Alcester: Where two rivers meet
PUBLISHED: 10:46 23 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:53 20 February 2013
David Rudge visits a town where history and legend mingle.
All on a nice, modest scale. Nothing imposes itself, nothing hurts. So said architectural guru Nikolas Pevsner when visiting the market town of Alcester in the 1960s.
While this has the whiff of faint praise, there are more positive words from the early 20th Century chronicler and traveller Arthur Mee: It is charming whichever way we come to it, and it grows more beautiful the longer we stay.
Its certainly the case that Alcesters High Street retains the charm of the past, while being still lively and busy. The town has grown, providing good schools and stable property prices for those working in nearby Redditch, or Birmingham.
The town was once famed as a centre of the needle-making industry, but this endeavour declined as Redditch grew and usurped its status.
The Romans came here some time in the first century when the land (and people) around was still untamed. They set up a small fortification on a spit of land where the River Alne meets the Arrow - a reasonably good defensive position in a dangerous, swampy and heavily wooded land.
The towns name derives from its position: The camp on the Alne.
Pavements, pot shards, coins and some burials have been found by archaeologists, but they suggest rather a modest settlement which developed into a Romano-British market town on Ryknild Street.
There is evidence of some Saxon settlement from the various archaeological digs that have taken place in and around the town over the decades. But for a century or two there are no written records to confirm the towns existence. There is still an oral tradition that Providence had wreaked vengeance on the first town for some misdemeanour and it was swallowed up in an earthquake.
The town seems to have made a habit of upsetting important people. A local legend is that the Saxon saint Chad came to Alcester to preach, but the local blacksmiths, who were clearly a hard-working lot, refused to stop their hammering.
The story goes that St Chad cursed them and gave them tails!
Another local legend involves a monk called Ansel, who was killed during the building of the old Benedictine abbey. His gloomy ghost was said to be responsible for all manner of unhappy occurrences including mysterious epidemics among the unlucky townsfolk.
Alcester clearly recovered as a settlement at some stage in the early Middle Ages, but it remained a quiet backwater until Henry I gave it Royal Borough status. This status appears to have lapsed some time later. But in the reign of Henry III, Sir Walter Beauchamp purchased the manor, and the town was granted a charter to hold a weekly market. It also obtained grants of fairs. The annual Mop Fair continues to this day. The town was held by the Beauchamp family for many decades, until it passed to the Grevilles of Warwick in the reign of Henry VIII.
Its geographically central position made it an unfortunate place to live during the English Civil Wars. There were some particularly unwelcome visitors to Alcester in the shape of a fierce, rowdy horde of Parliamentarian Scots, under the leadership of Lord Leven, who was on the Kings heels following his defeat at Naseby.
More than 10,000 Roundheads flooded through Alcester causing mayhem and destruction among the local citizenry. The shattered folk of Alcester were still clearing up the mess made by the Scottish army when, a day or two later, the whole lot returned. Lord Leven had taken one look at the bridge over the Severn at Upton and decided it wouldnt take the weight of his troops, horses and wagonsso he retraced his steps, and Alcester was in uproar all over again.
Such was the damage done and complaints made against the Scots, that the Parliamentary Committee of Warwickshire met at Alcester to discuss the payment of compensation.
Modern day visitors to the town are more welcome. They will enjoy its mix of architecture, from the 14th Century parish church of St Nicholas to the Tudor and Georgian buildings in the town centre. If you do visit the old church, take a look at the recumbent alabaster effigies of Sir Fulke Greville and his wife, dating from 1559. It is a most remarkable carving.