The Millennium Way - Day Five

The Millennium Way
By Mark Walford
Day Five

Route:Meriden to Packwood House
Date: Sunday September 7th 2014
Distance: 12.5m (20.2km)
Elevation: 302ft (92m) to 479ft (146m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 686ft (209m) and 679ft (207m)

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Rumination and procrastination ...

I sat on a bench surrounded by the leafy tranquillity of St. Laurence Church, Meriden, and watched the morning sun slanting through the boughs of the oaks and ash that protected the little churchyard and its ancient headstones. I mused on how my timetable was, to say the least, a little askew, given that it had always been my target to complete this walk by the end of September. It was now mid-September and my progress had stalled since the beginning of August. I was still barely halfway through the route and already the summer was waning; the first tinges of autumn were blushing on the leaves of the trees and there was a distinct nip in the early morning air. Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans, as John Lennon once said, and that applies to long distance walkers as much as it does to rock stars. Pleasurable events like holidays, and family gatherings, and a good slice of indolence on my part, had taken me through August and beyond and now I had to concede that by the time I reached Pershore some fifty miles distant it would be deepest autumn and winter would be hot on my heels, or perhaps more accurately cold on my heels. This was no bad thing of course, as walking in the autumn and winter has its virtues, but I didn’t relish the ploughed lumpy fields of cloying mud that the latter part of the year would present to me. With revised plans comes revised targets and now I wanted to reach the end of the trail by late October and sitting on a quiet bench in Meriden was doing nothing to meet this aspiration. On legs that were fresh from a month’s resting I sauntered down the little lane alongside the church just as its bell chimed the hour of nine o’clock.

Memorials in Middle England ...

Soon I had left the lane and struck out across high grassy meadows with the rooftops of the village below me and a fine view across flat lands towards the horizon, where the towers of the city of Birmingham shimmered in a hazy distance. I met a lady walking her Jack Russell terrier, a little dog who believed I was trespassing on her territory and wasted no time in telling me so. I walked for a while with them, and chatted about the route I was taking which she found very interesting, having never heard of the Millennium Way We discussed where I’d started from and where I would end up and she winced at the mileage I was intending to cover that day, although to be honest it was moderate compared to some previous routes. Leaving her I continued down towards a lower meadow where black cows grazed the long grass. As I rounded a gap in a hedge I saw another dog walker, a tattooed young man who was busy on his mobile phone as a bulky Staffy nosed about in the grass. Suddenly the dog became aware of me and it stiffened, staring at me in just the way you don’t want to be stared at by a brindled slab of muscle with a powerful bite. I knew it meant trouble so I stopped in my tracks and waited for the inevitable. Sure enough the dog began to head towards me, ears raised and eyes fixed on whatever part of me it had decided to chew on. Luckily, at the last minute, the owner saw the situation and lunged at his dog, catching it by the collar. He nodded curtly at me, I nodded curtly back and I moved on, hearing the rasping gargling noises the Staffy made as he pulled against his collar. For a while the pair of them were parallel to me on the other side of a hedgerow and I walked along with my walking pole in hand, shortened in length to provide me with a whacking stick. It was with quite relief when I took a kissing gate into a field and left them behind.
I crossed the field of black cattle with their swishing tails and incurious stares, dropping out onto the village’s main road which in turn led to the village green. Meriden is another of those places that are on my doorstep but seldom visited, I had passed through it many times over the years, knew that there was some connection to cycling, had an idea that it claimed to be the centre of England, and always considered it to be one of those ‘nice places to live if you can afford it’ communities like Kenilworth and Leamington Spa.
Referred to as Alspath in mediaeval times it was re-branded as Meriden a few centuries later, probably due to its geographical location, and has ancient links to Coventry via Lady Godiva who founded the church I had started from earlier in the morning.
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The village green, Meriden

It is home to a couple of thousand people and was for many decades the home of the Triumph motorcycle, production only ceasing in the early eighties. The village green was bordered by a row of shops on one side and roads on another two, making it a large triangular swathe of neatly mown grass. It sported a tall needle of granite which I’d always assumed was the centre of England monument but I soon discovered was a memorial to the cyclists who had given their lives in both World Wars. It had been erected in 1921 and there is now an annual pilgrimage of cyclists who gather at the spot to remember these fallen cyclists, apparently they arrive in their thousands which must be quite a sight. Quite why the history of cycling is so entwined with this village is a mystery to me but the monument is very impressive and draws the eye as you drive past. There is another stone pillar at the other end of the green, somewhat overshadowed by the glamour of the cycling memorial but no less interesting. It is a weathered spire of red stone that used to bear a cross at its crown, now long since lost. This is a 500 year old way-marker that announces Meriden as the very centre of England, even though there are several other claimants to the title, and is a grade II listed monument. I’d never noticed it before, tucked away behind low shrubs and fringed by flower beds it wasn’t easy to spot from the road, which I can’t help feeling is a bit of a shame given its provenance.
After wandering around Meriden’s monuments it was time to move on and so I followed the guide’s directions, taking one of the main roads branching off from the village green. I hadn’t gone very far before I met the lady with the Jack Russell again. I was a bit puzzled by this as she was approaching me from the direction I was supposed to be heading, which was odd given that I had walked along in the same direction as her earlier: It seemed that one of us was doubling back on ourselves and I had a feeling that it wasn’t the woman. We exchanged brief pleasantries as we passed and I continued along the road for a short spell, admiring the fine properties that passed by on either side. Soon though I was obliged to leave the road and duck left onto a claustrophobic little track that squeezed between a wire fence on one side and thick brambles on the other. Following the canine-influenced theme of the day a large German Shepherd dog appeared behind the wire fence and began bellowing at me, making me start violently and emit a naughty word. The fence didn’t look particularly robust and I edged along the track with one eye on the dog which was rather too close for comfort. I emerged from the track onto a concrete farm drive, the hoarse barking of the German Shepherd fading away, to be confronted by familiar scenery. Before me lay the field of black cattle I had passed on entering the village, with the sweeping slope of turf beyond them that I had ascended earlier. The guide was apparently asking me to go back and say hello to the cows again, sending me back on myself in the process. For a brief moment I feared that I had copied the wrong set of guides for the day and was attempting the West-East traverse of this section but the last page of the guide referred to Packwood House so I knew this couldn’t be the case. I proceeded along the drive, brow furrowed, and a question mark hovering above my baseball cap. The drive ended in a locked gate so I had no choice but to enter the meadow with the cows for the second time that day and head off towards the sign post and metal gate in the middle distance. In the end it became apparent that the Millennium Way had created a special little loop for the traveller to visit Meriden, enjoy its monuments, and no doubt spend a few quid in its shops. No bad thing, the village is well worth the visit, but I could have cut straight across the field of cows and saved myself some time and distance. Meriden forms the apex of the inverted ‘V’ that forms the profile of the Millennium way and is, as such, its most northerly point. From now on I would be heading south-west, leaving the familiar byways I had enjoyed since strolling into Leamington Spa and walking on into the unfamiliar territory of the Worcestershire countryside.

The silent land ...

Almost immediately after leaving Meriden I picked up a path that snaked its way around the perimeter of a large quarry, hidden beyond high embankments but with plenty of ‘No trespassing’ signs in evidence, and other signs warning the unwary not to swim in the deep and dangerous waters that the quarry had created. Suddenly the world became very quiet, with no sounds of distant traffic and no livestock in the fields to break the silence. I met one couple exercising their dog at the beginning of my navigation of the quarry and saw nobody else for the next hour. The track became wider, gravel crunching under my boots, and still the quarry sprawled on, largely unseen beyond its high fences and looming embankments. The quarry is mined for aggregate and mortar material and is owned by Lafarge Tarmac. It covers an area many acres in size and is right on my doorstep and yet I never knew it existed until today. Finally the gravel track became a metalled road, still following the contours of the quarry works and still deserted and silent.
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A scarred landscape

I stopped for a five minute break to savour the feeling of solitude, noticing an odd chemical tang in the air which held an underlying sweet, sugary note. I couldn’t tell if it was emanating from the quarry itself or the unseen fields at my back, but it was quite strong and I debated the wisdom of sitting here for too long, breathing it in.
Not too far along the metalled road the embankments disappeared and the scarred and dusty workings of the quarry could be enjoyed in all their splendour. Over time the quarrying would exhaust its resources and move on to the next acre of land and a process of restoration and replanting would begin, but standing before the blasted landscape with its giant craters and dinosaur-like quarrying machines, it was hard to believe that anything could ever grow there again.
The views opened up again shortly after leaving the quarry behind and I crossed fields lying fallow under an autumnal sun that grew steadily warmer as the day progressed. The forecast had promised a fine day and the blue skies and bright sun started to deliver on that promise, though I doubted it would be as uncomfortably humid as on previous sections. I entered a grassy field which dipped down into a shallow valley before climbing towards the exit gate. In the valley sat a couple of women enjoying the weather and sharing a light picnic. Their dogs, a young German Shepherd and a smaller specimen of uncertain breed, capered about happily, chasing each other over the tussocky grass. Soon they spied me, almost at the same time as their owners. The young German Shepherd’s eyes lit up and I could read the gleeful intent in her eyes even at a distance.
“No Sheba!” yelled the women, but it was too late. Sheba galloped towards me, eyes bright and pink tongue flapping to one side and from a yard away she leapt, planting all four paws squarely on my chest, forcing an ‘ooofff’ of expelled air from me. Mission accomplished Sheba raced away back to her owners who were very apologetic but didn’t really need to be; as a dog lover I don’t mind the attentions of other peoples mutts so long as its well-intentioned and being jumped on by a large German Shepherd was fine by me.

The accidental A Road ...

Following on from this episode I crossed a number of fields, following lines of ancient hedgerow, and started to drift off mentally (as one is inclined to do on a long walk where nothing much happens for a while and the scenery remains unchanged). As a result of this I suddenly found myself on the verge of the busy A452 Kenilworth Road, a thundering dual carriageway which I hadn’t expected to negotiate as part of the days travels. It took a while, peering at my satnav app and consulting the guide, before I sorted out what had gone wrong. At some point during the crossing of fields I had veered off to the west, lost in a reverie, instead of continuing southwards. Not only had this prevented me from walking alongside the delightful-sounding Sixteen Acre woods and yet more fields but it had also deposited me onto the A452 quite a way further from Balsall Common than I needed to be. I had a choice; I could retrace my steps and try to pick up the correct route somewhere amidst all the fields, gates, and hedges, or I could head along the A452 and route-march to the point where the Millennium Way crossed its path some distance ahead. Much as the thought of a trudge along such a busy road was unattractive it was both the quicker and the easier option and so, reluctantly, I set off, with the steady swish of passing traffic making the silence of the quarry lanes earlier in the morning seem like a dim and distant dream. Not only was it an unwelcome bit of road walking, not only was it along tarmac and concrete which was hard on the feet, but it was also a route which required me to cross the dual carriageway three times in order to follow the footpath which mysteriously petered out on one side to be continued on the other. Luckily there was a large central reservation of grass and trees which gave some protection but even so I did feel like the frog in that old video game of Frogger.

Canine capers (again) ...

After rather a long time of breathing in exhaust fumes and dodging juggernauts I finally made it back on route, just before the large village of Balsall Common, and turned my back on the noisy Kenilworth Road, taking sanctuary on a small country lane that took me down between fields of cattle and horses. Very soon I realised that I had been down this way before a year previously, and that I was following the Heart Of England Way which my brother and I had tackled in the spring of 2013. It was to be a short reunion however as I parted company with the Heart Of England way at the next gate and struck off left across the right hand side of a grassy valley. At a metal kissing gate I was brought up short by the sight of a shaggy pony being shepherded between an elderly couple, who flanked the animal, arms outstretched as if to guide it along. A Jack Russell slunk along beside the woman, well out of range of the pony’s hooves. I assumed they were its owners and they were going to lead it through the large gate beside me so I waited patiently.
“Is he nervous?” I asked them as they got closer, meaning ‘do I need to back off further as I don’t really like horses?’
The woman shook her head.
“No, he’s not ours. We were just walking through the field and he came up and started biting us.”
The man nodded in agreement. “He’s well known for doing that. I think it’s because he’s a bit lonely and wants the attention.”
As if to prove his point the pony waited until the gents attention was focussed on getting through the kissing gate and then took a generous chomp on the man’s shoulder. He flinched and then waved his arms at the pony which skittered away a few paces.
“Oooow NO stop it that bloody hurts!” said the man as his wife took the opportunity to squeeze through the kissing gate and out of harm’s way.
I wasn’t looking forward to entering that field very much.
“Right then,” I said eyeing up the easiest way past the pony, which now stood regarding me with evil yellowy eyes, “how do I do this without getting bitten?”
“Where are you going?” asked the lady, and I told her.
“Oh in that case you’re all right because you need to head straight down the valley here – you don’t go into his field at all.”
This was music to my ears, and after saying goodbye to the couple I set off, leaving the pony looking a little crestfallen that he wouldn’t be nibbling on me for fun after all.
I reached the floor of the narrow valley and then began to ascend the further side, hopping over a gate and following the edge of a large field of ripening sweet corn. A weather-beaten chap with a couple of Labradors and a young man in tow kept emerging from the green depths, peering back into the jungle of stalks, and plunging back in again. They were obviously searching intently for something but it was to remain a mystery to me as I left them behind, striking out across a series of wide open fields with superb views all around. As I traversed the fields I pondered on the emptiness all around me; the land was stripped of crops and devoid of livestock. It was late summer so most likely the harvest had been completed and the brown stalks sticking up in serried ranks were waiting for the plough to do its work, but what happened to all the cows at this time of year, where did they go?
The fields increased in size until I found myself marching along the boundary of one so large that it almost had a horizon. The sun beat down on me as I traversed this savannah so that by the time I’d reached its far side I’d divested myself of a t-shirt and an impressive amount of sweat and I’d started to develop the crumpled-trousers dishevelled look favoured by Charlie Chaplin, Phil Collins, and park bench winos.
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The village of Temple Balsall across fields

Feeling not in the least like another encounter with an enthusiastic canine I rounded the corner of a cottage set in a paddock to be presented with just such a scenario. This time my antagonist was a stout barrel of vaguely Staffy heritage who, until I appeared, had been nosing about in the long grass whilst his owner stood by gazing across the fields. Within three seconds the dog had spotted me, targeted me, and had set off towards me much like the German Shepherd earlier, with a belated shout from his owner which fell on deaf ears. I stood stock-still, which I’d always been advised to do in such a situation, and watched the creature galloping towards me - I had time to notice that there was a hard edge to its stare rather than a twinkle of mischief before it took off a few feet away from me. Being lower to the ground than a German Shepherd to start with, and being nowhere near as athletic as Sheba, its trajectory described a lower arc and it planted its hard round head squarely in the crown jewels. ‘Whoo’ I grunted as the familiar dull ached started spreading out from the epicentre of my trousers.
The owner had managed to capture the dog and was apologising profusely.
“Sorry – he wouldn’t have done you any real harm. He really likes people. You did the right thing standing still like that.”
I nodded reassuringly but secretly wished I’d done the right thing by punting the little swine into the next field while it was in mid-flight. Nads throbbing gently I moved on, crossing gentle pastures that afforded a view of the picturesque village of Temple Balsall in the near distance, set against a backdrop of billowing trees and presenting an almost Constable-like scenario. I entered yet another immense field and began beetling along its left hand edge, spying the first walker I’d seen all day heading towards me. I estimated that we would meet after about a minute or so and considered what I might say to him, perhaps discussing the unusually clement weather, or a comparison of the routes we were walking that day, or the number of dogs that had leapt on him during his journey; the opportunities for engaging conversation were endless. Eventually we met, roughly in the middle of the field.
“Ayup,” he said.
“Aye,” I replied.
And we moved on.

Not far from the madding crowd ...

Beyond this field I emerged onto a small lane which in turn led to a larger road and it was with some surprise that I found myself standing at the drive of the Black Boy Inn, a familiar landmark to me which gave me some idea of the distance I had travelled that day. I walked up the gravelled driveway towards the low cluster of buildings, intending to have a pint of something cold and hoppy but as ever the Black Boy was rammed to the rafters. It enjoys a good reputation as a restaurant that provides generous portions of good food at reasonable prices and added to that it’s a canal-side pub. On such a nice sunny Sunday it was doing a roaring trade and I abandoned the idea of a beer. The queue at the bar would be long and the place would be full of people dressed in their smart-casuals, all fragrant with perfumes and colognes - I had no wish to share my sweaty Chaplinesque demeanour in such company. I decided instead to hop onto the canal tow path and find a suitable spot for lunch. The ideal spot proved to be quite elusive as I first passed a narrow boat full of people enjoying a clamorous Sunday lunch and then a barge, shrouded in silence and mystery, but with the shadow of a person moving about behind its port-holed windows. Finally I found a grassy embankment beyond an ancient brick bridge and flopped gratefully onto the turf, stretching out tired legs and lying for a while under the warmth of the sun. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves of the trees growing on the opposite bank and large white billows of cloud drifted across the blue sky, the soupy brown waters of the canal glided slowly by, carrying fallen leaves and the odd detritus from canal boats. I ate a leisurely lunch and realised that I had a grown a mild headache at some point during the day so I rooted through my medical kit in search of paracetamol which, of course, I hadn’t packed. After a quick call home I lay back again, enjoying relative solitude apart from the occasional cyclist that rattled by along the tow-path and the distant nattering of a pair of fishermen a hundred yards downstream.
It was the sort of spot that invited you to while away an entire afternoon but I had a walk to finish so eventually I rose stiffly to my feet and followed the canal downstream, passing the fishermen who it appeared hadn’t caught a single fish all day but were content enough with their flasks of tea and each other’s company. At the very next bridge I left the canal (the Grand Union ) and began crossing a seemingly endless procession of stiles and small paddocks. From the number of jumps set up in these little fields it was obviously a place devoted to ponies and horses.
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The avenue of trees at Packwood House

There were a number of expensive looking horse boxes and motor homes parked along the way and the low roofs of farms. I even passed a fenced off sand-strewn training area but there were no horses to be seen, nor indeed people, during my crossing of this section - it was all somewhat deserted and a little forsaken. After the umpteenth stile my dodgy knee began to whinge at me, supplanting my headache as the focus of pain and reminding me to pack some pain killers before my next outing. Eventually the paddocks ended and I climbed the final rickety stile to find myself on the aptly named Rising Lane at the tiny village of Kingswood.
Again I was on very familiar ground as I had walked up this lane several times over the years, it being part of the ‘Hay Wood’ circular route I had devised. The lane climbed steadily towards a railway bridge and I followed it, passing by pleasant little red brick terraces of Edwardian vintage with the hint of more modern dwellings in the side streets beyond them. After the railway bridge the lane began to fall again and, still following a familiar route, I turned left down a driveway leading to a group of cottages. I recalled with some fondness the very first time I had walked the Hay Wood circular with my wife, many years before. We had reached this point and then circled around the perimeter of the cottages endlessly, searching for the elusive footpath to Packwood House and failing to find it. It had been a hot afternoon and we had wandered up every available path we came across, bickering gently, and still unable to find the right way forward. Of course, once you knew the right tracks to take, it wasn’t that complicated at all and I now followed the perimeter of the cottages confidently, emerging onto a small car park. The Hay wood circular would have now taken me left, across a farmyard and along its drive before reaching Packwood House, whereas this route offered a much simpler (and hitherto unknown) path straight up along a hedged field and onto the main road. Here I stopped for a little video shoot, gurgling the last of my water and realising with some surprise that I had made very good time today and the walk was almost done. It had been a warm day for sure, but nothing like the baking, humid day that had sapped my strength on the Kenilworth section and as such I had covered much the same mileage today but with far less effort.

The green eaves of Packwood ...

Just a few hundred yards along the road I turned left onto the grounds of Packwood House, a National Trust property of Elizabethan vintage. Approaching the house along this route was always something I looked forward to as it was a long straight avenue, lined on each side by a variety of lovely old trees. I imagine that in earlier times it must have been the main approach to the house, allowing horse drawn carriages to rumble past the estate’s sheep pastures and right up to the front gates of the mansion. The path had narrowed considerably since those far off times and the trees had grown closer together, so now it was a byway that could only be enjoyed on foot.
I walked along in the company of groups of people, families and couples, all heading towards the house, whose impressive chimney stacks slowly emerged beyond the trees. Eventually I reached the neat lawns and gravel drive that swept past the complex of ancient buildings that grew about the main house, old red brick glowing in the late afternoon sunshine, and the uneven lines of tiled roofs delineated against the sharp blue sky. The house and gardens were open and I had intended to pay the entrance fee in order to film the exterior of the property, its well-tended flower borders, and its famous group of topiary yews, but the fair weather had drawn people to the place and the thought of joining the throngs after a long days walking didn’t really appeal to me. Instead I reached my car, downing a bottle of warm sports drink, and congratulated myself on completing another section of the walk. Five down, three to go. But would I complete them all before the end of October?

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