Nicola here. A week or so ago we Wenches were chatting about history and the way that places change through time. Shops and houses come and go, building change their purpose. It made me think about my own neighbourhood and what has changed in the time that we have lived here. So I thought I would share some stories about the place where I live, a bit about its history and the changes that have occurred through time.
I live in the south of England in a tiny hamlet near a larger village on the Lambourn Downs. The first written record of my village in history comes from a Saxon Charter of AD 840 in which Ethelwulf, King of the West Saxons, granted land for a manor here to one of his followers. In the Domesday Book of AD 1086 the village was recorded as having two water mills and a church, signs of a thriving settlement. The water mills were powered by the springs that flowed down from the chalk hills to the south. These mills probably ground corn for the local population to make bread but they may also have been used for timber cutting (we know that a saw-yard was established in the village in the medieval period) and possibly even to power a forge. At this time it was the English monasteries that were the most technologically advanced places and it was the church that owned the manor here up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. There was certainly a blacksmith's forge here from the 15th century as the Roman road that passes through the village was an important thoroughfare. This is the forge today.
These days there are still two mill houses in the village, Upper and Lower Mill. These are buildings on the site of previous mills that date back to Norman times. Their function has changed though. Although Lower Mill House still has its 18th century wheel, as you can see in the picture at the top of the blog, and Upper Mill was rebuilt in 1792 according to this plaque, both of them are now houses not working buildings. In fact they have been transformed into some of the most desirable properties in the village.
The Manor House itself, dating from the 15th century and pictured below, has also changed in function. It used to be the monastery guest-house for travellers from Glastonbury Abbey in the south west on their pilgrimage to Oxford and Canterbury in the east. Now it too is a beautiful home. Many of the cottages that were built for workers on the estate have been gentrified with modern interiors beneath their thatched roofs. I set one of my early books, The Larkswood Legacy, in this village, using a local house as inspiration for the Larkswood of the story.
One house standing all on its own on the outskirts of the village is the medieval Pest House. This was built as an isolation hospital for patients suffering from leprosy and other communicable diseases. It originally belonged to the Abbey and was run by the monks. Like many other houses in the village it has been transformed into a beautiful country cottage and in recent times has been rented by a film star seeking some rural peace and quiet!
If we skip forward to the Regency and Georgian period there was plenty going on in the village. A “charity school” was established in the early 18th century to educate the poor. The very first Sunday school in the UK was set up here in 1777. The village sent men to fight in the Napoleonic Wars and one villager was a sailor who died at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. During this period there were watercress beds to the south of the manor where cress was grown commercially and sold at market in the local towns. These markets are still held on Saturdays in the same towns that hosted them in the Middle Ages. Some things don’t change.
Some things do change, though. In the 19th century the village was a hive of industry with shops and small businesses. These included a haberdasher, a shoemaker, a carpenter, two wheelwrights, a baker and grocer, and even a greyhound trainer! There was a reading room and a library. The local grocer’s shop also served as the Post Office, and this role continued up until a few years ago when both shop and post office were closed because it was no longer economically viable to keep the service going. Nowadays we have a travelling library visiting every two weeks and some different small businesses have grown up. One is a chocolatier so it’s not all bad!
With the plentiful supply of water here, there was also a malt house making beer. Often these breweries were run by the local innkeeper. Which brings me to the local pub. The Rose and Crown, which is now a pub, hotel and restaurant, was once a coaching inn and dates from the 16th century. It was established during the reign of Henry VIII and the sign featuring the Tudor rose and a crown indicates loyalty to the monarch and to England. You can see in the photograph where the original gateway for coaches has now become a window. Public houses are in decline in Britain now as a result of high taxes on alcohol and changes in the way that people enjoy their leisure time. It’s no longer as popular to spend your evenings in a smoky pub drinking a pint of warm beer and chatting to the neighbours.
Back in the Regency period, tourism became popular in these parts. The Stone Age long barrow of Wayland’s Smithy was excavated by an antiquarian and turned into a beauty spot to take advantage of the popularity of romantic looking ruins with a mysterious history. Trees were planted around the barrow and people would travel by carriage to enjoy picnics there. These days walkers and cyclists along the ancient track, The Ridgeway, do exactly the same thing.
Sometimes things go full circle. The Red Kite, a bird of prey, disappeared from English cities and countryside in the nineteenth century, hunted to extinction. Prior to this it had been a common sight even in the streets of London, swooping down to take carrion. Kites reintroduced from Wales during the 20th century have spread so successfully that they are now a common sight in the skies here again.
What is your neighbourhood like? What do you like about it and how has it changed in the time you have lived there?