Chester Society for Landscape History

Wyre Forest

Halfpenny Green Vineyard Harvington Hall

Our first port of call, on a very wet day, was the Halfpenny Green vineyard where we gathered for coffee before having a look round. We looked in at some of the staff cleaning out vats, and some members walked round some of the vines. There are around fifteen different varieties of vine, all of which seemed to be producing a bumper crop of grapes. The vineyard makes its own wines on site.

After lunch we drove to the small village of Rock with its large Norman church, of St Peter and St Paul. Perhaps the main interesting features in the church are the beautiful Norman arches, one over the entrance to the church, and the other the chancel arch. Both are elaborately carved. Other objects of interest were the twelfth century Norman bowl of the font, also beautifully carved, and the pre-reformation oak chest hewn from a solid oak tree trunk and studded. This is thought to be a "Peter's pence chest". Outside the church, there are clear signs of a moated manor house, and also a 'holloway' left over from a deserted village site which unfortunately the local owner had ploughed up.

After this most interesting stop we moved onward to Stourport-on-Severn where we explored the canal basins. Stourport grew up as a canal town and an inland port, second only to Birmingham. By the early nineteenth century there were five basins used by a large number of narrow boats bringing coal to Stourport (this trade finished in 1949). In the 1920s petroleum and cocoa was brought up the River Severn from Bristol on barges, but this trade also petered out with the rise of commercial road transport. The basins are now used for leisure boats, and the remaining warehouses that line the basins have taken on new lives as apartments. The size and number of the basins emphasise just how important a port Stourport must have been until relatively recently.

Black and white timber framing in Chaddesley Corbett Somewhere in Bewdley!

Our second day began on a much brighter note, weather-wise, and we made our way to our first destination, Harvington Hall, in great anticipation. The approach to it was rather unusual - along a meandering narrow lane and a small housing estate - then we rounded a truly huge tree stump on the final corner to find a lovely red-bricked Elizabethan moated manor house. We were charmed by its setting beyond the rich greenness of its fronting lawn but also by the jumble of roofs, their various elevations and the lone tall chimney rising from the low middle section. A second look at the towers flanking either side indicated the secrets hidden within the house, for the levels of the windows did not match up. In fact that was even more apparent in one of the walls at the back of the Hall where nine levels of windows could be counted. It was entirely in keeping with the interior where there was a bewildering array of passages, many flights of stairs and of course the famous ‘priests holes’ hidden away in so many ingenious ways. We were shown at least five on our tour and they ranged from a simple ‘box’ below a trapdoor in a passage, to a false fireplace which led up into the roof space, to the amazing swinging beam hiding place in Dr. Dodd’s Library – but only for a very thin priest to negotiate! It was humbling to think of the Pakington family’s commitment to the Roman Catholic faith and the measures they were prepared to take to receive and hide the succession of incoming priests at such a dangerous time and with possible awful consequences.

Lunch was at the sixteenth century Talbot Inn in Chaddesley Corbett, a village of Saxon origin, for a very welcome and hearty meal of soup and sandwiches. It was good, though, first of all to stretch our legs with a stroll up and down the broad main street and admire the succession of beautifully preserved black and white timber framed houses and fine Georgian buildings. For a settlement that in 1086 seemed to have been as important as Kidderminster, if not more so, time appeared to have stood still as far as any industry and growth, yet evidence of prosperity was there in the buildings. It was noticeable how clean and tidy the whole street was but also how free of modern disfiguring street signage, presumably a deliberate policy by the local council. The Talbot itself was entirely in keeping with its picturesque timber work, solid sandstone plinth and adorning flower tubs and baskets.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in Bewdley, a town with a long history as a crossing point and river port on the River Severn. Free to explore in fine sunshine we decided on a walking tour with the help of a leaflet from the Tourist Information Centre. We began at the (Old Butchers) Shambles now the Bewdley Museum with its fascinating exhibition of the lives and crafts of the town through the ages. We then continued down Load (locally a ford) Street to Telford’s Bridge, an elegant three arched structure with a simple balustrade, leading to the Stourport Road. From the bridge, alongside the Severn, we followed the River of Words: the lower level of pavement displaying the various terms for river crafts and the higher one itemizing in roundels all the goods carried on the trading vessels. It was a delightful way of learning about this vital part of Bewdley’s history and much more interesting than the usual display panel. Our tour then took us into Queen Elizabeth II Jubilee Gardens with a lovely wild flower and sculpture area before continuing along Lax Lane to find Lower Park House, the childhood home of PM Stanley Baldwin. In the final leg along High Street we were impressed yet again with the many fine timber framed houses, notably Church House and the elaborate Bailiff’s House of 1610. By then we were ready for the welcome tea and cake at St. Anne’s Church which we had been promised. This was a very satisfying end to a varied and thoroughly enjoyable day.

Adam talking to the troops! Down to the Wyre!

In contrast to Wednesday’s mainly urban emphases, Thursday’s visits were of rural flavour, starting at the newly opened Discovery Centre in the middle of the wooded area of the ancient hunting forest of Wyre - appropriately having to wait whilst tree surgeons attended to the branches of trees above us. The Centre is primarily constructed from green oak from the forest, and is in itself a model and delightful educational centre. Amongst its many environmentally friendly credentials is that it uses rainwater from a green roof in its toilet blocks.

It was also a delight to listen to Adam Mindykowski at the centre as he ably and enthusiastically set the Forest into its wider historical and geographical context. He described the projects being developed, with the aid of Heritage Lottery Funds, to promote and manage its historic landscape. He showed us how its role as a forest could be traced from prehistoric times, through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries up to the present day, using tell-tale patterns left on the ground. These can be revealed by aerial laser surveying. The LIDAR (Light Detecting and Ranging) technique allows researchers, including trained community volunteers, to interpret previously hidden archaeological surface features in wooded areas by ‘virtually’ removing the tree canopy - a fascinating twenty-first century application of scientific method.

We were sorry we did not have more time to explore the woods further. However it was equally as interesting to be accompanied by Adam on an exploration of Pound Green Common. This Common is a rare example of the way many areas of Britain were once farmed, with scattered cottages and ‘infields’ bordering shared open grazing land. It retains its ‘Commoners’, living in cottages which have been built with the permission of the local lord of the manor. We were privileged to hear at ‘first hand’ about the history and ecology of the Common from Godfrey Jones, himself a Commoner. A refreshing walk for the more active members took us through a multitude of fascinating insights into the history and management of the Common and its land use, past and present. Amongst many other interesting things, Adam took us past a relict orchard, 300 year old anthills and traces of ridge and furrow. We held our breath whilst a large explosion indicated a twenty-first century diversification - a very active rocket engine testing area within the heathland area.

The day and our study tour ended with a short drive (appropriately on the route home to Chester) to Kinver, where a complex of ‘Rock Houses’ - dwellings in the landscape, can be explored. Restored by the National Trust, one can imagine life in Victorian times, when up to eleven families lived here. With productive gardens and fresher air, life expectancy was higher here than in the congested and insanitary towns.

Several of the more active members enjoyed a brisk walk up to the top of the sandstone ridge above Kinver Edge, and all went home happy and invigorated after another very successful, well organised study tour.

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