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Stourport-on-Severn

Sundown over the basin, by suesviews. Image used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

Sundown over the basin, by suesviews. Image used under Creative Commons, click pic for link.

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

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Filed under 5/5, Worcestershire

Kidderminster

Kidderminster Snow, Dec 2010, by Frosted Peppercorn. Image used under Creative Commons licence, click pic for link.

Kidderminster Snow, Dec 2010, by Frosted Peppercorn. Image used under Creative Commons licence, click pic for link.

Ah, Kiddy. How do I start to describe Kiddy?

Kidderminster is a near neighbour to us now, a 20 minute bus ride from the end of the road. To get there from us one travels through the understated loveliness of the South Staffs/North Worcs borders and into the ‘burbs at Broadwaters. From then on, you have to somehow negotiate a large-scale system of one-ways and ring-roads to get into the town centre, and you’re usually best off just heading into the first car park you see: I’ve been there many, many times now and still struggle to orientate myself from one end to the other. If you’re on the bus, you’ll hop off at the bus station, conveniently situated for the new Weavers Wharf development. This is the best of Kiddy, commercially-speaking. Debenhams, for example, is housed in the former Slingfield Mill, its restored chimney towering over the town centre. Nearby, the college is housed in the sympathetically restored Piano Building. You’ll find all the big name shops you could want between here and the Carpet Trades retail park over the road (Kidderminster’s trade of repute is carpets, to this day).

However, Kidderminster is very much a split-personality kind of town. Cross the bridge over the Stour into the town centre itself, and you’re faced with somewhat crumbling 1960s office edifices, an unkempt wind tunnel of a main street with a dirty market, and several Greggs. That kind of town. For all that, I view it very affectionately: just like Waltham Cross was an ugly but fruitful source of bargain shopping, I can’t help but love Kidderminster. It’s a cheap place to live as well: all the fine Victorian villas around the town are much more fiscally accessible than the same would be in, say, Bromsgrove or Stourbridge nearby. The opening of Weaver’s Wharf in 2004 was no doubt intended to spark some gentrification in the prime territory skirting the town centre; but as yet, one road off the ring road will still find you in a street roughly resembling Hamsterdam.

The pros and cons of Kidderminster as a place to live are up for debate. What’s indisputable is that this is a serious charity shop tourism destination. I’ll explain the latter part first, and this might be just me. I am a fan of canals. I’ve yet to build a model set, but it’s certainly a possibility, and Kiddy is a canal town. The Stour flows through the town to the Severn, and alongside it the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal, offering waterborn transport to Stourport and the big river one way, and Kinver, the Birmingham canal network, Wolverhampton, Stafford and onward the other. It’s also a train town: today the Black Country express through Smethwick and Cradley Heath continues on to Kidderminster, Droitwich and Worcester, but you can also change for the Severn Valley Railway through to Bridgnorth. For those slightly in thrall to industrial architecture as I am, there’s plenty to point at in Kiddy – in fact, it could be a real selling point for the town given its distinctive history. That’s my advice to the Kidderminster tourist board, and you’re welcome.

However, for the purposes of this blog (and our repeat visits): we count sixteen charity shops. Sixteen. If this was the Final Score vide-printer, that would say 16 (sixteen)  for clarification. I think it’s a record. For the sake of completeness, they are: Oxfam; British Heart Foundation (and BHF Furniture & Electricals); British Red Cross; Sense; Forces UK (and Forces Furniture & Electricals); Marie Curie; Salvation Army; Cancer Research; Scope; Mind; Happy Staffie Rescue; Forest Dog Rescue; YMCA; and Kemp Hospice. The highlights include Kemp Hospice, at least so I’m told – we often return with considerably more fabric than when we arrived; the large furniture shops are worth a gander as well – we bought our washing machine from BHF, and have espied a great quantity of furniture that we would have purchased, if only we still had the car. We’ve ended up with bits and bobs from most of these shops though.

We have problems with Kidderminster. It’s an easy place to get to on the bus, it’s got all the shops we need etc., but we find it hard to miss out charity shops. You know, just in case. So, it’s always a hike around the SIXTEEN charity shops, and you know what – it’s brilliant. It’s a funny old place, and it could be wonderful with a bit of love. But I like it as it is.

Find: Kidderminster Google Maps
Get there: the 125 bus goes to Stourbridge and Bridgnorth, or there’s regular trains from Birmingham and Worcester.
Consume with: there’s the normal array of chain coffee and a pretty rough-looking ‘spoons, but I’m still intending to visit Ye Olde Seven Stars, a CAMRA recommended pub where guests are encouraged to bring their own lunch.
Visit: whilst not neglecting the legendary WM Safari Park, probably the funnest day out is going to be on the steam train.
Overall rating: five fat quarters (1 1/4 wholes?)

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Filed under 5/5, Worcestershire

Bewdley

Brrrrrr-bewdley, under Creative Commons by Michael C Clark. Click pic for link.

Brrrrrr-bewdley, under Creative Commons by Michael C Clark. Click pic for link.

If you’ve heard of Bewdley in the last 12 months it will have been for one of two reasons. Firstly, it might have been Becky Hill, the wild-eyed, somewhat excitable Worcestershire lass who made it to the semi-final of The Voice by virtue of a massive voice and the, erm, career help of letterbox-faced, Cleopatra-styled wigger extraordinaire, Jessie J. The other reason we figured out on our most recent day out in Bewdley. Working on our general laziness, we walked from the tiny village of Arley along the wonderfully scenic Severn valley towards this Georgian town – a highly recommended hike filled mostly with speculation about which house we’d buy given the chance (I think, on the way there, we settled on one of the wood-surrounded chalets on Northwood Lane). The return journey, on the western bank, was altogether harder work thanks to muddy and precipitous paths, blown-down trees and the like, but yielded some even more desirable properties. Anyone who knows me in person would tell you that gregariousness is not my defining feature, and the house outside of town, at the foot of a wooded hill overlooking a meadow and the river, would be just perfect. The house has recently become available, but on a less cheerful note, it was the scene of the murder of its most recent inhabitant, Betty Yates. That is entirely typical of my constant companion and I.

You’d have to admit that the setting is wonderful, and Bewdley has all mod cons you’d want out of a small town. Excepting perhaps a train station (the Severn Valley Railway is hardly ideal for commuting, and Kidderminster is only 3 miles away) Bewdley is a cute yet bustling Severnside town, more serene than Bridgnorth, more refined than Stourport. Served by an array of local food and drink shops, pubs, delis, cafes and boutiques on the main shopping drag of Load Street, I don’t suppose residents are particularly regretful that (aside from a Co-op) there’s no major supermarket in town. That’s one in the book for Bewdley really, and the very close Kidderminster has a bizarrely massive range of large-scale shopping experiences.

Charity-shop-wise, Bewdley also fairs pretty well, and is a relaxed and pretty place to wile away your time. At the top of the hill, near the church in the middle of the road, is Kemp Hospice. It’s a large shop with an extensive back room full of books, so obviously I’m in trouble. Recently renovated, over the road you’ll find the Richard House Hospice shop, which now also has a pile of books in a nice clean, new-looking shop. Still a little hard to navigate the various cases and shelves, however. On the same side is a small-ish but reasonable Sue Ryder Care. Finally, there’s a more ad hoc sort of affair through the back of the hardware shop. It sounds odd, and is, and using all my Google-fu I can’t remember what it’s name is.

When first thinking of moving to the Midlands, I drove through Bewdley (and Kinver, Bridgnorth and the surrounding countryside) and it was what sold me on the area. North Worcestershire is hardly a buzzing tourist hotspot, but with the Severn valley, the Clee Hills, Wyre Forest and plenty more right there, it’s a lovely part of the world. I’d cheerfully recommend Bewdley on a CST-style day out.

Find: Bewdley Google Maps
Get there: No rail link (except for the Severn Valley Railway, which is even pricier than the main line), but plenty of buses serving Kiddy, Bridgnorth and Stourbridge.
Consume with: Piccolo’s is well worth a coffee stop, or Merchants on the riverside for a chip lunch.
Visit: Bewdley Museum is set in the old butchers’ shambles, or if more active is your thing, the Worcestershire Way, North Worcestershire Path, Severn Way and National Cycle Network Route 45 all converge on Bewdley.
Overall rating: four ceramic egg cups.

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Filed under 4/5, Worcestershire