Polesworth and Tamworth - North Warwickshire's most historical towns?
PUBLISHED: 11:05 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 16:43 20 February 2013
The towns of Polesworth and Tamworth are linked by a common history as Richard Shurey discovers.
Tamworth has always been a great centre for trade as it was on a meeting of old routes such as the Romans Watling Street and two rivers, the Tame and Anker. Later came the two canals (the Birmingham and Fazeley and Coventry Canals) which have survived to this day. Two important railways cross here at right angles and necessitate a railway on two levels to accommodate the busy lines.
Today we find the valley is a vibrant area that has overcome the loss of being dependent on the mining of coal. There are huge industrial units to the west of the town including the SnowDome Europes first indoor slope with guaranteed snow every day of the year!
Until 1888 the town was split between Warwickshire and Staffordshire but the latter then made a take-over deal which was successful. Two of several sons of the area who made good were Robert Peel who, after his Tamworth Manifesto, established what is today the modern Conservative party. Then there was another MP of the town, Thomas Guy who gave us the famous Guys Hospital in London.
Come with me then as we meander along the valleys of the Anker and Tame, starting from Polesworth. Car parking is free in this large village of some 6,000 inhabitants. I parked at a little area just on the Grendon Road. This gives a fine view of the bridge of eleven arches over the River Anker. Here the river widens to form a shallow pool easy to cross in ancient times. The river would flood to ensure fertile soil. It was for these reasons that a settlement was established. (The name of the village comes from pol, Saxon for pool, and worth, a building.)
We can now cross the spacious Abbey Green to the Abbey Church and beyond to the gatehouse (where it is said the roadsweepers kept their shovels and brooms). This leads to the High Street plenty of black
and white houses still here. There is also a rather austere Congregational church that dates from 1828. This was the time of the Oxford Movement within the Church of England and the great growth of non-conformist worship. Left is Bridge Street; signposted is a restored Tithe Barn which was erected in the 1655 from the will of Sir Francis Nethersole. Here were stored the goods paid as a local tax by the tenants of the Manor. We find also the start of the unique Poetry Trail, carved on wood and EEC funded ask at the nearby Library.
On to Tamworth; the old core of the town has survived the enormous population growth doubled within 30 years to about 74,000. (It was 7,000 in 1931!) There are still the many reminders of times past the statue of Sir Robert Peel looking proudly over the admired pedestrianised streets where markets are held every Tuesday and Saturday. Peel turns his back on the Town Hall, surprisingly really as it is such a gem, erected by Thomas Grey.
A street away is one of the largest and oldest churches in the Midlands. St Ediths Church is beautifully maintained, by an army of helpers,
I was told by ladies at the bookstall.
I especially loved the stained glass windows. One was designed by the world-renowned Sir Edward Burne-Jones the other more modern west window unveiled by Princess Margaret in 1975 it appears so full of colour, even on a rather bleak day.
I liked another large bright stained glasss window in the towns Ankerside Shopping Centre which seems to mirror a successful commercial enterprise.
With over 60 High Street names, in these difficult retail days, I could not see a single empty shop. The castle, (guarded by cannons) is only a few steps away and below the ramparts are the Pleasure Grounds.
Later there will be beautiful floral terraces and fun and games facilities around the rivers and music from the fine bandstand too. I am resolved to visit Tamworth and Polesworth again on one of those lazy, hazy days
Shakespeare is revered throughout Warwickshire but a poet contemporary of the Bard is little known. Michael Drayton was born in Hartshill in 1563 but lived much of his life in Polesworth. He wrote:
My verse is the true imagine of my mind,
Even in motion, still desiring change,
And as thus to variety inclind,
So in humours sportively I range.
My Muse is rightly of the English strain
That cannot long one fashion entertain
Perhaps we lovers of the English literary scene should have a closer look at the verses of Drayton. There is a story that Shakespeare did come to Polesworth to stay with the Nethersole family and was even partly educated with Drayton.
Polesworth has a landscape reclaimed from open cast mining in the bend of the River Anker in fact the river was actually diverted by the vicarage to enable mining to continue! It has now been put back to where it was and Abbey Green is green again. There is now a very interesting reminder of those days of coal. Pooley Heritage Centre (open every weekend) was built on the site of Pooley Hall Colliery which closed in 1965 and gives a memorable insight of the mining industry. (Perhaps when those wind turbines fail to turn we will remember the coal which remains hidden underground!)
Back to Polesworth, there is a view over the river from an obelisk just south of the Anker. This marks the site of St Leonards Chapel that was destroyed by Henry VIII in 1538.
Some say that the main street was spoilt by the demolition of old buildings but things do remain to remind us of the past when an abbey was centred on Polesworth. There is the rather splendid Norman gatehouse which leads to the church. We go back to the 9th century when Egbert, King of Wessex built a convent for 13 nuns at Polesworth in gratitude to Modwena, a saintly Irish princess who cured his son of leprosy. There are only a few mounds to mark the site of the abbey. Now a fine avenue of lime trees leads to the church where, in Victorian times, a thoughtful restoration by the celebrated G.E. Street preserved the best of the past.
This territory is steeped in history. Egbert was the first Saxon king of
Part of the Saxon kingdom was Mercia under Offa who, a few miles downstream from Polesworth, built a grand palace at Tamworth. It was left in ruins by the invading Danes until being rebuilt by the brave daughter of King Alfred.
Aethelfleda raised the new castle on a great mound that she directed to be a hundred and thirty feet high. We can only marvel at the amount of soil needed! Later (in the 11th century) a great Norman castle was constructed on the site, a monolith that we can marvel at today. It was during the Civil War that the Earl of Richmond encamped at Tamworth four days before the great Battle of Bosworth Field and the castle was besieged by the Parliamentary troops in 1643 but survived. Shakespeare gave Henry the stirring words on the plains hereabouts:
Fellows in arms, and my most friends, Bruised underneath the yoke