This large town outside Birmingham was one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution and is often called the “capital of the Black Country”. The Black Country got its name from soot caused by iron foundries, coking plants and glass factories.
For context, the Titanic’s millions of nails and gigantic anchor were manufactured in this very place.
You’ll be pleased to know that there’s no longer soot in the air, but captivating industrial history is not hard to find.
Your first stop needs to be the Black Country Living Museum, which shows off the region’s heavy industry and old ways of life, while old canals weave through Dudley’s townscape.
At the Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust you can board an electric boat for a journey into the dark heart of the Dudley Tunnel.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Dudley:
1. Black Country Living Museum
The region’s industrial heritage is remembered at this outstanding open-air museum on 26 acres of reclaimed former industrial land.
It might come as a shock but the 50 or so houses and most of the historic industrial structures at the museum were transferred from around the Black Country.
There’s original history at the museum too: Of the dozens of disused mine shafts on this land, two have been preserved by the museum, while there’s a line of old lime kilns beside the canal, the oldest dating to the 18th century.
Something extraordinary is the working replica of Thomas Newcomen’s atmospheric steam engine (the first working steam engine), first put to use in the Black Country in Tipton in 1715. There’s a fleet of vintage trams and buses, and by the entrance at the Rolfe Street Baths is a display of the countless products manufactured in the Black Country, from locks to nails, vehicles, enamels and glassware.
2. Himley Hall and Park
This imposing Palladian house in 180 acres of parkland is owned by Dudley Council, which opens the property up to the public during the spring and summer.
You can drop by the hall for exhibitions, a guided tour, spot of afternoon tea or for one of the many fairs that are held here between April and October.
For a snapshot, in summer 2018 there was exhibition for Amor Lamine, known for his amazing creations with Lego.
The surrounding parkland, extended by Capability Brown in the 18th century, is open all year and welcomes classic car fairs, charity fun runs and big crowds for the Guy Fawkes fireworks in early November.
On an average day you can come for a picnic, long walk, some fishing or a round of pitch and putt at the Himley Golf Centre.
3. Dudley Zoo
The grounds of the Dudley Castle are given over to the town’s zoo, which takes up 40 acres and was opened in 1937. Something special about the attraction is its set of 12 buildings and animal enclosures designed in the 30s by the modernist pioneer Berthold Lubetkin’s Tecton Group.
These are all listed buildings and represent the largest collection of their kind.
For children all the excitement of course will come from the zoo’s diversity of animals, like capybaras, domestic farm species, Sumatran tigers, giraffes, kangaroos, meerkats, red pandas, marmosets and many more.
The zoo also has large aviaries for parrots and other exotic birds, and all manner of lizards and snakes in its Reptile House.
Stay in touch with the schedule when you come as there are lots of informative keeper talks and feeding sessions around the zoo.
4. Dudley Castle
Atop Castle Hill at the heart of the zoo stands the extensive ruins of the Castle itself.
This started out as a Norman motte-and-bailey fortress, built in 1070, and the keep’s nine-metre earthwork mound remains from that time.
The remains of the keep resting on the motte go back to 1262 and this was called into action in the Civil War when a Royalist garrison was besieged by Parliamentary forces.
After the castle was taken it was slighted in 1646 to prevent it being reused, which accounts for the current appearance.
Below the keep you’ll see the beautiful ruins of the Sharington range, a set of Elizabethan residential buildings that actually survived the Civil War but were destroyed by fire in 1750.
5. Dudley Canal and Tunnel Trust
Passing under much of Dudley is the second longest canal tunnel in the UK. This is almost two miles in length, and has a labyrinthine network of adjoining limestone mines, caverns and divergent canal tunnels dating back to 1775. The tunnel is too low for many boats to pass through, and because of the lack of airflow can only be navigated by electric vessels.
The Dudley Canal and River Trust conduct all sorts of guided trips into this underworld, ranging from 45 minutes to six hours.
You’ll wear a hardhat on the journey and witness some staggering sights like high vaulting arches and old limestone mines, atmospherically lit and installed with dioramas.
6. Canal Walks
Out in the daylight you’ll be free to see more of Dudley’s tangle of canals on foot.
The three main ones are Dudley No. 1, Dudley No. 2 and the Stourbridge Canal, but these have their own smaller arms and extensions.
The network of waterways were crucial for industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, transporting raw materials like limestone, sand and coal.
The towpaths now are a far cry from the smoky days of the Industrial Revolution and form a green corridor through Dudley and Stourbridge for easy walks and bike rides enriched with historical details like old mills, kilns and locks (see the flight at Delph Locks on Brierley Hill). The Canal and River Trust has details of an informative five-mile walk traversing four fossil-rich limestone hills.
Elsewhere the Stourbridge Canal’s towpath between Canal Street and the Red House Glass Cone is a also a treat and has intriguing scraps of the old glassmaking trade.
7. Wren’s Nest
To the northwest of Dudley town centre is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the first British nature reserve to be established in an urban area.
The Wren’s Nest was designated in 1956 when it also became the UK’s first national nature reserve for geology.
The limestone outcrops at the Wren’s Nest are the remnants of a tropical seabed, formed between 420 and 425 million years ago.
The rock is riddled with closed-off mining tunnels that once joined to the Dudley Tunnel before collapsing.
The Wren’s Nest is famed in geological circles for its well-preserved Silurian coral reef fossils.
Some 700 different types have been discovered here, 86 of which are can be found nowhere else on the planet.
One, a trilobite nicknamed the Dudley Bug, even featured on the town’s coat of arms up to 1974.
8. Priory Park
The nearest green space to Dudley Town Centre, Priory Park is in 19 acres and deserves a look for the Grade I ruins of Dudley Priory.
This Cluniac institution was founded in the 12th century and built with local limestone sourced from the Wren’s Nest.
Like all monastic communities in England the priory was dissolved in the 16th century and the fell into ruin soon after.
Next door, Priory Hall was built for the Earl of Dudley in 1825 and is now the town council’s register office.
The park as we see it was designed in the 1930s and has near formal gardens, a pond, lush lawns and a multi-use games area, all spruced up at the start of the 2010s.
9. Bumble Hole Nature Reserve
In Dudley’s Netherton area, this peaceful nature reserve was once the scene of frenzied industry.
Iron works, timber yards, blast furnaces, coal mines, brick kilns, saw mills and a mass of other factories all filled this site.
Little hints of what came before can be discovered here and there.
Two centuries ago a steady stream of canal barges entered and departed the coal pits, and there’s still a small toll island where the boats would be weighed and charged a toll.
Much of your trip to Bumble Hole will be spent wandering through woods, tracing canals and spotting wildfowl in the water.
There’s also a canal-side visitor centre recalling the chaotic history of the site and selling refreshments.
10. Red House Glass Cone
Stourbridge’s glassmaking industry is thought to have arrived with the Huguenots in the 17th century, and peaked in the 1860s when half of all the town’s 1,032 residents were involved in this trade.
The most striking monument to this heritage is the 27-metre-high Red House Cone, one of only four of its kind surviving in the UK. This brick-built kiln is used as a museum by Dudley Council.
You can step into the cone itself and climb a platform to see how this 18th-century structure functioned.
There are also independent crafters based at the site, and you can catch demonstrations of glass-blowing and browse a temporary exhibition normally tied to the Stourbridge glass industry in some way.
In September 2018 there was a display of delicate antique perfume bottles.
11. Ruskin Glass Centre
In the middle of Stourbridge’s historic glass quarter, the Ruskin Glass Centre is where the prestigious Royal Doulton Crystal factory used to be.
After a £1.4m refurbishment the centre now houses studios for a host of craftspeople, counting some of the UK’s top glass artists.
At the Glasshouse Heritage Centre you can get acquainted with the story of the old glassworks, and if you’re keen to see the current glassmakers at work you can book a studio tour, although this needs to be done in advance.
Also here is the Glasshouse Arts Centre, which has a 400-capacity auditorium and a 100-seater studio theatre.
12. Baggeridge Country Park
Right by Himley Hall, this 150 acre country park is composed of the old Baggeridge Colliery and some of the Himley Estate.
The park is only three miles from the centre of Dudley, but you’ll leave the Black Country behind and find yourself in a landscape of woodland, grassland, ponds, marsh and some parkland designed by Capability Brown.
The terrain isn’t completely natural, as the hill in the park is in fact an old pit mound.
At the top is a toposcope and a stirring view back over Dudley and South Staffordshire.
Baggeridge Country Park has no shortage of facilities like high and low ropes courses, a miniature railway (check online for running times) and a children’s play area, while you can take a post-walk break at the tearoom.
13. Dudley Archives and Local History Centre
The town’s museum unfortunately closed in 2016, but much of its collection was moved to a new home at the town’s archives, open to the public from Monday to Saturday.
In the exhibition you can find out about some famous Dudley natives like the footballer Duncan Edwards.
One of the Busby Babes, Edwards was the most promising English player of his generation but died at just 21 in the Munich Air Disaster in 1958. You can also inspect some of the 15,000 Silurian and Carboniferous fossils in the museum’s collection, as well as finds from archaeological excavations at Dudley Castle and a collection of glassware produced at Stourbridge.
14. Warren’s Hall Country Park
In the south of Dudley the Bumble Hole Nature Reserve merges with another swathe of land that was busy with heavy industry until well into the 20th century.
The primary activity at Warren’s Hall was coalmining and you won’t be able to miss the chimney stack and hall of Cobb’s Engine House, which pumped water from the mines.
A big bulge in the landscape is created by the Blow Cold Bank Colliery Spoil Tip, long since grassed over.
You can track the course of the Dudley No. 2 Canal up to the dark entrance to the 1.7-mile Netherton Tunnel, built in the 1850s to relieve traffic in the Dudley Tunnel.
15. Intu Merry Hill
First sprouting by the Dudley No. 1 Canal in the 1980s, this shopping centre has been renovated and expanded a few times since then.
As of 2018 the owner Intu Properties has proposed a £100m overhaul to make it a regional shopping hub.
But even before this project there are 250 stores, among them all the mainstays of the British high street like Argos, Boots, Debenhams, Clarks, Topshop and Marks & Spencer.
Dining won’t be a problem as there are healthy options, fast-casual and fast food options for all-comers, whether you’re up for a wrap, salad, pizza, Five Guys burger or something quick from Greggs.