The Heart Of England Way - Day Six

The Heart Of England Way
By Mark Walford
Day Six

Route: Morton Bagot to Bidford-On-Avon
Date: Thursday May 9th 2013
Distance: 12.8m (20.6km)
Elevation: 495ft (151m) to 112ft (34m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 794ft (242m) and 928ft (283m)

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Forecast is forewarned ….

As predicted the day dawned under a grey blanket of cloud and a lively wind was gusting, dropping the temperature noticeably and doing nothing to entice us away from our breakfast. It wasn’t hideous walking weather but it was a far cry from the warm sunny weekend we had enjoyed. Our decision to make the previous day longer and therefore spend less time walking today seemed to have been a sound one.

To Alcester with the millionaire’s oaks and the wind ….

We drove across Warwickshire to the tiny hamlet of Morton Bagot, via Bidford-On-Avon, and set off once more, experiencing a climb almost immediately as we headed first up a lane and then a narrow twisting little track ascending through woodland. We broke out of the trees into a pasture where, for the first time during the week, we were obliged to cross a field full of cattle. I have written before about my cautious relationship with the Bovine and I knew that as we moved south into Gloucestershire we would be seeing more of them. Colin isn’t a great fan of the big lumbering beasts either so we kept an eye on them as we crossed their turf.
We reached a small patch of woodland just as the sun broke through the lowering clouds, doing little to improve the temperature but at least making everything look a little more cheerful. Colin had donned his Worlds-Worst-Ninja hat to keep the cold wind away from his ears but then announced that it was making his head uncomfortably warm; a dilemma he was forced to live with throughout the days walking as the chilly blustering wind was a constant and unwelcome companion.
For the next hour or so we followed bridleways that threaded between fields and plantations of saplings, there was an information board alongside each tree nursery with the same face etched above the blurb. We learned that one Felix Dennis, a rags-to-riches multi-millionaire,
HEW Day6 Pic 1

Some shelter from the wind, a wood near Morton Bagot, Warwickshire

was busily spending some of his vast wealth planting around 20,000 acres of broadleaved woodland across south Warwickshire. This highly commendable project was, apparently, something very close to his heart and I suppose it’s one of the better ways of leaving a legacy behind you for generations to come. Mr. Dennis seems to be quite a character; born into poverty, making his fortune in publishing (which also landed him in prison for publishing obscene material in Oz magazine), a poet, humanitarian, and philanthropist. Considering the fact that he is one of the UK’s richest men I’d never heard of him until today but it’s nice to know that there are still people around who hold onto their values despite amassing a fortune. It’s quite an altruistic project he’s launched because of course he will never live to see his forests mature: A hundred years from now walkers will cross this section of the Heart Of England way under the leafy boughs of oak and chestnut - on the downside, what those walkers of the future will lose are the open views into Gloucestershire which Colin and I enjoyed.
We reached a farmhouse set on the crest of a high hill and paused for a moment to admire the Cotswold escarpment, with its green-grey hills rolling southwards into the distance. By tomorrow we would be in amongst them and would be on the final leg of the trek. We had been partially sheltered from the wind as we followed the bridleways, hemmed in by ancient hedgerows, but on this exposed spot we faced it head on. I tried to take some video of this viewpoint but any dialogue I delivered was drowned out by the buffeting breeze (and maybe that’s no bad thing – as anyone who has been subjected to my Naff Commentary on previous walks would testify).
We descended from the farmhouse and its lofty (but exposed) position and reached a road which we followed for a while before striking off across more fields. Colin had picked out an object in the distance and pointed it out to me, trying to determine its purpose. It was a tall structure, poking up above the tree-line and seemingly at odds with its environment and to me it looked like the sort of ATC tower seen at airports – though this seemed an unlikely explanation. It grew steadily larger as we crossed a series of fields and reached the outskirts of the town of Alcester.

Alcester with the chafing and the wind ….

I'd never been to Alcester and I’d always assumed it was one of the many quasi-industrial towns that are scattered across this part of the world, born out of the industrial revolution, or built on the back of the canal networks. The outlying houses of Alcester seemed to confirm this, being built of red brick and of Victorian vintage. It was only a short walk into the centre of the town and here I had my assumptions proved wrong as we rounded a corner onto its high street. The old heart of Alcester is awash with half-timbered buildings that pre-date the industrial revolution by several centuries. It was a most pleasant surprise to find ourselves walking beneath the sagging eaves of Tudor shops and houses, their black timbers and whitewashed walls only marginally spoiled by the rows of parked cars crowding the street. A plaque on an ancient brick wall told us that we were standing before Alcester’s oldest surviving property – Cruck House built in 1385. As we admired this pretty place a local approached us, obviously proud of her home town, and pointed out the best places to visit – the church and the narrow Malt Mill Lane.
HEW Day6 Pic 2

A farm set high on a hill in Warwickshire

We thanked her for her advice and continued to wander down the high street following the markers for the Heart Of England Way which, by happy coincidence, would take us to both of the places she had recommended. Alcester’s St. Nicholas church is a stolid granite building dating from the late 18th century (although there has been a church of some sort on the site since the 1100’s) and we sheltered for a while in its shadow noting the peculiar siting of its clock on an angle of its tower rather than a face – presumably so that it can be read from the high street. Alcester is of Roman origin (a clue being found in the ‘cester’ part of its name) and was strategically important enough for them to warrant building a walled city and a fort. In the intervening centuries it has thrived as a market town and the site of a Benedictine monastery and today hosts a number of light engineering companies. It’s one of those places that has somehow managed to retain its character despite its fluctuating fortunes throughout history. We left the church and passed by the shop-fronts of the high street where, at a charity shop, I was momentarily tempted to buy some suitcases before common sense told me that walking the remainder of the day hauling them along would not have been the wisest decision.
The Heart Of England Way took us into Malt Mill Lane, a narrow little street where the eaves of the old houses almost touch each other overhead and where time seemed to have stood still. I kept my video rolling as we ambled down this hidden gem, saying nothing but trying to capture the atmosphere, spoilt slightly by the appearance of a man from one of the cottages who was obviously having a bad day and scowled at the camera as he passed by. The lane opened out into a courtyard facing a small park where an information board detailed Alcester’s Achilles Heel – flooding. Flanked by the rivers Arrow and Alne the town has been subjected to a series of damaging floods in recent years, the most serious being in 2007. With the current shift in climate it seems likely that these events may become ever more frequent and according to the notice board there seems little that can be done in the way of flood defences.
The guide book usually failed to give coherent directions when trying to escape anything larger than a village and it didn’t disappoint us at Alcester. We worked our way out of the place through a series of residential streets using the guide book sparingly and relying instead on the GPS and our maps. Alcester was left behind as we crossed a bridge over the busy A46 and passed through a small thicket of trees to turn onto a farm track. Ahead of us was the tall structure we had seen from a distance earlier in the day and it turned out to be two giant grain silos adjacent to a farmhouse (so not after all an air traffic control tower, although that would have been more exciting). As we reached them I was forced to stop and attend to a little chafing problem that I had been nurturing for a few days. The lower part of my back had been rubbed raw by a combination of my rucksack and good honest sweat and now it felt fiery and tender. Past experience has taught me to carry a jar of Sudocreme – what’s good for nappy rash is good for chafing – and I applied a liberal dollop of the stuff to the sore bits, feeling instant relief. Colin had also developed a case of chafing but not in the sort of area where he could apply Sudocreme in public.

Wixford with the beer and the wind …

We continued along the farm track for a couple of miles, along the most exposed part of the route and therefore subject to the buffeting wind which made the day feel more like March than May. We hunched up against the cold wind and trudged along the track as quickly as we could, heading for a distant line of trees and relative shelter. Despite the inclement weather it was a pretty section of the walk, huge fields of Rapeseed flourished on either side of the track – countering the dull greyness of the day with vivid swathes of lemon yellow. The track took us to the little hamlet of Wixford which amounted to little more than an old church, a jumble of farm buildings and around a corner an untidy row of caravans sited on the edge of a meadow before the River Arrow.
HEW Day6 Pic 3

Malt Mill Lane, Alcester, Warwickshire

They had seen better days and didn’t do a lot to promote the leisure industry. As we passed them by it began to rain; a light spaffling rain that wasn’t persistent enough to force us into wet weather gear but was wet enough to dampen our spirits.
The best thing for flagging spirits (in my humble opinion) is a decent pub and, as we left the last of the caravans behind, we found ourselves standing before the Fish Inn at Wixford. It was a short days walking, and we nearing its end, so it seemed rude to pass the place by without sampling its beer. As we sat with our pints the weather outside took a turn for the worse and, by the time we left, the rain had notched up a gear. We pulled on waterproofs, muttering about how the British weather can change so much in just a few days, and crossed a bridge over the river before setting off along a series of paddocks where feisty young horses capered about, rearing up at each other and rolling in the grass, oblivious to the rain.
We walked into the village of Broom, a place of upmarket cottages and a handsome timbered pub, exiting via a small playing field before reaching the final road that would lead us into Bidford-On-Avon.

Bidford-On-Avon with the anti-climax and the wind ….

Just as I had a misconception about what Alcester would look like I had a similar impression about Bidford that never quite lived up to expectations. I suppose it’s the name – Bidford-On-Avon sounds so twee that I conjured up a picture of a small village\town of limestone cottages arrayed along the banks of the River Avon with weeping willows and perhaps a few cows wandering about. In reality Bidford-On-Avon is a sizeable town and any quaintness it once possessed has been lost along the way. We walked down a long residential street of modern houses, passing Texaco Garages
HEW Day6 Pic 4

Mark leaving Alcester, Warwickshire

and modern business parks. It wasn’t terribly inspiring, coming as it was at the end of a cold days walking, and if I had expected the centre of Bidford to improve my impression than I was to be disappointed. We arrived at the riverside by passing alongside shop-fronts and businesses with a distinctly 60’s look about them. The old stone bridge spanning the river was nice enough, and there were some fine looking riverside restaurants lining the banks but somehow Bidford-On-Avon failed to fulfil its promise for me, which is no fault at all of the place (I’m sure it’s a great town to live in).
We crossed the bridge and reached our end-point at the park overlooking the river, with the town arrayed on the opposite bank. We were glad to get out of the wind and rain and we had a late lunch in the car, watching the decorative sails attached to a restaurant billow alarmingly, threatening to break free and go sailing over the rooftops. In the park itself some sort of marquee was being erected – resembling the big top of a circus – and I couldn’t help thinking that this was an unfortunate day to try and put up a giant tent. I took some final video of the day, facing the river and complaining about the weather (again). I would stand in the same spot the very next day and take some more video and the two pieces of film would be indistinguishable as the gloomy weather persisted well into Friday – something the weatherman had neglected to warn us about.
Bidford-On-Avon was a landmark of sorts, the point at which we would be leaving the county of Warwickshire behind us and where we would move on into Gloucestershire, the third and final county of the walk. The Cotswolds beckoned.
We were back home by 3:30 - the earliest finish to the entire week.

Sheldon Take-away treat: Fish & Chips (and yes, we were running out of ideas).

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