Idyllic Harlaston unspoilt by time
Jul 4 2008 By Sue Robinson
Sue Robinson visits the tranquil haven of Harlaston, just a short drive from the hustle and bustle of the big city.
As you leave the hustle and bustle of the city behind and within a few minutes of the M42, rolling green pastures and lush hedgerows unfold down winding country lanes that lead to the beautiful rural parish of Harlaston.
In the heart of the Mease Valley in Staffordshire, with the river running through its centre, this idyllic spot has remained unspoilt by time.
Despite the now eclectic mix of large and small, old and modern houses, it remains the quintessential English village.
It has won Staffordshire Best Kept Small Village title on numerous occasions and last year won the overall county title. Judging is well under way for the 2008 competition and gardens and streets are spick, span and blooming in the hope of a further accolade.
Yet this gem in the heart of the countryside is within a short drive of Tamworth, Lichfield and Burton-upon-Trent and only 25 miles from the centre of Birmingham and is one of the key commuter villages within the M42 corridor.
While much of the population now is reasonably affluent - the small village is home to four doctors, a vet and a dentist - many inhabitants have lived there all their lives and with recent modest new-build developments, there is a good mix of housing.
"We are very lucky to live in such a place. This is a village with a real heart," says farmer's wife Mrs Wenda Grove, who helps to organise Harlaston's popular open gardens event, held every two years.
Her husband David has farmed in the village all his life and is now in semi-retirement.
He is chairman of the village hall committee.
"There are many clubs and groups in the village and never any shortage of people coming forward to help. We all work together," says Wenda.
In fact, with a population of just under 400, and around 150 homes, the village plays host to a bowls club, a Women's Institute, yoga group including those with disabilities, a youth club, pre-school playgroup and a walking group.
It also enjoys a thriving church community based at St Matthew's, part of which dates back to the 11th century. It's striking half-timbered bell tower provides an unusual landmark in the heart of the village.
Church warden Mrs Mary Tiso, whose husband Eric is chairman of Harlaston Parish Council, has lived in the village nearly all her life and is helping to organise the church flower festival being held this weekend with a theme this year of wedding anniversaries.
"We have also invited anyone who has been married in the church to come along for a special service and refreshments in St Matthew's at 6.30pm on Saturday night," she says.
The church will be open to visitors for the flower festival from 1pm to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday.
Each window in the church has been decorated with blooms to portray different marriage landmarks, such as silver, ruby, gold and diamond, and visitors will be able to enjoy cream teas plus cake and plant stalls at The Old Rectory, next door to the church.
"It's always a popular event with the flowers in the church and the cream teas," says Mary.
Just a short stroll from the church, The Old Rectory is an imposing 19th century red-brick house currently offering bed and breakfast facilities.
Harlaston's winding village street has several Elizabethan buildings while others of note include The Manor House, a timber framed building originally constructed around 1540, The Homestead, and Haselour Hall, a good example of Elizabethan architecture, with its five-gabled frontage and interior containing some rare linen-fold panelling with every panel showing a different design.
Nearby Haselour Cottage is home to Michael Griffiths and his wife Charne. They take part in the Harlaston open gardens events and have a magnificent country cottage garden. They are members of the British Clematis Society and their plot includes 150 clematis plants.
The next open gardens is not until summer 2009. The last one in 2007 was at the height of the floods and although not badly affected itself, Harlaston was virtually cut off.
"It didn't seem to stop people coming though. We were amazed. Some had taken a 17 mile detour around the flooded roads to get to the village and see the gardens," says Wenda.
One of the most important buildings in Harlaston is undoubtedly the village post office and general store in Main Road.
Run by Tony Palmer and Joyce Rowe, it also offers bed and breakfast accommodation.
While many neighbouring villages have lost their shop and post office, Harlaston's remains and is at the hub of the community.
While there is a limited bus service to surrounding towns, many villagers without transport, especially pensioners, rely on the facilities.
"It has survived so far and we just hope this will continue to be the case because it is so important to us and vital to the village," says Wenda.
Tony, who has been at Harlaston Post Office for 30 years, says nothing is yet certain. "We are just hoping we will survive the latest closures."
Another building not to be missed, mainly because of its unique situation, is the old village pub, The White Lion.
Perched on its own triangular plot in the middle of crossroads, it is thought that the pub was once a toll house and the road leading to the village of Edingale was gated.
Run for the past seven years by Bev Kitson and Mark Houston, the pub has built a good reputation for the excellent quality of its evening meals, with fish dishes being a speciality.
It also serves traditional roasts at Sunday lunchtime.
In fact Harlaston has built something of a reputation for good food all round.
As chairman of the village hall, David organises a Sunday lunch carvery once a year to raise funds. It's so popular tickets sell out months in advance, he explains.
"We are noted for our spreads in Harlaston, especially for puddings. People always bring lots of puddings along when we organise anything. Some visitors have been known to eat three different puddings," says Wenda.
Mary agrees, saying, "We just all work together to make things a success. I think we are the best village around."