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Down your way: The distant days of the donkeys; Ross Reyburn visits the hamlets scattered in the Clent Hills and meets villagers.

"Clent near Stourbridge is one of the prettiest and most characteristic of all old English villages, famed far and wide for its dry and bracing climate.

"The climate has the advantage of an air, charged with purity, vigour and freshness, that braces nerve and sinew by its strength and softness."

This 1902 advertisement for The Mount Ladies' College in Clent showed that the world of advertising in Edwardian England was just as capable of exaggeration as the admen of today.

The impressive building on the slopes of Clent Hill ceased being a school just after the First World War. Today it survives as the Manor Hotel overlooking the village homes clustered along Adams Hill.

While the school closed, Clent's great appeal as a gateway to Clent Hill in the Clent Hills has remained intact. The Worcestershire parish is a widespread collection of hamlets with an idyllic focal point at Upper Clent where the medieval Parish Church o f St Leonard overlooks a crossroads and the backdrop of the hills.

Odnall Lane winds its way from there around to Adams Hill, an attractive lane sloping up from the refurbished Fountain Inn up to the Hill Tavern where there is a car park for hill visitors.

Clent is an picturesque part of the world with some interesting period buildings spread around the lanes clustered by one of the most attractive West Midland landmarks less than half-an-hour's drive from Birmingham.

Other pubs in the parish are The Woodman in Lower Clent, the CAMRA-listed Bell & Cross in Holy Cross and The Vine on a former mill site in Vine Lane.

The village has an Italian restaurant, The Four Stones, named after the Clent Hills landmark, and the Jaipur Cottage, a Bangladeshi restaurant, two homes for the elderly and Sunfield, a special needs residential school with about 80 pupils, and a gift sh op in the village.

But it is the hills that draw visitors to Clent and National Trust Warden Bob Ayres calculates the visitor count is around 500,000 a year.

"Sometimes in the summer it is unbelievable, every car park is full, every verge is parked," says Welsh-born Mr Ayres, a 38-year-old forester.

Since the National Trust took back the management of the hills from Hereford & Worcester County Council in 1995, it has tried to end the threadbare look over much of the ground used by walkers and horse riders.

Paths have been relaid, efforts made to cut down water flooding down to Clent and experimental areas fenced off to see what will regrow without visitors trampling over the ground.

"We are trying to put something back on to the hill to at the very minimum hold the hill where it is," says the infectiously-enthusiastic Mr Ayres.

"There was nothing here but red dust and great big ridges where the water had cut its way through. We have actually brought up here about 5,000 gorse plants and at least 500 tonnes of soil over a period of two years.

"It didn't go down with a very small minority of locals who thought we were making the hills too motorwaywish," says Mr Ayres. "But what we have done is relaid paths with traps to take some of the water off. Much of the hillside was just open and bare. O ver the years, people had walked and kept the vegetation down so it was never allowed to grow."

His own experiments include creating a new woodland area named The Top Clump where people can place Scots pine memorial trees for pounds 120. Two existing pines stand on the site surrounded by nearly 60 new memorial trees.

"We have lots of and lots of people who want to put a memorial on the hill because the Clent Hills are their passion," he points out. "I would put the existing pines at about 50 years old. They are obviously replantings of the original plantings that wou ld have been done in the 1700s."

"A Scots pine is the only British pine tree. This will be significant site."

The Clent Hills may have a high visitor count but villager Colin Palmer, whose great uncle and then father ran the Hill Tavern for over 50 years until 1976 , remembers greater crowds in the old days.

"It's quiet now," he says. "Years ago it used to be the Black Country playground. They used to come for the day. Now they just come for a quick walk.

"It is nothing like the numbers they're used to be when the ponies and the donkeys were here. Before the war, virtually every house in Adams Hill used to do teas or bed & breadfast."

Children coming to Clent would go for ten-minute rides along a circuit known as The Donkey Ring.

"They started at the Hill Tavern, they'd go up the bank, they'd cut across the skyline and come round back up Adams Hill past this house back to the pub. His sister Miss Pearl Palmer, who now lives in Kinver, was the last main ride operator.

"She had about 30 ponies - she kept the ponies until about 1980," says Mr Palmer, a former postman who recalls people walking from Hagley Station to the hills.

The Hill Tavern was known as "Charlie's" when it was owned by his father. It seemed a fairly carefree establishment where you could buy such luxuries as a cheese sandwich for 8d or a chicken sandwich for a shilling in the mid-1950s.

"As long as he could play dominoes, he would let anybody serve in the pub," recalls Mr Palmer's wife, Pam.

Mr Palmer's collection of Clent memorabilia includes a booklet with that ladies' college advertisement, souvenir teacups that include a village crest and an impressive collection of Clent postcards that would cost pounds 5 upwards from a dealer.

The parish council is planning a new village crest of arms for the millennium and also a new pounds 50,000 nursery at the village school in Holy Cross.

"We are hoping to raise about pounds 25,000 and the local education authority will chip in with the remainder," says Clent Parish Council chairman Mrs Roslyn Zalin.

How Elsie strolled her way into history

Walking back to happiness: John Partington, headmaster turned historian, on the path named after his late wife.

Not far from Clent's medieval church, retired head teacher John Partington lives just a few yards from a path named in memory of his wife.

Elsie Partington Walk is named after his wife who is remembered walking up and down the little path by Odnall Brook with her white stick before her death in 1977, the last year of her life when she was blind. A popular member of village Women's Institute , she also served as a voluntary WI county organiser.

"That little stretch hadn't got a name so the village named it after her. It was very touching," recalls Mr Partington.

From Lancashire, Mr Partington taught village schoolchildren in Clent for 30 years from 1955-1985. He lives in what was the schoolmaster's house adjacent to the old Clent Parochial School built in 1705.

The school is now a private house, but he taught juniors there when he first came to the village. In the mid-1960s, he became head of the village school when the junior and infant schools combined.

After retiring, Mr Partington founded the Clent History Society.

"We were virtually encircled by history societies," he recalls.

In his early days in the village, few people visited the Clent Hills by car.

"When I came here in the 1950s there were buses that came every Sunday and Saturday from Bearwood," says Mr Partington. "At that time, few 'ordinary' people had cars."

He points out the Church of St Leonard has evidence showing that graffiti is nothing new and how Clent Hills used to be a haunt for deer.

"Around the wall where the minstrel's gallery used to be is graffiti dated 1666 shows deer scrawled on the wall with people names," says Mr Partington.

John Thomas (1797-1881), a blacksmith's son, sang in the church choir. Who would have guessed then that in later life he would receive a gift of pounds 100 from King George of Tonga for his pioneering work as a Methodist minister in this part of the Paci fic?

The Clent History Society has about 100 members. Its impressive publications list includes an attractive photographic booklet, Clent Remembered, a new edition of A Short History of Clent written by the village squire John Amphlett (1845-1918) plus the Cl ent Clarion journal.

The society will be staging a millenium exhibition next November.

"We will be producing a souvenir book, probably called Clent Remembered,' says society secretary Mrs Carole Hodgson, society secretary who edits the Clent Clarion.

She is currently researching the history of the Mount Ladies' College and anyone with historical information can contact her by telephoning 01562 885759.

FACT FILE

Clent Parish has a population of around 2,000 and includes Upper Clent, Lower Clent, Adams Hill, Walton Pool and Holy Cross.

The medieval Parish Church of St Leonard has a 15th century tower.

A part-time post office now operates from 10am-2pm in the village hall after the closure of the village shop and post office.

Clent Castle, an intriguing ruined castellated folly that is now a ruin, is in the ground of Sunfield, the special needs residential school in the village. "Half the peope who live in Clent don't know where Clent Castle is," says villager Colin Palmer, w hose family used to run the Hill Tavern.

Owned by the National Trust since 1959, The Clent Hills consist of 367 acres open to the public on Clent Hill and Walton Hill. Hereford & Worcester County Council ran the hills for 21 years from 1974.

An estimated 350,000 to 750,000 people visit the Clent Hills each year.
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Author:Reyburn, Ross
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 12, 1998
Words:1636
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