WORCESTER:cathedral city with country charm

For the latest in our profiles of Britain’s cities, Tom Evans explores the peaceful pace of life in Worcester, where some famous history provides plenty of interest alongside delightful riverside walks set against the backdrop of the Malvern Hills.

Friar Street.

Friar Street.

Nestled alongside the River Severn and overlooked by the majestic Malvern Hills, Worcester retains a certain rural English charm, whilst thriving as a modern city. Its rich and varied history, matched by an abundance of attractions, shops and restaurants, creates a charming place to explore that will appeal to a range of tastes. The City of Worcester has a long and prominent heritage and there is evidence that a settlement has existed here ever since the Neolithic ages. Its strategic location, on the shores of the River Severn, attracted the Romans during the first century and, over the following 300 years, it grew into an industrial town on the frontier of the Empire, spawning some significant enterprises including the famous porcelain factory.
The city lost its status as an important industrial centre during the Victorian era, though Worcester Porcelain continued to prosper and the creation of Worcestershire Sauce, by the chemists Lea and Perrins, and the establishment of Kays helped boost its economic fortunes. The composer Edward Elgar, perhaps the city’s most famous son, prospered in Worcester’s musical circles during the last quarter of the 19th century and helped establish the Worcester Symphony Orchestra in 1905. As with other British cities, Worcester experienced major redevelopment during the mid 20th century and its traditional industries experienced substantial decline. Today it is a mid-sized city with a friendly, relaxed feel. It has a growing tourism sector and more than enough sites of interest to create a full one- or two-day itinerary.

When the Romans withdrew from Britain in the early part of the 5th century, its early significance fell into decline and it wasn’t until the 7th century that Weorgornaceaster, as the city was then known, began to re-establish itself, this time as an Anglo-Saxon settlement with a strong Christian community. The city, by now a walled settlement, witnessed great fighting during the Civil War as Charles II attempted to regain the crown by force at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The following century saw the opening of the Worcester Porcelain Works, which became a major employer, and construction of numerous grand buildings as the local economy prospered. Glove making became a major industry for Worcester during the late 18th and early 19th century, whilst the British Medical Association (BMA) was founded at the Board Room of Worcester Infirmary in 1832.

The statue of King Charles II on the exterior of the Guildhall.

The statue of King Charles II on the exterior of the Guildhall.

Whilst rather detached from the main transport routes in Britain, the city is in fact only around 30 miles from both Gloucester and Birmingham. Groups travelling to Worcester by coach are well catered for, with drop off points close to the major attractions and a coach park located on Croft Road, near the waterfront. There are two city centre rail stations,Foregate Street and Shrub Hill, which provide links to the national rail network.

The centre of Worcester is fairly compact, mainly due to it having been a walled city, and the majority of its attractions are well within walking distance of each other. As with other cities we’ve visited, it is highly recommended that those wishing to uncover its hidden treasures organise a walking tour with a Blue Badge guide. These can be arranged to cover a range of topics, and further details are available in the box below.

Perhaps the best place to start a visit to Worcester is at the city’s Visitor Centre, which is located in the Grade I listed Guildhall on High Street. Having looked around the centre, groups may wish to head further into the striking 18th century Queen Anne-style building to see its Grand Italianate-styled Assembly Rooms, complete with ornate ceilings and chandeliers. The building plays host to a range of civil events, but has a number of interesting features for visitors including Georgian cells, fine paintings of royalty and a list of the freemen of Worcester featuring, amongst others, Lord Nelson, Edward Elgar and Dyson Perrins. On the exterior of the building, visitors should look out for statues of King Charles I and II, as well as a devilish head, said to represent Oliver Cromwell. Tours of the Guildhall can be arranged as part of a guided city tour.

Opposite the Guildhall, hidden behind a Georgian façade, is a wonderful 16th century timber-framed building. Once operated as the Golden Lion Inn, it is now a Costa Coffee, but, as with many other historic premises in Worcester, retains large parts of its original interior.

Street Sign

Moving along High Street towards the cathedral, groups will pass the medieval St Helen’s Church, on the corner with Fish Street, and a statue of Elgar, which is close to where his father’s shop once stood.

The picturesque Worcerster Cathedral is situated on the banks of the River Severn, opposite the county cricket ground, and has served as a place of worship for 14 centuries. The current cathedral, the third on the site, dates from 1084 and has experienced numerous alterations over its long life. Yet far from creating a hotchpotch of a building, the mix of architectural styles, which range from Norman to the English Perpendicular, only serve to add more interest to the structure. Not to be missed is the Norman crypt, the 12th century chapter house, medieval cloisters and Victorian stained glass windows. Those with a head for heights can view more of the cathedral on a tour of the tower, while tours at ground level can also be pre-arranged.

From the cathedral, groups may wish to wander down to the river for a better view of the cricket ground or stroll along Kleeve Walk to South Quay, where there are pleasant areas to sit, especially in St Andrews Gardens, and enjoy some refreshments.

Map Of Worcester

Moving back to the other side of the cathedral and College Green, it is only a short walk along Severn Street to the fabulous Worcester Porcelain Museum. Based at the site of the former factory, it houses the world’s largest collection of Worcester Porcelain, which dates from 1751. Entering through the gift shop, where original items can be purchased, groups can view early pieces in the Georgian Gallery, an array of porcelain objects in the Victorian Gallery and see how technical advances permitted the production of more complex bone china models in the Twentieth Century Gallery. Exhibits of social history can be found throughout the museum and tell the fascinating story of those who worked in the factory. For a first hand experience, groups should consider visiting the museum on a Thursday or Saturday to see ex-Royal Worcester artists demonstrating their skills by painting items and explaining techniques. A range of guided tours, including behind the scenes experiences, can be arranged, as can private dinners and high teas served on Worcester Porcelain.

From the museum, visitors can walk along King StreetKing Street to Sidbury where the Commandery lies alongside the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. The Grade I listed building is on a site that dates back to the 13th century and is a well-presented heritage attraction. Highlights include a stunning medieval painted chamber, Oliver Cromwell’s death mask and walled gardens. Audio tours are available to enhance the experience and groups can benefit from a pre-arranged tailored talk.

A short distance from the Commandary is Fort Royal Park, which, during the Civil War, housed a fort at the top of its hill. Held by the Duke of Hamilton for King Charles II at the Battle of Worcester, a tree now marks the site of the fort and the spot is well worth a visit if only for the views it provides of the city.

Back along Sidbury, crossing the canal and heading towards College Street, visitors should turn onto Friar Street. The historic area has a distinct medieval feel, though the well-preserved timberframed buildings now play host to a number of boutique shops, fine restaurants and traditional pubs.

Tudor House.

Tudor House.

A short distance along the street, groups will find a little treasure in the form of Tudor House. Built around 1575, the building has been used for an array of purposes, including a home and workshop for weavers, a tavern, a Cadbury’s coffee shop, a World War II air raid warden’s billeting office and a school clinic. Run by Worcester Heritage Amenity Trust since 2004, it is staffed entirely by volunteers and houses exhibits that have been lovingly put together to tell the intriguing story of the building, as well as elements of Worcester’s social history. It also has a pleasant café and revenue generated here, as well as through the guided tours on offer to groups, goes towards the upkeep of the building. The house is open on Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout the year, and on Thursdays between the months of May and September. Entry is free, though a small donation is encouraged.

Further along Friar Street is The Greyfriars, a timber-framed medieval town house constructed towards the end of the 15th century. Its name comes from the former Franciscan friary, which it was mistakenly thought to be part of by local historians during the early 20th century. This wonderful building largely survived the wrecking ball of the mid 1900s thanks to Matley Moore, secretary to the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, and his sister, Elsie Moore, who lived in the house following its restoration. Now owned
by The National Trust, The Greyfriars offers visitors the opportunity to see a remarkable specimen of a late medieval building, as well as view rooms as lived in by the Moores. A small exhibition towards the entrance of the house depicts the extensive restoration project and groups can learn more on a guided tour, limited to 15 people at a time. Groups of 12 or more receive a discount on standard rates.

After visiting The Greyfriars, groups may wish to spend some time wandering further along the street and enjoying its additional offers. Places of interest include Birties of Worcester, an independent art gallery that sells work by local artist and co-founder David Birtwhistle, Cardinal’s Hat and The Pheaseant, two historic pubs, and further along New Street, the house where, in 1651, King Charles escaped from during the Battle of Worcester.

The Greyfriars.

The Greyfriars.

Close to New Street, there are opportunities to enjoy some of the city’s retail offer in Reindeer Court, a former coaching inn transformed into a pleasant shopping centre, and along the Shambles. Meanwhile, a reminder of Worcester’s proud retail past and entrepreneurial spirit can be seen on nearby Saint Swithin’s Street, where Kays Catalogue started from a small shop close to the church.

Heading back to High Street, even more of Worcester’s retail offer can be explored along this pedestrianised street or in the adjoining Crown Gate Shopping Centre, which houses top department stores, as well as cafes and restaurants. Exiting the shopping centre onto Broad Street, groups should look out for a building, which is now occupied by the Cornish Bakehouse. This is the very premises where, in 1835, two local chemists, Lea and Perrin, inadvertently invented Worcestershire Sauce!

Another of the city’s historic sites, meanwhile, can be found by leaving Broad Street and passing through Crown Passage. Here groups will find The Crown pub where the young Edward Elgar and his brother, Frank, played as members of the Worcester Glee Club. Information and photographs commemorating the inn’s past can be found on the upstairs floors.

Leaving the passage along Angel Street and passing the old Corn Exchange, built in 1848 and now a restaurant, groups should head on to The Forgate. There are a number of interesting buildings here, including the old Grainger’s Porcelain Show Rooms, now an Indian restaurant, and the old Hop Market Building and Commercial Hotel, built around 1836.

Worcester Museum and Art Gallery.

Worcester Museum and Art Gallery.

A short walk past Foregate Street railway station is the Worcester Museum and Art Gallery. Housed in an attractive Victorian building, the museum features permanent displays relating to the city’s past, along with temporary exhibitions.
The eclectic collection features Roman artefacts, Victorian curiosities, a 19th century chemist’s shop, a clock that once belonged to Hitler and even the teeth of King John! The art gallery, meanwhile, hosts a series of temporary shows throughout the year. Also to be found in the building is The Worcestershire Soldier, a permanent exhibition that tells the story of the Worcestershire Regiment and the Worcestershire Yeomanry Cavalry. The collection is well presented and brings to life 300 years of military history. Talks and tours, which are led by collections officers, can be arranged in advance of a visit. Entry is free of charge.

With the vast array of attractions on offer in this intriguing city, it is fortunate that the local tourism agency, Visit Worcester, provides suggested itineraries for groups, as well as a large amount of information to help plan a visit, on its website www.visitworcester.com

Our Blue Badge Guide

The author was taken on his tour of Worcester and given a great insight into its rich history and hidden treasures by Chris Gait.

Chris Gait

Chris, a very knowledgeable and helpful guide, is a member of
Worcester Walks, a group of Blue and Green Badge guides who give tours and talks about Worcester. Specific tours include Elgar, Industrial Heritage, Georgian Worcester, Rivers and Canals and Battle of Worcester, though general tours are also available. The tours are carried out in a relaxed, informative and entertaining style and can be arranged all year round.

Chris is also able to take groups to surrounding areas, such as Malvern and the Cotswolds, and offers evening ‘armchair walks’, given on a variety of local topics, and easy half-day rambles in stunning countryside.
Tel: 07899 985278
Email: chrisgait@aol.com
Web: www.worcesterwalks.co.uk

Nearby Attractions

In addition to the many attractions in Worcester city centre, there are some wonderful sites to visit just a few miles away.

The Severn Valley Railway

The Severn Valley Railway

Severn Valley Railway runs regular steamhauled passenger trains between Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bridgnorth in Shropshire. The route follows the meandering course of the River Severn and a highlight includes the crossing of the River Severn by means of the Victoria Bridge – a massive 200-foot single span, high above the water. Discounts are available to groups 15 or more, as are seat reservations.

Three miles west of Worcester, based at the country cottage where Edward Elgar was born on 2nd June 1857, The Elgar Birthplace Museum provides a fascinating insight into the life, music, family and friends of the great composer. The museum was expanded in 2000 by the opening of the Elgar Centre and visitors will soon be able to enjoy new displays and updated facilities. Work will be finished in time for a pre-Christmas opening. Reduced entrance fees are available to groups of 10 or more and themed tours and talks can be arranged by prior arrangement.

To the east of Worcester and surrounded by glorious countryside lies a 30-acre Victorian paradise, Spetchley Park Gardens, belonging to the Berkeley family. The gardens boast an enviable collection of plant treasures from every corner of the globe and have been largely unaltered in the last century. Group rates are available for parties of 25 or more.

Additionally, groups can take a journey through 18th-century pleasure gardens at Croome, which is located nine miles south of the city. Owned by Croome Heritage Trust and leased by The National Trust, the serene landscape and lakeside are full of paths that stretch for miles and provide an ideal place to relax. Sounds, objects and images bring the story of Croome to life. Groups can benefit from introductory talks, guided tours and pre-booked catering.

Worcester Events

The City of Worcester plays host to an array of events each year and GTOs could choose to arrange a visit to coincide with one.

An arts and crafts maker at the Worcester Victorian Christmas Fayre

An arts and crafts maker at the Worcester Victorian Christmas Fayre

Worcester Victorian Christmas Fayre,
1st to 4th December 2011/
29th November to 2nd December 2012

This popular annual fair sees hundreds of stalls fill the atmospheric streets of Worcester’s historic heart. Groups will find a wonderful range of merchandise, from fashionable jewellery and home decorations to traditional mince pies and mulled wine. The festival celebrates its 20th anniversary in 2012. Further information is available at www.visitworcester/christmasfayre

Olympic Torch Relay, 24th May 2012
An Olympic torchbearer will arrive in Worcester on Thursday 24th May 2012. The torch will remain in the city overnight, while Worcester celebrates with an impressive community event that will showcase local talent, culture and heritage. Visit www.visitworcester.com for more details.

The Worcestershire Literary Festival, 15th to 24th June 2012
With the aim of showcasing Worcestershire’s literary talents, the annual Worcestershire Literary Festival takes place at various venues around the city, as well as the rest of the county, encompassing talks, book signings, workshops, the appointment of the County Poet Laureate and outdoor spoken word events. Further details can be found by visiting www.worcslitfest.com

Worcester Festival, 17th to 29th August, 2012
This festival is a true celebration of Worcester life and features a mix of professional and community shows and activities. Check www.worcesterfestival.co.uk for more.

The city also hosts the Three Choirs Festival every three years. Taking place in July or August, the international classical music festival has been held each year since the early 18th century and rotates between the three great cathedral cities of Gloucester, Worcester and Hereford. It will return to the city in 2014. Further details can be found at www.3choirs.org

For information about more events in Worcester visit www.visitworcester.com