Meriden and Berkswell - A tale of two villages

PUBLISHED: 11:05 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 16:56 20 February 2013

St Lawrence Parish Church.

St Lawrence Parish Church.

Meriden is the 'miry valley' and the centre of England. Berkswell was founded, as the name suggests, by the well belonging to Bercul. <br/><br/>Richard Shurey paid them a visit.

Meriden the alleged centre of England sits almost the midway point between Birmingham and Coventry on what was Meriden Heath. How can the name of such an attractive village mean in some records something like miry valley? I prefer the alternative origin from the Latin meri meaning mid as in meridianus or midday.
In Anglo-Saxon times the centre of the village was on the right of the road to Coventry. Perhaps this explains why there is a large pool where the many ducks vie for water space and the church is on a hill some way from the present green.
At the moment the green lung around Meriden is quite well protected from large development but for how long one wonders? A book published a couple of decades ago said that the 1958 bypass left the quietened village prey to spec builders. Sadly the green belt is still threatened. A recent report again questioned the need for green belts around cities. Is the aim one vast urban sprawl?
It was a beautifully sunny day when I came to this area. The village green was truly green with trim grass and with two prominent memorials. The wayside cross has been gazing over the area for 500 years but one does ponder the calculations to determine that this marks the middle of the kingdom!
At the other end of the green is a more recent obelisk. The Cyclists, National Memorial was erected to the memory of cyclists who died in the two World Wars. I remember in my youth that thousands pedaled here from all parts of the British Isles on the nearest Sunday to the 22nd May. Nobody I spoke to in the village could verify whether they still came. It seems humorous to think of whole contingents from the 3rd Army cycling off to the First World War on bikes!
Although peaceful today, in the days of stagecoaches this was a busy coaching road a way that was improved by work by the great engineer Thomas Telford. Meriden was a staging post as this was on the main London to Holyhead highway. At one time we would have found at least ten inns, blacksmiths and ostlers and accommodation for travellers. One visitor is said to have been the young Princess Victoria who stayed in 1832 at the Georgian Darleston Hall when it was the Bulls Head and the handsomest inn in England. The present Bulls Head is proud to bear a date of 1603.
We read that there was once an attractive picturesque pond on Meriden Green but it dried up global warming seems to have been around in those far-off days! For centuries, this has been a great centre for archery where the Woodmen of Arden hold their meetings.
This is obviously a very active village the friendly library staff pointed out the events diary and there is hardly a day without some meeting or gathering. I was impressed (with the great need now in Haiti) by the local Rotary Club purchasing shelterboxes tents to house up to ten people in disaster areas. The Parish Plan which took two years to compile shows the way forward with the community vision for the future what we cherish and what we would like to change and improve.
The church dedicated to St Lawrence is on a small hill above the way of the stage coaches. Like many other villages I have visited, there is an interregnum here and the
church was locked. The place was built by the celebrated Lady Godiva, wife of Earl Leofric who owned the land at the time of Edward the Confessor. Called Alspathe in the Domesday Book, it was a healthy spot as it is written that few suffered from the Great Plague of 1665.
There are fine views over the valley across to Birmingham and on a good day one can see the heights of the hills of far-away Shropshire. When I was here I looked a couple of miles to the south for my next destination on this outing where there is another attractive village.

Berkswell still has its well. It is by the church and (dating from Saxon times) was used for immersion baptisms including that of the King of Mercia.
The ruler was Bercul then it became Berculswell with the water from the spring becoming a little tributary of the River Blythe. (Interestingly this area forms one of the great watersheds of the land with some waters going west to the Bristol Channel and others in the opposite direction to arrive in the North Sea.) Before 1940 villagers took their water from this well thats why they lived so long, it is said! Along the path here is the museum of Berkswell artifacts, housed in a little gabled cottage.
Do look at the church to admire the magnificent Tudor half-timbered vestry that was made in 1611. The church was open when I called; there was a prominent notice to welcome visitors and the building has fine work by the Saxon and Norman masons. Children love to hunt the nine carved mice on the beautiful woodwork the work of the celebrated Yorkshire maker Robert Thompson. In later times Oliver Cromwell came here with troops and horses before the battle at Kenilworth during the Civil War. The local farmers were upset when damage was done and claims were made for fodder for the animals. The troops behaviour was very unreasonable!
The large Well House next to the church was once the Rectory. At the end of the 19th century here lived two sisters, Maud and Lilian. In 1884 Maud beat Lilian at Wimbledon to be the first Ladies Champion.
The inn in Berkswell has been offering hospitality since the 16th century. Until recently it had a gun outside not to fire on non-payers but as a memory of the war against the Russians in the Crimea. This is a village full of interest seek out the stocks with an odd number of foot holes said to accommodate a one legged offender ! Nearby is the school in a fine Victorian building.
In this age of supermarkets Berkswell is fortunate to still have its well-stocked Village Stores opposite the stocks on the Green. John and Stella Ebbans came here from Walsall some three years ago. We do get good support from the villagers said John. The butchers around the green have long since gone but there are two very large suppliers in the countryside nearby. They are both prize-winners too and their beautiful displays of meats tempted me to buy!
Berryfields Farm Shop is set within the farm in a converted farm building, enjoying views over the rolling fields. The other is the long-established Berkswell Traditional Farmstead Meats Farm Shop. In more utilitarian premises but none the worst for that Phil Tuckey told me that the family have been farming in the area for over four centuries to supply meats of outstanding quality and flavour. My wife is still extolling Phils Stilton and Pork sausages!
With all this talk of food perhaps a walk would be welcome! Park by the shop in Berkswell. By the churchyard take a path right which runs at the border of Berkswell Hall. On the road turn left for half a mile. Take a signed path left over the fields to a lane. Turn left and keep along the lane by a farm drive. There is a signed path right which goes by sand quarries to Meriden. To return to Berkswell walk along the signed lane you can call on those two wonderful butchers on the way!

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