On Saturday 27 August the town of Kenilworth in Warwickshire celebrated the 750th anniversary of the siege of Kenilworth Castle, when Henry III’s army was fighting for control of the castle from Simon de Montfort’s rebel supporters.
The Open Spaces Society (OSS) owns 15 acres of meadow in Kenilworth, adjacent to the A429 Coventry Road. It is called Parliament Piece and it is possible that Henry III held his parliament here in 1266. There is no evidence either way, but it is nice to think that the parliament may have sat here.
As part of the celebrations on Saturday the OSS had a stand alongside other organisations on Abbey Fields, and one on Parliament Piece with the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust which manages the land to promote wildlife and public access.
Parliament Piece was given to the society in 1986 by the late Miss Helen Martin of The Spring, an adjoining farm. Miss Martin was an interesting and unusual person and I am sorry that I never met her; she died aged 80 in 1988. She was a generous benefactor. The family wealth came from her brother Jack’s Smirnoff vodka business (he is said to have invented the Bloody Mary among other cocktails) and she gave millions to nearby Warwick University.
She started a trust with a personal donation of £5,000 and eventually contributed £28 million in today’s prices to the university. All her donations were anonymous and no building was named after her until after her death. In 2010 the university opened the Helen Martin Studio in the arts centre, in recognition of her love of the arts and especially classical music.
When I last stayed at the university for Ramblers’ general council in 2013 and went on my early-morning run I came upon a sculpture and bench on the cycle route between Kenilworth and the university. I photographed it, unaware that the figure on the left is Helen Martin with her much-loved poodles. The others are Edward Langley Fardon, a pioneer of bicycle design, from Stoneleigh and James Kemp Starley, the Coventry inventor of the modern bicycle.
The bench is a ‘portrait bench’, of which there are a number on this route (known as Connect2), each with three, life-sized effigies of local people selected by the community. They are made of hard-wearing Corten steel.
On Saturday I met one of Helen Martin’s employees; he used to drive the tractor, and he spoke of her with affection. He said that she was immensely generous and offered to pay for the education of her employees’ children.
Parliament Piece is a fine legacy of Helen Martin’s philanthropy, a peaceful spot enjoyed by walkers, runners, dog walkers and naturalists. The OSS has leased it to Warwick District Council to be cared for alongside its other open spaces.
We shall probably never know whether there really was a parliament here—but it’s fun to speculate as we wander over this beautiful meadow.