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City break variety in the heart of England
 by Philip Blackmore

Nowhere does the variety of cities come more diverse for short break visitors than in the region called ‘The Heart of England.’ A fascinating blend of the old and the new, they mix history with vibrancy and youth – and each is close to England’s green and pleasant countryside. Choose from Birmingham, Coventry, Hereford, Shrewsbury, Stratford-upon-Avon, Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton and Worcester – each with their own style and character, and easily reached from regional airports.

You’ll discover waterside walks, ancient cathedrals and castles, hands-on museums, traditional pottery workshops, historic markets and traditional pubs. You’ll find fantastic shopping, a wide choice of bars and restaurants and world-renowned theatres.

Birmingham, Britain’s second largest city, has re-energised itself with some highly imaginative development projects. Its revamped Canal Quarter is now a lively focus of waterside restaurants and bars, complemented by its newly opened shopping centre ‘The Bullring’, the equivalent size of twenty-six football pitches of designer shopping heaven. The acoustically superb Symphony Hall attracts international artists while the city’s night-clubs play host to some of Europe’s coolest DJs. But the city’s past has kept pace, too, with its walkable Jewellery quarter of over 400 shops and antiquated gas lit workshops.

The dual family attractions of Thinktank and Millennium Point – imaginative mixes of hands-on displays about science and discovery – are two of the best in the country.

Coventry’s history is in its buildings that span medieval to modern with fine examples of half-timbered houses, one of the country’s finest medieval guildhalls and beautiful almshouses clustering around the cobbled streets of the city’s cathedrals. In Priory Row the old ruined cathedral stands by the new 20th century one, an unmissable visit as the 1960s built neighbouring cathedral continues to provoke fierce design debate.

The Coventry Transport Museum – the city was the birthplace of the British motor industry - the Herbert Museum with displays about the legendary Lady Godiva, and atmospheric pubs serving up traditional food – with new bars and eating places constantly springing up in the Cathedral Quarter -- make for a varied break.

Set on the meandering river Wye, Hereford stays close to its medieval roots as a bustling market town: the focal point of a region of pastoral farmland and orchards. Stroll its streets of well preserved buildings, visit the cathedral to see its treasured Mappa Mundi exhibition – a medieval map of Britain - and head for the river banks to view the city’s panorama of spires and towers, delightful for walking.

Wednesday is market day, while the nearby cider museum allows you to taste the traditional apple based alcoholic drink. Church Street is best for shopping and The Barrels pub serves up the city’s widest selection of real ales.

Despite its modern shops and pedestrianised town centre, many of Shrewsbury’s streets have kept their odd medieval names such as Wyle Cop -- along with narrow alleys and Tudor timbered buildings, they are silent guardians of the city’s historic past. A unique city for shopping, including places specialising in cheese, hats, contemporary art, toys and antiques, rubbing shoulders with national stores and outdoor markets.

Visits to Shrewsbury Castle, the riverside Benedictine Abbey, Rowley’s House, Museum and art gallery bring the rich heritage alive. There are so many fine eateries – many set in medieval buildings – that you won’t know where to begin. A programme of events includes a Continental Market on December 17-22 and the International Cartoon Festival (April 22-24, 2005) when cartoonists and caricaturists are let loose on the streets and in exhibitions. There are regular cruises on the River Severn.

Stratford-upon-Avon on the tree-fringed River Avon is rich with its Shakespearean legacy. The birthplace of William Shakespeare is best enjoyed as a short break destination. With tranquil walks, a thriving cultural reputation and good-looking houses, the compact town is easily explored on foot and easily reached by train.

Bancroft Gardens, Holy Trinity Church – with Shakespeare’s grave - and the Tudor building Hall’s Croft – home to Shakespeare’s daughter – have great appeal. Anne Hathaway’s cottage and Shakespeare’s birthplace museum make up the town’s other key sites of international interest. The Royal Shakespeare Theatre is three theatres in one, situated beside the river and staging the Bard’s plays as well as more modern theatrical pieces.

Stoke-on-Trent, home to many of the great British names of china, porcelain and pottery, from Spode to Wedgwood, Minton to Doulton, it wasn’t until 1910 that six separate towns merged to form Stoke-on-Trent: nicknamed ‘The Potteries’ after its main industry. Today, enjoyable modern museums, factory tours, shops and visitor centres help create Stoke’s enduring appeal to modern collectors and visitors alike. The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery has the best historical displays, while Gladstone Pottery Museum has hands-on activities set within a traditional pottery including brick-built ‘bottle ovens’. Spode, in Church Street, is the oldest and offers plenty of bargains in its factory shop.

The Cultural Quarter in the city centre has seen huge reinvestment; the Regent Theatre and Victoria Hall are superb night-time venues while, on the outskirts, the 30-acre Victorian garden of Trentham is being restored and filled with attractions, eating places and outdoor activities.

The ‘high town’ or ‘town on the hill’, Wolverhampton has more than 1,000 years of recorded history. The city’s major sights are undercover, making it an ideal destination at all times of year, while excellent public transport makes it easy to reach nearby cities and attractions. Visitors should not miss the art gallery; medieval church and two fine surrounding buildings on the edge of town. Wightwick Manor is flamboyant, full of pre-Raphaelite art, while Moseley Old Hall is Tudor with a richly panelled interior. The gallery in Lichfield Street has an extensive collection of Pop Art, including works by Hockney and Warhol. The nearby open-air Black Country Museum is like walking back in time to the area’s historic industrial past.

Shoppers will find a pedestrianised centre where smart arcades, fountains and restaurants mix with a variety of stores and specialist shops. If you can, take in a game at Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, one of the founders of the Football League in 1889.

Peacefully set overlooking the River Severn, Worcester’s skyline is dominated by a sandstone Cathedral. The city encompasses both the modern with its award winning Crowngate shopping centre and the old with its historic architecture. Famous for Worcestershire sauce, produced here since the 1820s, the city is close to the pretty landscapes of the Cotswold Hills and Malvern Hills, known for its bottled spring water.

Worcester is easy to navigate; its main thoroughfares swirl outwards from the cathedral. There are historic buildings and walled gardens and an 18th century Guildhall. Slightly more hidden, but not to be missed, are the striking cathedral cloisters, the Royal Worcester Porcelain museum and factory, and Hopmarket Yard with its specialist shops and cafes. A variety of specialist shops cater especially for art and craft lovers.

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