City 49: Worcester


Nativity Scene in Worcester Cathedral. Great sense of staging which caught my dramatic eye. A great city has something to teach you at every turn.

Nativity Scene in Worcester Cathedral. Great sense of staging which caught my dramatic eye. A great city has something to teach you at every turn.


A 9.30 departure on a cool, yet not cold January day of 9 degrees Celsius. 2019 has started at a sprint and for today’s journey to Worcester, Dad, a Worcestershire lad, would appear to be the perfect guide. Born in Redditch, or the red ditch, as I call it he has fond memories of the City, particularly of watching cricket in the ground on the far side of the River Severn.  It’s 56 miles from Whittington near Lichfield to Worcester City Centre. Dad drives mum’s car and mum sits in the back feeding us fruit and biscuits. The roads have changed a bit and we end up entering the City via the A4440, by a route dad had not anticipated. We park in King Street, just down the road from the cathedral. It’s £5 for 6 hours which seems reasonable. We pay up, suit up and get orientated. 

When I'm Cleaning Windas.

There are maps and information boards everywhere detailing points of interest. The city inspires instant confidence in its structure, organisation and welcome. Not exactly small but perfectly formed. Compact. Lean no fat. Poised between the traditional and the modern. Walking to the Cathedral up Edgar Street through the imposing gate and into the close. Up a side street someone is cleaning windas, making me think of George Formby, another English insitution. Chatting with some locals we are struck by their friendliness, and willingness to share time and information. History, is perhaps, the true religion of this country I reflect, as we talk of the death of King Henry the VIII’s older brother Arthur by the sweating fever. He died at just 16 and if he had lived I’m guessing history would have been very different. Would their even be a Church of England? Answers on a postcard to the usual address.

At The Setting Of The Sun...

A 10.45 arrival allows us time to explore but also places us within nibbling distance of lunch. Point 1the Cathedral, is a space replete with treasures. Built between 1084 and 1504 it is a hotchpotch of architectural styles, which work well together gathering the best of the Norman and the Gothic, into a commendable whole.  As we enter the sacred space we examine a row of bells that date back as far as 1374 and marvel at the skill and artistry that went into their construction. A lay preacher recites the lesson and accompanying prayer to an almost empty Cathedral. We explore and she moves over to welcome us. She is warm and not at all preachy and we end up talking about Henry VIII and his dead brother who lies just feet away. Although a mass murderer Henry is probably England's favourite king. Different standards for different times, or business as usual? Having digested just a few of the Cathedral's treasures we head into the refectory for soup, cake and coffee. When we arrive its largely empty but it is warm and very welcoming. Overall a beautiful space in a beautifully designed and well run building. There is much to reflect on as we eat our lunch. The nativity scene in the eastern nave attracted my eye as did a plaque commemorating the loss of an officer at the Battle of Waterloo. The wording is full of absurd pomp and circumstance but its quite delicious. And one cannot help but think of Monty Python at every archaic turn of phrase, how they both satirised and celebrated the absurdity of the English. 

Remembering Elgar

Exploring the interior we find a bust of the composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934) secreted away in a quiet corner. I was here some years before. Outside listening to the concert. Inside a sell out. They have become the countries premier music venues have cathedrals. Perhaps they always were. The cathedral and by extension the CoE is and always has been a business that needs cash to flow like the Severn if it is to survive and remain relevant. The best cathedrals, like Coventry and even Lichfield, with its Luxmuralis Son et Lumiere Christmas Spectaculars honour both history and tradition, but also look to the future, rotating the kalideidoscopic barrel art while rattling their tins.

United in death, a Knight and his Lady, black swans serving, somewhat eccentrically, as their pillows.

United in death, a Knight and his Lady, black swans serving, somewhat eccentrically, as their pillows.

Something in the Water

 A river runs through it, that river being the Severn, the second longest river in Great Britain after the Shannon. It runs for a whopping 220 miles, a good deal of which I have walked over the last few years. Rising in Wales, at Plynlimon, it eventually empties into the Bristol Channel.  Tracking the river to its source about a decade ago I found myself completely enveloped in cloud save for a small window onto the Llyn Llygad Rheidol Reservoir below. Dropping down from the summit to gain the shore I found myself hanging onto scraps of vegetation to prevent a precipitous fall. It was hairy at times but eventually I got down and experienced the only true silence I have ever known. Eerie, uncanny and weirdly cosmic it made me aware that we are rarely, if ever, far from the growl of the road. Point 2, the Severn at Worcester is festooned with swans, as the Soar was at Leicester but even more so. Walking away from the cathedral down Kleve Walk one looks out over the river to the cricket ground on the far bank and then back towards the city where other spires prod the soft underbelly of the cities skyline. Stopping a bin man to enquire as to the name of a nearby spire he informs us it is St Andrews, patron saint of the Scots. Like everyone else we’ve met in the city he is smiling and helpful. I wonder if they put something in the water here.

The River Severn at Worcester.

The River Severn at Worcester.

High tide..low tide

Point 3, the Kleve walk is a road in Worcester that accompanies the river on its winding way. We take it on our way up towards the New Bridge.  En route dad stops to point out a series of bricks etched with high water marks, the highest of which is 1672 in the reign of Charles the 2nd. Amazing to think the river could swell to such an extant.  I am reminded of the Nilometer, a graduated pillar used to measure both the clarity and water level of the Great River during its annual flood. That beast dates back thousands of years but the principle is the same. Record and compare. I am reminded also of lines 173-175  of T.S Eliot’s the Wasteland:

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

With Brexit looming the poem zooms alarmingly into focus.

Statue of Swan. With the real thing in the background.

Statue of Swan. With the real thing in the background.

Looking for Signs of Rot

We walk along the river towards the city centre, dad reminiscing fondly about the city. Just down the way, I spot the first signs of rot; modernist monstrosities slung up some time after the 1960s to serve as council seats or centres of administration. They are strictly utilitarian, these buildings, and lurk like disgraced children behind leafless trees. Obviously no city can live simply in its past, it has to grow and progress, but a measure of it's success is how well it integrates architecture from successive ages. In modern towns this is not such an issue but with cities that stretch back in time a thousand years or more it is a thorny problem. We all of us reflect how ugly modern buildings are when compared with the Georgian, Tudor and Victorian red bricks that can still be found in profusion throughout the city. It is a recurring theme of the 50 cities project, and one which perhaps would locate the sympathies of Prince Charles and John Betjeman whose poems and television programmes did much to highlight the plight of Britains vanishing architectural treasures. Snapping the offending eyesore I label it as Point 4 and wonder whether it deserves the label of 'monstrous carbuncle'. At the end of Kleve Walk, we head up onto Newbridge, turn sharp right down Bridge Street heading into town via Quay street.

Broad Street

The City centre, as with all of the 50 cities of England, belongs to retail, yet it is not ugly. Furthermore there is much to enjoy. At the top of Quay Street we find 'Rings and Needles' a tattoo parlour, with an almost Victorian ambiance. Across the way is Cash Fall Amusements which likewise edges us back into Victoriana with its hint of penny dreadfuls. From Quay Street we move onto Broad Street and pass Campbell and Co’s hairdressers offices which offers services to gentleman’s grooming. Further down the way we stumble across Toys and Games of Leicester. It is an Aladdin's cave of wonders full of games and stacked from floor to ceiling with new lego kits. As a practising Santa I am something of an expert on Lego. These kind of places grow fewer and fewer as Amazon moves from dominace to outright monopoly in all domains. I am particularly struck by the old toy cars in boxes, some of which my dad used to help make, when he was working for Rover. Flashing past New Look and a café called the Boston Tea Party I find myself recalling the American War of Independence of 1776 as well as my brother and his family who live in said city. Poundland survives in Worcester to our great joy as does Marks and Spencers, soon to be closed, to much outrage in Lichfield. The Chapel walk, lures the eye but not the body. The city has not been entirely conquered by the ubiquitous brands but preserves a dignified individuality.  Stanfords, a hat shop both titillates and amuses whilst pater stops to peruse the window of the Patisseries Valerie for cakes, buns and fancies. Treat everything as art and you can enjoy just about everything.

A Kind of Magic.

And then to Point 6 which we’ll call ‘An Old Friend.’ On the corner of a street, quite by chance, Dad bumps into an old work colleague who he knew in the 1960s and 70s. His name is Pete Edwards and they worked together at the Longbridge Factory in the South of Birmingham for a number of years. It’s a magic moment and proof that anything can happen, that the past can come vividly back to life and that nothing is ever truly lost. They chat happily for quite a while, remembering the names of colleagues and characters, many of whom have passed on now. Pete raises Labradors and I get a great shot of Pete, Dad and Pete’s dog standing together. Friends reunited after many years.

Guild the Lily

Following Broad Street, to the High street, we swing right and walk down the shoplined promenade to Point 7 the Guild hall, another Georgian confection, which dates back to 1721. It has a lavish exterior and when we arrive a guide is entertaining a party of chattering schoolchildren to a potted history of the building and some of the colourful characters who have visited it. Nestled away to one side is a tourist information office and we make a quick stop there. The two attendants couldn't be chattier or happier to help than they are and we leave laden with information about better ways to improve our stay. The kids have moved on so we are free to explore the hall. Like the cathedral it is chock full of treasures, maps of the old town, historical information on numerous subjects and of course paintings. My favorite is a fairly recent local portrait of roguish Frank Southam, the City Swordbearer, from 2016. We see another portrait of Elgar and are made aware of the importance of 19th Century Worcester for the glove trade.We also find out that both QE 1 and QE 2 have visited the city and that QE 1, was so pleased that the pear-tree lined streets had not been poached, scrumped or pilfered that in 1575 she gave the city its second coat of arms, three black pears, which can be seen to the present day. The assembly rooms upstairs yield yet more treasures; more exquiiste paintings, thrones a rather lush cut gflass chandelier. My favourite snap, pictured below, is of Pater and Mater occupying thrones used by QE2 and Phil the Greek, as dad calls him, on their last visit to the city in I think 2012, to open the New Hive Library.

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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