Cutting-edge of history
Mar 21 2008 By Jo Travis
Jo Travis reports on Belbroughton, a rural idyll that was once a world capital of industry.
At first glance, Belbroughton appears to be a typical rural Worcestershire village, but it has a deceptively industrial history.
Not many people realise that this sleepy idyll which houses fewer than 3,000 people was once the world capital of scythe making.
It might not seem that important in our high-tech age but up until the industrial revolution, the scythe was as cutting edge as it came - and anywhere they were harvesting crops there was a Belbroughton scythe.
Belbroughton History Society is very active in preserving the village's heritage. In November last year it unveiled a plaque on Galton's Mill.
There are still businesses based at the mill, but in the 16th century it was used for grinding corn and known as Savage's Mill.
In 1751, Birmingham gunmakers Farmer and Galton, rented the site and later bought the lease in 1788.
The mill was used for grinding the gun barrels of their most important product - the muzzle-loading flintlock musket.
Many of these muskets ended up in the hands of African tribes who used them to trade for hostages from enemy tribes, who were then sold as slaves to work on American plantations.
Samuel Galton was a Quaker and he came under a lot of pressure from anti-slavery protesters until he handed his business over to his son in 1795.
The Galton family made a lot of money through the arms industry but they eventually turned their attention to banking.
Isaac Nash rented Galton's Mill in 1846 and this enabled him to achieve his ambition of making a complete scythe for the first time - up until then, he had only been able to weld and plate the scythes before selling them on to be completed.
He gradually expanded his business and in 1873 he bought out his rivals and established the Nash Works in the centre of the village.
The mill had six grinding wheels and was used for scythe grinding until 1942 when a break in the pit wheel occurred.
The wheel is about 16 feet in diameter, by 4ft 6in deep. Apart from the wooden sole boards, it is made entirely of cast iron. The type of construction was unusual and it carries the inscription: "Cast at Cookley in 1793."
This makes it the earliest known example of an iron waterwheel and, last summer, it was listed by English Heritage.
The villagers may have believed that their trade would secure future expansion, but this was thwarted when the railway was built through Hagley rather than Belbroughton.
Nowadays it is a desirable place to live precisely because it is shielded from the hustle and bustle.
However, its residents can enjoy their peace and quiet in a very modern way - Belbroughton is only six miles from Kidderminster, and four miles from Stourbridge and Bromsgrove.
It is within easy distance of Birmingham and is situated very near junction four of the M5 and junction 4A of the M42.
Public transport is a slightly thornier issue - there are buses to the nearby towns every hour or so, which makes it hard to do without a car.
Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Rev Barbara Mapley, says: "It's a lovely area - lots of organisations with a lovely 14th century church and superb pubs.
"I cover the Bromsgrove and Fairfield areas and when I first came to the church I found a map on the wall with pegs marking the churches, pegs marking the church halls and schools and 17 green pegs marking the pubs.
"The pubs have a very good reputation and there are gastro pubs and character pubs, although I have not been in them all.
"It's a beautiful place to visit because it has so many footpaths and there are so many walks."
Holy Trinity's churchyard may be on the site of the early Pagan religious ceremonies.
The base of the existing Woodgate memorial is believed to be a Pagan preaching stone. After conversion to Christianity, it is thought a wooden church was erected, to be replaced in Norman times with a stone structure.
A spring in the Clent hills, only a few miles away, was a major pilgrimage site in medieval times with people flocking to the spot where St Kenelm was martyred.
The present church was built at the beginning of the 14th century but the Black Death of the 1340s had a devastating effect on the area and claimed the lives of three Priests.
At that time the church would have been highly decorated and traces of the original colours can just be seen.
There are good examples of 19th century glass work by Kemp, among others.
Belbroughton Church Hall is a Grade II listed building in its own right and it dates back to the early 17th century. Originally built as a tithe barn, it is one of the oldest buildings in the village. Converted for use as a hall in 1915, it continues to be enjoyed by the residents and can be hired out for functions.
The village has a number of groups and societies.
Rev Mapley says: "There's a lot going on here for people who want to get involved."
There is Belbroughton Amateur Theatrical Society (Bats) for dramatic types, historical and horticultural societies, a cricket club and a tennis club.
The village's most famous event is the Scarecrow Festival which takes place every September.
This event was dreamed up in 1996 as a way of raising money for the church, school and the village recreation centre but local groups can also apply for a grant from the fund.
Villagers go all out to construct their scarecrows which are displayed all around Belbroughton and attract thousands of visitors.
Last year's event seems to have had a James Bond theme and the winner was entitled Crowsino Royale.
Rev Mapley says: "We have a mix of people here - a lot of professional retired people, but a lot of young families as well and the local school is bursting at the seams, although a lot of people travel into the village to bring their children there because it has such a good reputation."
Belbroughton CE Primary School caters for about 150 pupils between the ages of three and 11 and feeds into Haybridge High School in nearby Hagley.
It has a new library and purpose-built library and its facilities are available between 8am and 5pm.
There is a lot of emphasis on the natural world at this country school with an outdoor classroom, pond, picnic area and an earthen amphitheatre and wildflower meadow for the youngsters to enjoy.
Following the school's most recent inspection, Ofsted inspectors noted: "A caring ethos and an enthusiastic, helpful and impressive attitude of all the teachers' is how one parent accurately described this good school.
"The leadership of the school has ensured that the quality of provision, particularly teaching, is good. As a result, pupils make good progress throughout the school.
"They achieve well in relation to their capabilities when they enter the school, and standards are well above average at the end of Year 6.
"Pupils enjoy coming to this friendly school and like their teachers because 'they help us with all our work'.
"Pupils' personal development and wellbeing are good. Pupils feel safe and secure as a result of initiatives from the strong leader-ship and management in the school.
"It has dealt outstandingly with bullying, examples being the annual anti-bullying week and a prominent 'worry box'. As one pupil put it: 'I feel safe because we now have an anti-bullying week and it's now quite safe.'
"As a result, their behaviour is good."