Things to See Round Birmingham
A man is known by the company he keeps, but unfortunately a town is immovable and must bear with its neighbours if they become uncongenial. To some extent Birmingham suffers from an inferiority complex, due to association with the Black Country, and under the circumstances the choice of the motto "Forward" may be thought misplaced. To personify Birmingham for a moment, however, one may liken her to the statue of Liberty, with back turned on industrialism and gazing towards the Old World of Shakespeare-land.
The motorist who has a few hours to spend in Birmingham need not despair, as her treasures are many. Aston Hall is the original of Washington Irving's "Bracebridge Hall," while, on the opposite side of the city centre, the stigma of industrialism is rebutted by the Garden City of Bournville. Art lovers will revel in the Burne-Jones and David Cox pictures in the Art Gallery, together with the wonderful stained-glass windows, also by Burne-Jones (a native of the city), in the picturesque cathedral of S. Philip.
The call of "Leafy Warwickshire" is insistent, however, and what traveller will demand any but the shortest and quickest route to Stratford-on-Avon? Route A.41 commences with Birmingham's oldest street, the Bull Ring. S. Martin's church, at the foot of the hill, was the parish church when Birmingham was a tiny village clustering round the old hall of the de Berming-hams. There are some interesting half-timbered houses in Deritend, but for some miles farther we are enveloped by suburbia.
The city recedes at Monkspath (route 42), where the path used by monks of Studley, who owned a grange in the neighbourhood, joined the main Stratford road - thus the derivation of the name is, for once, obvious.
It is difficult to believe that the whole district was once covered by the mighty Forest of Arden, ventured across by travellers only at dire peril and after fervent prayers at the borders.
The descent of the precipitous Liveridge Hill brings us to Henley-in-Arden, the accepted half-way halting point, consisting of one long, wide street, with outstanding church. A halt enables us to visit the hamlet of Beaudesert, barely a quarter of a mile off the busy main road. There is a tiny Norman church and a wonderful view from "The Mount," an ancient Roman fortification.
At Wootton Wawen a sharp bend to the left discloses views successively of the church, with tower set uniquely between nave and chancel, and the hall, dating from Charles II.
So much has been written and spoken of Shakespeare and Stratford-on-Avon that it is difficult to imagine any visitor to be totally unacquainted with the poet and his life. The birthplace, in Henley Street, was bought by the nation in 1847 and carefully restored. In the birth-chamber itself walls, windows, and even ceiling are covered with initials and hieroglyphics, among them the signatures of Sir Walter Scott, Izaak Walton and Thomas Carlyle. Stratford-on-Avon and its environs will be found described in Chapter II. Resisting the sensuous attractions of the dreamy Avon, though perhaps promising it a subsequent dalliance, we steal over the ancient bridge, which dates from Henry VII's time, and take road 6.4086. The route passes the main entrance to Charlecote, but it is necessary to turn to the left at the cross-roads in order to obtain a closer view of the typically Tudor mansion, which dates from 1588, though it has been considerably altered.
Continuing through Charlecote village, the walls of Warwick Castle are seen looming ahead. Most of the town of Warwick was destroyed by fire in 1649, and the church of S. Mary with it. Thus most of that building causes architectural shudders, only removed by the wonders of the Beauchamp Chapel, which was fortunately preserved. Here may be seen the tombs of the Warwicks, including the great King-maker, while Robert Dudley, favourite of Queen Elizabeth, sleeps beside them. Of the old city walls nothing remains but East Gate (ruthlessly restored) and West Gate, near which is the picturesque Leycester Hospital, founded by Robert Dudley as a hospital for poor people.
As a relief to the historical we can call at Royal Leamington Spa, taking the old post road from Warwick, A-425, which brings us at the foot of the Parade, in close proximity to the Pump Rooms and the beautiful Jephson Gardens. The fame- of this inland spa dates from the early part of the nineteenth century, and the architecture of Leamington is accordingly of that period.
Kenilworth is reached by roads A.444 and A.446 but a short digression leads to Lillington Oak, which claims to be the centre of England. The castle at Kenilworth, in contrast to Warwick, is in ruins.
From Kenilworth to Coventry the road is said to be the most beautiful in the country, and the claim is strong indeed. The city of the three spires is inevitably linked with the story of Lady Godiva. The glory of Coventry to-day, however, is the cathedral, which was once the parish church of S. Michael.
After pausing to rejoice in the gabled black and white houses of Butcher Row and Little Butcher Row, a five-mile digression along the Birmingham Road brings us to Meriden, clamant in pronouncing itself the true centre of England.
The traveller may care to continue to Birmingham by road A.45, but if he elect to continue his circuit, he should return to Coventry and take the Leicester Road, A.46, to Shilton; thence, turning left, he enters Nuneaton, whose name suggests gastronomies or cannibalism.
This is the George Eliot country, for the novelist was born in 1819 at South Arbury Farm near by. Many local spots appear in the novels under assumed names: Arbury Hall, for example, becomes Church Manor in her work, "Scenes of Clerical Life."
Continuing, the ancient Roman Watling Street is joined at the Red Gate inn, and followed past Atherstone, described as "a fine street," and certainly showing much length and little depth. At Two Gates we forsake A.5 for A. 15 and approach Tamworth, which dates from the time of Offa, King of Mercia.
The ubiquitous Aethelflaeda, daughter of Alfred the Great, was responsible, in 913, for the fortifications on the site of the present seventeenth century castle, and afterwards returned to Tamworth to die.
The road to Lichfield passes Hopwas Woods, and we finally stand beneath the richly decorated west front of the cathedral and recall Exeter, its southern rival. The three spires are unique, while, within, the lovely Lady Chapel is lighted by narrow windows containing sixteenth century stained glass from the Belgian Abbey of Herckenrode. Lichfield celebrates also the fame of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who was born in a house fronting the old market.
We may return direct to Birmingham by road A.38, passing Sutton Coldfield, with its great natural park. Farther afield, however, is the exhilarating upland of Cannock Chase, and we may encircle it by means of road A.51 through Rugeley, continuing by A.513 from the Roebuck inn to Milford and Stafford. Once again the inevitable Aethelflaeda, apparently Universal Provider of Fortresses, concerned herself with the defences of Stafford, in 913; Izaak Walton is commemorated by a tablet in S. Mary's church.
Route A.455, to Cannock, passes along the western edge of the chase, but it is hard to have to return to the works of man, so painfully obvious at Hunting-ton, Cannock and elsewhere on the road to Brown-hills. The return of the wanderer to Birmingham will be correspondingly hastened.
Leaving once more, this time for blossomland, route A.435 forsakes the ramifications of suburbia at Alcester Lanes End and enters on a series of undulations which culminate in Gorcott Hill, with a view, on the right, of the old hall, once owned by the Abbey of Studley. Of the abbey itself, nothing remains, but the old Barley Mow inn at Studley claims to have been the guest house.
We are now on the old Roman Icknield Street, straight as a die, and two miles farther, at Coughton, the remains of a wayside cross recall the fervent prayers uttered at its foot by pilgrims about to venture the passage of Arden Forest. Coughton Court, owned by the Throckmorton family, is framed by a won lerful avenue. The central portion is really a gatehuuse of the time of Henry VIII, the wings having been added. The name Throckmorton reminds us of the Gunpowder Plot, and it is a fact that the hardy conspirators met within the walls of the Court while concocting their scheme.
Two miles take us to Alcester, Roman Alauna, and thence, beside the river Arrow, and passing through Wixford, we arrive at Bidford, the "Drunken Bidford" of Shakespeare's time.
There is a choice of two routes onward, either of which brings us to Evesham through acres of orchards, glorious in blossom time Route A.439 goes by way of the pretty village of Harvington, but route 3.4085 crosses the many -arched bridge, built by the monks of Alcester in 1482, and ascends to the high ground, winding through Cleeve Prior, with its quaint manor house of Cotswold stone. At South Littleton we see one of the largest tithe barns in the country, once the property of Evesham Abbey.
Impressed by the vision seen by his swineherd, E o v e s, Ecguin, Bishop of Worcester, founded the Abbey of Eves-ham in the days of Ethelred. Of the ancient buildings, there now remain only a mutilated arch, and, in addition, portions of the gatehouse and the stately Bell Tower.
At Greenhill, north-west of the town, was fought in 1265 the decisive Battle of Evesham, where Simon de Montfort was defeated and slain by Henry II.
Route A.44 brings us to Broadway, the most famous of Cotswokl villages. On the summit of the hill beyond is Broadway Tower, architecturally uninspiring, but commanding unsurpassed views of the Cotswolds, the Vale of Evesham and the Malvern Hills.
Retracing our steps, A.44 continues to Worcester, passing Pershore, with its encircling orchards. Here there existed an abbey in 689, which was later taken over by the Benedictines, but largely destroyed at the Dissolution. There is Early English work in the choir, the roof of which is unsurpassed with its vaulting and groining.
At the Faithful City the acquaintance of Britain's longest river is at last made. Important even in the seventh century, Worcester harbours a wealth of antiquities. The cathedral, set above a wide sweep of the river, is almost perfect with its severe exterior, unspoilt by abundance of ornaments. Of other ancient buildings, the Guildhall particularly claims attention.
Though drawing him farther afield, what visitor can resist the appeal of the Malvern Hills, looming eight miles to the south-west? Great Malvern itself, at the foot of the Worcestershire Beacon, appears to bask in perpetual sunshine, lighting up the beautiful fifteenth century Priory Church and the Abbey Gateway, sole remnant of the Benedictine monastery. The exhilaration of gazing down from a height repays the scramble to the summit of the Beacon, while time may allow of a stroll along the ancient dyke or rampart which binds the range as far as the British Camp and beyond.
From Worcester we take A-442, and delight in the sixteenth and seventeenth century half-timbered houses of Ombersley before dropping into Kidderminster, home of Richard Baxter and of Sir Rowland Hill, who introduced the penny post. Traversing the tortuous streets, route A.456 brings us to Bewdley, nestling on the banks of the Severn, here spanned by an ancient bridge of Telford's design. It is not necessary to return to by-way numbered 6.4190 enables us to rejoin the route to Bridgnorth, which is followed through the quaintly named Quatt and Quatford until we again strike the stream.
Students of "Reliques of Ancient Poetry" will examine with interest the old half-timbered house near the bridge; this was the home of Bishop Percy, and dates from 1580. The house was almost the only one to escape the fire of 1646, but Cann Hall, on the corner of the Wolverhampton Road, also survived, and here Prince Rupert, as ubiquitous as his uncle, put in a brief appearance in 1642, closely attended by the equally ubiquitous Cromwell. Here is Low Town; on the opposite side of the river is High Town, and the road describes some remarkable convolutions in reaching the old black-and-white town hall, set in the centre of the street.
Completing the circuit to the south and west of Birmingham, we may take routes A.442 and 6.4379 to Shifnal, mentioned by Dickens in "The Old Curiosity Shop," thence by A.41 to Wolverhampton, West Bromwich and Birmingham. Seven miles north of Shifnal lies Lilleshall Hall, once the home of the Dukes of Sutherland and now a public park. A digression thereto enables us also to view Tong Castle, with its church adjoining. The latter, S. Bartholomew's, is a Perpendicular edifice, founded about 1410, and restored in 1892. It contains a sixteenth century chapel with fan-vaulted roof and tombs of the Vernon, Pembruge, Stanley, and other families, these giving it the name of "the village Westminster Abbey." Other points of interest are the aumbry in the east wall, a piscina in the south wall, and three consecration crosses.
In what is termed the Black we may take delightful rambles through Baggeridge Woods and over the rugged Wren's Nest and Dudley Castle Hill. The New Road between WoJverhampton and Birmingham is best appreciated at night (a cynic would apply the remark to the whole district!), when the glare of the iron furnaces lights the sky and the frequent bisections of older roads, ruby-lighted, resemble railway junctions, with signals at danger: a good simile, for cautious driving is essential.
Entering Birmingham by Broad Street, we bid farewell to our round beside the majestic Hall of Memory. The assurance that the traveller has missed as many as he has seen of the beauty spots of the Midlands will presage a return after a brief interval, with perhaps more leisure at his disposal.