PUBLISHED: 23:38 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:37 20 February 2013
This month Atherstone fills with crowds for the annual ball game. Richard Shurey chose a quieter day to visit the north Warwickshire town.
Look at any pictures or photos of crowd scenes taken before the Second World War everyone is wearing a hat. In similar photos and films today few wear anything on their head (except a baseball hat or the sometimes suspicious hood!)
The town of Atherstone on the northern borders of Warwickshire depended on the manufacture of felt hats for 300 years. There were over 30 hat factories in 1870 although there had been a serious decline in 1843 slave traders were obliged by law to provide hats for slaves. With the emancipation of slaves the lucrative supply ended.
By the early 1970s the number of hat factories had shrunk to about half a dozen but still employed 1,000 workers. A further decline in hat wearing in recent years resulted in the closure of the last factory, Wilson and Stafford, in 1999.
But why did Atherstone make so many hats over the centuries? The Atherstone hats were made of felt. (Fur hats were made mainly in far away Stockport.) Three factors may have contributed to the growth of felt hats. There was an abundant supply of wool from nearby Leicestershire; ribbons could come from Coventry and the main trade highway of Watling Street passed through the town.
An important essential for hat manufacture from felt was wooden hat blocks. These came from extensive woods at Hartshill, a mile or so south of Atherstone. Today these same woods form the lovely Hartshill Hayes Country Park.
The Romans Watling Street passed right through the centre of Atherstone but the by-pass now ensures that the place is more peaceful. In coaching days this was an important staging post on the Holyhead highway as is evidenced by the several former coaching inns. Look for the milepost outside the Red Lion which tells us we are exactly 100 miles from London. (Incidentally we are here also 100 miles from Liverpool and Lincoln.)
Atherstone is on a gentle rise above the River Anker the river marks the county boundary for a mile or so here. There are some fine Georgian buildings along the streets of the old market town which is dominated by the rather unusual octagonal 14th century tower of St. Marys Church.
The chancel is on the site of an 11th century chapel of the Abbey of Bec. The Abbot was the Lord of the Manor of Atherstone. He obtained from Henry II in 1246 the valuable right to hold a weekly market. Just over a century later an Augustinian Friary was built on the site.
There was once a rather unusual railway station built in a Tudor style at the bottom end of Long Street but (as the trains thunder by) today it is a private house.
Every year an event in Atherstone is featured on local television. The Atherstone Ball Game on Shrove Tuesday has been played since the 12th century. The ball is specially made each year and the rough and tumble game (once between Warwickshire and Leicestershire) can involve several hundreds of players. I spoke to some more senior residents but they were a little critical of todays game: attracts a more unpleasant player and also gangs.
Cheek by jowl with Atherstone is Mancetter which to lst century Romans was Manduessedum, a posting station on their Watling Street. Here there is another ancient church with bells that have been ringing over the Anker valley for six centuries.
For those who love to study inscriptions on tombstones here they can have a field-day as many carvings are on hard slate hewn in neighbouring Leicestershire and therefore easily read. Inside is a memorial to a member of the Bracebridge family who boasted that he was descended from Egbert, the first King of England, Alfred the Great, John of Gaunt and Robert the Bruce!
Not far away is the rather splendid Manor House which was built about 1330 and almshouses that were built and endowed by James Garner. He was a London goldsmith and very wealthy.
My visit to Atherstone was on a Saturday just before Christmas and the place was very busy. Compared with other places there are dozens of interesting small shops and few premises seemed to be vacant.
I was amazed at the vast array of activities at churches, the wonderful Leisure Centre and Library. Fitness classes were obviously popular how about Legs, Bums and Tums?! There is the Dickens Night that is a great festive occasion on the last Saturday in November and the Atherstone Carnival in May can attract up to a thousand visitors.
I met the Vicar of St Marys Church; the Reverend Paul Harris is a true man of vision and a vast amount of faith. Here is a building that is leaking almost like a sieve with walls that seem to attract water. Repairs and restoration will require a massive 2.5 million so donations would be welcome! (01827 713200). There are magnificent things to see in this vast place of worship where Henry took communion before the Battle of Bosworth but perhaps the gem is the east end window that was the work in 1896 of the celebrated Kempe. Then there is the old 14th century Friary bell. Weighing 14 cwt it is on the floor by the porch.
Stroll round the back of the church. Here was the grand Atherstone Hall the historic home of the Bracebridges. Samuel (born in 1612), was the first haberdasher of hats. The Hall went in the 1960s and houses were built on the site. But still nearby is the elegant Chapel House now a five star restaurant.
Opposite the church is the Angel Inn. It was here that workers awaiting hire in the last centuries would wear or hold symbols of their trade. Thatchers would have straw on their hats and so on. Further along Church Street were the yards which were the sites of insanitary cottages that sprung up with the population growth because of hat manufacture.
My final impression of Atherstone is that here is a very attractive typical small English town that comes from medieval times but is unspoilt by modern developments. Industries have changed from the hat factories and coal mines of old to logistics but there is a bold determination to integrate the old with the new.
of BEC Engineering
Former colliery blacksmith Sidney Barnsley founded BEC engineering in 1985, producing metal components and fabrications for a range of clients, including aerospace, defence and domestic heating. Today, his sons Duncan, an accountant, and Stuart, a design engineer, have expanded the Atherstone business making unusual dinosaur sculptures, produced using the laser-cutting machinery originally intended for their engineering products.
We were noticing with our sub-contracting clients that a lot of work was migrating overseas, so we decided to insulate the business a bit from the repercussions of that, says Duncan.
Their first dinosaur was a stainless steel Velociraptor. Visitors who saw it were quite impressed so we thought there might be a market for these. It was something different to what was available in the marketplace.
The company now produces three garden sculptures and a range of stainless steel and copper planters.
Its been very encouraging so far with the sales and its invigorating to see our own ideas come to fruition and be successful. Its a nice complement to the traditional side of our business, says Duncan.
Bec Design Works, Richmond Road, Athersone. Tel: 01827 718198 www.becdesignworks.com
of CIC Worldwide
London, Dubai, Atherstone its not often that youd see that combination of places on a company letterhead yet CIC Worldwide was founded in the town and is rapidly becoming known around the world for its services in commercial fraud investigations and surveillance.
Peter Farrugia founded the business in 1996 after he was severely injured at work (hes a former military and civilian policeman).
Atherstone may not strike as the obvious base for his far-reaching business, but as Peter explains: From a business perspective its almost unsung, but from a logistics point of view this is such a perfect place to be as you can get anywhere in the UK or world in a relatively short space of time, with easy access to the motorways and near to Birmingham airport.
The companys major clients are banks, building societies and blue chip companies, who require mortgage and insurance fraud investigation work in the 100,000 to 1 million bracket.
When not tracking down debtors across the world, Peter has immersed himself in the local town life and is a committee member tasked with organising the annual festive Atherstone Dickens Night held in November, and says: I wouldnt want to live anywhere else.
CIC Worldwide, www.cic.me.uk/main
Tel: 0845 299 7711
of Castle Interiors
Stephen Reay, is Atherstone born and bred, and has run a number of businesses in the town. He has a hairdressing salon in Church Street and owns Castle Interiors on Long Street, with his partner Maurice, a psychiatric nurse. For 15 years Stephen also ran a restaurant in the town.
Now in its fourth year, Castle Interiors was the result of Stephens passion for collecting antiques. I used to live in a large Georgian Rectory and when I moved didnt have room for all of my surplus furniture so decided to take on a shop to sell some of it and it snowballed from there.
Stock is sourced from auctions and private sales and Stephen has noticed that the younger generation are now more interested in buying and renovating older furniture, fuelled in part by TV series such as Kirstie Allsopps Homemade Home.
They are realising that with old furniture, even if they have to re-paint it, they are getting good value for money.
Stephen says the town is a great place to do business. I love Atherstone and its been very good to me. Its a very different place and people make everyone welcome, which I think is why it has grown so quickly.
Castle Interiors Furnishers. 47 Long Street, Atherstone.
Tel: 01827 719911