Day out:Dudley Dudley is one of the seven boroughs that make up the West Midlands, out on the western edge in what used to be Worcestershire [map]. It's about the same size as Barnet, and with approximately the same population as Wandsworth, if that helps. Dudley is the name of the main town, along with Stourbridge and Halesowen, in an area often known as the Black Country. There are two obvious tourist places to visit, so I skipped both of those and sped round several other attractions, with a focus on industry, canals and geology.[Discover Dudley]
Black Country Living Museum
The Midlands version of Beamish, this open air conglomeration of industrial sites allows visitors to travel back in time to meet costumed characters in shops, workshops and underground, or take a ride on a tram. I didn't go, but it's at the top of my list for next time. [£17.50]
Where I did go was immediately nextdoor, and what an excellent decision. The DC&TT have been running canal trips for many years, but last March the Princess Royal popped down to open a brand new visitor centre, which has transformed the attraction. As well as a restaurant called the Gongoozler, and the obligatory shop, a new swingbridge was installed across the canal allowing visitors from the Black Country Museum to nip across for a ride. In the exhibition section you'll learn the lengthy history of the adjacent Dudley Tunnel, and how it was nearly closed in the 1960s when a railway bridge fell into disrepair, but unexpectedly saved when Dr Beeching scrapped the railway instead. And then you'll get to go for a voyage into the tunnel itself. [Guardian video]
Not all of it, not unless you come on a day when they're doing the full 3km, but the default 45 minutes is plenty good enough. Part of what's amazing is that you'd never normally expect to be able to ride through a circuit of tunnels and caverns underground, and the other part is the sense of theatre imbued at all points along the way. The guide who propelled our boat through was excellent (thanks Becky), and had something to say, point out or offer every bit of the way. Each of the various tunnel sections are somehow a bit different, either in age, breadth or construction, from the earliest narrow brick-lined arch to 1984's sprayed concrete addition which Blue Peter came to open. Several have pretty white calcite deposits on the wall, while others drip, so you can expect to get occasionally damp.
At one point there's the obligatory working scene composed of mannequins, reflecting the years when the canal helped serve limestone mining underground as well as transporting cargo onward and through. But there's also a giant screen in one of the caverns on which a quick geological history is played out, plus a sound and light show in the so-called Singing Cavern where concerts and carol services are sometimes held. There's also the opportunity to do some legging, lying flat on your back on a roped-down board, but the party I went through with weren't biting. I'll not be uploading my hardhat selfie, but blimey I enjoyed this, and it's easy to see why the upgraded experience won a Living Waterways Award last year. [£6.95]
The castle semi-dominates the skyline of Dudley, built on a limestone crag, ruined, and now completely surrounded by a zoo. The castle grounds were filled with cages and animals in 1937, along with 13 pioneering reinforced concrete structures designed by Berthold Lubetkin of the Tecton Group. I'd have been keener on following the concrete than the creatures, so gave the place a miss, but I did make sure to admire the five swoopingcanopies at the entrance gate on Castle Hill. [£14.50]
In the Dudley suburbs, about a mile from the centre of town, lies this site of "exceptional" geological importance. Two folded limestone beds have been exposed where a humpy hill has been eroded, then heavily mined, leaving a rocky playground where fossils from the Silurian era are liberally scattered. Over 600 different kinds of fossil have been identified in Dudley, 86 of which have been found nowhere else on earth. Modern estates now encroach right up to the edge of the outcrop, while an outpost of Dudley College has been built in the centre, separated from the significant strata to either side. Step through to enter a completely different world. [leaflet]
The steep rocky slopes throughout the Wren's Nest nature reserve were once a tropical seabed, now sharply inclined, and with a wealth of trilobites, brachiopods and corals within. Small limestone chunks have fallen to the foot of the slope like scree, and visitors are generally free to scout through to hunt for fossils. I swiftly picked up what looked like half a giant fingerprint, and might well have been a Pteronitella retroflexa (or a mussel shell to you). At the most significant locations the geological treasures are fenced in, for example at the Ripple Beds (where wave action from 428 million years ago can be seen frozen in the upright rockface) and at the Seven Sisters (a huge artificial cavern which alas caved in a few years ago). Information boards at various spots around the site advise what you're looking at, accessibly but not patronisingly, because geology students are as much the target audience as locals out walking the dog.
I thoroughly enjoyed my own personal field trip, exploring the wooded ridges and the deep excavated gullies inbetween, ascending steep muddy staircases and stumbling on oblique exposed parallel beds. Along the way round I passed over the unseen Dudley Tunnel, twice, and kept expecting to bump into a film crew recording some fantastical drama, but met almost nobody. It's important to have a map in mind, because the footpaths thread sinuously with few connections, and even then I think I managed to miss one key route which passed the highest viewpoint. I'd sum up by describing Wren's Nest as a geological theme park, a unique site packed with considerable wonder, but where the 'rides' only move at a few millimetres per millennia. [free]
According to a poster in the window, the WW1 exhibition at Dudley Museum closes on 11th November 2018. Not so. Instead it closed on 22nd December 2016, along with the entire museum, thanks to funding cuts delivered from the Town Hall across the road. Geology and fine art were the mainstays of this municipal collection, particularly the displays of locally-sourced fossils, and if you peer through the front door you can still see half-dismantled fibreglass dinosaurs awaiting relocation at the foot of the main stairs. A smaller collection will go on display at The Archive Building in Tipton Road in the autumn, and presumably the gorgeous redbrick and terracotta building will be either sold off or rented out, and the area's geology won't get a look in. In the meantime you can still enjoy the set of meteorological instruments on the front wall provided in remembrance of Annie Smellie, mayor of Dudley in 1935, and still read in the windows the inscription "The Rocks Of The Imagination Still Remain", which is very much no longer true. [closed]
As a medieval market town brought to prominence by the industrial revolution, Dudley's market is now a somewhat lacklustre affair, and the shops not as impressive as a town of this size would normally deserve. The retail vampire responsible is the Merry Hill Shopping Centre, the West Midlands' premier out-of-town mall, which was established in nearby Brierley Hill in the 1980s. Neither that nor Dudley itself are served by the rail network, which adds an air of detachment, although there are long-term plans to add a branch of the tram network along a mostly-disused railway. Instead the sprawl of Dudley retains a certain pleasing ordinariness, its amazing heritage notwithstanding. [town trail]