An Evening in Atherstone

A party of seventeen Civic Society members gathered together on the evening of June 14th for a guided walk around the streets of Atherstone conducted by Laura Dirveks, Curator of Atherstone Heritage Centre and also Chairman of Atherstone Civic Society.

Our tour started at the new Heritage Centre (part of a former pub) in Long Street and led us to look at the grid pattern of streets with narrow alleyways leading to the Victorian development of the old burgage house plots, via the impressive Market Place, and on to St Mary's Parish Church; then a meander back to the Heritage Centre for tea. We stopped outside the gabled coaching inn, the Red Lion, with its unusual Gothic windows and its milestone incised "100 miles to London". It was this inn that Atherstone born George Eliot immortalised in her novel 'Middlemarch':

"On a drizzling afternoon, to get down at the Red Lion in a street shaded with coal-dust and dine in a room furnished with a dirt-enamelled map of the country, a bad portrait of an anonymous horse in a stable, His Majesty George the Fourth with legs and cravat and various leaden spittoons".

We also saw the Old Swan, a fine timber framed house with an overhang supported by diagonal braces and learnt about the former Augustinian Friary and the curious game of football still played on the streets on Shrove Tuesday, a custom dating back to the 13th century.

Atherstone's industrial history has been one of mining and of hat making. Our guide explained the Town's ambition to become a book seller's town. Hay on Wye beware!

All towns are reliant on their trade bringing with it inward investment and their streets and shops are usually a reflection of this. Logistical and communications facilities are essential for a town's health and wealth. To some degree Atherstone has not been fortunate in current times in this regard. There is a station, but the trains don't stop; there is Watling Street (the modern A5), but this now by-passes the town; there is an important canal (the Coventry Canal), but we know what happened to them; there is the M42 junction, but the main beneficiary is Tamworth, not Atherstone. Towns need to be dynamic in meeting the challenges of change as well as the preservation of the relicts of their history. That is the challenge for Atherstone.

Tony Crookes
June 2005