Tag Archives: black country

Becoming a City: The future of Dudley?

I may not be the most experienced traveller in the world, but I’ve seen my share of cities – the organised chaos of New York overseen by the Statue of Liberty; the disorganised chaos of Cairo, shadowed by the Pyramids. I was told about The Da Vinci Code by a hippy in San Francisco; I spent hours in the World’s Biggest Bookshop when on holiday in Toronto.

There’s a reason I mention this. It’s because I don’t live in a city. I never have. I live in a large town, or at least next to one. It’s not a city.


As part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee later this year, one town in Britain will be upgraded to a city; Dudley is one of 26 in the running for this. I’ll admit this surprised me – Dudley is less a large town with outlying suburbs, but a borough made up of a number of townships, each fairly distinct from the others. It’ll be interesting to see the outcome of this bid for city status – the resulting investment would be invaluable; the town needs it, and that’s not me being disparaging.

Dudley is a place that has always been on the fringes of history. Abraham Darby, one of the fathers of the Industrial Revolution was born here; so was Robert Plant, and you can see Dudley’s tower block on the gatefold cover of Led Zeppelin IV, the album that gave Stairway to Heaven to the world. One of Manchester United’s ‘Busby’s Babes’, Duncan Edwards, was born in the town, becoming a victim of the Munich Air Disaster at the tragically young age of 21. We’ve had a castle since 1071 that was visited by Elizabeth I and involved in the intrigues of that era, especially those revolving around Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days’ Queen.

Does this make Dudley a city? I don’t know. Traditionally, a city is meant to have a university and/or a cathedral, and Dudley doesn’t have either (although it’s developing a significant Learning Quarter, which is cool), but it turns out that’s not true – the monarch confers city status, nothing else. And so maybe it’s appropriate for Dudley to become a city – it’s the second biggest town in the country, according to Wikipedia, the largest town in the UK not to have its own university or league football club.

The problem is, when you think of a city, you think of somewhere like London or New York, a 24-7 environment full of stuff. That’s an unrealistic standard for any new city to have to live up to, and anyway, City Status isn’t about that – it’s about identity, and Dudley has that; you’ll learn that if you call the locals Brummies. Despite what you may think of the rest of the town, there’s something powerful about driving over the hill and seeing that castle rising on the horizon. The town has history.

So all the best Dudley, it’ll be interesting to see what the Jubilee brings. Hope it’s good news…



Remember Remember the Eighth of November

I should have written this yesterday but didn’t get around to it. Saturday was Bonfire Night in the UK, commemorating a plot by Guy Fawkes and a group of fellow conspirators to blow up the government and James I during the state opening of Parliament in 1605. The plot failed and the tradition of Bonfire Night began – heck, at one point it was compulsory. Further along the line people started burning Fawkes in effigy; even further down the line they started using fireworks. And, because I’m turning into a grumpy old man, I’m going to point out that nowadays people are using fireworks all the time.

But anyway, that’s November 5th. November 8th is something else, something that has connections to my local area. See, after the Plot was exposed, the conspirators understandably did a runner, ending up at Himley, just a few miles from where I live. Holed up at Holbeach House, they were surrounded and prepared to make a fight of it – unfortunately their gunpowder had got wet during their escape and they’d attempted to dry it out by putting it near the fire. Do the maths.

So after nearly blowing themselves up, the Plotters made their final stand – apparently you can still see bullet holes in the walls. The Plotters were killed and Guy Fawkes (who had been caught in London red handed) was hung, drawn and quarted in January 1606 – it doesn’t really end well for any of them, even more so considering they become bogeymen all over again once a year.

But hey, I just think it’s cool that the last stand was so close to my home. That’s Britain for you – can’t swing a cat without hitting some history…

Round Oak Rail Accident

I’ve been scouting around Wikipedia, and it turns out that today is the anniversary of what was, at the time, one of the UK’s worst rail disasters – and it happened only five miles from where I live. The 1858 Round Oak rail accident took place in Brierley Hill, a town in the Dudley area, and cost the lives of 14 people through negligence… And I’d never heard of it. Admittedly it happened over 150 years ago, but at the same, I used to work within a mile of the scene of the accident, you’d think something would have filtered through….

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…