The Midlands are the middle section, sometimes called "the heart of England."
By using the term Midlands, I am going to, perhaps, broaden the normal boundaries a bit
to include places that are sometimes ascribed to other regions. I am mainly considering the
broad area that is north of London; between Wales and East Anglia, yet south of Yorkshire.
To begin with, my travels to the Midlands never really touched upon the big industrial cities
of Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham or Sheffield. The nearest I ever got to them was passing
by on the motorway, for I never had a good reason to go to them, and never really wanted to, to
be honest. I do not mean to be prejudiced against them, it's just that I never had a good excuse
to visit them. But, maybe someday--one can only hope!
Call me an academic prude if you want, but I've enjoyed visiting Oxford and
Cambridge quite a lot. They are both reasonably close to London, but far enough
apart that you will never see them both on the same day, unless you absolutely have to.
It's a good idea to take your time and see them as the two separate university towns
that they are meant to be. They are quite different from university towns in the U.S.A., for
they are a collection of many colleges that are like separate little communities unto themselves.
They can be rather cloistered and private, but a limited amount of their grounds and architecture
is accessible to the public. I've been to Oxford about four times, and enjoyed it, including
one of those double-decker bus tours with my Dad in 1987.
In 2004, I returned to Oxford with Linda,
Reanna, and my Dad, and we had a lovely time walking down the main street and poping in-and-out
of shops and cloistered college courtyards, including a climb up the tower of St. Mary-the-Virgin
church (1280), overlooking Radcliffe Square, which is arguably the most beautiful academic
square in the world. We also visited the courtyard of Bodleian Library (1610), but didn't have
time to enter the library on this trip. Oxford has the advantage of being in
close proximity to several other sights in its region that are worth seeing, but I think I was
more smitten with the atmosphere at Cambridge, which seemed to be more appealing. Cambridge may
not have as many interesting sights in the surrounding area, but has more parks and is more
pedestrian and bicycle friendly. In 1993, my Dad and I had a fun time "punting" along the Cam
River, in one of those boats, similar in shape and dimension to a gondola. Dad almost fell
into the water trying to propel the boat! The only way to steer one of these is with a wooden
pole called a punting pole, which by my own estimate, was over ten foot long, and heavy! I took
over the job of steering and managed to move us up and down the Cam for a reasonable distance,
but it was rather difficult. It's a lot harder than it looks, believe me; quite a few people
hire expert punters to navigate these boats!
A little bit West and NW of Oxford is the ever-charming Cotswold Hills region, which is
home to several towns that were at the center of the cottage-wool industry that thrived in
the 18th century but later declined and left the region stuck-in-time. I have been to
Cirencester a couple of times, which was a large Roman city during Roman occupation, and a
little south of which, is the source of the River Thames. It also boasts one of the most ample
yew hedges anywhere in Britain. I have spent the night in a little Cotswold town called
Northleach, and have driven through the Cotswold's with my Dad, sister Melanie, and her boy
friend at the time, Shane Neal.
Not far from Oxford is the little village of Woodstock, which is the location of
Blenheim Palace, a marvelous palatial estate, where Winston Churchill was born in 1874.
I toured the palace and grounds one cool day in 1988. A little further north is
Stratford-on-Avon, which is the birthplace and burial place of William Shakespeare. I know
that a lot of people may consider it to be over-rated, but it is still a must-see place for
literary and history buffs. I have been there at least four times, and I have rented a row-boat
to float on the Avon River for thirty minutes. Stratford is one of those places that you have
to take visitors to when they come all the way from America, because everyone knows and loves
Shakespeare. Don't forget Ann Hathaway's house, also in Stratford. A little more to the north
is Warwick, a splendid old town with the well-preserved medieval Warwick Castle, built
over an older Norman one. I have been there twice.
A little more NW, in Shropshire, is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Who
would believe it, but this wonderfully idyllic, remote, and handsome little pocket of England
is THE place where iron became mass-produced and power-driven machinery was first introduced.
The first iron bridge (in the world) was built here in 1779, and still exists today, in the
little town named, appropriately, Iron Bridge. This is a great place to visit, for it
is surprisingly low key and not overly commercialized.
Moving over to the East Midlands, I have been to Lincoln a couple of times. Lincoln
is not large, but the old-town is very well-preserved, and is situated on a hill in
the otherwise flat country-side of Lincolnshire. Lincoln Cathedral stands out, literally, as you
approach, and is a singularly magnificent piece of gothic architecture. But more attractions
await you in Lincoln besides the Cathedral. Lincoln Castle is moderately impressive, and gives
you great high-views for photographing the cathedral and the surrounding area. Plus, there is a
copy of the Magna Charta, and a decent museum that tells all about it. As you walk down
the hill towards more of Lincoln, you'll pass three of the oldest houses in Britain, called the
"Jews' Houses." These solid old houses, remarkably, date back to the 1100-1200's. Very
eye-catching, to say the least.
Other towns I have been to in the Midlands include Leeds, Northampton, Peterborough,
Stamford, Stoke-on-Trent, and Worcester, among others that are too small to mention.
I've been to Northampton at least three times because there was a congregation there
that put on good youth rallies, and I befriended a group of American AIM workers (Adventures in
Missions) there that I kept in touch with. Plus, I went to the Greenbelt Festival (an annual
Christian music festival), located near Castle Ashbey, on my motorcycle in 1987. And then,
there is the little town of Corby (in North Northamptonshire)--not famous for anything,
but I have been there numerous times to visit the British Bible School, which occupies a
soft place in my heart.
Another couple of sights that I have to mention are not far northwest of London in
Buckinghamshire, and they are Old Jordans and Stoke Poges.
Old Jordans is a small hidden-away place that claims to have the Mayflower Barn; a barn
that was built with the timbers of the Mayflower ship that carried the Pilgrims to America, and
the 17th century Quaker Meeting House (reputedly the oldest one). The founder of
Quakerism and the State of Pennsyvania, William Penn (1644-1718), is buried on the grounds with
his two wives and children. A few miles south is Stoke Poges, where Thomas Gray (1716-1771) is
buried at St. Giles Church. In 1751 he wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, one
of the most quoted of English poems. I don't believe he based the Elegy on this particular
church yard, but the setting is peaceful; an impressive old yew tree is there, and the church
that dates back to Saxon times is open to visitors. There is just no end to the wonderfully
interesting and historic sights of England's Midlands.
Cambridge City Council
Oxford city Council, Tourism
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
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