Birmingham

Birmingham, second only to London in size, and a city since 1899, is traditionally the home of small industries anything from coins and guns to steam locomotives were made here. This rich industrial heritage is admirably displayed in Birmingham’s excellent Museum of Science and Industry. Originally smiths of all kinds were attracted by the availability of fuel from the mines of north Warwickshire and settled in different parts of the city. Around St Paul’s Church, for example, was the old silversmith’s quarter. Nowadays the principal industry is the supply of components for the motor industry. The university was founded in 1900, and in 1966 the College of Advanced Technology in Aston also received university status.

There are two cathedrals – St Philip’s built as the parish church in 1711, which has four superb PreRaphaelite windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, who was christened here, and the Roman Catholic St Chad’s. The Victorian centre of Birmingham was Victoria Square, where the neoclassical Council House, with its clock tower emulating Big Ben, dominates the scene. The Town Hall, modelled on a classical Roman temple, houses a fine organ on which Mendelssohn gave several concerts, and is the home of the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Part of the Council House is used for the Art Gallery, which has an important collection of modern sculpture and Pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as the interesting Pinto Gallery of wooden bygones.

Birmingham is said to have more miles of waterways than Venice, though much of this intricate network of canals is hidden and neglected. Gas Street Basin and James Brindley Walk, however, have been restored and parts of the canals are now lively once more. The city is proud of its progressive attitudes -symbolised perhaps by the Rotunda in the Bull Ring, the Central Library, an arrangement of ziggurat like buildings around a quadrangle and the road interchange system at Gravelly Hill, popularly known as Spaghetti Junction. Birmingham is now well established as an international exhibition centre, with the building of the massive new complex complete with its own railway station eight miles east of the city centre.

Charlecote

Charlecote Park, four miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, has been the home of the Lucy family since the 13th century. The present Elizabethan house was built in 1558 and enlarged during the 19th century. The octagonal tower gatehouse, however, has remained unaltered, and is now used as a museum. Shakespeare is said to have been brought before Sir Thomas Lucy after he’d been caught poaching in the grounds, and satirised him as Justice Shallow in Henry IV (Part 2) and The Merry Wives of Windsor. Herds of fallow and red deer still roam the parkland. The house contains portraits by Gainsborough and Kneller.

Coughton Court

Built in the 16th century and approached by way of a majestic stone gate-house. One of the most anxious moments in the history of this formidable house occurred on 5 November 1605, when the wives of several gunpowder plot conspirators waited anxiously for news of their husbands. Before the year was over, most of them had become widows. But the dramas, so far as Coughton Court was concerned, were not yet ended. During the Civil War, it was occupied by Roundhead forces, bombarded by the Royalists, and finally abandoned in flames. When James II left the country, the house was pillaged. In the 18th and 19th centuries it was remodelled.

Coventry

Coventry began in the 7th century, when an Anglo Saxon convent was erected somewhere near the present city centre. Four centuries later, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, built a Benedictine abbey, and the town began to grow. The story of his wife, Lady Godiva, riding naked through the streets, with only her long hair to preserve her modesty, first came into circulation in 1235.

The 19th century, that great age of innovation, brought the manufacture of sewing machines and cycles to the city and then came the motor car. In 1898, the Daimler Company produced Britain’s first horseless carriage in Coventry. From then onward, Coventry was a strong magnet, attracting labour from all over Britain. The Museum of British Road Transport tells Coventry’s part in the history of transport. The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum has collections of social history, art and archaeology.

The phrase ‘sent to Coventry’ originated in 1647. It referred to a group of Royalists who had been captured by Parliamentary forces in the Midlands, and were imprisoned in Coventry’s Church of St John. They had, to put it another way, been banned from society.

Ilmington

A pleasant Cotswold village, this has all the ‘olde-worlde’ features such as mossy stone roofs and mullioned windows. Some half-a-dozen buildings in the parish are over 200 years old and include the Rectory, Crab Mill, the Manor House and F oxcote, an impressive Georgian House. The Ilmington Morris Dancers keep alive one of several annual rural events that take place in and around the region. The highest point of the hills (854ft) has fine views of Warwickshire.

Kenilworth

The town’s most important feature is its 12th-century castle perhaps the finest fortress ruin in the country, and the setting for much of Scott’s novel Kenilworth. The castle, a stronghold throughout the Dark Ages, was remodelled as a palace by John of Gaunt, the fourth son of Edward III, who added the Great Hall in the 14th century. 200 years later Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, built the gatehouse and laid out the pleasure gardens. The Earl entertained Queen Elizabeth I at the castle. The remains of the keep are also of interest. The main street of the original town winds away from the castle’s main gateway, the town itself being attractive with several 15th-century half-timbered houses, a fine parish church, with a Norman doorway; nearby are the remains of an Augustinian abbey.

Leamington Spa

Situated on the River Learn, the town gained the prefix ‘Royal’ when Queen Victoria visited in 1838. Leamington’s heyday was in Regency and early Victorian times; its character and most impressive buildings date from this period. John Ruskin was brought here as a young boy suffering from a tubercular complaint. Today over 50,000 people every year are treated for rheumatic complaints in the natural spring waters of the Pump Rooms.

Nuneaton

A manufacturing town involved principally in the production of bricks, woollen goods and hats. The town has some interesting buildings. Nuneaton’s most famous daughter is George Eliot, who was christened Mary Ann Evans at Chilvers Coton church south of the town. She was born in 1819 at South Farm in the estate of Arbury Hall, and later lived nearby at Griff House. Much of the inspiration for her works came from the surrounding countryside and the characters she knew there. Arbury Hall, the seat of the Newdegate family since the 16th century, was built on the site of an Augustinian priory. Originally Elizabethan, the hall was transformed in the 18th century into an outstanding Gothic mansion. It has fine interiors and landscaped gardens.

Rugby

A manufacturing town, with important railway and engineering works, Rugby is the home of the famous public school, founded in 1567. The game of rugby football originated here in 1823, when one William Webb Ellis, according to school tradition, picked up the ball during an ordinary game of soccer and ran with it. The pattern of education established by headmaster Dr Thomas Arnold between 1828 and 1842 was followed by many other public schools, and served as the model for Thomas Hughes’ immortal novel, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, published in 1857.

Stratford upon Avon

As the birthplace of England’s greatest poet, Stratford is second only to London as a tourist attraction, but the throngs of visitors and the inevitable ‘Shakespeare industries’ have not quite managed to submerge the character of this thriving Midlands market town. There is no doubt that Stratford owes its state of preservation to the interest in Shakespeare and everything connected with him. His birthplace; the house where his daughter, Susanna, lived after her marriage to Dr Hall; the poet’s tomb in the church, with its famous inscription; the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; are all places of pilgrimage for the enthusiast.

Just outside the town, at Shottery and at Wilmcote, for those who are not already sated with Shakespeare there are the old thatched and timbered cortages where Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway and his mother Mary Arden, spent their childhood.

William Shakespeare was born on 23 April 1564 in the fine, timbered house on Henley Street that now, restored and furnished in period, has become a museum. His own house, New Place, was demolished in the 18th century, but a garden marks the site. Shakespeare’s early life is not well documented, but he is known to have attended the grammar school, an ancient foundation whose history goes back at least 200 years before his birth.

Stoneleigh

Stoneleigh is an interesting mixture of ancient and modern. The present day appears in the form of the Royal Show, that annual event to which farmers travel from all over the country. Its permanent site is in the grounds of Stoneleigh Abbey, a magnificent 18thcentury house, also with parts of the original 14th-century abbey – the gatehouse and the hospice – surviving. Other manifestations of the past can be seen on the nine-arched bridge across the river, the Norman features of St Mary’s Church, and several charming timbered houses.

Tysoe

Tysoe is divided into three parts: Upper Tysoe, which has a 16th century manor house; Middle Tysoe, distinguished by the splendid, late 11th century Church of the Assumption, and cottages with Venetian-style windows and doors; and the small hamlet of Lower Tysoe. Tysoe‘s main claim to fame is the Great Red Horse of Tysoe, scarcely visible now, cut into Sun Rising Hill. This is the source of the ancient tradition of festivals of the Red Horse; of local legends of a giant horse; and of the name Red Horse Vale. The Institute of Archaeology’s investigation of the Great Red Horse, and aerial photographs, concluded that Tysoe has had five horses at various times.

Radway, three miles north east, was the site of the famous battle of Edge Hill in 1642. Prince Rupert claimed victory for Charles I, but the young Oliver Cromwell learned much from his defeat under the Earl of Essex.

Warwick

Warwick, known as the ‘heart of England’, is a splendid town, standing on a rise above the River Avon at the meeting point of many roads. Originally founded by Ethelfleda, a daughter of Alfred the Great, in about 914, Warwick became an important borough under the Normans. It is dominated by its great medieval castle, built by the Beauchamps, the first Earls of Warwick, and enlarged and beautified by the Dudleys, descendants of Ambrose Dudley for whom Elizabeth I revived the title. In 1759 it passed to the Greville family whose descendants have held it ever since.

In 1694 the centre of Warwick was almost completely destroyed by fire. Few medieval buildings escaped. The finest of what remains are Lord Leycester’s Hospital and Oken House, which incorporate Westgate, one of the two remaining medieval gateways. The other, Eastgate, stands at the 4 opposite end of the High Street. Of the many fine buildings erected after the fire, the Court House, containing the Tourist Information Centre, and Shire Hall, home of the County Court, are the most outstanding public buildings. Beneath the octagonal courtrooms of the Shire Hall is the old town dungeon, where as many as 50 prisoners were sometimes confined, shackled, in a single small room. Northgate House and Abbotsford, now the Registrar’s house, are the best of the post-{ire town houses. The 174ft tower of St Mary’s Church is a landmark. This, and the nave and aisles, were rebuilt after the fire, but the crypt, chancel, chapter house and the magnificent Beauchamp Chapel, containing the tombs of the Earls of Warwick and their families, display Norman and 14th-century architecture. 18thcentury buildings constitute much of today’s centre, particularly in Castle Street, Bridge End and Mill Street.