mundi. Luckily, the government and John Paul Getty Jr rode to the rescue, with the oil tycoon stumping up a million pounds to keep the map here and install it in a new building, the New Library, which blends in seamlessly with the older buildings it adjoins at the west end of the cloisters.
The exhibit sets off with a series of interpretative panels explaining the historical background to – and the composition of – the Mappa. Included is a copy of the Mappa in English, which is particularly helpful as the original, which is displayed in a dimly lit room just beyond, is in Latin. Measuring 64 by 52 inches and dating to about 1300, the Mappa provides an extraordinary insight into medieval society. It is indeed a map (as we know it) in so far as it suggests the general geography of the world – with Asia at the top and Europe and Africa below, to left and right respectively – but it also squeezes in history, mythology and theology.
In the same building as the Mappa Mundi is the Chained Library, a remarkably extensive collection of books and manuscripts dating from the eighth to the eighteenth century. A selection is always open on display.
The small market town of ROSS-ON-WYE, nestling above a loop in the river sixteen miles southeast of Hereford, is a relaxed and easy-going place with an artsy/New Age undertow. Ross’s jumble of narrow streets converges on the Market Place, which is shadowed by the seventeenth-century Market House, a sturdy two-storey sandstone structure that sports a medallion bust of a bewigged Charles II. Veer right at the top of the Market Place, then turn left up Church Street to reach Ross’s other noteworthy building, the mostly thirteenth-century St Mary’s Church, whose sturdy stonework culminates in a slender, tapering spire. In front of the church, at the foot of the graveyard, is a plain but rare Plague Cross, commemorating the three hundred or so townsfolk who were buried here by night without coffins during a savage outbreak of the plague in 1637.
The Wye River Valley
Travelling south from Ross along the B4234, it’s just five miles to the sullen sandstone mass of Goodrich Castle, which commands wide views over the hills and woods of the Wye River Valley. The castle’s strategic location guaranteed its importance as a border stronghold from the twelfth century onwards and today the substantial ruins incorporate a Norman keep, a maze of later rooms and passageways and walkable ramparts. The castle stands next to the tiny village of GOODRICH, from where it’s around a mile and half southeast along narrow country lanes to the solitary Welsh Bicknor Hostel, which, with the Wye Valley Walk running past the front door, makes a great base (in a no-frills sort of way) for hikers.
From Goodrich, it’s a couple of miles south along narrow country lanes to a fork in the road – veer right for Symonds Yat East, or keep straight for the wriggly road up to the top of Symonds Yat Rock, one of the region’s most celebrated viewpoints, rising high above a wooded, hilly loop in the River Wye. Down below is SYMONDS YAT EAST, a pretty little hamlet that straggles along the east bank of the river. It’s a popular spot and one that offers canoe rental and regular river trips – and there’s a good hotel here too.
The road to the village is a dead end, so you have to double back to regain Goodrich (or Symonds Yat Rock), though you can cross the river to Symonds Yat West by means of a hand-pulled rope ferry, which leaves from outside the Saracen’s Head Inn.
The Malvern Hills
One of the more prosperous parts of the West Midlands, The Malverns is the generic name for a string of towns and villages stretched along the eastern lower slopes of the Malvern Hills, which rise spectacularly out of the flatlands a few miles to the southwest of Worcester. About nine miles from north to south – between the A44 and the M50 – and never more than five miles wide, the hills straddle the Worcestershire–Herefordshire boundary. Of ancient granite rock, they are punctuated by over twenty summits, mostly around 1000ft high, and in between lie innumerable dips and hollows. It’s easy, if energetic, walking country, with great views, and there’s an excellent network of hiking trails, most of which can be completed in a day or half-day with Great Malvern being the obvious base.
Of all the towns in the Malverns, it’s GREAT MALVERN that grabs the attention, its pocket-sized centre clambering up the hillside with the crags of North Hill beckoning beyond. The grand but often rather faded old houses, which congregate on and around the top of the main drag, Church Street, mostly date from Great Malvern’s nineteenth-century heyday as a spa town when the local spring waters drew the Victorians here by the train load. You can still sample the waters today, but the town’s principal sight is its splendid Priory Church, close to the top of Church Street. The Benedictines built one of their abbeys here at Great Malvern and, although Henry VIII closed the place down in 1538, the elaborate decoration witnesses the priory’s former wealth. Inside, the Norman nave sweeps down to the chancel, which came later, a fine example of Perpendicular Gothic, its sinuous tracery serving to frame a simply fabulous set of late medieval stained-glass windows.
Taking the Great Malvern waters
The gushing Malvhina spring in the mini-park at the top of Church Street is the obvious and certainly the most convenient way to taste Great Malvern’s waters. There’s also a spring at St Ann’s Well Café, a sweet little café in an attractive Georgian building a steep 25-minute walk up the wooded hillside from town; the signposted path begins beside the Mount Pleasant Hotel, on Belle Vue Terrace, just to the left (south) of the top of Church Street.
Hiking the Malvern Hills
Great Malvern tourist office sells hiking maps and issues half a dozen free Trail Guide leaflets, which describe circular routes up to and along the hills that rise behind the town. The shortest trail is just one and a half miles, the longest four. One of the most appealing is the 2.5-mile hoof up to the top – and back – of North Hill (1307ft), from where there are panoramic views over the surrounding countryside; this hike also takes in St Ann’s Well Café, where you can taste the local spring water.
The Peak District
In 1951, the hills and dales of the Peak District, at the southern tip of the Pennine range, became Britain’s first national park. Wedged between Derby, Manchester and Sheffield, it is effectively the back garden for the fifteen million people who live within an hour’s drive of its boundaries, though somehow it accommodates the huge influx with minimum fuss.
Landscapes in the Peak District come in two forms. The brooding high moorland tops of Dark Peak, to the east of Manchester, take their name from the underlying gritstone, known as millstone grit for its former use – a function commemorated in the millstones demarcating the park boundary. Windswept, mist-shrouded and inhospitable, the flat tops of these peaks are nevertheless a firm favourite with walkers on the Pennine Way, which meanders north from the tiny village of Edale to the Scottish border. Altogether more forgiving, the southern limestone hills of the White Peak have been eroded into deep forested dales populated by small stone villages and often threaded by walking trails, some of which follow former rail routes. The limestone is riddled with complex cave systems around Castleton and on the periphery of Buxton, a charming former spa town lying just outside the park’s boundaries and at the end of an industrialized corridor that reaches out from Manchester. Elsewhere, one of the country’s most distinctive manorial piles, Chatsworth House, stands near Bakewell, a town famed locally not just for its cakes but also for its well-dressing, a possibly pagan ritual of thanksgiving for fresh water that takes place in about thirty local villages each summer. The well-dressing season starts in May and continues through to mid-September.
As for a base, Buxton is your best bet by a (fairly) long chalk, though if you’re after hiking and cycling you’ll probably prefer one of the area’s villages – Edale and Castleton will do nicely.
BUXTON, twelve miles north of Hartington, is a stylish, good-looking place. Its string of excellent B&Bs make it a perfect base for exploring much of the Peaks, while its handful of splendid festivals has added a real zip to the town. Buxton also has a long history as a spa, beginning with the Romans, who happened upon a spring from which 1500 gallons of pure water gushed every hour at a constant 28°C. Impressed by the recuperative qualities of the water, the Romans came here by the chariot load, setting a trend that was to last hundreds of years. The spa’s hay day came at the end of the eighteenth century with the fifth Duke of Devonshire’s grand design to create a northern answer to Bath or Cheltenham, a plan ultimately thwarted by the climate, but not before some distinguished buildings had been erected. Victorian Buxton may not have had quite the élan of its more southerly rivals but it still flourished, creating the raft of handsome stone houses that edge the town centre today. The town’s thermal baths were closed for lack of custom in 1972, but Buxton hung on to emerge as the most appealing town in the Peaks.
Buxton boasts the outstanding Buxton Festival, which runs for two and a half weeks in July and features a full programme of classical music, opera and literary readings. This has spawned the first-rate Buxton Festival Fringe, also in July, which focuses on contemporary music, theatre and film, but the biggest fiesta is the Gilbert & Sullivan Festival, a three-week affair in August mainly featuring amateur troupes and attracting enthusiastic audiences.
The agreeable little village of CASTLETON, ten miles northeast of Buxton, lies on the northern edge of the White Peak, its huddle of old stone cottages ringed by hills and set beside a babbling brook. As a starting point for local walks, the place is hard to beat and hikers regularly prepare for the off in the Market Place, yards from the main drag, just behind the church.
Fantastically popular, and certainly one of the finest stately homes in Britain,
, just to the east of Bakewell, was built in the seventeenth century by the first Duke of Devonshire. It has been owned by the family ever since and several of them have done a fair bit of tinkering – the sixth duke, for instance, added the north wing in the 1820s – but the end result is remarkably harmonious. The property is seen to best advantage from the B6012, which meanders across the estate to the west of the house, giving a full view of its vast Palladian frontage, whose clean lines are perfectly balanced by the undulating partly wooded
, which rolls in from the south and west.
Many visitors forego the house altogether, concentrating on the gardens instead – an understandable decision given the predictability of the assorted baubles accumulated by the family over the centuries. Nonetheless, amongst the maze of grandiose rooms and staircases, there are several noteworthy highlights, including the ornate ceilings of the State Apartments and, in the State Bedroom, the four-poster bed in which George II breathed his last. And then there are the paintings. Amongst many, Frans Hals, Tintoretto, Veronese and Van Dyck all have a showing and there’s even a Rembrandt – A Portrait of an Old Man – hanging in the chapel.
Back outside, the gardens are a real treat and owe much to the combined efforts of Capability Brown, who designed them in the 1750s, and Joseph Paxton (designer of London’s Crystal Palace), who had a bash seventy years later. Amongst all sorts of fripperies, there are water fountains, a rock garden, an artificial waterfall, a grotto and a folly as well as a nursery and greenhouses. Afterwards, you can wend your way to the café in the handsomely converted former stables.
Hiking around Bakewell
Bakewell is a popular starting point for short hikes out into the easy landscapes that make up the town’s surroundings, with one of the most relaxing excursions being a four-mile loop along the banks of the River Wye to the south of the centre. Chatsworth is within easy hiking distance, too – about seven miles there and back – or you could venture out onto one of the best-known hikes in the national park – Monsal Trail, which cuts eight miles north and then west through some of Derbyshire’s finest limestone dales using part of the old Midland Railway line. The trail begins at Coombs viaduct, one mile southeast of Bakewell, and ends at Blackwell Mill Junction, three miles east of Buxton.
The Pennine Way
The 268-mile-long Pennine Way was the country’s first official long-distance footpath, opened in 1965. It stretches north from the boggy plateau of the Peak District’s Kinder Scout, proceeds through the Yorkshire Dales and Teesdale, and then crosses Hadrian’s Wall and the Northumberland National Park, before entering Scotland to fizzle out at the village of Kirk Yetholm. One of the most popular walks in the country, either taken in sections or completed in two to three weeks, depending on your level of fitness and experience, the Pennine Way is a challenge in the best of weather, since it passes through some of the wildest countryside in Britain. You must certainly be properly equipped and able to use a map and compass. The National Trail Guides Pennine Way: South and Pennine Way: North, are essential, though some still prefer to stick to Wainwright’s Pennine Way Companion. Information centres along the route – like the one at Edale village – stock a selection of guides and associated trail leaflets and can offer advice.
One of England’s largest and least populated counties, Shropshire stretches from its long and winding border with Wales to the very edge of the urban Black Country. The Industrial Revolution made a huge stride forward here, with the spanning of the River Severn by the very first iron bridge and, although the assorted industries that subsequently squeezed into the Ironbridge Gorge are long gone, a series of museums celebrates their craftsmanship – from tiles through to iron. The River Severn also flows through the county town of Shrewsbury, whose antique centre holds dozens of old half-timbered buildings, though Ludlow, further south, has the edge when it comes to handsome Tudor and Jacobean architecture. In between the two lie some of the most beautiful parts of Shropshire, primarily the Long Mynd, a prime hiking area that is readily explored from the attractive little town of Church Stretton.
Ironbridge Gorge was the crucible of the Industrial Revolution, a process encapsulated by its famous span across the Severn – the world’s first iron bridge, engineered by Abraham Darby and opened on New Year’s Day, 1781. Darby was the third innovative industrialist of that name – the first Abraham Darby started iron-smelting here back in 1709 and the second invented the forging process that made it possible to produce massive single beams in iron. Under the guidance of such creative figures as the Darbys and Thomas Telford, the area’s factories once churned out engines, rails, wheels and other heavy-duty iron pieces in quantities unmatched anywhere else in the world. Manufacturing has now all but vanished, but the surviving monuments make the Gorge the most extensive industrial heritage site in England – and one that has been granted World Heritage Site status by UNESCO.
The Gorge contains several museums and an assortment of other industrial attractions spread along a five-mile stretch of the Severn Valley just to the south of new-town Telford. A thorough exploration takes a couple of days, but the highlights – the Iron Bridge itself, the Museum of Iron and the Jackfield Tile Museum – are easily manageable on a day-trip.
The Long Mynd
Beginning about nine miles south of Shrewsbury, the upland heaths of the Long Mynd, some ten miles long and between two and four miles wide, run parallel to and just to the west of the A49. This is prime walking territory and the heathlands are latticed with footpaths, the pick of which offer sweeping views over the border to the Black Mountains of Wales. Also popular with hikers, if even more remote, are the Stiperstones, a clot of boggy heather dotted with ancient cairns and earthworks that lies to the west of the Long Mynd.
LUDLOW, perched on a hill in a loop of the River Teme nearly thirty miles south of Shrewsbury, is one of the most picturesque towns in the West Midlands, if not in England – a gaggle of beautifully preserved black-and-white half-timbered buildings packed around a craggy stone castle, with rural Shropshire forming a drowsy backdrop.
These are strong recommendations in themselves, but Ludlow scores even more by being something of a gastronomic hidey-hole with a clutch of outstanding restaurants, whose chefs and sous-chefs gather at the much-vaunted Ludlow Food Festival, held over three days every September. The other leading event is the Ludlow Festival, two weeks of musical and theatrical fun running from the end of June to early July.
Ludlow’s large and imposing castle dates mostly from Norman times, its rambling remains incorporating towers and turrets, gatehouses and concentric walls as well as the remains of the 110ft Norman keep and an unusual Round Chapel built in 1120. With its spectacular setting high above the river, the castle also makes a fine open-air auditorium during the Ludlow Festival.
SHREWSBURY, the county town of Shropshire, sits in a tight and narrow loop of the River Severn. It would be difficult to design a better defensive site and predictably the Normans built a stone castle here, one which Edward I decided to strengthen and expand in the thirteenth century, though by then the local economy owed as much to the Welsh wool trade as it did to the town’s military importance. In Georgian times, Shrewsbury became a fashionable staging post on the busy London to Holyhead route and has since evolved into a laidback, middling market town. It’s the overall feel of the place that is its main appeal, rather than any specific sight, though to celebrate its associations with Charles Darwin, the town is now the possessor of a 40ft-high sculpture entitled Quantum Leap: it cost nigh-on half a million pounds, so most locals are ruing the cost rather than celebrating the artistic vision.
The logical place to start an exploration of Shrewsbury is the train station, built in a fetching combination of styles, neo-Baronial meets country house, in the 1840s. Poking up above the train station are the battered ramparts of the castle, a pale reminder of the mighty medieval fortress that once dominated the town – the illustrious Thomas Telford turned the castle into the private home of a local bigwig in the 1780s. Castle Gates and its continuation Castle Street/Pride Hill cuts up from the station into the heart of the river loop where the medieval town took root. Turn left off Castle Street onto St Mary’s Street and you soon reach Shrewsbury’s most interesting church, St Mary’s, whose architecturally jumbled interior is redeemed by a magnificent east window. From St Mary’s, it’s a couple of minutes walk to St Alkmund’s Church, from where there’s a charming view of the fine old buildings of Fish Street, which weaves its way down to the High Street. Turn right here to get to The Square which is at the very heart of the city; its narrow confines are inhabited by the Old Market Hall, a heavy-duty stone structure dating from 1596.
Despite its worldwide fame, STRATFORD-UPON-AVON is at heart an unassuming market town with an unexceptional pedigree. A charter for Stratford’s weekly market was granted in the twelfth century and the town later became an important stopping-off point for stagecoaches between London, Oxford and the north. Like all such places, Stratford had its clearly defined class system and within this typical milieu John and Mary Shakespeare occupied the middle rank, and would have been forgotten long ago had their first son, William, not turned out to be the greatest writer ever to use the English language. Nowadays this ordinary little town is all but smothered by package-tourist hype and, in the summer at least, its central streets groan under the weight of thousands of tourists. Don’t let that deter you: the Royal Shakespeare Company offers superb theatre and if you are willing to forego the busiest attractions – principally Shakespeare’s Birthplace – you can avoid the crush. All Stratford’s key attractions – many of them owned and run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust – are dotted around the centre, a flat and compact slice of land spreading back from the River Avon.
Passing through a narrow breach in the wall of Holy Trinity Church graveyard brings you onto a footpath; this runs along the riverbank, with the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre to the left on Southern Lane and the dinky little chain ferry across the Avon to the right. After a short walk you emerge beside the Royal Shakespeare Company’s two main theatres, the Swan and the Royal Shakespeare. There was no theatre in Stratford in Shakespeare’s day and indeed the first home-town festival in his honour was only held in 1769 at the behest of London-based David Garrick. Thereafter, the idea of building a permanent home in which to perform Shakespeare’s works slowly gained momentum, and finally, in 1879, the first Memorial Theatre was opened on land donated by local beer baron Charles Flower. A fire in 1926 necessitated the construction of a new theatre, and the ensuing architectural competition, won by Elisabeth Scott, produced the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, a red-brick edifice that has recently been remodelled and extended, its proscenium stage replaced by a thrust stage – to the horror of many and the delight of some. Attached to the main theatre is the Swan Theatre, a replica “in-the-round” Elizabethan stage that has also been refurbished.
Pocket-sized WARWICK, just eight miles northeast of Stratford and easily reached by bus and train, is famous for its massive castle, but it also possesses several charming streetscapes erected in the aftermath of a great fire in 1694. An hour or two is quite enough time to nose around the town centre, though you’ll need the whole day if, braving the crowds and the medieval musicians, you’re also set on exploring the castle and its extensive grounds: either way, Warwick is the perfect day-trip from Stratford.
At the outbreak of World War II, COVENTRY, eleven miles north of Warwick, was a major engineering centre and its factories attracted the attentions of the Luftwaffe, who well-nigh levelled the town in a huge bombing raid on November 14, 1940. Out of the ashes arose what is now Coventry’s one sight of note, Basil Spence’s St Michael’s Cathedral, raised alongside the burnt-out shell of the old cathedral right in the centre of town and dedicated with a performance of Benjamin Britten’s specially written War Requiem in 1962. One of the country’s most successful postwar buildings, the cathedral’s pink sandstone is light and graceful, the main entrance adorned by a stunningly forceful St Michael Defeating the Devil by Jacob Epstein. Inside, Spence’s high and slender nave is bathed in light from the soaring stained-glass windows, a perfect setting for the magnificent and immense tapestry of Christ in Glory by Graham Sutherland. The choice of artist could not have been more appropriate. A painter, graphic artist and designer, Sutherland (1903–80) had been one of Britain’s official war artists, his particular job being to record the effects of German bombing. A canopied walkway links the new cathedral with the old, whose shattered nave flanks the church tower and spire that somehow eluded the bombs.
St Mary’s Church
Near Castle Street is
St Mary’s Church
, which was rebuilt in a weird Gothic-Renaissance amalgam after the fire of 1694. Most of the chancel, however, remained untouched – and it’s a simply glorious illustration of the Perpendicular style with a splendid vaulted ceiling of flying and fronded ribs. On the right-hand side of the chancel is the
Beauchamp Chantry Chapel
, which contains the equally beautiful tomb of Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who is depicted in an elaborate, gilded-bronze suit of armour of Italian design from the tip of his swan helmet down to his mailed feet. A griffin and a bear guard Richard, who lies with his hands half joined in prayer so that, on the Resurrection, his first sight would be of Christ triumphant at the Second Coming. The adjacent tomb of Ambrose Dudley is of finely carved and painted alabaster, as is that of Robert Dudley and his wife – the same Dudley who founded the
Lord Leycester Hospital.
Towering above the River Avon at the foot of the town centre,
is often proclaimed the “greatest medieval castle in Britain”. This claim is valid enough if bulk equals greatness, but actually much of the existing structure is the result of extensive nineteenth-century tinkering. It’s likely that the Saxons raised the first fortress on this site, though things really took off with the Normans, who built a large motte and bailey here towards the end of the eleventh century. Almost three hundred years later, the eleventh Earl of Warwick turned the stronghold into a formidable stone castle, complete with elaborate gatehouses, multiple turrets and a keep.
The entrance to the castle is through the old stable block at the foot of Castle Street. Beyond, a footpath leads round to the imposing moated and mounded East Gate. Over the footbridge – and beyond the protective towers – is the main courtyard. You can stroll along the ramparts and climb the towers, but most visitors head straight for one or other of the special, very touristy displays installed inside the castle’s many chambers and towers. The grounds are perhaps much more enjoyable, acres of woodland and lawn inhabited by peacocks and including a large glass conservatory. A footbridge leads over the River Avon to River Island, the site of jousting tournaments and other such medieval hoopla.
In geographical terms, Worcestershire can be compared to a huge saucer, with the low-lying plains of the Severn Valley and the Vale of Evesham, Britain’s foremost fruit-growing area, rising to a lip of hills, principally the Malverns in the west and the Cotswolds to the south. In character, the county divides into two broad belts. To the north lie the industrial and overspill towns – Droitwich and Redditch for instance – that have much in common with the Birmingham conurbation, while the south is predominantly rural. Bang at the geographical heart of the county is WORCESTER, an amenable county town where a liberal helping of half-timbered Tudor and handsome Georgian buildings stand cheek by jowl with some fairly charmless modern developments. The biggest single influence on the city has always been the River Severn, which flows along Worcester’s west flank. It was the river that made the city an important settlement as early as Saxon times, though its propensity to breach its banks has prompted the construction of a battery of defences which tumble down the slope from the mighty bulk of the cathedral, easily the town’s star turn. Worcester’s centre is small and compact – and, handily, all the key sights plus the best restaurants are clustered within the immediate vicinity of the cathedral.
Towering above the River Severn, the soaring sandstone of
comprises a rich stew of architectural styles dating from 1084. The bulk of the church is firmly medieval, from the Norman transepts through to the late Gothic cloister, though the Victorians did have a good old hack at the exterior. Inside, the highlight is the thirteenth-century
, a beautiful illustration of the Early English style, with a forest of slender pillars rising above the intricately worked choir stalls. Here also, in front of the high altar, is the
of England’s most reviled monarch,
(1167–1216), who certainly would not have appreciated the lion that lies at his feet biting the end of his sword – a reference to the curbing of his power by the barons when they obliged him to sign the Magna Carta. Just beyond the tomb – on the right – is
Prince Arthur’s Chantry
, a delicate lacy confection of carved stonework erected in 1504 to commemorate Arthur, King Henry VII’s son, who died at the age of 15. He was on his honeymoon with Catherine of Aragon, who was soon passed on – with such momentous consequences – to his younger brother, Henry. A doorway on the south side of the nave leads to the
, with their delightful roof bosses, and the circular, largely Norman
, which has the distinction of being the first such building constructed with the use of a central supporting pillar.