There are plenty of places around this part of the world that might describe themselves as canal towns (Stourbridge, Wolverhampton, Birmingham), but not even Birmingham (more miles of canal than Venice, don’t you know) can equal Stourport’s complete connection to the canal system. Prior to 1772, when James Brindley completed the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal from Stafford, through Wolverhampton, Stourbridge and Kidderminster to the River Severn, this part of the world was occupied by the small villages of Upper and Lower Mitton, on the banks of the Severn and the Stour. Then the industrial revolution hit them in full and a full-fledged industrial town grew up around the junction of river and canal, henceforward Stourport-on-Severn, one of the great legacies of the canal age.
These days, not surprisingly, Stourport is not a thriving hub of industry. No longer will you find tanning yards, vinegar works, iron foundries or carpet factories lining the towpaths or the basins. But you’ll find plenty of evidence for these enterprises – the vinegar works are now converted, the huge canal basins are now home to hordes of holidaying boatpeople (the town is the hub of the Stourport Ring, a hugely popular route taking in some of the country’s finest industrial heritage), and the streets and paths are lined with classic Worcestershire red-brick houses from the time of the town’s initial growth, with huge machinery and converted warehouses and factories.
The town is located just a short distance from Kidderminster, so if you’re like me and a geek for this sort of thing, you can walk quite easily along the towpath, or indeed along the Severn Way from Bewdley. The most obvious reference point in the town is the bridge over the Severn – it’s hard to miss, not just because it’s the only bridge for miles but because of a noisy, light-flashing permanent funfair next to it. Actually, there’s plenty of space for kids to get over-excited here, as there’s a huge playground and park opposite – beware if you’re visiting in monsoon season though – you’ll find it pretty much underwater (though not quite as bad as some). Walking up into town you’ll pass several pubs (a large ‘spoons is a preferred stop-off here) and fish’n'chip shops, and pass Engine Lane – here’s a cut through to the marina complex, as it is now, replete with moorings, chandlery and plenty of boats to gawp at. Stourport is the furthest point an oceangoing boat can trek inland on the Severn, so there’ll be a variety of gaily-painted narrowboats, large cabin cruisers, and everything in between. Continuing up Bridge Street brings you to a mini-roundabout, the start of the High Street proper, and the first of our charity shops. On your right is a slightly esoteric non-charity-specific shop (so far as I can tell), which ranges from vintage cameras and hardbacks, to some randomly stacked stuff – there’s not really another word for it. Another charity shop with a distinctive odour this; perhaps it’s to do with the propensity of the proprietor to wander round in bare feet.
Opposite is a more normal (comparatively) charity shop, Shaw Trust (although my notes say “shaw trust mental”, my memory fails me as to why). Passing up the street, you’ll notice a distinct change in the type of shops. Lower down, by the river, the day-trip market is well catered-for, with the funfair, the park, the chippies, the souvenir shops selling inland equivalents of a kiss-me-quick hat. Above the junction with York Street you’ll find game butchers, florists, outdoor shops for the nearby Abberley hills, and the like. That’s not to say Stourport is elegant and sophisticated exactly: it exudes a sort of chippy charm throughout, certainly more than the slightly bleak-looking Streetview suggests. The charity shops on this stretch are a pretty good bunch, all quite sizable and worth a poke at. There’s a St Richard’s Hospice, Oxfam and British Red Cross up here.
Continue up Lombard Street for the remaining charity shops. Small RSPCA and Hospital League of Friends are found before you get to the large Coop supermarket; across the road is SOS Animal (another slightly creepy, slightly aromatic place. I advise you not to look too interested in any particular thing, if you’re the sort that doesn’t like getting into sales chats with the staff); around the corner are two Kemp Hospice shops, one of which is a furniture and electricals shop, although it seems like you have to view the products through the window, then go and ask in the other shop to have a look.
That’s a pretty good haul. We’ve returned with numerous bargains from Stourport, and it’s definitely a town worth visiting as well as shopping in. I’d mark it down for the awkwardness in getting to without a car; but I’ll mark it back up because you can get there via narrowboat, which is always a winner. Absolutely worth a stop off and explore.
Find: Stourport-on-Severn@ Google Maps
Get there: if you don’t have a boat, then it’ll need to be a bus – you can get these from all around Worcestershire, and there are limited-stop routes from Redditch, Worcester and Kiddy.
Consume with: The Olde Crown Inn (Wetherspoons) is a nice pub, but there’s plenty of caffs, takeaways and spots to eat your chips by the river.
Visit: if you’ve exhausted all the opportunities for looking at canals and rivers, how about Worcestershire County Museum – it’s not far down the road in Hartlebury Castle.
Overall rating: five world maps