In the medieval period Polesworth faced north with roads into and out of the township to the north and east. The Hermitage for the Benedictine Abbey was situated on the valley side to the south west of the township and across the river, which was not navigable and had a large pool and flood plain with a ford to cross in good weather. To reach the Hermitage the nuns would travel up a winding road to the retreat which contained a chapel and living accommodation and a garden area for growing produce. Nearby was a spring which became known as St. Edithas well. Documentary evidence seems to suggest that a small number of nuns spent six months at a time in retreat there. This was not on any through road and the only visitors would be the priest or fellow nuns who came up from Polesworth itself.
After the Reformation the Hermitage, which was part of the Polesworth Abbey estate, was sold to the Goodere family and the Hermitage appears to have been let out as a small holding/farmstead. Polesworth registers of baptisms, marriages and burials began in 1631 and the first mention in them of the Hermitage is of ‘(blank) Gretton, s. of (blank) Gretton of the Hermitage. bur.’ in 1653. This may have been a child of the tenant of the Hermitage or a labourer’s child as the next entry is also in 1653 of the burial of Thomas Shutt. Although the Hermitage was most likely converted into a farmhouse, there were other dwellings in the vicinity most likely occupied by farm workers. The 1638 foundation deed for the Nethersole Trust housed in Warwickshire County Record Office gives details of where the students were to be selected and out of 30 boys and 30 girls states ’12 boys and 12 girls should be selected from Polesworth, Trensale and Hermitage’. This shows Hermitage was a populated area with families with children who could take advantage of the education offered.
Over time the land acquired by the tenants of the Hermitage, especially the Hewitts who were in occupation from the late 1600s, covered large areas of Stoneydelph, Kingswood, Amington as well as parcels of land in Polesworth and Tamworth. To get to their various land holding the winding track up from Polesworth would have been extended up to the top of what is now called Hermitage Hill and then across the old Roman Road, (which went from the A5 Watling Street over the top of Hermitage Hill, across past the site of Alvecote Priory and on up to Shuttington and beyond) and on into Stoneydelph and the present borough of Tamworth. This would over time have been widened and surfaced to allow the farm to operate efficiently. This road from the early 1700s became a turnpike road and tolls would be charged to travel along it. A toll house or booth would be next to a gate which would be opened to allow access once the toll had been paid.
There were a number of such toll gates in the area, Stoneydelph, Merevale, Witherley and Harrow, Sketchley Bar, Bentley Lane, Pinwall Lane, Appleby, Two Gates Bar, Gospel Oak Gate to name but a few. So to travel through this area could have cost the traveller a considerable sum of money depending on which roads were used. The Stoneydelph toll gate was in the area where Chiltern Road, Stoneydelph is now. There are documents in Warwickshire Records Office of the ‘Highways Atherstone United Turnpike Roads committee’ which date from 1809 and give insight into the various functions of the committee regulated by Acts of Parliament. There were rebuilding, refurbishing of the toll houses and purchasing land to improve the road system and other works and the abolition of the tolls on a number of roads as the system began to be reformed. Records of auctions held in 1871 show the licence to collect tolls were sold off for yearly payments to interested parties, who may or may not have lived in the toll houses as there are records of these falling into disrepair.
The evidence for a toll house and gate near the Hermitage was discovered when the M42 was cut through and the old Tamworth Road was straightened leaving two cul-de-sacs, one on either side, to show where the road used to be. Archaeologists discovered what seemed to be the foundations of a two roomed dwelling with two gateposts which spanned a made up area of roadway when they were excavating in the bend of the old road. If they were correct in their analysis then there was a toll house and gate near the Hermitage farmhouse. This would mean if travelling from Tamworth passing two toll gates at least to get into Polesworth. If travelling to Atherstone, then at least three, possibly four tolls needed to be paid.
Most travellers would have chosen a route which meant paying as few tolls as possible. So it is quite likely that travellers would have avoided the Hermitage toll by cutting across the moorland and heath known today as Birchmoor and skirting the Hall End Estate onto the A5 Watling Street, paying one toll at Merevale to travel into Atherstone. Or travelling over the moorland and cutting down what is now Fairfields Hill to enter Polesworth. It is interesting to note that there is no mention of anyone living in Birchmoor in the parish registers until the late 1700s and the only mention of the word Birchmoor before then is in a will from 1715 which mentions a place called Birchmoor Common. Perhaps Birchmoor grew up to service travellers taking this route and the coaching inn was built to house them.
How far the toll road went past Polesworth is not recorded, or even if it went past what is now called The Square. As for maintenance of the road, this was done by paid labour, often by farm labourers who were paid to do this work together with cutting hedges and clearing waterways when they were not working on any of the farms in the area. Although these men would have been laid off, they were required when the next round of planting or harvesting was to be done, and they would also need to pay their rent and feed their families, so giving them work during the slack times was essential. The money to pay them came from the tolls collected when it was the turnpike road being repaired and from the organisation called ‘the Vestry’ when it was for the township roads. ‘The Vestry’ oversaw the distribution of dole money to the poor and those unable to work and giving those who could work money for various tasks including road repairs.
By Margaret Henley
Chair of Polesworth History Project Group