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Merrie England lost in the mists of Cannock.


What kind of place comes to mind if I say 'Merrie England'? Stratford-upon-Avon, perhaps, or Southwark, or maybe Warwick Castle. The correct answer, in fact, is Cannock.

In days of old - 1973, to be exact - the less than picturesque town north of the Black Country became associated with an unlikely scheme to bring the good times back to a place that had never really enjoyed them. A place where the word 'merry' was only usually applicable in the run-up to Christmas.

The idea centred upon 1,000 acres of blighted land at Norton Canes, newly emptied of its coal reserves and available at a knock-down price from the National Coal Board. There were a number of possibilities for such a site: new housing was one, or an industrial park. But an altogether different idea grew in the mind of Eric Morley, chairman of Mecca.

Given the grim realities of 1970s' England - the three-day week, unemployment, rampant inflation - why not turn one's back on the 20th century and return to days of yore, when knights did not go on strike, and Robin Hood was not working for the Inland Revenue ? And thus was Merrie England Ltd born, under the umbrella of Mecca, which in turn was under the umbrella of Grand Metropolitan, current owners of the group.

Let me describe the scenario. You leave the A5 south of Lichfield, turn down a freshly widened country lane, and cross a car-friendly drawbridge. Inside the portcullis lies a magical kingdom, surrounded by a high medieval-style wall. The battlements are there partly to keep out gate-crashers, and partly to block out extensive views of Cannock.

The plan was for something like Disneyland, but given a typically English slant. There was to be a Globe Theatre, a medieval battlefield, Vauxhall Gardens, an 'Old Time Music Hall', a lifesize reproduction of Drake's Golden Hind, and across the open cast mine, now filled with water, a copy of London Bridge. And towering above all (and sitting on top of an old slag heap) would be a medieval hotel, with an excellent view of the M6.

For the lucky visitors - 10,000 of whom were expected daily - there was to be jousting and archery, an opportunity to take on the Roman army, or a chance to join Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest. And when the excitement of the day was over, there were chalets to retire to, where the only sound to be heard were the distant cries of people being tortured or the day's takings being counted. All this for just pounds 100 million.

And so the diggers moved in, the landscaping began and little models of a theme park paradise began to circulate in council meetings. Planning permission was a foregone conclusion.

For a few short months in 1973 Merrie England filled the lives of the councillors of South Staffordshire with hope and sparkle. Florida and Miss World were moving to Cannock, and the biggest fruit machine in Vegas was emptying upon Norton Canes. But by 1974 the dream had been snatched away. Eric Morley and his business associates had second thoughts; this was not the time to be investing in the UK, whether in its present or its distant past.

As interest rates soared and the pound sank, Merrie England Ltd became Miserable England instead. For a country with no apparent future, there was to be no past either.
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 2, 2005
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