Keen to unlock its forgotten past, residents of Atherstone in Warwickshire have embarked on the town's largest history project, as Sarah Probert discovers...

It was home to one of the largest slums in the country, but until recently Atherstone's past seemed to have been lost.

The old buildings in the market town - famous for hat- making - were long ignored and few realised their historic significance.

That is until a group of eager volunteers embarked on the largest history project undertaken in the town and found that, behind the facade, Atherstone had many stories to tell.

Armed with a £25,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, a team of 60 people spent the past two years looking through old records and discovered enough material to write several books.

Judy Vero, secretary of the History of Atherstone Research Team, said: "At one time, Atherstone was a bit forgotten, but over the past two years we have traced the history of 192 old buildings.

"Focusing on the market square, and involving 60 volunteers, we have surveyed buildings and trawled through archives.

"The very first building we went into had a 15th-century carved beam, and in many ways our finds have renewed interest in this historic market town."

Along the way, the group staged a series of plays, written by a local playwright and performed by the amateur dramatic society, about the heritage finds.

"It has taken over our lives, but we're thrilled that the whole thing seems to have brought the town to life and revived our civic pride," Ms Vero said.

The team is now writing two books in a bid to create a renewed interest in the town.

"Atherstone has a really rich historic environment that has never really been looked at. Nobody bothered about the buildings," she added.

"Because of its poverty, it was saved from being badly damaged during the 1960s and we thought it would be a good idea if we brought in some experts to look at the buildings. We would go into places which didn't look much on the outside and when we got inside we found they were very old.

"We have now built up a little story of every single building from 1500 to 1850, who owned it, and what it was like at different stages in history.

"And because our council is very strapped for cash it didn't have a conservation officer, but what we have discovered will enable the council to reappraise its conservation area, and look at listing buildings."

Since the research was carried out, the local council has taken on a conservation officer and the group hopes its project will influence the way the town is preserved in the future.

Camille Newton, from the Countryside Agency's Local Heritage Initiative project, said: "We have had relatively few applications from Warwickshire this year and would really like to see some more.

"This really shows what can be achieved when committed individuals stimulate the community to take pride in their heritage."