Cycling in my own backyard, there must be lot to offer but as a local, I have become accustomed to not recognise the fact. Embarrassingly, I am not actually aware of the delights that are on my doorstep – as a tourist you have a clearer, non-blinkered view of the area.
My plan was to venture out on my bike and see the sights and sounds I had missed over the years when travelling by car. Ultimately I hoped I would stumble upon the strange and wonderful places and people that I believe this part; my part of the Midlands had to offer.
Leamington Spa has been my home forever; I was born and raised here, it runs through my veins. There has never been an urge to move on. So as I pedalled down towards the town centre following the NCN 41, I pondered how things may have been different. The town itself is beautifully laid out, with wide open boulevards and an impressive array of Georgian townhouses. The town’s most striking building is the Royal Pump Rooms and Gardens which originally housed the spa and baths, attracting many visitors in the hope that the salt waters would cure them of their ailments. I briefly stopped by the tap located outside this most imposing and ostentatious building. I was thrilled to find it still dispenses spa water to the unsuspecting public, the water has a slightly salty aftertaste and is believed to be a mild laxative. Nowadays the Pump Rooms are home to the library, museum, tourist information centre and a jolly little café. The tourist centre and library provide good quality cycling guides for all the major towns in the county, with detailed maps showing the on-road and off-road cycle lanes or tracks as well as the Sustrans National Cycle Network routes. The maps can also be downloaded online, like most things; come on, we live in the age of technology.
Opposite the Pump Rooms is the glorious Jephson’s Gardens which provides a peaceful haven from the bustle of the town. It’s brimming with some lovely floral displays and a lively fountain but I was intrigued to find a wonderful ornate seating area/statue called Elephant and Boy. In 1849, Heiger’s Equestrian Circus was based in the town and their troop of animals included a quantity of elephants, which were walked through the town every day to wash in the river by the Mill Bridge weir. The monument was erected to celebrate this bizarre but fun part of the town’s history.
A short distance from the gardens is the imposing Town Hall which has a rather sombre statue of Queen Victoria situated directly outside. The Queen visited the town in 1838 and enjoyed her stay so much she granted it a royal prefix. She could have at least cracked a smile! My attention was drawn to a plaque which had been placed at its base. It read “A German bomb moved this statue one inch on its plinth on the 14th November 1940”. I found it unbelievable that the town was exposed to some expertly planned and efficiently executed bombing campaigns. My generation and future generations have no idea what people had to experience, if it doesn’t have Nintendo or Apple blazoned on it, then we are just not interested. I was overjoyed and dismayed by the sight of a penny-farthing which appeared astonishingly unlocked in the bike parking area to the side of the Town Hall. Thankfully my initial concerns were alleviated after further inspection I established a lock was suitably in place. I should have definitely gone to Specsavers.
My next port of call was the Grand Union Canal, which connects London to Birmingham. This section comfortably dissects both Leamington and Warwick and the waterways are always busy but in comparison the towpaths are usually fairly pedestrian-free. My plan was simply to pedal from one of the many access points south of Leamington and follow the canal into Warwick before reverting onto the road and eventually arriving at Hatton Country World via Hatton locks. The weather was magnificent, bright blue skies and a light breeze, ideal conditions for exploration on two wheels. I was happy!
I accessed the canal in the most mundane of locations, wedged between the Co-op and the Vitamin Shop, it didn’t provide the most romantic introduction to the delights of our Grand Canal. It was glorious pedalling along the empty towpath, they were in good order and considering I was so close to town and bustling traffic, the peacefulness was a welcome surprise. Just one word of caution: officially, to cycle on the towpath, you need a permit from British Waterways; they are free and can be downloaded online. Over the years I have pedalled up and down miles of canal side paths and I have never been asked to produce the permit, but it can’t help to be prepared.
I comfortably maintained a moderate speed and I eased passed the Moorings public house which has a wonderful outlook onto the canal towpath and would be an ideal lunch stop. I crossed the main train line and easily negotiated the Tesco’s section and reached the outskirts of Warwick. This part of the canal is home to several boat-building businesses and it was great to see the wonderful array of brightly coloured boats moored up along the bank, in various stages of reconstruction or redecoration. Unfortunately my time on the canal had to come to temporary end, for the time being anyway. I wanted to visit Warwick town centre.
Most people associate Warwick with its stunning Castle but the town offers so much more. I cycled into the market square and left my bike locked up outside the Warwickshire Museum, which deserves a quick visit if you want a detailed insight into the turbulent history of the town. The museum is housed in the stunning Market Hall and the downstairs section accommodates a changing exhibition space with some lovely displays on geology. Upstairs focuses predominately on local history and archaeology, and bizarrely a live beehive, which I found completely mesmerizing but, most importantly, it’s free and definitely one for the kids. On exiting I noticed a small but well stocked gift shop and a mini tourist information centre offering an array of leaflets on local places of interest, the proper tourist information office is located in the Court House on the main road through town. Directly opposite the museum is the imposing and slightly fearsome statue dedicated to Randolph Turpin which I always find a draw. Turpin was born in Leamington Spa and became world champion in 1951 when he famously defeated Sugar Ray Robinson in London. The statue is a fitting memorial and sits comfortably amongst the grandeur that the town exudes.
The town does appear to be slightly overrun with coffee shops but the relaxed atmosphere was lovely and therapeutic. There were plenty of pubs and the normal array of high street shops, happily mixed with the bizarre, knick-knacky craft shops. I had decided to visit the Collegiate Church of St Marys, as I approached the building, I suddenly realised how stunningly beautiful the church actually was. There was no entry fee but a donation is appreciated. The church originally dates back to the 1100s but had to be substantial rebuilt following the town’s Great Fire of 1694 which actually decimated the majority of the medieval town. The highlight of the visit was the glorious Beauchamp Chapel, the resting place of several earls of Warwick, the tombs are intricately carved and the place was serenely peaceful. I sat for a while in the tranquil surroundings and wondered why I always appear drawn to places of worship.
The town has plenty to keep all busy regardless of age, a good standard of charity shops, a lovely atmospheric bookshop and the quaint Period House shop with its lovely array of antiquities, which I always enjoy. I consumed a lovely coffee in Wylies café stuck down the narrow alleyway of the Ironyard before I wandered aimlessly around the town’s slightly confusing one-way system. After taking in the delights of all the charity shops I jumped back on the bike and headed north out of town. I passed the imposing courthouse and opposite the library I noticed a weather-worn cell door. I was intrigued to read on the plaque accompanying the door that it was the original outer door of a prisoner’s cell, formerly within the county gaol, rebuilt on the site in 1695.
As I pedalled away from the town, I stumbled on a strange location for a duck/ducklings crossing. The vivid, brightly coloured sign was located adjacent to the always busy Birmingham Road. I found the whole experience completely baffling especially its extremely unsuitable location. Obviously any sane duck, with even a little knowledge of probabilities would have been (I was briefly tempted to use quackers) crazy to even consider an impromptu foray across to the other side, which was in fact the Woodloes area of the town and, trust me, it’s not that interesting, especially for a duck. One consolation for the poor ducks was there was no immediate Chinese restaurants/takeaways nearby. I detoured into the rather busy car park of the Saltisford Canal Centre. I had passed the centre many times but never ventured inside, so my inquisitive nature took over. I hadn’t missed much, there was a large congregation of narrowboats moored up but not much else going on so I left unimpressed. I did establish that you can hire out a boat for a day, if you fancy some watery fun.
It was a short distance from the town centre to Hatton Country World; I was glad I had decided to take the road as I didn’t fancy the trek up the twenty-plus locks on the towpath. My progress was good due to the well maintained cycle path which I had located north of the A46 and eventually I pedalled into the grounds of Hatton Locks. The area was wonderfully relaxing and is an excellent example of how canal businesses have had to diversify to meet the ever demanding changes of society. When this stretch was opened in 1800 the canal was predominately built to transport locally mined coal to the factories and furnaces of the Black Country. Unfortunately as we moved into the modern era the transport methods changed significantly, the waterways were no longer efficient and eventually the railways completely decimated the usefulness of the canal system
Nowadays the buildings have been converted into office space and training or conference venues and the old stable block is now operating as a lovely welcoming café. I stopped at the café and sat outside and devoured a substantial slice of carrot cake and a refreshing coffee. The area offered plenty of outdoor seating and is ideal location to sit and watch the constant flow of boats meandering up and down the canal system. More importantly it looked like a great location to rest those weary legs and tired eyes. I continued to follow the canal northwards there were plenty of barges moored up with their chimneys happily polluting the atmosphere. I reverted to the roadway just down the road from Hatton Country World.
This Hatton Country world provides a collection of small business units and a working farm, there is a large antiques section, cafe and lots of arts and crafts businesses. It’s a great place for all the family and whatever the weather there is plenty to do. I locked the bike up against a slightly rickety fence, I only mention this because I later returned to find my bike and fence both collapsed in a heap; thankfully, the bike sustained no permanent damage and I managed to slip away without having to take responsibility for the decrepit and now substantial pile of wood. My first priority was to utilise the toilet. This is when I encountered…actually I nearly tripped over a peacock. I’m not sure why a peacock would need to use a WC but he did appear happy to parade around like a novel guard dog. I wandered around the antiques, sat for a while looking at the farm before I purchased some liquorice torpedoes from the Hatton Toffee Shop, a traditional sweet shop which evoked some early childhood memories. I had hoped the glucose burst would help with my flagging energy levels. I then had another bizarre interaction with the officious peacock before I jumped back on the bike and retraced my way back to Hatton locks. I chose to cycle down the towpath, the route was well maintained and there were plenty of boats slowly making their way down the waterway towards Warwick. I had read that it takes about two hours to get through the complete lock system and it spans less than two miles with a total rise of forty-five metres or 148 feet. The descent was exhilarating and at times slightly nervy, my progress hampered on only a couple of occasions by dogs taking their owners for a walk. The peacefulness was so joyous and was only interrupted on the odd occasion by trains arriving and departing at the nearby Warwick Parkway Station.
I left the canal at Hatton Bottom lock and jumped onto the extremely chaotic road network and headed in the direction of the A46. The route took me through the newly established Chase Meadow housing estate, it offered good, well maintained cycle paths and a rather large pub which was obviously popular due to the lack of space in the car park. I easily negotiated the Stratford Road, which was unusually quiet. I turned right and pedalled towards the bridge which took me over the M40. The sign as I approached stated all cyclists must dismount; I obviously disregarded the sign ‒ don’t we all? ‒ and swerved through the bollards with ease. The M40 was as expected extremely busy, the noise was overwhelming. I descended at speed and wove my way on to the cycle path which took me to Barford, the noise had now gone and the peacefulness had returned, it was so calming and provided a wonderful diversion from the chaos I had just encountered.
Barford was eerily quiet and offered the normal slightly boring small village amenities, to be fair it does provide two good quality hostelries. I exited the village to the south and turned onto the fairly busy A429, next stop Wellesbourne. I had only travelled a short distance before I became distracted by the aroma of fried food and coffee. The strategically located mobile burger van was doing a roaring trade dishing out breakfast sarnies, burgers and cups of hot beverages to the extremely satisfied, happy motorists. I pedalled energetically through Wellesbourne and detoured to the lovely but tiny village of Charlecote, in search of my own hot beverage.
Basically the village has two attractions, if you fancy a bit of history and culture then there is the stunningly elegant Charlecote House and Deer Park which is owned by the National Trust and for a bit of refreshment and retail therapy there is a lovely garden centre opposite. I pulled into the rather bumpy garden centre car park, locked up the bike to a rather impressive tree and set off in the hunt for a coffee and another slice of cake, yes another slice! The garden centre was nothing spectacular; the coffee shop is located at the rear and was extremely busy. I was amazed that the majority of the clientele were other fellow cyclists. After devouring a large slice of cake, yes another of slice of cake, and a strong cup of coffee I jumped back on the bike and continued my journey towards Stratford.
The road dissected a plethora of farms and I was conscious that I was following the perimeter of the large deer park. It was lovely to see the deer happily bounding around the estate. I made the outskirts of Stratford in good time and, as I travelled over the River Avon, I caught a glimpse of the newly renovated facade of the Shakespeare theatre, it looked stunning. I decided to stop in Bancroft gardens, which is directly opposite the main entrance to the imposing Theatre. The gardens offer some lovely grassy areas, with substantial tree cover, which briefly provided me with a natural shelter from the incessant heat of the sun, a definite necessity today. The area was ideal for a picnic and is also home to a lively canal basin with plenty of boats moored up, some for personal use and some business outlets, the majority food-based. I noticed a lovely British Waterways sign by the well maintained lock, it wonderfully informed me the distances to Birmingham, London, York and Liverpool. I was briefly distracted by the soothing water of the overactive modern-style fountain which was unveiled by the Queen in 1996. There was an abundance of seating around the garden, especially near the opulent water feature making it an ideal location to spend your lunch break or just meet friends. I especially enjoyed the Gower Memorial which affords a lovely image of Shakespeare presiding over a quantity of lovely carved figures depicting some of the Bard’s famous characters. Prince Hal represents History, Lady Macbeth is Tragedy, Hamlet represents Philosophy and finally Falstaff personifies Comedy. The tranquillity was lovely and I lay on the grass. I was on the verge of dropping off, obviously to sleep and not the grass when I was interrupted by an annoying stream of trigger-happy tourists, rambunctiously admiring an overenthusiastic street performer.
Stratford is undoubtedly famous for being the birthplace of William Shakespeare but in my opinion it more famous for its overbearing and irritatingly annoying tourists. My main grumble is the inflated prices you have to pay for everything, food, drink, parking, air and this is ultimately down to the demanding tourist trade. For an example, we had recently decided as a treat for the family to visit some attractions within the town and parked in the most convenient car park. Okay it was in the heart of the main shopping area and near the sights but we had the kids and getting them to walk anywhere is a battle of minds. My point is the prices were astonishingly expensive and I mean a ‘small loan’ expensive, it was ridiculous. That is why I love my bike so much. Bike, Chain, Post. Simple!
My plan was to cycle to Ann Hathaway’s Cottage, Shakespeare’s love interest and then onto Mary Arden’s House, Shakespeare’s mother before finally concluding my Bard experience at Shakespeare’s Birthplace in the heart of the town centre. I had also decided not to visit the sights as I had visited them on a number of occasions throughout my many years and more importantly I wanted you, the reader to understand the ease of visiting and the close proximity of the associated Shakespeare properties and how achievable they are in one day. It also gave me the opportunity to concentrate on the joys of cycling around the beautifully idyllic surroundings.
The route out of town took me on the busy A4390 towards Shottery. The hamlet is home to Ann Hathaway’s Cottage. After only a few miles I caught my first glimpse of the thatched cottage and its well established gardens, brimming will brightly coloured flowers. This is where the young Shakespeare got it together with his future spouse at her picturesque family home. The cottage dates from the sixteenth century and was the family home of the Hathaways up to 1892 when it was purchased by the Birthplace Trust. It contains some wonderful family furniture items (they claim to have the original martial bed that Shakespeare and his spouse used) and lovely woodland walks. Opposite the house is the well-presented ‘Cottage Tea Gardens’. After stopping for a short time I pushed on in the direction of Mary Arden’s House. The property was located north of my current location but conveniently still on the outskirts of the town.
The route took me past the A46 and along some quiet country lanes, eventually I arrived in the village of Wilmcote. Mary Arden’s House was the childhood home of Shakespeare’s mother and nowadays offers an insight into a working Tudor farm. I read you can try your hand on the farm and experience the sights, sounds and smells of what it would have been actually like back in the 1570s. I’m not sure four centuries of extremely matured manure is that appealing. Sounds pretty messy to me! There is a wonderful array of farm buildings containing an extensive collection of authentic farmyard implements and tools. I sat from some time happily taking in the surroundings. Interestingly for 2012 they have introduced Tudor archery and you can meet an expert archer who will teach you the correct technique to succeed at this ancient art. Noah and Eli, my boys, would worryingly love the whole Robin Hood experience!
My next destination was back in the chaotic tourist-filled town, I had covered just over four miles before I locked my bike in the conveniently located bike parking on Henley Street, near the amazingly lively and exuberant statue of the ‘Jester’. The jester featured is Touchstone from the play AS YOU LIKE IT. There is a collection of lovely inscriptions around the base of the plinth, my favourite is from TWELFTH NIGHT, “Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.” It sums me up so aptly. I fell immediately in love with this cheeky, flamboyant but ultimately fun-loving bronze sculpture. If I am being critical, I felt it could benefit from the addition of a football attached to his right foot but hey that’s only a minor oversight by James Butler, the sculptor. Shakespeare’s Birthplace was only a short walk away and is the ultimate focal point for millions of Shakespeare enthusiasts. The area around the entrance was bustling with tourists from every corner of the world and has been welcoming visitors for over 250 years. I had read that upon entering his childhood home you were transported into Shakespeare’s early world. The visitors centre offers an insight into the life and work of the literary genius, the highlight is a scale model of Shakespeare’s Globe. Yet the large queues and frantic crowds were so off-putting. I took several photos of the medieval structure and then continued down past the lovely timbered library and stopped for a rather pricey coffee in the heart of the town.
The ride made me realise how stunningly beautiful Shakespeare’s county is.
If you want history, culture, quaint properties, an abundance of chic coffee outlets, shops selling tacky ‘I Love London’ T-shirts and ultimately inflated prices then I truly recommend Stratford-upon-Avon. Leamington and Warwick are not as kitsch but also not as popular, meaning less annoying tourists and the associated inflated prices.
My home town is a fashionable and elegant place, with an excellent array of shops, especially a good range of boutique- style retailers. Both Leamington and Warwick offer visitors a wonderful choice of places to eat and drink, catering for every taste and budget. They purvey a wonderful relaxed laid-back feel and I am so proud to call them home. Warwick Castle and the whole Shakespeare experience is the obvious major draw for visitors to the area, but it definitely offers so much more. So just come and see for yourself, I can guarantee you won’t be disappointed. Just be prepared to be free with the cash if you decide to venture into Shakespeare’s home town. The best piece of advice is come on your bike to avoid the expense of parking as well as the obvious health benefits.