The rail journey from Manchester to Ruskington in rural Lincolnshire requires two changes – three trains – the last of these being a single-carriage unit which resembles a bus. Away from the inter-city mainlines, rail services which were once the transport arteries of the nation are now grudgingly provided as an afterthought, a “social requirement” clause in the operators’ contracts. I have never wanted to live in the countryside, not just because the consequence of sparse public transport is an environmentally damaging dependency on cars, but also because things don’t change or, if they do, at a pace too glacial for my liking.
Of course I like to visit the countryside – to check that the guardians of tradition continue to stand firm against the tides of progress, as well as to savour its unchanging delights: farm shops full of fresh produce; cider presses tucked away among orchards; woods full of bluebell-flooded undergrowth and landscapes laced with empty roads promising re-discovery of the pleasures of motoring. Ironic, I know, but the best way to appreciate all this is by motor, and I am currently bimbling around the Midlands in the campervan, indulging myself. To bimble is to travel whimsically and unhurriedly on the back-roads, the rat-runs of farmers and remote hamlet-dwellers. It’s very therapeutic and, having spent much of the previous day sat-navving my way through the traffic-stressed conurbation of Birmingham, I am more than up for it.
The quality of the bimbling depends, of course, on what an area has to offer, one indicator of this being the number of those brown signs with the white lettering and symbols pointing to local attractions. My preference is for historic sites and buildings of the sort cherished by the National Trust and English Heritage. The Midlands seems to have more than its share of these, though not all signs can be relied upon to lead to treasure. The one pointing to Hoar Cross Hall via the Ardley Arms heritage inn, for example, took me past a shuttered pub and on to a spa hotel. And, after driving four miles along a rutted single-track lane, I once found the promised tithe barn closed because it was a Tuesday.
However, there was joy to be had this week in the discovery of two 15th century manor houses, just a few miles apart yet very different in character and historical significance. Packwood House looks authentic but was put together in the early 20th century by a wealthy industrialist using architectural salvage from the break-up of country homes abandoned by their owners in favour of modern bungalows in Bournemouth. His name was Graham Baron Ash, although he encouraged people to call him Baron – as befits someone with pretensions to a noble lineage. It’s as if he anticipated Terry Pratchett’s advice to turn your life into a story or you just become part of someone else’s story. I don’t know how well he got on with his neighbours the Ferrers who, though shorter of money, were longer of lineage and felt no need to invent a background. Their manor house at nearby Baddesley Clinton was a bastion of Catholicism through the difficult years of the reformation – which may explain why it is surrounded by a moat.
Deep in the countryside, up the small lanes, behind the ancient trees such houses have survived first by keeping a low profile and then by latching on to wealthy benefactors who can preserve them, turn them into museums and bottle their histories for public consumption. But visiting them can induce a dangerous nostalgia for departed traditions. Those brown, heritage road-signs are currently outnumbered by big red ones bearing the sinister message LEAVE. It seems that some of the guardians of tradition want to do more than stop the clock. They would like to reverse the painstaking progress we have achieved in making common cause with our continental neighbours.