Worcestershire is a rich and pleasant county, consisting of a broad valley bordered by hills on each side. On the east, are the Glent, and the Lickey Hills; on the west, the Abberley Hills and the Malvern Hills. These last would be one range, running from north to south, but that they are parted by the pretty valley of the Teme, a river bordered by hop-gardens and orchards.
Apple orchards and pear orchards, hop-gardens and golden corn-fields—look from any of the hills over Worcester county, and these are what you see; there is scarcely a bit of waste common anywhere. All that is left of the forest which once covered the county is a pleasant clump of trees here and there, and a single bit of forest land on the Salop border.
But what is that deep green dip in the middle of the broad valley, running right through the county from north to south—surely that is water gleaming at the bottom? That is the Vale of Worcester, which is only about a mile across, and the gleaming water is no other than Queen Severn herself, which comes out of Salop to take her gentle course through the middle of this shire. The deep green of the flowery meads tells of river floods, and of dressings of river mud.
In the south-east of the county, you may trace such another deep green vale; not a straight vale, this time, but in and out, round about, it goes, here and there flanked by hills and woods. That is the beautiful Vale of Evesham, the valley of the winding Avon, the Warwickshire Avon which joins the Severn at Tewkesbury on the Gloucester border.
To Evesham Vale belongs the end of the story begun on the heights of Lewes. Henry III., taken prisoner in the battle of Lewes, was confined by the barons in Worcester Castle. His son Edward contrived to escape from the soldiers who had charge of him, and raised an army, with which he marched to Worcester to liberate his father.
Simon Montfort and the barons' army met him in Evesham Vale, and a great battle followed. The barons placed the king, vizor down, in front, hoping he would be killed by his own friends; but he cried out, "I am Henry of Winchester, kill not your king!" The prince heard, and dashed into the thick of the fight to save his father; the king was rescued, and the barons' army defeated; the noble de Montfort and his son both fell on the field.
Evesham, with its houses of wood, is a pleasant town in the beautiful vale; so, also, is Pershore. Pearshore it should be called, for it got its name in Saxon days from the pear orchards about it.
On the other side of the Severn, and just under the Malvern Hills, is Great Malvern, the waters of whose wells—Holy Well and St. Ann's Well—are good in certain complaints.
Let us make our way back to the bank of the Severn, and watch the barges going down the river. Worcester is on the opposite bank, but we may see the grand old cathedral and the red houses of its cheerful streets.
See, there is a barge from the city piled high with hop-pockets. Hops from all the country round are sold at Worcester, or at Stourport, higher up the Severn. There are barges laden with corn-sacks; with apples; with pears; with casks of perry or cider made from apples and pears; with sacks of wool. Yonder is a barge with a delicate freight—the beautiful porcelain made in Worcester, about which we must hear more. The gloves, which employ most of the city work-people, being small and light, are sent away by rail.
There are barges laden with iron things, which come from the north of this county, which is near the Black Country, from Stourbridge or Stourport, on the little river Stour, which there joins the Severn. The carpets of Kidderminster, which is also on the Stour, are generally sent away by rail. There, again, are our old friends the salt barges. Where do they come from? From Droitwich, which is connected with the Severn by a canal, and where there are brine-springs rising from the deep underground salt-bed. Droitwich is a busy, smoky place, where many thousand tons of salt are prepared and sent down the Severn every year; the people of Droitwich have been busy thus, preparing salt, for centuries.
All these barges—many of which, by the way, you are not likely to see at one time—are making their way to Bristol, the great port of the Severn, from which the goods will be sent over sea, or to ports on our own coast. The Severn carries barges and larger vessels all through the county; so does the Avon; and there are canals to enable boats to get to these rivers from places at a distance.
The old cathedral city of Worcester stands in the midst of the fertile Severn Valley. It is a busy town on market days, for the hops of the district are brought here for sale. The city has manufactures, also, of gloves, and of the beautiful Worcester china.
Our English porcelain is made at the Staffordshire potteries, at Derby, and some other places. That of Worcester has long been noted for its great beauty.
It is a curious thing that nearly all the needles used in England and the colonies, as well as in a great part of Europe, are made in an out-of-the-way village in a farming county.
The pretty village of Redditch, at the foot of the eastern hills, has about a dozen factories, or mills, where, perhaps, seven or eight thousand persons, men, women, and children, are employed in needle-making. The mills are large buildings, with long rows of windows, like other factories, and with steam-engines to turn the wheels on which the needles are ground. But most of the processes are performed by hand, some of them at the cottages of the needle-makers. Some thirty different things, by thirty different persons, are done to each needle before it is ready for use; and it is marvellous how quick each person is in doing the particular bit of work he is accustomed to do.
Steel wire, of the proper size for needles, is sent from Sheffield to Redditch. A workman takes up about a hundred wires, and, with a strong pair of shears, cuts them into pieces just long enough to make two needles. These are made red-hot in a furnace, and then rolled over and over with a sort of steel rolling-pin until they are quite straight. Then the wires go to the pointer, who grinds each end to a sharp point. The pointing-room has many small grindstones, all turning round at a wonderful rate, two thousand times a minute! The grinder sits on a stool, or "horse," and bends over the stone. Over his mouth he wraps a large handkerchief, and as he can do his work nearly as well in the dark as in the light, he is sometimes only to be seen by the bright cone of sparks which come from the steel he is grinding. His face looks pale, and we know he is doing work which will soon kill him. The sparks and the dust from the steel and the grindstone bring on a disease called "grinders' asthma." The grinders get high wages and do but little work, because their calling is so dangerous, though recent inventions have lessened the danger somewhat.
The pointer takes fifty or a hundred needle wires in his hand at once, and twirls them round against the revolving stone. So rapid are his movements that he can point ten thousand wires in an hour.
The next thing is to pierce two holes through each wire—the eyes of the two needles. The wires are laid, one by one, under a heavy stone stamping-machine with a little raised die upon it, the size of a needle's eye, which makes a groove where the eye should be. The workman works his machine with his foot, and places the needle-wire with his hand. Though each has to be done separately, he stamps eight thousand needles in an hour.
Then a boy pierces the eye through, and another boy runs wires through the two holes, so that there is a row of needles on each wire, something like a comb. The lengths are broken between the two wires, and instead of double, there are single needles.
Next, women and girls straighten them once more with many taps from little hammers. The needles are drilled, tempered, polished; and more is done to them than we have time to describe before they are sorted into packets for sale.