Beyond our own backyards – lockdown rambles

CovSoc Member, John Marshall, has been getting about…..

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Folly Fields, opposite Folly Lane Club, London Road, and bordering the River Sowe

THE coronavirus crisis has brought much gloom but one of the unexpected bright spots, for a large number of people, has been the re-discovered pleasures of walking and cycling. Forced to slow down, stay home, and seek exercise outdoors, many of us have taken up walking and cycling to brighten up our days. And it has often been a revelation as we’ve explored our own environment and recognised the value of the often hidden world beyond our own backyards.

I live on Stonehouse Estate, near Whitley, a few yards from the River Sowe and within easy walking distance of Folly Fields, Whitley Grove and the wide-open space and adjoining nature reserve of Baginton Fields. Nearby is Stonehouse meadows.

It’s a fabulous area, especially when the sun shines brightly, as it has done for several periods during lockdown, especially in May and parts of June.

In medieval times Whitley Grove was quarried for stone and supplied material for building the old cathedral. This explains its uneven terrain and the dips and dells which dominate the area. It is now a densely wooded area, having been planted with trees by Edward Petre, who wanted to improve the grounds of his adjoining house, Whitley Abbey, which he owned from 1867 until his death in 1902.

Whitley Abbey itself was formerly Whitley Hall and probably had its origins in the 17th century. But it was enlarged and re-designed after 1808 and acquired its new name at that time, though it was never an abbey as such.

The house and the grounds, including Whitley Grove, were bought by the council in 1953, by which time the old house was derelict. It was therefore demolished to make way for a new school, Whitley Abbey, which opened in 1955.

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Whitley Grove is now part of the Sowe Valley footpath, a terrific nature trail which meanders down from Hawkesbury in the north of the city, through areas like Wyken Croft and Stoke Floods, and finally to the southern part of the river at Whitley.

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Baginton Fields is another impressive place for walking, and also has an interesting history. It was one of several sites in Coventry where hostels were built for war workers during World War Two and it continued to be a community hub for individuals and families after the war ended, including many displaced people from around the world.

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The open space of Baginton Fields, with the nature reserve beyond the trees. Below is the bridge into Whitley Grove

It is now a beautiful nature reserve with an abundance of trees, birds and wildlife. A plaque within the woods recalls that Baginton Fields was also home to Dutch refugee children who were brought to Coventry towards the end of the war, where they were visited by members of the Dutch royal family.

Whitley Abbey, incidentally, also served a crucial role in wartime, but this was during World War One when the old house became home to Belgium refugees.

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The large open space at Baginton Fields (above), which links the land between the nature reserve and Whitley Grove, is shown on old maps as a sports ground next to the hostel, and was presumably used by hostel residents for exercise and sporting activities. The field has more recently been used by local football teams but this has now ceased and the area lies dormant as a glorious space for walking, exercising dogs, or relaxing in the sunshine.

Beyond the Sowe Valley, but not too far, can be found the River Sherbourne, Coventry’s principal river which once powered mills in the ancient city centre. The Sherbourne flows through Whitley and is probably best seen at the lower end of Abbey Road where an old stone bridge still leaps gently over the river. The current bridge, built between 1755 and 1765, was once part of the main road into Coventry from London, before the modern London Road was built.

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Alongside the river is a wooded riverside walk, with nearby Leaf Lane adding to the rural feel of the area. There was once a mill by the river. In this area too can be found a memorial to a crew who were tragically killed when attempting to deal with an unexploded bomb during World War Two. Unexploded bombs were routinely taken to Whitley Common to be detonated during the war. But on that occasion a bomb exploded when being lifted from the back of a truck.

If Leaf Lane is pursued further, past Jaguar Land Rover and across the by-pass, this inconspicuous little lane reveals another hidden feature. Beside Leaf Lane, on the way towards Fenside, is a vast open meadow on the left-hand side, almost out-of-sight between the lane and the by-pass. This space, which I only recently discovered during a cycle ride, is designated as a Local Green Space and Wildlife Site and, thanks to a local campaigner, has recently had the grass on its footpaths mown so that walkers can enjoy the public rights of way.

A short distance away is the far-from-hidden expanse of Whitley Common, one of the ancient commons of the area which once provided a site for public hangings in Coventry.
In more recent times, some of the land in this area was used as an aerodrome and was once the manufacturing hub for the Whitley Bomber and other aircraft produced during World War Two.

These days, although bisected by the by-pass, the Common continues to offer a wide stretch of green space for walking and recreation.

Beyond Whitley, walkers and cycle riders can find the busy little oasis of Quinton Pool, surrounded by suburban Cheylesmore, with its ducks, swans and Canada geese. The pool was once at the centre of Cheylesmore Park, a great royal hunting ground and manor house, originally built in 1237 by the Earl of Arundel to replace Coventry Castle. It later entered the ownership of Queen Isabella and was inherited on her death by Edward, the Black Prince, before passing to his son, Richard II.

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Suburban Cheylesmore sprang into being during the 1920s when the land was finally sold off for housing, eventually leaving Quinton Park as a sole reminder of the old royal park.

From here it’s a gentle stroll, or cycle ride, through part of Styvechale to Leamington Road and beyond that to the magnificent War Memorial Park, a huge expanse of trees, open space and ornamental gardens.

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The park was created after 1920 when the council bought 120 acres of land from the Gregory family, later known as Gregory-Hood, together with the manorial rights over something like 60 acres of Styvechale Common.

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All photographs: John Marshall

This far-sighted creation, together with the control of land along Kenilworth Road, enabled the council to secure a wonderful green corridor along this tree-lined approach to the city, which still exists today.

Thanks to our member John Marshall, for this fascinating account of his local area. If you would like to write a story for our news blog then please contact us.

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