A winter stay in the English Midlands

Most people when they visit Britain tend to go to London, Edinburgh or maybe York, Bath or Glasgow.  The vast majority of the country is completely missed by overseas visitors.

The Midlands, as the name implies, is in the middle of England.  Interestingly it comprises some of the most beautiful, and diverse, scenery – from the flat fens of Lincolnshire to the Peak District of Derbyshire, Rutland Water and much green rolling agricultural land throughout its 11 counties.

But it also boasts Britain’s second city – Birmingham – and the UK’s “curry capital”, Leicester; plus the historic cities of Nottingham, Warwick and Lincoln.  The Midlands border Wales in the west and in the East, from the Lincolnshire coast, the nearest neighbour is Norway.

Birmingham Canal

Birmingham Canal

My husband and I recently spent six weeks staying in a typical English village called Stonesby, in an old stone cottage overlooking rolling hills and fields of horses and sheep, some with new-born lambs.  As is often the way these days, the village has lost its village shop so the nearest shop, pub and Post Office is in the next village a couple of miles away, and the nearest town is Melton Mowbray – spiritual home of the pork pie – plus it is about 20 miles to the city of Leicester.

Stonesby Village

Stonesby Village

So what were we doing there?  Good question!  It is a common saying that no-one visits Britain for the weather, and February/March are definitely NOT the best months.  First we endured the tail end of storm Henry, then the full force of storm Imogen (who names these storms?) with three days of wild winds and horizontal rain, and on some of the quieter days temperatures went down below zero centigrade.  I think we saw the sun on a couple of occasions, too!  Paradoxically many of the spring flowers and blossom came out early as a result, so we were told, of a mild autumn and winter, but it certainly didn’t feel mild to me.  One could only feel sorry for them all – must be something of a shock emerging into an icy downpour.

The reason we went to the Midlands was to house-sit (*) for a couple who were heading off on their “trip of a lifetime” visiting Columbia and Ecuador.  We looked after their home and their cat – the characterful Princess Tammy.  The main form of heating in the cottage was an old-fashioned, coal-fired Raeburn (kitchen range) and a wood-burning fire in the sitting room.  The Raeburn, whilst very effective, was a full-time job.  It seemed to constantly need cleaning/stoking/filling up – it was more demanding than a small child.  The cat, by comparison, was easy.  She slept most of the day but then demanded (loudly) five meals between 4pm and 11pm.  She is the only bulimic cat I have ever come across – most are perfectly capable of self-regulating their food intake, but if you gave Tammy a full dish of food she would eat the lot – and then throw it up again soon afterwards.  Hence the five meals.

It is always good to return to Britain – great places to eat, friends and family to visit, and not to mention the shopping.  It is a great excuse to stock up on things we miss and to update the wardrobe. It is one of the bug-bears of living in Spain that I find it almost impossible to buy clothes – and even worse for shoes.  Spanish women are quite a different build from we Northern Europeans – much smaller boned, shorter generally but particularly between the armpit and the waist, and if you want a size 41 (7 ½ UK) shoe, as I do, then you need to buy one of the boxes the others come in.  Well that’s my excuse for shopping in England anyway – and I am sticking to it.

As we were staying so long we took the car.  It is a pleasant journey through France and we now take our time, with one or two stops on the way through when we can enjoy a good French meal and a better bottle of wine.  We know exactly how far we can comfortably drive now so book ahead to ensure we have a comfortable bed waiting for us.  On the way back, we encountered some snow as we crossed the Massif Central, but at least the roads were kept clear.  The French really are very efficient when it comes to transport.

We have now been back a couple of weeks and are enjoying the spring sunshine.  It is such a contrast from the chill of Britain.  Having said that, and probably put you off visiting England for life, I really can recommend a visit to the Midlands.  The cities are all very different, and yet all are worth visiting.  Birmingham has an interesting jewellery quarter and has some pretty canal-side areas; Leicester, as I mentioned, has the best curry – my favourite restaurant is the Flamingo Bar & Grill which serves modern Indian food such as spicy sizzlers rather than the old-style greasy curry, that traditionally followed several pints of beer on a Saturday night out in my youth.  Leicester also has a good market with fruit and veg stall-holders shouting out their wares – great atmosphere.  Nottingham with its castle and links to Robin Hood is particularly good for those interested in history, but it also has some excellent shops, not just the usual chains, and what is reputed to be the oldest inn in England – Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, which dates from 1189. Lincoln has a truly impressive cathedral that can be seen for miles in all directions being perched on the only large hill in Lincolnshire, and around the cathedral is the old quarter with cobbled streets, quaint shops and restaurants. Warwick is also lovely and boasts a castle dating back to 1068 and William the Conqueror.  The castle is well-maintained and has a lot of interesting activities through the summer months.  You can even book a room in the Tower for an overnight stay.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for a visit to a lesser-known part of England – try it in late spring or summer and you might even be blessed with some sunshine.

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Left, the village of Stonesby, Leicestershire – the cottage we looked after is on the left – in the centre is the view from the cottage sitting room, and on the right is Princess Tammy …

Below are pictures of Rutland Water (left), the statue of Robin Hood at Nottingham Castle (centre) and Leicester market (right). For a further selection of images of the Midlands I can recommend the photographs of Darby Sawchuck, a Canadian currently living in Manchester.  Here is a link: http://dsphotographic.com/photos/english-midlands/

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* House-sitting is a good way to spend a little longer exploring a new area.  There are various websites but the one we use is Trusted Housesitters (trustedhousitters.com).

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