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August 2003
A Wolverhampton Wander
by Blue Badge Tourist Guide Ian Jelf
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tiny Take a stroll around Wolverhampton with Blue Badge Tourist Guide Ian Jelf........
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Wolverhampton Wander
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After seeing so many buildings that were "formerly" something, it now comes as a refreshing change to see something that is still very much in business as it always was, Wolverhampton’s justly famous Grand Theatre.

The Grand Theatre
The Grand Theatre

Opened in 1884, this is one of the Midlands’ premier theatres where you can catch a wide range of shows from West End productions to Postman Pat! Over the years, stars including Bob Hope, Laurel & Hardy, Marlene Dietrich and Charlie Chaplin have performed here but few people realise that this was also once a major venue for political speeches. Indeed, it was here that David Lloyd George made his famous "homes fit for heroes" speech in 1918.

The former Post Office on the left has a blue plaque recalling Sir Rowland Hill, inventor of the Penny Post. Although Hill was born in Kidderminster he lived for some years in Compton, on Wolverhampton’s western fringes.

At the end of the street, Princes Square is still one of the busiest junctions in the City Centre, despite the construction of the Ring Road. We know that traffic has long been a problem in Wolverhampton, as this was the first junction in England ever to be equipped with traffic lights! Introduced as an experiment in 1927, they were evidently deemed as a success as they became a permanent feature the following year.

Art Gallery
Art Gallery

Across this junction is Wolverhampton Art Gallery, home to a highly regarded permanent collection, and also housing a constantly changing variety of temporary exhibitions. The Art Gallery was opened in 1884 by Lord Wrottesley using a gold key made especially for the occasion by - of course! - Chubb & Sons. It’s worth crossing to the opposite side of the road to see the frieze along the top of the building.

St PAeters Church
St Peter's Church

In case we’re feeling tired at this point, there are some rather welcoming benches in the nearby gardens which give a view of Saint Peter’s Church, splendidly sited on the highest point in the city centre. Christians have worshipped here for more than a thousand years, the first Church having been founded by Princess Wulfruna. Amazingly, from 1479 until 1846, the Deanery of Saint Peters was joined with that of Windsor, making this a "Royal Peculiar", a status that Westminster Abbey has to this day!

In the churchyard are the remains of a Saxon Preaching Cross (which is probably itself a Roman pillar from the vanished Roman City of Wroxeter, 25 miles away). Around the corner is a statue of Lady Wulfruna herself, a gift from the Express & Star in 1974, to commemorate the newspaper’s centenary.

Giffard House
Giffard House

Bypassing the rather ugly modern Civic Centre we come to one of those gems hidden away by modern buildings and roads which make exploring cities like this such a pleasure. Giffard House was built in the eighteenth century as a priest’s Residence and "Public Mass House". This is in fact the oldest Post-Reformation Roman Catholic Church in the whole of England. Adjoining it at the rear is the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, built in 1825-7. One of the main advocates of Catholic emancipation, Bishop John Milner, lived in Gifford House until his death in 1826 and is buried in the church.

Music fans will be familiar with Wolverhampton Civic Hall, down the street to the left, as this is a venue for many of Wolverhampton’s high profile musical events and conferences. Perhaps few of its clients realise, though, that it is based on the design of the Stockholm Concert Hall.

Former T own Hall
Former Town Hall

Wolverhampton’s former Town Hall, now housing the City’s Magistrates’ Courts, stands further along the street. Opened in 1871, it remained the headquarters of the Borough Council until the opening of the Civic Centre in 1979. A statue of the first Mayor of Wolverhampton, George Thorneycroft, stands in the foyer. A blue plaque in the outside recalls Emma Sproson "Red Emma", who in 1921 became Wolverhampton’s first female councillor.

Many of the streets and alleyways hereabout bear the name "Fold", "Blossom’s Fold" being one example. This recalls the importance of the wool trade in the area in the Middle Ages, when sheep were rounded up into "folds" before shearing.

Darlington Street, a new direct route out to the town to Chapel Ash and the Holyhead Road was established by the Wolverhampton’s Town Commissioners as a more direct route of to Chapel Ash and the Holyhead Road. The land for this was purchased from Lord Darlington, hence the name.

On the opposite side of Darlington Street is one of Wolverhampton’s icons: Beattie’s Store. James Beattie established his first draper’s shop here in the 19th century. It was extremely successful and the business duly grew into a department store. Most of the present Beattie’s dates from a rebuilding in 1929.

Incidentally, a letter placed in the internal post here some years ago by a member of staff eventually arrived on the correct desk on the floor below three months later…….having been to Beijing and back!

Lindy Lou building
'Lindy Lou' building

From Beattie’s, it’s worth taking a glimpse down Victoria Street to a highly visible link with Wolverhampton’s mediaeval past, number 19, often known to locals as the Lindy Lou building. Dating from the seventeenth century (despite the "1300" on the façade), this half timbered building has variously been a merchant’s house, tea room, babywear shop and is now a Welfare Rights Centre! With all the changes that have happened around it in the last 300 years, if buildings could talk, this would have more stories to tell than most.!

From here, we turn left to return to the starting point at Queen Square. However, there’s far more to see in Wolverhampton, so it’s worth doing another walk at some future date and remember that in the most mundane sounding of places, there’s always an interesting story to tell!

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