Kenilworth - Warwickshire's best kept secret
PUBLISHED: 16:02 26 January 2012 | UPDATED: 20:57 20 February 2013
Kenilworth deserves a bigger share of the county's limelight, reports Marsya Lennox.
Kenilworth - Warwickshires best kept secret
Kenilworth deserves a bigger share of the countys limelight, reports Marsya Lennox.
I walk into Kenilworth in the evening sunshine. Its as leafy, prosperous and middle England as you like. Tim Stansfeld, town planner and blogger.
That most famous of royal vandals and plunderers, Henry Vlll, sanctioned the stripping of the lead from the roofs of Kenilworths dissolved Abbey back in 1538. For such an outwardly pious man, it seems strange that he would have approved the burning of the Abbeys priceless library to melt down coveted spoils while blurring the records of four centuries.
Stolen metals are every bit as lucrative for those remaining on the dark side in this 21st century. But good continues to fight evil, complacency and even neglect in a new age where the righteous, at least, have vowed to protect precious heritage. There is much to fight for in Kenilworth. The billing as Warwickshires best kept secret is rather more than a clich, in tourist talk terms.
Kenilworth is up against Historic Warwick and Shakespeares Stratford in the county contest for a share of the limelight. Unlike Stratford, Kenilworth lacks the international crowds, and its castle doesnt have Warwicks dose of Disney. In Kenilworth, a brief and pleasant walk takes you right to its heart.And the secret is that some of Englands finest historic souvenirs, its stones and its vistas can here be seen, even touched, for free.
If heritage worth can be measured by counting historic name-drops, Kenilworth does rather well. Simon de Montfort lived here, John of Gaunt turned the castle into a palace and it is quite possible that Geoffrey Chaucer, Gaunts servant, knew the place too.
Elizabeths favourite, Robert Dudley overspent entertaining her vast retinue. And theres a favoured story that the exquisite settlement across the road from the castle, named Little Virginia, saw Englands first potatoes grown, imported by Walter Raleigh.
Add to all this the historic importance of the nearby Augustinian Abbey of St Mary and the blatant poetic licence of Sir Walter Scott who embellished real history for dramatic effect in his Kenilworth. It is a potent cocktail to help inspire pride into the true blue, Middle England of this very special town where locals know whats what, see whats needed and work to make it happen.
Cllr Norman Vincett, leader of the ruling Conservative group on the town council is a former Mayor and a long serving member at both district and town level. It struck me a long time ago that so many people I met were quietly getting on and doing things, not seeking accolades, just getting things done, he said.
Recent triumphs for a community that pulls together was the reprieve for local youth services, now to be reorganised, led by the councils, church and secondary school.
Only last year, the Parochial Hall serving St Nicholas Church in the heart of town, was re-opened after costly refurbishment. Nearly a century to the day it was first unveiled, the doors opened on a superbly renewed and modernised facility for the town. The required 500,000 was raised locally.
Though much of the old Abbey remnants now lie underground, what survives is a tribute to local enthusiasts. Money is now officially earmarked to provide roof protection for the ruined gatehouse. It needs protection from the elements and from any damage caused by carelessness, said Cllr Vincett.
Indeed, the superb structure is a glorious surprise for the unwary walker, striding off across the Abbey Fields. Part of the appeal is that you just come across it and think whats this? Peek inside to see the racks of rescued Abbey stone, some beautifully carved, one day destined to feature in formal displays.
In the summer, the largest survivor on the old Abbey site is opened to the public. The Abbey Barn museum, medieval below with an Elizabethan top, tells the history of St Marys. It is completely run and staffed by a rota of those wonderful Kenilworth volunteers, members of the active Kenilworth History and Archaeology Group.
There is more to be done, more campaigns to wage, Green Belt to protect and quality of life to preserve all while planning for sustainable growth that can deliver places to live and work.
There is a cunning, long-term proposal to re-flood part of the Mere, the old one Oliver Cromwell drained when he stripped all strength from the castle. But the atmospheric Abbey Park pool, created on low marshy ground, long after Cromwell, frames a perfect view of the sublime castle, definitively English according to the journalist, author and expert, Simon Jenkins. The Local Plan, forward planning for the whole district, continues to concentrate minds in the already expanded Kenilworth. There are concerns that homes are needed but they must be carefully sited.
We have built in Kenilworth right up to the boundaries. If we go further, well be right into the Green Belt, said Cllr Vincett. There will be some new town houses off Southbank Road, built behind the new retirement development by McCarthy & Stone. Until just before Christmas a large Edwardian house, now due for demolition, was home to the town council, now moved to the old Police Station, to be known as Jubilee House.
Change does happen in Kenilworth, the likelihood of it being for the better rather higher these days, thanks to the watchful eyes of the town guardians. Housing and employment opportunities for the future are weighty considerations, being taken seriously. Our roads have to take any increase in traffic. Warwick is similar. What was built for horses and carts now has to cope with very different traffic, said Cllr Vincett.
The clever thing will be to get the balance right. It needs to be done sensibly, sensitively and constructively. Those who dont know Kenilworth should detour to look, going further than its castle. Its perfectly formed core, Old Kenilworth, St Nicholas Church and the High Street, remains a delight for shoppers and the lovers of old buildings.
The new bit with its serious, modern shopping and big high street names is comfortingly accessible, even tempting, convenient for the motorist and far enough away from the best bits to do little visual harm. It seems that Kenilworth does quite well in accepting progress alongside the preserved past.
The glorious Abbey remnants embody a certain stoicism and resourcefulness that do credit to Kenilworth. Back in the 16th century and beyond, the dismantled buildings provided wonderful stone, big blocks of red sandstone that keep the Abbey memory alive in all manner of local house walls and foundations.
Check out one churchyard wall for its vibrant jigsaw picture of the stonemasons art, recycled carved and figured Abbey stones, too good to waste, and strangely beautiful, even out of context.
*More information from www.midwarks.info/khas