It was May 2014, the weather was perfect and the fields were full of new growth; the crops were coming on nicely. But first there was the Oxfam bookshop in Bromsgrove to check out. I came away with two purchases: Owen Hatherley's A Guide To The New Ruins of Britain and Basil Spence's book on the building of his cathedral, Phoenix At Coventry.
The path from Perryfields to Dodford is known as the Chartist Walk because Dodford was the last of the movement's plantations. This was the Chartists’ trading route to the market at Bromsgrove. Their other was north to Stourbridge which would be my next destination after Blakedown. The beginning of the path at Perryfields takes the neo-Chartist down the side of an unsentimental apple orchard, along a fenced-off alley enclosed by pines. From this tightly enclosed path the sound of traffic built up until I found myself on one side of a footbridge over the M5. I took a moment midway across to take in the angry energy of all that metal hurtling along; never fast enough, nobody ever wanting to be there, all convenience and fear. The field ahead promised something else entirely. The line of the path could not have been clearer. A strip of barren earth ascended the hill.
Many feet must have tread this path to the point where crops could not grow on the compacted soil even if the farmer wanted them to. It was the end of winter when I first made this journey, but springtime when I managed to complete it, having only made it to the woods on the other side of Dodford on the first attempt. What had been immaculately ploughed fields in March were now sprouting growth on either side of me in May. I was no longer on city time but moved with the seasons.
A buttercup meadow brought a gentleness of mind. I was beginning to feel that Dodford was an idyll of a sort, that Chartism in the village had indeed created the New Jerusalem. But, in reality, the project had only survived a few years. Now the beautiful, simple cottages which had been built for the plantation were now much sought-after property. Luckily one of them, Rosedene, is now in the hands of the National Trust, although access is limited.
Through patches of bluebells in Nutnells Wood, I had my lunch by a pond at Henley Brook. As thousands of tadpoles swam about, I sat on an abandoned concrete pipe and rested a while before crossing a bridge in a beautiful shaded twist of the brook’s course.
Up Barrow Hill to find the tumulus, I took the bridlepath down the other side as with so much growth, a proper view of it was not possible until I reached the bottom of the field. An angel cloud hung above it. The neolithic dead were being watched over.
Soon I felt lost but was not lost. I lost faith in my intuition and relied too much on signposts which failed to materialise. After wandering in the opposite direction for a while, I took out my compass and rechecked the map, taking note of the line of pylons. Soon I was secure again in my direction. The next official footpath was narrow and completely overgrown but I hurled myself through it with relish, knowing that I had found my way.
The entrance to Blakedown is gained by traversing the dam of Ladies Pool, and through the paddocks on the other side. The day was now hot and dry. The poor horses looked overwhelmed in their coats, and I was in need of refreshment and found some at the local post office. This itself was a journey back to a more dishevelled time. It reminded me of caravan holidays in the 1970s and hunting for paper bags of cola cubes and polystyrene gliders in Northern Irish coastal villages. I could feel my legs were aching for home so I trained it back to Moor St and returned in a fortnight to continue the walk.
The journey from Blakedown was at first a pleasant stroll past an old watermill to the authoritatively-named village of Churchill, over a hill to Common Farm, a sharp right turn cutting across the border from North Worcestershire into Staffordshire, then trekking northward along a very muddy Roman road to Norton Covert and then finally entering the western fringe of Stourbridge.
Conscious of walking on an ancient highway, especially when it is reduced to a narrow trek and ankle deep in liquid mud, I couldn't help wondering how a centurion would have managed in sandals. And how faraway from home he must have felt. Places gain importance from their approach, and next time I'll arrive in Stourbridge by train and won't think much about it, but coming in by an ancient track, however dubious its authenticity, is magnificent.
The Roman road took me to Norton Covert which, to put it crudely, is a big hole at the edge of town. In fact it is an old sandstone quarry where building material was extracted in the nineteenth century to construct the expanding town of Stourbridge. Nature has long since recaptured it, and because man has dug through strata for industrial purposes it has become a place of geological interest and beauty. Paths along the edge allow views of the canopy and steep paths down into the pit invite the curious. By this stage of my walk my legs were afraid they would not make it back up again, so I vowed to return one day and carried on.
The Roman road continues from Norton Covert along the western edge of Stourbridge becoming a sandy lane called, unsurprisingly, Sandy Lane. This particular leg of my journey ended by heading into the town centre for coffee, grub and books; my usual nourishment. I found a lovely old edition of Tom Sawyer to give to my son when he's a bit older, then headed off on the train back home.