18 best things to do in the Midlands of England
Video: The 18 best things to do in the Midlands of England
There is so much to do in the Midlands of England that visitors often overlook this wonderful region. They rush from the cosmopolitan South on the highways northward, never stopping to discover the region that spawned Shakespeare, the Industrial Revolution and the greatest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalware ever found.
Enjoy our bag of things to do in the heart of England, from hiking the Peak District to visiting some of England’s greatest historic homes and gardens, to crossing the world’s first Iron Bridge or crossing the country on the ancient steam railroad.
Throw ceramics on the wheel at Wedgewood
At Stoke-on-Trent’s stunning Wedgwood World Museum, Shopping Center and Porcelain Factory, you can see centuries of amazing pottery, including original pots made at Josiah Wedgwood’s 18th-century factory and even older local pieces. The collection, provided by London’s Victoria and Albert Museum on a permanent basis, is truly world-class. While there, you can take a factory tour to see the finest pots and cutlery being tossed and decorated; store for mind-bogglingly expensive porcelain; drink chic tea – naturally from Wedgwood china – or have a light lunch in the former working dining room, now a sunny restaurant with a laid-back vibe. Best of all, you can throw your own pot on the wheel – with a lot of help from the staff – and arrange to have it fired and shipped to you as a finished product.
Explore the Iron Bridge Gorge.
The British public voted the Iron Bridge, a graceful single arch span 60 feet above the River Severn that became an English icon in 2006. The world’s first cast-iron arch bridge gave its name to the village, the gorge and the UNESCO world. The heritage site that surrounds it. As hard as it is to imagine this quiet, rustic place, Ironbridge Gorge was one of the first industrial centers in the world and the place where the seeds of the Industrial Revolution were sown. Today you can visit ten different museums, all within a mile or two of each other. At the Chinese Coalport Museum, step inside the huge beehive kiln to see how the earliest beautiful bone china was made. At the Iron Museum in Colebrookdale, you can explore the remains of one of the world’s oldest iron furnaces, where metal was first smelted on an industrial scale. In the Victorian town of Bliss Hill, walk through the homes, stores, and workplaces of this early village. You can spend a family weekend exploring it and then take a relaxing kayak trip on the river that fed it all.
Dress up for the Steam era on a historic railroad trip
There are several vintage railroads in the Midlands that are adored by railroad enthusiasts and steam from around the world. They are usually restored and maintained by enthusiastic volunteers and experts who are happy to tell you all about them. You can ride the rails through quiet backwaters and abandoned tracks, or dress up as an Edwardian to enjoy a cream tea in a vintage setting while being gently dragged across rough terrain behind a steam train. The Severn Valley Railroad is one of the most ambitious and oldest, with a history dating back to the Victorian era. There are five scheduled stops on the 16-mile route between Bridgnorth in Shropshire and Kidderminster in Worcester, as well as stops on request at Severn Valley Country Park and Northwood. The Telford Steam Railroad is actually older than the steam era. Horses once dragged cars along the rails to deliver raw materials and coal to businesses in the Iron Bridge Gorge.
Imagine being a Roman in the Roman city of Roxter
The largest freestanding Roman wall in Britain gives you a sense of the size of a bathhouse in Viriconia (now the Roman city of Wroxeter), the fourth largest Roman city in Britain. Explore a reconstructed Roman villa near the Roman road, based on nearby excavations. The living quarters, furnishings, and frescoes will give you a good idea of the life of the average Romanized British family by the end of the Roman occupation of Britain. Unlike many Roman military structures and religious sites scattered throughout England, Wroxeter, near Shrewsbury and the Welsh border, was an ordinary middle-class town, not a garrison, with markets, entertainment, and ordinary people. The little museum on this site is very interesting.
A step back in time at Attingham Park
Not far from Roxeter, Attingham Park is home to fascinating stories. Alternately ennobled by attention and shamefully abandoned by its owners, the house has been restored by the 21st Century National Trust to its 18th century, Georgian glory. Each room tells its own entertaining tales. Take, for example, the tale of a humble priest, the younger brother of a younger brother, who never expected to inherit the house, but did. He was so overwhelmed that for the rest of his life he abandoned his Spartan habits and drank himself dry. There’s also a picturesque breed of rare and historic cattle, extensive parkland and an ancient oak tree planted by landscape star Humphrey Repton.
Be dazzled at BMAG in Birmingham
In 2009, a man with a metal detector made the find of a lifetime, discovering 3,500 pieces of gold and silver metalwork, enamel and semi-precious stones. The Staffordshire Hoard, as it became known, is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered. In the battle to preserve and display it, this mega-institution, the British Museum, lost to two Midlands museums, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) and the Pottery Museum in Stoke-on-Trent. Now you can see the gold near where it was found in the Midlands. And, if you think you can try a metal detector yourself, find out what the Treasure and Treasure Trove rules are in the UK.
While at BMAG, don’t miss the world’s most important collection of Pre-Raphaelite art with paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt, and other members of the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.
The museum is located in downtown Birmingham and is free to visit.
Store for everything in Birmingham
Indian brides from all over Britain and Europe head to Birmingham to buy sari cloth and wedding accessories at The Rag Market, Birmingham’s oldest bullfighting market with 350 stalls selling all sorts of goods.Bullfighting markets are just a small part of the retail paradise that is the second-largest city in Britain. Virtually the entire city center is occupied by several huge, multi-level, modern shopping centers. Within walking distance, the Mailbox, so named because it was once the headquarters of the post office, designed like a typical British mailbox, is the center of luxury fashion. And a few miles away, in the Jewelers’ Quarter, you can make custom gems and precious metals or experience the work of budding jewelry designers in more than 100 jewelry stores and 400 jewelry-related businesses. About 40 percent of the jewelry sold in the UK, including some sold in the most prestigious stores on Bond Street, is actually made in Birmingham’s jewelry district.
Visit Shakespeare’s birthplace
The market town of Stratford-upon-Avon is a must-see for lovers of the bard. See a play at the famous Royal Shakespeare Theatre (highly recommended). Take a tour of all the Shakespeare family homes. Or just wander the streets and banks of Avon, admiring the beautiful medieval half-timbered houses. Take a lunchtime cruise to see things from a different perspective. And don’t forget to drive a few miles out of town (there’s a convenient hop-on-hop-off bus) to Anne Hathaway Cottage, the real-life scene of Shakespeare in love.
Step into history in the Peak District National Park
When you travel on foot, bike or motorcycle through the Peak District, you step into real social history. The park is Britain’s oldest national park, though it wasn’t founded until the 1950s. But what happened there in the 1930s led to the opening up of most private land in England to pedestrians and the founding of the national park movement in Britain. In 1932, 500 people walked from Manchester to the highest point of the Peaks, a plateau called Kinder Scout. It became known as the Kinder Scout mass trespass and was one of the most successful acts of civil disobedience in British history. It eventually led to the National Parks Act of 1949, the creation of the British long-distance trail network, and rural access rights enshrined in British law. The history lesson is over. The Peak District National Park is a great place to visit for outdoor enthusiasts.
Chatsworth Tour, Duke of Devonshire Family Home
Chatsworth on the outskirts of Derbyshire Peak is one of the most popular houses for visitors from the United States. It has belonged to the Cavendish family, the present Dukes of Devonshire, for more than 450 years. Among the family’s wealth of colorful characters was the scandalous Georgiana Spencer, the forebear of Princess Diana and heroine of the movie. Duchess, starring Keira Knightley.
It’s a stately home where the contents eclipse Capability Brown’s 1,000-acre landscaped park, gardens and waterworks designed to thrill the Russian Czar (who has never seen it). The family’s passion for collecting art for five centuries has resulted in one of the finest private art collections in Europe. There are works of art more than 4,000 years old, from classical sculptures to modern works, all held in trust for the public.
Tickets for a tour of the house, garden, farm and playground or any combination of the four cost from £6.50 to £23.
Take a drive around the Formula One circuit.
Silverstone, site of the British Formula One Grand Prix, is just one of the amazing places you’ll find in the county of Northamptonshire, also called the “Heart of England.” While there, you can accompany the driver on a high-speed drive around the track. Or you can spend a day learning how to drive a Formula 1 car so you can go to the track yourself.
Visit Allthorpe, Princess Diana’s childhood home.
Althorp, Diana’s childhood home and final resting place, is open to the public at certain times each year. The dates are announced on the Althorp website. The house has been the home of the Spencer family for 500 years, and its collections are fascinating. There are 650 portraits, perhaps the best collection of portraits in Europe, including a room full of family portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds, a family friend. There is also a long gallery of portraits of King Charles II’s court ladies, who are said to have been his mistresses, painted by Lely. In the house is the only known portrait from the life of the ill-fated Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England nine days before she was beheaded by Mary Tudor, also known as Bloody Mary.
Discover the wonder of a forest of English bells
If you visit Northamptonshire in May, take time to stop at Coton Manor with its beautiful English bell tree. The garden, privately created by one determined homeowner and his gardener, is a great place to stop for a stroll, a cream tea, and a very English springtime view of the carpet of flowering bells covering the five-acre woodland floor.
Find Richard III in Leicester
Richard III, the most villainous king in all of Shakespeare’s plays, may not have been such a villain after all. And he may not have been responsible for killing his nephews, two little princes, in the Tower of London to secure the throne. The jury is still out. But what has been proven is that the skeletal remains unceremoniously dumped in an unmarked grave under the city parking lot in Leicester belong to the humpbacked king.
The new award-winning Richard III Visitor Center, Richard III: Dynasty, Death and Discovery, tells the story of his life and times, the dynastic Wars of the Roses, as well as the fascinating detective story and contemporary genetic research that led to the discovery and identification of the king’s body. After visiting the center, explore Leicester Cathedral, where Richard is now buried, and visit the nearby Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Center to see where he met his end, exclaiming – if you believe Shakespeare – “Horse, horse. My kingdom for a horse.”
Go up to Lincoln Cathedral.
Lincoln, in the East Midlands, has a very well-preserved medieval quarter as well as some interesting Roman ruins. It is at the very top of the city, and the paved pedestrian street leading up to it is so steep that it is actually officially called Steep Hill. In fact, most of the street is fringed with railings so that pedestrians cling to them and can get to the top. But don’t worry – if you want to get to the Lincoln Commercial District and the Whitham Riverfront without climbing Steep Hill, there is a bus.
There are many good reasons to visit the area known as Lincoln Uphill. The cathedral, one of the earliest examples of the English style known as Perpendicular Gothic, was the only man-made structure in the world taller than the pyramids until the mid-16th century. While in the cathedral, look for Lincoln Imp — legend has it that he was frozen in stone by an angel — and the Green Man, whose carvings date back to pagan symbolism. After visiting the cathedral, walk through the Cathedral Quarter to the ruins of the medieval bishop’s palace. It is considered haunted and definitely scary to visit after dark.
Fight power and punishment at Lincoln Castle
Lincoln Castle has occupied the highest point of the city for almost 1,000 years – perhaps longer. For most of that time, it was a place of trial and imprisonment and remains the site of Lincoln’s Royal Court.
It is also a fascinating sight to see and do three different things:
- The Keep of the Great Charter of Liberties: In 1215, the barons forced King John to sign the Great Charter of Liberties in Runnymede, Lincoln’s Bishop Hugh was there, and he brought the original to Lincoln. This is one of four original copies of the Magna Carta, the founding document of the American legal system in the world. Two years later, in 1217, a new document was drafted, incorporating much of the original and making improvements. It is known as the Charter of the Forest, and the underground vault of the Great Charter of Liberties at Lincoln Castle is the only place where you can see both side by side. There is also a circular screen with a 3D movie that puts the documents in context and explains why the Magna Carta, which establishes the rights of the people and the principle that no one is above the law, is important today.
- Medieval Wall Walk: Walk around the Castle along its intact curtain walls, stopping along the way to peek into the towers and dungeons. Recent improvements have made it accessible — with a wheelchair elevator that will take visitors on a safe and impressive walk along the wall for a third of a mile.
- Victorian Prison: The Victorian reformers had some strange ideas about humane imprisonment, and they fully tested their theories, called the “separate system,” in a prison within the walls of these castles. This experience comes alive for visitors who can put on costumes and experience the sights, sounds and claustrophobia of an unusual chapel.
Swim like a Roman on Britain’s oldest canal
Lincoln is not on the coast, but it does have a waterfront, and a very old one at that. Poole Brayford marks the point where the Whitham River meets the canal known as the Fossdyke Navigation. The Fossdyke connects the Whitham with the River Trent, one of England’s main waterways. It is the oldest canal in Britain, the origins of which are lost in the dark, unrecorded history of the Middle Ages. But the best guess is that the Romans built it around 120 AD.
You can walk or bike the 6-mile long Fossdyke Canal Trail, but why not head for the water instead. The canal itself offers 10 miles of calm water for swimming without locks, perfect for leisurely canoeing or kayaking.
Find Robin Hood’s lair in Sherwood Forest
Major Oak is 800 to 1,000 years old. Legend has it that it was Robin Hood’s hideout and sanctuary where he and his band of Merry Men slept, hidden from sight and the evil Sheriff of Nottingham.
At the Sherwood Forest Visitor Center, you can learn the best way to explore this ancient forest. There is information on walks, wildlife, and legends to explore. An important feature of this forest is the presence of really ancient oaks here. At least 1,000 are believed to be at least 500 years old.
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West Midlands in England.
Undoubtedly the small provincial towns and unspoiled landscape of the West Midlands/ West Midlands caress the tourist’s eye, but surely also the urban epicenter of the region is Birmingham, the second largest city in England, which used to be the largest industrial city in the world, with many factories that gave energy to the industrial revolution.
Chamberlain Square (Birmingham)
Long burdened by a reputation as a musty place that hates culture and adores machines, Birmingham has regained its image in recent years by initiating several ambitious architectural and environmental projects, revitalizing its museums and industrial heritage sites, and giving itself a higher profile on the cultural map that it did not have before.
It’s not a particularly beautiful city, it should be noted, but it has retained some of England’s superb landmarks, it’s teeming with life, and the nightlife includes everything from Royal Ballet productions to all-night clubs, and there are plenty of restaurants and pubs, Birmingham has undergone a forced transformation because manufacturing fell – about a third of all establishments were lost between 1974 and 1983 – but even worse in Black Country, that cluster of industrial cities at the west end of the city.
These places have had a hard time changing themselves, setting themselves on a new path in the turmoil of post-industrialization, and they more fully embody the negative stereotypes once associated with Birmingham. Even there, however, you’ll find a few pleasant surprises in the form of some excellent museums and galleries. The counties to the south and east of Birmingham and behind the Black Country – Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire – are citadels of rural life that maintain an emotional and political distance from the cities.
Left wing politicians in the big city seem very distant when you are in Shrewsbury, but in reality the distance is only 70 miles one from the other. The four counties for the most part make up a tranquil, serene strip of land of pastoral England, very beautiful indeed, but their charm is all the clearer the longer you are there. Of the four counties, Warwickshire is the least impressive, but nevertheless attracts the greatest number of visitors because – as road signs at every crossroads declare – it is “Shakespeare country.
The first destination is, of course, Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s full of Shakespeare-related sites and a world-class theater, but leave time also for the fun town of Warwick, it has a magnificent church and a huge castle, as well as the magnificent modern Coventry Cathedral. Neighboring Worcestershire, which stretches southwest from the urban fringes of the West Midlands, has two places of interest, Worcester, which is blessed with a huge cathedral, and Great Malvern, a mannered land resort stretching along the curving contours of the Malvern Hills, an area primarily for walking.
From here again to the west is Herefordshire, a large and sparsely populated county with several charming fair towns, Ledbury and Hay-on-Wye being the most openly beautiful. The latter has the largest concentration of antique bookstores (second hand) in the world. There’s also Hereford, which displays a remarkable medieval map of the world (Marra Mundi), and the pocket-sized Ross-on-Wye, which is a short distance away if you take the amazingly beautiful Wye River Valley road.
Nearby, to the north, rural Shropshire rivals Ludlow, one of the region’s most beautiful towns full of old half-wood houses, and the pleasant provincial town of Shrewsbury, which is close to the Long Mynd hiking trails. Shropshire also has a striking industrial history, for it was here in Ironbridge Gorge that British industrialists built the world’s first iron bridge and first used coal as a fuel for smelting metal. These are two key events in the Industrial Revolution, and accordingly the best days of local industry are reflected in a number of museums.
To the east of Shropshire, stretching north from the city blocks of Birmingham, is Staffordshire, where Lichfield makes excellent use of its Samuel Johnson connections, while Stoke-on-Trent recalls the good times when its pottery dominated world markets in an excellent museum and factory stores. Nearby lies Derbyshire, whose northern fringes include some of the most beautiful scenery in the rugged landscapes of the Peak District National Park. There are excellent opportunities for moderately strenuous walks as well as entertainment in the pretty town that used to be Buxton Resort, Castleton’s sandstone caves and the so-called “Plague Village” of Eyam.
There’s also the stately pile of Chatsworth House and Haddon Hall, an exceptionally well-preserved old mansion. Birmingham is a local public transport hub, easily accessible by train from London, Euston, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, York and a host of other cities. The National Express bus network is also well organized here, with dozens of buses departing every hour to all parts of Britain. Local bus routes excel in towns throughout the West Midlands and very well in the Peak District, but disappear somewhere between the villages of Herefordshire and Shropshire.
The main attractions of the West Midlands are.
1). Theaters, Stratford-upon-Avon – Shakespeare’s plays are performed there;
2). Mappa mundi, map of the world (Marra Mundi). Hereford Cathedral – This ancient map, dating from about 1300, helps one understand the world of the Middle Ages much better;
3). Ironbridge Gorge – The first iron bridge with high arches over the River Severn;
4). Hay-on-Wye – Tucked away deep in the middle of nowhere, this pretty little town has more antiquarian bookshops than anywhere else in the world;
5). Ludlow – Provincial town, pretty as a postcard, with half-wood houses and lots of restaurants;
6). Buxton – Beautiful former resort town and an ideal base for exploring Peak County;
7). Hassop Hall Hotel, Hassop – Probably the most charming hotel in the Peak District and a great base for long hikes.