The Magnificent Midlands

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The author, Elihu Burritt, was an American government representative, who from his home in Harborne made regular forays into the towns and cities of the region and explored with great enthusiasm the countryside around the Lickey Hills, Clent Hills, Wrekin and Ironbridge Gorge. His descriptions of local history, notable men and women, the industrial landscape and activity and surrounding rural areas were published in a book, “Walks in the Black Country and its Green Borderland”, and provide a vivid insight into this part of England and the lives of those who lived there 150 years ago. I managed to obtain a facsimile edition (from a company called Forgotten Books), so alongside the article we have included a selection of the author’s observations. Here are a few entries, chosen at random:

“The Black Country, black by day and red by night, cannot be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe.”

Lichfield Cathedral: “Having visited all the cathedrals of Great Britain, and studied them with all the interest of American admiration for such structures, I am inclined to believe that this exceeds all others in the quality of beauty, both in its exterior and interior structure and embellishment.”

"Willenhall has a good Saxon accent and meaning to its name; and its history is rich with the legacy of centuries. Here the Saxons and Danes had one of their sanguinary battles for the mastery of England, and the latter were defeated here with the loss, it is chronicled, of two kings and many nobles.”

“Birmingham is the capital, manufacturing centre, and growth of The Black Country. Every acre of the district has given it rootage and riches; and in every way it represents, measures, and honours the mineral and mental production of this velvet-bound area of fire and smoke.”

Redditch: “An industrious, neat, rural little town, planted in one of the greenest districts of Worcestershire. In one salient respect, it is distinguished from every other manufacturing town in England. It has virtually absorbed and monopolized the whole needle-making trade of the kingdom and half the rest of the world and more.”

“Few cities in England will present to the visitor so many features of interest as Coventry. It has played its part conspicuously in the history, literature, and industry of the kingdom, and it contains several of the most impressive monuments of the architecture of the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries.”

We will doubtless return to the Midlands in future issues of This England, but looking ahead to the winter magazine (which we are already preparing!) there will be interesting features on the sights and curiosities of North Essex (The Grayson Perry House, the lighthouses and Electric Palace Cinema of Harwich etc.), the colourful customs and traditions of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, the Dorset of Lawrence of Arabia and a personal recollection of Sheffield’s magnificent trams. Then, in spring 2018 we will be exploring Thomas Hardy’s associations with Cornwall, telling the story of London’s Royal Parks and, from grand houses around England, uncovering the secret chambers that once provided hiding places for persecuted priests. You can arrange an annual subscription by clicking here.

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