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Where Heritage and Ingenuity Meet – Worcestershire in the Heart of England.
Imagine a quintessentially English destination. Green rolling hills, winding roads, rivers meandering past historic buildings holding centuries of stories waiting to be told. Imagine comfortable hotels set in quirky surroundings and restaurants serving the freshest of fare. And imagine exploring all of this in an iconic sports car, built by hand but powered by the latest technology. Welcome to a weekend in Worcestershire!
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There has been a settlement in Worcester, its county town, since 700BC, meaning that visitors today walk over cobbled Tudor streets, past medieval walls and over Roman paths. At the town’s centre, the Cathedral has survived the political and doctrinal changes which rocked the world outside its walls. Founded in the year 680, the generations who followed rebuilt, repaired and embellished this beautiful building leaving a fascinating architectural legacy. From the Norman crypt to the early English Quire with its delightfully carved misericords through to the Victorian Gothic renovations and the wonderful stained glass, there is much to wonder at. The much maligned, King John, lies in his grand tomb before the High Altar, whilst nearby is the tomb of Prince Arthur, Henry VIII’s brother, whose untimely death changed British history forever.
As well as royalty, many inspiring commoners are also linked to this site. Edward Winslow, (Mayflower Pilgrim, signatory of the Mayflower Compact and three times Governor of the Plymouth Colony), was a pupil at the Cathedral’s King’s School between 1606 and 1611. He would have been influenced by the teaching of the brilliant academic Henry Bright who, along with the Mayflower is commemorated in stained-glass in the wonderful cloister windows.
Worcester Cathedral Library
If you’ve every envied TV historians pouring over unique documents then a visit to the Cathedral’s renowned library is for you! Here, under the librarian’s guidance, you can have access to a very special collection. For those interested in the Mayflower story, amongst the three hundred medieval manuscripts and over six thousand precious books are maps showing the location of the new settlements and informed accounts of the situations the Pilgrims would have encountered. Key religious treasures are held here including a Book of Psalms from 1200, produced at Worcester Cathedral and embellished with gold leaf and precious stones; John Wycliffe’s radical English version of the New Testament, the first translation of the Bible into English, written in about 1450; and a copy of the Protestant Reformers’ Geneva Black Letter Bible published in 1608.
More gruesomely, there’s the skin of a Viking, flayed alive and pinned to the Cathedral door as a warning to other marauders, along with various artefacts found in King John’s tomb (including a thumb bone) and King John’s will, the only surviving medieval Royal Will to be left in the UK.
The Cathedral and library should definitely be on your list of what to do in Worcestershire.
The Commandery – 800 years of history
Outside the old city walls stands The Commandery, a fine 800-year old building. Starting life as a Saxon chapel, then a monastic hospital, later acquiring a fabulous Tudor Great Hall and finally becoming a pioneering Victorian college for blind boys, the Commandery is most famous for being the Royalist Headquarters during the final battle of the English Civil War – the Battle of Worcester, 1651.
Future US Presidents, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, recognised the area’s role in shaping England’s destiny when they visited the nearby Fort Royal Hill in 1786, describing it as a place of democratic pilgrimage (you can see the Virginian oak tree planted here in 2009 by the US Embassy Defence Attaché to commemorate this occasion).
Today knowledgeable guides interpret the history of the house and the people who have passed through its doors. They explain its significance and its treasures (including the embroidered cover from Prince Arthur’s coffin and colourful religious wall paintings from 1475) and they grippingly unpack the Civil War Story, with its roots in money, religion and power and its devastating impact across the nation.
The Museum of Royal Worcester – a story of ceramics
Although famous for its place in royal history, Worcester’s strategic location at the junction of Britain’s longest river, the River Severn, and later the commercial artery, the Worcester and Birmingham Canal, also brought the city prosperity. The Museum of Royal Worcester tells the story of the world-famous porcelain from its early beginnings in 1750 through to the Severn Street factory closure in 2006. Through a series of beautiful thematic displays, we learn of the ground-breaking science and artistry which went into creating such fabulous pieces and into the democratisation of fine China. We also learn of the lives of the people who worked in its production and of the famous clients who ordered (but didn’t necessarily pay for) whole services and bespoke pieces.
Since its beginnings, the factory has always welcomed visitors. After his visit, King George III granted the factory its first Royal Warrant and his extravagant son, the Prince Regent, later ordered a dessert service consisting of 190 unique pieces. The bill for the order placed by Admiral Lord Nelson three years before his death sadly had to be paid by the later impoverished Emma Hamilton.
The US Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin was also a fan. On display is a version of the “fine jug” he sent his wife “I thought [it] looked like a fat jolly dame…and put me in mind of somebody” he teasingly wrote to her.
With so much history, craft and culture to absorb, modern-day pilgrims are never far from a quiet spot to refresh and re-energise! The Cathedral’s Cloisters Café offers sanctuary on a rainy day; in the sunshine, the Commandery’s Café serves delicious cake in its lovely canal-side garden and the cheese scones at the Nest Café alongside the Museum of Royal Worcester are highly recommended!
Droitwich Spa, home of Mayflower Pilgrim, Edward Winslow
The story of Edward Winslow begins in 1595, six miles away in Droitwich Spa, a small, pretty town with a big back-story. Droitwich owes its existence to salt, to the natural brine springs emerging from beds of rock salt found only 200 feet below ground. Salt has been produced here for two millennia and the Heritage and Information Centre houses the Salt Museum as well as a fascinating permanent exhibition charting the town’s history.
Here you will find a copy of a portrait of Edward Winslow, the only Mayflower passenger of whom we have a contemporary likeness. The original hangs in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the Pilgrim Hall Museum and is testimony to the important role this salt manufacturer’s remarkable son played in the establishment of the Plymouth colony and in safeguarding its interests.
Although we might think that the Atlantic crossing would have been a once in a lifetime journey, following the initial Mayflower voyage in 1620, Winslow returned to England many times until he finally stayed to work in support of Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan regime. He died in 1655 whilst travelling as part of an English naval mission to the West Indies and was buried at sea. A memorial to him hangs in Droitwich at the local church, St Peter’s, where he was baptised.
Droitwich became a fashionable spa resort in the late 19th century when the local entrepreneur, John Corbett, used his salt-earned fortune to develop the town. Unlike other English spa towns, rather than come to drink the water, visitors to Droitwich came to bathe or rather float in the town’s dense brine, (which is comparable to that of the Dead Sea). Corbett built two hotels to house the elegant visitors attracted to the newly built Brine Baths, complete with treatment rooms. The Baths closed in 1975, but you can still enjoy the Droitwich Spa Lido, one of the UK’s few remaining open-air saltwater swimming pools complete and with a 40m pool, sun terraces and Lido Café.
Stanbrook Abbey: hospitality with heritage
Worcester and Droitwich offer a range of excellent accommodation, often housed in historic properties. Fans of Victorian Gothic will love stunning Stanbrook Abbey. Dating from 1755 and once a family estate, the property was acquired by nuns in 1838 who commissioned Pugin and his sons to create the building we now see, complete with dramatic cloisters and extravagant chapel. The recent £4.2m renovation celebrates the hotel’s heritage whilst ensuring 21st-century facilities.
The Refectory restaurant, situated in the site of the original nuns’ cafeteria, offers an excellent brasserie-style dining experience and 15 newly created bedrooms make great use of the unique site whilst providing top quality comfort. Guests will enjoy exploring the atmospheric stairways and corridors as well as the cellar games-rooms. Outside 26 acres of extensive gardens provide ample space to unwind with a walk.
Motoring Magic at Morgan
Stanbrook Abbey is ideally situated for exploring Worcestershire, and what car could better suit the country lanes and roads winder over the rolling Malvern Hills than the locally produced Morgan? The Morgan Motor Company has been manufacturing their quintessentially British vehicles in Malvern for 110 years. Famous the world over for their unique blend of craft, heritage and pure driving experience, every Morgan is designed and built to be as individual as its owner.
The same three core elements: English ash, aluminium and leather are used in every car, each built to the highest standards by craftsmen and women whose skills have been handed down through the generations.
The fascinating two-hour factory tour takes you through the production workshops where you witness the intense skill, care and attention that goes into the creation of each of these iconic vehicles. Popular throughout the world, it’s likely that during your visit an owners’ club will be on site offering you the opportunity to compare and contrast customisation and colour schemes (there are 200 leather trims to choose from and hot pink is particularly popular in China right now!).
The on-site Museum explains the background to the Morgan Magic: the passion of the company’s founder; the romance of the early years of the automobile and the glamour that motor cars and racing has always and continues to attract.
Once you’re hooked, and you will be, how about a test drive? Seven cars are available for hire and prices start at £235 for a day’s rental. Beyond the factory door the enchanting Malvern Hills beckon and a drive along Jubilee Drive (B4232), the old Morgan test route is not to be missed.
The Culinary Cottage
High up in the hills you’ll find The Cottage in the Woods, a delightful, elegant Georgian house hotel which rightly describes itself as “your luxurious home”. Don’t miss the very welcoming 1919 Restaurant, open all day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, coffee, cocktails and afternoon tea.
The location is stunning, surrounded by wild woods of deep greenery and sweet-smelling wild flowers. Diners in the stylish restaurant look out through floor-to-ceiling windows over unforgettable views of the Severn Valley with the Cotswold Hills beyond. The dinner menu cleverly combines favourite ingredients with flavoursome twists to create fresh, experiences. The happy memory of roast Cornish hake with orzo, asparagus, cuttlefish, peas, lemon and sea lettuce continues to make me smile and convinces me that a return visit is in the offing!
In fact, there are so many reasons to return to this lovely county: musical festivals and agricultural shows; historic re-enactments and theatrical events; hill-walking, river roaming and canals with boats to hire; fabulous food and atmospheric pubs. It’s the heart of England and an area you can easily come to love. You won’t be short of things to do in Worcestershire.
Worcestershire is approximately 130 miles northwest of London, in the West Midlands. From London, Worcester is 2 hours 20 mins by rail or 2 hours 20 mins by road; Droitwich Spa is 2 hours 20 mins by rail or 2 hours 10 mins by road.
Jenny was a guest of VisitWorcestershire and the Mayflower 400 partnership. Keep up to date with the activities planned to commemorate the sailing 200 years ago of the Mayflower and her passengers by following @Mayflower400UK on twitter, facebook and instagram.
For an introduction to Mayflower story read our blog “Plotting the Mayflower Heritage – a 400 Year Anniversary”