The county of Worcestershire lies in the West Midlands of England. It covers an area of 1,735km2 and has a population of 542,107 (according to the 2001 census). It is bordered by Warwickshire to the east, Gloucestershire and the Cotswold Hills to the south, Herefordshire and the Malvern Hills to the West and, to the north, Shropshire and West Midlands with a tiny strip of Staffordshire between the two. The county is predominantly rural to the south, becoming increasingly urban to the north as it heads towards Birmingham, with the city of Worcester roughly at its centre (a bit to the west of that, to be strictly accurate). It is more or less cut in half, north to south, by the River Severn and the M5 motorway; the two other main rivers are the Teme, which joins the Severn just below Worcester and the Avon, which joins it just south of the border with Gloucestershire.
Due to the expansion of the West Midlands conurbation from the time of the industrial revolution right up to the present day, the northern border of Worcestershire has been redrawn on several occasions: at one time, the town of Dudley was in a little island of Worcestershire set adrift in Warwickshire. Rather more drastically, in 1974, Worcestershire was absorbed into the 'super-county' of Hereford and Worcester. The change was never really accepted by people on either side of the ancient Herefordshire-Worcestershire border and, in 1998, both were re-established as separate counties.
Most of the county's population is to be found in the north of Worcestershire, which is largely urban and traditionally industrial. Many of the area's settlements now serve as dormitory towns for the West Midlands conurbation. There are, going from east to west, six principal towns.
Redditch was famous for many centuries for the manufacture of needles, though it is probably more infamous now for the bamboozling traffic system built there soon after it was declared a 'New Town' in 1964, the population more than doubling in a very short space of time.
Bromsgrove was at one time equally famous for producing nails and fish-hooks and was the birthplace of the poets AE Housman and Geoffrey Hill (Housman's lines, What are those blue remembered hills,/What spires, what farms are those? are still occasionally quoted by misty-eyed Worcester-folk in nostalgic mode, but the hills in question were and still are in Shropshire and are indeed, in certain lights, blue).
Droitwich Spa sits on large deposits of salt, which was mined there by the Romans and probably by the Britons long before that. Droitwich became a spa town in 1830, when the first brine baths were opened. After a long period of neglect, they were cleaned up and reopened in 1985.
Kidderminster has been associated with carpets since the 18th Century, a reputation centred in particular on the famed and still-running Brintons company, founded in 1785. The constituency of which it is a part, Wyre Forest, was won in 2001 and held in 2005 by one of the UK's very few independent MPs, Dr Richard Taylor; and 'Kiddy' also has the county's only football side ever to achieve league status, Kidderminster Harriers FC. If neither football nor politics are of interest, then the Severn Valley Railway runs antique locomotives between Kidderminster and Bridgnorth in Shropshire.
Stourport-on-Severn is another larger town in the area and stands at the point at which the River Stour joins the Severn.
Bewdley boasts a Thomas Telford bridge dating from 1798 and was the birthplace of the British Prime Minster Stanley Baldwin; the West Midlands Safari Park is nearby.
Smaller towns and villages in northern Worcestershire include Rock, Ribbesford, Blakebrook, Upper Arley, Hartlebury, Ombersley, Wolverley, Hagley, Romsley, Cofton Hackett, Barnt Green, Wythall and Alvechurch.
The city of Worcester is the county's administrative centre. It was originally a Roman settlement (under the name of Vigornia) and parts of the Roman walls are still visible on the imaginatively-named City Walls Road. At its centre it has a 12th-Century Norman cathedral sitting on top of the remains of a much earlier Saxon one, a cathedral which houses the remains of King John, Henry VIII's brother Arthur and the saints Wulstan and Oswald (the story goes that John had his tomb situated between the shrines of the two saints in the hope that he might smuggle himself into heaven after the Day of Judgement with the pair of them acting as an escort).
In 1651, Worcester was the site of the last battle of the English Civil War. The city itself was fiercely loyal to King Charles (it is still known as 'the faithful city') and there is a tiny little bust of Oliver Cromwell with his ears nailed to the wall to be found on the front face of the city's Guildhall. This was put in place some time after the restoration of the monarchy, of course - Cromwell still won the actual battle. The Commandery, Royalist headquarters for the battle itself and now a museum very near the city centre, is the best place to go to find out more.
Worcester was for a long time famous as an international centre of glove-making. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, not only its own but much of Birmingham's industrial output came through Worcester by way of the Birmingham and Worcester Canal, to be taken down the Severn to Bristol. The city is still famous for Royal Worcester Porcelain; claims to have the world's oldest newspaper, the Berrow's Journal1; and, last but not least, is home to the famous firm of Lea & Perrins, makers of Worcester Sauce2.
There are a number of villages surrounding Worcester: Hallow, Fernhill Heath, Tibberton, Crowle, Kempsey and Powick (site of a cavalry skirmish which took place just before the Battle of Worcester). Of particular interest, just to the west of Worcester, is the village of Lower Broadheath, the birthplace of the composer Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar is probably Worcestershire's most famous son, though it's also worth mentioning the 17th-Century poet Samuel Butler, born in the village of Strensham and author of the incredibly popular Hudibras. Incredibly popular in the 17th and 18th Centuries, anyway: Elgar's birthplace is now the site of a small museum, while Butler's birthplace is now the site of a motorway service station.
The east of the county is fertile farming land and the Vale of Evesham in particular has a worldwide reputation for its produce: the strawberries (pick your own) are delicious and the many varieties of pear for which the area is famous are also especially good. It is sometimes referred to by tourist offices as 'The Fruit-basket of England', but never by anyone who actually lives there.
While there are many beautiful and ancient little villages and hamlets in this part of Worcestershire, from Bredon's Norton at the foot of Bredon Hill3 to Cleeve Prior and from Bishampton to Elmley Castle - which doesn't have a castle - the only town of any size is Evesham, which has a famous abbey and was the site of a battle in 1265, at which Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, was killed, bringing to an end the Barons' Revolt.
Pershore, which gives its name to a variety of plum, is just about big enough to be a town and sits between Evesham and Worcester. Still, a very small town nevertheless and some maintain that on a rainy night it's possible to have a drink in every pub in Pershore without getting your head wet. These people seem not to have spotted that you do have to cross the road at some point (either that or they were too drunk to remember that bit).
On the other hand, Broadway, which marks the start of the Cotswolds right in the south-east corner of the county, is most definitely a village. Tourists unaware that there are any number of beautiful villages further on into the Cotswolds do seem to like it - but there's an odd effect on travelling into Broadway from the Worcestershire side, when the houses all suddenly switch from good honest brick to costly Cotswold Stone. It may be different if you're seeing it for the first time, but Broadway does seem to topple over out of 'attractive' to fall right into 'twee': basically, for all its reputation, if you've never been to the Cotswolds and you want to see what all the fuss is about - keep going.
Then, of course, there's Wyre Piddle, a popular contender for the title of 'Village with the Silliest Name in Britain'. Mind you, there are also Middle Piddle and Little Piddle. Nearby Upton Snodsbury has its champions as well, as does Flyford Flavell. Martin Hussingtree is pretty silly too. On the other hand, White Ladies Aston is rather striking. As for Feckenham...
Finally, there's Inkberrow. Now, this is arguably the most famous village in the UK, if not the entire universe. Why? Because it is generally held to be the model for the fictional village of Ambridge in the long-running BBC Radio 4 drama The Archers. If there are other claimants, the residents of Inkberrow don't want to hear about it; nor do the many Archers addicts who come to visit the place. And, yes, it has a pub called 'The Bull' in it4.
The west of the county is, like the east, principally rural. At its most northwesterly point, a spur of the county sticks out to the west, following the course of the Teme to the town of Tenbury Wells. Again, there are no really large settlements, but many small towns and villages.
Great Witley not only has a church with a very beautiful interior (if Baroque is your thing, it's held by some to be the country's finest), but it also has Witley Court. England may be littered with stately homes, but Witley Court might well be the best ruined stately home in the country, converted into an enormous mansion in the 19th Century only to be largely gutted by fire in 1937. The stunning Perseus and Andromeda Fountain was recently restored by English Heritage. During the years of Witley Court's neglect, a popular Worcestershire game was the starting of rumours as to which celebrity was about to be next to buy Witley Court with the idea of restoring it only to find that they would bankrupt themselves in the process5.
Witley is near the Abberley Hills, as is Abberley - obviously - and Shelsey Beauchamp, which hosts two famous annual hill-climbs for vintage cars. Further south are the Ankerdine Hills and the villages of Broadwas, Alfrick and Suckley. All these smaller hills then run into the Malverns.
Great Malvern nestles into the side of the Malverns beneath Worcestershire and Herefordshire Beacons, with Malvern Link spreading out to the east. The hills are covered with wells, springs and 'spouts', many of them very old indeed, but Malvern became really famous for the curative effects of its water during Victorian times, with personal recommendations from, among others, Florence Nightingale, Charles Darwin and Alfred, Lord Tennyson6. Malvern has also been, since 1909, home to the Morgan Motor Car.
Further to the south are the villages of Severn Stoke, Hanley Swan and Upton-upon-Severn, the last of which hosts an annual jazz festival and is also one of the most frequently and easily-flooded places in inland Britain. When the Severn looks like it's going to burst its banks anywhere else in the county, people are usually already up to their waists in the centre of Upton.
It's precisely because the area to the east of them is as flat as it is (this being a prerequisite for flood plains) that the Malvern Hills dominate the landscape in the always dramatic and sometimes breathtaking way that they do. The tallest point, the top of Worcestershire Beacon, is only 425 metres high, but the hills are visible from pretty much anywhere in the county. They are formed from what is, outside the Scottish Highlands, the most ancient granite in Britain and the name 'Malvern' has a Celtic root (moel-bryn) meaning 'bare hill', which describes their appearance well - rock breaking through grass. More recently, comparatively speaking, the 14th-Century poet William Langland began his long dream-poem Piers Plowman by falling asleep on the Malverns, which is still a nice thing to do if you're lazy and it's sunny and you're not too worried about your dreams turning all allegorical. Walking all the hills from end to end is considered a very worthwhile thing to do by those who aren't so lazy, but if you don't have all day, then two in particular stand out, British Camp and Worcestershire Beacon.
British Camp was an Iron Age hill fort and the tiered defences are still there, giving the summit a very odd shape (a bit like an unusually regular walnut whip). Local legend has it that the British chieftain Carapaces made his last stand against the Romans there, though the Roman historian Tacitus makes it clear that he most definitely didn't. The Romans used it for defensive purposes, as did the Saxons and the Normans after them.
British Camp is certainly worth it, then, but if you only have time to do one thing in Worcestershire, then the view from the top of Worcestershire Beacon on a clear and bright day is one of the most stunning in England: Clee Hill and Shropshire to the north, the rolling countryside of Herefordshire to the west with the dark line of the Bredon Beacons and Wales beyond and, to the east, the whole of Worcestershire spread out across the Severn flood plain in many shades of green and gold. Television footage of English countryside often has 'Nimrod' from the Enigma Variations as background music at this point. This particular landscape has the added bonus of being the one that in part inspired Elgar to write such very English music in the first place.