If you saw this image out of context you might think it was an x-ray of a smoke-tarred lung… or perhaps, on a grander scale, the clouds of a violent electrical storm caught in an instant.
In fact it represents more than 2,000 square kilometres of river systems (that’s about 35 miles by 25 miles) in the West Midlands centred on Oldbury.
The white areas are the high ground (including the diagonal limestone ridge from Sedgley to Northfield). In the bottom left are the lower, darker zones of the Stour and Severn valleys while, leaving the image in the middle-right, more dark spidery traces represent the tributaries of the Tame flowing east through Birmingham.
In the Black Country itself (the centre of the image) the rivers are small and difficult to navigate, leading to the popularity of the canals from the 18th century, and their legacy in the landscape today.
> Read more about why the altitude of the Black Country is important – Where the old bull is really on the level
If you have ever walked the 200 metres from Digbeth markets past the fountains, smart cafés and noodle bars to arrive at this statue, you’ll know from the pain in your legs that you’ve walked up a hill. But more than that, you’ve crossed an important threshold in the West Midlands landscape: you’ve walked up onto the Birmingham or Black Country Plateau (the name’s something else we can’t agree on). The air might not be very thin up here, but at 120m (the height of a 40 storey building) and covering most of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall, Wolverhampton and Birmingham, the Plateau is the largest piece of high ground between the Pennines and the Cotswolds. And it famously includes the highest football ground in the English league. More historically, it is the reason the Black Country canals exist in the first place (at this height the rivers are too small to navigate) and also why there are impressive flights of locks where the canals come off the high ground (see below).
So next time someone assures you they are on the level, make sure they’re not just talking about their altitude.
PDF map of the Plateau
Location of 21 canal locks in Wolverhampton (40 metres descent)
…. and the Wolverhampton Locks Trail (pdf leaflet)
Location of 8 canal locks at Delph, Brierley Hill (25 metres descent)
Location of 13 canal locks at Farmers Bridge, Birmingham (25 metres descent)
We can debate whether the economy is down the pan, but history is definitely in the gutter. Seriously though, you can see it. You’ve probably walked past it hundreds of times on your journey to work, school, or the shops.
Even the cast iron displayed today on the kerbs of a handful of Smethwick streets is by itself like a short section from a roll call of Black Country foundries. Within a few minutes walk of each other there are drain covers from Dudley & Dowell (Cradley Heath), Smith & Sons (Smethwick), Ridgacre (West Bromwich) and Hunt Bros (Oldbury). These factories have been part of a metal casting tradition which has employed thousands of local people over hundreds of years. The great thing about this little collection of objects is the short distance they’ve travelled—having all come less than six miles (retrace their journeys below).
Oh yes, and for those of you who now want to read more about gutter history there is always the wonderfully titled web resources of ‘drainspotting’ and ‘manhole miscellany’. Or just get down to the offices of Sandwell Community History and Archives Service in Smethwick, built of course next to the site of a Victorian foundry. Send us the history of your gutter!
6m from Dudley & Dowell in Cradley Heath to Church Hill Street, Smethwick
4m from Ridgeacre foundry in West Bromwich to Firs Lane, Smethwick
3m from Hunt Bros’ Griffin Foundry, Oldbury to Thimblemill Road, Smethwick
1/2m from Smith & Sons’ in Smethwick to Coopers Lane, Smethwick
The rapid destructive power of fire has a way of bringing our attention to a longer, slower process of change in the urban landscape. This week has seen a piece of the Black Country’s industrial legacy damaged as a blaze hit the former leather works of Jabez Cliff on Lower Forster Street, Walsall. Sad to see a key locally-listed building damaged in this way, but the site is also part of a wider set of industrial heritage on which a new 21st century Black Country is putting pressure, although at a less visible pace. In an effort to find space for new housing, the area’s Core Strategy foresees the re-use of a fifth of industrial land over the next fifteen years—a change which will also test the preservation of historic workplaces. Our challenge is surely to understand the implications of this for the area’s inherited character, preferably before the demise of the buildings themselves puts this beyond us.
Where all our grannies worked
Location of Jabez Cliff works
Walsall’s locally-listed buildings
Black Country Core Strategy
For rapid change see Two hundred years in twenty seconds
There are more than a dozen Hindu temples in the Black Country but you will need to travel some way to find one bigger than this. A 21st century construction sitting next to the canal near Oldbury, the spectacular Shri Venkateswara Balaji Temple of the UK will be open to visitors as part of Heritage Open days between 8th and 11th September.
Details of visiting times to the temple
Full programme of Heritage Open Days in the West Midlands (including 47 locations in the Black Country)
Ok now that we’ve got your ear so to speak, we can come clean: the great Dutch painter did love the Black Country, just not the one you’re thinking of. In 1879 he lived for a few months in the Borinage region of Belgium, also known as le Pays Noir (the Black Country). Like our own Black Country, the Borinage was a centre of mining in the 19th century and Van Gogh referred to it as a ‘remarkable and picturesque region’ saying ‘the country and the inhabitants charm me more every day’.
So, how does all this help us think about the landscape of our own Black Country? Well we can learn from the parallels between the Borinage and the Black Country. For example both were areas of coal production at a time when waterways were almost the only way to carry heavy goods: in both cases canals proved to be vitally important in opening new markets for local minerals. Perhaps you know of other similarities …and differences?
The recommended driving route from Tipton to Van Gogh’s house in the Borinage.
If we had to come up with a group of ten objects representing the story of the Black Country landscape what would be in it? Perhaps each of us has a different idea of what should be included – in fact some interesting collections have already been put forward (see below). Later this month we will be discussing a new group – this time with a particular twist: all the objects will be assembled in one place and you will be able to handle them on the day.
In advance, here’s an image of one of them and a reassurance. The reassurance? There won’t be any condoms.
The Black Country in Ten Objects
A History of the World in the Black Country
Coal to condoms – items which made the Black Country great
Council housing in the Black Country