Gardening: Where am I? Birmingham?

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The Independent Online
I have been listening to BBC Radio Hereford and Worcester a lot this past fortnight. It is part of my campaign to obtain gainful employment. I increasingly see the merit in working where I live. If any of my kids are to go off the rails, I do not want them to be able to blame it on my prolonged absences.

The more I listen, the more I have to think about the geography and identity of Hereford. It seems logical enough that Herefordshire be tied in with Worcestershire. As the station's jingle has it: 'Two Shires, One County'. In the so-called reform of the local government system 20 years ago, Herefordshire and Worcestershire got tied together, but the new entity more or less kept the old boundaries, and each county kept its name. So, though Herefordians were furious that their fates must be decided in faraway Worcester, they remained free to think of themselves in historical terms.

Now, of course, the shires have to work out what to do as the Government presses for unitary authorities (broadly speaking: either clutches of districts and away with the county council, or have the county and get rid of districts). Hereford will probably strike out on its own in some form.

It will need allies. And it will need to work out a new regional identification. Worcester will remain a natural friend. The counties feel quite alike and share some agricultural produce. With Gloucestershire, they make up the Three Counties identity kit (with its music and farming festivals).

But shires need to relate to some big city, so as to take an interest in the industrial and urban difficulties and excitements that rural life often ignores or fears. We have the best Indian restaurant in the Midlands up the road in rustic Leominster, but for the buzz of a city one needs something massive, where glamour and squalor can really get a grip.

Some Herefordians like to look on Bristol as providing a handy metropolitan mass. Though it is across the Severn, it is at least in England. We could look to Cardiff, switching loyalties in line with our ecological status: Hereford is in a Welsh watershed (served by Welsh Water plc), and is the biggest city on the Wye, a thoroughly Welsh river. Indeed, the bond between Hereford and Worcester ought to be strengthened by recognition that they are linked in thiefdom: they both live on rivers that drain Welsh mountains into the Bristol Channel. But there is a difference: Worcester's river Severn for all I know carries mostly Welsh water, but it carries that water through big tracts of England.

I suspect, however, that most Herefordians turn towards Birmingham when they want culture and danger. In line with this, BBC H & W looks north- east to make an aural empire (though it takes a country music show from Radio Shropshire). The station advertises itself as covering an area 'from the Black Country to the Black Mountains'. It is part of the Midland cluster of stations. At night, we link into a world that arches across Birmingham to Leicester, Stoke and beyond. We take a coalmining soap opera from Stoke.

At first I struggled to get my brain round the idea of the same airwaves lapping Birmingham and Blaenawey. This may have had a bit to do with prejudice against Brummies in particular and central Midlanders in general. But living here has made me rather enjoy the buried humorousness of the breed. Besides, I remind myself about the Chamberlain family (Joseph, Austen and Neville). They seem interesting and, like other Midlanders such as Enoch Powell and Margaret Thatcher, have had such a terrible press that one instantly warms to them.

In any case, the geography and history of the Hereford-Midland link are sounder than one might expect. Tamworth and Lichfield are seriously Midland towns and were the power bases of the old Mercia, which was the anti-Welsh bastion of the Angles. They are honorary Marches towns, and that makes it easier to identify with them.

The most glamorous way of looking at Hereford's relations with the wider world is as a part of the Marches. I like this notion because it perpetuates the edgy thinking proper to the uncertain terrain between two countries. It defines us as peripheral, unreconstructed.

Perhaps unfortunately, the European Union has already recognised the concept. Some bright spark in Shropshire decided that this rural terrain between Wales and the Midlands could make a great case for its rural deprivation. An alliance of Herefordshire and Shropshire interests polished its begging bowl and got hold of pounds 20m-odd for various schemes to find people a post- farming income. This is in line with the culture of mendicancy the EU wants to encourage in the regions, so as to bind them to Brussels and dissolve feisty nationhood in its member states. I am fairly sure the money will damage exactly the scruffy charm that brought us here in the first place.

On the plus side, the Euro-thinking is taking electoral shape in a rather interesting way. Herefordshire used to be linked with Worcestershire in a constituency for the European Parliament. Now it is being linked with Shropshire, while Worcestershire has been bound in with a bit of Warwickshire. It will be interesting to see whether Herefordians will enjoy sharing an MEP with wild and woolly Salopians, or would have preferred to stay with the relatively sophisticated Worcester types.

If we do like the Shropshire connection, and decide that Birmingham should have nothing to do with us, Herefordians might follow BT's way of looking at us: it has a region called Shrewsbury, Hereford and Mid-Wales. That at least gives the region a shoreline: Cardigan Bay.

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