Express & Star

The Black Country? It's bostin', ay it

Lianne Cronin thinks the Black Country is bostin'. As we speak, she is about to proudly hoist a giant Black Country flag outside her bookshop. Her shop window is filled with books about the Black Country, inside there are more books by local authors, Black Country bumper stickers, prints of Black Country scenes, Art Deco images of Black Country landmarks.

DUDLEY COPYRIGHT SHROPSHIRE STAR STEVE LEATH 12/07/2023..Pic in Dudley , asking people about Black Country Day. Pictured is: Liann Cronin from Rowley Regis and Books and Bits..

Which is interesting, because Lianne is actually from Hampshire. And until she moved to the area 10 years ago, her knowledge of the area was sketchy to say the least.

"I knew of the Black Country, and its links to Lord of the Rings, but not much more than that. Since I moved here I have learned so much. I think it is wonderful how patriotic people are about the Black Country."

And Lianne, 35, who has run Cronin's Books and Bits in Dudley's Churchill Shopping Centre for three years, has no regrets about making the move.

"We're from Farnborough, and it's definitely better here," she says. "The cost of living is much better here, because Farnborough is so close to London, everything is so expensive.

"It's close to Birmingham, but you have got that beautiful castle on your doorstep. Black Country people are lovely, they are so friendly, and proud of being from the Black Country, but they get very angry if you get it wrong."

One thing she learned very quickly was that you don't ever confuse the Black Country with Birmingham. And coming from the London commuter-belt, that is something she easily identify with.

"People think we're Londoners, although Farnborough is actually further from London than Birmingham is from here," she says.

Lianne, 35, who lives in Rowley Regis with husband Marc, is looking forward to the Black Country Festival.

"I hope it brings people in, it's good that we have got the cycle grand prix, and all the local arts."

Opening any new town-centre retail business could be considered a brave move in the age of the internet shopping, and the early days of the business were also hit by the lockdown. But she says people's passion for the area has helped her build up a loyal customer base, and she says events featuring Black Country authors have been particularly successful.

If Lianne's bookshop is one of the newer businesses in Dudley, Teddy Gray's famous sweet shop across the road is one of the oldest. Frozen in time, having seen little change in decades, there are few places more Black Country than this tiny shop. Behind the counter is 51-year-old Gina Morgan, who has worked at the confectioner for 18 years, and has lived in the shadow of Dudley Castle for her entire life.

She is proud to be from the Black Country, but lukewarm about whether the festival will actually do much for the area.

"If it brings people into the town, that is good, but I don't know whether it will," she says. "What is Black Country Day?"

She says Dudley town centre desperately needs more shops. And having lost Beattie's department store, seeing a pound shop where BHS used to be, and a J D Wetherspoon where Debenhams once was, it is difficult not to see her point. But it doesn't have to be like this, she insists.

"I've been to Blackheath, they've got a brilliant town there," she says. "You go to Bilston, and they've got a lovely market."

And what are the best things about the Black Country?

"You have got the Black Country Museum, and Dudley Zoo, they're very good, they've been here for a long time. When I was a kid I would hear the lions, and look out of the window, I thought they had escaped and were outside."

Sitting in a traditional flat cap at the foot of the Duncan Edwards statue is 48-year-old John Moore, who runs the Black Country Fun Casino events business. Like Lianne, he is a Black Country immigrant, having moved to Dudley from Tamworth some 26 years ago.

"I'm an adopted Black Countryman," he says proudly. He believes Black Country Day is an important way to mark the region's proud heritage.

He is impressed by the way the Black Country Festival has grown since it was launched nine years ago.

"It's kept getting bigger and better every year," says John. "It's got more people in from the area, and from more areas as well, in Dudley itself, but also people from Wolverhampton and West Brom.

"It's great for the kids, and it's all about the culture really, and that's great."

He says when he first arrived in the Black Country 26 years ago, he didn't know that much about the area, but he caught on quickly.

"I had to go to the Black Country Museum to learn all about it," says John. "Black Country people are very proud of their history."

And what would he say is the best thing about the area?

"The attractions are getting better, the Black Country Museum and the castle are great," he says. "And the people are No. 1 friendly."

Jill Hickman, 63, from Dudley's Priory Estate, says she too is very proud of the region's heritage, but she is a little concerned that there are not enough Black Country flags flying this year. She is also thinks it would have been better if the Dudley Fun Day was held on a Saturday, when the children were not at school, and says the council has not done enough to promote the different events that are on this year.

She is also concerned that the road closures for today's cycle grand prix could make it difficult for her to collect her grandchildren from school.

But for all these reservations, she is a strong supporter of the festival, and says it is very important that people celebrate Black Country history.

"We should be proud of everything the people round here have worked for," she says.

"The conditions that people had to work in while making nails or making chains were horrendous," she says.

"It was dirty work, and the wages were poor, but it was their hard work that gave us everything we had to day. That's why we should celebrate Black Country Day."