I recently went on a long (for me and with three kids on the car) family road trip from North Wales to Reading. I thought it would be a great idea to punctuate the journey by stopping off at some hitherto unvisited free-to-access medieval ruins. Two of these visits were great successes and I will discuss them separately: English Heritage sites at White Ladies Priory (visited on the outbound trip) and Lilleshall Abbey (visited on the return trip). However, I made the mistake of opting for a third set of medieval monastic ruins to visit without properly doing my research: the Premonstratensian house of Halesowen Abbey just south of Halesowen in the West Midlands.
Beware heritage professionals and amateurs with mobility issues or requiring parking, signs and directions: go prepared or not at all! Halesowen Abbey was something of a massive great fopping heritage nightmare.
Preparation for my visit was simple and straightforward and as follows. I scanned over the English Heritage website and saw that Halesowen Abbey was free to visit and the location seemed readily accessible from the M5 on my maps. So many times have I driven the M5 and never stopped, I felt compelled to give it a go.
The suburban location made me presume it would comprise of a small car park or lay-by for a couple of vehicles and the ruins set within 19th-century farm buildings. I was also aware of the striking earthworks around the abbey ruins including well-preserved fishponds. Information about Halesowen Abbey’s past can be found on Pastscape here and British History Online here as well as a shorter Wikipedia entry here.
I confess I didn’t notice the phrase on the English Heritage website “Open to view from the public footpath only” and realise this was a warning of restricted access because (a) this statement was only visible in a drop down tab below the headline ‘Opening Times: 29 May 2015-24 March 2016’, (b) had I read it I would have presumed that this meant the footpath went right up to and past the ruins but one couldn’t stray from it, and (c) even if I had known the footpath didn’t run up to the ruins but ran close by, I would have expected that the footpath would have been signposted as ‘Halesowen Abbey’ from the nearest road to encourage visitors to use it. Still, the website gives road access directions which I considered to be vague ‘Off A456, 1/2 mile west of J3, M5’ but I presumed there would be local road signs. The OS and Google maps give the allusion of accessibility, with an indication of lanes and footpaths off the main roads running close to the ruins. I considered the site a dead cert for a quick and easy, informative and educational stop-off on our long journey south. How naive I was!
Please also note, I was visiting with my disabled wife and 3 of my young children, aged 7, 5 and 4. So while we were able to walk some distance, I was hoping for a site with reasonable public access and the website gave me every expectation this site was open to such a visit.
So my visit was a near-disaster. We exited the M5 at junction 3 and took the A456 (Manor Way) westbound expecting to see signs for the abbey. We passed a single lane on the left and judged it too far east for the abbey, then a service station (on the left) and a pub (also on the left) before seeing a lane that looked in the right place but it had a shut gate and ‘private’ sign. We then noticed another side-road dedicated for the use of the Athletics Club and then we were at a roundabout. We took a left off the roundabout, thinking to skirt the zone in which the abbey lay, looking for an entrance. This took us a short way along the B4551 and we then took the next left again onto Illey Lane. Still no signposts, still no parking, still no clue. I turned around at Illeybrook Farm and headed back to the M5 junction and started again, this time taking the first left off Manor Way for Lapal until I realised I was crossing over the M5 and reversed, stopping by way of instinct in a small gate-entrance where I could safely park avoiding blocking entrances for a single car and taking a westbound footpath in the direction of the abbey. Scrutinising the maps after the visit, I realised that we had done exactly the right thing, but there were no signs and no indications at all.
By this path, riddled with nettles and brambles and having to carry my 3 kids in relays over nettle-ridden stiles and narrow gates, we came across the earthworks of the fish ponds and took some photographs. The size of these was staggering; they were ace and well worth a visit in their own right. Fishponds rule! Monastic fishponds rule monastically! I did enjoy seeing them in part, but our further movement west was hampered but unclear directions again as to which side of the fence the public right of way went. We were also put off by the presence of a large group of horses in the field, spooked by gunfire from nearby trees.
We were going to walk further down the path when we encountered another problem and the source of the gunfire: two men with shotguns walking up the path towards us. Call me old fashioned or paranoid, but I’m not going willingly within a 100m of anyone with guns with my kids around. My eldest has Aspergers and horses were a challenge to her sense of safety and confidence. Furthermore the noise of the guns at close range might have traumatised her for days. They also looked more than a little dodgy, so we thought it best not to have an encounter. We decided to call it a day and abandon the trip and walk back to the car. Carrying my kids again through nettle-patches, we reached the car, having seen some fine fishponds, but only hints of the abbey ruins in the far distance and screened by a line of trees.
In summary, this would have been a pleasant walk if I had no kids or disabled walkers with me, had directions, and a clear sense I was on a public right of way. A landscape free of shotgun totting farmer-types is perhaps unrealistic in the early 21st century…
Halesowen Abbey is ostensibly a closed site and English Heritage shouldn’t really be advertising it at all as accessible on their website. I understand that plans have long been afoot it seems to make the site accessible, but they seem to be stalled, despite its potential accessibility and the revenue and educational value for schools and the community that the ruins might bring to the area. I found this story here, but please get in touch if there are updates.
I won’t pretend to know all the finer details of the site’s history of ownership and heritage management. All I can say is that as a medievalist and an archaeologist with a reasonable sense of how to access ancient and historic monuments, this visitor experience was a mess. I also love Premonstratensian houses, especially Talley Abbey, Carmarthenshire and so I feel I have a right to talk about these sites as an enthusiast. I appreciate I could have prepared more effectively for the visit. Still, I found myself unable to experience a site that is scheduled, under guardianship and is advertised by English Heritage as free and open to view from the public footpath.
Immediately adjacent to thousands of homes, the ruins of Halesowen Abbey and its surrounding earthworks are the core of a landscape that is an utterly wasted heritage resource! Britain is peppered with these local heritage nightmares, and I regret ever stopping at Halesowen to waste time trying to visit what, from photographs available online, looks to be an amazing monument much deserving of further research. Let’s hope something can be done. The abbey and its surroundings might attract many thousands of visitors each year if accessible to groups of all ages and mobilities.