I recently had the pleasure and privilege to spend an afternoon with our illustrious Honorary Life President John Watts. Our conversation ranged widely over his life and times and his achievement in co-ordinating and driving the team that eventually succeeded in getting the Heart of England Way adopted formally as a National Long Distance Path.
John was born on 21st. May 1928 in Great Ellingham, a village to the west of Norwich, the son of a gardener. Early in WW2 his family moved to Coventry where his father worked for the Daimler Company. After leaving school, John went to train in engineering and his first job was as a student engineer testing powders in a laboratory at GEC. The fine tungsten dust airborne from the machining unfortunately affected John’s lungs and he was forced to leave GEC.
He transferred to the Wickman machine tool company in Coventry, where again he was involved in engineering processes which caused health problems. The outcome was a complete career change to join the accounting ranks.
The motor industry beckoned and John joined Morris Motors and sampled the whole gamut of mergers, takeovers and all the political machinations that beset and almost destroyed the car industry in Britain. At 59, John took an early bath from British Leyland but continued to work for several years for Lodders Solicitors in Henley in Arden where he was responsible for keeping their accounts.
John met his soul mate and wife Hilda in Norfolk, where she was also born. Hilda’s grandmother and John’s mother were lifelong friends (years before John was a twinkle in her eye) and used to write to each other, but her failing eyesight meant Hilda became the proxy scribe. "Who was this Hilda?", John enquired, and a simple question led eventually to a meeting and the rest, as they say, is history.
They were married on 29th. August 1959 and after initially living in Coventry, moved to Alcester in 1961, buying their new home for £2,500 having managed to accumulate the £25 deposit. The house has been their home to this day and has seen the birth and upbringing of three daughters.
Prior to taking to the pathways of Warwickshire, John’s original passion was cycling and as an active member of Coventry CC, he regularly attended club runs and competed in time trials. In the late 50’s John felt the pressure of increased traffic and pollution issues riding on public roads, and took to two feet foresaking 2 wheels. John and Hilda joined the Coventry section of the Ramblers Association.
On moving to Alcester, they joined the walking section of the Alcester Civic Society and enjoyed the Warwickshire countryside whilst bringing up their family.
In 1972, the Alcester Civic Society were asked to take part in a Warwickshire CC survey on public footpath usage, and rather than write my version of what happened next, I will use John’s own words as published in the 1990 edition of the Heart of England Way Guide written by prolific guide book author and HOEWA member John Roberts.
Heart of England Way Association
The Heart of England Way sprang out of an idea from the Alcester Civic Society. Responding to a questionnaire from Warwickshire County Council about use of footpaths, they wrote a paper proposing that some paths across the County be treated as key routes, with circular walks from these arteries.
There was no response, so in 1978 the Society decided to promote their own route. They invited rambling clubs to join in and formed a committee with delegates from Alcester Civic Society, Wootton Wawen Footpaths Group, Shirley Rambling Club, Lichfield Group of the Ramblers Association, North Warwicks Rambling Club, Heart of England Rambling Club, Coventry CHA, Coventry HF, and Stratford upon Avon group of the RA.
At first, the Committee agreed the objective of a route connecting Lichfield to Chipping Campden, the eastern end of the Cotswolds Way. Each club was asked to find a route over a 10 miles section between given start and finishing points, such as Henley in Arden to Alcester. Quite soon they decided to extend the route and link the Cotswolds Way with the Staffordshire Way on Cannock Chase.
At first, we called the route the West Warwickshire Way, but it soon became Heart of England Way. By 1979 routes surveyed by the clubs had been agreed and a continuous 80 miles regional footpath created, at least on paper. It was put to the County Councils – Staffordshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands and Gloucester, but only the latter showed any interest.
There were obstructions, missing footbridges and many other problems, with very few waymarks. In 1979, the Committee decided to write a guide, which was published by Thornhill Press. For several years they persisted in trying to get the route recognised by the Counties, the NFU and others, but without much success. In Warwickshire, there were not even sufficient resources to clear obstructions.
Once again, the Committee took the initiative and in 1982 started talking to the farmers and landowners. At last there was some progress in building stiles, up to fifty over a few years. Some obstructions were cleared, and waymarks placed. Parish Councils were consulted and most of them supported the idea. Then in the late 1980’s the Countryside Commission took an influential interest, and Warwickshire County Council began to respond, building bridges and supplying stiles. A liaison committee was formed to act as a forum for the interests of farmers, landowners and walkers.
It was a long story of enthusiastic amateurs persisting for ten years and finally being rewarded by official recognition of the Way by the County Councils: Staffordshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire and Solihull Borough.
Members still work to publicise, maintain and upgrade the Way through a well organised voluntary path warden service which liaises with farmers and making regular inspections. We have contributed to Warwickshire’s New Forest of Arden scheme by planting groups of trees along the Way. All this work is almost entirely financed from members subscriptions and royalties from sales of the guide.
We are affiliated to The Ramblers and the Long Distance Walkers Association, and members include individuals and clubs. Why not join us and help to improve and promote the Way.
The 1990 guide was published before the final accolade was achieved, when, on 13th October 1990, Sir Derek Barber officially opened the Heart of England Way, Warwickshire’s first nationally recognised long distance footpath.
Several members of the Heart of England Way Association, which formed out of the HOEW Steering Committee, have devoted many years to the cause, particularly John Watts, Brian Keates, Trevor Westwood and Sheila Carter. Brian was founder Chairman and in 1988 took on the role of Warden Co-ordinator a position he held continuously until 2018.
Trevor was long-time Treasurer, who personally put money up front to publish the first guide, and subsequently established and led the Long Distance Walking Group. Sheila was Warden Co-ordinator for the northern section of the Way , long-time Membership Secretary, and a reluctant but effective Chairman for several years.
John was Secretary of the Steering Committee from its inception in 1978 and first Secretary of the Association, a role he held for 3 years until taking on the Chairman role for 5 years from 1988 until 1995.
John has never rested on his laurels and in 1995 launched the Arden Way which he devised. A sheetlet depicting the route with description was published in 1998 and this endured until Stephen Cross wrote a new guide in 2008.
John has always kept very much abreast of the Association’s activities and is always available for advice. When weather permits, he and Hilda still take daily walks and we wish them both well in the year of their Diamond Jubilee.
Thank you both for all you have done for ramblers who enjoy the pleasures that the Heart of England and Arden Ways have given.