KIDDERMINSTER(pop 55,000) is the largest of the towns along the Severn Valley Railway but has the least character, for which we can blame carpets. The town's cloth industry switched over to making woven carpets in the 18th century and trade never looked back... at least until the 1970s. Although a few streets of redbrick municipal survive, elsewhere post-industrial redevelopment has done its thing and the architecture does not inspire. The town's most esteemed son is Rowland Hill, the stamp man, who merits a statue outside the town hall and a shopping mall he'd not be proud of. Across the canal an old carpet mill has been transformed into a Premier Inn and a critically-important Debenhams (it's OK, they're closing Wolverhampton's, not this one). The town's not especially economically bereft, but the density of charity shops is (to my southern eyes) outstanding.
But there is one attraction you should make time to visit, indeed I made it my first stop of the day, and that's the quintessentially-titled Museum of Carpet. This exists thanks to a group of volunteers who collected underfoot ephemera while the town's carpet mills were closing down, and also thanks to a national supermarket chain. Morrisons opened a huge new store on the site of Stourvale Mill in 2012 and had their arm twisted to allow the Museum to take over the offices at one end, which means once you're through the electronic doors you turn left for carpet heritage and right for the checkouts.
A full history of carpets runs the length of the building, at least as far as it relates to Kidderminster. The presentation's very nicely done, whether your interest is machinery, working conditions or the topology of knotting. A video history shows how the number of mills in the town advanced and declined, and which one Queen Victoria used by royal appointment. An art gallery at the far end displays exhibitions on a vaguely weave-y theme. There aren't a lot of actual carpets, not unless you gain access to the study centre upstairs, but you will see two huge powered looms on which they were made and might even get to watch one in action.
I got to watch a small hand loom in action, programmed by patterns of pegs rather than long chains of punched cards. For this I have to thank a volunteer called Janet who led us enthusiastically through the complex set-up and subsequent shuttling, eventually knocking up another few rows of communal cloth. The volunteers really make the museum, no question about it, and I felt thoroughly churlish handing over just £2.25 for my half price Art Fund admission fee. I also walked away with my own museum-produced sample of double-sided Kidderminster weave from the shop, choosing from four different West Midlands football team colour pairings. A minor delight. [5 Kidderminster photos]
BEWDLEY(pop 9,000) lies astride the river Severn and until the 1770s was an important inland port. Here goods from the West Midlands were transferred to boats bound for Bristol, that is until James Brindley connected the Staffs & Worcs Canal to Stourport instead and the town's economy tanked. What remains is a delightful tourist-friendly town with narrow Georgian streets (delightful unless you're trying to drive through, in which case it looked like queueing hell). Everything centres around Thomas Telford's bridge, for years the only crossing of the river Severn for miles, thankfully bypassed downstream in 1986.
The waterfrontis splendid and very much the place to hang out with refreshments (on my visit, heavily dominated by fish and chips). Sitting here it's hard to imagine the place as a dockside, nor indeed the river rising up and flooding everything as has happened on several occasions over the centuries. That's just one of the tales told at Bewdley Museum, an unexpectedly successful attempt to integrate history sustainably at the heart of the town. Its cloistered walkway is lined by small galleries and craftspersons' workshops, opening out at the far end into a half-decent cafe and the town's Jubilee Gardens, making it plain and simply 'the place where everyone goes'.
One display celebrates the life of Stanley Baldwin, Bewdley's most famous politician, who rose to become Prime Minister three times between 1925 and 1937. Here's the New Testament he took his oath on in the Commons, here's his pipe and tobacco, and if you walk for five minutes you can see the house where he was born. I thought Lower Park Place was going to be the grand one with the big gates, but instead it was the townhouse opposite with the ornate porch, bollards out front and a telltale plaque. Uplifted from this quiet corner to dealing with the General Strike and the Abdication, our PMs come from the most random places. [8 Bewdley photos]
BRIDGNORTH(pop 12,000) is the unmissable town, a former Norman settlement perched on a promontory above the Severn. This proved the utterly obvious place to build a castle, although later owners chose the wrong side in the Civil War so all that remains are the ruins of one tower tilted precariously at an angle of 15°. The inner bailey has become an attractive garden of remembrance, although I'd question the need for a topiary warplane, naval destroyer and armoured tank as a centrepiece to the flower beds. Adjacent is a strikingly Georgian domed church, courtesy of Thomas Telford, while the outer bailey morphed into two elegant rows of townhouses.
One of the town's medieval gates survives, assuming you count a complete Victorian rebuild as survival, with the town's museum lodged on the upper levels. It only opens a few days a week, so on my visit I missed out. The arch below the gate is narrower than it is high so provides a major obstruction to traffic entering the high street. A further blockage is the half-timbered town hall erected on sandstone pillars in 1652, slap bang in the middle of the street, its oak-framed interior off limits unless you turn up on a Saturday morning or are thinking of getting married. The adjacent shops appear to be all those that Kidderminster lacks, including a Prezzo, Edinburgh Woollen Mill and several non-Wetherspoons.
Bridgnorth exists at two heights - the High Town to the north of the castle and the Low Town by the river. Views of the latter from the former can be spectacular. The two are connected by a winding medieval street called the Cartway, which is very narrow and indirect, or down a flight of approximately 200 steep stone steps. This is hardly conducive to a cohesive community, so in 1892 the Bridgnorth Cliff Railway was inaugurated, and is still operated by the same private company. It's the UK's only inland funicular, irredeemably cute, and operates with impressive frequency throughout the day for just £1.60 return.
Step into the tiny kiosk at the top of the climb to start your adventure. If you wanted to see the winding mechanism you should have popped into the tearoom alongside. Unless the cabins are on the move you'll be able to progress through into the streamlined interior and take your seat on one of the wooden benches. You may not get long to admire the view before the upper operator dings, and the lower operator double-dings back, and down you go. I timed the descent at 58 seconds, a goodly proportion of this being the braking to prevent a crash at the bottom. But there's not so much to see in the Low Town, so you may soon be back accompanied by whichever shoppers, schoolchildren and daytrippers are making the return journey. [8 Bridgnorth photos]