Find bright spots in the Dark Country

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I know quite a few people who take a few volumes of Pevsner’s Buildings of England with them in the car when they visit a county or two, so they can appreciate promising churches (usually the best architecture in a village). But I hadn’t heard anyone do it when I visited Wolverhampton. They should.

I left on the train with the new volume, Birmingham and the Black Country, well expanded and revised by Andy Foster. The series had been divided by counties, the traditional counties in addition. But it makes sense to bring together parts of Warwickshire, Staffordshire and a bit of Worcestershire to focus on the industrial revolution that brought blackness to the Black Country (the name used by the American consul in Birmingham who, in 1868, l described as “black by day and red by night”).

As the train approached, a recording read, “If you see anything wrong, talk to the staff.” Didn’t speak to the staff, but saw a lot of things in Wolverhampton that didn’t look right.

Like much of the West Midlands, it has lost the specialist buildings of heavy industry, and the proud civic monuments are neglected or repurposed. But the city retains the main building of its medieval prosperity: the parish church. Its cathedral mass with a tall, slender tower amidships, stands at the highest point (as at Wednesbury or Walsall).

Wolverhampton is a city of 260,000 inhabitants (like Derby). Instead of walls, there is a ring road, completed only in 1986, a noisy Chinese wall cutting the slope and isolating the center.

The ring road didn’t do as much damage as Birmingham’s. But a wet Monday afternoon in April doesn’t show the city at its best. The art gallery (1880s in the tradition of CR Cockerell’s Ashmolean in Oxford) closes at 4.30pm and the cafes or tea rooms at 5pm.

The most surprising building is the 1901 Darlington Street Methodist Church. The new Pevsner says it says “chapel” at the door, but it’s a vast heap, a Baroque nightmare with a large copper dome green, flanked by two pepper shakers. towers, a bit like in St Paul. Its interior may surprise, with its horseshoe galleries, “wonderfully complete, rich but sober”. Two sad words end Pevsner’s new entry: “Closed 2019.” What could it be used for if not a place of worship?

The ring road almost made for a church of historical interest and satisfying appearance. At the edge of the six-lane traffic-lined concrete chasm stands Sts Peter and Paul, a Catholic church originally built in the early 18th century when penal laws made it illegal.

It began as the surviving three-storey Georgian Giffard House Chapel (1729), built by Peter Giffard of Chillington, of a local Recusant family, for a chaplain to live there and say mass for Catholics, who were strong in Birmingham and Wolverhampton.

“In 1967 the Ring Road marched towards us,” local historian Tony Burdon wrote. “Everything that could be demolished has been demolished; we were assured that our cemetery was safe but 42 bodies were exhumed. Faced with costly repairs and seeing parishioners cut off from their church, the archbishop called for its demolition. The fight to save it, supported by another Peter Giffard from Chillington, was won in 1982, Michael Heseltine, then Secretary for the Environment, refusing demolition.

Today, the interior gives off an impression of neo-classicism, with “delightfully decorated capitals”. A huge copper memorial by Pugin for Bishop John Milner (died 1826) finds space on a solid wall in the nave (below the lunette windows). Milner, an antique dealer, must approve the preservation of the church.

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