The west midlands of England involves several counties which I will be covering for the next couple of months but it is also the name of a very small county, with Birmingham at its core, and sits right next to the more petite neighbor county of Coventry. It has been in existence since 1974 when Birmingham was united with several independent (and in some cases Royal) towns such as Sutton Coldfield. As a result, Dudley Castle has the distinction of being the only Norman castle to be contained within its own county and the county’s only surviving medieval castle. Historically, it is claimed by Staffordshire. (English borders of individual counties are often a large point of contention with city councils to the point of confusion.) William Fitz-Ansculf and his son are believed to be the builders according to the Domesday book of 1086. During this period it had a sizable honour*, as it had a large block of villages surrounding it, vying with Richmond, Ewyas Harold and Montgomery Castles. The site may have been fortified with wood during the 8th century by the Saxon Lord Dud (or Dado) but historians have not been able to ascertain any tangible proof. The fact that it survived the limestone quarrying industry which flourished in Dudley for some time and, before that, King Henry’s orders for demolition in 1173 is quite a miracle. Cromwell’s forces in the 17th century and a fire in 1750 is testament to its tenacity. It was never considered formidable but its buildings and landscape are quite pretty- too pretty for Mary, Queen of Scots, perhaps. Queen Elizabeth the First personally visited it to assess whether it would be a sufficient prison for her rival. Apparently, it didn’t pass inspection.
(*The lands forming a lord’s endowment were known collectively as his honour.)
It was the seat of the Paganel family until Gervase Paganel came under scrutiny for his involvement in an uprising against the King. By the 13th century the Somery family were the new dynasty who rebuilt the castle in stone for decades upon decades. Most of what you will see currently, the keep, main gate, chapel and rectangular great hall with corner turrets were built during that period. John Somery died in 1321 and his line stopped, passing his estates to his sister Margaret and her husband John de Sutton. For two hundred years the castle was passed down the line of successive John de Suttons when the seventh ran into money problems losing the estate to his relative John Dudley who became the Duke of Northumberland in 1537. This self-same John Dudley was the man responsible for attempting to put Lady Jane Grey on the throne, which, as you may know, resulted in the beheading of both of them. Before he lost his head he added quite a few outbuildings and fortifications which are known today as the Sharington Range, named after the architect, William Sharington.
Today it is a wonderful Zoo and Castle Museum and was the first site filmed on Most Haunted Live for Halloween in 2002 ! The visitor center was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in June of 1994 which displays many exhibits among which is a computer generated reconstruction of the castle as it appeared in 1550. Its display was the prototype for the type of virtual tour which is in widespread use today on the web. Queen Elizabeth was the first royal to experience a virtual world tour at this site !
Only four miles away, Himley Hall which sits right on the border of Staffordshire and West Midlands at Sedgley, is where the Earl of Dudley removed to after the fire of 1750. In its early period it was a manor house with a moat beside a medieval church. This was the secondary home for over four centuries and was replaced with the current Palladian mansion by John Ward. Many changes took place concurrently with the village of Himley relocation and the church was rebuilt in 1764 leaving no traces of the former medieval settlement.
The most interesting façade of Himley, on the western exposure, sports a three-storey central block topped by a parapet with balustrade and great pilasters at the corners on either side of a pedimented central projection. This gives the walkways nearby a wonderful view. The interior is a classical continuation with porticos and pilasters throughout. A beautiful fireplace and grand dog-leg staircase greet you at the entrance hall along with a large receiving room which features carved pilasters.
John Ward II hired Capability Brown to landscape the surrounding parkland ten years later by creating a lake, incorporating a series of waterfalls from smaller reservoirs and redesigning a 180 acre area. By the 1830s they gave up the estate and moved their seat to Witley Court in Worcestershire. However, in 1934 the Duke and Duchess of Kent spent their honeymoon at Himley Hall and later Edward VIII, former Prince of Wales, spent his last weekend at the Hall prior to his abdication of the throne. After World War II the property was purchased by the National Coal Board and during its conversion a fire broke out in the south wing which demolished that portion and it was rebuilt but not to its original specifications or appearance. By 1966 the mansion was acquired by Dudley and Wolverhampton Borough Councils and by 1970 it was opened to the public with additional woodland walks, a café, a nine-hole golf course and sailing club attracting families as visitors. Dudley Council bought out Wolverhampton’s share in 1988 and it now hosts 200,000 visitors a year with many event attractions including yearly plant, car and fireworks shows.
( 01384 817817
At Wolverhampton, a statue of Prince Albert stands in Queen Square which was erected in 1866 and is the most recognized landmark within the city. Colloquially known as “The Man on the Horse” it was unveiled by Queen Victoria on her first public engagement after the death of Prince Albert. A 40 foot tall archway made of coal was constructed for her visit and she was so pleased with the statue she knighted the mayor of that time who was a local industrialist named John Morris . It was renamed Queen Square in honor of Queen Victoria’s visit. (This replaced a Russian cannon which was retrieved from Sevastopol during the Crimean War in 1855.) You can view the statue in the new photo album for W. Midlands county.
Wightwick 1893 addition Wolverhampton Coat of Arms
Three miles west of Wolverhampton central, Wightwick Manor is actually an entire series of 19th century period buildings, parts of which date back to the original Tudor era circa 16th century. Put it all together and it is the most delightfully eclectic mixture of timber frames and tudor pele and brick I have had the pleasure to view. It was built in two distinct phases with the first of 1887-8 which was more sedate, with the size of a suburban villa, in the Shaw-Nesfield tradition with fine craftsmanship and detailing close to Gothic Revival but keeping with the half-timbered vernacular which prevailed in Shropshire, Herefordshire and Cheshire. More development occurred in a second phase with the additions of 1893. The Great Parlour/Dining Room/Billiard wing was added on the east, as large as the original house with more elegant, intricate work establishing Wightwick as a triumph of the aesthetic house. The tongue-in-cheek term used by detractors is Ould-English. It is a complete architectural study in detailing and features and an acquired taste.
This term comes from the architect’s name, Edward Augustus Lyle Ould (1852-1909) who studied in York as a pupil of John Douglas of Chester. This is why some of the architecture harkens back to Speke Hall at Lancashire and Little Moreton Hall in Cheshire. Wightwick Manor is very unique, however, and a look around will show any visitor its unusual visual charms. Commissioned by the Wolverhampton businessman Theodore Mander, after he had repaired the old Tudor Manor, Ould set about constructing Wightwick to the new progressive aesthetic ideals which were fashionable at the time. His contemporaries were Thomas Mainwaring Penson and James Harrison in a school which are loosely termed historic revivalists. Mr. Mander also revitalized the surrounding village which had decayed and went so far as to buy an old inn and turned it into a temperance pub.
His son Geoffrey, a radical Liberal member of Parliament, was primarily an art patron and he set about creating an enviable art collection for the manor which spans his period up to the time of his death in 1962. The collection is also a reflection on his second wife, the illustrious Rosalie G. Grylls who was as beautiful as she was a rugged individualist whose politics matched those of her husband. Her forte was literary but her influence most likely was an encouragement to Geoffrey during the 1930s when his Victorian art collection took shape. Her effect is felt throughout the house with inscriptions from poems painted in many of the rooms, although many are favorites of Geoffrey. The house was presented to the National Trust in 1937 by Geoffrey along with an endowment of 20,000 of Manders shares- one of the very few donated during the lifetime of its donor and the very first presented under the Country Houses Scheme which included the art collection. The beautifully evocative painting, Love Among the Ruins by Sir Edward Burne-Jones is hung prominently on one end of the Great Parlour which sets the tone for Wightwick’s living memorial in, “contrast of the beautiful past with the … monotonous present [and] depends on the existence of ruins and traditions, on the remains of architecture, the precursor(ship) of eventful history”, in the words of Ruskin.
Love Among the Ruins
Martin Drury, former director-general of the National Trust described it as, ” The most complete example of late nineteenth-century artistic taste … one of the two or three places in the world you must visit if you are interested in William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.” It is that and much, much more. Today it is still occasionally occupied by family members but perhaps only a flat in the Old Manor House, of course. Visitation days are sketchy but year round and arrangements are made through the National Trust. The gardens which were sadly neglected through most of its full occupation are now resplendent based on a design by Thomas Mawson with seventeen acres of Victorian/Edwardian pergola, yew hedges, topiary, terraces, woodlands and two pools.
(: 01902 761108
It is not possible to see a castle at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens, which is four miles east of Birmingham but you will see world class gardens which are situated around Bromwich Hall. If you have a burning desire to see genuine examples of 17th and 18th century English formal garden design this ten acre walled historic garden park will incense you with pleasure. The collection of 600 species of plants from the period includes vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs and wide varieties of fruit, a holly maze by George London and Henry Wise, classical patterned parterres from the end of the maze and a restored green house and summer house. It is possible to view portions of the Hall from the outside as the tours bring you within close range at some points during your tour of the gardens.
Bromwich Hall was built in 1599 by Sir Edward Devereux and later extensions and a third-storey addition are attributed to Sir John Bridgeman the First (Earl of Bradford), circa 1700. It was later heightened and altered internally in 1719 and further enlarged in 1825-40 with the additions of a northeast tower wing. The last private resident of the mansion was Lady Ida Bridgeman, Dowager Countess of Bradford, who lived there from 1869 until her death in 1936. She had been Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Mary, who was a frequent visitor to Castle Bromwich Hall.
The gardens were first developed by the Bridgeman family, around 1760 and continued up to 1900. By mid-20th century they were neglected and had to be restored by the Castle Bromwich Hall Garden Trust.
A 12th century motte and bailey was discovered in the 1970s which can still be seen today, between the M6 and Collector Road know as Pimple Hill. An extensive archaeological dig took place before construction of Collector Road.
Tel/Fax: 0121 749 4100
Monk’s Infirmary at Halesowen
I don’t often write about abbeys unless there are exceptional remains which give a good view of their former glory. Halesown Abbey happens to be a rare exception and the entire region of West Midlands counties have quite a few, Shropshire being a rare exception amongst all the counties for a myriad of such remarkable survivals. It is not surprising that the Halesowen location was once a part of the historic enclave of Shropshire until 1844.
Halesowen ruins reside on the furthest southern edge of West Midlands border, very close to Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, six miles west of Birmingham. It was founded in 1215 by French canons who predated the monasteries with a grant from King John and was a fraternal order to Titchfield Abbey in Hampshire. The monks controlled 4,000 hectares of land surrounding the abbey for a period of three hundred years and that with a rod of iron and heavy and unpopular taxes. It served as a court, fish farm and mill besides being a place of worship. A stop point for visiting pilgrims was at Kenelm’s Spring and the abbey took full monetary advantage of their close neighbor.
When the Dissolution was enforced the riches of this estate were granted to John Dudley who had been appointed Duke of Northumberland and from 1538 and through the industrial era the interiors were plundered and most likely sold and even the building fabric was carried off and used elsewhere. Much remains to be seen, by some miracle, including some outbuildings and other structures not directly related to the abbey. The monks infirmary is one such building to see and a 19th century farm is also nearby which was built with Halesowen stones.
(: 0121 6256820 regional office
A fascinating side trip to Kinver Edge Hill Fortnear Stourbridge will be an interesting side trip into the prehistoric past of man as a cave dweller. Its age is suggested by the name which is the ancient Celtic word for hill. Wonderful views of the surrounding countryside can be viewed from the top of the Edge as far as three counties and a wonderful topographic map points out highlights of what you can view, provided the fogs lift.
Apparently, people dug through the soft sandstone to create cave dwellings and have only completely vacated them since the 1950s ! One such house has been restored so you can visit an actual house as it would have looked during the Victorian era. An exhibition exists which gives the history of the homes and more on this National Trust site.
(: 01384 872553 (Holy Austin Rock Houses)
01384 872418 (Kinver Edge)
Heading back toward Birmingham you’ll find Aston Hall three miles northeast which is surrounded by public parkland and has been used as such since 1858 when it was purchased- house and all- by the Aston Hall and Park Company. This fairytale-like Jacobean mansion was designed by John Thorpe for Sir Thomas Holte and took seventeen years to build. Built entirely with brick it is a mass of mullioned bay windows, gables, turrets and wonderful classic features. Period rooms in the interior span the 17th to the 19th centuries with a long gallery which measures 136 feet. In 1817 James Watt Jr., son of the industrial pioneer, purchased the house and leased it until the park company bought it outright to use as a museum.
Unbelievably, the house did not escape Cromwell’s troops in 1643 and some of the damage remains, most notably where a cannonball went through a window, an open door and into the staircase banister! This marvelous edifice was once visited by Washington Irving who immortalized it in his Bracebridge Hall.
Eventually it was purchased by the Birmingham Corporation in 1864 becoming the first historic house in a country setting to pass into municipal ownership. It was to become the recipient of additional items from the Museum of Arms and the public library when a fire damaged the latter, in addition to the art collection it already housed. The formal gardens were implemented by the city’s Civic Society employing many that were unemployed and paying for the additions with government grants because the Birmingham Corporation had fallen into financial troubles. The addition is extensive with fountains, terraces, stone urns and a statue of Pan- all paid by the Society. Currently it is managed by the Birmingham City Council and is free and open to the public. Tours are complete with a large kitchen and servants’ rooms on display.
Blakesley Hall is not far away and also under the management of Birmingham City Council in the section of Yardley Swan Island. In 2001 it received a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund and has received Grade II listed status after a extensive restoration. This timber-framed Elizabethan farmhouse was built circa 1590 and it is now furnished with pieces as it may have looked during the 17th century. Gardens have been restored and a barn classroom which has been turned into a community museum and art gallery now take visitors from Easter to the end of October. With the grant, a new visitor centre was created which organizes up to three hour tours, special events, weddings and meetings.
If you head north from Birmingham to the edge of the West Midlands/Staffordshire border, north of the former royal town of Sutton Coldfield you’ll find Little Aston Hall Estate. This small residential area is situated within what was formerly the grounds of Little Aston Hall. Seven blocks of luxury apartments were constructed there during the mid-1980s, each containing six living spaces. The size of the construction was increased soon after with more apartments, known as Lady Aston Park. This private complex and posh community boasts quite a few millionaires, many of whom are former soccer players. Little Aston Hall has been replaced by the Little Aston Golf Club which is quite sumptuous but also unremarkable in its architecture. Only St Peters Church, built in the late 19th century by Edward Swynfen Parker Jervis and designed by G.E. Street, seems to have much historical character at all. Looking for a rich husband?
Town Hall Holy Trinity Church
Back at Sutton Coldfield you’ll find a lot of great restaurants and history predating Roman times. Several earth mounds have been discovered at Sutton Park which led to archaeological excavations in 1926 resulting in findings then and later of flint arrowheads and weapons at the park and several other locations. A 1 & 1/2 mile portion of the park along Icknield Street is part of the Roman remains along with Rowton Hill where Roman coins have been found. After the Romans left, it became a Mercia hamlet with a hunting lodge known as Southun, later becoming Sutton. By 1071 it passed into the possession of the Crown and the surrounding forest as well. A manor was built and it passed through the possession of Henry I’s son, Earl Roger, to Pope Alexander and acquired by the Priory of Trentham.
St Peter’s Church
The town and manor prospered and by 1300, Guy, the Earl of Warwick, was given a charter to hold market and an annual fair there on Tuesdays. During the 14th century three more moated manors were built of which only New Hall Manor remains although expanded and altered. Only the moat of Langley Hall remains. When the War of the Roses was well under way, Sutton Coldfield experienced a complete economic downturn which was reversed in 1519 by John Vesey, the Bishop of Exeter. He used his wealth to revive the old markets, paved roads, built schools and even built 51 stone cottages for the poor. He convinced Henry VIII to give the hunting grounds to the residents which in turn became Sutton Park and in 1528 a charter on the King’s orders gave the town the right to be known forever as the Royal Town of Sutton Coldfield. A weapons industry flourished at the turn of the 18th century which further helped the town prosper.
Sutton Coldfield has several manors and mansions. Renovations have resulted in hotels such as the New Hall Hotel, Moor Hall Hotel, Moxhull Hall Hotel, and Resort Penns Hall. Additionally there is Peddimore Hall, a Scheduled Ancient Monument near Walmley, (a double moated hall used a private residence.) However, Langley Hall, the former residence of William Wilson and Four Oaks Hall, designed by William Wilson were demolished. William Wilson is also known to have designed grade 2 listed Moat House and lived in it with his wife, Jane Pudsey. The latter is part of two conservation areas of a forty-acre designation for the historic protection of specific roads buildings, railways and churches on October 15, 1992.
Birmingham is a delight all its own with many diversions. Soho House, Selly Manor, the Botanical Gardens, the Jewellry Quarter and St Mary’s Convent along with a vibrant nightlife. One of the special aspects of visiting Birmingham is taking the opportunity to walk where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up. Between the years of 1895 to 1911 he had King’s Heath as his stomping ground, visiting such places as Sarehole Mill where he and his brother Hilary were to encounter The White Ogre (the miller’s son who chased them off!) This mill is now a museum so it can be visited gratis, one of the wonderful properties of Birmingham Museums and Art Galleries. Annually, a Middle Earth Weekend is held there in memorial to Tolkien.
Further afield, The Shire Country Park offers many different woodland varieties to wander about where Tolkien also played, since it was close to where he lived. There is much to see in the areas of Moseley Bog, Yardley Wood, Wake Green Playing Fields and nature reserves. It may be very inspiring for some to experience his boyhood haunts. Many believe that two local buildings at Edgbaston inspired Tolkien’s Two Towers. These are Perrott’s Folly and Edgbaston Waterworks Tower as the former was a 96 foot tower build in 1758 and the latter a giant Victorian chimney, both of which can be seen from miles away.
Hugs and kisses coming at you from miles away… The Castle Lady
Quote of the Day: “Our God is a household god, as well as a heavenly one; He has an altar in every man’s dwelling.”
– John Ruskin