England’s Dreaming #8 – The Black Country is Weird

(Before we go any further, just a note for people who live outside of my area – The Black Country is a sub-region of the West Midlands, so called because of the black soot that settled over everything as the result of its industrial heritage – the story goes that Queen Victoria ordered the blinds of her train carriage closed as she passed through the region, although that might just be cobblers – and is nothing to do with its ethnic make-up, as is sometimes assumed. The area consists of Dudley, Sandwell, Wolverhampton and Walsall. It is not a part of Birmingham. It has never been a part of Birmingham. It will NEVER be a part of Birmingham.)

The Black Country is strange.

You might not agree with that; after all, we’re just a normal grouping of towns, full of shops and pubs and churches and houses and schools and canals with shopping trolleys in them. We have pockets of high deprivation next to areas of relative affluence. We have a zoo. We have a castle. That’s fair enough. So far, so normal. But scratch the surface and we have our fair share of oddness.

For a start, there’s the story of Bella in the Wych-Elm. Not Bella AND the Wych-Elm, Bella IN the Wych-Elm. See, in 1943, a group of lads hanging around in Hagley Woods came across the body of a woman in the hollow of a wych-hazel. The body, badly decomposed, was recovered by police who discovered it was missing a hand. They never figured out who she was – World War 2 was considered more important – but the story soon became a local meme; "WHO PUT BELLA IN THE WYCH-ELM?" graffiti started cropping up, mostly in the same writing. Did the author know the name of the victim? Was it a taunt? Was the murder connected with the War? Or black magic? We’ll never find out, but check out this picture of the Wychbury Obelisk – tell me that’s not freaky…

Less creepy is the fact that the anchor for the Titanic was made in Netherton. Apparently, local sarcasm says that it was the only bit of the ship that worked.

Sadly the Black Country can’t lay claim to one of the most outright insane areas of the West Midlands, Cannock Chase. This is ground zero for High Strangeness in the region, giving rise to stories of werewolves, bigfoots/bigfeet, mysterious big cats, mysteriously appearing koi carp, ghosts, UFOs and goodness knows what else. It’s fodder for an episode or six of Doctor Who.

All this is before we get onto Dudley’s ghost stories, or the Stourbridge cat grafitti / cat disappearances, or the Himley Hall connection with the Gunpowder Plot, or the Crooked House, or… Heck, I swear I once saw a llama in a garden in Brierley Hill. There’s probably enough material for something like the Hometown Tales podcast.

So, a challenge – if you’re from the Black Country, tell me any odd stories you know about our region. If you’re not from the Black Country, tell me why your area is a bit crazy. Because some of that stuff is going to become the stories that are freaking out our kids in the future…

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