Shakespeare's Birthplace, Stratford Upon Avon
You'd think that the middle of a country, the heartlands, would define it best. This would be where the power and identity of a nation could truly be found. Strangely it is often the case that the centre of a country tends to be a relatively unimportant place. Have a look at a map of Europe and see where capital cities usually lie. Far more capital cities are on or near the peripheries of countries than in their centre. London, placed on a southern estuary is much more typical of a capital city than Madrid, which lies in the centre of Spain. Similarly compare the influence of Topeka, Kansas, right in the centre of the United States, with the power of New York on the east coast, or Los Angeles on the west coast. Ironically the centre is often something of a periphery. Perhaps countries are best defined in relation to others, rather than in themselves.
The English Midlands do not have the capital of Britain, and historically the Midlands have often been passed over, as monarchs based in London looked north, to the crucial border with Scotland. Nevertheless the Midlands have often tried to win power. When Simon de Montfort challenged Henry III in the thirteenth century, many supporters of de Montfort had their homes in the Midlands. And of course, one of the most famous rebellions in British history, the Gunpowder Plot of 1604 was centred on the Midlands. The nobleman George Throckmorton had his estate near Stratford Upon Avon in the west Midlands. He was a member of the Reformation Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII, known for his opposition to Henry's decision to break away from the Catholic church. It was at the Throckmorton estate of Coughton Court that families of plotters waited for news of an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the night of 4th November 1604. By the morning of 5th November they were to hear that Guy Fawkes had been discovered in Parliament's cellars, and the Plot had been foiled.
In the absence of successful revolution, the Midlands really laid its claim to centre stage during the eighteenth and nineteenth century Industrial Revolution. A group of clever engineers lived in the Midlands. In 1769 James Watt patented the single-action steam engine, and in 1775 he entered into partnership with Matthew Boulton, a Birmingham industrialist. The partners built a factory in the Soho area of Birmingham. Matthew Boulton's House in Soho, Soho House, survives and can be visited. Many of the great minds of the Industrial Revolution, collectively known as the Lunar Society, met here. In a happy synchronicity, the Midlands could also provide coal to drive engines designed by Midlands' engineers. The Severn Valley in Shropshire was a ready made mine, cut through limestone, coal and clay by flood water spilling over failed ice dams at the end of the last Ice Age, 15,000 year ago. The Ironbridge Gorge also provided iron ore, and in 1709 Abraham Darby perfected a method of iron smelting using coke at his foundries in Ironbridge Gorge. This allowed cheaper production of large quantities of iron, with which the machinery of industrialisation could be made. Many museums in the Ironbridge Gorge commemorate this milestone.
The Midlands reveal much about the problems of industrialisation, and the ways people have tried to solve them. The history of this crucial time is much more complicated than is usually imagined. Dark satanic mills is a popular image. But the real picture is one of variety. In many ways small workshops and subcontracting were typical of Midlands industry, with workers setting their own hours and employing their own teams. This tradition continued into the 1970s in some industries. The Industrial Revolution can be explored at a number of museums in the Severn Valley near Ironbridge. In Coventry it is worth visiting the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust Museum. Frederick Lanchester worked here, a perfectionist who used the predictable nature of mass production to guarantee the quality of his cars. Ironically we now tend to look upon mass produced items as being low in quality. Such ironies are typical of industrial history, and the Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust Museum in Browns Lane, Coventry is a good place to explore them.
Following on from the Midland's industrial pre eminence came a brief period of political power. Finally after centuries of failed rebellion, the Midland's had its moment. The period 1888 to 1914 was the heyday of Midlands local government. Impressive civic buildings of this time reflect enhanced prestige. The style sometimes known as "Municipal Gothic" reached its height in the building of the Victoria Law Courts in Corporation Street, Birmingham, decorated inside and out with terracotta and brilliantly coloured tiles. The ornate decoration was designed to illustrate the city's achievements. But then the First World War began, and both the First and the Second World Wars gave rise to a strong tendency to centralise Britain on the government in London.
Anne Hathaway's Cottage, Stratford Upon Avon
The Midlands can't escape the fact that they are in the middle of Britain. Shakespeare was born in Stratford, in the heart of England, but to make his career Shakespeare went to London. London is a port, a place where Britain comes up against the rest of the world. This is where trade is done and where the action is. Inspite of the delusions of nationalists, it can only be reiterated that countries are actually best defined not by their heartlands, but where they meet other countries. John Lennon once said in an interview that he liked living in New York because "everyone's a foreigner" there. He said the same was true of London. A place where everyone's a foreigner is Britain's capital, and defines Britain. The Industrial Revolution which occurred very much in the English Midlands made it easier for countries to meet each other. Trains, ships, cars, then aircraft all made movement around the world easier.