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A Good Word for the Black Country


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"A forlorn hope," my readers will say; for, on steaming out of the city of Birmingham - that modern Ophir, as famous for jewellery as remarkable in its scarcity of peacocks and apes - every man turns to his newspaper, every woman to Sheiks and Tales of Fair Cashmere. Burton ignored the Black Country when he catalogued his "Anatomy of Melancholy," Defoe passed it by; Dr. Johnson executed no Itinerary amid its shades, being content to remark that "we make the Boobies of Birmingham work for us" (forgetting that his father, old Michael Johnson, had laid the foundations of intellectual Birmingham by selling books there o' Saturdays); George Borrow, full of dreams of Welsh Hills and gipsies, throws a philological conundrum at "Brummagem" as he races through to catch a glimpse of "chimneys high as Cathedral spires vomiting forth smoke, furnaces emitting flames and lava, the sound of gigantic hammers," and closes his eyes until he can rest them on the green fringes of Shropshire. Years later a bishop travels through by night, dozes off at Birmingham, wakes with a jolt at Tipton, gazes at the pandemonium, and falling on his knees, cries out aloud: "Not yet, O Lord! not yet"! A terrible indictment.

But Proserpine cast a sheep's-eye at Pluto; and sweet Poetry, heavenly maid, has not disdained to lay one wreath on the altar of this temple dedicated to the labours of Cyclops. Erasmus - not he who wrote " In Praise of Folly '' - but Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the great Charles, sang the praises of Boulton and his coining-machine.

As well as poetry, the art of painting has paid tribute to the Black Country. David Cox sketched at Dudley; the great Turner painted the grey castle of that town, and exhibited the beauties of Wolverhampton in the Academy of 1795. History has left her traces faintly pencilled in Black Country place-names; Willenhall, Wednesbury, Wednesfield - "Woden's-field" - were Danish settlements or strongholds, indeed, there are echoes of a great battle fought at Wednesfield, and another at - probably - Wednesbury.

Three panoramas of this remarkable stretch of country may be indicated, each, in its way, individual. From the heights of Rowley Regis - whence comes the famous "Rowley Rag" - you can view the more modern offshoots of the Black Country as they stretch away over the border of Staffordshire into Worcestershire - Old Hill, and Cradley Heath, famous for anchors. Or from Dudley Castle, where leafy "Wren's Nest" lies at your feet with its mysterious subterranean streams and deep-delving Silurian caverns and grottoes. It has been said that Murchison, the great geologist, was "crowned last king of the Silures" in these wonderful, gloomy, monstrous caverns. The grey castle, as we see it to-day, is fourteenth century work, for Gervase Pagenal's stronghold was destroyed in 1174. Of course, Queen Elizabeth paid it a visit - in 1575 - and it would have held captive the unfortunate Mary Queen of Scots (at Tutbury then) had not gruff old Sir A m y a s Paulet, who "blessed God and his gowte that he was not hindered from making these journeys," found "corn and other incom-modities" dear in the district. He belied his name, this last of Mary's gaolers; no "lovable little Paul," but a dull, brutal, repellent type of Puritan. "An I thought he was a Puritan I would hang him like a dog" might have been said of Sir Amyas.

A quarter of a mile away, on the west, are the fragments of a Cluniac priory; in the distance, south-west, the fair lands and woods of Kinver - "Kinefair" - an age-old "borough" with its fine old church on the hill, and its curious red sandstone rock-dwellings. The writer has "dined with the mayor of Kinver" in years bygone; he was the jolly landlord of "Ye White Harte"; and from the "Edge" that caps the old town there is a glorious view across the Malverns, as far as - they say - stately Gloucester Cathedral.

As for the castle of Dudley, on the eve of S. James, 1750, fire broke out and raged for three days. The ruin we see to-day is all that remains of a noble stronghold. The disaster, they say, might have been averted; but it was rumoured that gunpowder was stored there, and the folk took fright and let it burn. Another tale was to the effect that the castle was a retreat for coiners - much spurious coin came from the Birmingham of those days - but, however that may be, so perished the second edition of a castle dating back to that William Fitz Ansculf who "held Dudley and there is his Castle and two miles of woodland." And wonderful to-day does the old castle look m the light and colour of the brilliant sunsets that flood the Black Country through the myriads of particles that float in the higher strata of its air.

Or, from the Beacon at Sedgley, half-way between Dudley and Wolverhampton, once reputed to be the highest cultivated land in England, can be seen the most typical view of the Black Country proper. Tree-crowned Barr Beacon is now nursed by Birmingham; you can see it on the horizon, nearer comes Hill Top, dropping into West Bromwich; at your feet stand the square tower of Tipton Church, the spires of Bilston and Bradley; the far-off line of Cannock Chase spans the horizon; old S. Peter's of Wolverhampton rises up high on the north; beyond that lies the champain country stretching away over Penkridge to Stafford - the Izaak Walton country; while, on the west, the glorious Baggeridge Woods and Penn Common lead the eye to the Shropshire Wrekin, and to the valley that dips down to the Severn - Milton's "Sabrina cool" of the "Comus"; and Bridgnorth, picturesque but hidden, though standing high over the river that runs to Ironbridge and Buildwas, and Worcester to the sea. "Can you from this fair mountain leave to feed, to batten on this moor?" Yet the towns of the Black Country are clean and well kept; the arts and sciences flourish; green parks and fair gardens dot the landscape; and where the hand of man has laid heavily, has digged for wealth or hammered and forged for civilization, the young forests are growing green, the smoke and grime of two and a half centuries are vanishing into the past.

Wolverhampton is still the metropolis of the Black Country, but three sides of the town touch the green country. Its church has noble monuments and an ancient history; in the old churchyard is a pillar so old that Jacob may have been its contemporary, for no one can fathom its strange inscriptions. It is justly proud of one of the quaintest epitaphs in our country:

Here lie the bones

Of Joseph Jones,
Who ate while he was able
But once o'er fed
He dropt down dead

And fell beneath the table - proud, I say, because that proves - if words can prove anything - that gluttony was so exceptional a vice among the ancient and frugal population that the least infraction was immediately fatal. Indeed, only a brave and hardy race of philosophers could spring from men who thought nothing of mutually tossing for coffins as they drank their modest potations, who point to their town, with its motto, "E tenebris oritur lux," and which gave birth to that Jonathan Wild the Great who was immortalised by the greatest of all English novelists.

Nor was pig-iron their only joy. "Pray, sir" - asked George Borrow - "may I take the liberty of asking who that individual is?" "Why, he is what they call a Wolverhampton gent." "A Wolverhampton gent! Only think..." "Were you pleased to make any observation, sir?" "I was only saying something to myself; and in what line of business may he be? The hog line?" "O no; true, his father is a hog-merchant, but for himself, he follows no line of business; he is what is called a fast young man, and goes about here and there on the spree."

The large-hearted people of the Black Country can stand such chaff, and return it with good-natured interest.

It is related that a famous "squire" of the olden days, a certain Sir Horace St. Paul, once met a party of Sedgley nail-makers, and remonstrated rather pointedly on the colloquialism of their dialect and the paucity of their vocabulary.

"And who (etc.) may you be?" they inquired in the patois of the district.

"You know me, my men; I'm Sir Horace St. Paul."

"O you be, be you; well have you ever had any etcetera reply to that etcetera long letter as you wrote to the Ephesians?"

A good-hearted race of men, and not ignorant.

A mile or two on the Shropshire side of Wolverhampton, if you go down its leafy Tettenhall Road and across the canal, lies one of the prettiest villages in England on the bright red sandstone that crops up here for miles. Village and church are both age-old, and the village green echoes with the laughter of a thousand generations of children. This is the main road into Shropshire, but, if you want to see the old village street, through which the old coaches rumbled, you must turn to the left soon after you begin to climb "The Rock" after passing the canal; there you will see the quaint old "High," with the raised and railed footpath, which must have joined up somewhere with the main road to the west. And over the hill (not far away for these times) is Tong, the village and church of Little Nell.

And if you call at the Rock Hotel, up that steep old hill into Tettenhall village, and climb to the top storey and on to the veranda, you will get a view worth the trouble - which is little - that it costs you. Leafy Compton is at your feet; level pastures and woodland roll away to the Penkridge side on the north; you see the tower of S. Peter's of "Wulfrunatown" standing boldly over the rising ramparts of human habitations; and there is the fringe of the busy Black Country, with Sedgley and its Beacon - the Black Country for which I have undertaken to say one good word. It needs it.


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Pictures for A Good Word for the Black Country

BRIDGNORTH, THE TWOFOLD TOWN OF THE SEVERN, AND ITS RICHARD BAXTER MEMORIES
BRIDGNORTH, THE TWOFOLD TOWN OF THE SEVERN, AND ITS RICHARD BAXTER MEMORIES >>>>
BIRTHPLACE OF BISHOP PERCY
BIRTHPLACE OF BISHOP PERCY >>>>
THE ENTRANCE GATE TO ANCIENT DUDLEY CASTLE
THE ENTRANCE GATE TO ANCIENT DUDLEY CASTLE >>>>
STAFFORD LANE, CANNOCK, AN OUTLET TO THE MOORS, AND THE PARK AT WEDNESBURY
STAFFORD LANE, CANNOCK, AN OUTLET TO THE MOORS, AND THE PARK AT WEDNESBURY >>>>
WALKS WITHIN A MILE OR TWO OF WOLVERHAMPTON, THE METROPOLIS OF THE BLACK COUNTRY
WALKS WITHIN A MILE OR TWO OF WOLVERHAMPTON, THE METROPOLIS OF THE BLACK COUNTRY >>>>
THE STATELY CHURCH OF S. PETER, WOLVERHAMPTON
THE STATELY CHURCH OF S. PETER, WOLVERHAMPTON >>>>

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