The Black Country, UK
Airport Rating N/A
Reception of locals *****
Black by day, red by night
Talk to anyone outside of the Midlands about the Black Country and you get confused looks - talk to anyone inside the Black Country about what it is and you get many different answers.
The Black Country is an enigma.
Generally, the agreed definition of the Black Country includes the boroughs of Dudley and Sandwell, with Dudley described as the capital. In most definitions the southern parts of Wolverhampton and Walsall are also included. In the broadest definition, the entirety of Wolverhampton and Walsall, as well as Sandwell and Dudley are included.
There are a few things that unites the Black Country. The first is geology - the presence of surface level coal (and slightly deeper coal in Smethwick) which provided the energy for the Industrial Revolution. The second is industry - for over a century the Black Country was home to significant heavy industry and factories. The third is the Black Country accent - it's a strong dialect that is widely described as the accent most closely related to Anglo-Saxon English and known locally as Yam Yam. And finally, there are orange chips - honestly, they're amazing.
In the 19th century the Black Country was described as the 'workshop' of the world', the home of the Industrial Revolution and at the time the largest industrialised area on the planet - producing the glass for the Crystal Palace in London, and the anchors for the Titanic. There are several reasons why the Industrial Revolution took root in this small part of England and ended up changing the world and the book 'Why Nations Fail' is a good read to understand some of the deeper reasons..
In a nutshell, a combination of increased worker/peasant rights following the Black Death, the relative isolation of the Midlands following the English Civil War, the revolutionary politics of the Victorian Midlands and the easy access to the popular energy of the day, coal, meant that the Black Country was almost destined to give rise to the Industrial Revolution.
In 1712, the earliest working steam engine, called the Newcomen Engine was constructed near Dudley. Shortly after that a new form of iron constructed from smelted coke took root in the area and the construction of canals to move goods from place to place meant that by the end of the 18th century, the Black Country was described as one long town between Birmingham and Wolverhampton.
As the 19th century progressed, pollution from industrialisation had transformed the area into a hellish landscape which was used as inspiration by J.R.R. Tolkien for the setting of Mordor (the dark land) in his 'Lord of the Rings' series.
In 1849, the author Sidney Samuel wrote:
"In this Black Country, including West Bromwich, Dudley, Darlaston, Bilston, Wolverhampton and several minor villages, a perpetual twilight reigns during the day, and during the night fires on all sides light up the dark landscape with a fiery glow. The pleasant green of pastures is almost unknown, the streams, in which no fishes swim, are black and unwholesome; The majority of the natives ... are in full keeping with the scenery – savages, without the grace of savages, coarsely clad in filthy garments, with no change on weekends or Sundays, they converse in a language belarded with fearful and disgusting oaths, which can scarcely be recognised as the same as that of civilized England".
Perhaps the most famous description of the Black Country is from Elihu Burrit, an American diplomat who in 1864 wrote:
""...black by day and red by night...it cannot be matched, for vast and varied production, by any other space of equal radius on the surface of the globe"
The Modern Black Country
The first decade after the Second World War coincided with a return to large industrial output, and with a larger workforce required to fill all the roles, the Black Country turned to the newly independent Commonwealth, bringing workers from the Subcontinent and the Caribbean, including large numbers of Panjabi Sikhs who found ready employment in factories - including my grandad.
But the good times didn't last. The impact of globalisation meant much the unskilled labour on which the economy of the Black Country was built was off-shored to other countries with cheaper wages. The policies of Margaret Thatcher (still hated in most of the Midlands to this day) further exacerbated problems in the area and by the mid 1980s the Black Country had, in places, double the national unemployment rate.
Today the area is home to pockets of significant deprivation and areas of relative affluence. While small parts of the Black Country retain industry (chain making in Cradley Heath), most of it has become a commuter area for workers in Birmingham (which you can read about here) and further afield.
However, it retains a fierce independence, including having its own flag that you can see flying around various parts of the area, and its own special day - Black Country Day - that is celebrated every 14 July to coincide with the date of the invention of the Newcomen steam engine. .
The impact of the Industrial Revolution has created a permanent home for over 100,000 Sikhs. In fact, Wolverhampton is the only city in the UK where Sikhs make up the second largest religious group, while Sandwell is one of the few metropolitan boroughs where Sikhs make up the second largest faith group.
Sikhs came to the Black Country in three main waves; (1) in the decade following the First World War to fill up open roles in factories, (2) the expulsion of Sikhs (and other minorities) from Uganda in the 1970s, and (3) following the Sikh Genocide in India in the 1980s and 90s.
The informative book 'Black Country Sikhs' commissioned by Guru Nanak Gurdwara, Smethwick, provides a good overview of the lives of the Sikhs that moved to the area over the decades and the lives they have built for themselves.
Black Country Living Museum
If you find yourself in this corner of the world, the Black Country Living Museum is the one attraction you shouldn't miss. I have been to museums all over the world (you can read about my 10 favourite London museums here, and my 10 favourite New York museums here), but the Black Country Living Museum is the absolute very best museum I have ever visited.
Built in 1978 over 26 acres, the museum faithfully recreates life in the Black Country from the Victorian Age up to the middle of the 20th century. In fact, it's so good that large parts of the period television series 'Peaky Blinders' is set here.
As a living museum, you don't just see exhibitions, but you are a part of them. You can ride trolley buses from the entrance to the main village, walk through streets with buildings that date back over 150 years, visit mines and workshops, interact with guides and actors dressed up in clothes from Victorian and Edwardian periods, sit in a school and learn about teaching in the 19th century, and even buy food, drinks and confectionary from shops that date back almost two centuries.
There are pop-up exhibitions from time to time and my most recent visit coincided with a temporary exhibition on vintage vehicles. Some exhibitions have live shows, for example a chance to explore a mine, sit in a class, watch a movie, watch metalwork and gas work. Other exhibitions allow you to explore at your own pace and in your own time.
You really do feel a part of the experience.
Tickets are priced at £20 per adult, but with that you can return to the museum as many times as you like within a 12 month period.
There are other museums worth visiting in the Black Country too, and the Red House Glass Cone Museum in Stourbridge is another good one. The cone dates back to the late 1700s and was originally built for the manufacture of glass - today it's one of only four cones left in the UK, and the attached museum gives a great history of glassmaking in Stourbridge and the nearby area.
Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust
Located next to, but separate from, the Black Country Living Museum is the Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust, and again, as far as attractions go - this compares favourably with things I have seen all over the world.
As industrialisation took hold in the Black Country, canal networks were formed throughout the area. to transport goods. The first canals were completed in the late 18th century and the area of Birmingham and the Black Country still has more canals than Venice.
While the canals fell into disuse during the early part of the 20th century, much have them have been redeveloped and restored across the Midlands. In the Black Country, the Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust fought for, and eventually succeeded, in reopening a significant part of the canal network in the Black Country including the Dudley Tunnel.
At just under 3 kms, the Dudley Tunnel is the second longest tunnel on the UK canal network. The tunnel has almost half a billion years of history, with fossils dotted around tunnel entrances that are marked out to see. Inside, large caverns host light and education shows and different types of rocks mean the tunnel can feel very different from one metre to the next.
Today the canal is part of the England Navigable Inland Waterways which allows you travel to large parts of England on canals, with the area of the Black Country forming a canal 'ring waterway'. You can also take a short trip down through the canals with the Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust. I took a 30 minute boat ride that cost £10, but you can take 2 hour, 3 hour and even 6 hour boat rides on the canals. As part of the trip I got to learn about the history of the tunnels, see some interactive displays and navigate deep into the Dudley Tunnel.
But not everything costs money.. While the Dudley Tunnel doesn't have a towpath, most of the canal networks in the Black Country do. It's vey easy to take a walk from the northern part of the Black Country in Wolverhampton and Walsall, through the heart of the Black Country and south into Stourbridge. During the summer, the towpaths are busy with walkers but it's an excellent way to see the area, from the quiet spaces in Stourbridge, to the busy Merry Hill and Waterfront shopping area, all the way to Wolverhampton.
Dudley Zoo, Castle and Priory Ruins
A short walk from the Black Country Living Museum and the Dudley Tunnel is the thousand year old Dudley Castle, and the near 100 year old Dudley Zoo.
If you live in the Black Country, chances are this is one of the first places you bring visitors from out of town. The local Gurdwara would take us on trips to the zoo every summer, and I've visited more times than I can keep count.
The castle dates back to the Normal period, with a first castle built in 1070, and a subsequent stone castle built in 1262. While some of the castle was pulled down following the English Civil War after finding itself on the wrong side of history, a significant portion of it was spared and today the castle is in a remarkably good condition, especially when you think that some towns will build a fence around an old small stone block and call it a castle (Clavering, I'm looking at you).
The castle dominates the skyline of Dudley and two Russian cannons from the Crimean War means the castle still retains an aura of strength. To the east of castle are the ruined remains of a chapel and chambers, while you can climb the castle itself to get incredible views of the Black Country. The complex run temporary exhibits that explore the history of the castle, and an area of greenery in the grounds is still used for events and functions.
While the castle sits atop Castle Hill, the surrounding grounds are home to Dudley Zoo, a 40 acre zoo that houses animals from around the world. While the notion of animals in cages gives me conflicting feelings, my early exposure to the zoo stoked my curiosity of the wider world. While the zoo has divested itself of larger animals that shouldn't be housed in urban zoos (there used to be elephants and polar bears), the zoo still has lions, tigers, leopards, monkeys, camels, lemurs, snakes and many, many other animals (if you want to see some of the bigger animals close up you can visit the nearby West Midlands Safari Park which sits just outside the Black Country).
The zoo is large enough that it can take most of a day to explore the grounds, and while it's a great walk, there's also a miniature railway and impressive chairlifts that can take you from the bottom to the top of the hill.
Tickets are £20 per adult, but this gives you access into the zoo and castle, as well as allowing you to visit as many times as you want within 12 months.
A short walk from the zoo and castle are the Priory Ruins. The ruins are of a monastery first constructed in the early 12th century and is grade I listed. The ruins are free to visit and tend to be a place wedding parties like to take photos, but considering they are free of charge, if you have the time, it's worth having a quick stop-off to see a little local history.
Parks and Nature Reserves
While the Black Country made a name for itself through bleak, smoke filled landscapes, today significant parts of the area are home to beautiful parks, nature reserves and country estates.
In the north of the area is West Park in Wolverhampton, a large urban park opened back in 1881. It's the location for an annual Vaisakhi Mela, and has events throughout the year. The park has a global plant collection in its Victorian Conservatory, a grade II listed bandstand dating back to the year of its construction and even a boating lake as an activity.
South of Wolverhampton is Himley Hall and Park which contains a grade II listed country house dating back over 300 years, while the park itself is also grade II listed. For much of its history, Himley Hall and Park was the home of the Earls of Dudley and their knights, but more recently it has become a public building and park that welcomes almost a quarter of a million visitors a year. By the way, if you make here, I'd recommend visiting 'The Crooked House' built in 1765 as a farmhouse and currently used as a pub - mining subsidence means one side of the building has sank into the ground creating a strange experience.
A short walk from the Himley Park is Baggeridge Country Park, a large area of grassland, woodland and wetland that provides views as far as the Welsh mountains on a good day. The park sits on the last functioning coal mine in the Black Country and represents the transition of the old Black Country to the new Black Country. While the greenery and open space represents what the area has become, a large kiln chimney that dominates the skyline for miles around is a reminder of its past.
Further south still is the Wrens Nest Urban Nature reserve, which was the first National Nature Reserve for geology in the UK. It's home to the Severn Sisters, the last remaining surface opening limestone cavern in the world, as well as one of the best places in the UK to go fossil hunting. In fact, so many fossils are found in the area (particularly trilobites) that there are signs telling visitors to return any unwanted fossils to museums rather than throwing them away. It's also an important reason that the Black Country as a whole was designated a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2020 in recognition of its importance to the field of geology.
The Black Country is home to a large and well established Sikh community and most of the larger towns in the area have at least one Gurdwara.
The oldest, and largest, Gurdwara in the area is Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Smethwick, and it's also the traditional starting place for the Birmingham Nagar Kirtan which begins in the Black Country before crossing over the border and finishing in nearby Handsworth, Birmingham. The Gurdwara is extremely influential in the diaspora and includes classrooms, a gym, a lecture theatre and several halls. Much like neighbouring Handsworth (in Birmingham), Smethwick High Street is book-ended by two Gurdwaras, with Baba Sang Gurdwara a large redeveloped Gurdwara on the other side of the High Street giving the area a strong Panjabi presence.
On the other side of the Black Country are several Gurdwaras in Wolverhampton, with three of them considered very large and influential. The largest is the Guru Nanak Gurdwara (better known as Sedgley Street Gurdwara) which is politically active locally and hosts a Nagar Kirtan each year. The Nanaksar Thath Gurdwara, and the Guru Nanak Satsang Gurdwara (better known as Cannock Road Gurdwara) are two other very large Gurdwaras located near the city centre. The Thath Gurdwara features a brilliant blue ceiling that - in a time of copy and paste architecture - really stands out.
Neighbouring Walsall has several large and historically important Gurdwaras, and it's also where I spent a bit of time learning Thai Boxing with Lions MMA. The largest is the Guru Nanak Gurdwara (better known as Caldmore), with the Nanaksar (Pleck) and Darbar Guru Granth Sahib the others. Walsall is best known in the Sikh community for being home to the first western Gurmat Camp, an idea that has spread across the diaspora in the UK, Canada and the United States.
In between Smethwick, Wolverhampton and Walsall are a large number of Gurdwaras dotted throughout the Black Country, most of which also hold annual Nagar Kirtans for Vaisakhi. The Wednesfield and Willenhall Gurdwaras are both newly built in similar red-brick styles and in terms of floor space are the some of the largest in Europe.
West Bromwich is home to a large Sikh community and houses two of the most important Gurdwaras in the Black Country, the Guru Har Rai Gurdwara, and the Guru Nanak Gurdwara (better known as Edward Street Gurdwara) - as well as several other smaller ones. The former has a unique architectural frontage and during the UK riots several years back, I spent two evenings posted there, and one evening in Smethwick Gurdwara. Nearby Oldbury has a couple of Gurdwaras of which the Amrit Parchar Gurdwara is best known for its Nishaan Sahib that is visible from the M5 motorway.
Dudley and the surrounding area is home to three Gurdwaras, the oldest being the Guru Nanak Gurdwara (better known as Dudley Gurdwara) which has a history spanning over half a century. Splits in the committee over the past 40 years led to the established of two further Gurdwaras, the Guru Tegh Bahadur Gurdwara located in the town centre, and the Guru Hargobind Gurdwara located just outside of Dudley in the Tividale. The latter is a particularly strong panthic Gurdwara with influence across the region.
The Panjabi influence
The Panjabi influence in the Black Country extends further than spirituality, and while nearby Birmingham is known as the home of western Bhangra, the Panjabi impact in the Black Country is more associated with food.
Mr Singh's Pizza is one of the more commercially successful restaurants that was founded in the Black Country. Originally based in Smethwick and Oldbury, they have since expanded to Birmingham, Wolverhampton and London. The pizzas are all pure vegetarian, with the majority of dishes vegan too and people tend to come from across the area to try them out.
The region is also home to several 'sweet centres' that sell Panjabi sweets like jalebis, gulab jamans, ladoos as well as savoury food like samoseh and pakoreh. Lakshmi Sweet Centre in Wolverhampton is one of the largest, while Bassi Sweet Centre in Tipton and Dhesi Sweet Centre in Tipton, Willenhall and Smethwick are places where Panjabis from around the Black Country visit.
I make it a point to never share details of bars or pubs on my blog - given the damage that alcohol has caused in our community, I don't want to be the person recommending those places or giving them space, and over the past 5 years it's something I have stuck strongly to.
But it's very difficult to speak about the Panjabi influence in the Black Country without speaking about mixed grills. These tend to be Panjabi owned establishments that provide food and drink based around non-halal Panjabi tandoori mixed grills, and they are extremely popular. The caveat I'm going to put is that all of these places do veggie grills and non-alcoholic drinks. I don't go to these places to drink, and I appreciate there are individual differences in the readership, but the impact of alcohol on Panjabi families is a big one, and while I'm not here to preach - if we can avoid it, we should.
The presence of mixed grill establishments in the Black Country has been a long one, particularly in the West Bromwich which is home to Desi Junction and the Sportsman - two of the oldest and most well known places. In recent years, West Bromwich has added many others, of which Island Inn and Soho Oak are the best known.
Further afield, and in nearby Oldbury and Smethwick, the Railway Inn, the British Queen, and Desi 2 are well known and visited. Wolverhampton has several well known mixed grill places, of which (another) British Queen, Yaaran da dhaba, Kazbar and Glassy Junction are some of the more famous. Both Walsall and Dudley also have a handful of establishments, of which the Red Lion in Walsall is highly rated. The concept of the 'best mixed grill' is one that fuels significant conversations in the local Panjabi community.
Outside of food, the Black Country hosts two main streets that have strong Panjabi influences where most of the shops are either Panjabi owned or targeted towards Panjabis - Dudley Road in Wolverhampton and Smethwick High Street. While neither of them have the size or cultural strength of Soho Road in Handsworth (in nearby Birmingham), they are both busy, lively places - Dudley Road in particular is known for its wedding suits.
Would I recommend visiting the Black Country?
If you're reading this in Europe, North America, Asia or Australia/New Zealand I wouldn't rush on a plane to get to the Black Country - but it's an area that has traditionally had a poor reputation and I'm here to show you another side.
If you find yourself in the Midlands, then you should definitely make a point to visit the Black Country Living Museum and the Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust - both are attractions that I'd rank highly in any global list. The presence of a zoo and castle makes the concept of a short day trip a good idea, and the Panjabi food in the area is pretty amazing. The Black Country is also well positioned to excursion further to the west, like the beautiful Bridgnorth and Ironbridge.
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British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.