The Heart Of England Way - Day Three

The Heart Of England Way
By Mark Walford
Day Three

Route: Drayton Basset to Shustoke
Date: Monday May 6th 2013
Distance: 12m (19.5km)
Elevation: 203ft (62m) to 344ft (105m)
Climbing (ascent and descent): 443ft (135m) and 344ft (105m)

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Drayton Basset with the sunshine and the sun cream ….

I took a peek outside as I got ready for the day and was greeted by an almost perfect Spring morning with brilliant sunshine beaming down out of an azure sky. It was a bank holiday and this weather was, therefore, atypical. I remembered a little belatedly that I hadn’t included sun cream on my shopping list for this walk.
I kicked an empty beer bottle as I crossed the lounge and noticed that it was one of several scattered about the room. We’d all enjoyed a nice relaxing evening but I was still surprised at the amount of empties three blokes can generate even on a quiet night. I tidied them away, smiling at Bods choice of drink for the week. For reasons only known to himself he had decided to shun beer in favour of pear cider – a drink he referred to as a “fruit-based drink for the ladies” but which he seemed to enjoy.
For the next few days the Heart Of England Way ran through North Warwickshire and would therefore be on my doorstep. Car journeys would be a short hop as a result, and indeed the drop off point for our first car was the Griffin Inn at Shustoke, the nearest thing I have to a ‘local’ where the finest real ales are sold and I have had many a happy time. Moving on from the Griffin we made our way to Drayton Basset and parked in the tiny lay-by just before the village centre. I noticed curtains twitching in the smart houses opposite and half-expected a ‘you can’t park here’ conversation to begin but nobody ventured out of their front doors, instead they got to watch the spectacle of three blokes smearing sun cream (supplied by Colin) liberally over their extremities before shouldering rucksacks and marching manfully off along Drayton Lane.

Kingsbury with the narrow boats and the crowds …..

Drayton Basset village centre consisted of a nice collection of cottages, a shop, and a village church but was still asleep on this fine morning and we didn’t encounter a soul as we passed the church, walking out of the village via a narrow hedged lane. Almost immediately we reached the Birmingham-Fazeley canal and saw that we had to cross it via a most unusual footbridge. Two whitewashed pillars stood at each end, resembling the crenelated towers of a castle, each housing a set of stone steps that spiralled up onto a railed wooden bridge. Bod squeezed his not inconsiderable frame into the narrow doorway and climbed the stairs singing ‘I’m the king of the castle’ whilst Colin remained on the canal embankment in order to capture us on the bridge before making his way up to join us.
HEW Day3 Pic 1

St. Peter's Church, Drayton Basset, Staffordshire

We looked down on the cool green waters of the canal where a few narrow boats chugged towards the marina at Fazeley and a family cycled their way along the tow-path in the opposite direction, Kingsbury-bound. We all loved canals, so the prospect of walking along this one for a few miles in such perfect conditions was something we really looked forward to. We descended the opposite tower and set off along the arrow-straight tow-path of the canal, following the cyclists towards Kingsbury Water Park some two and a half miles distant. The sun was by now high in the sky and it was pleasant to walk under the dappled shade of the trees that lined the tow-path, offering some cool relief from the heat of the day. We passed narrow boats moored up along the embankment, all painted in vibrant colours with the traditional Roses And Castles motif represented in a variety of formats and styles. The enticing aroma of frying bacon wafted up out some of the galleys and many of the boat people were sunning themselves on the fore and aft decks, sipping coffee and offering us friendly ‘good mornings’ as we passed by. One such boat had a small terrier dozing with his snout poking out of the cabin whilst his owner strummed a banjo as he waited for his breakfast to arrive. Colin turned to me and smiled. “That’s the life!” he said, approvingly, and I had to agree. I was also reminded of how cheerful a banjo sounds when played reasonably well and I made a promise to buy one for myself one day.
We passed beds of tall reeds and verdant stretches of embankment where wild flowers flourished. Colin was kept busy identifying the birdsong and I ticked off wild-flower species; vetch, campion, harebells, poppy, marsh marigold and balsam, many in full bloom and others producing buds that would blossom later in the year. On our left there were wide open acres of marsh and reed-beds, a legacy of the gravel extraction that had worked this area in the recent past and had now moved on, leaving the gravel beds to fill naturally from rising water tables, creating a perfect habitat for migrating water fowl. Our destination, Kingsbury Water Park, was itself the result of gravel extraction but was a more mature version of this watery landscape, gravel extraction having ceased some forty years before and therefore giving nature enough time to re-establish willows and birches, creating a series of lakes fringed by woodland habitat.
We ambled along the canal for a couple of miles until we reached a row of terraced cottages set above the embankment. As we turned away from the canal at these pretty houses I was reminded of spring 2010, a spring of torrential rain, when I had ventured this way on a walk only to find that the river Tame had burst its banks and submerged the entire water park. The flood water had found its way into the canal via the end cottage of this row, entering through the front door and gushing out through the back with its owner standing by, watching helplessly from what was left of his garden. The canal itself had been turned into a churning brown river with narrow boats bobbing like corks in its turbulence; in grave danger of breaking their moorings and being swept away towards Fazeley. Arriving at this spot on such an idyllic day was a stark contrast and it was hard to imagine such a scene had ever taken place.
The route took us along the outer fringes of the water park where we decided to stop for a cup of tea and a rest at the Granary Tea Room, sitting on an outside bench with views across to a large lagoon where gangs of geese and ducks bickered loudly and vied for nesting space on the small islands
HEW Day3 Pic 2

The Birmingham-Fazeley canal, Staffordshire

that dotted its surface. Colin was playing with his birdsong app and started broadcasting the wheezy notes of a Greenfinch. Almost immediately a feisty male appeared on a nearby telephone line, bristling with indignation and calling out a challenge towards this usurper on his territory. From the telephone line he flitted to the roof of the tea rooms and began posturing aggressively, spoiling for a fight with his unseen rival.
Suitably refreshed we set of into the park, taking a series of foot-paths that I was well acquainted with as it was the route I followed most Sunday mornings when exercising Frankie the greyhound. Kingsbury Water Park is a series of pleasant paths that meander through light woodland and which link a series of lakes both large and small. Being a bank holiday and a fine spring day the park was busy, the crowds thickening as we headed for the Visitor Centre which formed the hub of activity for families enjoying a day out. We passed through adventure playgrounds, a pen where donkey rides were on offer, and the main station for the Echills Wood miniature railway whose narrow gauge trains carry people on a series of circuits through the park and whose existence is maintained by a group of dedicated and enthusiastic volunteers. We headed north, passing the large yachting lake where white sails billowed and cracked in the breeze, and a second lake where the noisy throb and splash of jet-skis carved white lines across its surface.
Finally we took a path out of the park and away from the crowds, crossing a meadow and then an old stone bridge over the silently gliding River Tame. Last year I had started out on the Warwickshire Centenary Way from the visitor centre at Kingsbury Water Park and I had assumed that the Heart Of England Way would follow the same southbound route heading out towards Bodymoor Heath. Instead we were exiting the park in the opposite direction, climbing a flight of steps to pass a narrow lane between the old church and the restored Hemlingford Mill, a building which until very recently had been shrouded under scaffolding and polythene sheets. The mill has had a chequered history as it was originally a water mill but became used for many purposes including milling corn into flour and grinding gun barrels for muskets during the Napoleonic Wars.

Beyond Kingsbury with the gunfire and the rabbit droppings ….

True to form, as we were now in a built-up area, the guide book faltered and fumbled and we had to work our way out of the large village using the GPS and our own intuition. As with most places visited on the Heart Of England Way, the visit to Kingsbury was fleeting and we dived in and out of the place in no time to find ourselves crossing flat meadows before taking a subway beneath a railway line and into open countryside once more.
Crossing a few small fields we turned a corner and began to edge around the perimeter of a military firing range. I had often heard the crack and pop of distant gunfire during my dog-walking on Sunday mornings but had assumed that it was a commercial venture - clay pigeon shooting perhaps - but this was strictly M.O.D and the large concrete wall where targets were hung was clearly visible in the middle distance. There didn’t seem to be anybody about as we passed a series of wooden billets housing classrooms and locker facilities and we were quite disappointed as we wanted to see the range in action. On the far side of the range we struck off across the largest field I have ever seen. It must have been a hundred acres in size and had been ploughed to a fine crumbly tilth. Walking across it was like trekking across a Martian plain or, as Bod had it, the Badlands. “Vultures are going to start circling us when we are halfway across,” he observed.
The path took us diagonally across this open space and also slightly uphill, which was hard work under the full glare of the sun. As we reached the halfway point we saw no vultures overhead
HEW Day3 Pic 3

A handsome property at Foul End, Warwickshire

but heard instead the crack and rattle of gunfire opening up behind us. The M.O.D firing range had sprang to life and I tried to capture the sound on video only to have it snatched away by the side-wind that buffeted us on this exposed site. We reached the crest of the hill where a cluster of farm buildings lay semi-hidden behind a beech hedge - there was a sward of mown turf before this hedge, which offered a nice view across the Warwickshire countryside and this seemed to be an ideal place to stop for lunch. We cast ourselves upon the grass, producing sandwiches and pasties as Colin unlaced his boots and offered his bare feet to the breeze once more. Somewhere in the heavens a skylark warbled a complex tune as he fluttered earthwards and the breeze, reduced to a gentle murmur in this sheltered spot, sighed softly through the branches of the slender birches behind the hedge. It was warm and pleasant and after we had eaten we all lay back and enjoyed the peace. Colin munched contentedly on his trail mix as he lay, propped on one elbow, and surveyed the scene before us. Suddenly he made a strangled sound and spat violently.
We looked at him quizzically.
“I’ve eaten rabbit shit!” he exclaimed, wiping his mouth violently.
He had dropped some of his trail mix on the grass and without really looking had scooped it up and crammed it into his mouth, along with a generous helping of rabbit poo (I suppose it looked like raisins). Bod and I offered our sympathy via a fit of helpless laughter.
This small drama completed, we all lay and drowsed for a while. Bod fell into a deeper sleep and began to snore gently. One particularly loud snort woke him up and in an effort to prove to us that he had not, in fact, fallen asleep he hummed a little tune - however Colin had already captured his mini-nap on camera.
We were all a little reluctant to leave this comfortable spot. The sun was warm and the grass was soft to lie on, but we still had a few miles to make so we got to our feet, stretched our legs and shouldered our packs once more. The silos of the Kingsbury Fuel Depot, seen as distant white dots on the landscape the day before, were now close-by to the east and suggested that the route would take us further north-eastwards to skirt them before heading south once more towards Shustoke and our journey’s end. We left the farm behind us and walked for a while along a country lane where, looking back, we could still make out the slender spike of the Lichfield transmitter far away to the north, barely discernible against the sky. It would finally disappear over the horizon the next day, having been a constant landmark ever since we started the route in Staffordshire.

Towards Shustoke with the missing cows and the reservoirs ….

We took a few more fields and for a while I was unsure of my surroundings until another short section of lane-walking brought us out into a small hamlet which I immediately recognised as Foul End, an unfortunate name for such a pretty place. Once again I was on familiar territory as we started to follow one of my regular local walks. We turned away from Foul End almost immediately, taking a bridleway that dived down between a hedgerow and the boundary of a fine old cottage which I have always promised myself I would buy should I ever become wealthy and should it ever come onto the market. The lovely garden of the place could be made out through gaps in its boundary hedge and I envied the owners their peace and seclusion, with their far-reaching views across rolling meadows and cow pastures. The bridleway took us down to another large field and then diagonally across it. This field was used for growing potatoes for the snack market, a fact I knew because I had met the farmer a few times on my ramblings, a cheerful ruddy-cheeked chap who also frequented the bar at the Griffin Inn. I told my companions that we would reach a gate at the end of the field and would then walk through an old orchard where a trio of highland cattle, great shaggy beasts as tame as kittens, would provide a photo opportunity. They were always in this orchard, at all times of the year, and so of course when we got there they were completely absent.
We left the orchard and began to climb steadily up Halloughton Lane, a secretive little road of leafy boughs and large properties set back behind manicured gardens. An elderly gentleman was seated in a deckchair under the shade of a tree, reading a book and sipping something cold from a tall glass; we held his attention for a few seconds as we filed past and then he wandered off across his neat lawn for a refill.
Making our way across several pastures and gently descending as we did so we reached the edge of the village of Whitacre Heath and at a railway bridge we briefly shared the same path as the Centenary Way.
HEW Day3 Pic 4

Nearing Shustoke Reservoir, Warwickshire

My last visit had been in August 2011, the first day of the Centenary Way when Lenscap Dave and I had walked through a monsoon. This bridge was memorable because we had visited it twice, soggily describing a wide and needless circle due to my inability to correctly interpret the guidebook. Today of course the weather couldn’t be faulted, and we took a path that ran parallel to the railway where we emerged onto yet more pastures, following a series of hedgerows down into a grassy field fringed with stately poplars. Through the branches of these trees the white sheen of Shustoke reservoir could be spied, with yachts gliding gracefully across its surface, and we picked our way across the meadow to take a cinder path and a bridge over a railway line.
The access route across the railway line had obviously changed since the guidebook had been written and for once we couldn’t blame the author for the nonsensical directions it was now issuing. Instead we spent a few minutes working out the right way forward and took pictures of an abandoned tractor that stood on the edge of a field, poignant and forlorn.
For the next mile the route took us parallel to the railway on our left with a sunken brook and then the reservoir away to our right. It was getting toward the end of the day and the path was one of those rough footways paved with large stone chippings. This isn’t the best surface to force tired feet to plod along and Bod in particular didn’t think much to this section. I rather enjoyed it though, as there was dappled shade, the sound of the gurgling brook, and the occasional excitement of a passing train. It did seem to go on for quite a while however and it was nice to get off the stone chippings and onto firmer ground. We passed through a small glade where the brook, quieter on this section, flowed along between banks of willows, its waters crystal clear so the its stony bed could be clearly seen. It looked surprisingly deep and, on such a warm day, cool and inviting – a perfect place for a quick skinny-dip. We had a walk to finish so no such thing took place and we left the brook and the reservoir behind us, climbing up and around the edge of a field and onto the B4114. Here the Heart Of England Way crossed the road and over a stile directly opposite to us, but our walking was done for the day and we turned left instead, marching along, and up, the road to reach a sharp left hand bend and the Griffin Inn.

Shustoke with the Griffin and the goodbyes ….

Mick, the landlord of the Griffin observed traditional licensing hours and we weren’t expecting it to be open for business but, being a bank holiday, he had decided to keep the place open all day so we had the bonus of enjoying a cold pint of Stowford’s Press cider, sitting in the beer garden, and resting weary legs.
It was Bod’s last day with us as he had to head back home to Southport the following morning. He had enjoyed his two days of walking with us and it would have been great to have completed the week with him, but he had work commitments. I wouldn’t be walking with Colin and Bod in September when they started the Wainwright Coast-to-Coast path so this was the only time the three of us would get together during the year and as usual it had flown by. We finished our drinks and made for home, which on this occasion was a mere seven miles distant.

Sheldon Takeaway Treat: KFC.

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