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Villages & Resorts in Worcester (England)

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      17.08.2002 08:59
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      (Perhaps pushing it a little to call Bewdley a "village", but I certainly think "resort" is applicable, so here we are.) It surprises many visitors to discover that Bewdley was once second only to Bristol among inland ports. In 1700 it was enormously influential, but its power declined later in the century with the coming of the canals. Bewdley was the original choice for its location, but residents were aghast at the thought of grubby navvies sullying its image, and declared that they would have nothing to do with the "stinking ditch". So the canal went to Stourport, three miles away (the towns still have a good-natured rivalry), and Bewdley turned its hand to other trades - charcoal burning, tanning and so on. Many Bewdley road names still recall this era - Bark Hill, Pewterer's Alley, Tanners Hill and so on. Bewdley is a stylish town, and demands a stylish entrance. By far the best way to achieve this is to arrive via the preserved Severn Valley Railway, which runs between Kidderminster (the station is 100 yards from the main line one) and Bridgnorth, a total of 16 miles through beautiful countryside. Steam (and, indeed, preserved diesel) buffs can stay here for the day; the rest of us are getting off first stop, so don't get too comfortable (third class only, please!). On the journey, the line passes next to the West Midlands Safari Park; it's common to see elephant or rhino from the train. After a short trip, we arrive in Bewdley. Well, Wribbenhall to be precise, the name given to Bewdley east of the River Severn. (In times past, this was also known as "The Christian Shore", presumably because of the fear of the "barbarian" Welsh to the west.) Leaving the station, we descend the hill and turn right onto Stourport Road. After a short walk, a road runs off to the right. Before we turn up there, though, look out for the electricity substation? You what? Yes, indeed. Local lore
      has it that this was a mediaeval burial ground for plague victims, and so nothing will ever grow there. This does seem to overlook the large and pretty healthy-looking tree, but it is in fact quite likely that this was a plague pit, and so no buildings with deep foundations could be permitted here. Now we will turn off to the right. The sign states "Westbourne Street - formerly Whispering Street". All quite straightforward, you'd think. Er... no. The change of name was unpopular and so 99% of locals still refer to the place as Whispering Street. However, the residents have grown attached to Westbourne Street, itself a very unusual name, and have rejected the idea of changing it back. Then there's the numbering - because the road was planned as a series of plots by different landowners rather than as a coherent whole, the house numbers bear little resemblance to logic: there are only around 20 houses in the street, yet several houses have numbers well over 200; there are no less than five number 2s, and so on. Remarkably, the local postman seems quite happy. At the end of Whispering Street (or whatever), we turn left by the Red Lion pub, just before the handsome sandstone viaduct that carries the railway across the road. Here also is the Severn Valley Guest House, a well-regarded B&B. Just beyond the viaduct you may glimpse the Great Western pub (as you can see already, Bewdley isn't short of places to wet your whistle). The landlord here was once well known for the jolly remarks he would chalk up on his blackboard, though this came to an abrupt halt when the brewery got wind of "hilarious" messages such as "what do you call a Welshman with an IQ of 150? A village". In fact, the landlord even received a death threat over that one. New management these days, and nothing more thrilling on the blackboard than karaoke night adverts. Follow the road as it twists and turns back into town, and we'll p
      ass the 2-star Black Boy Hotel on the left. Nothing to do with black people, although in its heyday Bewdley, as a very important inland port, would have seen people from all over the world pass through (and by no means all the black people would have been slaves; some were much more well off than most of us today would imagine). Instead, the name commemorates King Charles II. "Black" could be used to mean "swarthy" in the 17th century, and Worcestershire was known as a Royalist stronghold during the Civil War. Whether the King actually stayed here, no one knows, though it seems unlikely... although if you believe the brochures, he seems to have stayed in pretty much every other inn in the county.... You will by now be able to see the River Severn in all its glory (actually, some winters you might well be *in* the river, but let's not be churlish). Almost straight across from you, the two white pillars are all that remains of the "old bridge", which fell down in the 1700s. And a good thing too, as it turns out, because this enabled Thomas Telford to construct the lovely arch that now spans the water. Except for the unfortunate removal of the tollhouse in the 1960s (a hexagonal pattern of paving slabs is all that remains), the bridge retains its original appearance. As well as being extremely easy on the eye, the bridge holds another distinction - it is the only one of Telford's that still carries motor traffic despite never having been substantially rebuilt. Well, not officially... in recent years, it has emerged that it may have been secretly strengthened in World War Two to allow tanks to cross. Such a strategic undertaking would, of course, have been top secret at the time, so it is not surprising that answers are only now trickling out. As you cross the river, look down to the left at the flood gauge - this is quite a new piece of kit, the old one having been lost in... erm... a flood! The gardens on this si
      de of the river are very popular with artists - the view towards the bridge, complete with swans and fishermen, is one of the classic pictures. Incidentally, in the most recent flood, this area was about six feet underwater, so those handy benches wouldn't have been a great deal of use... The River Severn is the longest river in the UK, at 220 miles, and like all significant watercourses demands respect. It might look calm and serene on a summer's day, with anglers standing in the shallows and rowers from the nearby club (don't miss the regatta - one of the biggest inland events) expending ridiculous amounts of energy; but treat it lightly, and you won't know what hit you. Because you'll be dead. Every year, the local press carries stories of (usually young, rather drunk) people who have leapt from the bridge and never come back. The Severn has many strong and dangerous currents - this is not the place to go for a gentle swim. Any Bewdley resident will be happy to regale you with dark tales of what the river can do - hundred-foot holes, vicious whirlpools, sudden undertows, and so on. (Even me, for a nominal fee.) The wide street now in front of you is Load Street, Bewdley's main shopping street. "Load" comes from "lode", meaning ferry - this was a river crossing long before a bridge was built. The reason for its width is that this was the marketplace in mediaeval times, though no trace now remains. Before we go further, let's stop off at Teddy Gray's, a quite superb old-fashioned sweetshop, where we can stock up on jelly teds, coconut ice, acid drops and those white chocolate things with hundreds-and-thousands on the top (they probably have a proper name, but I can't remember what it is). There are Gray's Herbal Tablets, too, if you're really feeling brave. Shopping in Bewdley is much what you'd expect from a tourist town - antique shops by the score, gift shops, newsagen
      ts, and so on. People do do "ordinary shopping" here, though - Timmis's, the ironmonger, is a local institution, and Bewdley Books makes up for its limited size with excellent service. It's also well worth checking out any of the three butchers - I prefer Bewdley Butchery for its pork pies, but all are of a high standard. There is a good farm shop too, for all you vegetarians out there, though it's a little hard to find, as it's not in Load Street - all will be revealed in due course! Continuing up Load Street, notice the Angel pub on the right. This building was originally aligned with the others, but has been rebuilt some way back from the road, which allows for a useful outdoor seating area. It's a good pub for visitors - the feeling of "foreign-ness" is less overbearing than some of the smaller ones, and both prices and service are quite reasonable. The Merchant's chippy is handily placed next door, and is extremely popular - especially with homeward-bound schoolchildren! This is about how far up a normal flood comes (or came - if the new defences work!). Pubs, of course, are everywhere in Bewdley - as a former port, you'd hardly expect anything else. You'll rarely walk 100 yards without passing one, in fact, which may appeal to some of you! Banks's Bitter (yum) is the dominant tipple, but most of the pubs are free houses, so you can expect some interesting guest ales. If you'd prefer to buy your own booze, Tippler's Beer Agency has a good range - its malt whisky selection is well thought of as well. Bewdley is not an alcohol-free zone, so expect quite a lot of public drinking, though there have been murmurings about introducing such a prohibition. It has to be said that the ready availability of alcohol in the town has its downside - it can get a little bit unpleasant at weekends, when young merrymakers descend on the place from as far away as Dudley, and the place does h
      ave a bit of a reputation for rowdy behaviour and petty vandalism on summer evenings. You're most unlikely to be in any real danger, but it's not where you want to be if you're after a quiet pint. If it's the day of the annual firework display (in June), then it's a bit different - very crowded, very noisy, but much less threatening, and perfectly safe for families. Anyhow, enough moaning - back to the tour. Further up Load Street, roughly opposite the 2-star George Hotel, Bewdley Museum is well worth a visit - it needs all the support it can get in these times of financial straitjackets, and was briefly under threat of closure earlier this year. The museum is situated in the old Shambles (butcher's row) and concentrates on Bewdley's traditional crafts - clay pipe making, besom (a type of broom) making, charcoal burning and so on. The displays are, for the most part, very interesting, and there are regular demonstrations of several industries - the ropewalk is usually packed with kids. The (excellent) Tourist Information Centre is situated in the museum's foyer. St Anne's Church, in the middle of the road at the top of Load Street, is a fairly plain 18th-century building, but if the tower happens to be open, do make the effort to climb - it's a fair slog, and the spiral stone stairs are both worn and narrow, but the views from the top are breathtaking. If you can stand getting up so early (we're talking 5 am here, folks), hymns are sung from the top of the tower at dawn on Ascension Day - even if you're not religious, it's a profoundly affecting experience. At the top of Load Street, we turn left into High Street. Unlike in most towns, "High" does not mean "main": it means what it says, that the road is high up. There are some particularly fine Georgian houses along this narrow street - look out for the "Bailiff's Howse" restaurant (the spelling is a sill
      y modern affectation, though there are signs that the owners might be coming to their senses on this one) and the Redthorne rest home, a hotel until the 1980s. Out of town, the road continues to Stourport, and is known as "the switchback" (anyone who drives along it will know why!). Just past the Redthorne, turn left into what are officially known as the "Queen Elizabeth II Gardens". Don't ask for them by name, though, or you'll get a blank look - they were opened in 1977 to celebrate the Queen's Silver Jubilee, and so are universally known as "Jubilee Gardens". The gardens are wonderfully secluded, really a series of several smaller, semi-walled, gardens, and are little-known by tourists, so make an excellent place to relax away from the crowds. The plants are interestingly varied, and create a pleasing impression on the eye. If you're very lucky, you may even see a heron come to fish in the pond (it may look murky, but the fish that are in there like it that way). Leaving Jubilee Gardens by the other exit, we emerge onto Lax Lane. As the name will suggest to Latin students (are there any left? No? Eheu!), the River Severn is known for its salmon. Perhaps not quite so much as the Wye, but its fish, in a good year - of which there are depressingly few - are much sought after. Walk down until you get to the river, and turn left into Severnside South (so called because... oh, what do you think?). This road contains an excellent gallery at which you can buy (among many other things) the aforementioned pictures of the bridge. Walk under the bridge (careful - the cobbles are slippery, even without the customary chip papers and flood-residue mud, and there isn't much headroom), and you'll emerge into Severnside North (I'll leave the derivation of this one to you). Flood defence works here have just finished, and the idea seems fairly sound, though we'll have to wait until they're
      really put to the test to know for certain. Severnside South's earthworks will be starting any time now. Severnside North, with its pubs (the Mug House and the Cock And Magpie) and the Riverside Café, is a cheerful place to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon. The landlord of the Mug House was in the forefront of demands for flood defence - in one recent flood, he went so far as to brick up his front door against the rising waters! At the end of Severnside, turn left up the hill and rejoin the main road. The odd triangular patch of grass in between three roads once held a house, but this was demolished almost a hundred years ago. Notice the (not desperately exciting) car parks to the right, and "No Road" off to the left - looking at its width, you can't complain about the name's accuracy! It leads back to Load Street, as do a couple of other alleyways running parallel. And next to it is the fabled farm shop in all its scrumptious fruit'n'veggie glory - well done for sticking with me this far! Keep going until the top of the road, then turn right between the Horn and Trumpet and the Swan pubs. The narrow, winding, horribly steep street we now struggle up is Welch Gate. The name comes from the old days of toll roads, when a gate was physically placed across the street. As the name suggests, the road leads west towards Wales. Be careful on the narrow pavements - traffic often has to mount them to pass safely, and the barriers are forever getting clouted by speeding drivers - and give thanks for the bypass, opened in 1987 after 50 years of begging. When I first moved here in 1984, Welch Gate was the main road, and two- or even three-mile queues at weekends were commonplace. We'll end our tour at the Woodcollier's Arms - its name another nod to Bewdley's more industrial past. It's thankfully no longer a pseudo-Irish theme pub in a quite hideous shade of green, but returned to what it should be, a good ho
      nest pub with good beer and good company. Further out to the west lies the Wyre Forest, an excellent place for walks (if you can cope with all the dogs - "he only wants to play", they say: yes, well, I don't). For now, though, let us relax with a pint of Banks's, put our feet up, and soak in the atmosphere of what the Normans called Beau Lieu - the "beautiful place".

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