Bath to Chester

On The Road Travel Essays

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Bath to Chester

(COURIER: These notes assume you take the fairly scenic A 46 north to Stroud, then get on the Motorway. We also assume you leave the Motorway somewhere around Newcastle under Lyme, and take A 51 into Chester.)

Chipping Sodbury  The village of Chipping Sodbury, which we barely see off to the left, is a typical market town of this area. You can tell that by the very name: "Chipping" comes from "Cheap," which means market. A lot of towns in England are named Chipping. Chipping Sodbury is the central market town for a series of other "Sodburys:" Old Sodbury, Little Sodbury. This too is typical of English rural communities (which we can appreciate even without seeing the town of Chipping Sodbury.) In one of these Sodburys (specifically, Little Sodbury), William Tyndale, translator of the Bible, was a tutor in a well-to-do family in 1522. Also on the left are hills covered with beech trees. The hills are known as the "Wagon and Horses" because to early settlers that's what they resembled.

The Cotswolds  We're entering the fringes of the Cotswold Hills area, which extends northward for some miles. These famous scenic hills draw visitors from many countries. "Wold" is an old English word for a broad, gentle hillside. The Cotswolds are noted for their greenery — all shades of green, from the lightest to the darkest. Sometimes a light mist hangs over them. Long rows of trees and shrubs divide the landscape into neat squares.

Most famous of all are the rural villages of the Cotswolds, the loveliest in England. Most of the buildings and roofs are made from the local stone, honey-colored and creamy in texture. This is wool country, where herds of sheep used to graze for centuries, supplying England's wool markets. The towns of this area were gathering places for wool, and merchants came from the larger cities to buy. Hence, annual trade fairs, with festivities, took place, and remnants of these festivals still survive in the towns.

Woodchester  (Located between Nailsworth and Stroud — probably not shown on the map, so watch for the road signs.) This is the site of one of the largest Roman villas in England, now a National Trust (26 acres). The villa dates from 117 A.D., first excavated in 1796.

Gloucestershire  We're in the county of Gloucestershire, its chief city being Gloucester, which we'll pass (off to our left). Gloucestershire is one of England's most unspoiled areas, and much of its charming scenery is visible even from the Motorway. The little villages of this county have attracted visitors ever since the 19th century — if you ever come back to England on your own, take some side excursions through this area. Even the village names are quaint and archaic: Chipping Campden (another market town), Bourton-on-the-Water (so-called because of the many little canals that intersect it), Moreton-in-Marsh (surrounded by marshlands), and Stow-on-the- Wold (the town of Stow, situated on a "wold" — gentle hill). Because of the abundance of limestone in these hills, a local skill has developed: stone masonry and quarrying. Stone from these hills is used in houses, walls, and roof tiles even in far-off parts of England.

Gloucester: Much of English history took place in this market town, though little evidence of it has survived. Even in Roman times the town was important. The Romans named it Colonia Glevum; it was founded by the Roman Emperor Nerva in 96 A.D. A famous Benedictine abbey was built later, and a royal residence established to accommodate the king on his visits. The town was granted the right to mint currency: a sign of its prestige. The city's great cathedral was completed in 1100: its massive pillars inside haven't been touched since that time, though little else remains of note. William the Conqueror was residing in Gloucester when he gave orders to compile the Doomsday Book, listing all property owners in England (this was the first official "census" in England). In one of the inns of the town, Lady Jane Grey was proclaimed Queen of England in 1553 — alas, she reigned less than a year before Bloody Mary chopped her head off.

Cheltenham (Off to our right.)  One of England's most beautiful towns, known for its handsome Georgian houses, tree-lined streets, and gardens. Until the 18th century, Cheltenham was just another Cotswold village. But in 1715, a mineral spring was discovered, and by 1740 the first resort spa had been built. In the 19th century, it became a popular place for retired colonial officials, many of whom had lived in hot, tropical countries, which affected their livers and digestion adversely. Both disorders were believed to be curable by hot spring baths.

Tewkesbury (Just off the Motorway, to the left.)  Another delightful old English town, at the confluence of two rivers: the Severn and the Avon (which flows east to Shakespeare's Stratford). The town goes back to Roman times, when it was called Etocessa. Later, the Anglo-Saxons called it Theocsbyrig, and the result was "Tewkesbury"! The town is most famous for the Tewkesbury Abbey, with its large Norman tower (132 feet - the town's landmark). The abbey goes back to the year 715, deep in the Dark Ages, but great wealth was accumulated by the abbots, and in the 12th century a great abbey was built, which remains one of the greatest Norman buildings in England. (Again, keep this town in mind for when you return to England on your own.) Tewkesbury is also noted for its historic hotels and inns, several of which are mentioned by name in Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers. Gentlemen squires on vacation, literary people, and retired notables would pass their time in witty conversation in the hotels' lounges, sipping tea from Ceylon or smoking Virginia tobacco. One of these resorts, the Swann Inn, was well established even in 1579, when the plague broke out in Tewkesbury. It was rebuilt in the 18th century, and remains a distinguished watering place for vacationers.

(COURIER: Watch for the River Avon a few miles after Tewkesbury.)

Malvern Hills  One of the most unusual landscapes in England. This long range of hills rises steeply and abruptly from the low-lying Vale of Evesham. The highest point is Worcester Beacon, a peak 1395 feet high. From the summit, 15 counties can be seen. Some furious battles were fought in these hills by the Romans who attempted to subjugate the rebellious Britons. The latter built a large hill fortress which could hold 20,000 men and thousands of chariots. (The Britons were famous for their war chariots, made of hides and light and maneuverable; but they lost battles to the Romans because their chariot brigades, though fierce, were badly coordinated compared to the disciplined Roman legions.) In these hills in 75 A.D., the Romans captured the rebellious Briton chief, Caractacus.

Worcester (Off the Motorway to the left.)  An ancient city on the River Severn, county seat of Worcestershire (Woo'ster-shur — familiar from the steak sauce). The city is famous mainly for its cathedral (13th century) which incorporates an old 7th-Century monastery. From Worcester, a band of English Puritans set out for the New World in the 17th century, landing in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where they founded a "new Worcester;" nearby is Spencer, the world headquarters of passports!

Royal Worcester Porcelain: In the town of Sidbury, southeast of Worcester, is the Royal Porcelain Works, founded in 1751, where the world-famous Royal Worcester china is produced.

Historical Note: In this town of Sidbury, the Battle of Worcester took place in 1651 between Prince Charles and the troops of Cromwell. In 1649, King Charles I had been beheaded by Cromwell's parliament. But Charles' son, Prince Charles (the future Charles II), returned to England from France with an army, hoping to defeat Cromwell and avenge his father's death. Prince Charles set up headquarters in an old hospital building in Sidbury (known as the Commandery). Charles' field commander, the Duke of Hamilton, was wounded in the battle, and brought to the hospital to recuperate. But he died, and the Prince's forces were defeated. Prince Charles assumed a disguise, and traveled from house to house in England until he escaped to France, to return to England again in 1660 (after Cromwell's death) as King Charles II. But the Battle of Worcester marked the lowest ebb of his fortunes.

Droitwich  (A small town, off the Motorway to the left.) Population: 8,000. A country town and brine spa. The brine is pumped from 200 feet below the surface. Down there is a large underground lake, made salty by springs flowing through rock salt beds. The brine contains 30% natural salts — about 10 times as dense as sea water. It is radioactive, hence valued as a treatment for liver and digestive ailments, as well as rheumatism. The temperature is 45 degrees F. Droitwich has become famous for these spas, in spite of the small size of the town. Brine water is diluted and then fed into pools, where the ailing soak away their troubles for hours at a time. An unwanted side effect of these spas is that the pumping of the brine from the soil has made many of the houses sink down into the earth, requiring costly reinforcement of the foundations.

Pilgrim Settlers  Near Droitwich are towns from which many of the Pilgrims set out to find religious freedom and a new life in America. E.g. in the old church of St. Peter de Witton, 1/2 mile south of Droitwich, the parish register still shows the birth (1595) of Edward Winslow, one of the Pilgrim Fathers. (Anybody in the bus named Winslow? This may be your real "home town." Many of these English Puritans came from towns around this part of the country, and many of them settled in Massachusetts. That's why a road map of this part of England and a road map of Massachusetts often look the same. The towns we've been passing, and others in this area, like Gloucester, Tewkesbury, Worcester, Charlton, Leominster, Stourbridge, Dudley, Ludlow, and Shrewsbury — all have their counterparts in Massachusetts (though spellings might vary).

Birmingham  England's second largest city. Population: 1,200,000. One of the greatest industrial cities of Europe, and one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th-19th centuries.

The Setting: Paradox: all this industrial muscle is situated in the midst of some of England's greenest and loveliest countryside (as we've been seeing). The city and its suburbs covers some 80 square miles in the Midlands area of England. The influence of the surrounding greenery can be seen in the city itself, which contains over 4,000 acres of parks and gardens. This relieves the urban monotony and drabness of industrial activity. The famous Aston Villa football Club is located in one of these parks.

Historical Sketch: Birmingham has been a commercial center from the earliest times. It started out as a hamlet clustered around the manor house of the Lord of Bermingeham, a Saxon noble. The whole town was listed in the Doomsday Book as being worth a total of 20 shillings (about $1.50)! Things are different today.

Industry: Industry ranges from an automobile factory employing 17,000 workers (turning out 3,000 cars a week) to tiny workshops employing 3 or 4 highly skilled craftsmen (in fields such as hand-made jewelry). Over 1,500 different trades are represented.

Urban development is nothing new to Birmingham. Back in 1880, the city cleared 45 acres of slums to create Corporation Street, with its law courts and other public buildings. The Town Hall was built in 1834, designed by Joseph Hansom, creator of the famous Hansom cabs. The exterior of the Town Hall has 40 Corinthian columns copied from the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. Thus - civic pride has gone hand in hand with commercial prosperity over the years. Urban development continues today; over 1 billion pounds are being invested to restore the downtown areas. The 250-foot circular Rotunda building rises above the tower of St. Martin's Church. Also preserved is the Bull Ring, an open-air market going back to the 12th century, where old and new co-exist in peace: behind the quaint stalls are new shopping centers. Industrial exhibitions in Birmingham will soon become one of the greatest in Europe when the new Exhibition complex is finished: with hotels, display halls, museums, and conference centers.

Art and culture are deliberately supported to offset the industrial din. A symphony orchestra performs thrice weekly in the Town Hall. The theater is lively, especially the Repertory Theatre founded in 1913 (now housed in its own new building). The Art Gallery and Museum is second only to the museums of London. Its art exhibits, libraries (including the Shakespeare Memorial Library), and technology exhibits are among the best. E.g. one can see inventors' models and drawings of early machinery, and a locomotive constructed by William Murdock in 1787 — the first locomotive ever made.

Canals: An odd fact, but true: Birmingham has more canals than Venice! Formerly polluted, the canals are being cleaned up and used as recreational places: boating, racing, pleasure cruises, and floating restaurants.

(COURIER: If you're stopping in Birmingham, or in general have more time to spend on an introduction, improvise on the information above, sketching in a fuller picture of the Industrial Revolution and its positive and negative aspects: jumped the gun on the rest of Europe, providing capital for 19th century colonial expansion, new inventions and technology, also abuses like child labor, low wages, living conditions, etc.)

Leaving Birmingham  Again we see how this industrial city is surrounded by still unspoiled countryside with its rural villages. (After Exit 11 for Cannock:) To our right is Castle King (801 feet high), a hill on which an ancient British encampment used to stand, and which the Romans besieged. Cannock and other towns are now being engulfed by urban expansion, as Birmingham spreads in all directions; but before long the original landscape will return. We'll be going through an area known as Cannock Chase, 25 square miles of moorland. The name "Cannock Chase" comes from the British word chase, a game preserve, and that word in turn is derived from the hunting that aristocrats enjoyed in such preserves.

Stafford  Population: 50,000. An ancient borough, and county seat of Staffordshire. (Explain "Shire" - county. Chaucer: "...from every shire's end they came to Canterbury.") Now a center for light industry: footwear, engineering. Isaac Walton, fisherman extraordinary and author of the "The Compleat Angler," was born in Stafford. Earlier, at Droitwich, we talked briefly about brine spas. Well, Stafford has its brine pools too, the Stafford Royal Brine Baths.

Stoke-on-Trent  (Off the Motorway to the right.) Population: 270,000. We're now deep into one of the major coalfields in England. Coal mining and processing has left its stamp on the area since the 18th century.

The Potteries: Stoke-on-Trent and five nearby towns were amalgamated in 1910, forming a single borough with the name of Stoke-on-Trent. These six former towns used to be called The Potteries because of the ceramic ware manufactured in them. Pottery making is still a major industry.

Josiah Wedgwood: Born in 1730, educated as chemist and geologist. His experiments in pottery evolved into the famous "Wedgwood blue" and "cream wave." So successful was Wedgwood in marketing the new products that in 1766 he purchased an entire estate outside Stoke-on-Trent, and converted it into ceramic works.

Stoke Today: Major pottery firms have showrooms in the city. The Shelton iron and steel works employ a large part of the population. Public museums give the city a cultural life.

Newcastle under Lyme  (Also off the Motorway.) There are two "Newcastles" in England. One, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, is near the Scottish border, and anyone going from York to Edinburgh will go past it. In that Newcastle are important coal works, and most laundry detergents are manufactured there. This "other" Newcastle which we're passing is also a coal processing center, but less important.

Nantwich  Population 11,000. We've talked about brine baths in the towns of Droitwich and Stafford. Here is yet another "brine town", with its medicinal baths. Nantwich also has a salt industry based on the abundance of brine in the soil. The major landmark is the central church, built in the medieval Perpendicular style, with an octagonal tower. Some black and white timbered houses reveal English town life of centuries ago.

Tarporley  Population: 2,000. One mile south of this town is Beeston Castle, built on a steep rock. The castle was built in the 13th century, and figured in the Civil War and the fighting that followed it. Thus, after the Civil War, the Cromwellians dismantled it.

(COURIER: Now start your introduction to Chester.)

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