A Tour of the Midlands

A tour of the Midlands in May 1984

2 May 1984

Drove from Sedlescombe to Stoke via the M25 and A5 for the Great British Holiday Exhibition.  Took a walk in Wicken Wood in Northamptonshire, now Forestry Commission but part of the old Whittlewood Forest.  Just over the county boundary to the east in Buckinghamshire there is an adjoining natural area, Leckhampstead Wood, which I also visited: mostly oak, sallow and Midland thorn and very different from The Weald.  Heavy clay with tufts of bright green grass, few brambles and only a scatter of woodland flowers - primrose, bluebell, wood anemone.  On open banks there were cowslips, but perhaps introduced.  It could be a fine place for butterflies (years later I found it was a location for the wood white).  On the way out I saws a small deer grazing in a ride, perhaps a muntjac.

In the sunshine the drive through England could not have been better.  The blackthorn and cherry blossom were drifting along hedges.  There were daffodils and aubrietia, green gold and mauve, in the villages.

Overnight at the Stakis Grand Hotel (now the Quality Hotel), Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent.  A most peculiar building.  My room is a strange rhomboidal shape.  Posh, Northern, steak-house type restaurant with curt service and transport cafĂ© food to accompany all the plush.  Good meals seem only to be larger helpings of what one might regularly have at home.

The following day I took a walk in Hanley Park.  Weeping willows and pink cherry blossom.  Red brick bandstand and boathouse by the lake.  Students walking to work.  By the southern gate there is a blackened stone, like a small standing stone, with a neatly mown triangle of grass funnelling up to it. I asked an elderly couple out walking their dog if they knew what it was.  They thought it might be part of the original gate, but it is difficult to see how.  They were quite certain the 'parkies' would not know.

Those smarter terraced houses with a front garden are banked with aubrietia in places reflecting the castellation of the wall top in front.  Mauve where the sun strikes, green where there is shade.  Otherwise daffodils and auriculas - a traditional pattern.  One heretic had substituted mossy saxifrage for aubrietia, but it looked defiant and out of place.

I walked for a while along a stretch of the Caldon Canal: very typical of the old industrial Stoke, a curving reach of shiny khaki water with buildings of dull, blackened red brick and even two pot banks.

Opposite the entrance to the public library there was a Spitfire aircraft like a tiger in a cage.  Mike Mitchell, the designer of the plane, was a local man.

After some rather uninspiring town centre shopping, I called in at Brown's, the celebrated butchers at 27 Broad Street.  Very old fashioned and manufacturers of 'the celebrated Cambridge sausage'[1].  Formerly they used to send them all over the country according to the lovely old lady who had worked there for thirty years.  The proprietor, who looked about 80, waved his knife dangerously close to my ear as he told me how his father had once been served some sausages that were not Brown's: "They went straight in t'fire" he told me.

Until 3 p.m. at Trentham Gardens where we (the English Tourist Board) had a holiday exhibition stand.  Opposite a book club with ridiculous numbers of young female staff without a great deal to do.  It was so quiet I left early and drove across Staffordshire to Newport and Shifnal in eastern Shropshire, then on to Bridgnorth and Bewdley following the great red cliffs of the river Severn.  It was a beautiful May evening: hazy sunshine and leafing trees, blossoming orchards and young green corn.  A mysterious and romantic England.  After getting into a muddle of roads around Abberley Hill in Worcestershire, I crossed into the Teme Valley which was even more lovely than the Severn.  Perfect peaceful English countryside.  Well-tended with just a hint of wildness in the hills and woods.  The road near the west bank of the river from Stanford to Martley was especially fine.

I had a hotel room in Tewkesbury, at a 15th century place called The Ancient Grudge (the name refers to the enmity between the houses of York and Lancaster which led to the Battle of Tewkesbury in the Wars of the Roses in 1471).  Venison with black cherries and a wild strawberry sorbet rounded off the day.  N.B.  Upton upon Severn looks an interesting little town.  The church I thought superb - a slender, perpendicular spire in gold and cream limestone like a miniature cathedral.

[1] A rather spicy sausage that includes cooked rice as well as rusk.  Once very popular..


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