For those pursuing the promise of Tolkien’s rural shire hamlets, the pastoral lands of this verdant region deliver it flawlessly. Its chocolate-box villages provide a delightful backdrop to the stately manors and castles that populate the region, alongside the russet ruins of abbeys and the ancient stones of Roman settlements.
It melts away around the edges of Birmingham, one of the country’s most culturally vibrant cities and the urban heart of the Midlands. While ‘Brum’ (as it is affectionately known) continues to shake off its industrial shroud, the Severn Gorge, the cradle of the iron revolution, has reclaimed its stunning green landscape from the pall of the blast furnaces and smelts.
In spite of its role as the epicentre of all things grimy and polluted in the 19th century, the Midlands still do so much to embody the spirit of Shakespeare’s olde-worlde England, as well as invigorate the landscape with art, music and modern development.
Stratford-Upon-Avon is a charming, historic town around 2 hours and 30 minutes by train from London. Of course, it is well-known as the birthplace of Shakespeare, and you can see many homes associated with his family. You can still visit the house where he was born, and it offers an insight into middle-class Elizabethan domestic life, and the museum holds an interesting collection of William’s personal possessions and evidence of visits from his famous admirers.
On the western outskirts of Stratford lies Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, the picturesque family home of William’s wife. Stroll through the gardens as the courting couple would have done, admire the period furniture and explore the heart-shaped maze. Hall’s Croft is the impressive Jacobean residence of William’s eldest daughter Susanna and her husband Dr John Hall. On view are the doctor’s consulting room and dispensary, as well as their delightful walled garden.
Mary Arden’s House, the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother, is a working farm utilising traditional 16th-century farming methods. Listen as farmers describe life in the fields, and watch as cooks prepare food in the Tudor kitchen. Nash’s House is the home of Thomas Nash, who married Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth Hall. The foundations of New Place, where William died on his birthday in 1616, lie within the gardens.
The Royal Shakespeare Company is based here, and you can see live theatre performances throughout the year.
First mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a small hamlet with a handful of peasants and two ploughs with a combined value of £1, Birmingham has certainly undergone a remarkable transformation.
From humble beginnings, the city exploded onto the world stage as one of the great centres of the Industrial Revolution, building its fortune and reputation on the back of the metal and smelting trade that was birthed in the surrounding countryside. With great technological advancement, however, came appalling living conditions for the working class, and over-stuffed slums filled the civic centre. The subsequent decline of the industrial era left Birmingham with one of the most uninspiring business districts in the developed world.
Fortunately, recent years have seen a series of dynamic regeneration projects bring ‘Brum’ back to life. Stateof- the-art redevelopments, such as the retail hub, the Bullring and its iconic Selfridges building, a number of exceptional museums and art galleries, and a buzzing social scene, have added a sleek 21st-century glamour to the cultural and architectural treasures that can still be found throughout the city.
Characterised by whimsical 16th-century half-timber buildings – originally homes of well-to-do wool merchants – as well as elegant establishments from later periods, the town today retains a romantic air. Strolling the atmospheric Shrewsbury ‘shuts’ is a lovely way to get a feel for the place. These narrow alleys, overhung with timbered gables, lead off the central market square, which was designed to be closed off at night to protect local residents.
A good starting point for exploring the city is the small square between Fish Street and Butcher Row. These streets are little-changed since medieval times, when some of them took their names from the principal trades carried on there. Peacock Alley, Gullet Passage, and Grope Lane clearly got their names from somewhere else.
Adding to Shrewsbury’s charm is its title of ‘Town of Flowers’, due its proliferation of award-winning gardens, as well as the internationally celebrated Shrewsbury Flower Show, hosted in the beautiful riverside Quarry Park. The Shropshire countryside itself perfectly encapsulates the pastoral ambience that is so desired by travellers seeking that elusive bygone element of England’s rural heritage.
Predictably, much is made about the locality’s connection to the world’s favourite folklore hero; yet this county capital has much more to offer than its proximity to Sherwood Forest.
While the city’s biggest drawcard is not to be overlooked, a deeper exploration of Nottingham and its surrounding countryside will turn out an abundance of surprising and delightful offerings. Plunging into the rabbit warren of tunnels beneath Nottingham Castle will take you through a World War II air-raid shelter, a medieval tannery, numerous pub cellars and a Victorian slum. Mortimer’s Hole is an interesting feature; this passageway linking the Brewhouse Yard to the castle was used in 1330 to breach the castle and capture Roger Mortimer, a dastardly usurper to the throne.
The modern face of Nottingham is both upbeat and vibrant, with a diverse range of high-end fashion (designer Paul Smith hails from Nottingham) and a lively collection of bars, clubs and theatres. Its art scene is equally impressive; not surprising, considering Nottinghamshire is home to Europe’s largest number of artists per capita.
The Infinity Experience
The River AvonPixabay