Week­ender: War­wick­shire

Bry­ony Symes vis­its Ather­stone, to dis­cover more about a re­gion of great his­toric im­por­tance dur­ing the me­dieval Wars of the Roses

Practical Caravan - - Contents - BRY­ONY SYMES is a keen ex­plorer who en­joys tour­ing to learn more of Bri­tish his­tory

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.

Monas­tic Mid­lands

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

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