In August 1832, a young Princess Victoria toured a very special part of England, as she explored the country and met some of the people who she would one day lead.
The region had become one of the powerhouses behind Britain’s industrialisation and in her journal she recalled the men, women, children and houses were “all black”.
“But I cannot by any description give an idea of its strange and extraordinary appearance. The country is very desolate everywhere. There are coals about and the grass is quite blasted black. I just now see an extraordinary building flaming with fire.”
But, even more than the strange surroundings, it was the region’s people who made an impression on her. She wrote: “We have just changed horses at Wolverhampton, a large and dirty town, but we were received with great friendliness and pleasure.”
It is that same friendliness and pleasure I’ve always experienced in the Midlands, more than 180 years later.
Last week I returned to the Midlands for a day. I had a very good dentist while I lived there and, having heard so many horror stories about London dentists, I decided the cost of getting there and back every six months was nothing compared to the cost of bad dental care.
So I got the train to Birmingham, where I spent a few hours before continuing on to Stourbridge, near Wolverhampton. It wasn’t long before I was reminded of that special friendliness, more than 180 years after the then Princess Victoria.
It was in the Big Issue seller outside Moor Street station who saw me holding my empty salad wrapper and knew, without asking, that I needed to be directed to the nearest rubbish bin, which he did with a cheery: “Just over there, love”. It was in the middle-aged man who asked me the time of day as I shopped in Selfridge’s and then, catching my accent (apparently I still have one), began to quiz me about the All Blacks. And it was in the elderly lady in the dentist’s waiting room who chatted happily to me about the town’s bus service.
As is usual for me, I arrived a bit early in Stourbridge and so I had time to walk from the town centre – and a chance to walk the track alongside the canal.
Those paths have so many memories for me. They were where I ran when I was happy and walked when I was down. I discovered a bluebell forest in the autumn, losing my way in carpets of blue. In the summer the field below was covered with dandelions and buttercups and the path to the bluebell forest was shared with grazing horses.
In the spring there were blossoms, their petals falling onto the towpath, creating a covering of white. And in the winter the trees were skeletons, black stick figures against the amber and silver sunsets I enjoyed so much. Two houseboats cruised along the river and a class of primary school children walked along the track with their teacher.
The few buildings alongside the canal, once bustling with craftspeople involved in the town’s glass industry, had music coming from them. There was the faint sound of talking, lights seen through the smashed windows. People were working there again.
The grass was no longer “blasted black” and the coal mines were long gone. The only darkness was in the weather. For, while the Midlands has its beauty, it is still England. And consequently, by the end of my trip down memory canal, it had begun to rain.