The Heart Of England Way - Day Five

The Heart Of England Way
By Mark Walford
Day Five

Route: Balsall Common to Morton Bagot
Date: Wednesday May 8th 2013
Distance: 15m (24km)
Elevation: 433ft (132m) to 253ft (77m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 535ft (163m) and 653ft (199m)

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Minor adjustments ….

We had a bit of a strategic re-think as we sat over a few glasses of wine on our return from Balsall Common. The weather forecast was fairly insistent that Thursday was going to be a cold and windy affair, with some areas of the country subject to yellow-alert weather warnings (though thankfully not where we were going to be walking). We decided to extend day five’s route by a few miles, stopping at Morton Bagot rather than Henley-in-Arden. This would mean that Thursdays walk would be shorter and we would be spending less time exposed to the elements. It meant a longer day was in store of course, but we were used to tackling 16 mile walks so we decided that this was the most sensible way forward.

Baddesley Clinton with the retirees and the history …..

We drove back to Balsall Common under cloudy skies, reaching a quiet leafy lane on the edge of the townage. We drove up and down for a while trying to find a suitable parking place and the first one I selected proved to be a poor choice as it was more of a bog than a lay-by. My car sunk gracefully into the mud and Colin was obliged to get out and push to free us. Eventually we parked on rough ground in front of a large house and set off back to the stile leading out onto open ground and away from Balsall Common. Google Maps had already revealed to us that a lot of the first part of today’s walking would be field based and sure enough we crossed half a dozen such fields, some ploughed and ready for planting, some left fallow as meadows, a few housing livestock. The ground rose steadily as we covered the first few miles until we rounded a hedge to cross a wide grassy space where a farmer and his helper were busy erecting a wire fence. The farmer was patiently holding a wooden pole upright while his helper stood back and directed him to nudge it a few inches this way and then a few inches that way. The farmer gave me a martyred look as we passed.
“Hard work,” I asked him?
“Oh yes,” he replied, “all this leaning on posts is knackering.”
We crossed the meadow to reach the farm buildings where we entered a small copse, passing a child-sized wooden horse carriage abandoned in a corner of the farmyard. I’m always fascinated by the flotsam and jetsam you can find in Britain’s farmyards; vintage cars, antique furniture, priceless old tractors, evil looking multi bladed contraptions, carriages, totem poles, buses. I’ve seen them all on my travels, discarded in forgotten corners of the farmyard, rusting or rotting away and covered in chicken poo. I’m convinced that there’s a small fortune to be made from salvaging these relics.
The copse, known as Priests Park Woods, led us to the edge of a village and some modern looking houses. We threaded our way through a series of back alleys and garages before emerging onto the main street where, to my surprise, I found myself standing before the Orange Tree pub.
“Oh – right. I didn’t realise this was Chadwick End,” I said to Colin, subjecting him to yet another of my ‘been here before’ revelations. “You’ve walked through this place with me in the past.”
I’m not sure he remembered.
We crossed the main road, doing the Heart Of England Way fly-by, and onto a trio of grassy uneven fields where blinkered horses, alert to our presence but unable to see us, stood with ears twitching nervously. I was more than familiar with the set of buildings we arrived at next, having walked through the complex of stables and outbuildings many times over the years. It’s one of those places where you just get the feeling that walkers are not welcome, despite a major long distance path running straight through the place.
HEW Day5 Pic 1

Mark at Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire

On the rare occasions I have encountered people working around the stables I have never had a ‘hello’ or even a smile but rather a practised indifference where I was invisible and could therefore be ignored. I have also, on occasion, met the noisy and disproportionately aggressive Jack Russell that acts as self-appointed guard dog for the place and so I kept an eye out for him. However neither canine nor human was in evidence and we crossed the courtyard, passing between two properties of vastly different fortune. I refer to them as Crumble Cottage and Toff Towers, the former being a dilapidated red brick cottage that must have been a picture in its hey-day but is now uninhabited and almost beyond recovery. Crumble Cottage stands in the shadow of Toff Towers, a mansion-like property, complete with private access via a stone bridge and a landscaped pool as a front garden. The contrast between the two properties couldn’t be more marked and I always wonder how this strange little juxtaposition came about. Did the owners of the grand house once live in the cottage and simply moved out when their fortunes improved? Did they oust the owner of the cottage after a long and bitter feud over property rights and have left the cottage as a monument to their victory? I’ll never know, but the poor old cottage looks sad and forgotten and it would be nice to think that one day it could be restored and loved again.
We emerged onto a lane next to a convent (where I have yet to see a real live nun) and then along a road that would have led us to Hay Wood had Colin not spotted a marker post telling us to divert right and onto more fields. At the end of a meadow we went through a gate and onto the drive of Baddesley Clinton, a manor house founded sometime in the 13th century and a National trust property. Retired couples were very much in evidence, coachloads of them being disgorged to wander off towards the house in the near distance. Our route took us away from the crowds, alongside the eastern edge of the property where we could make out its upper floor and chimneys above the boundary wall.
I have visited both Baddesley Clinton and its near neighbour Packwood House (also owned by the National Trust) and I related to Colin the changing fortunes of the two wealthy families that owned the properties. Both houses were prominent in the area through the Tudor period, having similar wealth and influence, but it was religion that divided them and in the end this led to the decline of Baddesley Clinton manor. The owners of Packwood House were Protestant, and therefore very much in favour with the Tudor monarchy, whereas the family of Baddesley Clinton were staunchly Catholic. It was a dangerous time to adhere to the Catholic church and like many other powerful families that professed to being papists, Baddesley Clinton incurred the displeasure of the crown and saw much of its fortune and power eroded away. However, the owners of Baddesley Clinton were nothing if not steadfast and they somehow managed to survive these turbulent times, hiding persecuted Catholic clergy in several purpose built Priest-holes (which can still be seen today) and keeping as low a profile as possible. In order to keep themselves solvent the owners of Baddesley Clinton sold off many valuable items of furniture, many of which found their way to Packwood House (no doubt much to the smug satisfaction of its protestant owners). To its credit, Baddesley Clinton manor endured, though much diminished, and ownership passed down the centuries via several families before being gifted to the National Trust in 1983.

The Stratford canal with the narrow boaters ….

History lesson concluded, we left the grounds of Baddesley Clinton and crossed a few more fields before reaching the village of Lapworth alongside the Navigation Inn. Once more the Heart Of England Way dipped in and then out of the place without ever really troubling it with our presence and we joined the Grand Union canal via a bridge, walking along the tow-path for a few hundred meters until we reached Kingswood Junction where the Grand Union and the Stratford-on-Avon canals meet.
We turned right here, onto the Stratford-on-Avon canal which we would follow for a few miles. I had never walked on this canal before and in fact hadn’t anticipated any more canal walking after leaving the Birmingham-Fazeley canal at Kingsbury so this was a welcome surprise. Colin spied a toilet block ahead of us, part of the small marina where the two canals merged, and for a few moments he looked a relieved man. He confessed that he had another ‘urgent need for a sit down’ as per day two and this looked like the answer to his prayers. However the toilet block was locked and Colin was forced to continue walking, looking a little crestfallen at the prospect.
The weather had been steadily improving throughout the morning and now, as we started along the tree-lined tow-path, the sun broke out and any thoughts of tired feet or toilet breaks were set aside. The Stratford-on-Avon canal isn’t a busy waterway, and never really fulfilled its original purpose, being one of the later canals to be excavated and swiftly falling victim to the emerging dominance of the railways. It’s a 25 mile long cutting linking Birmingham (at Kings Norton) to the river Avon at Stratford-on-Avon and was originally designed as a coal transportation system that would circumvent the Birmingham Canal network, the owners of which were by all accounts becoming difficult to work with. It had a brief career on completion in the early nineteenth century before being purchased by its greatest threat, a railway company, who immediately closed it and left it to fall into decline.
HEW Day5 Pic 2

The Stratford-upon-Avon canal, Warwickshire

This process continued until the late 20th century where, during the fifties it narrowly avoided being filled in. Thanks to the efforts of conservationists the canal was restored and opened to public access by the Queen Mother in the 1980’s and it has remained a valuable public amenity ever since, giving access to narrow boaters, fishermen, cyclists, and of course walkers.
We passed a few canal-side properties, presumably restored along with the canal, whose curving roofs and whitewashed walls gave them a pleasingly unique character. Probably built as cottages for lock-keepers they now provided a unique living experience for those who love canals. One such property was for sale and I toyed with the idea of enquiring as to its price, just out of curiosity, but common sense made me walk on. A narrow-boat putted alongside us as we walked, the need to stop and negotiate the occasional lock system slowing them down to little more than our walking space. They were a youngish couple and the woman seemed to be the chief lock operator. Eventually Colin stopped to have a chat with them, telling them he had always fancied a go at a canal boat holiday. The couple couldn’t recommend it enough, pointing out that it was the ultimate de-stressing experience as everything had to slow down on a canal – there was no such thing as ‘urgency’. Their boat was owned by the parents of the lady so she was an experienced canal navigator whereas her partner was relatively new to the lifestyle but was no less evangelical about it. I confessed that the operating of locks would worry me but she just laughed and assured me that everyone helped each other out on the canals. It really did look like an idyllic way to spend a week or two. As we spoke a white goose appeared on the spar of a lock, posing self-importantly for us, eliciting a series of photographs to be taken.
We carried on for a short while, reaching a convenient bench where we decided to stop for lunch. Colin shed his boots and socks and I retrieved a bag of crisps from my rucksack, squeezing it to burst open the top but instead having the bag pop at the bottom, depositing crisps all over my lap. Behind us, beyond a sloping embankment, a substantial garden ran alongside the canal at the bottom end of which stood a cola vending machine, presumably not plugged in. We had a pleasant rest enjoying the intermittent spells of sunshine and shade, with huge fluffy clouds sailing overhead and tried to work out how far through this extra-long walk we were. We estimated that we were about halfway through the day, with a visit to Henley-in-Arden and a climb to Bannam’s Wood at Morton Bagot still to look forward to.
With this in mind we packed up and continued down the tow-path, walking under a great concrete bridge carrying the M40 over the cutting, and finally leaving this pleasant little stretch of the canal at the village of Lowsonford. We touched the southern extremities of this village, walking along and then up Mill lane where we paused to admire a little house perched on the top of the rise before clambering over a stile into fields .

Henley-in-Arden with the ad hoc canine ….

There followed another prolonged episode of field walking which was enjoyable as an experience but offers the blogger little scope in terms of creative writing. We did at one point enter a small woodland called Bush Wood where we followed a needle-strewn path that dipped down under the silent boughs of pines, walking along for a short while in a sombre twilight, before the path rose again and led us back out into the sunshine. After several more paddocks and meadows we started to follow a scrubby path over rougher ground which finally opened up to reveal that we were on a high ridge of grassland looking down on the rooftops of Henley-in-Arden. It was an unexpected but undeniably impressive vista and we paused to commit it to various digital media. The thing that puzzled me, as I stood looking down onto Henley’s high street, is how we had managed to reach such a high vantage point without having to do any significant climbing. Beyond Henley-in-Arden the gentle Warwickshire countryside flowed away into the blue yonder. Colin was reading the guidebook:
“It says here that we are looking south-westwards towards distant Bannam’s Wood, which is set atop a hill.”
Sure enough we made out the dim smudge of woodland on the horizon.
“Isn’t our car just before that hill?” Colin asked.
I had to be honest. “It’s the other side of the hill actually.”
It looked quite a way off and somehow the guidebooks use of the word ‘distant’ to highlight Bannam’s Wood location made it sound even further.
HEW Day5 Pic 3

Mark at Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire

Nevertheless that was our destination and so we began to pick our way carefully along the rough grassy track that followed the switchback of the ridge, plunging sharply up and down, before one last descent to the gates of a church and short hop along Beaudesert Lane to Henley-in-Arden high street.
Henley is one of those places that I always seem to drive through without ever stopping to visit the place. This is a shame really as it has an interesting mix of buildings along a high street, which is an official conservation area. First appearing in official records during the 12th century (it isn’t registered in the Domesday Book) it seems to have flourished as a centre for various trades during its history, as well as being ‘re-modelled’ by various armies along the way. It is one of those towns where half-timbered Jacobean taverns lean against smart Georgian shop-fronts. Famous locally for ice-cream production it also had the dubious distinction of playing host to a number of private lunatic asylums in times gone by.
It was the school-run hour, so the roads were busy with people carriers, and the pavements thronging with pupils exiting the towns schools. Once again the Heart Of England Way played an in-and-out game and we soon found ourselves walking out of Henley via its railway station. A noisy group of students were playing an impromptu game of cricket on the stations platform as we crossed a wooden bridge over the rails and out onto a wide meadow. We hadn’t had a lot of grief from the guidebook for a while but it now demonstrated a fine degree of ambiguity which had us scratching our heads for a while. In the end (and as usual) the route forward was pretty obvious, obscured only by the vague ramblings of the guidebooks author.
We headed towards a huge tree lying on its side at the bottom end of the meadow and then over a small brook via a strange v-shaped bride of concrete and tubular steel, leaving Henley behind us and making out across a series of fields that would take us to Bannam’s wood. We picked up an additional walking companion on one of these meadows when a friendly little dog capered up to us and demanded to be fussed. We obliged happily enough but then she decided that she was going to accompany us and ran alongside as we made off across a second wide meadow. After a while this began to cause us some concern about how the little dog might find her way back home. There had been a man mending fences at the top end of a field when the dog had discovered us so we assumed that he was the owner and that she was on familiar territory, but we couldn’t be certain. Our new friend completely ignored our requests to ‘Shoo’ ‘Go home’ and ‘Bugger off’ and enthusiastically led the way towards the end of the meadow where a stile was set in a hedge. We reached the hedge and clambered through the stile where, to our relief, the cheerful little dog gave up the game and stared at us through the gap in the hedge as we disappeared from view.

Bannam’s Wood with the memorials and the detours …..

Now we could clearly make out the fringe of Bannam’s Wood atop its hillside and it grew steadily closer as we threaded our way across farmland, following lines of hedgerows and taking a series of stiles to finally stand at the bottom of the steep grassy field that would lead us into the trees. We paused for a drink before tackling the incline and noticed as we did so that the sun had disappeared and low cloud had rolled in, bringing with it a lively breeze that tousled the treetops and sighed through the long grass; a precursor, perhaps, of tomorrows dour weather. We plodded steadily up the hill, on legs that were beginning to get a little weary, and slumped gracefully at its summit, looking back along the long walk we had taken, the location of Henley-in-Arden already mere guesswork on the horizon.
We entered Bannam’s Wood as the late afternoon wore on, following a series of little tracks around and beneath the branches of old trees. Bannam’s Wood is classed as ancient woodland, meaning that it has existed continually since 1600 or before, and it had a lonely hushed feeling about it. Tree branches seemed to deliberately snag at us, and tree roots did their best to trip us up; it was as if the old trees resented our presence and were making their feelings felt. Nonetheless it was a very pretty piece of woodland, profuse with wild-flowers and birdsong,
HEW Day5 Pic 4

Colin in Bannam's Wood, Warwickshire

and with terrific views across rural Warwickshire seen through breaks in the trees. We reached a bench sited at one such viewpoint, the seat was dedicated to the memory of a woman who had obviously loved this woodland and, whilst I can’t remember the words on the engraved plaque fixed to the bench, I do recall that they were both sad and uplifting - dedicated to someone who was obviously much loved.
It was after this bench that things went a little awry and we somehow took a wrong turn (the guidebook being next door to useless at this point). It took us a while to realise our error and in the end we forged our way around the perimeter of the wood using our GPS as a guide, swishing through swathes of pungent Ramsom and stumbling over fallen branches. It was trackless wandering and I found it hard work, wondering if we might find ourselves still crashing through the undergrowth as night fell. Even as I posed this unlikely scenario to myself we popped out on a well beaten track and the welcome sight of a way-marker. The path finally led us out of Bannam’s wood and onto a tiny country lane where we stopped to assess our progress. In truth we had little idea of where we were any more and we assumed, pessimistically, that we might have a mile or two to cover before the day was done. We reconciled ourselves with this prospect and set off along the lane rounding a corner to be confronted by a cottage with a wheelie-bin parked at its entrance. With great relief I made out the words ‘Morton Bagot’ painted crudely on its side. Never have I been so pleased to see a bin.
“We’re done,” I said to Colin with a grin. “I recognise this place now and your car is around the next bend!”
So it proved to be, and we climbed gratefully into Colin’s car and made our way back to Balsall Common, weaving our way across country and letting the GPS find all the tiny little back-lanes. By the time we arrived home the wind had indeed picked up and before we settled down to dinner and a few beers we were obliged to strip the cover of our polytunnel and store its contents in the garden shed. The wind grew during the evening and we retired for the night not knowing what the next day would deliver for us, but believing with a certainty that sunshine wouldn’t figure much.

Sheldon take-away treat: A subway.

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