Described by the three times Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin as a “circle of beauty”, the view he had from his garden at Astley Hall still warrants that description today. After Baldwins death, a national appeal failed to raise sufficient money for a memorial. Sir Winston Churchill personally made up the shortfall and attended the dedication of the memorial, which stands on the Stourport to Worcester road (B4196), just below the hall.
At the heart of the Parish lies St. Peter’s church, one of the finest Norman churches in the county, with rich Norman detail and carving, where a hymn writer of repute, Frances Ridley Havergal, is buried. Near the church, are the remains of a priory built in 1088. The priory was founded by Ralph de Todeni who was given the manor of Eastlie (Astley) for valour shown at the battle of Hastings. It was an alien Benedictine House, belonging to a parent monastery in Normandy. The Prior’s Well remains, but is very overgrown. To the East of the Priory, well-defined earthworks of a medieval village have been found.
Below the church and on Dick Brook is a 17th century timber-framed water mill, with a fine dam and an overshoot iron trough wheel working two pairs of stones. The wheel and much of the mechanisms are still intact. This mill is one of four in the Parish mentioned in the Domesday (Doomsday) Book of 1086 and is listed as Prior’s Mill.
At Larford, the remains of an Iron Age site have been recorded, which possibly survived into the Roman Period.
The main road through Dunley was part of a turnpike road from North Wales to London and led down to the river crossing near the ancient hermitage known as Redstone Rock (long before there was a bridge over the River Severn at Stourport!). In these soft red sandstone cliffs on the banks of the Severn, there is a cave complex, which was probably a Stone Age settlement and was used as a hermitage from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
In the 1800s the caves acted as a home for “poor folk” with an alehouse, school, chapel, refectory and dormitories. The caves were still occupied in living memory!
In 1918 a monastery for the Society of St. Francis, was established in stables and courtyard of the manor house of Glasshampton. In 1810, the house itself was destroyed by fire on the day of a party to celebrate its rebuilding! Apart from the stables, a walled garden and the brick built icehouse (on the banks of Dick Brook) also survive.
At Astley Burf there is a small area of “common land” which is overseen by the Parish Council and gives access to the River Severn. It is possibly the only publicly designated access to the river along its entire length!
Nearby is the Hampstall Inn, from where the Hampstall ferry was a crossing point. In 1919, this was the scene of a dreadful disaster where 9 people were killed when the ferry capsized.
The people of the Parish were active during the Civil War – Prince Rupert led his army through in 1642 and later King Charles himself in 1644. This was a time of radical new thinking in scientific, political and religious matters and strongly opposing views were held among the community.
Perhaps the most renowned “son of the Parish” was Andrew Yarranton – who was born at Larford. He was involved during the Civil War as an active soldier in the defeat of many a Royalist uprising. He was also an outstanding seventeenth century pioneer in such diverse fields as agriculture (bringing clover to the Parish!), national economy, the construction of canals and iron working. Just above Glazen Bridge at Sharpley Pool, is the site of a blast furnace which was built by Yarranton and was probably in use until 1668. It was an important arms centre during the Civil War. He tapped water from Dick Brook to power the wheels of the furnace. He dredged the brook and built locks so that boats could carry iron ore from the River Severn to the furnace. It is possible that this was the first canalised brook in England – and 100 years before the first transportation canals were built! The site is designated by English Heritage as a site of National importance – a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
Domestic Architecture – the Parish has a significant number of fine “black and white” half-timbered houses from the 16th and 17th centuries, including Yarhampton and Astley Towne. Other examples are to be found at Longmore Hill Farm and Bull Hill Farm.
Pool House is a 17th century building with an impressive 18th century sandstone Gothic façade.
The Severn is Britain’s longest river – some 220 miles – and forms the eastern boundary of the Parish. The “King’s high stream of Severn” was a principle trade route in the Middle Ages and after the great expansion of the coal trade, became one of busiest rivers in Europe by the 17th century.
The river is steeped in archaeological, industrial and natural history; remaining to this day a recreational treasure.
The parish of Astley and Dunley is an area of predominantly agricultural land extending south from the edge of the town of Stourport on Severn. Its eastern boundary is formed by the gorge of the River Severn; its southern edge is marked by the muddy valley of Dick Brook which separates it from Shrawley Wood. To the west the land rises steadily towards the Abberley Hills, ending in the steep cliff of the disused Shavers End Quarry.
The underlying rocks are mostly desert sandstones of the Triassic period, laid down over two hundred million years ago, right at the start of the age of the dinosaurs. The resulting soils are reddish and often light and sandy.
The region bordering the River Severn is marked by three layers of river terraces, areas of fossil river bed left behind by the dramatic changes in the river level which occurred during the ice ages. The most noticeable of these is on Astley Burf. To the south of the Burf is an area of water meadows. Despite its regular flooding – a major issue regarding planning applications – the grassland is of an “improved” type and poor in wild flowers. At Larford a former gravel pit has been converted into a fishing lake, and this has created an interesting new habitat for bird life. Cormorant, Common Tern, Gadwall, Goldeneye, Goosander, Divers, rare Grebes and Little Egret have all been reported there.
There are two areas of woodland in Astley and Dunley parish. In the north Areley Wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is an area of ancient, semi-natural oak woodland made damp by numerous springs which drain into the Gladder Brook. The waterlogged parts are rich in alder while the drier areas contain scattered yews. It contains a number of uncommon plant species.
In the south of the Parish Lower Astley Wood borders the River Severn, while Upper Astley Wood follows the Dick Brook . A depressed area of Lower Astley Wood, the Osier Beds, remains waterlogged and even flooded for much of the year. It contains numerous coppiced willows which in the past have been used for basket weaving. This area does not seem to have been investigated but it is likely to contain unusual plants and insects.
Upper Astley Wood provides a glorious display of Bluebells and Wild Garlic in the spring. Another interesting flowering plant common there is Toothwort, a root parasite which does not have green leaves and takes its food from the roots of trees and shrubs.
The West of the Parish – taking in Shavers End and Areley Wood – is designated an area of “Great landscape value”
Abberley and Malvern Hills Geopark
In 2003 a region extending from Bridgenorth to the Severn estuary was designated a European Geopark, one of only three in the country, marking it out as a region of international geological importance. Astley and Dunley parish is included in the Geopark, and the disused quarry at Shavers End has been designated a Regionally Important Geological Site (RIGS).
The rocks of Shavers End are limestones and shales, rich in marine fossils such as trilobites. They date from the Silurian period, about four hundred and thirty million years ago, a time when mountain-building was particularly active and life was just beginning to emerge from the sea onto the land. The presence of limestone at Shavers End encourages the growth of uncommon plants and insects. Peregrine falcons sometimes nest there, and Wood White and Dingy Skipper butterflies, both listed as UK priority species, have been reported from the area. Information about the Abberley and Malvern Hills Geopark may be obtained from the Bewdley Museum. More complete information about the Geopark is available from Geological Records Centre, University of Worcester.