Alcester a town with a family feel
Sarah Probert visits the Roman town of Alcester in Warwickshire to find a place rich in heritage and community spirit.
When the worst floods in living memory hit the pretty town of Alcester last July, visitors would have noticed a tight-knit community pulling together to deal with the aftermath.
Rising waters damaged shops and houses, with residents wading through the floods waist deep to help each other deal with the devastation, which is still being felt in some parts today.
A few months later, the town found itself pulling together once more, this time to deal with the deaths of four firefighters who died at a blaze in nearby Atherstone-on-Stour.
Two of the firefighters, Ashley Stephens and Darren Yates-Badley, were based at Alcester fire station and had grown up in the town.
Floral tributes were laid at the town's fire station, businesses raised money for the men's families and shops displayed something black in their windows as a sign of respect following the tragedy last November.
Mayor David Hancox, said the impact had been felt by many people in the town, describing Alcester as being more like a family than a community.
"It's one of those communities where everybody knows everybody," he explains.
"The houses are lovely, but it is the people who make a community and we have that in abundance."
"The way we act as a community showed up when dealing with the floods and the fire at Atherstone. A lot of families were brought together - it is very much a tight-knit community, most people know most people."
It is this community spirit and warmth which has attracted many newcomers into the town. House prices are reasonable, with the average semi-detached property costing between £200,000 and £220,000, slightly higher than the national average. There is also an abundance of local shops and services, easy access to major transport routes but also close to the countryside, with many footpaths, including the Heart of England Way, running through the town.
Most days the traditional market town is bustling with people. Many of the 7,000 residents take advantage of the traditional stores, including a decent butcher's shop, grocers and bakery. They can also enjoy a range of new businesses, including many craft, jewellery and clothes shops along with a deli and refurbished pubs offering lattes and cappuccinos along with real ales.
A traditional tea room serving up slabs of Bakewell tart and a variety of cakes is often filled with families and elderly people, many of whom are helped in and out of the door by the shop assistants.
Across the road at the Fine Food Emporium, a relatively new business in the town, locally-produced foods from pies to cheese are snapped up by shoppers, with workmen popping in for a freshly-made sandwich.
Owner Wendy Parkes says the shop is building up ahealthy number of loyal customers and she has a rapport with many who enter her deli.
"We have got three different types of customers -locals who live and work in the town, business people who are working on the nearby industrial estates and tourists.
"A lot of people like the independent shops more than the supermarket," she says.
"We are a small town which has managed to retain quite a number of independent businesses and we are not to overwhelmed by national chains," adds David.
"We have an independent butchers, bakers and opticians, a whole range of services and local trades and are a focal point for the surrounding villages."
New residents and tourists also flock to Alcester because of its heritage. Winding streets are packed with character properties from Tudor to Georgian and Victorian.
There is also ahealthy mix of clubs and societies catering for both young and old, from scout and guide groups to amateur dramatics and morris dancing.
Like many towns, new developments are always likely, although David believes they must be carefully considered before given the go ahead.
He believes there is little room for expansion, with services such as schools and doctor's surgeries already oversubscribed.
"The town is bursting at the seams. We are not convinced we have the infrastructure to cope with large-scale development. We have three very successful schools in Alcester. They are all over subscribed and have physically expanded as far as they can."
"That is not to say we are not against any development, but any development would have to be accompanied by services."
As mayor of the town, he has dealt with many issues, including recent concerns over the future of the town's 24-bed hospital."The buildings are grossly inappropriate for their current use and there is an ongoing campaign to have a new hospital building," he explains.
While Warwickshire Primary Care Trust considers the hospital's future, residents fear it could be closed forever, forcing them to travel to Warwick, Coventry or Redditch for hospital treatment. A decision is due to be made shortly.
As well as being desirable to newcomers due to its location and amenities, the town is also attractive to tourists, who flock here to enjoy fine architecture and to learn about its Roman roots.
It is thought Alcester was a settlement of native traders, providing goods and services for Roman soldiers.
"We have a lot of visitors and some people prefer to come here rather than Stratford," says David.
Here you will find one of the few museums dedicated to Roman history. The Roman Alcester Heritage Centre, in Priory Road, is an excellent resource for visiting historians.
The majority of Roman finds displayed in the museum have been unearthed in what is now Bleachfield Street. About a million items have been found in more than 100 archaeological digs which have taken place in the last 80 years.
This has made Alcester one of the best understood Roman settlements in the country.