“There isn’t much up there.”
Such was the way an affable, older British gentleman concluded our conversation after I’d interrupted his Sunday morning stroll to ask for directions. He pointed me to an alternate route—“just in front of that white cottage”—that would take me off the main road, a popular path with the Sunday strollers.
“Do you know where you need to go?” he continued, perhaps fishing for an explanation for why anyone, let alone a foreigner, was in rural England looking for the small town of Sedgley.
“Actually, my last name is Sedgley.”
I watched his facial expression closely, hoping the cracks of his face would reveal the smile from a long lost relative. “Ah,” he responded, looking uphill in the direction I’d need to walk. Apparently, I’d have to work harder to find my pasty brethren.
It’s hard to place when I first learned of this hamlet in the west midlands of England, but it was probably around the launch of the first search engine. I didn’t know anything about it but, for a decade, it was firmly placed high on my travel destination list.
It was also a fun fact I’d readily share with any English person I met. Perhaps I was trying to establish common ancestors, a connection that was genealogically tenuous at best. I am roughly 50% British using the slide rule of hereditary ratios that a Swedish friend—like, “Born in Sweden and speaks Swedish” Swedish—pointed out as absurd practice unique to Americans. Even without an ancestral chart, I was confident that a Sedgley had roamed here before; except for a park near Philadelphia and another in Manchester, this geographical footnote is the only substantive hit on Google Maps.
And it is small. Once my fun fact was met with a look of confusion—which it was, always—I’d respond with the nearest city I’d remembered from the online map: Dudley. “Oh, DUHD-lay” they’d invariably respond, mimicking natives of this area by projecting their lips out like an orangutan.
Great, so my potential ancestors are the linguistic laughing stock of my homeland.
“The road before that white cottage is called Turls Hill Road. We’ve always called it ‘White’s Road’ but I don’t know why,” he continued in an accent that seemed perfectly fine to me, distinguished even. “There aren’t any leaves on the trees but it will get you off the main road. But there isn’t much up there.”
Truth be told, I’d expected that. But I’d brought my camera and had several hours to sift through rural England to find something worthy of being framed and hung on a wall back home. I had only made a modest investment—49 sterling pounds, 2.5 hours on a train from London, and a mile on foot—to get to this point. At the very least, it would be a check off my destination list.
I thanked him for his time and continued up the sloping hill, taking a left at the white cottage.
The narrow country lane skimmed a row of bucolic homes before transforming in to a footpath that cut through a series of vast horse pastures. It was a cold, overcast morning in February; the trees had been bare for months and the verdant fields had succumbed to mud. Tits and goldfinches defiantly sang from bare branches to remind passerby that spring was just around the bend. A horse clopped through the mud towards the edge of its derelict fence as I approached, allowing its muzzle to be scratched. Several dog walkers passed, each with a genuine smile for an unfamiliar man donning white shoes, binoculars, and a large camera.
After fifteen minutes, I was on top of the hill and fully submerged in the brick row houses and short driveways of English suburbia. A sign informed me that I was a six-minute walk a way.
Within a few blocks, I was standing at the edge of a main road, one of four that converges at a roundabout in the middle of town. In fact, as I would soon find out, this intersection—called the “bull ring”—represents the entirety of Sedgley. Formerly the place where townspeople gathered to watch “bull-baiting” (where dogs attempt to immobilize a bull that was tied to a stake), the bull ring now hosts a traffic circle surrounded by a guitar store, a realtor’s office, a bank, a nail salon, two taverns, and Monty’s, an establishment that is sports bar by day and dance club by night.
Fortunately, Monty’s also served beer (£1.90 pints) and lunch which, in my case, comprised of a cheeseburger, “house-made” fries, and a puddle of baked beans that consumed any remaining white space on my plate (£3.50). Big screens on every wall were airing either a track bike competition or the preamble to the EPL match between Chelsea and Manchester City. Monty’s was clearly a club “sunlighting” as a sports bar: food was an afterthought and the décor was best viewed under little to no light. But it was comfortable and the people were very nice.
Between smoke breaks and serving tables of older men, the middle-aged woman behind the bar provided me with directions to the only road sign that sported my last name—“Sedgley Hall Road”—as well as the towns brand new “Welcome to Sedgley” sign. She confirmed that the name was old enough to be mentioned in the Domesday Book, a national land registrar commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1086. It also used to be quite a bit bigger but, due to some bureaucratic land relegation, it had been whittled down to its current size. Nearby “Dudley Castle,” a relatively famous landmark, was formerly known as “Sedgley Castle.” One more reason to denigrate those sad saps from “DUHD-lay.”
She also recommended a local historian who has written three books on Sedgley alone. As I said goodbye, I was thankful that her accent wasn’t as thick as the three gentlemen sitting behind me; it took nearly a minute of concentrated eavesdropping before I recognized a single word.
I spent another hour or so walking up and down the main streets of Sedgley (all six of them). A few boarded-up windows and derelict buildings comingled with worn storefronts that distributed the bare essentials of life: eyewear, dentistry, magazines, real estate, and beer. Several handsome cathedrals from the early 1800’s serve the pious, the oldest of which—All Saint’s Church—was adorned with scores of carved human heads, green with moss.
The area appeared safe, if the vigilance of its residents at locating the stranger roaming with a big camera is any indication.
As early afternoon approached and I started the two-mile walk back to the train station, I began to reflect on this destination that had captivated my imagination for so long. I would call Sedgley “charming” in the same way a realtor would refer to a small house that doesn’t fit the market. It is small, clean and quiet: a comfort for the few who call it home, but offers little to entice the masses. Much like the traffic circle at its core, Sedgley is designed to provide efficient passage by offering little temptation to stop.
But I am glad I did.
Walking these unassuming streets affirmed that any location in the world can be interesting if you give it enough time, though it certainly helps to have your last name plastered everywhere. In fact, if it weren’t for our shared names, I would have never come to this blip on the cartographical radar. No part of Sedgley will ever grace the pages of Conde Naste magazine. And that’s perfectly fine with me.