Sarah Probert visits the sought-after village of Balsall Common, and finds that being an all too convenient commuter village can have both benefits and drawbacks.

The usual Monday morning traffic jams draws Balsall Common to a standstill. Finding a parking space near the row of shops in the centre of the village is impossible and getting in and out by car is slow.

It is not an unfamiliar problem for a village like this, but residents have become so irate about the congestion, they have even set up a website to lament the situation.

Village surveys also show a community, which has become so desirable because of its convenience to transport routes and two cities, fed up with the constant traffic piling through here.

Balsall Common may be marred by congestion but it is certainly not putting off potential house buyers who will pay an average of £270,000 for a semi-detached property here (more than £80,000 higher than the national average).

The abundance of good restaurants, shops, reputable schools and these transport links, has meant this Solihull village has become a property hotspot for many years.

The row of shops in Station Road and a Co-op on Kenilworth Road provide most of the staples residents could want, without the need for them to trek out of town.

A traditional butchers and delicatessen along with wine merchants and newsagents are a great attraction, along with several take-aways, including a fish and chip shop, which was allowed to be built in 1988 after much debate.

Some considered that the loss of a retail unit and the smell of the shop would have a detrimental effect on the village centre.

However, it had been forgotten that there had been a fish and chip shop in the village run from the 1940s until the mid-50s and permission for a new shop was finally granted.

For the existing community, these attractions could be part of Balsall Common's downfall. In recent years, new housing has crept into the green belt and, like many areas of Solihull, the trend for infill development (where large gardens are built on) is common.

Parish councillors complain that this surge in development has been carried out with little thought to the infrastructure, with the doctor's surgery now contemplating expansion to deal with the growing population.

"I moved into the village 22 years ago and it has grown bigger and bigger ever since," says Godfrey Chesshire, chairman of Balsall Parish Council. "It is still as friendly as it ever was but there has been a large increase in properties through infill development.

"In the 1990s Solihull council agreed the village wouldn't get any bigger and move into the green belt, how long that will last I don't know, but I have my suspicions that in time they will extend into it.

"Many hundreds of houses have been built since 1994 and they have been built as infill. Part of the Government policy is that we have infill before we go into the green belt. It has made the village much bigger and although we have more residents the facilities aren't there for them. The doctors are looking at expanding and we have limited recreation facilities for children.

"The West Midlands has a spatial strategy saying that any increase in houses will have increased infrastructure but it hasn't happened here."

Despite the issues, Godfrey loves the community here and can see why it is so desirable to newcomers.

"You are near the motorway and airport and there are so many lovely trips into Warwickshire and the Cotswolds. It is a lovely place and being so central you are not short of places to go and see."

Balsall Common has managed to cling on to its "village" title, but would be better described as a minor town due to its population of 12,000 people.

Whether local councillors and residents can fight further plans for housing is unclear. Gordon Brown's announcement to build three million homes by 2020 will put additional pressure on local councils to meet targets and create new homes.

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) claims Solihull would be one of the areas hardest hit by development on green field sites, although it is too early to say which areas of the district would be hit.

The community of Balsall Common, which is used to fighting battles when it comes to large-scale development, may have to contemplate similar campaigns if they want to protect the rural idyll which surrounds the village centre.

In the last 50 years, as the area was rapidly expanding, residents managed to fight off a bypass, a coal pit and some housing developments.
 
They have also campaigned against the expansion of Birmingham Airport over fears of increased noise from planes flying over-head, but it was the campaign against a super pit, proposed by British Coal in 1985 for nearby Berkswell, which met with a huge response, with residents and the parish council raising £120,000 to fight the proposals.

The plans were eventually rejected after a public inquiry, and although unlikely to reemerge, cannot be completely ruled out.

However, residents may have to concede that a bypass for the town is looking more likely as traffic continues to be a problem.

"We need to extend the bypass. The village is at gridlock at times and parking facilities in the village with all the new housing is limited," says Godfrey. "People did fight the bypass but I think inevitably it is going to go ahead."

Balsall Common has dramatically changed since the Second World War.

It consisted of a couple of hamlets of about six to 12 houses each and a few scattered cottages in the early 20th century. Development linking these isolated buildings began in the 1930s, but the village really began to grow in the 1950s.

As a result most of its housing stock is relatively modern, with many four and five-bedroom family homes.

A few upmarket apartments have been created, as well as recent retirement flats on the Kenilworth Road, but despite the majority of modern buildings, a few gems survive.

A number of traditional country cottages dating back to the 16th century can be found in the surrounding villages and hamlets and the village is home to the 13th century Saracen's Head, one of the oldest inns in the West Midlands.

It dates back to the time of the Crusades, when the Knights Templars came to Temple Balsall.

The main building is considered Elizabethan, though there are a number of recent additions. The inn has some impressive oak beams, many of them old ships' timbers and wattle and mud walls.

In the early part of the 19th century stagecoaches between Stratford-upon-Avon and Coleshill raced through Balsall Common along what is now the Kenilworth Road. Horses were changed at the "Shay House", an old brick dwelling on the left before the George in the Tree pub.

Before the roads were turnpiked, and even afterwards, drovers from North Wales drove their livestock along the tracks through the village, stopping overnight at the George in the Tree. They were taking their cattle and sheep to Kenilworth, Southam and Banbury, and finally to London, where they hoped to make a good sale.

In 1838 the London to Birmingham railway line was opened and trains passed through where Berkswell station is today.

After the First World War, Balsall Common joined the war effort and a potato scheme was launched in 1917, where seed potatoes were handed out to local growers in a bid to boost supplies and food production.

According to parish council records, a rat and sparrow club was set up at a similar time to reduce pests in the area.

The club met at the Saracen's Head for many years and by the end of 1917 it was reported that 692 rats and 113 sparrows had been caught together with 34 eggs.

Two local residents with the highest score were paid 10 shillings and five shillings for their efforts. A £3 grant used to set up the club was withdrawn in 1921.

During the Second World War, additional groundsmen were taken on at the cemetery in Temple Balsall and more ground was consecrated by the Bishop of Birmingham in 1942 to deal with the growing military death toll.

At that time the village was home to large numbers of RAF personnel, many of whom were stationed at Honiley Aerodrome and the Home Guard took over Chadwick End village hall as their regional headquarters.

Public air raid shelters were not considered necessary in the area although several bombs fell near the village.