The Big idea

As one Britain’s Millennium cities, its’ the geographic location and the subsequent development of Wolverhampton that makes it such a fascinating city.

On the edge of the industrial Black country, but with one foot in the more agricultural Staffordshire and Shropshire, it’s merged the industry and drive, and emphasis on transport of the one, with the artistry and design skills of the other.
It can boast a hand in every imaginable mode of transport over the years- incidentally as a result it’s an exceptionally easy city to navigate-and a world-class reputation for the quality and skill level in enamel decoration, with all the subsequent artefacts and exhibitions to visit.

Throw in good shopping with a lively entertainment scene, and a visit to Wolverhampton can quite simply open your eyes to new experiences.

The city of transport

Several cities can lay claim to being the ‘home of the train’ or ‘the home of the car’, but check this little lot out...

How about water transport, as Wolverhampton sits on or near no fewer than four canals: the Shropshire Union canal, the Birmingham Mainline canal, the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal and the Wyrley and Essington canal (known locally as ‘the curley wyrley’). Near the city centre you’ll find the famous ‘Twenty-one locks’, a flight which lowers the water-level by 132 ft- it’s the longest lock network on the entire British canal network.

Or the trams; now operating as a Metro system which links the city with surrounding towns and to nearby Birmingham, but in the 1920’s Wolverhampton operated a trolleybus system which was the largest in the world.

Bicycles? There were numerous cycle companies in the 20thcentury, with famous names such as Sunbeam and Hobart cycles for the racing enthusiasts (Edward Elgar would regularly cycle to the town on his sunbeam to watch the Wolves play). This was followed by cars (Sunbeam built the first British car to top 70mph and the first to win an international race); a worldwide supply of military vehicles –the Wolf, the Warrior and the Vixen-fighter planes like the hugely successful Defiant from aircraft manufacturer Boulton Paul, and eventually tires, from the Goodyear Tire Co, a huge employer locally.

And the city holds the distinction of making the car that still holds the world land-speed record.
And if watching wheels is more your thing, why, the city can boast Monmore Green Speedway Stadium, one of the oldest Speedway tracks in the world.

In fact, Wolverhampton’s a great city for sports-watchers. With the UK’s first floodlit all-weather racecourse bringing racing alive day and night throughout the year; greyhound racing with full restaurant viewing and the legendary Molineux hosting premiership action and concerts there’s more than enough opportunity to feel the buzz of the place. This is a city of PACE.

Arts, crafts and enamels

Wolverhampton was famous in the 18thand 19thcenturies for the quality of its japanning, a technique of decorative painting rather like lacquering. The Mander shopping centre in the city is named after local paints industrialist Joseph Mander; who also built the impressive Wightwick Manor and Gardens, probably one of the finest surviving examples in the country of a complete home furnished in the Arts and Crafts style, with original wallpapers, furnishings, pre-Raphaelite artworks and even Grade II-listed gardens!

Also in the city is Bantock House Park, the original home of another family of local industrialists the Bantock family, and now a celebration of Edwardian living, full of examples of the japanned ware and local-made enamels for which the city was world-famous. And in nearby Bilston is the Bilston Craft Gallery, the largest venue in the region dedicated to applied arts, with a collection of World-renowned enamels.

Carrying the design thread through to today the city is home to one of the best Pop Art collections in the country at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery. And this creative leaning today manifests itself in the performing arts- the attractive Grade II listed Phipps-designed Grand Theatre; the busy Arena Theatre; the Light House media centre for independent and retro films; and two cracking award-winning Civic Halls, the little Civic and the Wulfrun playing host to numerous bands throughout the year.
Oh yes, music.

 “Come on feel the noise?” bellowed hometown band Slade all those years ago; and that musical heritage has continued to this day with Beverly knight, regarded as one of the countrys leading soul singers.

The essence

The city of transport

The interesting bits in the history

Although there’s evidence of a Roman settlement in nearby Penkridge, the story of Wolverhampton’s early days usually starts in the year 985, when Wulfrun, the ‘founding mother’ of the city and previously a valued hostage for the pillaging Danes, was given land, called Heantune, by King Aethelred. Less than a decade later she had founded a minster church. As this grew the name changed to Wulfruna’s Heanton, and later to Wolverhampton.

The town grew in the Middle ages when it was granted the right to hold a market; wool would have been the dominant industry, with the Welsh border sheep providing a local ready-made supply; and as the town was on the main route from London to Holyhead it would have grown from passing trade.

Between the 16thand 17thcenturies Wolverhampton was gaining a reputation for metal-working, especially steel jewellery, buckles and sword hilts; and also, bizarrely, for fires: the town suffered numerous disastrous fires wiping out many buildings (this was a feature that would come back again and again in the town). By the 18thcentury however the town would be transformed into a booming industrial centre, as lock-making and then the process known as japanning (enamel-making) took off. The opening of the canals in the 1772 also helped the industrial development.

Incidentally around this time a certain Button Gwinnett, a trustee at a Wolverhampton school, would put his signature to the American declaration of independence; now there’s a claim to fame.

At this time there were 118 lock-makers in the city and well-known local industrialists like the Molineux family had branched out from ironware into export and importing from markets like the Caribbean. The town was awash with a range of specialist makers of fashion accessories, buckles, snuff boxes and the like; all testimony to the adaptiveness and eye for design prevalent in the area, and the appetite for growth.

Then as the town entered the latter half of the 19thcentury and into the 20thcentury transport was to play a significantly bigger role in the city’s development. Those skills of such value in intricate metal-working were put to good use first with bicycles then onto increasingly more complex forms of transport as Wolverhampton really hit her stride: cars, aeroplanes, tires, military vehicles, trams; the list simple went on.

It’s believed that the true home of all this activity could even have been the Molineux ground itself. Once used for all sorts of entertainment, including bicycle races, it’s thought that competitive riders from these events would take their bikes away to fix and effectively started the bicycle industry. Whether true or not, we do know that the resulting football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers- one of the founder members of the football league, were from the 1930’s to the 1950’s truly the giants of European football; at one stage supplying the entire England sides’ half-back; indeed between 1938 and 1963 there was at least one Wolves player in every England side

Who’s it ideal for/ how it can make you feel

It’s good for petrolheads, designers, anyone interested in industrial design. The shops are good, there’s some wonderfully relaxing canalside walks. But it’s great for sports fans: the stadium at Molineux, the horses, the greyhounds and speedway

It can make you feel buzzing.

How to experience what’s different/ get under the skin of:

A beautiful start to the day is to visit Wightwick Manor on Wightwick Bank, just to the west of the city. This will really what the appetite of those with an eye for design, with a fine collection of De Morgan tiles, Kempe glass, valuable artworks, and those stunning gardens.

Head now towards the city but take a detour south and locate the Edwardian Bantock House and park, where you can really get close to and appreciate some of the enamel ware and admire the furnishings; unusually this museum forgoes the ‘stick it in a glass case’ approach and actively encourages you to experience, engage with, and even sit in the furniture. And outside you’ve got the beautiful sunken Dutch Garden, and next door the 48-acre Bantock Park.

Moving into the city along the Merridale Road- once home to one of the biggest japan and tin-plate producers in the country, then the Bath Road, you’ll come across the large West Park to the left (Wolverhampton’s west side is well served with glorious parks- this one plays host to the annual Wolverhampton City Show- it’s been claimed as the finest surviving example of a Victorian park in the country- it really is quite beautiful), and then you’ll come across the (real) pride of the city, Molineux, home to the Wolves (even the local radio station’s called The Wolf by the way).

As well as the ground itself, check out the Molineux Hotel. Originally built for local iron magnate Benjamin Molineux in 1702, the gardens- with stunning views over some of the most picturesque countryside in the country- were used for not just a park but anything that could entertain. Over time sporting events were held here, as well as exhibitions. By the time the football club needed a ground they built partly on the grounds here of what was now a hotel; the rest is history.
(If you headed north from the ground you’d find both Wolverhampton Racecourse- the country’s busiest course with over 100 meetings in a year- and further out, Moseley Old Hall, the atmospheric Elizabethan house where Charles II hid after the battle of Worcester in 1651. Here you can take a royal tour, including seeing the bed that King Charles slept in as a fugitive, while fleeing Cromwell’s army).

If however you head along the ring road east, you’ll get to the Canal Basin. From here there’s some beautiful walks along the canal including the impressive and quite unique 21 Locks.From the locks look out for the large Chubb building, a perfect symbol of Wolverhampton’s rich industrial heritage and now the Lighthouse Media Centre. Cut down here along Fryer Street and take a right onto Lichfield Street; here you’ll find the attractive Grand Theatre. Moving along this street the Art Gallery is on the right- with that nationally acclaimed Pop Art collection alongside Victorian and Georgian paintings- and behind you’ll find(its quite hard to miss) St Peters church, a local landmark on the skyline: at the front look for the Saxon pillar, Wulfrunas cross; it’s the oldest man-made object in the city.

Move along and you’re in Queen’s Square where Queen Victoria in 1866 unveiled the statue in honour of her late husband, Prince Albert, her first public engagement since the death of the Prince in 1861. This royal visit led to a spate of road name changes in the city centre: there’s now Princess Street, Prince Street, Queens Street and Kings Street- quite a royal town centre! And while you’re in the city pick up a copy of the local paper, the Express & Star- it’s the most well read newspaper in the country.
Now, up to the right on North Street is a hidden cracker of a building in Giffard Hall. Built in the 17th century to hide a Catholic church-hidden just behind the front door- and adapted over time, it’s probably one of the city’s finest buildings. And over the road from here you can find the Civic and Wulfrun Halls.

Head along Victoria Street (see the royal connections on our journey) and you’ll find the original Beatties department store, the modern Mander Shopping centre, with Europe’s first ever sliding roof, and the Wulfrun shopping centre.You’ll also come across probably the city’s favourite old building, ‘Lindy Lou- from its time as a toyshop- or the ‘copper kettle’- from life as a teashop
Then to round it all up for the evening, why not head south east out of the city and over to Monmore Green Stadium: an ideal end to sum up this fascinating city of speed and artistry.

When to visit

City pics