You might be tempted to skip the English Midlands, but if you have the time in your itinerary, the region has much to offer. Home to Josiah Wedgwood’s pottery, quaint villages, and Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, the Midlands have a fascinating heritage and offer an incomparable look into the British story.
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Stoke-on-Trent and The Potteries
Let’s begin this visit in Stoke-on-Trent, a middle-size Midlands town. It and the towns around it are collectively referred to as “The Potteries” because they have been centers of pottery making for centuries. The bottle-shaped brick kilns that can still be seen all over the town have been eclipsed by newer and cleaner technology.
The combination of clay and coal in the ground nearby contributed to Stoke’s early specialization. The arrival on the scene of Josiah Wedgwood transformed it, and gave it a position of world leadership that it held for two centuries. Wedgwood, the living embodiment of the Protestant work ethic, subdivided the manufacture and sale of china.
Wedgwood is still a thriving business, making an array of styles, some dazzlingly attractive, nearly all very expensive, and setting standards for the rest of the industry. Their factory and museum in the village of Barlaston, just outside Stoke, should be on every visitor’s list.
Wedgwood was plagued, in the early days of his business, by poor communications. Britain’s roads were terrible in the mid-18th century, and, china sent by pack horse was likely to break or be stolen. No wonder he was a fervent advocate for canals.
Horses pacing along the canal bank could tow barges carrying 50 times their own weight. Once the canal was finished, Wedgwood’s raw materials could come in, and his finished product flow out, far more easily than ever before. Where the canals meet stands a statue of James Brindley, the canal-building genius who turned the idea into a reality.
Birmingham—In the Heart of the Midlands
Birmingham has been through successive changes in the last century. It was the constituency of Joseph Chamberlain, a high-minded Liberal mayor in the mid-19th century who aimed to improve the lives of his mainly poor constituents. It was his son Neville Chamberlain who, half a century later, was the great advocate of appeasement, famously deceived by Hitler’s false promises.
The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is a superb Victorian building that opened in 1885. It stands, aptly enough, on Chamberlain Square. The highlight of the collection inside is an array of about 30 Pre-Raphaelite paintings, including many of the most famous ones by Burne-Jones, Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt. As with so many of Britain’s Victorian galleries, the building itself, opulent, confident, and highly decorated, is a worthy setting for its contents.
Birmingham was a major target for the German bombers in World War II and suffered severe damage. After the war, the city center had to be extensively rebuilt. Much of the concrete rebuilding of the 50s and 60s was praised by architects and hated by everyone else, so much so that there’s been a second round of rebuilding since then.
The results are uneven. Each architect appears to have acted as though no other buildings existed, and there has been seemingly no attempt to harmonize the styles or create a general look to the place. Some high-rise buildings have checker-box black, brown, and white decorations, others are monoliths glass. The Selfridges Building has an irregular, sinuously curving exterior decorated with circular aluminum discs on a blue background, and looks like an immense shiny beached whale.
A Train Ride to Coventry
From Birmingham, it’s just a 25-minute train ride to Coventry. Coventry was the site of a great medieval abbey but it was destroyed at the Reformation—just a few remains can still be seen at a partial excavation. The biggest remaining church in the town, St. Michael’s Church, itself a superb medieval gothic building, was designated as a cathedral in 1918 when Coventry became a diocese. Descend a staircase in the old North Transept and you will enter the new Coventry Cathedral, built in the late 1950s and consecrated in 1962. The architect was Basil Spence and his design has been argued over ever since. It was Spence’s idea, a very good one, to leave the shattered remnants of the old building in place and to use the same type of sandstone on the exterior of the new.
On to Nottingham
Nottingham, like Coventry, was a bicycle town: the home of Raleigh bikes. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a literary movement called the “angry young men” included the work of Alan Sillitoe from Nottingham.
But surely, Robin Hood should take pride of place? According to the legends, Robin Hood was a loyal follower of King Richard the Lion-Heart, wrongly outlawed by bad Prince John, and dedicated to feuding with John’s henchmen, the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne.
Sherwood Forest has diminished over the centuries and is now just a patch of woodland. However, by the Nottinghamshire village of Edwinstowe there is a wonderful old tree, the Major Oak, estimated at almost 1,000 years old, and more than 30 feet around.
Nottingham Castle itself was started just after the Norman conquest and became an important royal site in the Middle Ages. Militarily obsolete by the time of the Civil War, it was converted into a mansion by the Duke of Newcastle in the 1670s.
Another super building in Nottingham is Wollaton Hall, a Tudor mansion from the 1580s built by a local business success, Sir Francis Willoughby. Its exuberant style links it to a series of “Prodigy Houses” that sprang up throughout England in the reign of Elizabeth I.
Visiting the Cotswolds
The south Midlands is more rural and encompasses the Cotswolds, which have a well-deserved reputation for exceptional beauty. Gently sloping hills and a warm yellow stone make the Cotswold towns little architectural gems.Bourton-on-the-Water, for example, has a shallow river, the Windrush, running right through its main street, crossed by a series of elegant low bridges. Ducks paddle about in the shallow water, graceful trees cast shade, while broad grassy parks give the houses room to breathe, each with its own calm dignity. You can feel your biorhythm slowing down in Bourton, and it’s tempting to let the afternoon flow past in one of the pubs or teashops that dot the main street.
A second Cotswold village very much worth a visit is Burford, the main street runs down a long hill toward the River Windrush, here a few miles downstream from Bourton. A Tudor Market Hall, now the Tolsey Museum, is half-way down the hill, nearly all of whose houses are made of the same warm stone. Wisteria grows lavishly over the cottages, coming out bright mauve in May and June.
A third of these precious villages is Broadway, 20 miles further north, sometimes referred to as “The Jewel of the Cotswolds.” Before you get there, stop on a nearby hilltop to admire Broadway Tower. It’s a fake Saxon tower or “folly,” built by James Wyatt in the 1790s for Lady Coventry, who lived 20 miles away and wondered whether she would be able to see the hill from her home in Worcester.
If you’re energetic enough, you can walk from the tower down to Broadway itself. They are both stops on the Cotswold Way, a 100-mile-long footpath that incorporates much of the area’s best scenery.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture