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Down your way: Picture book idyll with heart of steel; Ashorne, Warwickshire, may have lost its shop and school, but the village can still boast some unusual attractions, discovers Ross Reyburn.

The Warwickshire countryside hardly seems the place to find evidence that Britain's steel industry is far from dead. But in an impressive late Victorian mansion perched on the hillside above the pretty little village of Ashorne , 3,500 delegates a year attend management courses for the industry.

American Arthur Tree built Ashorne Hall in 1896 and the Hornton stone mansion, with its mullioned windows and neo-Jacobean style, has been providing management training courses since 1957.

Today the Ashorne Hill Management College serves as the training centre for Corus, the company formed after British Steel's merger with a smaller Dutch company last year. It employs just under 100 staff and the accommodation for 95 delegates including bedrooms is in The Old Quad, the property's attractive converted stable block.

"As Corus, we are the third largest steel company in the world," says Julie Bell, a director of studies at the centre. "The Dutch side of the operation is very small compared to us.

"Whilst we have lost people and closed businesses, the capacity to produce steel in this country hasn't declined that much. It is just done far more efficiently nowadays.

"A lot more steel goes into the automotive industry. More cars have been produced year after year. Look around your house at the amount of steel in domestic appliances. Many buildings nowadays are made from steel frames and steel cladding. All of those things have replaced the steel that has gone into traditional British industries such as shipbuilding We have four major steelworks and you never hear the good news when records are broken.

"We trained far far fewer people here in the past. Nowadays it is no longer just the elite who get trained."

While the closure of sizeable plants such as the Bilston Steelworks in the Black Country has given the impression British steel has been a dying industry, statistics offer a different picture.

The decline in manpower has been dramatic, dropping from 254,000 in 1968 to 166,000 in 1979 and 34,000 in 1998. Production figures were 22.3 million tonnes in 1968. But while they had dropped to 14.1 million tonnes in 1979, the figure actually rose to 16.3 million tonnes in 1979.

Ashorne Hall has an interesting history. Arthur Tree, who boxed for Oxford University, and his wife Ethel, daughter of a Chicago millionaire, had the hall built. But by 1900, the marriage was dissolved and she became Lady Beattie, wife of Admiral Beattie of Jutland fame whose family home was at Greenlands near the village.

Poignantly on Ashorne Hill is Ethel's Gorse, seven acres of hillside land planted with gorse and broom to make a fox covert, which locals say was planted by the heartbroken American in memory of his departed wife.

Near the training centre is a spectacular miniature railway in the grounds of the home of businessman Graham Whitehead as well as his celebrated nickelodeon collection.

Paul Camps completed the 12 inch gauge railway in 1994 and the track runs through an imaginatively designed landscape with two wooden stations, a little tunnel and a series of little mounds and ponds offering varying vistas along the route.

"It is the only railway that climbs up a hill and goes into a tunnel," claims Camps convincingly. "We had a tame engineer who did all the levels for us."

The line has two locomotives, Ashorne, built by the Exmoor Steam Railway Company, and a petrol-driven engine built by Camps.

"The train itself holds about 28 people and it is not uncommon to have a steady queue of passengers waiting for the 10-minute journey," says Camps. "The beauty of the diesel engine is that you just press a button and you are away.

"We use the steam locomotive for weekends. You have 35 to 40 minutes of steaming time. You can't walk away from it because it is like a live kettle of boiling water and has to be looked after." It was his skills as an organ builder and musical instrument restorer that brought him to Warwickshire in 1980 when he first worked for Whitehead.

"He usually refers to me as his right and left hand man," says Camps.

"The nickelodeon collection was originally housed in a small ex-Methodist chapel in Napton-on-Hill but the chapel was not in a very good position for visitors and parking. We moved it here in here in 1992."

The impressive collection is housed is an atmospheric theatre room created in the hall where visiting parties attend musical tea parties and can hear the instruments, including a 1933 Compton cinema organ, and view old film clips. The collection also includes a 1926 American Mighty Wurlitzer that is currently being restored.

The oldest villager in Ashorne is 92-year-old Cecil Spicer, an active, cheerful character who managed the interesting achievement of leaving school after just six years.

"I left when I was 11 and started work," he recalls. "The First World War was on and you could get away from school to work on the farm.

"I didn't learn much. As long as you could earn a living, that was all that mattered. My father always used to say: 'Your pockets weren't to put your hands in, they were to put money in'." He carried on his father's carrier business ending up with six lorries in his coal and haulage contracting business.

"If anybody had any produce they wanted to sell, my father would take it by horse and cart to Stratford and Leamington," he recalls.

"There were eight of us in the family and we followed our dad. I was over 70 when I finished."

Of the village he says: "The aspect hasn't changed much - it is just the people who have changed."

Look around and he is right. The rural idyll survives in Ashorne for it is a picturesque little village in the shadow of Ashorne Hill with a little village green overlooked by ancient thatched properties.

But sadly the village post office has gone, the school is a private house and The Cottage Tavern neatly located in the village main street is having survival problems.

"Locals don't want pubs - the national average is 18 to 20 per cent of villagers using their local," says Mike Packer, owner of the Tavern.

"Our biggest problem is people can go over to France and not pay any tax on booze and bring it back cheaper than I can buy it."

Parish council chairman Mrs Priscilla Cook remembers a busier village when she came to live in Ashorne after marrying local farmworker Dennis Cook 35 years ago.

"The school shut in 1975 - there were 30 to 40 children there," she recalls. "You don't see people walking round the village now as you did when the school and the shop were open.

"But it is a nice village to live in, a very good community."

A village curiosity is an attractive narrow roof shelter, that covers nothing and set some yards back from the main street. This creation belonged to rare book collector Edward Bissell, who lived in the adjacent cottage.

"Everybody asks what it is," says Cook. "It covered a couple of petrol pumps owned by Mr Bissell."

The reclusive Bissell was the village postmaster who made headline news after his death two years ago when his collection of rare books was sold for pounds 110,645. The ultimate example of his shrewd judgment and eye for a future classic was his first edition copy of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, which sold for pounds 44,400.

On the village outskirts, Ashorne has another curiosity at the picturesque village cricket ground next to Ashorne House, another pleasing period residence. The beautifully-made brick pavilion with its bell tower clock was built in the 1990 and the cost of pounds 80,000 seems relatively small considering the quality of the structure.

Stroll up to the building and you find a little bridge and a path across a stream. Is this England's only cricket ground where batsman have to cross a stream to reach the pitch?

Ashorne Fact File

The Ashorne Hall Nickelodeon Collection and Nickelodeon Railway are open on Sundays and Bank Holidays from Easter to mid-October. Party visits can also be arranged. For further details, telephone 01926 651444.

- Former village postmaster Edward Bissell's collection of rare books was sold for pounds 110,000 by Sotheby's in 1998 after he had died aged 87. His first edition copy of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows made history selling for pounds 44,400, a record for a 20th century children's book in a dust jacket.

- Ashorne Hill, a late Victorian mansion, was built for American judge's son Arthur Tree in 1896 and his wife Ethel, daughter of millionaire Chicago store-owner Marshall Field. Acquired as as a wartime evacuation centre by the British Iron and Steel Corporation in 1946, it survives today as the Ashorne Hill Management College training delegates in the steel industry.

- The village is in the parish of Newbold Pacey & Ashorne and the population is around 300 including the homes in the smaller neighbouring village.
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Author:Reyburn, Ross
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 19, 2000
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