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Midlands of England

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The Midlands are the middle section, sometimes called "the heart of England." By using the term Midlands, I am going to, perhaps, broaden the normal boundaries a bit to include places that are sometimes ascribed to other regions. I am mainly considering the broad area that is north of London; between Wales and East Anglia, yet south of Yorkshire. To begin with, my travels to the Midlands never really touched upon the big industrial cities of Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham or Sheffield. The nearest I ever got to them was passing by on the motorway, for I never had a good reason to go to them, and never really wanted to, to be honest. I do not mean to be prejudiced against them, it's just that I never had a good excuse to visit them. But, maybe someday--one can only hope!

Call me an academic prude if you want, but I've enjoyed visiting Oxford and Cambridge quite a lot. They are both reasonably close to London, but far enough apart that you will never see them both on the same day, unless you absolutely have to. It's a good idea to take your time and see them as the two separate university towns that they are meant to be. They are quite different from university towns in the U.S.A., for they are a collection of many colleges that are like separate little communities unto themselves. They can be rather cloistered and private, but a limited amount of their grounds and architecture is accessible to the public. I've been to Oxford about four times, and enjoyed it, including one of those double-decker bus tours with my Dad in 1987.

In 2004, I returned to Oxford with Linda, Reanna, and my Dad, and we had a lovely time walking down the main street and poping in-and-out of shops and cloistered college courtyards, including a climb up the tower of St. Mary-the-Virgin church (1280), overlooking Radcliffe Square, which is arguably the most beautiful academic square in the world. We also visited the courtyard of Bodleian Library (1610), but didn't have time to enter the library on this trip. Oxford has the advantage of being in close proximity to several other sights in its region that are worth seeing, but I think I was more smitten with the atmosphere at Cambridge, which seemed to be more appealing. Cambridge may not have as many interesting sights in the surrounding area, but has more parks and is more pedestrian and bicycle friendly. In 1993, my Dad and I had a fun time "punting" along the Cam River, in one of those boats, similar in shape and dimension to a gondola. Dad almost fell into the water trying to propel the boat! The only way to steer one of these is with a wooden pole called a punting pole, which by my own estimate, was over ten foot long, and heavy! I took over the job of steering and managed to move us up and down the Cam for a reasonable distance, but it was rather difficult. It's a lot harder than it looks, believe me; quite a few people hire expert punters to navigate these boats!

A little bit West and NW of Oxford is the ever-charming Cotswold Hills region, which is home to several towns that were at the center of the cottage-wool industry that thrived in the 18th century but later declined and left the region stuck-in-time. I have been to Cirencester a couple of times, which was a large Roman city during Roman occupation, and a little south of which, is the source of the River Thames. It also boasts one of the most ample yew hedges anywhere in Britain. I have spent the night in a little Cotswold town called Northleach, and have driven through the Cotswold's with my Dad, sister Melanie, and her boy friend at the time, Shane Neal.

Not far from Oxford is the little village of Woodstock, which is the location of Blenheim Palace, a marvelous palatial estate, where Winston Churchill was born in 1874. I toured the palace and grounds one cool day in 1988. A little further north is Stratford-on-Avon, which is the birthplace and burial place of William Shakespeare. I know that a lot of people may consider it to be over-rated, but it is still a must-see place for literary and history buffs. I have been there at least four times, and I have rented a row-boat to float on the Avon River for thirty minutes. Stratford is one of those places that you have to take visitors to when they come all the way from America, because everyone knows and loves Shakespeare. Don't forget Ann Hathaway's house, also in Stratford. A little more to the north is Warwick, a splendid old town with the well-preserved medieval Warwick Castle, built over an older Norman one. I have been there twice.

A little more NW, in Shropshire, is the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Who would believe it, but this wonderfully idyllic, remote, and handsome little pocket of England is THE place where iron became mass-produced and power-driven machinery was first introduced. The first iron bridge (in the world) was built here in 1779, and still exists today, in the little town named, appropriately, Iron Bridge. This is a great place to visit, for it is surprisingly low key and not overly commercialized.

Moving over to the East Midlands, I have been to Lincoln a couple of times. Lincoln is not large, but the old-town is very well-preserved, and is situated on a hill in the otherwise flat country-side of Lincolnshire. Lincoln Cathedral stands out, literally, as you approach, and is a singularly magnificent piece of gothic architecture. But more attractions await you in Lincoln besides the Cathedral. Lincoln Castle is moderately impressive, and gives you great high-views for photographing the cathedral and the surrounding area. Plus, there is a copy of the Magna Charta, and a decent museum that tells all about it. As you walk down the hill towards more of Lincoln, you'll pass three of the oldest houses in Britain, called the "Jews' Houses." These solid old houses, remarkably, date back to the 1100-1200's. Very eye-catching, to say the least.

Other towns I have been to in the Midlands include Leeds, Northampton, Peterborough, Stamford, Stoke-on-Trent, and Worcester, among others that are too small to mention. I've been to Northampton at least three times because there was a congregation there that put on good youth rallies, and I befriended a group of American AIM workers (Adventures in Missions) there that I kept in touch with. Plus, I went to the Greenbelt Festival (an annual Christian music festival), located near Castle Ashbey, on my motorcycle in 1987. And then, there is the little town of Corby (in North Northamptonshire)--not famous for anything, but I have been there numerous times to visit the British Bible School, which occupies a soft place in my heart.

Another couple of sights that I have to mention are not far northwest of London in Buckinghamshire, and they are Old Jordans and Stoke Poges. Old Jordans is a small hidden-away place that claims to have the Mayflower Barn; a barn that was built with the timbers of the Mayflower ship that carried the Pilgrims to America, and the 17th century Quaker Meeting House (reputedly the oldest one). The founder of Quakerism and the State of Pennsyvania, William Penn (1644-1718), is buried on the grounds with his two wives and children. A few miles south is Stoke Poges, where Thomas Gray (1716-1771) is buried at St. Giles Church. In 1751 he wrote Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, one of the most quoted of English poems. I don't believe he based the Elegy on this particular church yard, but the setting is peaceful; an impressive old yew tree is there, and the church that dates back to Saxon times is open to visitors. There is just no end to the wonderfully interesting and historic sights of England's Midlands.

Cambridge City Council
Oxford city Council, Tourism
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Warwick Castle
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