Hockley Heath gets smart
By Emma Pinch
An injection of community spirit into Hockley Heath, near Solihull, has made it an attractive place for families wanting to set up home. Emma Pinch reports.
When Sandie Bates and her family moved to Hockley Heath 20 years ago, they had achieved their dream of a place with views across fields – while being close to London and Solihull schools. But seven years ago, Mrs Bates, a book-keeper for her husband's IT business, became suddenly disenchanted. Driving back from Henley-in-Arden, she realised that her home village left a lot to be desired.
Hockley Heath boasts a post office, butchers, several pubs, an impressive number of interiors shops along with a smattering of clothes boutiques, restaurants and beauty spas, with a social club. Yet, compared to lovely Henley, there was much room for improvement.
Just a mile from the M42, Hockley Heath nestles next to Dorridge, Knowle, Henley-in-Arden and Lapworth. But the village – inhabitants numbering about 7,000 – is fractured by the A34 and the increasingly busy Warwick Road.
"We had a new Bryant house in Knowle, but we wanted something a little more traditional," says Sandie. "My husband, Mike, was going to London several days a week and it was handy for the motorway and the children's schools in Solihull.
"We wanted an unspoiled village surrounded by fields and Dorridge and Knowle are lovely, but they are practically joined now.
"We were thinking about the Cotswolds or Oxford but in Hockley Heath we were close to everything and it was pleasant looking out of the back windows on to fields, and out of the front on to nice individual houses."
But the image she had of her village soured in 1999.
"I was driving through Henley and I thought 'isn't it lovely – they've got a nice straight road with a central area full of hanging baskets and it’s so full of character and colour’," says Sandie. "I drove into Hockley Heath and thought 'what a mess – it looks so drab'. The A34 bisects it and compared to Henley it was hard to get a village sense."
Sandie became quite upset over the following days. "I felt so disillusioned," she said. "We hadn't got a focal point."
It was the catalyst for her seven-year mission to reinvent Hockley Heath as a proper village. She rang the council. She wrote postcards to deliver to residents asking if they were as fed up as she was.
Neighbours got on board, as did the manager of the local Italian restaurant, and a gardening club was founded.
Thanks to funding from the council and donations, 52 hanging baskets were produced, featuring geraniums, busy lizzies and marigolds, and 4,000 daffodils planted, courtesy of the newly-formed gardening club. At Christmas, a village tree is bought, with the husbands of the gardening club ladies planting it and the residents association funding lights for it.
The mayor is prevailed upon to switch on the lights while the vicar blesses them, Shirley brass band plays and the brownies and guides parade. The Ladies Circle and WI produce mince pies and sherry.
The meagre funds and the struggle of individuals to improve the village have been a blessing in disguise.
"Hockley Heath is a lovely little village," says Sandie. "Some villages have lost that sense because bigger people sort everything out for them. For us we rely on other little groups to help us along."
Their efforts recently earned the village a silver-bronze award for Britain in Bloom.
The village of Hockley Heath grew up as a horse changing point on the 25-mile coaching route between Birmingham and Stratford-upon-Avon in the early 19th century.
A pub, The Nag's Head, now stands on the place where the stables are thought to have once stood.
It also lies on the Stratford-upon-Avon canal, where some peaceful walks are to be enjoyed. A large pub called the Wharf stands at what might loosely be described as the centre of the village, which also has a play area for children.
Opposite is a sundial which is actually a war memorial, put up to honour the memory of villagers who died in the fighting in the two world wars.
There is also a park – Hockley Heath recreation ground – and St George VII village hall, both bequeathed by the Muntz family, of Birmingham Muntz Metal fame.
There is a large mix of housing in Hockley Heath, ranging from 60s bungalows to sturdy red-brick Victorian detached and terraced homes.
The village flanked by fields marked out by hawthorn bushes, and houses near the substantial St Thomas church look out onto green belt.
Opposite the church, standing in its plot of tall evergreens, is a small farm, and the bleat of sheep competes with the ever present roar of traffic on the M42.
Fractionally less expensive than some of its neighbours, Hockley Heath is a magnet for young families because it falls within the catchment area of Tudor Grange – popularly regarded as the second best secondary school in Solihull.
Local developments which eagle-eyed councillors and residents groups are keeping their eyes on are proposals to build a new service station at Boxtrees on green belt land at junction four of the M42 – three-quarters of a mile from the centre of the village.
There are concerns about a 50 per cent increase in usage at the Blythe Valley business park. A new business park, Aspire, has outline planning permission, creating 5,000 jobs, again at junction four.
"The developments will add to the quagmire of trying to get to work. The A34 will just become a long stay carpark," says Len Cresswell, former chairman of Hockley Heath Parish Council.
But such proposals are not putting off the buyers. A good school is a good school – and there are excellent transport links, a safe and vibrant community life and views on to countryside.
According to Roz Chapman, from John Shepherd estate agents, Hockley Heath exerts a charm on incomers which means they tend to stay.
"Hockley has always been quite popular. It is on the edge of open countryside, it has a good primary school and is in the catchment area for Tudor Grange," he explains.
"Many people moving here come from the Hollywood, Earlswood, Wythall and Shirley areas. It is a good mix of people and once people move here they often stay here. It is marginally cheaper than some of the surrounding villages, but not much."