As I get older, history fascinates me more and more. But not the histories of kings an queens, of great battles, or of palaces and castles. I’ve done that. As a history undergraduate a lifetime ago I spent many hours in dusty libraries hunched over academic volumes.
My obsession now is local and family history, the stories of the people and places around me. As a family we have lived in this area for over 20 years but the tiny village of Astley is new to us. So what’s the story of our vineyard and the place we now call home?
As we regularly tell our visitors, Astley is one of the oldest commercial vineyards in the UK, first planted in 1971. The gnarled trunks of the oldest vines bear testament to their age. It was Michael and Betty Bache who first planted vines across our ten acre site although only a single five acre field of vines remains. Their smiling faces hang on the Tasting Room wall and we thank them regularly for being brave / optimistic / reckless / persistent enough to believe that vines would thrive in our tiny corner of the Midlands.
And of course Jonty and Janet followed the Baches, but that’s a separate story. But before that? Well, our valley was once a cherry orchard and a single tree remains as witness, stubbornly clinging onto life.
The family house was built by the Baches in the early 1960s, and is perched above the valley with glorious views of treetops. It requires some attention and there is an army of builders currently on site. A stroll around the estate provides evidence of a glamorous lifestyle. Now filled with earth and planted with shrubs, an old swimming pool can be found beneath towering pines whilst our car park was once the family tennis court, and part of the house was a stable for Michael Bache’s beloved horses.
Looking back further in time, the field where our vines now grow was once owned by a charity to benefit the poor of nearby Bewdley. The Tithe Map of 1840 reveals the land was let to William Proudman, the brewer at the Hampstall Inn just down the lane. In the opposite direction, at the top of the lane, is a magnificent oak tree at Wood Green that marks the turn for visitors. The imposing Astley Hall is just a short walk away, home to three times Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin.
The village of Astley goes back over 2,000 years with evidence of Iron Age and Roman settlements. The 12th century parish church of St. Peter’s has fine painted 16th century family tombs. In the 17th century, entrepreneurial visionary Andrew Yarranton was born in the village. He fought for the parliamentarians during the Civil war before turning his mind to industry, building a proto-type blast furnace on Dick Brook.
Down the hill flows the beautiful River Severn and the small settlement of Astley Burf. The recently renovated Hampstall Inn overlooks the river and was the scene of a terrible tragedy in August 1919 when ten day trippers from Birmingham, including some children, tragically died when the small ferry capsized.
And at the far corner of the parish are Redstone Caves. Once a monastic dwelling and site of an important river crossing, the caves were later used as storage for pig iron, dwellings, a school and even a tourist attraction in 1919
Our little corner of Worcestershire is beautiful and filled with history. If you dig a little, it has so many stories to tell – I shall keep digging…