Winter in the British Midlands: now there’s something you won’t hear much about from the Tourist Board! Yet, we had a marvelous time here a ways back, spending Christmas through New Year’s. Our spot was near Lichfield, just north of Birmingham, adult kids in tow. Sure, we had wind and rain but hey, it alternated with glorious sunshine on crisp and energetic days. This is England, not Hawai’i!
Where are we?
The Midlands are roughly defined as the coast-to-coast swath in – duh – the middle of England. Derby, Nottingham, Birmingham and Worcester are some of the larger and more well known towns. It is home to a population of about 10 million, largely concentrated in these cities, and has a somewhat bland or mediocre reputation. But, once you leave these urban areas and the beaten path, you’ll find boatloads of bucolic countryside and village charm!
Out and about during Christmas
In the British Isles, Christmas tradition was and still is about family time, not work. Much used to be closed, but for better or worse, patterns are shifting. These days, many shops, restaurants and attractions stay open over the season, albeit on a limited schedule. Britain and much of Europe observe both December 25th and 26th as holidays, and those days do see severely limited opening hours or full closures still.
However, with some smart planning, you can enjoy interesting towns and embark on active outings balanced with great meals out. Lots of fascinating and beautiful spots, and plenty of shopping options too! We did all of the above – and being a rain-or-shine hiker, I had built in an unusual hiking twist…
Fun fact: December 26th, St. Stephen’s Day, is better known as “Boxing Day”. A historic explanation says it’s when servants, peasants and the like received a “Christmas Box” with gifts and presents. These days however, the meaning of Boxing Day has shifted. More or less jokingly, it’s the day when you box up all your meh presents, return them, and get what you really wanted!
Mind your Christmas Manors
We flew into England right on Christmas Day. It’s a good day to get frequent flyer tickets, because many flights are empty, as we’ve found over the years! We came over to Europe the week before, and had no issues with jetlag anymore. So, we fetched our rental car and drove right up to the Midlands. We had rented a 2-bedroom townhouse in a small complex halfway between the awesomely named village of Barton-Under-Needham and the tiny parish of Wychnor. The main lodge was a charming old Manor, and we had pre-booked Christmas dinner there to make sure we had a guaranteed spot. After welcome drinks, we dug into an excellent traditional English dinner, complete with Christmas crackers, being the British pull-them-apart-for-a-bang-and-a-surprise-item variation, not the edible crunchy things!
… and a Partridge in a pub quiz
The Manor also featured a comfortable lounge called “The Study”, where we hung out a lot during our stay. One fun thing we had a blast with was their pub quizzes. All in “English English” of course – and despite traveling throughout Britain since 1975, some questions were simply incomprehensible. I did OK with “What pop group inspired Alan Partridge?” (Abba!), but forget it on stuff like “Who was the head of the British Army when the Prince Regent succeeded George III?” We just made up answers: “Sir Nigel Postlethwaite” sounded really good to us. Time flew by, and we enjoyed the Christmas camaraderie – and drinks – while getting to know other participating guests, mostly Brits. By the way, they didn’t know all the answers either, and it sure sounded like they were making stuff up too!
Gambling on rambling
On to that hiking twist I mentioned. I’ve been a member of the UK Ramblers for decades, since I spend so much time hiking National Trails and other paths. Walking is the UK’s national pastime, and the Ramblers, founded in 1935, are a strong presence. They have local chapters everywhere, walking together for fun. While out, they also check the footpaths, gates and stiles and report issues. The Ramblers aim to expand walking options, and protect and increase right of ways, while promoting this healthy yet enjoyable and very affordable activity. I have found many a nice route in their “Walk” magazine over the years.
For this trip, I had contacted the local Chapter called the Walsall Ramblers, established in 1992, and asked whether we could join their first New Year’s walk. Boy did that turn into a highlight of the trip! We had glorious weather – glorious, I tell you, glorious! And that on January 2nd! Blue skies with wispy white clouds, birds tweeting all around, and cool crisp air made for perfect walking conditions. While walking, we chatted with our new-found Rambler companions, over 40 of them.
We basked in the winter sunshine during a BYO luncheon stop at the ancient St. Leonard’s Church. Sitting on the dry ground in the churchyard, leaning against hundreds of years old stone church walls, we dug in. We had brought sandwiches, fruit juice and hot tea: yes we had remembered to bring a Thermos. A great picnic-style lunch under perfect skies, an outdoorsman’s dream. The local Ramblers were awesome, welcoming us, chatting and providing local tips. The club was tickled pink we members from thousands of miles away had found them to share this great first day of the New Year.
Ducks and scones for weary bones
Our day outings were wonderful as well. The nearby medieval town of Lichfield, Staffordshire, is famous for its stunning Cathedral with three spires. It’s worth a visit in its own right, but the town was otherwise pleasant too. We walked all over, watched the ducks and gulls at the waterside and then, weary after all that at the end of a cool day, we went on to the centre in search of something cozy and warm. And we sure found that!
The Tudor Café Tea Shop is located on Bore Street, in what is known as Tudor Row, an upscale shopping arcade connecting Bore with Wade Street. The Café has a plaque high up in the front “Built 1510”, but fortunately, their offerings were much fresher! Scones, jam and clotted cream, accompanied by a wide selection of teas for all tastes and moods. Yum! The Tudor Café building is quite remarkable and pretty, in a Bavarian/Alpine-Swiss style with half-timbered lower levels.
Two fun facts: Lichfield was the birth city of Samuel Johnson. He’s the man who produced the first dictionary of the English language in the mid 1700s, honored here with a museum. It was also home to Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles. The Erasmus Darwin House is now a museum right across from the Cathedral. Interesting how these things evolve…
All the leaves are brown
Further afield, the British Midlands offer tons of interesting spots to visit within a mere 1-2 hours driving. Fan of Robin Hood? Go northeast to Nottingham and see the Castle with its Robin Hood statue. A bit beyond, have a merry stroll kicking through the leaves in Sherwood Forest (see my blog post about that).
And the sky is grey
Continue northeast to Lincoln, settled by the Romans as Lindum Colonia. Visit the Castle, founded by William the Conqueror in the 11th century on the site of the old Roman fort. Tilt your head back and gaze up at the magnificent Lincoln Cathedral, hopefully against blue rather than grey skies. Next, all the way north in Lincolnshire, marvel at the awesome Humber Bridge spanning the estuary to Yorkshire. I’ll feature this area soon in a blog about my Yorkshire Wolds Way through-hike.
I’ve been for a walk
Northwest in the British Midlands, the Peak District offers fantastic hiking – but watch for livestock, and please close the gates after you get through! Hike up to the Kinder Scout plateau, on the edge of the Midlands and Northern England, rising up to over 2,000 feet. Kinder Downfall is a waterfall some 100 feet high, and best seen outside of summer when there’s more water flowing. In windy conditions you can see the spray from miles away, and in a cold winter it actually freezes, perfect for practicing ice climbers!
On a Boston day!
Stumped on what to see in the Midlands’ southeast? Visit the original town of Boston! It’s a small port town with arguably the tallest tower parish church in England. You can see the almost 300 feet high St. Botolph’s, nicknamed “The Stump”, from miles away in these flat surroundings. Local lore says the name Boston evolved from “Botolph’s town”, and like their more famous counterparts in Massachusetts, the locals are called Bostonians. The Lincolnshire Bostonian accent is quite different though: don’t expect Tappet Brothers voices here, although they did seem good-humored!
I’d be safe and warm
In the southwest you’ll find Worcester with the Malvern Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), just north of the Cotswolds AONB. And 45 minutes east of Worcester, all the world’s a stage in Stratford-upon-Avon. Watch a heartwarming performance and stroll by Shakespeare’s birthplace cottage, still looking just as you like it!
If I knew how to say
Fun fact: having trouble with the pronunciation of “Worcestershire sauce”? Don’t be shy, think “Jeeves & Wooster”! As in, “Worcester” is pronounced “Wooster” and “Shire” following a name gets a short “sher”, not “Shy-er”. So, the sauce is simply “Wooster-sher” sauce. Invented by John Lea and William Perrins in the 1800s, they forgot to trademark it and so there’s generics all over the place, like my budget-minded one from our fridge! Never had Worcestershire sauce, you say? Are you sure? You may have had it unknowingly, as it’s often used in a Caesar salad, chili con carne or even a Bloody Mary!
British Midlands dreaming, on such a winter’s day
After a lovely winter week, we bade farewell to the British Midlands and returned home. An unusual trip in timing and destination turned into a wonderful experience, creating family memories for decades. And isn’t that what travel is all about? Aha!
My travel blog “Con’s Corner” takes a sometimes irreverent look at 4+ decades of travel in the British Isles. My trips are real: no months of staging the perfect photo, no waiting for the perfect weather, no Photoshopping, no promo story in exchange for a freebie: I pay full fare. It’s true travel. Note that the company does not necessarily share my opinions and views. In fact, they may be shaking their heads. The photography is mine (except where credited as noted), as are all typos, grammatical errors, and odd expressions. It’s a blog, people, not literature! I also accept full responsibility for any puns, varying on a scale from hilarious to ouch… Be all that as it may, I intend to keep at it until I get it right. Con Jager, Santa Rosa, USA.
(R) Photography by Robin Gabbert
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