Remember, Remember, The fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot,
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
Traditional children’s verse
It is hard to believe as you walk along the wide grass verges past the thatched cottages of the pretty village of Ashby St. Ledger that this peaceful village was once the home of the most dastardly treasonable plot ever hatched in this nation of ours.
Walk past the pretty thatched estate cottages, the work of Edwin Lutyens who designed the London Cenotaph, past the pretty pub, the Old Coach House where a previous owner gave the name of the village to one of England’s greatest horse races – The St Ledger.
Walk past the Norman church famous for its medieval wall paintings, the grim reaper is particularly spooky. Follow the proud avenue of trees up to the big house, it isn’t open to the public but from the gates you can see the small half timbered room over the coach entrance. In that room in 1605 a band of rich local Catholic plotters met to change history and to invent one of Britain’s favourite celebration – Firework Night –The fifth of November.
Their leader was Robert Catesby whose mother owned the house but the most famous plotter was Guy Fawkes. They chose the room over the entrance so that no one could eavesdrop from the room below.
Next stop on the Treason Trail is Dunchurch where the plotters waited in the Old Red Lion pub for news of Guy Fawkes’ success. Had the plot been successful they would have ridden to nearby Coombe Abbey on the edge of Coventry where nine year old Princess Elizabeth was imprisoned. Today Coombe Abbey is a popular hotel, call in for a drink or walk in its public gardens and marvel how little this impressive and historic building has changed.
In fact the plotters waited in the pub at Dunchurch for news of Guy Fawkes’ success. Today the black and white pub is just a private house but a plaque tells the story. When the news of betrayal and of Fawke’s arrest reached the plotters they fled. They were pursued across the country and were captured and publically executed indeed, hung drawn and quartered at Worcester.
While you are in Dunchurch, a pretty Warwickshire crossroad village, take a look at the statue of Lord John Douglas Montague Scott (1809–1860) a 19th century landlord and Scottish M.P. It has been an annual tradition for more than thirty years in Dunchurch to dress up the statue in the garb of a cartoon or TV character This year he became Homer Simpson.
Just outside Dunchurch is the tiny hamlet of Toft. The fields hereabouts are full of beautiful alpacas. Alpacas are little relatives of the llama and produce a wonderfully soft wool that makes fashionable jumpers, scarves, hats and the most comfortable socks in the world. In the little shop attached to the farm you can find high fashion garments made from the cozy soft yarn.
Despite the disgrace of the gunpowder plot the name of Catesby is still important in this part of the world and nearly the last stop on this gunpowder plot tour are the three village of Upper, Lower and just plain Catesby where there is another family house with a memorial to the conspirators.
From these villages you can see a white windmill on a nearby hill. We used it as a beacon and it took us to the Lost Vineyard of Hellidon. The shop here sells wines from all the commercial producers in the Mercian region. The shop is on the ground floor of a splendid converted windmill built in the 18th Century and last used for grinding corn a century ago.
The windmill was converted to a house and shop in 1978 and at the same time both a vineyard and cider orchard were planted. From the upper floors of the mill are clear views of several counties of middle England.
Currently the windmill winery produces dry and medium dry wines, also producing fruit wines from the farm’s own fruit. Cider is also produced from locally grown apples and crab apples. Fruit juices and wines from other wineries are also sold.
The clay pits and quarries around this part of Warwickshire have produced rich fossil evidence in the Blue Lias Strata. Blue Lias was a coloured clay used for making engineering bricks so important in building the canals and railways.
Among the clay layers fossils were plentiful. No wonder you find dinosaurs on local pub signs and the local long distance walk is known as the Jurassic Way. One famous dinosaur was discovered at Stockton. The Stockton Dinosaur – Ichthyosaurus, was the dolphin with attitude, it was the first sea creature that chased its prey on to dry land.
Next stop was Rugby, the clue is in the name. When William Webb Ellis picked up the football and ran with it he really started something. Follow the blue plaques around the town to learn the full story of the game that took its name from the town. The town is dominated by the impressive decorated brick buildings of the famous RugbySchool where it all happened.
We do love a good garden and can admire those who grow their own fabulous flowers and delicious vegetables without modern chemicals.
Much experimental work on organic gardening is carried out at the trial plots at Garden Organic at Ryton and another focus of this work is the preservation of old and threatened species of flowers and vegetables.
An amazing exhibition takes you into the world of vegetables. Our granddaughter Elizabeth loved the hands on experiments and we have to admit we did too.
Another interesting garden is at the National Herb Centre. Here you will find an extensive range of herb plants for cooks, gardener anyone with an interest in herbal remedies or alternative medicine as well as many interesting and unusual plant varieties.
As you would expect the bistro her offers delicious, freshly prepared breakfasts, lunches, and afternoon teas, with a strong focus on using local fresh ingredients especially fresh and unusual herbs. On warmer days, you can eat outside.
The centre has a free nature trail that winds down through the valley through fields, by ponds and into woodland with the opportunity to see a variety of wildlife in its natural habitat. The trail offers breathtaking views over the Warwickshire hills and over three counties beyond.
Ask anybody who were the first men to fly and they will tell you the Wright brothers but a Scotsman, Percy Pilcher, might have a better claim. He was certainly experimenting with a powered tri-plane five or six years before the Wrights.
He died in a glider accident in 1899. There is a memorial and a small museum at Stanford Hall where this historic air crash happened. There are plenty of other reasons to visit Stanford Hall.
Naseby was the most decisive battle of the English Civil War so we couldn’t miss stopping at the roadside Cromwell memorial to find out about the battle. Viewing points and interpretive panels make it come alive.
All over the countryside of England, you will find small roadside memorials of a much more recent war, memorials that commemorate disused and often vanished WW2 airfields. One such is just off the A14 near the village of Harrington.
This memorial carries a romantic but mysterious message. “Harrington Airfield” it tells you “was home to the Carpetbaggers”. Fortunately a tiny but packed museum just down the lane tells the full story.
The Carpetbaggers were the American flyers that secretly supplied the French Resistance with all they needed for their heroic war work of spying and sabotage. Every moonlit night a couple of dozen black painted and unmarked B 24 bombers would take off for France.
Rather than carrying bombs the bays would be full of parachute canisters, boxes and baskets of weapons and ammunition, civilian clothes, counterfeit Nazi uniforms, radio sets, even bicycles.
And as if this wasn’t heroic enough some nights the cargo was even more precious, even more secret. Brave men and women agents were flown into France under the noses of the enemy. Their average live expectancy was just three months.
Many of these heroes, sadly were never to return. But we owe them all an enormous debt of gratitude just as we do to the Carpetbaggers who delivered them.
We end our trail as we began with the gunpowder plotters. Sir Thomas Tresham was the father of one of Guy Fawkes co-conspirators. Ten years before the plot he built a cryptic and enigmatic house – the Triangular Lodge at Rushton. It was a secret testament to his Catholic beliefs and the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
There are three floors, trefoil windows and three triangular gables on each side. There are coded inscriptions and puzzles among the hundreds of three sided decorations.
We’ll finish our short holiday in the refined Royal spa town of Leamington. If you want to really understand the people of Leamington find the statue of Queen Victoria outside the ornate VictorianTown hall.
Look closely. Yes she is slightly skew whiff, an inch or so out of kilter. A Luftwaffe bomb went off very close to the statue in the war. The old lady rocked, moved an inch or two but survived undamaged.
The defiant folk of the town never moved her back, never straitened her up. Victoria’s new position they felt demonstrated the resolute nature of the town.
Whatever you do don’t forget the Elephants. In 1850 a local circus clown called Sam Lockhurst travelled to Ceylon. He brought a troop of performing elephants back to perform in the local park and swim in the river. Leamington loved them.
They still do. Leamington still uses the elephant on the town’s crest and signs. Images of elephants are all over the town. Young children never tired of trying to spot the many elephants.
There is still an elephant washing slipway near the Mill suspension bridge on the river Leam near the boat hire centre in JephsonGardens. Don’t worry it’s been a long time since the rowing boats were bothered by a real live swimming jumbo.
This part of England is so little known but a fascinating place to spend a short holiday. On our stay we met with treachery and unbelievable heroism and lots more along the way, all in the heart of our gloriously lovely English Midlands.