Tag Archives: west midlands

Kinver

Sandstone, by El Bingle, under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Sandstone, by El Bingle, under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

There were a few things that sold me on a move to the Midlands, and accidentally driving through Kinver, looking for the way back to Halesowen, was certainly one of them. As soon as burst out of Stourbridge into the Staffordshire countryside you’re already in some lovely territory, and crossing the Stour at the Stewponey Junction you can really feel like you’re out of the big, bad city. Kinver is the very southernmost tip of the county, a large but secluded village nestled in between the River Stour and the Staffordshire & Worcestershire canal (which run parallel on the East of the village) and the promontory of Kinver Edge. It’s these features that defined the village historically. First the Stour, then the Staffs & Worcs brought water-borne trade through the village resulting in several lock-side pubs, watermills and cloth making. Later on some of the country’s earliest slitting mills split bars of iron ready to be made into nails in nearby Lye or Bromsgrove. After that, Kinver became a bit of a proto-tourist destination with the installation of an electric light railway from Stourbridge, and although that’s closed, it’s still a popular spot amongst locals for a wander round and a sit in the sun by the river.

Most curious are the Holy Austin Rock Houses. Built into the caves of Kinver Edge (now a National Trust-owned high heathland and forest), these troglodytic caves were continuously occupied right up to the 1950s, and some have been restored to their Victorian glory, replete with windows, ranges and furnishings. Evidence of prior occupation is found higher up the hill with its Iron Age earthworks, and get right to the top for impressive views over Worcestershire, Staffordshire and Shropshire, belying the Edge’s actual fairly low altitude.

Be aware: Kinver is just a village. It’s got a good stock of little shops, reminiscent of Alresford in some ways, with some boutiques and tea rooms, and a couple of excellent pubs: I recommend The Vine (whenever it reopens) on the canal. There’s just the two charity shops. Compton Hospice is a fairly standard little shop – it seems like there’s rarely enough room for everybody that wants to be there. There’s occasionally a treat though – finances sadly dictated that we say no to a whole boxful of antique medicine bottles that had been donated. The better shop is (as often) Mary Stevens Hospice. This is a big, two-level shop with a good selection of clothes and shoes, some small furniture (we got a little bedside here) and a stack of knitting supplies, which I’m told is very modern.

And that’s it. You don’t come to Kinver for a full-on retail experience, but for the tranquil village-ness, the frankly lovely surroundings, and a quiet potter in the little shops. It makes an excellent stop on the towpath walk, or a stopping point on the way to Bridgnorth and the hills.

Find: Kinver Google Maps
Get there: Kinver has no rail or anything, but there’s buses from Stourbridge. The nicest way is to walk, which you can do in a couple of hours from Kidderminster along the canal, for instance.
Consume with: plenty of tea rooms vie for your attention. Try a hot pork sandwich from the Dunsley Hall tea rooms.
Visit: the Rock Houses and Kinver Edge, for sure.
Overall rating: four stitch savers.

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Filed under 4/5, Staffordshire

Droitwich Spa

Droitwich floods 2007 (2) by Ruth Flickr is used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Droitwich floods 2007 (2) by Ruth Flickr is used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

In theory, there’s no reason why Droitwich Spa shouldn’t be a perfectly pleasant little town. Though home to a significant swathe of commuter development from the sixties onwards, Droitwich is its own community with its own salt-working industrial heritage stretching back to Roman times, when the town was called Salinae. The natural water of the town is ten times saltier than the Dead Sea, no less, and that led to DS becoming a Victorian spa town known for the restorative properties of a dip in its waters. Situated on the River Salwarpe and the Droitwich Canal, directly between the edges of urban Birmingham and the medieval splendour of Worcester, I repeat: there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be a lovely little town.

The problem with Droitwich is hard to pin down. Despite its Roman, medieval, Victorian and Edwardian heritage, the town centre is drab and lifeless. A sunny Saturday afternoon should bring the best out of a town, but this oddly warm October day saw a very few disinterested shoppers poking at a collection of pound shops and budget-end retail chains. The rail station is somewhat out of town, leaving some buses for the intrepid few. But why go to the effort of going into Droitwich when you have the full gamut of shopping facilities just a few miles down the road in Bromsgrove, Worcester or Birmingham?

Droitwich has it’s share of charity shops. On St Andrews Road there’s a mid-sized Salvation Army and a Blue Cross, next to a fairly massive, crowded secondhand furniture shop which is worth mentally tucking away. In the St Andrew’s Square shopping development, which seems to be what life there is to the town, there’s also a very standard Cancer Research shop. The rest of the shopping stretches down High Street – there’s one or two secondhandy shops, some quiet looking delis, that sort of thing, alongside Acorn Hospice and St Richard’s Hospice, which is hidden down a little side road towards the big Waitrose.

We didn’t come away with any purchases of note on that unseasonably hot Saturday afternoon, and in no way feel tempted to give DS a second chance, if only for the intense difficulty of finding something nice to eat for a late lunch. The town has potential in all its history, but needs some serious work to make it a viable destination for anything.

Find: Droitwich Spa Google Maps
Get there: the trainline is a little bit out of town, buses are occasional and walking is hard. Sigh.
Consume with: good question! You find me the answer and I’ll let you know.
Visit: the classy amongst you might enjoy the famous Droitwich Spa Lido.
Overall rating: two (just!) damaged headphones.

 

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Filed under 2/5, Worcestershire

Stourbridge

Arches by Nickster 2000, used under a Creative Commons license. Click pic for link.

Arches by Nickster 2000, used under a Creative Commons license. Click pic for link.

Today, you’ll find Stourbridge as the westernmost compass point of a sprawling West Midlands conurbation, butting right up against some glorious Staffordshire/Worcestershire/Shropshire countryside. But it wasn’t always so: the Black Country isn’t like London with its endless 1930’s ribbon developments radiating out from the centre; rather, each town is a definable centre, each with a purpose (at least, orginally). Cradley is called the home of chain-making, Walsall’s famous for its leather trade, Wolverhampton for its steel. Stourbridge is no different and became, particularly during the nineteenth century, a world centre for the glass industry after significant Huguenot in-migration. The twenty-first century is a very different era and the Black Country is becoming a post-industrial society – though certainly not out of choice. Stourbridge retains an artisan-led glass quarter (around Kingswinford and Amblecote), but today finds itself as much a dormitory town for Birmingham, just the other side of the M5.

Stourbridge holds a particularly happy place in this blogger’s heart, however: it’s where he and his Charity Shop Partner (slash wife) have just moved, so chances are you’ll be hearing plenty more from the West Midlands and its environs over the next few months. Its location right on the edge of the countryside makes it a very appealing place to live – as accessible for the urban delights of Birmingham as for the craggy heights of Shropshire or the Malverns. If we fancy a breath of fresh air these days, we don’t have to drive to a gloomy Essex coast or wander through a crowded Epping Forest: we can ascend the overlooking Clent Hills and have our breath removed by a view spanning to Wales or the Cotswolds.

But that’s enough about me – more importantly, this is a charity shop shopping blog and has its priorities. Happily, Stourbridge punches pretty well. In a less touchy-feely era of civic government than our own, a Nascar styled ring road (see below) was built around the town centre and it’s within the ring road that you’ll find the bulk of the town’s shops. Note though – there are other charity shops scattered around, notably a couple in Wollaston that I may or may not touch on another time. Within the pretty attractive town centre I count a good nine charity shops as well as various other amenities and local shops. You wouldn’t come to Stourbridge for a day’s shopping experience any more, as you wouldn’t go to Dudley, Brierley Hill, Halesowen, or any other community within the catchment area of the monolithic Merry Hill centre, so be warned of that.

There’s a stretch of charity shops on the High Street including a pretty sweet and not-too-expensive Oxfam: we located a pile of cheap Jo Nesbo books and, happily, three Granta magazines for £1.50, which are now populating the landing bookcase. Having brokenheartedly sold several hundred books in the move, we now appear to be doing our best to counteract that. There’s also Barnardos, Marie Curie, Acorn’s Hospice and British Heart Foundation, and best of all the huge Mary Stevens Hospice Shop, fundraising for the hospice which is located in Stourbridge itself. There’s a second huge Mary Stevens shops in Victoria Passage, a sneaky cut also containing cafs, restaurants and little boutiquey shops. This Mary Stevens, as with the main one, sells plenty of furniture as well as clothes and books – the one on the high street has an entire upstairs bookshop. Look out for cast iron fireplaces and patio sets. On Lower High Street you’ll find Cats Protection League, just up from King Edward VI college – educators of Robert Plant and Samuel Johnson, no less. Then back up Market Street to find Happy Staffie Rescue and Scope. That just leaves the very mid-century Ryemarket Centre where you’ll find Waitrose and Smiths and the like, as well as PDSA and Salvation Army.

While Stourbridge is hardly remarkably beautiful or noteworthy, it turns out that it’s a very pleasant place to wile away some time. It’s a bustling little town centre with some gorgeous buildings – King Eds, the Town Hall and St Thomas’ church are all very attractive. It makes a great stop on a day out to the country as well – it’s only a short hop from here to Bridgnorth or the Wyre Forest. Best of all, a whole heap of charity shops – if this was the Grandstand vidiprinter, that would be 11 (eleven).

Find: Stourbridge Google Maps
Get there: Plenty of buses end at the bus station, and you also have the shortest branch line in Europe terminating at Stourbridge Town with its funny little trains.
Consume with: There are plenty of coffee and food places around – there’s a Caffe Nero, and The Well looks quite nice. If you’re willing to expand your horizons, there’s many pubs doing a wallet-friendly £3.69 carvery (The Old White Horse), some doing some lovely food in a lovely location (The Vine, Kinver) and of course, plenty of curry (I recommend Balti Bazaar in Lye).
Visit: The Glass Quarter is full of museums and things to do – the Red House Cone is basically a big red cone for making glass, and if glass is your thang, you’ll find plenty of interest at Broadfield House or the Ruskin Glass Centre. If not, take a wander along the canal or to the lovely Mary Stevens Park.
Overall rating: five antique fireplaces

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Filed under 5/5, West Midlands

Kenilworth

199-365 Kenilworth Castle by johngarghan, used under creative commons. Click pic for link.

199-365 Kenilworth Castle by johngarghan, used under creative commons. Click pic for link.

We’re not a couple for big holidays, but just recently our life has taken a turn for the glamorous. Job interviews and subsequent relocation mean that we’ve been exploring some of the finest budget hotels in the greater Midlands area, including the fancy likes of Bicester and Northampton. It’s always a good excuse for a trip away though, CST-style, and staying in Coventry Travelodge takes some beating in the glamour stakes. We were only sad to have forgotten our 2-for-1 Toby Carvery breakfast vouchers.

This time, we eschewed the vast flyovers and concrete road-mazes of central Coventry and headed out on the road towards Leamington Spa and Warwick after having had a quick drive around the pretty fancy University of Warwick. This route brings you into the ridiculously scenic country town that is Kenilworth. It may be surrounded by the medieval big hitter at Warwick, the Regency smartness of Leamington, the ashphalt maze of Coventry and the hulking West Midlands conurbation just the other side of the M42; but Kenilworth retains a bucolic air of calmness and relaxation, all watched over by a wonderfully ruinous castle. Arriving onto The Square in search of breakfast, a gloriously sunny day lay stretching ahead of us, and we ate our scrambled eggs on toast very cheerfully in a café aptly named Escape.

There seems to be a correllation between the sort of wealth of residents and the proximity of a railway station. Kenilworth has none, excluding many commuters; but the town exudes a comfortable wealth and community that’s evident in its charity shops and the bustling, friendly vibes of the high street. Up at the Square end, Oxfam bears evidence of this with its wealth of genuinely interesting artefacts. There are silver-topped walking canes; an excellent and interesting book selection; several substantial sets of Denby stoneware; and best of all some ancient cameras complete with some sort of concertina-type mechanism.

Close by is Cats Protection: less fancy, but very good for a rummage. We came away with a £2.50 leather suitcase and very nearly a pile of caravan-friendly melamine cruets, dishes and the like. There’s a cheerful selection of vinyls and books, and some fairly constant singing staff. Head down Warwick Road and you’ll find plenty more: RSPCA, AgeUK, Acorns Hospice, Myton Hospice, Cancer Research and Headway all offering a variety of goodies. There’s also a Scope tucked around the corner in the new pedestrianised development

It’s rare that I’ll suggest this, but with a town centre crammed with no less than nine charity shops, you still haven’t seen the best of Kenilworth. Get your comfy shoes on and take a hike up the hill: there’s another, more select High Street; street after street of the most beautiful, rambly old houses, many overlooking Abbey Fields; and best of all, the massive Kenilworth Castle in all its crumbly, red sandstone glory. While it’s only a little town really, there’s plenty to explore, and it’s just about worthy of a rare five out of five.

Find: Kenilworth @ Google Maps
Get there:
Like at Stow, the railway is a luxury you don’t get in Kenilworth. Plenty of buses though.
Consume with: There’s a number of good looking eateries – we broke our fast at Escape, and The Almanack also looked nice.
Visit: The castle, obviously.
Overall rating: five vintage cameras

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Filed under 5/5, Warwickshire

Halesowen

Just like a concrete spider by abrinksky, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Just like a concrete spider by abrinksky, used under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

My visit to Halesowen was somewhat unusual for me: an edgy, nervous visit, which was nothing to do with the town itself; and stranger still, a solitary excursion. My loyal wedded wife would normally accompany me everywhere and I wouldn’t have it any other way. But the reason we were anywhere near Halesowen at all (hardly a glamorous destination itself) was for an interview for her and that involved me exploring the area and doing plenty of pacing around.

Fortunately, I know how to entertain myself around charity shops, and Halesowen has a whole slew of ’em. These are focused on the (very) 1960s pedestrianised shopping precinct which hardly does justice to Halesowen’s history: at the time of its mention in the Domesday Book Halesowen was larger than Birmingham and was known as Hala until it was gifted to David Owen (not the SDP one) in the twelfth century – hence Halesowen. It grew from a market town to a thriving industrial centre on the outskirts of the Black Country coalfield, being particularly noted as a centre of nail manufacture (not quite as thrilling as Cradley, home of chain-making, just up the road, but still good). It remains very much in post-industrial no-mans-land:  a new bus station development and Asda hardly make up the ground in this bleak, concrete outpost of the West Midlands.

The conglomeration of charity shops makes sense then. First to be noted are Age UK and Beacon Centre for the Blind, opposite the churchyard. Fairly standard in appeal, the shops set the tone for the town: the produce is reasonably priced, the shops are reasonably busy and the staff are reasonably friendly. Very reasonable. I parked above Asda and found these two first because I didn’t really know where I was going, but it’s a fair way to enter the town: turn right down the slope into the precinct for the full slew. On your right will be Cancer Research (closed on the Thursday morning of my visit) and to the left Acorns Hospice and British Heart Foundation. Further along the street you’ll find a large and well-stocked British Red Cross shop, near the entrance to the ugly Cornbow Centre which dominates the town centre. The remaining trio of charity shops are on Peckingham Street, all in a row: Scope and Mary Stevens Hospice bookend a large Save the Children, the best of the bunch in Halesowen (and I’m not just saying that because the aforementioned wife used to work there).

It’s a pretty bleak outpost, as I say: Halesowen reminded me of, say, Basildon or Waltham Cross, with the epic range of charity shopping and painfully dated architecture of the latter, in particular. If you have an hour to spend it’s probably a profitable place to sniff out a bargain, as long as you’re not in it for quaintness…

Find: Halesowen @ Google Maps
Get there:
Old Hill station or many buses
Consume with: various shoddy delights – my cappucino in Coffee2 was OK, or thereabouts
Visit: nothing much in Halesowen, but make a break for the Clent Hills, just down the road.
Overall rating: three Stephen Kings

  

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Filed under 3/5, West Midlands

Harborne

Harborne Farmers Market, from Pete Lewis' photostream under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Harborne Farmers Market, from Pete Lewis' photostream under Creative Commons. Click pic for link.

Harborne is, I suppose, the West Midlands equivalent of Muswell Hill or Crouch End, or multitudinous other gentrified districts. More ethnically homogenous than, say, Bearwood or Smethwick just up the road, your typical Harborne resident is more academic from the nearby (and huge) University of Birmingham, or medical staff from one of the several large hospitals close by, those that can afford a little classier than Selly Oak. Harborne town centre is fairly innocuous and unambitious – Waitrose territory for certain – but take a quick detour into surrounding residential streets and you’ll soon see the appeal.

My auntie lives in Harborne, in a large house with a large garden, a drive and a garage, on a wide, quiet road. But if I lived there, without drifting into being an estate agent blog, I’d fall for one of the very red-brick Victorian terraces. They’re very distinct to this part of the country (believe me, I have spent enough time studying Victorian terraces of late), a burnt, dusty brick in cottage style. I’d be fairly content setting up shop there, I think. The high street is less inspiring, though not without merit, and certainly not without charity shops.

We visited a very healthy seven of the eight charity shops open on a snow-and-ice infested Harborne High Street, three days before Christmas. I say very healthy in that it was fairly miraculous that we escaped with no broken legs – apparently Birmingham is not a city that prides itself on snow clearance. But healthy and wealthy they were, most notably in the very well-stocked, very academic and literate Oxfam bookshop – overpriced as normal, but nevertheless painfully tempting. Most of the rest are, if you will, chain charity shops: British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research, Barnardos, Marie Curie and PDSA. Not that this is a problem: none was a wasted visit, with a goodly number of Stephen Kings purchased to feed a growing fetish, and a wide and varied array of tat (I say this in a friendly way: by tat I mean bric-a-brac; collector’s items; etc.).

Headway was closed, leaving only the most interesting of the bunch, Birmingham Settlement. This is a large, long shop, filled with not just cheap paperbacks and the usual assortment of clothes, but small furniture at the back, lots of picture frames and stacks of Playstations and the like. Good for a rummage.

Harborne is a pretty posh area and has a high-standing reputation as such. Many such places frown on charity shops, but Harborne seems to have embraced them, and quite right. As a result: thoroughly recommend a swoop by.

Find: Harborne @ Google Maps
Consume with: Nero as usual, but there’s the whole gamut of easy-to-understand coffee here.
Visit: The Birmingham Botanical Gardens are just down the road, and they’re plain lovely.
Overall rating: four Christmas trees

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Filed under 4/5, West Midlands

Moseley

St Mary's Church, St Mary's Row, Moseley by Elliott Brown. Click pic for flickr link.

vSt Mary's Church, St Mary's Row, Moseley by Elliott Brown. Click pic for flickr link.

For many years, my only frame of reference for Moseley was the venerable Ocean Colour Scene – truly I am a child of my time. In typical Q fashion, the band’s Moseley Shoals was named thirty-third greatest album of all time two years after its release in 1996. At that time, Moseley was quite the swinging place – although the album title was a reference to the legendary Stax studio in Memphis (somewhere altogether different to South Birmingham), I have it on excellent authority that the ‘burb was a really quite lovely place. You can see that today: some beautiful Victorian housing in Birmingham’s red brick, faded Edwardian embellishments and parks. But sadly it seems in decline to me: a quiet (alright, it was probably too early for students to be up when I visited) backwater more than a epochal, cultural hotspot.

Nevertheless, it’s another step in the rehabilitation of the West Midlands in my own consciousness. Just down the road from the exquisite Bournville, Moseley is again proof – as found in abundance in London – that the Victorians knew how to do suburbs nicely, when they chose.  Though there’s little to come to Moseley for, these days, it would be a very pleasant place in which to live and to commute into the centre of the bustling West Midlands conurbation that was just sprouting when the place was established. There are private parks,

Unless my memory is deceiving me (given the amount of statistics I’ve had to look at recently, this wouldn’t be a surprise), there were two charity shops in Moseley, both Oxfam.The ordinary Oxfam is pretty non-descript, to be honest, home to the usual array of better-than-usual bric-a-brac and overpriced secondhand clothes. Oxfam Books and Music though, as usual, is pretty excellent. Although priced with more nous than most charity shops, there’s always a worthwhile selection of things to buy. I came away with two academic texts, ostensibly for my dissertation. This was the extent of my consumer impulses in Moseley, and I don’t think I’ll feel much need to return. Who knows though?

Find: Moseley @ Google Maps
Consume with: we had a breakfast sandwich in Subway, which I don’t recommend. 
Visit:
Cannon Hill Park is right there and it looks lovely.
Overall rating: two butter dishes

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Filed under West Midlands