You can discover a lot about a stretch of country simply by looking at it. When you have found out how and why the country looks as it does you can say that you are beginning to understand it. Another part of understanding lies in seeing how things and places lit together as part of a pattern or structure.
But looking at the country from any single spot often means that we are too close to be able to see the pattern, and we need to stand back a little. If we could make a tour of the West Midlands in a helicopter we should be able to see how the hills and mountains are grouped together, how the rivers and valleys fit in, and where the flatter farming land is. But since we cannot do this, we have to use maps and pictures to help explain what we see from the ground.
Just looking at what is above ground does not tell us the whole story either. The soil and the rocks underneath it are really the most important part of the pattern and so that is where we shall begin.
Soils vary in colour throughout the whole of Britain and this is an area where almost all the soil is red. When I say red, that is only a very general description to cover all the shades of pink and orange and pale purple which show in the rocks, and wherever the land is ploughed, from the Severn estuary almost as far north as the River Dee. In some places it is sticky clay and in other places it is gritty red sand, but it all derives from the sandstone rocks which lie beneath most of this part of the country. On the higher ground, or wherever a river cuts its way through, or where men have driven a road or railway line, the rocks themselves are exposed to view. Geologists call the rock sandstone and divide it into the Old Red and the New Red varieties, but they are talking in terms of many millions of years and the newest rocks here have existed for many, many thousands of years.
The mountains and hills of the west of our region, and most of those in the southern part of it, are composed of Old Red Sandstone. It is quite easy to recognise as a pinkish-purple stone full of minute shining particles of mica, which sparkle in the light on the surface of a broken piece of rock. The New Red Sandstone, an orange-pink rock, is found on rather lower ground to the east and north of our region.
In the southern part of Shropshire there is a famous tongue of high ground called Wenlock Edge, which is composed of limestone. This small area is described by A. E. Housman in his collection of poems called A Shropshire Lad, but it has other secrets beneath the surface. From Ludlow up to Much Wenlock, and across to Wigmore, are some of the most important spots for fossils in the whole of England. This land was once beneath the sea and the Silurian rocks which formed there from the muds contain dozens of different types of creatures trapped in the stones.
The best place that I know of to find out more about these fossils IS the little museum over the Butter Cross 1n Ludlow. There you will see a collection of specimens that have been found, and the Museum Guide to Ludlow Fossils gives you lots of useful advice on where to find them for yourself, and how to gather them.
Further south, in the Forest of Dean, is more limestone, of a different type, and both this and the Wenlock stone are used for building.
You will have noticed that I have referred to the mountains in this region. Strictly speaking, a hill which is over 1,000 feet high is a mountain, yet although many of the West Midland hills are higher than this they are usually called hills. These hills and mountains form the western boundary of the region and if you look at the map you will see that they form a wall from north to south, broken only where the river valleys emerge. Jutting out from this wall, like the fingers on a hand, are Long Mountain, the Long Mynd (and the Wrekin), Wenlock Edge and the Clee Hills. The only other really high ground is the Malvern Hills, standing rather isolated near the River Severn and joining Herefordshire with Worcestershire.
The truly high mountains are all in Wales and form the boundary to our region and the border between the two countries. We normally use a capital B in writing of this border, and sometimes describe it as the Welsh Border Country.
The Berwyns, Breidden, Clun and Radnor Forests, and the Black Mountains formed a barrier which armies found difficult to pass. King Offa, who ruled most of Britain between A.D. 757 and 795, fought his way into part of that country and built a great ditch and wall to mark out and defend his territory. Parts of Offa’s Dyke still remain today and you can see how good a barrier it was. Nearly three hundred years later William the Conqueror had the same problem and his knights established themselves in their castles along a similar line. Even so, a fair amount of what is now Wales was then part of England, and one way of discovering the former boundary is to trace out where the English place names change to Welsh.
Boundaries, unfortunately, are not always agreed peacefully and this one between England and Wales, which is also our regional boundary, was fought over many times before the people were able to live in peace. Long before the Romans arrived, the warring tribes of Britain fought all over this countryside and the evidence of this is still there if you know how to look for it. I shall have a good deal to say about maps later on, but perhaps a few words here might be useful. If you take a Bartholomew’s Half-Inch, or an Ordnance Survey Onc-Inch map*, and look at the high ground you will often find marked ‘Camp’, ‘Fort’, ‘Castle’, ‘Circle’. If you visit some of these places you will fmd mounds and ditches which will still give you some idea of what they must have been like at least two thousand years ago. One of the most exciting of all is British Camp, on the Herefordshire Beacon between Ledbury and Malvern. (And ‘beacon’ is another word which gives a good clue to what has happened in a particular place in the past.) If you are lucky enough to visit British Camp and manage the long climb to the top, try to imagine what it must have been like to hurry up those slopes when you heard that your enemies were approaching. Try to imagine, too, that you were attacking a fort on top of that hill. There. were no stone walls as in the castles of later days, but deep ditches, and steep walls built from the soil which had been dug out. There was a whole series of these walls, built one above the other. The entrance to such a fort was through a steep, . narrow entrance which could be overlooked on three sides, and from which missiles could be hurled down on the attackers. Not just thrown though, because the Celts, the inhabitants of Britain at this time, were experts in the use of the sling, their long-distance weapon.
When under really severe pressure, the defenders of a fort would retreat upwards from one rampart to another. Looking down from the summit of British Camp it is easy to understand the meaning of the expression ‘a last ditch stand’. It was from a similar hill fort near Bucknell, in Shropshire, so the tradition runs, that Caractacus fought his last battle against the invading Roman armies. Caractacus was King of the Silures, (this area is sometimes still referred to as Siluria) and after his defeat he was taken prisoner and sent to Rome.
Life in a country where groups of people are fighting each other is not very safe, and when under attack, one of the best moves is to find a position where you cannot be taken from behind. Failing this, taking a stand on high ground at least means that you can see your enemy approaching, and it is much more difficult to fight up than downhill. For as long as castles were in use in this country, they too were normally built on high ground and as we shall see, there were plenty of castles in the West Midlands.
If the earlier inhabitants of this region retreated to the hill and mountain tops in time of severe danger, they certainly did not live there for the rest of the time. These peaks and crests are far too wild and inhospitable places to live in, windy and exposed to all the storms blowing in from the Atlantic. As in other parts of Britain, people chose to live in more sheltered spots, places where it was possible to live and work in greater comfort.
To the west, and deep in Wales, lie the Cambrian Mountains, some of the very oldest mountains in the world. High on Plynlimon, one of the peaks, and within only a mile of each other, rise the two great rivers of the West Midlands, the Severn and the Wye. Both flow down to the sea in the Bristol Channel, and both gather into themselves other rivers and streams on the way, but to begin with the Severn flows northwards while the Wye flows south. Each river has its own beauty, each has its own admirers who will claim it as the best. The Severn is the longer, in fact the longest river in Britain. In the past, it was certainly more important than the Wye because it served as a route for carrying goods by boat right into the heart of England and Wales.
The River Severn, or ‘Sabrina fair’ as it has been called (Sabrina was the Roman name for the river, and John Milton called it ‘Sabrina fair’ in his masque Camus), starts its journey by Howing north and east. It slows its pace as it reaches the flatter country and has time to make great loops and bows. One of these almost completely encircles Shrewsbury town and another has nearly cut back to make a lake above Buildwas. From there the river changes. Before, it had been a boundary alone, separating the mountains from the plain. At Buildwas there was once a large lake and at the time of the Ice Age the waters broke through and cut their way through the rocks to make the Ironbridge Gorge. The river still rushes and tumbles through this stretch before it quietens down again to flow with dignity to Bridgnorth and to Bewdley. It is difficult now to imagine cargo-carrying vessels sailing here from Bristol to be loaded and unloaded, but Charles Hulbert described the Gorge in 1837 like this’: ‘From Coalport to Ironbridge, two miles, the river passes through the most extraordinary district in the world; the banks on each side are elevated to the height of from 3 to 400 feet, studded with Ironworks, Brickworks, Boat Building Establishments, Retail stores, Inns and Houses, perhaps 150 vessels on the river, actively employed or waiting for cargoes; while hundreds of busy mortals as assiduously engaged. . . . ’ Today you may see a canoeist negotiating the shallow waters that have not been dredged for a hundred years, or perhaps a fisherman on the bank or wading in the pools. The river has not changed, merely the use that men make of it. ,
Down then to Bridgnorth and Bewdley, both busy river ports in their time, with packhorses carrying goods overland into the Midlands and what we call the Black Country. So, on to Worcester. The river is wider, slow and deep and much more powerful. Small vessels still carry goods from Avonmouth but it is the Stratford, or Warwickshire, Avon which joins the Severn at Tewkesbury and so downstream to Gloucester. This is a true port with wharves and docks and its own Custom House. From Gloucester to the Severn Bridge is a real river estuary, two miles wide in places, and ships must take on a pilot to guide them up to the city. Rivers flow slowly but strongly in such places, and also meet the tide sweeping in from the sea. Salt water meets the fresh but they do not mingle without a struggle. Twice a year espeeially, in spring and autumn, when the tides are at their highest, this river meets the sea in a most spectacular way. Then, where the estuary narrows at Sharpness, a large wave forms and surges up river as the Severn Bore. After plenty of rain to swell the stream, and with a stiff wind behind the tide, this wave can be anything from three to nine feet high.The biggest Bore in Europe!
Downstream again, and right under the Severn Bridge itself, the Wye Hows into the Severn. Though their sources are only a mile apart, it has taken some two hundred miles for the Severn to come back to its companion. Compared with the Severn, the Wye is a very winding river, meandering along its valley bottom throughout most of its course. From the eastern slopes of Plynlimon the Wye iiows fast through mountain country with only a narrow valley bottom and just enough room for the road to follow alongside. This is the Welsh stretch of the river, as the town and village names quickly show: Llangurig, Rhayader, Builth Wells and Llyswen. These are the roads and the stretches of river that William and Dorothy Wordsworth walked, and that William called ‘the finest piece of scenery in South Britain’.
Between Llyswen and Glasbury the river swings northeastwards and the valley opens out to the flatter farming land. By now it is a West Midland river, meandering more slowly towards Hereford and the south. The Rev. Francis Kilvert was curate at Clyro for seven years and knew this river well. In his diary for Saturday 5 March 1870 he wrote: ‘The view from the banks lovely, the river winding down from Glasbury like a silver serpent, iiowing beneath at the foot of the poplars. Hay [the town of Hay-on-Wye] in the distance bright in brilliant sunshine. Every watercourse clear upon the mountains in the searching light. As the sun went down a pink and then a deep purple glow bathed the mountains and Cusop Hill and a keen frost set in.
For a short stretch, from Hay-on-Wye to Rhydspence, the river still forms the boundary between England and Wales, as it did in F rancis Kilvert’s time: ‘About midnight I passed over the Rhydspence border brook, and crossed the border from England into Wales. The English inn was still ablaze with light and noisy with the songs of revellers, but the Welsh inn was dark and still.’
From Hay the river winds on under the old toll bridge at Clifford and down to the new concrete bridge at Hereford. Crossing places were always important and this city’s name means ‘wide crossing place’, from the time when men and horses waded through the shallows. South of Hereford and down through Ross, the loops and bows get larger and larger until the river thrusts its way between the hills again. There, at Symonds Yat, the Wye turns in an almost complete bow to make what is the best known and most beautiful stretch of the whole river. A beautiful place with a strange name, but one that describes it perfectly when you understand it. ‘Yat’ comes from the Old English word ‘geat’, which sometimes means ‘a gap in the hills, pass, deep ravine’, which is exactly what this is. (If you say ‘ge-at’ out loud to yourself you will see how close the sound is to Yat.) ‘Symonds’ is probably a corruption of Sigemund’s, so we discover that this is the ravine which Sigemund owned or where he lived.
Below Symonds Yat the Wye flows on between steep wooded hills, marking the border again, the boundary’ between England and Wales, and the left bank marking the western limits of the Forest of Dean. Mid-way between Monmouth and Chepstow the river has left a small level terrace, and there, tucked in against the hills, are the ruins of Tintern Abbey. Downstream just a few more miles, the River Wye flows past the cliffs at Chepstow to join the mighty Severn, almost two miles wide, below the new suspension bridge.
Until about five hundred years ago there were many more forests, and much more of the country was wooded than we can easily imagine today. Certainly the lower slopes of many of the mountains and larger hills were covered with trees and what is now open country given over to farming, or even covered by towns, was once thickly wooded. Some of these forests still remain, but are very much smaller than they once were. Gone now are the Clun Forest, Wentwood Forest, Kinlet Forest, the Forest of Shirlett and others, but the Wyre Forest and, of course, the F orest of Dean remain. Wentwood and the F orest of Dean both had their Speech Courts, or F oresters’ Courts, where all matters concerning grazing and other rights were decided. Right up to the present day the Court still meets at The Speech House, near Coleford in the Forest of Dean. One of the names which you may hnd on the map, near Ludlow, is that of Bringewood Chase. A chase was a forest where royal hunting rights were maintained and the deer were protected for this reason. But apart from hunting and grazing, the forests had other very important uses: they provided fuel and timber for building. Wood was burnt to heat many thousands of homes, but it was also partially burnt to make charcoal and this played a very important part in the iron industry in both the F orest of Dean and in Coalbrookdale in Shropshire. .
Timber for building obviously explains the very large number of timber-framed houses, barns and even churches in the Border country. It also meant timber for building great ships, and for this the best was English oak. There are many places in the region which have a reference to oak trees in their name, as for example, Mawley Oak, not far from ,Cleobury Mortimer. There are also the places which have stories about oak trees. At Cressage, near Much Wenlock, there was a very ancient oak, where, according to the Venerable Bede,the English bishops gathered to meet Saint Augustine. At Boscobel, however, there is real evidence that Charles II hid in an oak tree during his flight after the Battle of Worcester, though rather sadly it is not the tree standing there today. King Charles described that day in 1651 ; he ‘got up into a great oak, that had been loped some three or four years before, and being grown out again, very bushy and thick, could not be seen through, and here we staid all the day . . . while we were in this tree we see soldiers going up and down, in the thickest of the wood, searching for persons escaped, we seeing them, now and then, peeping out of the wood.’ Royal Oak Day is still celebrated in the West Midlands, and in other places too, on 29th May each year.
We seem to have come rather a long way from the forests which once covered much of the landscape, but when you start thinking about trees, and about oaks especially, you do find yourself discovering a lot of very interesting history. Most of the English hardwood trees have long since been felled for fuel and building and to clear the ground for farming. The planting that has taken place in recent years is almost all of softwoods on the hills and mountain slopes towards the Welsh Border. The dullest of these plantations are those where only one variety has been used; where they are mixed they look much better. Best of all, though, are those private plantations where soft and hardwood have been planted together. Those woods have a mixture of greens in the spring and summer, with all the colour changes in autumn. When the time comes to fell the larches and firs, the remaining trees will have grown strong enough to stand unprotected and will last for another hundred years or more before it is their turn to be used and replaced.
On the wilder hill slopes there is little but grass and bracken, but lower down the soil is rich enough to grow a vast variety of crops. On the flatter lands north of the Severn, where it sweeps round through Shrewsbury, thousands of acres are given over to grazing for dairy cattle, black and white Friesians that have replaced the English breeds. This is damp country and always has been. In north-east Shropshire there are many pools and lakes known as meres. Mere is the Old English word for a pool and a number of the town and village names reveal their origin quite clearly. Ellesmere takes its name from a longdead owner called Elli, and Colemere may mean ‘the pool surrounded by hazels’. Other parts of that damp land have names like Fenns Moss or Whixall Moss. ‘Fen’ means marsh, and ‘moss’ means bog. Not surprisingly, this is an area where peat is still dug.
South of the Severn, and along the eastern margins, the country is more varied; there are more hills and valleys and farmers are as much concerned with crops as they are with cattle. On the heavy clay land they grow potatoes, but especially sugar beet, which is sent to the factories at Wellington and Kidderminster for processing. As the forests were cleared, hrst in small patches and later to make the sort of fields that we would recognise today, men discovered just how rich this red land is.
Between the Forest of Dean and the great turn of the Severn near Shrewsbury lies some of the most fertile land in Britain. The great stretch of Herefordshire and both banks of the Severn up to Bridgnorth have helped to fill our granaries for hundreds of years. Between Bewdley and Bridgnorth the country on the west bank is known as the Wheatland and that is precisely what you can expect to find there, wheat, oats and barley in hundreds of acres. Although it is perhaps not the best known crop of Herefordshire, it has been a staple one for centuries.
This region has been famous for centuries for its fruit trees, and in Herefordshire and Worcestershire there are very large areas given over to orchards. The range of fruit grown is both wide and varied. There are cooking apples and dessert apples, and of these latter, one is native to the country. This is the Worcester Pearmain, one of the earliest eating apples to ripen, and I believe one of the best. It is crisp, white and juicy inside a bright red skin, but it has to be eaten soon after picking, for unfortunately it will not keep. Quite apart from apples for eating, there are those that are used for cider-making; small and hard and bitter, they are crushed for their juice and pulp. This is the fruit that has helped to make Herefordshire famous. Less well known, but every bit as much a local fruit, are the hard pears used for making perry, a drink very similar to cider and one which I think is not made anywhere else in Britain.
But apples and pears are not the only fruits to be found here; another speciality is damsons, that relation of the plum which seems to be going out of fayour. The older variety is small and almost black, with a grey ‘bloom’ to it, very sour and almost all stone. But stew it with sugar, or make it into jam or ‘cheese’, and it is truly delicious. The newer variety, Merryweather, is the same colour, but much larger and therefore easier to pick ; the flavour is similar but perhaps not quite so good.
Worcestershire offers yet another fruit in the Teme valley and thereabout, the cherry, growing on the steep clay slopes of the valley sides. Whereas the Vale of Evesham grows great quantities of fruit on fairly Hat land at the foot of the Cotswolds, and away across to Pershore (famous for its plums), the Teme Valley is tight and compact, full of twisting steep lanes. Each year in April or May, according to the season, the ‘Blossom Route’ is announced and signposted from Worcester. This takes you through country which is splendid at any time, but in blossom time is quite breathtaking. It is like travelling through a sea of flowers:pale pink for the apples, white for cherries and plums, and silver on the taller pear trees. Paintings usually have short titles like ‘Landscape near Bewdley’, but the landscape here seems to make even artists want to use more words than usual. A picture which I bought a few years ago has this written on the back: ‘A very fine cherry orchard at Rock’ (near Bewdley; the picture was painted in the orchard belonging to a friend of mine).
One other crop I must mention is hops. These were once grown fairly widely in England whereas now, apart from Kent, Herefordshire and Worcestershire are the principal areas concerned. As with other crops, they create their own particular pattern in the landscape. In autumn and winter the poles of the hop fields make a strong geometrical pattern; in spring and summer this disappears behind the exceptionally high hedges which protect the bines (as the stems are called) from the wind.
Looking at the country and the scenery can mean more than just admiring the view. The view will have a great deal to tell you if you learn how to look and what to look for: how the scenery was formed and who had a hand in it, what happened there in the past as well as what is going on today. It all depends on what you are looking for.
There is a story about a visitor who was admiring a view and said so to a farmer. ‘Durn the view,’ he answered, ‘I bain’t lookin’ at no view. I be lookin’ how they dratted rabbits ’as 21th up my tunnips.
People like to be near each other most of the time and we gather together in families and other sorts of groups for various reasons: for friendship and company, or to look after and protect each other. Together, families and tribes can defend themselves from their enemies and rivals. People also join with others to make tasks easier. ‘Work shared is work halved.’
Working together and depending upon one another, sharing, joining forces in defending homes and land, brought people together in villages, and villages which were particularly well placed grew into towns. When we look carefully at a map we can see that villages and towns are not just scattered anywhere, there is a reason for each of them being exactly where it is. Often, of course, the original conditions have changed, but people continue to build where they have always done.
The most important needs for any family or group are shelter from the weather and a spot where it is easy to obtain food and water. In the past this meant a valley or hollow away from the worst of the wind and rain, a stream or river for water, and somewhere to graze animals and raise crops. Along any stream there is a spot where it is easy to cross by wading (a ford), or by building a span across it (a bridge). In these places homes were built, and small villages grew up. Where important tracks crossed rivers and streams, the villages there flourished even more and forts best, plans is a grid: that is, a pattern of streets which run parallel to each other, and at right angles, rather like a draught board with the squares as spaces for houses and gardens. Nearly nine hundred years afterwards you can still see this grid pattern on a street plan of Ludlow, and if you walk in those streets you can understand it even better. Part of the market place has been filled in but the plan still works. Wide streets lead up from the bridge, and from the Shrewsbury road. The town was walled, of course, and Broad Gate is still there as a reminder.
Like all good soldiers, Roger de Lacy built his castle on high ground, and it is partly encircled by the River Teme. (Ludlow means ‘hill by the rapid’.) The castle was there before the town and was a very important one. It was a vital strong-point in the defence system and became the seat of the President of the Marches, the leader of the Lords Marcher. Much of the building was destroyed during the Civil War, when it was the last Royalist foftress but one to hold out against the Roundheads. But the outer walls, most of the keep, and part of the round chapel are still intact. From the top of the tower you can see for miles across to Wales: a very good lookout point indeed, if you were watching for attackers. Then go down and out of the town across the bridge, and look up at the castle from there. What a place to try to attack! It was not all hghting there, though. John Milton’s masque Camus was first performed in the castle in 1634, and the tradition was revived in 1959; plays, concerts and films are presented now in the Ludlow Festival each summer.
Ludlow was built as a place to live and trade in and so it has remained ever since. It has been the market town for people for miles around for so long that the buildings and street names reflect its purpose. Right in the centre is the Butter Cross, built in 1734 and almost certainly replacing an earlier one. Before the ground floor arches were hlled in, it must have been very much like the market halls or town halls found in many of the towns here.
On the upper floor of the Butter Cross is a museum crammed full of interesting things connected with the history of the town. There you will find collections gathered from the famous fossil beds, a poster telling you about the mail coach which ran from Ludlow to London, and hundreds more objects used in the past.
Not far away is the Bull Ring and what must have once been an open space for the entertainment it provided. Kidderminster has one too, and in one of the villages not very far away there is still an actual ring, fastened to a stone in the road. No need to tell you how the Old Bull Tavern got its name; this is one of the black and white timbered buildings that Ludlow is so well known for. Close by is the best known of all, the Feathers Hotel. This is a really splendid place, not just dark timbers and white plaster making elaborate patterns, but with the wood carved all over as well.
Just as in the county towns, in Ludlow there are many houses built in brick. Those down the hill by Broad Gate are my favourites, what I think of as the most elegant.
Just at the time when timber for building began to become scarce, and bricks became the fashionable material to use instead, builders began to have new ideas about housesI From the time of Henry VIII onwards wealthy people visited Italy and began to copy the Italian style of building. After the Great Fire of 1666 the city of London was rebuilt in brick to prevent another disaster and the people living in country towns soon followed this fashion. ‘ Wealthy men had their houses built like Italian palaces, with evenly spaced windows making a pattern along the fronts. John Evelyn (the famous diarist) thought that houses ‘ought to be built exactly uniform, strong, and with beautiful fronts’, and that is a good description of many of the brick houses in Ludlow.
It is the white-painted windows and doorways that make the pattern on the front of these houses, whereas it is the frames that you notice first on the earlier, timber buildings. Notice too how the windows get smaller in the upper rooms, and how this helps draw your attention to the ground floor. The elaborate wooden doorways (often with a little pointed sloping roof of their own, called pediments) seem to say ‘Look at me, I’m important’.’Another change was in the walls where they met the roofs; the builders in brick began to carry the walls up past the gutters to make a parapet, and sometimes you cannot see the tiles at all.
The pattern and shape of buildings, and the way the shapes are balanced and put together in certain proportions, are what gives them a particular style. A change in style sometimes means a change of materials, and this happened when men decided to build in brick instead of timber and plaster. But even in the same material there can be differences in style: some brick houses are graceful, carefully balanced and elegant, others are ugly, with no thought given to their proportions.
In Ludlow you can find both timber and brick houses, and some of them are as good as any you will find in the whole of England.
‘About 1766, where the river Stour ernpties itself into the Severn below Mitton, stood a little alehouse called Stourmouth. Near this Brindley has caused a town to be erected, made a port and dockyards, built a new and elegant bridge, established markets, and made it the wonder not only of this county but of the nation at large. In the year I 795 it consisted of 2 50 houses and about 1,300 inhabitants. Thus was the sandy barren common at Stourport converted, in the space of thirty years, into a flourishing, healthy, and very populous village.’ So Wrote Dr T. R. Nash, the Worcestershire historian.
Stourport is a very unusual town indeed, since it is the only one in England to have been built solely as a canal centre. The great James Brindley, who had worked for the Duke of Bridgewater only a few years before, was the engi’ neer responsible for Stourport. Not that he designed the town, but he did build the canal to link up with the Trent & Mersey Canal near Wolverhampton. What had previously been nothing more than a hamlet became a flourishing small town, depending on the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal for its living. ‘The Stour Cut’, they called it when it was busy with narrow boats carrying coal and other goods. Now it carries only pleasure boats and the great basins at Stourport are filled with cabin cruisers. When those basins were newly built they were surrounded by houses and churches it is rather different. In those cases the owners or builders have felt that the building was‘ important enough to make it worthwhile using stone, even though it might have had to be carried some distance.
Most of the stone buildings in Gloucestershire, Here. fordshire and south Shropshire use the pinkish-purple Old Red Sandstone. This is fairly hard and dichult to cut. It usually breaks with an uneven surface and is impossible to cut cleanly with a stonemason’s chisel. For this reason it has been much used for walls, dressed roughly into shape, but a different material is needed for window and door openings. Because of its rough and rather irregular shape it needs plenty of mortar between the stones. Since this mortar has local sand in it, it too is pink, and the overall colour of a cottage or church wall tells you that you must be in Border country.
Window sills and doorways, and the tracery of the windows in churches, are usually carried out in another stone. You can tell the difference immediately by the look and feel of it. The church doorway at Kilpeck shows the contrast very well. You can see how much softer it is, and how the mason has been able to shape the stones with sharp, clean angles and a smooth surface. Afterwards he was able to carve in tremendous detail, with curling vines, and grotesque heads over the arch.
The softer New Red Sandstone is found over most of Worcestershire and all of Shropshire north and east of the Severn. Apart from being employed for the more delicate work, it has been used by itself all over that area. Cottages, farmhouses, churches and cathedrals have all been built in the New Red stone. Almost anywhere there it is possible to dig a usable stone, but the best has come from just a few quarries. Those at Alveley and Highley, beside the Severn below Bridgnorth, provided stone for Worcester Cathedral and Telford’s bridge at Bewdley. It was a simple matter to carry it downstream from there. Much more diflicult must have been the journey to Much Wenlock, where it was used for the Prior’s Lodge.
The other especially well-known quarry was at Grinshill. This had two pits, one giving a red stone and the other a greyish stone, which the Romans used at Wroxeter. Two places where you can see it today are Attingham Park, and St Chad’s Church in Shrewsbury.
In Herefordshire and Shropshire sandstone was used for roofs. Some varieties split quite easily and the slates made in this way can be enormous. Pitchford Hall has a roof like this, but you are just as likely to hnd a cowshed or pigsty roofed in the same way.
Gloucestershire has another type of sandstone as well as the red one. This is grey in colour, and is still quarried in the Forest of Dean. Some of it was used at Avonmouth Docks.
Limestone is the other important building stone in our region. Gloucester Cathedral was built with it (from Painswick quarry), and the beds of this rock, which run from Symonds Yat to Chepstow, are quarried in the Forest of Dean today. A different sort of limestone was used to build nearly all the older houses in Much Wenlock. This is the stone that has so many fossils in it. Outside the town you can see lots of small pits overgrown with grass; each one of them would have provided just enough stone to build one small house.
Looking at houses today you might think that bricks are the only material that can be used. Many buildings in the West Midlands show that this is not always true, but brick is now the cheapest material. Most of the bricks used there at present are brought in by road or railway from Bedford or Peterborough. In the past, though, they were made wherever they were needed. Most of the valleys, and the flatter country north of the River Severn, have clay beneath the surface. As timber became scarcer, and as bricks became the smart and fashionable material to build with, men began to dig this clay. As it was possible to dig sufficient stone for one house, so it was with clay. Brickmakers would dig and bake enough bricks for one house and then move on. The Hall at Upton Cresset must have been built like this in about 1540. No one could possibly have carried enough bricks for this large Tudor house through all the steep, narrow lanes in that part of Shropshire, so the bricks must have been made near by.
As bricks became more popular permanent brickworks were set up. Each little area still had its own variety and colour, depending on where the clay was dug. Whereas the North Shropshire houses were built in red brick, round Madeley and Dawley they were brown or cream. You might be able to trace how far afield those bricks were used, and you might think about what the river and canals had to do with it.
Bricks have been especially useful when men have wanted to build many houses and to build them quickly. This has usually been in towns. Some of the most elegant brick houses have been built 1n towns and that 15 where you might look for them.
When you are exploring a village or town in the West Midlands notice just how many different materials have been used in the buildings in one street. If it is the most important street in that place you will probably find a great variety of materials. In a high street buildings are replaced fairly often and that makes it a good place to look for contrasts. You will almost certainly find different materials and different styles of building there. From these differences you will be able to discover something about the different ages and the different purposes for which the buildings are used today.
Where an old building is being pulled down you can often see its ‘bones’, the framework on which it has been built, exposed and sometimes brick and plaster are torn away to reveal something very different underneath. In the same way, a new building being erected often has a framework which does not show at all when it is completed.
Planning a holiday can be almost as much fun as actually going on one, and just one day out can be a holiday in itself. A good way to begin your planning is to think about what you like doing: the sort of places that you like to visit, and the sort of things that you like to find out about. The next step which you might want to take is to choose just one subject on which to concentrate. This chapter suggests a few places and things to explore by travelling about; you don’t always have to travel very far, and I have included some journeys which could easily be made on foot. .
You might decide that you want to explore one particular place, a village or part of a town, or a parish. Parishes are not the same as villages; they include houses scattered in the country as well as the town or village centre, and some parishes may even have more than one village in them. If you decide to explore a parish you will need to know where the parish boundary is, and this means using a map. The best one for this purpose is the 2% inches to the mile Ordnance Survey map*, and you ought to be able to see this at your local library. It will probably need several sheets to cover a parish, but you may be lucky and get the centre of your village on one sheet. Some libraries and District Council Surveyor’s offices will make photocopies for you, The West Midlands offers both the sort of sports and games Which you can play anywhere in the country, and a few activities that are rather special. The first sort are team games, and the special activities are those which you can undertake by yourself, or with just a few friends.
Just as in other parts of Britain you will find football clubs in all the towns and villages. Some of them play on the village green, but in the larger towns there are football grounds with stands and lighting and all the extras that you would expect. Football teams are everywhere, but with some of the other team games it is rather different. In Gloucestershire you will find that some people play rugby football, Rugby Union that is, not League. If you look in a Sunday newspaper in the winter season and find the scores, you may be surprised at just how many teams there are close to the Severn. Cricket too is played very widely but only ‘ Gloucestershire and Worcestershire have County Clubs.
Each year when there is a visiting cricket team from overseas, the first full-scale match is always played at Worcester. The ground there is one of the best sited in England, bounded by trees and the River Severn, and with the cathedral towerng over it all. That is where you must go if you want.