Wanderer at Large: Birmingham and the Black Country

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the West Midlands including Birmingham and the Black Country, Warwickshire & Staffordshire.

Narrowboats on the Birmingham Canal by slack12. CC license BY-NC-ND 2.0

Birmingham and the Black Country

For years, Birmingham suffered an identity crisis after many dismissed it as an ugly industrial blot on the landscape. And, boy, was it industrial. A drive along the M6 through the middle of the city will still reveal that. Indeed, motoring was practically synonymous with the city, as it was the centre of the British car-making industry.

But Birmingham’s industrial past has been the key in its revival as a place to visit. Take a walk along its canal sides. You have plenty of choice: there are 160 miles of canals in Birmingham. That’s more than in Venice! There are also ample opportunities to take a trip on a canal boat. In particular, the Dudley Canal Trust runs boat trips through a series of underground limestone tunnels. These tunnels are full of fossils including the famous Dudley bug.

To the north-west of the city, the open cast coal mining between Birmingham and Wolverhampton gave the region its nickname, the Black Country.

But not all the industry around here was ‘heavy’. A visit to the Leather Museum in Littleton Street West, Walsall, is quite a sensory experience. Walsall was, and still is renowned for its leather-making. Geographically, it has an advantage, as the nearby River Tame provides a ready supply of limestone waters to cure leather hides, helping in the manufacture of a leather product which is durable and soft.

Of course, when this industry was in its heyday, practically everyone used horses for travel, and at its peak around 1900, Walsall was home to almost 7,000 saddle and harness makers. Sadly, one of the oldest saddle-makers, Jabez Cliff & co, went into administration just six years ago. They had been in business since 1793 and were the official saddle-makers to the Queen. They also made footballs for FA Cup Finals and doubtless for the local football team, Walsall FC nicknamed, what else? The Saddlers.

You may think that the whole industry is a thing of the past, but far from it. The companies that remain are making up to 500 saddles per month, as many as were made by companies 150 years ago. Indeed, Walsall still has more leather goods makers than any town in northern Europe. But it’s not just saddles. Some companies here have diversified into furniture, golf bags and clothing. One even makes belts for Japanese sumo wrestlers!

A visit to Bourneville should awaken your taste-buds. It was a famous centre of the chocolate making industry owned by the Cadbury family. Birmingham’s industrial network of canals and railways brought the main ingredients required, milk, cocoa beans and sugar, directly to the factory.

The Cadbury’s built a model village for their workers. They wanted a French sounding name for their town as they felt that the French chocolate industry was the one to aspire to. Bourneville was a town of idyllic neatness for a population of 25,000. Each house was built in the arts and crafts style, and each had a garden with a vegetable patch. No green space was overshadowed by industry. The children here were known to be healthier than in central Birmingham.

Bourneville was recently voted best place to live in the UK and is now a model for sustainable communities for the future. Perhaps the one down side, depending on your point of view, is that there is no pub, as the Cadbury’s were strict Quakers,

For something a little more spiritual, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity & St Luke in Park Approach (B23 7SJ) has eye-catchingly beautiful Byzantine-style frescoes inside.

For food, don’t forget that Birmingham is the curry centre of Britain. The Balti Triangle is based to the south of the city centre, around Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road.

Birmingham and the Black Country – revitalized by its own industrial past.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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