The lyricism of England's geographical heartland is found in the remote, half-timber market towns of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Shropshire, and in the bucolic villages of Warwickshire. It melts away around the edges of Birmingham—England’s second largest city, often maligned by Brits as a grubby postindustrial metropolis, but forging a new identity for itself as a cultural hub.
However, it’s the countryside around here that most invokes the England of our imaginations—nowhere more so than Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of perhaps the nation’s most famous son, William Shakespeare. You get new insight into the great playwright when you visit the stretch of country where he was born and raised. The sculpted, rolling farmland of Warwickshire may look nothing like the forested countryside of the 16th century, but plenty of sturdy Tudor buildings that Shakespeare knew survive to this day (including his birthplace). There's beauty in this—but also the possibility of tourist overkill. Stratford itself, with its Shakespeare sites and the theaters of the Royal Shakespeare Company, sometimes can get to feel like "Shakespeare World." And while Shakespeare himself would recognize plenty of the ancient, timber-framed buildings that line the main shopping streets, the same cannot be said of the bland, cookie-cutter chain stores that occupy most of these buildings today.
Still, there's much more to see—magnificent castles, bucolic churches, and gentle countryside—in this famously lovely part of England. Stop in at Charlecote, a grand Elizabethan manor house, and Baddesley Clinton, a superb example of late-medieval domestic architecture. The huge fortresses of Warwick Castle and Kenilworth Castle provide glimpses into the past.
To the west, some of England's prettiest countryside lies along the 108-mile border with Wales in the counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire, and Shropshire. The Welsh borders are remote and tranquil, dotted with small villages and market towns full of 13th- and 14th-century black-and-white half-timber buildings, the legacy of a forested countryside. The Victorians were responsible for the more recent fashion of painting these structures black and white. The more elaborately decorated half-timber buildings in market towns such as Shrewsbury and Chester are monuments to wealth, dating mostly from the early 17th century. More half-timbered structures are found in Ludlow, now a culinary center nestled in the lee of its majestic ruined castle.
In the 18th century, in a wooded stretch of the Severn Gorge in Shropshire, the coke blast furnace was invented and the first iron bridge was erected (1779), heralding the birth of the Industrial Revolution. You can get a sense of this history at the museums at Ironbridge Gorge.
The ramifications of that technological leap are what led to the rapid growth of Birmingham, the capital of the Midlands. Its industrial center, which suffered decades of decline in the 20th century, inspired culture as diverse as the heavy metal sound of Black Sabbath and the dark realm of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Today an imaginative makeover and active, varied cultural life are draws for anyone interested in the rebirth of modern urban Britain.