Bryony Symes visits Atherstone, to discover more about a region of great historic importance during the medieval Wars of the Roses
PARTS OF THE Midlands are overlooked, seen as somewhere you pass through on the way to your holiday. But they have a key role in our history, and there’s plenty to see. One good example lies just outside Atherstone, in Warwickshire, where you’ll find the unassuming village of Mancetter. This is believed to be the site of a Roman fort, at a key point on Watling Street (which is now roughly followed by the A5). This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the history of this area, so I had no hesitation in deciding to use Atherstone Stables Caravan Park as a base for a couple of days, while I explored the environs. Borrowing a caravan from Raymond James, based nearby, my first priority was to make sure the heating was set so the van would be warm when I got back. Then I headed off into the cold to find out more about the fascinating local history.
Battle in a bog
The Midlands also has a rather disputatious history – this was where numerous political, industrial and social movements had their roots. It was also the scene of many bloody episodes in the Wars of the Roses. In fact, the definitive Battle of Bosworth, one of the final actions in this conflict, took place just a few miles from where I was staying. The Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre is near the site where historians believe the action took place, a mile south-west of Ambion Hill and now peaceful farmland. Stand at the hilltop memorial today and it’s hard to imagine the scene, surveying what was once marshland where the two forces faced each other in August 1485, with Richard III’S army outnumbering Henry Tudor’s rebel troops. A walking trail takes you around the site, with information spots and audio stations to help you imagine the battlefield. The trail is free, but there is a £2.50 parking fee. This is a great way to get to know the geography of the battle, if you don’t have time to enjoy the indoor exhibits. A fresh snowstorm hit just as I pulled into the car park, so I dashed straight into the Heritage Centre to begin my journey through medieval England. The exhibition follows four characters, adding an interesting personal dimension,
and has plenty of hands-on activities to keep young minds engaged. A particular favourite of mine was trying my strength as an archer on the bow simulator. I managed 200m – enough to strike fear in the heart of my enemy! I’m still not sure I fancy my chances in battle, though, after learning about the medieval surgeons. Elsewhere, there’s armour to try on and exhibits that explain the complexities of the struggle between York and Lancaster. The Battle of Bosworth Trail takes you past Shenton Station, on the Battlefield Line, a heritage railway that starts at Shackerstone Station, five miles away. Ride the steam train to take in the Leicestershire countryside, or simply visit the stations for a variety of craft studios, cafés and more. At Shackerstone, there’s a museum where you can learn about the history of the railway. I decided to brave the cold and spend the afternoon at Hartshill Hayes Country Park, just south of Atherstone. At just £2 per day for parking, exploring the walking trails of this leafy paradise was great, even in winter. Viewpoints look out over the Anker Valley, and you can also access Coventry Canal’s miles of towpath from here.
An industrial heritage
The next morning, I headed to Nuneaton. Historically a centre for millinery, ribbon weaving and other textile industries, the town is very much a product of the Industrial Revolution, and was also important in the coal-mining industry. Today, Nuneaton Heritage Centre is flanked by independent craft businesses, reflecting the skills that built the town. The centre is only open on Tuesdays, and Thursday and Saturday mornings, but entrance is free and there’s lots of local interest. It is housed in a former Victorian school and is also a great place to learn about 19th-century education. Half a mile away, close to the town centre in Riversley Park, I found Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, also free to enter. On the ground floor, I wandered through the permanent collection, which stretches from the town’s mining roots through to the World Wars – both Nuneaton and Coventry suffered badly during the Blitz. There’s also an interesting section dedicated to Nuneaton’s most famous resident, writer George Eliot.
Leopards in the snow
The winter weather gave me the rare chance to see nearby Twycross Zoo blanketed in snow, especially the Himalayan enclosure, which houses the zoo’s snow leopards. The sight of these magnificent big cats stalking through snowy territory was quite something – and to watch them from the warm café viewing area was a bonus. I wasn’t the only one wanting a glimpse of the snow leopards: lots of photographers were clamouring for space at the glass. As two of the cats stalked and played, a third seemed fascinated by ice on the pool at the front of the enclosure. And all of this before I’d even bought my entrance ticket! After an afternoon wandering in the zoo, seeing how the animals were coping with the cold weather, I headed to Atherstone for dinner. I’d been recommended The Blue Boar Inn for hearty, traditional pub food,
‘Stand at Bosworth memorial today and it’s hard to imagine the scene, with Richard III’S army facing Henry Tudor’s rebels ‘
which was handily close to the campsite, so it was just a five-minute drive to get back to the caravan for a snug evening in.
My final day of exploring saw me heading north-west, further into Warwickshire, to another remnant of the area’s chequered past. On the western edge of Pooley Country Park, in a secluded clearing, are the ruins of Alvecote Priory, a 12th-century Benedictine religious community. Never a large establishment, Alvecote was dependent on Great Malvern Priory, which is still going strong. Alvecote itself is now just a collection of crumbling walls and a doorway dating back to the 14th century, but it is a peaceful place to visit. The park’s landscape was created by mining subsidence, and the Pooley Miners audio trail – which you can listen to as you stroll around – tells of its life; first as Pooley Hall Colliery, and then later as the North Warwickshire Colliery. I walked to the car park by the Heritage Centre with snow crunching under my feet, following the frozen canal. Before my final stop, I wanted to see another monastic treasure – Polesworth Abbey, in Tamworth. This was founded long before Alvecote, in 827, by King Egbert of Mercia. What you see today is the present church, at the western end of the former abbey church, with some 12th-century rebuilding. All that remains of the Abbey is part of the cloister wall and the 14th-century gatehouse. After strolling around the church, I was on my way to the final place on my ‘must-visit’ list. Once I had crossed the border into Staffordshire, I headed for Tamworth Castle. Perched on a mound near the confluence of the Rivers Tame and Anker, this has been a strategically important location since 600 AD, when it was the Anglo-saxon capital of Mercia. The castle you see today was built in 1080, following the Norman invasion, although it looks rather different now, with its Victorian terraced gardens.
Tales of Tamworth
The imposing castle keeps watch over the town, as it has done for more than 900 years. The 15 rooms that are open to the public give a glimpse into this eventful history, with hints of ghostly goings-on. One of the most well-known is the story of The Black Lady, St Editha, whose nuns were expelled from Polesworth Abbey by the first Baron Marmion. Legend has it that Editha appeared in a vision to the third Baron Marmion, and persuaded him (rather forcefully!) to allow her nuns to return to the Abbey. I rounded off my trip with a walk through the castle gardens, returning to the car park via the Ladybridge, inset with beautifully carved stones depicting the town’s history. One of these was dedicated to King Offa and the Anglo-saxon rulers who made Tamworth the heart of Mercia – yet more hidden history in this fascinating area.
Atherstone, on Warwickshire’s northern border, is the ideal base for exploring the history of this important area
TOP (L-R) Richard III lost his crown and his life at Bosworth. Bryony tries on some armour. Pithead wheel sculpture in Pooley Country Park BOTTOM (L-R) Parked up at Atherstone Stables, the Elddis Osprey 554 made a warm retreat in cold weather. Snow leopards enjoying the snow!
A location of great strategic importance for many centuries, Tamworth Castle overlooks the town