When people from overseas consider a trip to Great Britain they are most likely to consider London or Scotland, possibly Wales. Many visitors only pass through the English Midlands, possibly stopping at Nottingham in the vain hope of bumping into Robin Hood.
However, the Midlands has a surprising amount to offer. The official area of the Midlands is split between the East Midlands (Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Nottinghamshire, and Rutland) and West Midlands (Staffordshire, Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire, and Shropshire). However, many people expand the Midlands slightly north and south to include Peterborough, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, and Gloucestershire. For the purposes of this article I’m going to stay within the official East and West Midlands. Here are some of the hidden or less hidden gems.
Nottingham is the one place in the Midlands that most foreigners have heard of, and most often in the context of its folk hero, the aforementioned Robin Hood. In fact, Nottingham somewhat embraces the legend and still, to this day has a sheriff–an almost entirely ceremonial role designed to attract tourists. A statue of Robin Hood is located under Castle Rock in the center of the city (It has no arrow because of the number of times the arrow has been stolen). Nottingham is a small, fairly modern city, but does have a number of attractions.
Castle Rock no longer sports much of a castle (the inner and outer gates are the only parts still standing), but has an art gallery and museum, although the site is closed for major redevelopment until 2020. The castle played a key role in the English Civil War. It is also possible to tour the caves under the castle, which have seen numerous uses and are still used by a couple of pubs…as beer cellars. Visitors should get a drink in what is generally considered England’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem. A bit outside Nottingham is the iconic Wollaton Hall, which was used as Wayne Manor in The Dark Knight Rises.
The Peak District
Most of the Midlands are low lying. The Peak District is the exception. It’s a National Park, although that doesn’t mean quite the same thing in the United Kingdom. The area is great for hiking, camping, cycling, and pony trekking. Oh, and this being England, you can take the bus or train to pretty much every trailhead, although a car is nice for flexibility. The truly ambitious can attempt the Trans Pennine Trail, which runs the full width of the country. You can enjoy the wildlife and wildflowers, particularly at the designated meadow sites at Hard Rake and Stanage-North Lees. Be aware that the weather can be unpleasant even in the summer. Proper hiking boots and a good rain jacket are recommended.
Most of the Victorian “spa” resorts were on the coasts, taking advantage of the sea water and salt air. The town of Matlock Bath is a rare exception. It has everything a traditional British seaside resort has, with the exception of the sea. Matlock Bath is home of the Peak District Lead Mining Museum but is best known for The Heights of Abraham and the cable car that crosses above the town’s “high street” on its way up to a Victorian-era view point. Nearby is Gulliver’s Kingdom theme park, the original of a small chain of child-oriented theme parks. The park has been open since 1976.
Crich is a pretty village in Derbyshire, but it is also the home of the Crich Tramway Village, also called the National Tramway Museum. A day ticket gives you unlimited tram rides on the mile long track, using restored historic trams. They also have an exhibit on the history of trams and a period village which includes buildings moved from elsewhere and a police box (or a TARDIS, if you prefer). The Cromford Canal runs close to the museum, and the Friends of Cromford Canal offer scheduled rides on Birdswood, their horse-drawn narrowboat.
Affectionately known as “Brum,” and its inhabitants as “Brummies,” Birmingham is England’s second biggest city. It has almost as much to offer as London (although the transport network is notoriously “bad” for England, it’s still better than anything you’ll find in America). Birmingham offers canal boat rides, theater at the Birmingham Hippodrome, shopping at the famous Bullring and fine dining. You can even visit the BBC’s Birmingham studios and get a tour.
Rutland Water is a large reservoir that is a playground for locals and tourists alike. You can walk, bike or bird watch along the shore or engage in a variety of watersports. The lake is home to the Rutland Osprey Project, although the reserve has many other feathered stars. You can hire everything from canoes to paddle boats to windsurfers. There are no power boats on the lake, so it’s a great place to practice your paddling and sailing skills. There are watersports and fishing lessons regularly.
Skegness, in Lincolnshire, epitomizes the classic British seaside resort at its most wonderful (and occasionally tacky). It has a golden beach, ideal for building sandcastles, or for the little ones to take a traditional donkey ride. The beach is now a Blue Flag beach, after some problems in the past. It also has the original Butlins, opened in 1963 as the first of the famous holiday camps, and now a modern family resort where you can stay or just get a day ticket to enjoy rides and the water park. Skegness also offers a seal sanctuary and rehabilitation center, a small theme park and the world’s first ‘official cloudspotting area.’
The Midlands is not a place to drive or ride the train through on your way to somewhere more interesting, but a destination in their own right with numerous attractions, some of which can be quite surprising. There are particularly good destinations for families in the “Heart of England,” but you can find something for everyone’s taste here. Look for various events and festivals through the year, or just find yourself a good pub and settle down for a pint.