From: Henley-in-Arden to Meriden
Distance: 10m / 16km
Cumulated distance: 412m / 663km
Percentage completed: 40.09

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Glorious sunshine woke me and stayed with me nearly all day today. It even looked to be drying up some of the mud .. well, almost. I was able to join the Heart of England Way almost from the door of the pub in Henley in Arden. The town’s name refers to the Forest of Arden, which sadly no longer exists but did make a guest appearance in Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. Back in the middle ages, the mead bottle would have been cracked open if the King gave a town permission to hold a market or fair. Such was the case with Henley in Arden and the town grew prosperous as a result. The town had another claim to fame: it was known for its archers .. no! not the Borsetshire Archers, but mean, lean long-bow archers. Henley’s archers are known to have fought at Evesham in 1265, at Bannockburn in 1314 (where the Lord of the Manor, John de Montfort, was killed), at Crecy in 1346 and probably at Agincourt in 1415. Six hundred years later, Henley is still the place to go if you want to become an archer. You can pick and choose between all sorts of archery courses and visit the Archery Shop to arm yourself to the teeth with all manner of bows and arrows.

Before the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the French, anticipating victory over the English, proposed to cut off the middle finger of all captured English soldiers. Without the middle finger it would be impossible to draw the renowned English longbow and therefore render the archers incapable of fighting in the future. This famous weapon was made of the native English Yew tree, and the act of drawing the longbow was known as “plucking the yew” (or “pluck yew”). Much to the bewilderment of the French, the English won the battle and began mocking the French by waving their middle fingers at the defeated French, saying, “See, we can still pluck yew!”

Battle of Agincourt

Today, Henley is a thriving market town with a mix of cultures, yet remaining quaint.

The main street

 

Mix of old and the exotic new

 

Lingering Easter

The Civil War also had a serious impact on Henley. The town sits at a busy crossroads and both Parliamentarians and Cavaliers passed through, pillaging and looting as they went. Poor old John Milward had no sooner replaced all his bedding, pewter and brassware in 1642 after Charlie’s boys had helped themselves, than the Roundheads came through in 1643 and did just the same, leaving him destitute.

The day felt very quiet as I walked across the countryside without Swampy and Nigel. No-one to ask me what sort of business I had, no-one to banter with and no-one to share a new-found advantage of mud with. It had been great having them with me .. talking about everything from fears of eternity to how far it was to Batsford.

Quick aside .. mostly for Swampy:

‘I have a business’

‘What is your business?’

‘It’s an airline company’

‘And how’s that going for you?’

‘It’s really taking off’

Just 400 metres from Henley is the site of the motte and bailey Beaudesert Castle. It was built in the 13th century after the Norman Conquest, on the site of an even earlier castle. All that remains is a single stone. From the top of the mound there were terrific views which extended for miles.

Steps up to the castle site

Yesterday, we’d seen honey coloured stone being gradually replaced by red brick, timber frames and a lot of thatched roofs. Today there was no sign of the stone as I got into the heart of Warwickshire.

Warwickshire farmhouse

Not long into the journey I joined the towpath of Stratford Canal. I LOVE canals .. not only for their flatness, after a lot of hill climbing but also for the way that there’s always something going on and that they are big attractors of birdlife. I had a coffee at the delightful Fleur de Lys pub, which sits at the side of the canal. Everyone was very chatty and SANE’s coffers ended up being nicely swelled. www.thefleur.co.uk

The welcoming Fleur de Lys

 

Barge passing through

 

The Jolly Rotten

 

Basin where the Stratford and Grand Union canals meet

I set off today to skirt around the UK’s second city, Birmingham. The journey’s end would be Meriden, notionally the middle of England. Not the middle of my journey, however. I will only reach that exciting, fizz-drinking moment in a fortnight when I tackle the Pennines. Nevertheless, it was the carrot which kept up my pace today.

Pussy willows

The hedgerow felt as if it were on the verge of bursting into spring. It was hugely uplifting, despite the continuing mud. It wasn’t long before I passed between two rather splendid stately homes: Packwood House and Baddersley Clinton. Both are National Trust properties and both have fascinating histories. Packwood is a timber framed manor house, which was bought in the 1920s by Graham Baron Ash who lavished money and time on furnishing the place with Tudor stuff. But it was the garden that intrigued me. It’s famous for its yew trees (lots of archers round here), which are clipped to represent the Sermon on the Mount, complete with the four evangelists and the 12 apostles. There is a large yew which tops the mount, presumably Jesus and also a mass of much smaller trees to represent the multitude listening attentively to the sermon. They were planted in 1650. Sadly I couldn’t see them without going into the property, so you’ll have to take my word for it .. or even better, visit!

Baddersley Clinton, which I could see from the Heart of England Way, is a moated manor house dating back to the 13th century and while Packwood kept its Christians in the garden, Baddersley Clinton was a place where persecuted Catholics sought refuge in the 16th century. We once lived in a Tudor cottage in Surrey, which had a bookcase which concealed a secret door to a secret staircase and a secret room. It was a fantastic room for confusing guests with a disappearing party trick.

Countryside around Baddersly Clinton

 

Fields of Warwickshire

I crossed numerous fields of newly emerging crops today. For the first time I listened to one of my podcasts. Given the countryside could so easily have been Borsetshire, I settled on the last Omnibus of The Archers. I became so engrossed in their world that I half expected to see Eddie Grundy standing at one of the many stiles I crossed.

Goose House

When I was planning my route it was difficult to know which way round Birmingham to walk. I eventually decided on the east, as it meant I could visit Meriden, the centre of England. The village sits in a green corridor called the ‘Meriden Gap’, between the conurbations of Birmingham and Coventry. A medieval stone cross on the village green alerts visitors to their middling location. Also on the green is the National Cyclists’ Memorial, which commemorates all cyclists who gave their lives in both World Wars. It was placed in Meriden so that it would be easier for cyclists from any part of the country to reach it.

Reaching the middle of England

Not too surprisingly, given the preponderance of yews in the area, Meriden is home to reputedly the oldest archery club in England. It was established at a meeting at the pub in 1785, many years after the middle finger gesture had become a well-used silent insult. Even for screen savers, Nigel!

It was a long day (I don’t have the technological know-how about how to change the mileage from 10 to 15 miles) but  it was hugely enjoyable as well, even without the companionable Swampy.

End of day as I reached Meriden

Black Dog Tails
Fancy lobster for dinner? OK, so Lila isn’t really a hero black dog but in my book she goes a long way towards it. Her owner has trained her to dive for lobster! You can see her in action if you follow the link.