The Heart Of England Way - Day Four

The Heart Of England Way
By Mark Walford
Day Four

Route: Shustoke to Balsall Common
Date: Tuesday May 7th 2013
Distance: 12.3m (19.8km)
Elevation: 308ft (94m) to 577ft (176m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 751ft (229m) and 728ft (222m)

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The Griffin Inn and a forecast of change …..

Another lovely morning greeted us as we prepared to set off; however breakfast TV was issuing warnings about a turn in the weather, the high pressure was to be replaced by a more unsettled outlook – and a severely windy day forecast for Thursday, which gave us pause for thought. However this morning the sun beamed out of a clear blue sky as we loaded the cars. Bod was leaving us today, driving north back to his home in Southport, and so we said farewell to him and watched him pull away, turning a corner in the street and out of sight, before setting off ourselves towards Balsall Common and the little lane I had chosen to leave our end-point car. We then drove back to the Griffin Inn and parked in its deserted car park, making ready for the walk with the usual fussing about with rucksack straps and application of sun cream (for what was likely to be the last time all week). A silver car, tucked away in a corner, suddenly started up and exited the car park and just for a second I sensed that the driver gave us the once-over before driving off. This prompted me to make sure we informed the staff that we were parked out front - I knew Mick the landlord well enough and I didn’t foresee any objection to this but I felt it was courtesy to check all the same. The Griffin’s door was open and I walked into the gloom of the deserted bar where a staff member was busily clinking and chinking bottles as she re-stocked shelves. She told me that Mick had just left (so it was he in the silver car) but that it was absolutely fine to leave the car parked where it was. That little issue sorted I went back to the car and took video of the Griffin, the weather, and Colin’s contorted form as he went through his hamstring-stretching exercises. I lamented the imminent end to the sunny weather we had enjoyed over the weekend and then we set off back down the lane to the first of the Heart Of England way marker posts.

The fields of Shustoke with the woodland and the obstacles …..

After just a few fields we were leaving the tiny village of Shustoke behind us, making for a small wood called Dumble Wood, passing through its northern edge via a sunken and secluded little dell where a brook chattered through the greenery and an old tree, keeled over many years before, formed a natural bridge for the wildlife. It was a charming little spot on such a morning, with bluebells growing in profusion along the banks of the brook along with a large swathe of Ramsom (or wild garlic) – its heady aroma held close by the tree canopy and hanging heavy in the air. I gave Colin a piece of it to try; it has a pleasing garlicky tang overlaid with a sweet peppery bite. It’s especially good in salads but I also know that too much of it results in, as Yorkshire farmers would have it, scouring of the bowels.
We followed the edge of Dumble Wood and then a short section of Shawbury Lane before entering the second huge field of the week. This one was, if anything, bigger than the field we had crossed after Kingsbury, but unlike that great plain of ploughed earth this was an emerald sea of grass, disappearing towards distant Shawbury Wood. We slowly made our way across this savannah, toiling slightly in the warm sun and rising gently towards a distant stile on the horizon where we paused to have a rest and a drink.
Our vantage point gave us an unrestricted view back towards Kingsbury and beyond, and we peered at the shimmering horizon
HEW Day4 Pic 1

A secluded dell near Shustoke, Warwickshire

trying to make out our good old friend the Lichfield transmitter standing somewhere in the direction of north. Colin eventually made out the merest hint of it on the very edge of his vision, and then located it with his binoculars (even with this aid the mast was still just a faint scratch against the sky). For one final time it acted as a marker – a reference point indicating where we had walked from and just how far we had travelled. It looked an awful long way off but, as Colin pointed out, it was only half of the actual distance we had covered since Milford Common and we were yet to cross the halfway point of the walk in total. Our efforts placed into perspective, we turned our backs to the transmitter and continued along the Heart Of England Way, marking off another few miles as we crossed fields near to Colliers Oak Farm and then the rather excitingly named Solomon’s Temple Farm.
There was no temple to be seen as we crossed through the farmyard, observed lazily by cows contained in pens, and we prepared to exit the farm via a little path between a large barn and rusting machinery, however there was a slight problem in that a heifer had escaped her pen and was munching contentedly on the luscious grass growing amidst the junked apparatus. She rolled one eye at us as we appeared but was in no hurry whatsoever to move aside, and frankly there wasn’t a lot of room to squeeze past her. Colin made a half-hearted attempt to do so but she shuffled about clumsily and gave us a slow calculating look. We hesitated, facing an unwelcome risk of being squashed between the cow and the rusting machinery. In the end we erred on the side of caution and clambered over said rusting machinery, a few hay bales, and a barbed wire fence to make good our escape. Ermintrude continued her leisurely grazing, paying us not a second thought.

The pathways to Meriden with the cityscapes and the reticence of strangers …..

We passed through a place called Green End and yes, we sniggered childishly, before the unsurprising challenge of more field walking. What was a surprise though was the sudden appearance of the M6 motorway, over which we were obliged to cross via a footbridge. The traffic roared beneath us as we looked straight down the metalled highway to where, on the horizon, the familiar cityscape of Birmingham reared its towers. Once again we were taken aback by our relative geography, believing that Birmingham was far away and beyond sight whereas in fact, as the crow might fly, the city centre was plainly no more than seven or eight miles distant. It was an interesting interlude but we were glad to leave the noisy ribbon of urbanisation behind us, descending into sunny meadows and letting the incessant whoosh of the motorway traffic recede into the distance.
As the comforting peace of the countryside enveloped us once more we made our way along a field in a pleasant valley, with the green walls of Birchley Hays and Meighs Wood flanking us on each side. I wondered idly, as I ambled along, how these little stands of woodland got their names - in all probability they were named after the local farm\farmers who originally founded them. Switching on the camcorder I asked Colin if he was enjoying the walk to which he replied that indeed he was, helped by the lovely weather. He mused that perhaps, with so much field walking, it would have been more of a head-down plod if it were a rainy day, and I suggested that, given the forecast, that might well be our experience over the next few days.
“Well,” concluded Colin. “You'll see me tomorrow what I would have been like today.”
I laughed and looked up at the blue heavens, finding it hard to believe that things would be changing so markedly before the next day’s walking would begin.
It was as we turned onto Harvest Hill Lane that I had another déjà vu moment as we passed a red brick cottage with an unusual stone wall set out front. Memories kicked in.
HEW Day4 Pic 2

Meriden Shafts wood, Warwickshire

“I know this place,” I exclaimed. “This is part of one of my local walks.”
Colin made a non-committal sound as by now I think he had grown tired of my saying this whenever a familiar section appeared around a corner. However it was indeed ground that I had trodden before and soon we were under the cool eaves of Meriden Shafts Wood, particularly pretty woodland that descends gently towards the village of Meriden. In 2006, after completing the West Highland Way, I had taken this walk and used the walking pole that had been part of my kit throughout that long trek through the Highlands. I was ascending, rather than descending, Meriden Shafts Wood that morning and around halfway up the winding track my walking pole buckled and broke. I threw it away in disgust, something I instantly regretted as I deplore litter, but it had completely disappeared into the thick brambles covering the ground beneath the trees and I never saw it again. I wondered, as I wound down through the trees, if it still lay there beneath the brambles, six summers and seven winters on, and how long it might continue to lie undisturbed – decades possibly. I cast an eye about just in case by some miracle I would catch a sight of it and retrieve it, but of course I didn’t.
Here again, bluebells flourished in the dappled shade of the young oaks and birches and planes, and as we reached the bottom of the hillside we found a conveniently placed bench on which to rest for lunch. For the first time on this walk I felt tender spots on my feet and decided some ad hoc Foot Therapy was in order. I bared my toes to the cool breeze, emulating Colin’s lunchtime habit. Perversely this time he kept his own boots on and shuffled away to sit on the floor but not, I’m sure, because of the proximity of my naked feet. I applied talc and plasters to the tender spots and Colin ate his sandwiches, scanning the trees for the local birdlife.
After a pleasant 30 minutes we shouldered packs and started off, leaving the woodland via a gate which I held open for a guy who was behind us on the trail. He was a slightly built man of middle years and bobbed his head in thanks as he reached the gate. He was going the same way us so it seemed polite to engage him in small talk. He replied readily enough, telling us that he had taken early retirement in order to do more walking and that he was on a local circular loop of some 12 miles, but he did so in halting sentences and in a soft voice. He rarely made eye contact and seemed relieved when our ways parted at the hamlet of Eaves Green. I guessed that he was a naturally introverted person and found the company of strangers a bit of a challenge.

The pathways to Berkswell with the quaintness and the blasphemy …..

We followed a lane out of Eaves Green, passing a retired couple tending their neat front garden who seemed the very picture of contentment, to the high street at Meriden, a place I know well as I used to use the Queens Head pub in years gone by. Meriden traditionally boasts that it is the very centre of England, and backs the claim up with a Grade II listed sandstone pillar-shaped monument which stands in the village green. Much to the chagrin of the villagers, in 2002, the Ordnance Survey defined the Geographical Centre of England to be on Lindley Hall Farm, approximately 18 kilometres (11 mi) north at Fenny Drayton, Leicestershire. Nevertheless, we were truly in the heart of England at this point and I was sorely tempted to celebrate this fact at the Queens Head, which was open for business as we marched past. Colin seemed more intent on a local information board describing the Heart Of England Way so the opportunity for a lunchtime beer swiftly passed (incidentally, a little research has since informed me that there is a city in Connecticut, USA called Meriden which is named after the village). In the by-now familiar Heart Of England Way manner, we passed through and out of this village in next to no time, via a flight of steps and alongside the charming St. Lawrence church (reputedly founded by Lady Godiva ) passing the imposing Elizabethan-esque Moat House Farm and a few scattered cottages before heading out across fields once more.
Somewhere along this series of fields we crossed a small B-Road and a sign for the Metropolitan Borough Of Solihull to whom I pay my council tax and therefore owe my allegiance.
HEW Day4 Pic 3

St. Lawrence Church, Meriden, Warwickshire

At no point on this walk would I be closer to home and yet once again I was pleasantly surprised by how incredibly rural and pleasant my neighbourhood could be. This fact was nicely demonstrated by Berkswell, the next village we walked into. A place of quietude and pretty cottages, a village green complete with medieval stocks (it is claimed that these were especially built for a one-legged ex-soldier and his two drinking companions as there are only five leg holes), a restored windmill, and of course an old Church. The church of St. John the Baptist is a late-12th century Norman building and boasts a fine timbered construction protecting its entrance. On video I strove to find the right architectural term for this - portico - ? But the internet merely describes it as a two-story porch. Which I suppose is exactly right.
A conversation took place between Colin and I …
Colin (trying to take a photograph): “I can’t get it all in.”
Me: “Said the actress to the bishop.”
Colin (laughs):
Me: “I shouldn’t say things like that in a churchyard.”
Colin: “Why?”
Me: “It’s blasphemous.”
Colin (doubtfully): “Is it?”
Me: “I dunno. It would be, if I were religious.”
Colin: “Are you?”
Me: “No.”
Colin: “Precisely…”
As we concluded this nonsense a woman, dressed in hiking garb approached us with the ever-dependable conversational opener about the weather being so lovely. She fell into brief conversation with us and turned out to be the only other walker of the Heart Of England Way we were to see all week. She was walking it south to north, the opposite way to us, and was mapping along the route via a series of circular walks which she reckoned would take her the best part of ten days to complete. “All walkers are the nicest people!” she declared as she wandered off to find her companions. I can’t argue with that one ….
Dealing Berkswell a glancing blow, the Heart Of England Way swiftly took us back out across a wide marshy meadow which we traversed across a long raised wooden walkway. We assumed that in the winter this meadow became a lake, and therefore the walkway was the only way to get across it, but on a fine day like today and with acres of lush grass on either side it looked oddly over-engineered and out of place.

The wrong road to Balsall Common with the consequences …..

I knew that the next stop would be Balsall Common and therefore the end of the days walking. I had always found Balsall Common to be an odd sort of place, being too big for a village and too small for a town – a townage if you will. It has little in the way of quaintness or antiquity about it, being largely the product of the 20th century, and only really grew to its present size after the Second World War. It’s unlikely to grow much more however as this would mean developing on the much-protected Meriden Gap (the green belt between Birmingham and Coventry). Of its 7,000 inhabitants little can be said other than, at various times, the population has included footballers Trevor Francis and Peter Shilton. It has a lot of very expensive real estate but, to my mind, less character than many of the places we had already visited on the route, but of course that is just my humble opinion.
Sure enough after just a few more fields we crossed the busy dual carriageway of the A452 and into the outskirts of the place. I was by now looking forward to reaching Colin’s car for a bit of a sit down and I expected to see it ahead of us at some point, since I had chosen the parking spot based on Google Maps and where the Heart Of England Way seemed to run. But as we walked further along a tree-lined country lane I began to feel disquiet. The main body of the townage was away to our left, along with the car,
HEW Day4 Pic 4

St. John the Baptist Church, Berskwell, Solihull

and it seemed to be getting further away after a while, instead of closer. Finally we reached a stile by a pond that looked out onto meadows, trees, and a distinct lack of Balsall Common. I called a halt and consulted the GPS. My heart sank a little.
“We’ll have to leave the route here,” I informed a patient Colin. “For some reason I thought the Heart Of England Way ran through Balsall Common, but it doesn’t and the car is parked some distance away.”
In truth I had only the vaguest idea of where the car actually was in Balsall Common but I decided to keep that one quiet unless it became necessary. And so began an unscheduled march back into the main village and down its long main road, adding at least a mile of tarmac walking, which isn’t the best surface for tired feet. My opinion of Balsall Common wasn’t improved by this unwelcome visit and I don’t suppose Colin will be booking any holidays there either. All in all I think we gave Balsall Common an undeserved rotten tomato.
Let’s redress the situation: Go and visit Balsall Common! Home of the … er .... famous for …. umm.
Well; it has a nice garden centre.
After what seemed like an age I recognised a side road that we had emerged from in the morning and we turned right for yet another long tramp past neat modern houses, barking dogs, and well-tended front lawns. Another right turn and – at last- we saw Colin’s car ahead of us. We harboured a faint hope that we would find the Griffin Inn open when we returned to Shustoke and my car, but it was business as usual in terms of pub hours and the place was firmly shut. Good old Mick and his traditional ways. It would have to be beers and wine at chez Walford again.

Sheldon Take-away treat: A Chinese curry

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