CLASSIC TOURS / #Singer-Chamois-MkII
The Black Country’s hidden history explored by Imp. Famous for its coal mining and heavy industry, the Black Country isn’t short of history or fascinating places to visit. We take a tour with a handsome Singer Chamois and its local owner. Words & Pics: Paul Guinness.
Look for the Black Country on a map and it’s unlikely you’ll find it, even though this once heavily industrialised part of the West Midlands now boasts its own flag, its own regional day of celebration and a population that’s fiercely loyal about the area’s individual identity. Make the mistake of referring to a true Black Countryman as a ‘Brummie’ and you’ll soon be set straight, even though Birmingham city centre is less than ten miles away from this proud and historic region.
The problem for anyone outside the area, however, is confusion over exactly which towns are classed as part of the Black Country, particularly as the number seems to have increased over the years. As somebody born and bred in Stourbridge, I can relate to this; many locals claim that my home town is within the Black Country region thanks to its world-famous glassmaking industry of old, whilst traditionalists insist that Stourbridge has no right to be included. Little wonder then, that to an outsider there’s the potential for confusion.
The name itself dates back to the region’s role in the mining industry, with many historians insisting that the Black Country comprises the area where the local 30-feetdeep coal seam comes to the surface. On that basis it would include towns like Blackheath, Old Hill, Cradley Heath, Bilston, Dudley, Tipton and Wednesfield; and although the more modern approach is to include the four Metropolitan District Council areas of Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton within the Black Country, I can’t help thinking that historians have the better definition.
If the Black Country was built on coal mining, its reputation as a dark and grimy region was reinforced by heavy industry. Indeed, this was once one of the most industrialised areas in Britain, right at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. Its skyline was filled with countless belching chimneys that poured smoke into the air day and night, whilst forges, foundries and ironworks made use of the area’s vast canal network to move their products around the country prior to shipping them worldwide. Queen Victoria was famously so appalled by the sight of the Black Country that, as a 13-year-old child, she closed the curtains in her carriage as she passed through, later writing in her diary that the area was “all black” and had a “strange and extraordinary appearance.”
Yet the Black Country has much to be proud of. Did you know, for example, that the world’s first successful steam engine was built in the Black Country; or that the anchors for the ill-fated Titanic were cast in Netherton and towed to Dudley train station by twenty shire horses en route to Belfast? The history is fascinating, and these days there’s no shortage of local attractions celebrating the region’s past as well as playing a role in its future. So with Black Country day fast approaching back in July, we couldn’t resist jumping aboard a classic and doing a little local exploring of our own.
The car in question is the 1969 Singer Chamois you see gleaming in the photographs, a splendid MkII example with just 74,000 miles under its wheels and the same doting owner for the last seven years. Living in Birmingham but working in the Black Country (for West Midlands Police), Charlotte Tambling is a fan of all things Impbased, although particularly pleased to own the now relatively scarce Singer version. And as she pulled into the long, straight driveway of Himley Hall, near Dudley, the car looked superb.
That’s not surprising, as Charlotte has invested both time and money into making sure that her already very solid Chamois was given the aesthetic attention it deserved, which explains its excellent quality respray (in a nonstandard shade of red, but one that suits the car brilliantly) and its Cosmic wheels. The end result is a head-turning example of one of the more luxurious members of the Imp family, its quadheadlamp front end, faux leather upholstery and wood-effect dashboard giving it something of an upmarket look both outside and in.
This Chamois also benefits from some under the- skin upgrades, including a twin-carb ( #Weber
) conversion for some immediately noticeable extra ‘oomph’. And as we finally set off from Himley Hall, after chatting about the car and planning our route for the day, it was immediately obvious that this much-loved Singer is no slouch. Himley Hall itself, easily found on the B4176 just four miles from Dudley town centre, is well worth checking out; built in the 18th century as a Palladian mansion to replace the medieval manor that had stood there before, it’s now owned by Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council and is open to visitors. However, it’s the 180 acres of parkland surrounding Himley Hall that attracts most of the 200,000 annual visitors, arriving there to walk dogs, keep fit, go fishing in the lake or play a round or two at the on-site golf course. For anyone seeking fresh air and family fun, it’s an excellent destination – as well as being the venue of numerous classic car events throughout the year.
“I’ve been to quite a few car shows at Himley Hall,” confirmed Charlotte, as we waited for the traffic to clear, enabling us to turn left out of the gates in the general direction of Dudley. We’d decided to focus our attention on this particular Black Country town, not least because Dudley has endured a tarnished reputation over the last couple of decades, with drive-to shopping centres wreaking havoc on its retail trade. Dudley has been through some tough times, yet as a tourist destination it now has a surprising amount to offer.
Half a mile along the #B4176
(and just over the border between South Staffordshire and the West Midlands) was our first stop, a popular pub appropriately named The Crooked House, originally built as a farmhouse in 1765. It’s in a relatively remote spot at the end of a long, narrow drive – but was an ideal starting point for our #Black-Country
tour thanks to the building’s connection with the local mining industry. Indeed, mine shafts running beneath it caused the farmhouse to start subsiding in the 1800s, with one side dramatically sinking into the ground.
The building eventually became a public house, and was a local novelty thanks to its distinctly crooked appearance, one end of it being an incredible four feet lower than the other. It was subsequently propped up with buttresses and extra strengthening, but by the 1940s was condemned as unsafe and was due for demolition. Happily, however, Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries stepped in to save the pub, restoring it to its former glory whilst retaining its unique ‘tilt’. Nowadays, it’s extremely popular throughout the year, and is well worth dropping in at if you fancy a pint and a pie.
Sadly, given our tight schedule, Charlotte and I had time for neither as we had a quick look round The Crooked House before rejoining the B4176 and continuing in the general direction of Dudley, giving us time to choose our various drop-offs points for the day. If time had allowed, we would no doubt have paid a visit to the excellent Black Country Living Museum (www.bclm.co.uk), a 26-acre site that recreates Black Country life from the late 1800s, filled with period buildings saved from around the region and painstakingly rebuilt on site. Visitors can walk round the village and enter the shops and houses, see the local blacksmith at work, take a canal trip, head down a mine and ride a tram, which means that even a full day spent at the museum isn’t long enough to see everything. We gave it a wave as we drove along Tipton Road, Dudley, but didn’t dare call in for fear of falling behind schedule.
We did, however, find time to drop in at Dudley Castle, situated next to Dudley Zoological Gardens where visitors can get up close and personal with over 200 different species of animals, reptiles and endangered species. The zoo itself was first opened in 1937 and is unique for featuring an array of Tectonic art decostyle buildings and animal enclosures, most of which have been thoroughly restored in recent years. Nowadays the zoo plays a major role in conservation and education, as well as being a superb destination for family days out.
On this occasion, however, it was the castle we’d come to see, which meant parking the Chamois in the easy-to-find Tipton Road car park and heading through the gates on foot. A ticket to Dudley Zoological Gardens also allows access to Dudley Castle, an impressive fortress that dates back to 1070, although much of it was added in the 1500s by John Dudley, the son of an economic adviser to Henry VII. This new addition created an entire new wing known as Sharington Range (named after its architect, William Sharington) and transformed the castle into an opulent palace, although a huge fire in 1750 saw the entire building reduced to a ruin. Nowadays Dudley Castle is preserved in the same state, its two ruined sections separated by almost 500 years, and is world renowned as one of Britain’s most haunted buildings.
With little likelihood of a ghost appearing during our brief visit in the mid-summer sunshine, Charlotte and I headed back to the parked-up Singer, driving on to Tipton Road again and heading to Castle Hill and The Broadway, with Priory Park a little further along on the right-hand side. And for anybody fascinated by ruined buildings and who isn’t in a position to pay to visit a venue, this park is the must-see location of Dudley Priory.
Now in ruins but fascinating for visitors of all ages, Dudley Priory was founded in 1160 and its remains are now both Grade I listed and officially classed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The priory fell into disrepair in the late 16th century (having been closed by Henry VIII in the 1530s as part of his Dissolution of the Monastries) and has remained a ruin ever since. Visiting it now though, certainly brought back memories for me, as I explained to Charlotte over a flask of coffee inside her Singer: “My grandparents lived just the other side of the park,” I said, pointing beyond the priory. “When I was a child, my grandfather would often walk me across the park and I’d play in amongst these ruins.” It seemed strange being back there now, four decades later.
With time rolling on, however, the flask and mugs were packed away and the Singer was once more pressed into action, this time heading out of Dudley towards Birmingham New Road, which we’d join for only a very short stretch before turning left into Sedgley Road West, through Sedgley and out on to the A463. Having driven through built-up suburbia we found the landscape changing suddenly, with a far more rural view around us and ahead a large sign pointing towards Baggeridge Country Park.
This seemed like another excellent stop-off point, given that the park was originally part of the Himley Estate (owned by the Earls of Dudley) and was therefore linked to our day’s starting point. In the 18th century it was landscaped by none other than Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and was kept in that state until the early 1900s when some of the grounds were given over to mining. Nowadays, however, Baggeridge is officially classed as a country park, packed with various walking routes and a combination of grassland, woodland and wetland backdrops to enjoy. You can park all day for £2.60, take a picnic and enjoy a rural day out just a short drive from Dudley, as many people choose to do throughout the summer months.
As for us, we just had time for a few more photographs before jumping back into Charlotte’s hard-working Chamois and easing back out on to the A463, this time heading away from Sedgley and really putting the twin-carb Singer through its paces, tackling the twists and turns of the road with real confidence. Anybody who doubts the handling capability of a rear-engined classic should try a well-sorted Imp (or derivative) for themselves, with Charlotte’s example gripping the road impressively well, cornering with a surprising lack of body roll and at no times feeling unpredictable.
With a roundabout looming at the end of the A463, it was time to take the first exit and head along the A449, the major trunk road that in its entirety stretches from South Wales to Stafford. On this short section, however, the combination of single- and dual-carriageway layout at the national speed limit gave us a chance to blow away some Imp-shaped cobwebs, with the twin Webers of the Singer’s 875cc all-alloy engine making their presence felt via eager acceleration and – by small-car standards – effortless cruising. The Chamois blasted its way along the initial stretch of dual-carriageway with real eagerness, only slowing when the road narrowed and we found ourselves behind less speedy traffic. It might not have lasted long, but that quick burst was enough to reinforce just how much potential any well-sorted Imp really does have.
While a regular Chamois would have pumped out 37bhp in single-carb guise when new, a twincarb Sunbeam Sport boosted this to 51bhp (and a top speed of 90mph), which gives an indication of what Charlotte’s uprated Singer is capable of. She openly admits that she makes the most of the car’s performance potential, and has great fun on every trip as a result.
As we turned left at the next major crossroads, we found ourselves back on the B4176 from which we’d started, which meant that within a few hundred yards we’d once again be at Himley Hall. The entire day had been both fun and fascinating in equal measure, with the various destinations proving just how much the Black Country offers anyone seeking a Midlands-based adventure. My advice? Just make sure you do it at the wheel of a car as entertaining as this cute-as-a-puppy Singer Chamois.
Distance: 22 miles
Time: Half a day with stop-off (but allow longer for Dudley Zoo and the Black Country Living Museum)
Any shortcuts: Locating Himley Hill is easy via A449. Closest Motorway is the M5 J2.
"The Chamois blasted its way along the initial stretch of dual-carriageway with real eagerness"
Dudley Castle and Priory (inset) were just two of the interesting venues our Chamois visited during this tour of the Black Country.
Unfortunately there weren't any four-legged Chamois in residence at Dudley Zoo to keep our game little four-wheeled variant company on the day we parked up outside.
The car of choice for this month's classic tour was this superbly presented low mileage 1969 Singer Chamois owned by Charlotte Tambling (above) and driven by Paul Guinness (top), one of our regular contributors.