|The Warwickshire Centenary Way|
I got up and peered out through the bedroom windows with little optimism. It wasn’t actually raining but there was every indication that it soon would be and, sure enough, as I left for my friend’s house the rain started to fall; not with any sort of drizzly build up or gentle prelude but with full-on determination. It meant business.
Today was the first day of a planned eight day trek through the midlands, covering some 100 miles and taking in a smattering of historic towns, sections of canal, and the odd hill along the way. was devised to commemorate a full century of the existence of Warwickshire County Council. You might wonder who governed it before this time when, after all, the town of (the shires capital) has been open for business since the sixth century. I’m not sure, and I doubt that generous amounts of wandering its highways and byways will enlighten me, but you never know. Steeped in history as this walk may be, my main compulsion to complete it is quite simple: For a while, way back in my long lost childhood, Warwickshire was my home county until the West Midlands swallowed me up, and I believe I owe it a damn good walking through (the lack of funds to go much further afield this year may also have influenced my choice but I prefer a positive motive over a negative restriction).
Running first east and then roughly south, in an arc around Coventry and down to the gateway to the Cotswolds, the Centenary Way will take me through some very familiar territory, particularly on the first and penultimate sections, and to areas I have never ventured into before. It will have solitude and beauty as well as bustling towns and industrial landscapes and, of course, history - which I will do my best to research and include in these humble ramblings.
Today, on this inaugural section, it also had filthy weather.
Kingsbury Watery Park ....
My companion for the day was my old friend and oft-time walking buddy Dave Somen (@Lenscap on Twitter) who was likewise unhappy about the conditions but also determined to set off on the hike. We left his house in our respective cars, Dave in the lead as he had sat-nav, and completed a large circuit of Chelmsley Wood and Kingshurst before heading back to his front door. I suppose it’s better to realise that your walking boots are still at home when you are just a few miles away rather than opening up the car boot to an ‘oh shit’ moment.
This little hiatus actually worked in our favour, as we were somewhat late in dropping off Dave’s car at (the end point of the walk) before arriving at the start of the route, Kingsbury Water Park. As we drove into Kingsbury, the rain petered out and stopped. Taking advantage of this lull we togged up and set off, half hoping that we wouldn’t see any more bad weather. But the skies overhead remained a flat battleship grey and before we had completed the first mile it was pelting down again.
The first few miles took us in a wandering circuit through the water park, which was largely unnecessary, but the designers of the Centenary Way obviously wanted to show off the best of the park to its pilgrims.
Dave at Kingsbury Water Park
We threaded our way around a series of lakes both large and small and eventually exited the confines of the park to follow the for a short while. The Tame is a small river but can flood in spectacular fashion and I have seen the entire water park submerged when it has been at its worst. A complex series of drainage channels have been installed at Kingsbury Water Park over recent years which have worked a small miracle (considering the deluge that 2012 has unleashed) by keeping the park open. Thankfully today, despite the prolonged rainfall, the river was flowing along calmly and at normal levels.
History factoid - Birmingham and the parishes in the centre and north of the modern conurbation were probably colonised by the Tomsaete or Tomsæte ("Tame-dwellers"), an Anglian tribe living in the valley of the Tame and around Tamworth during the Kingdom of Mercia. They migrated up the valleys of the Trent and Tame from the Humber Estuary and later formed Mercia. - Wikipedia
The Tame rises in Oldbury, a stone’s throw from the end of today’s walk, before flowing northwards through Stafford to join the Trent and finally the North Sea via the Humber Estuary. It once had the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted rivers in England, poisoned largely by effluent from the industries of Birmingham. Thankfully the levels of pollution have dropped dramatically since the seventies and the lakes at Kingsbury and Lea Marston further serve to filter out contaminates. The result of this being that wildlife is returning again to its banks.
Whitacre Heath - twice ....
Leaving the river behind us we struck off across a series of grassy meadows and chatted amiably – cabbages and kings - as the first few miles passed by. We were corralled into a narrow track, fenced off from the large but unseen Lea Marston reservoir, and when we emerged back out into more open ground on the Birmingham Road, we found that the rain had once again petered out. Gleefully we removed our Gore-tex jackets so that our bodies could enjoy normal ventilation and of course we had walked no more than two hundred yards before the heavens opened again and we were forced back into our waterproofs.
The first of the day’s villages, hove into view. This was one of the three ‘Whitacres’ in the area – Whitacre Heath, Nether Whitacre and Over Whitacre - and historically the youngest, being of Victorian vintage.
The River Tame
Over a bridge we went sharp right at some cottages, and then a long track parallel to a railway embankment. The guide book then urged us left across meadows and then left onto a lane, and then left again at a sign for Whitacre Heath (alarm bells started ringing). Sure enough we ended up back at the bridge we had left forty-odd minutes before. I didn’t understand at first, the guide book had apparently taken us in a pointless circle and was now trying to offer us directions that simply made no sense.
Ever heard the acronym RTFM? It represents the phrase ‘Read The F****ing Manual’ and it certainly applied here.
I realised that the guide book writers had written up the Centenary Way both as a Southbound and a Northbound set of directions and they co-existed on the same page. So that’s what the little S and N numbers meant, eh Walford? Should have familiarised yourself with that little feature before you set off, right? I had followed the south route and then switched to the north route without noticing; effectively taking us back to where we had started. It was just good fortune, and some easy to follow way-markers, that had prevented this happening earlier. Apologising to Dave (who merely shrugged) we went back over the bridge and the lane and the meadows until we picked up the correct direction for the southbound route.
A unplanned detour of perhaps 2 miles, no big deal really, but somehow far more irritating when you are soaked and cold. We were to be even more irritated later in the day.
A break for lunch ....
We passed a field full of (yes really) and suddenly I was in familiar territory once again as we picked up part of my Foul End walk, following a railway and then a country lane before diving left through a hedge and onto an enclosed and overgrown cutting.
The mysterious Colin Teall sign
This has always intrigued me. Firstly because I can’t find any information about Colin Teall or why he had a wood named after him and secondly because there really isn’t a wood as such in the locality. There’s a small copse certainly, fenced off for the most part, but no real woodland. Also, it always seemed such an odd place for an information board to be sited, given the scarcity of passers-by.
[MW: I just Googled him again as I sit and write this – nothing, unless Colin Teall of Virginia USA owns a small copse in North Warwickshire].
[MW: May 2016 update. At last I know the answer to this as I just received the following Tweet from Oliver Teal - "@DarkFarmOwl to solve your Colin Teall woods mystery he was my grandfather and willed the woods to the council in 1996." Thank you Oliver, and thank you also Colin Teal for your donation of this quiet and charming piece of Warwickshire countryside.]
We crossed the railway again followed by a couple of meadows. Dave made polite noises about a lunch break and I agreed that we would stop in the village of which was just around the corner. Shustoke is a tiny place, no more than a couple of reservoirs (another favourite haunt of mine), some houses, and a pub. It has a long history, being already established by the time of the Norman conquests and it’s pleasant enough to look at but, as we discovered, a useless place in which to eat soggy sandwiches in a monsoon; Shustoke doesn’t do all-weather seating.
We walked a little further and broke for lunch in a small lane running parallel to the larger of the reservoirs, where at least there was some protection from the wind. As we ate we assessed our condition, which we agreed was best described as ‘sodden’. Neither of us had thought to wear over-trousers so our normal pants were now plastered to our legs. The Gore-tex jackets had resisted the rain for so long but had now relented and were as wet on the inside as on the outside. The only dry part of me was my feet, thanks to my Gore-tex gaiters and the brilliant Berghaus boots I had invested in just before the Dave admitted glumly that his boots hadn’t fared so well and he had a borderline case of trench-foot.
I looked to the south, where the weather was coming from, and declared that it would brighten up within the hour. Dave merely snorted in derision.
The call of the Griffin ....
We set off again and sure enough the rain stopped and the skies paled perceptively. Once more I removed my jacket and once more within ten minutes I was forced back into it as the rain returned.
We reached the second and smaller of the two reservoirs, which also serves as a trout fishery, and walked around its edge. Perhaps disturbed by our passing, some two dozen ducks swam away from the shoreline, heading for a convergence in the centre of the lake. I suggested that they were going to have a gang fight to determine the Daddy Duck. Dave suggested that they were gearing up to attack the pair of swans gliding about snobbishly on the opposite side of the lake. We moved on and never saw the conclusion to this little tableau.
History factoid - The Shustoke reservoir complex has two lakes at 92,000 cubic metres and 1,921,000 cubic metres. They were dug largely by hand, in the late 19th century and now supply water to the populations of nearby Coventry and Nuneaton. The spoil from the digging was used to form the six metre high embankment around the larger lake.
After the lake was left behind we dithered around uncertainly on a confusion of tiny tracks before spotting a concealed Centenary Way marker. This took us along the boundary of a rough pasture that sloped away up to our right. Just over the crest lay the my favourite pub in the whole world.
Shustoke reservoir under the weather
Eventually we came to a turn left at a stile that led to a small railway bridge which, as I knew from the Foul End walk, we would need to pass beneath. I also knew that this area was prone to flooding and sure enough the ground under the bridge, from wall to wall, was a large, temporary pond of brown water, well above ankle deep. There was no choice really as any detour would have been considerable, so we sloshed through the flood, reasoning that we were already as soaked as we could be. In my case this wasn’t true as I felt the cold water creep down inside my boots to drench my feet. Now I was 100% wet. The meadow beyond was also flooded, and we picked our way across it carefully, hopping from grassy hummock to grassy hummock, with the ground squelching and squashing under our feet like so many acres of over-boiled cabbage.
It was a relief to gain a road once more at the hamlet of Furnace End, an ironically named place for this particular day but a direct reference to the iron smelting furnaces that were once located here. We walked through it, passing the obligatory pub (The Bull Inn) and the not so obligatory abattoir and left it behind with an odd mixture of coal fires and dead animals lingering in our nostrils.
Three challenges ....
If I were writing a guide for this day rather than a journal I would now be lapsing into ‘at the next field turn right, at the next field follow the hedge, at the next field cross diagonally’ type of monologue and your eyes would slowly glaze over. In fact I have written a guide for this walk so I can talk from experience. Suffice it to say that there followed a time of many field crossings on wet squidgy ground under the rainy skies.
We reached a couple of fields obviously owned by Farmer Gerroffmeland who had ploughed up and planted the public footpaths and left narrow, overgrown margins that we were forced to fight our way along, being flailed by brambles and nettles; so thanks for that.
On the first of these fields we decided to walk anti-clockwise around the field perimeter, which turned out to be a poor choice as the land dropped down on that side to a sort of weedy bog from which we were forced to slog back uphill to the exit stile. About halfway up this clamber, my ankles were snared by the invasive crop (some kind of pepper I think) and I measured my length on the wet ground, making an impressive ‘ooompphh’ sound as I hit the deck. I got up quickly, prepared for Dave’s hilarity, but he was head down and struggling and missed the pantomime completely.
By the start of the fourth field the rain stopped and I took off my waterproof; by the end of the field I was wearing it again (can you see a recurring theme here?).
Dave, Birchley Heath, and sunshine
We faced a bit of a challenge when, following the way-marked post out of yet another grassy field, we were directed down into what would normally have been a little thicket or copse. Apparently a rogue elephant had recently rampaged through the place and left behind a tangled mass of broken branches and ripped out tree trunks. We had to force our way through this barricade with much cussing and loud snapping of branches, and the way out took some finding. In truth I have no idea what caused such destruction, but if there are any volunteers who maintain the Centenary Way then you have yourselves a team building challenge right there.
Almost immediately we entered a paddock, where a trio of large tan beasts with mean looking horns regarded us with bovine mistrust. As far as we were concerned it was mutual, apart from the bovine bit. We tried to appear unafraid as we walked casually and slowly towards these creatures, but we both noted escape routes should anything startle them into action. We were almost within touching distance before the nearest of them snorted and skipped away. However it didn’t go far and then it turned sharply and started to lower its head.
“It’s ok,” said Dave softly, “there’s an electric fence between us and them.”
This was true, but it was only a single strand of wire, invisible until you were within a foot of it, and it didn’t look anywhere near substantial enough to stop these beauties should they decide to get a bit tasty. It was a relief to get out of that field.
A few minutes later saw us skirting the edge of another large field, this one was freshly ploughed which gave us something different to stare at other than grass. It was definitely getting brighter, and warmer. I suggested a stop to take our waterproofs off again but Dave, perhaps a little weary of leg by now, didn’t want to stop and suggested, half seriously, that I remove it as I walked. This presented an interesting challenge which occupied me for several minutes. It is indeed possible to take off ones rucksack, wriggle out of the waterproof, open the rucksack, stuff the rolled up waterproof inside, close the rucksack, and put rucksack back on again without altering ones stride. It’s possible – but largely pointless. It’ll never make the Olympics.
A break in the weather ....
Suddenly we were in sunshine. This miracle happened as we filed along a narrow tree lined track that snaked its way across several field boundaries. It was a pretty, peaceful little section and I admired the many different hues of the leaves as they filtered the dappled light, casting shifting patterns upon the mossy floor. I stopped and looked skywards. Dappling? I was seeing dappling?
Sure enough the rain clouds had shuffled away to bother Norfolk and in their place were cheery patches of blue set amidst smoky white clouds and a pale lemon sunlight that was doing a great job of dappling. For the rest of the walk we basked in gorgeous late afternoon sunshine and perfect skies. Who knew. The British summer eh?
At the end of the wooded track was a small paddock and beyond it the tiny settlement of Birchley Heath, with its red brick terraced cottages all cheerful in the resurgent summer day, as if rain was nothing but folklore. Gratefully we rested a while on a bench in the paddock and I promised Dave that it wasn’t much further (I even half believed it when I told him). We moved quickly through the village and out the other side, meeting fields of golden wheat, and the odd rabbit. I was a little ahead and was about to go through a kissing gate when Dave called me.
“I tell you what – I’ll just stay right here. It’s nice!"
I back-tracked around the corner of a hedge to find him lying flat on his back in a little patch of muddy grass where he had slipped and fallen without ceremony and apparently noiselessly. Like my earlier fall, this would have gone unnoticed had he not pointed it out.
Oldbury picnic meadows
“Nearly there now mate.” I said to Dave, this time with more conviction.
Inevitably over such a lengthy walk, people lapse into a pace that suits them most. I found myself walking some way ahead of Dave for the final stages and it’s fair to say that we were both starting to flag a little.
We turned off the lane and plodded along through a series of narrow meadows, where drifts of late summer wild-flowers blossomed, and stands of Rowan and Birch provided some more of that fabulous dappling. It was a dreamy sort of place and we ambled along quite happily until we hit a locked gate and a dead end. We had missed a turn somewhere. Dave wasn’t the happiest I had ever seen him when I explained this to him but we tried our best to figure out a short cut to take us to the days end. It was getting late, we had walked a long way, and neither of us were all that fussed about back-tracking to try and find out where we had gone wrong.
We were on the edge of woodland that would take us uphill to where a busy road could be heard, so we took a track up through the woods and came out on a road that seemed familiar. We opted to turn right along the road and then right again along a second road on which we were both fairly sure we would reach Hartshill Hayes Country Park.
It's the last mile that does for you ....
"Short cuts make for long delays” Tolkien once wrote, and we were certainly about to learn this lesson. The road walking was a lot longer than we imagined and after turning onto the second road I kept seeing road signs far ahead of me, using them as focal points, convinced that the next one would read ‘Hartshill Hayes Country Park’ and being continually disappointed. I think I passed four such signs before a sinking feeling of déjà vu grew on me. Ahead were a little line of cottages and … a bridge with its span missing?
We had just completed a lengthy circle and were no further forward. We had also spent a couple of hours completing it. Reluctantly I turned to walk back to Dave, who was some distance behind me. He looked tired and crestfallen and I felt certain that I wasn’t about to improve this.
Hartshill Hayes Country Park
So in the end we missed the last few miles of the official route (though having since consulted the map I can see that we were never really that far off route as it joined Oldbury Lane just a mile or so before the end of the walk). Instead we hiked up the lane, around several corners, passing the gates to several rather grand properties, and finally, at long last, reached the entrance to and the sanctuary of Dave’s car. I will now quote from the official website for this area:
“The country park, covering 137 acres of woodland and open hilltop has magnificent views across the Anker Valley. Opened by Warwickshire County Council with assistance from the Countryside Agency in 1978, the species rich woodlands have been traditionally managed which has led to the site receiving the Forestry Authority’s ‘centre of excellence’ award.”
Sounds lovely doesn’t it? I’m afraid that all we saw of the place was a toilet block and a car park. Had we stumbled a short half mile along the main path we would have enjoyed the aforesaid magnificent views, but we had just walked almost twenty miles and stumbling anywhere but into the car was not an option.
My guide book is a died book ....
We had made a long walk even longer, had beaten the weather, and I had at last started the Centenary Way. Dave drove us back to Kingsbury Water Park, yawning continuously and looking every bit as tired as I felt, but he assured me that he had enjoyed the adventure and I have no doubt that he will join me again on some of the later stages of this route.
The very next day I copied the southbound sections out of the guide book to be printed when required. The guide book is now twice as thick as it used to be and smells unpleasantly of mildew. I think it’s a safe bet to say that it won’t be of any further use.
And I still don’t know who Colin Teall is.
See Route on ......