PUBLISHED: 00:01 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:39 20 February 2013
It's hard to imagine today but Alcester's prettiest, and some of its oldest, buildings were once earmarked to be razed to the ground. Thankfully the townsfolk rebelled against the more lunatic of 1960s developments.
It's hard to imagine today but Alcester's prettiest, and some of its oldest, buildings were once earmarked to be razed to the ground. Thankfully the townsfolk rebelled against the more lunatic of 1960s developments. Jane Sullivan reports. Photographs by Stuart Purfield
The landmarks of Alcester
One of the things that I love about Alcester is the hotch-potch of buildings of different ages that huddle side by side along the high street. Old timber framed buildings sit next to grand three-storey Georgian town houses. A little further along are red brick Victorian cottages. There's the modern (in its day) Greig Hall built in 1958. Just off the High Street there are executive homes and bungalows that are less than 20 years old. There's the grand-looking faade of the old workhouse on Kinwarton Road and the functional red-brick Victorian Minerva Mill, where needles were once made and the Town Hall in the old market place (first built in 1620). Every age of British building must be represented here. Yet one of the most ancient, and picturesque, is only here by the skin of its teeth.
The Old Malt House and its adjoining cottages date from the 15th century. The old black and white timbered buildings meander down Malt Mill Lane from the corner of Church Street towards the River Arrow - a pretty little corner of town. Yet they haven't always looked so well kept and picturesque. In the 1960s the buildings had fallen into disrepair and the whole street was earmarked for demolition. Step in The Fine Arts Commission and the Historic Buildings Council who put a stop to all that demolition nonsense and 'persuaded' the Alcester Rural District Council to stop the madness. The street was compulsorily purchased and a conservation order slapped on it. The street was restored in the early 1970s and in 1975 was awarded a European Architectural Heritage Award for exceptional merit. Today much of the street is given to sheltered housing.
Another landmark that has had several uses during its time is the Town Hall, or to give it its full title the Alcester War Memorial Town Hall which sits between Church Street and Butter Street (giving a clue as to where the dairy was in the town). This is Alcester's 'village hall', administered by a charity as a function room and meeting place. Its architecture is a clue to its previous use - 18 pillars of Cotswold stone form a colonnade that was once the open market, built in 1620 to replace the market cross. The gaps between the pillars were filled in long ago to form a covered market and the upper storey added in 1640 with a beautiful hammerbeam ceiling.
Many of Alcester's buildings are a legacy from trade in the town. The red brick Minerva Mill, now an 'innovation' centre of offices and workshops was built in the late 19th century to manufacturer needles under the Minerva brand name. With nearby Redditch the centre of the needlemaking industry there were needle works all over the Arrow Valley, where the ready access to water for grinding the needles to a sharp point was essential. Needlemaking stopped here in 1912 and the building had a succession of owners - at one point being used for the manufacture of ironing boards and at another as an automotive works. The site was bought in 1998 and converted into workshops and offices.
The Romans in Alcester
No article about Alcester would be complete without reference to the Romans. When I first moved to this area I was invited for coffee to a house in Bleachfield Street. When I arrived a full scale archaeological dig was going on in the back garden of the house. The owner explained that as she'd applied for planning permission to extend the kitchen of her small terraced house the archaeologists had been called in as a condition of the planning consent. Awkward for a young Mum at home with two toddlers but great for the further understanding of Roman Britain.
Alcester is one of those places where just digging up the dahlias in the autumn could possibly unearth a Roman brooch or a mosaic tessera. Over the last 80 years there have been more than 100 digs in and around the town and Alcester is one of the best understood Roman sites in the country. The Roman fort was sited on Primrose Hill at Oversley which was next to Rykneild Street - the road that linked Bourton-on-the-Water in Gloucestershire with Lichfield in Staffordshire - with the surrounding settlement now lying under the southern end of the town around the River Arrow. The area around Bleachfield Street was thought to have had a Roman tannery and farmsteads, parts of a cobbled road have been excavated.
If you're in Alcester a visit to 'Roman Alcester' the small museum next to the library is a must (open Thursday to Sunday). Here you'll see some fascinating Roman finds (although the vast majority of relics are in the county museum at Warwick). Look out for the glass 'millefiori' brooch found at the Coulter's Garage site in 1979. The tiny brooch is decorated with rods of coloured glass that have been cut into slices and fixed in bronze. There's also a tiny little fish-shaped enamel brooch which was found during excavations in Gas House Lane in the late 80s. It's a lovely little museum.
Back to present day
No town can rest on its history. Today Alcester is a bustling little market town. Once you've had your fill of Roman history head into town for the shops. In a recent interview the queen of shopping, Mary Portas (you may have seen her TV programme Mary Queen of Shops) predicted that it would be the small independent shops that will win through the current economic woes. Let's hope she's right because Alcester is crammed with small, independent shops. High streets like this are gems and deserve to be saved for posterity! Alcester has largely escaped the 'clone' town look - with mega-high street chains jostling for position. Here you will find the sort of independent shopping that makes shopping a pleasure. Baker, butcher, greengrocer for your daily essentials. Small boutique and shoe shop. Old ironmongers, hardware shop, sports shop. Nip through the tuary (alley way) from the high street to Bulls Head Yard and you'll pass a great little lingerie shop (where you can have your bra properly fitted!), gift and antique shops, a little beauty salon. There's a school uniform shop, proper stationer's and a bike shop. Back on the high street there's a great little tea shop, a couple of decent pubs (The Hollybush is one). I highly recommend an hour or two of retail therapy in Alcester.
And there's more . . .
Head along the Salt Way towards Droitwich to Long Barn Village for more retail therapy. The small collection of up-market shops, a restaurant and, recently-opened, spa is one of the more pleasant out-of-town shopping experiences I've experienced.
Ragley Hall at Arrow, near Alcester, is an impressive Palladian house overlooking the huge park and gardens. Tour the house and gardens and when the children get bored they can run off their excess energy at the adventure playground.
Head towards Studley and you'll pass Coughton Court, one of those Tudor houses that is crammed with history. A tour of the house reveals priest holes, a chemise worn by Mary Queen of Scots and a cope that's thought to have belonged to Catherine of Aragon. The gardens are a delight with an Elizabethan knot garden and a rose labyrinth just two of the highlights.
One of my favourite places is Oversley Wood. This relict from the Arden Forest is managed by The Forestry Commission and helpfully has a tarmac road running right around it (only used by forest workers). It's 40 minute circuit at brisk pace and at the top of the hill is a bench where you can see the whole of the Alcester spread out before you. Highly recommended.
* Visit www.alcester.co.uk for information about shops, businesses and events.