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Review: Polesworth

City/Town/Region/Island

United Kingdom

An interesting abbey gateway and a pity we couldn’t see inside the church

  • By SilverTraveller ESW

    2469 reviews

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  • Sep 2013
  • Husband

150 people found this review helpful

Polesworth is a small settlement to the east of Tamworth with a long history. Ignored by the tourist, the Parish Council has produced a Heritage Trail to encourage visitors and there are information boards around the village.



The area has been settled from the iron age as the River Ankar flooded regularly producing fertile farmland. It was really put on the map in the 9thC when an abbey was founded here. Coal had been mined on a small scale for hundreds of years but during the Industrial Revolution, with the arrival of the canal, coal mining became increasingly important with several mines in the village. This lead to the development of a boatyard on the canal, brickworks and a pottery. The Midland Brick and Terra Cotta Ltd works established 1813 dominated the centre of Polesworth until it was finally demolished in 1971 for a housing estate. The last mine closed in 1987.



There is an attractive walk along the tow path of the canal, past Pooley Hall. There had been a Saxon Hall here and the site has been continuously inhabited since the 12thC. The present hall is privately owned and not open. Built around 1508/9, it is one of the earliest brick buildings in the area. Beyond it is Pooley Country Park with tea room and play area as well as a Nature Reserve which contains several pools caused by mining subsidence.



There is rather an uninspiring main street with a selection of shops including a Spar and pubs. The Nethergate Centre at the junction of Bridge Street and High Street was built as a school in 1818 and part of the tithes from the abbey were used for its upkeep. It had once been a splendid brick building with stone facade and a small cupola. Now it is derelict with boarded up windows.



The Abbey is set in grassland with trees off High Street. We didn’t find the 17thC tithe barn or dove cote.



The Abbey gateway gives access to the drive leading to the abbey. It is an attractive stone and timber frame building. The small archway on the left is part of the original 11thC gateway through the walls. This was extended in the 14thC, when a porters lodge was added on the ground floor. Above is the 14thC extension of timber frame infilled with brick. This provided accommodation for pilgrims. In the 16thC there was a stone extension added on the right hand side. After the Dissolution this houses a school on the first floor with the village lock-up on the ground floor. (Which brings a whole new light to the problem of maintaining discipline….)



Now the gatehouse is again a guest house and there is a small exhibition in the porter’s lodge.



The Abbey church is set in a large graveyard with yew trees and other large conifers. It is a large rather plain building with nave and north aisle and a solidly built buttressed and battlemented square tower at the east end of the north aisle. Entry is through a porch on the north side. To the south is a small refectory and shop which is open after the Sunday service and also Tuesday-Friday from 10-4 and Saturday from 10.30-1. Beyond this and set behind a wall is the large 19thC vicarage which includes some Tudor work from the Manor House built on the site of the Abbess’s lodging.



The early history of the abbey is lost in the mists of time and there are conflicting stories as to how and why it was founded. Many Saxon names are similar and it is easy to muddle up your Egberts and Edwards… The version on the Polesworth website is that King Egbert had seized the throne of Wessex in 802 and annexed much of southern England. He secured a treaty with Northumbria in 829 which gave him control of much of England. Returning south, he rested his troops near here while scouts went in search of water, and found the River Ankor. Egbert promised to found a monastery here in thanksgiving for finding water and also signing the treaty with Northumbria. His eldest son, Aethulwulf, was attributed with its construction and Editha, who was either Egbert’s daughter or granddaughter, was the first abbess



Another version is that Editha was Alfred the Great’s granddaughter. Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd governed Mercia after the death of her husband Aethelred in 913 until her death in 918. She drove back the Danes and made Tamworth her principal residence. After her death she was rather airbrushed out of the history books and her brother Edward, king of Wessex, occupied the town, depriving Aethelflaed’s daughter, Aelfwyn of all authority. After Edward died in 924, his son Aethestan brought his sister Editha to Tamworth for her betrothal to Sihtric, Danish King of Northumbria. Sithtric later broke his Christian vows and deserted Editha. After his death she retired to a convent she’d founded near Tamworth.



The abbey was restored and extended in the 11thC and was a prosperous abbey owning land and mills. It escaped the Dissolution as the Royal Commissioners noted the town would fall into ruin and decay if it were suppressed. Also 30-40 children were being educated in the abbey school. However, the Abbess voluntarily surrendered the abbey two years later. Much of the buildings were demolished and the stone used to build Polesworth Hall on the site of the abbess’s house. The church became the parish church.



We had planned to visit the Abbey after the 10am service on Sunday morning. We stood in the porch listening as the service ended. But then we heard a male choir singing accompanied by a piano. Someone arrived and went into the church. We peeped in through the open door. A male choir dressed in scarlet robes was standing round the piano at the end of the north aisle. We had so idea how long they were going to be, so decided to give up. From our quick glimpse of the church, we could see round Norman arches and round pillars separating the nave and north aisle. In the nave were some alabaster tombs.



It was a frustrating and we felt rather wasted trip; one of the problems of trying to visit churches on a Sunday morning. From what we saw, the abbey would probably merit a visit.

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