Last Resort: Walsall

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The Independent Travel
Think "illuminations" and a northern resort with a tower is most likely to come to mind, rather than a not-very-famous town on the edge of the Black Country. If Walsall is known for anything, it is the leather industry, its market, its Balti houses (which were selling Baltis well before they were trendy and where they still only cost around pounds 3.50), and having its local council expelled from the Labour Party for being too left-wing.

But every year since 1905, the light bulbs have been dusted off and strung from tree to tree in Walsall's Arboretum. Living nearby as a child, the switching on of the "loyts" (as we Brummies called them) was an important date in my childhood calendar. Four out of five Black Country families have visited the event, says the local tourist office. Ours was no exception: each autumn, I walked round in wide-eyed appreciation.

Several decades later, the Illuminations are actually bigger and better than those of my childhood memories, and Walsall, by many accounts, now challenges Blackpool on the "ooh, ahh" appreciation-scale. For six weeks, tour buses bring excited families from around the country to watch the lakeside laser-show and stroll through its wooded parkland where childhood favourites such as Spot the Dog, Noggin the Nog, and Noddy and Big Ears are lit up larger than life.

A couple of years ago, the scale of Walsall Illuminations caused some choking on cornflakes when the opening was reported on both BBC Breakfast News and the Today programme. But for those attracted to the town by the lights and attendant publicity, Walsall's other attractions are a sight harder to define.

Apart from its excellent Art Gallery, Walsall is not celebrated for its cultural highlights. But down-to-earth local culture can be found in one of its many community pubs - like the Duke of York on Lumley Road round the corner from the Arboretum. Or the Walsall Arms on Bank Street, where Black Country comics tell indecipherable jokes while you sample local delicacies that would make Delia Smith choke on her herbs: grey peas and bacon, faggots and peas, and chicken and chips. And that's not a choice: it's a three-course meal.

Walsall Illuminations are switched on today and open every night until 27 October, 7-9.30pm. Illuminations Booking Hotline: 01922 653183.