Walks » A walk around Gilston by John Clarke
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|Walk #2 A walk around Gilston by John Clarke|
Let us take a walk around Gilston, stopping off at interesting places. We have to start somewhere, and there is no better place than in the centre of the village, by the village pub, the Plume of Feathers.
We will look at the pub in more detail; but let us first look at Shiptons, the very fine house opposite. It is an ancient house but of uncertain date, possibly 18th century. It predates John Hodgson and is thus one of a select few. It owes its survival, as do the others, to the simple fact that it was in the hands of an independent landowner, and was thus not on the market when John Hodgson laid his hand on Gilston. It is certainly the house shown in the records of 1845 as the village shop of Joseph Harrington. The name 'Shiptons' is not original and dates only from a mid-20th-century occupant.
Now we will turn our attention to the Plume of Feathers; it is Gilston’s oldest house. Old; but how old? Brewery records do not help. There has been a building here for a long time, and an important one, too. Strategically placed on the main road, it could cater for the huge amount of “traffic” passing through Gilston. Drink, food and lodging were available, also a stable to feed, water or change horses, as the old stables at the rear attested. Coroner’s court; meeting house for local churchwardens; centre for business: you name it, they did it. The pub name has sometimes altered over the years: at one time it was the Plumer Ward's Arms, named after a village squire; but it has always reverted to the original.
Many landlords make extravagant claims about the age of the pub but these, sadly, cannot be confirmed. The earliest reference I can find is in 1661 when the pub landlady, Elizabeth Waterman, a widow, was brought before the Justices 'for suffering evil rule', selling tobacco and not attending church (a formidable character by the sound of it). Experts who have examined the inn suggest that it doesn’t go back much further than this; but even that would make the Plume over 350 years old, which is a good innings; and possibly an earlier tavern could have stood on the site and donated its timbers to the 17th-century Plume of Feathers. We honestly don’t know. The pub has fine beams and a brick chimney stack.
For most of its existence it was supported by its “locals” and passing casual trade; but in recent times a new clientele has had to be found as there are now few local regulars to prop up the bar. I’m fond of the Plume as my road to ruin started there years ago, when as a small boy I enjoyed my first lemonade in the inglenook of this splendid establishment, concealed from the eye of the passing constable.
Looking across the road from the Plume of Feathers we see the war memorial. Additional names were added as a result of the Second World War, but the names of civilian casualties were never inscribed.
Turning, and walking along the road towards Eastwick, after Plume Cottage, now owned by the pub, we pass a long-brown-brick terraced row of houses, built in the last few years of the 19th century. This was constructed by Mr Camp, the pub landlord, for renting, and is similar to another terraced row further down towards the brook; the two presumably have a common origin. They could have provided accommodation for workers at the nearby Terlings manor house.
The village hall is available for commercial lettings. Please use it as it is a valuable village asset, and in recent times has been extensively modernised. Inside are displayed some quite fascinating and early photographs of village inhabitants and events, including two paintings of the squire, Frank Bowlby, who provided the village hall in 1908 as a working men’s club, and of his son. On the front of the hall outside is an inscription plate and a coat of arms from the Bowlby family depicting hinds' heads.
When I was young I acted on the stage in the hall. As they didn’t ask me back I am drawn to the conclusion that I was perhaps not an unqualified success.
The traditional red telephone box that stood outside was, sadly, removed many years ago; the grey replacement can only be used by those holding phone cards as it no longer takes cash.
A short diversion to the left takes us to Grasslands, a large detached house with an extensive array of outbuildings. This was built by Mr Helmer who for many years was a prominent businessman in High Wych.
The next house of interest, Pye Cottage, was built about 1885 and is most unusual in style, being tile-hung in red tiles in the tradition of the county of Kent. It was intentionally built large and impressive to be the home of the bailiff of Terlings manor house (in essence the business manager of the estate with considerable powers of hire and fire). The house remained in such use for quite a long time, and although its style is 'foreign' to its surroundings, it catches the eye of the passer-by.
Here was once located the old village blacksmith’s shop run by the Camp family for many generations. The sight of the mighty farm horses, reflected in the red firelight as they were being shod at the anvil, must have been quite lovely. Old horseshoes have been found on this site.
Down past the second brown-brick terrace we come to Fiddlers Cottage: another excellent house. Its age is unknown but it is certainly of pre-Hodgson date, and possibly is of 18th-century origin, of a similar period to Shiptons. In the 1845 record it is shown as lived in by the delightfully named William Cakebread, a widespread village family at this time.
Fiddlers Brook nearby runs through the entire village, but up nearer the church it is grandly called Golden Brook.
Terlings manor started life as a small Tudor farm named after the Terling family, and it remained so until the 19th century, when a manor house was built. The gardens were superb and included much use of water from the nearby river, on the bank of which at this point stood Gilston Mill, a watermill. This mill started life as a cloth mill, with the water being used for the fulling process. The date of its conversion to a flour mill is unknown. In its day the mill was in a most attractive setting, but it was destined to disappear early as there were just too many mills on the river.
Terlings manor was a small one, comfortable rather than imposing, completely in the shadow of its much bigger neighbour Gilston Park. It survived with various owners until the Second World War, after which it was abandoned and later burnt down. It is interesting to note that in huts erected in its grounds, the architects’ department of the Harlow Development Corporation planned the building of Harlow New Town.
After abortive attempts to use the site for an open prison and a centre for the Post Office, the area was finally occupied by the pharmaceutical research company of Merck, Sharp & Dohme. The old ruins were demolished and the gardens destroyed, although the grounds were then partially landscaped, and some fine old trees remained. A delightful little lodge house that stood by the current entrance had, sadly, been pulled down several years earlier. The history of the house is fully covered in a book by Alistair Robinson entitled A History of Terlings Park and which is available from Harlow Library. The site is currently being developed for housing. A large estate is planned.
Fiddlers Brook crossed the road at this point by a ford, a wooden bridge being provided for pedestrians. A road traffic bridge is now in use.
Gilston finishes a short distance further on up the hill. On the right-hand side once stood some old thatched cottages which were finally demolished some 60 years ago. A photo of them is displayed in the village hall; it is of very great interest but conveys an impression of cosy rustic living, which is far from the truth.
Returning to the pub, we can now turn towards High Wych through the area generally known as Pye (or Pie) Corner: a name in and out of use for at least three centuries, but which probably has a simple origin – a corner where pies were made. Much of this area, surprisingly, was in historical times never in Gilston, but in Sawbridgeworth parish, a big finger of which went right through Pye Corner, up what is now Eastwick Road to Burnt Mill Corner and down to Eastwick Lodge Farm which is shown in old records as Sawbridgeworth Lodge Farm.
Walking along the road we encounter on the right some good examples of the red-brick Hodgson cottages, although now altered in most cases. Then on the left we first meet the recent Vine Grove houses. These perpetuate the Vine Farm which stood hereabouts. This was a small farm which came to an end around 1860, and which comprised a farmhouse, barn, outbuildings and a pond. Most of the village’s smaller farms were closed down at this time and incorporated into larger ones nearby.
The name Vine is interesting. I wonder whether the farm house was covered in climbing vines. Alternatively, it could be a family name, although I have yet to discover Mr and Mrs Vine.
The remaining houses on the left are a glorious liquorice allsorts bunch of varied origin but not of any great age. Demolitions, extensions and rebuildings have changed the appearance of this part of Gilston more than any other.
Originally there were few houses here: most of the old Pye Corner was on the opposite side of the road situated around a crescent-shaped track in the vicinity of what is now Nos 22–25. At the base of this track and away from the road stood the building euphemistically known as the almshouse, for the use of aged people. It was in fact Gilston’s workhouse, for those who were unable for any reason to support themselves physically or economically, and it was not a venue to be lightly entered. It was opened in 1815. Thankfully its existence in Gilston was short-lived and it was demolished in the 1870s, when centralised establishments were set up – but not much of an improvement for us, as Gilston’s elderly folk were then faced with the reviled Ware Union. Our squires did respond to the problem and erected some fine almshouses in Eastwick, but some people still slipped through the net and ended up in the Union.
High View is a large detached house with attendant riding stables, continuing a time-honoured tradition of horse husbandry: horses were always of major importance in Gilston.
The last houses in Gilston are Marlers and Pole Hole Farm. Marlers, Pole Hill, is an old house, possibly of mid-Victorian date or earlier which had a connection with local gamekeepers. It took its name from a 20th-century resident. Pole Hole Farm is a small establishment that lost its independence early, and by the time of my youth was being run by the farmer at Channocks. Today a few outbuildings survive in commercial use and there is a Hodgson cottage of 1885, presumably once the farmhouse. More recently there was a small attractive goat farm, but sadly its life was short.
From the north end of Gilston and stretching behind Pole Hole towards Redricks Lane, were once extensive gravel pits. Gravel was extracted from many points in the village in the past. All operations came to an end for a while, and then recommenced. At the time of writing they are anticipated to cease once again.
Now back to the pub, and let us walk up Church Lane. Pause to look carefully at No. 87 on the right, which will give you a very good idea of what all Hodgson houses were once like. It is half of what was once a particularly fine Hodgson example, bearing, like all other Hodgson houses incidentally, a date plaque. In this half, little has spoilt the original design; here in all their glory are the diamond-paned windows, red bricks and roof tiles, and tall chimneys. In a shed behind this house Mr Brace once provided, on Sunday mornings, a barber's service for the men of the village.
Slightly further up the road, and in the wood on the left, lies one of Gilston’s great historical sites. This is private land and not visible even from the public footpath that now crosses the park from the gate in the lane; but buried deep in the nettles and thistles there is a high mound of soil surrounded by a dry moat. This is no less than the original site of Giffards manor, one of the three farmsteads set up by our founder in 1135, and the only physical evidence of the three now remaining. What catches the eye is the relatively small size of the site. But it is an outstanding survival. Lower down the wood there was once a deer farm. The sight of the beautiful deer must have been an attractive one, as it is these days on occasions; but at that time they were, unfortunately, destined for the pot.
On the opposite side of the road, near the stables, is the point where the parachute mine landed in the Second World War. The resultant blast shattered every window for a great distance around. I used to toboggan on the ‘mountain’ it created, and play hide-and-seek in the crater.
Further up Church Lane, again on the left, is an overgrown field – quite hard to see these days now that the hedges are so tall. But it is the site of Giffards Farm which lay the other side of the brook, the route of which is visible as it flows down the edge of the park to run adjacent to, and just below, the lane. This was a big farm which closed in mid-Victorian times, and it is therefore all the more surprising that nothing exists of it today except a faint trace, the hollowed-out course of the path that led across the field from School Lane to the farm, crossing the brook at the front of the buildings.
Along the roadside here there was a fine row of immensely tall Lombardy poplar trees – all became victims of gales. Before the grass grew so much, the field was once filled with glorious wild flowers: buttercups, daisies and lady’s smock. The 17th-century Mrs Williams would have approved. Behind the farm once lay the grass parklands, now all under cultivation. Here in 1814 was kept a large flock of Wiltshire sheep (all with horns). An old sheep shed still survives in the park.
Further on, we come to a narrow wood on the left (Baker’s Belt), which was planted in the 18th century to act as a screen for Gilston Park. Behind this lies Gilston Lake. This was a magical place for children, but dangerous, as few could swim in my day. The lake is artificial and dates back to the early19th century. It was formed by damming Golden Brook and flooding the low-lying land as a result. In its heyday it had a boathouse, giant fish (pike and tench), and lots of waterbirds: swans, herons, kingfishers. The herons, after a long period of absence, are reported to be back, but the lake is not now accessible to the public and is anyway past its prime. Silting up is a major problem: great flocks of Canada geese periodically descend and strip bare the aquatic plants, and the spread of bulrushes is noticeable. Watch the geese in formation flying in Vs and line astern: the Red Arrows could not do better.
The water leaves the lake by a waterfall, which may be heard and sometimes even glimpsed when water levels are high and surrounding greenery thin in winter. (It is opposite School Cottages.) Here at the waterfall in the early 1900s Arthur Bowlby the squire conducted some early experiments with hydro-electric power, with the aid of a turbine. Using cables, he successfully provided Gilston Park and the church with electricity.
I commented on the waterbirds of the lake, and I am reminded of the vast flocks of birds that once used to visit the village. Flocks of starlings (estimated by experts to be in the region of hundreds of thousands) would descend into the woods for brief visits. There were also periodic invasions of beautiful lapwings and golden plovers, now all but memories. But the gorgeous barn owl has re-established itself in recent years and the magnificent buzzard is now also a resident.
Trees are greatly in decline, but still a few noble specimens survive. Gilston was once full of fine trees. The oldest surviving trees are probably oaks, going back to the early eighteenth century.
However, creatures that have prospered in recent years include the delicate muntjac deer (barking deer) and the badger. You may not see them often, but they are here and in some numbers.
Returning to our village walk: continuing on up Church Lane from School Cottages, on the right is High Gilston, the old village school and head teacher’s house, built in 1856 and probably the most attractive of all the surviving Hodgson houses. It is a real gem and alterations have been sympathetically done, although it has lost its front door. Here, for just over 100 years, primary education was given to the village children and, in latter days, also for those from Eastwick following closure of their school. It was a long and honourable achievement. Surviving documents suggest that it was a hard task to educate children in the early days of universal education, contending with the problems of a cold basic classroom, limited resources, bad behaviour, truancy (children helped with the harvesting), and parental prejudices.
I was educated there and blotted my glorious career by running away on my first day. My bid for freedom was cut short prematurely by being captured by a big girl: a mortal shame for any boy. We were taught in the single-storey classroom on the left of the building, being staged from left to right in ages (5 to 11), with girls in front and boys behind.
Teaching was by the traditional methods of the time, using blackboard and chalk, with upright desks, exercise books, and pens you dipped into inkwells. Pupil numbers were small, never more than about a dozen while I was there; but remember, we were always taught by just one teacher. The seniors would be set to their lessons while the teacher would then be free to concentrate on the infants who obviously required more individual attention.
We were taught well and discipline was good. Any insurrections were speedily crushed by the threat of dispatch to the bad boys’ school. Not bad girls’ school, you note – girls were always very good, although they did take part in scrumping the Rector’s apples. This was not well received, and resulted in stern lectures all round. Playtime was held in the school yard or in the adjacent paddock, where there was a tree to climb.
Dinners were provided daily by Mrs Jones, the cook: lots of duffs and vegetables – good wholesome meals enjoyed by all. They were cooked in the kitchen of the adjoining house, which provided accommodation for the teacher.
We had such diverse lessons as painting, drawing, and raffia work, in addition to the three Rs, history, and other academic subjects. The Rector also provided a Sunday school here which was well, but reluctantly, attended. My favourite subjects were history, dinner, playtime and going home.
The highlight of the school year was the annual outing to Clacton, which took place in September. Motor coaches would take all the pupils, the mums, the teacher, Cook, and even an occasional dad to the seaside. Lots of buckets and spades were brought out: there were seashells, slimy seaweed, jellyfish, sandcastles to build, boat trips to take, Punch and Judy to watch, and lots of general laughter and screaming. And it never seemed to rain.
Our teacher was Amy Edwards, who deserves a very special place in the account as she ran Gilston School singlehandedly for over 30 years, hardly ever missing a day – a quite remarkable and unsurpassed record. The school closed in 1959 and was converted into a private house.
Continuing our walk up the hill, we come to the old rectory, a typical Victorian building of some size standing in a large garden with an orchard (ah, those apples!). In the grounds is a magnificent horse chestnut tree whose conkers have been admired by generations of village boys. When the rectory was built in 1889 its workers’ contracts stipulated that all workers on site were to be in a sober condition and were on pain of dismissal not to swear, curse or profane (even if they dropped a brick on their foot, one assumes).
This house was built to demonstrate the status in society of the Rector and, because of its size, it required domestic staff. As time went by, the villages could no longer keep a separate Rector, and in 1977 were joined up with High Wych, where the current Rectory now is. The rectory at Gilston was sold off as a private house. I recall that it was on the rectory lawn that the village fete was held (alternating each year with Eastwick Manor). The stalls were set up round the sides of the lawn; by today’s standards they seem so simple and naive, but we loved them and had the same ones each year.
We were fortunate to have such a variety of stalls: treasure hunts, guessing the weight of the cake, tombola, darts, coconut shies, and bowling for the pig (a real porker: the winner gave it back to the farmer and received cash in lieu), and so on – such glorious pursuits! Lavish amounts of refreshments and drinks were provided round the back of the Rectory, where also there were stalls for garden produce and just about anything else that someone wanted to sell (the white elephant stall).
In the centre of the lawn we had the events: three-legged and sack races, egg and spoon, fancy dress competitions, dog shows and best knobbly knees. No, I didn’t win the knobbly knees, but I did once win the competition to find the person who looked most like their dog. When I tell you that I had a woolly Old English sheepdog, and I myself had not had a haircut for a long time, you will see that I was unbeatable for Olympic gold.
Today the Rectory is still marked Gilston Rectory, which is most confusing. If you want to get married or baptise little Fred, don’t call there but ring the Rectory at High Wych instead. Gilston Church is still open for services.
Opposite the Rectory stands a magnificent old iron gate, now beautifully restored. It is a fine piece of the blacksmith’s art and deserves attention. This marks the original entrance to Gilston Park, and now makes a splendid entrance to Little Park.
The house of that name was built in 1948 as the residence of the estate agent of Arthur Guinness at the time of the Guinness family’s purchase of the village. The building, now in private hands, has been greatly altered and enlarged over the years. For a while it was the home of Princess Victoria of Prussia, a descendant of Kaiser Wilhelm II (Kaiser Bill), the infamous German Emperor of the First World War.
In this area, and before the time of agricultural sprays, millions of tiny frogs used to emerge from the lake at spawning time and hop off through the Rectory grounds and surrounding countryside: a truly amazing sight. These days some of the frogs are returning, although sadly with the increase of traffic a significant number meet their end under vehicle wheels.
Continuing up the lane, we now come to Cumberland Lodge. This is another treasure: a survival of a lodge to a manor house, and in an excellent state of preservation. A typical lodge house of unusual shape and small size, it has been in caring hands for many years and retains its great charm. It bears the Hodgson arms on a stone plaque. The lodge keeper in those days was simply a gatekeeper. He or she had a gate across the road and vetted all visitors to the manor house. The lodge once featured in a cinema film where a murder was planned.
A small detour takes us briefly to Channocks Farm, a small farm latterly absorbed into its larger neighbours. It is puzzling to observe how small and plain John Hodgson made his farmhouses, when he went for such ornate work at other sites. An obvious explanation is that he considered farms on a functional level only.
The farmhouse, now a private residence, reminds me of Mr Brown, a farmer who owned the last two working farm horses in Gilston. On retirement they lived out their days in the field at the bottom of the lane. A beautiful pair of Shires (how Geoffrey de Mandeville would have loved them), one day they made a bid for freedom and trotted off down the hill where they paused to eat grass, bringing the agonised wail from a passing motorist: 'They won’t get out of the way!' When the farmer appeared on the spot, the two runaways 'went quietly', as the police would say, and were returned safely to their field.
Gilston’s cricket ground was in the horse field. Our team was most active in the 1930s, and held its own against other nearby villages, the Rector at that time, Cyril Lewis, making an admirable wicket-keeper. The war put paid to everything, but in the 1950s the field was used for a time by Burnt Mill Cricket Club. There was an adjacent pond, and during every match at some stage the ball would land up in it, necessitating a great deal of muddy paddling to retrieve it.
The barns at Channocks are now used for a variety of small industries which is pleasant to record as there is very little employment in the village now. The farm takes its name from the Charnock family of the early 17th century.
Channocks House stands on the left-hand side at the end of the lane. Originally on this site stood a most interesting building. A simple hut, it was built during the First World War as a Zeppelin-spotters’ hut. Countering the threat of these German airships necessitated the construction of many such observation stations, situated on high ground with good all-round visibility. After the war this one became a house and remained so until its demolition.
Beyond the barns at Channocks and leading to Redricks Lane is Green Lane, a fairly wide pathway. This is interesting as it shows what all the byways of Gilston looked like before the coming of tarmac roads.
Returning down Channocks Lane, there are two routes to Gilston Church. One, the steep Spencers Hill, is the most direct, and was opened by John Hodgson in 1851 to ensure that villagers no longer had to encroach upon the privacy of his manor house. It was once planted on its verges with alternating red and white may trees – a lovely sight in late spring. But alas, almost all have now gone. Keen observers may still find the site of a quarry in the field at the bottom of the hill. Here were quarried the materials for the new road.
The second route, the pretty one, requires us to retrace our steps left to Cumberland Lodge and go down Hollow Lane. This was opened at the same time as Spencers Hill, and provided the new entrance to Gilston Park, replacing the former entrance through the old iron gate.
We reach first The Stables (which in fact were first manor outbuildings and then the social club for Smith & Nephew when they were at Gilston Park). They now consist of eight small semi-detached dwellings set in an attractively landscaped setting with Golden Brook winding along at the end of the lawn on its way to Gilston Lake. Then, on the right-hand side, we reach Goldenbrook, originally the old manor house walled garden. An interesting site this, and although the house has been much altered and enlarged, there are many reminders of the past. A beautiful red-brick wall enclosed a garden of some size, sloping down to the brook near the bottom. Here were situated large glasshouses, growing a wide variety of hothouse plants such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peaches and the most wonderful black grapes. In the garden there were extensive beds of flowers and vegetables, with fruit trees and shrubs trained along the inner walls.
The gardening staff at its peak was large, and the yield substantial. The garden always looked so well kept and colourful with the rotating crops. Fruit trees and shrubs also skirted the outer walls. My first job was there: I was paid 1/- (5p) an hour, plus all the peaches and grapes I could eat. Possibly I had too many, for I was soon transferred to rhubarb (yuck). Every detail of the garden was meticulously planned; and we can note still the remains of the old wooden sluice gates used to control water levels in the brook, and the old metal combs to prevent detritus washing down into the garden. Economic conditions forced the closure of the garden, which is now a private house. The grapes, alas, have gone.
Opposite Goldenbrook is a house, The Orchard, marked ASB 1907 (after Arthur Salvin Bowlby), once the house of the chief groom, who was a stalwart figure in charge of all the estate horses and the attendant staff. Turning to the left round the corner, we come to the stable itself, now known as The Mews. Although this area is now developed into residential use, with houses set around a courtyard, there are still reminders that this was once a stable. The paved courtyard was the old stable yard, bordered with the stalls, with lofts for the stable boys above. The manor had some beautiful horses: carriage horses in the early days, but in later days solely riding horses – sleek hunters and ponies for the children. After the Bowlbys departed, Mr Thom, the racehorse owner, kept his famous horses here for a short while: they were all called Star-(something) and included the classic Stardust.
And finally we reach the manor house itself, Gilston Park, built in all its grandeur and opulence in 1852: the seat of government, so to speak, of everything we have seen on our walk. Finely furnished with ornate panelling and fixtures, it was a place fit for a king, and John Hodgson fitted that bill, for without him there would probably not have been any new manor house nor model village. King John was fully entitled to sit on his throne!
For such a large mansion, a big domestic staff was essential: from the butler at the top of the pyramid down through the army of housekeeper, cook, valet, and maids of every persuasion, to the skivvies at the base. All were represented at Gilston Park: some 30 domestic staff are recorded at one point. And don’t forget the pecking order amongst them equalled that amongst the nobility.
It was hard work; but John Hodgson did not live a life of extravagance as lived, say, by Lady Jane Plumer many years earlier. But there were many busy times – important guests to be entertained, hunting parties, horse races in the park, and so on. I get the impression when studying the records that Hodgson, although a stunningly wealthy man whose interests certainly did not stop at the border of the Gilston he had created, had none the less a great love for the village and by choice spent a lot of time here. His simple tombstone at Eastwick speaks of a modest man.
The Bowlbys, who followed, continued the lifestyle of Gilston Park, but there was much more emphasis on family life, more activity and more travelling, as they had a large estate at Knoydart in Scotland. However, the coming of domestic appliances (thus cutting down housework), higher taxes and the financial Depression all gradually eroded the system, and economies were sought in the form of staff reductions and expenditure. The highlight was reached in the 1930s, after which there was a slow decline.
The Second World War saw Gilston Park used as a billet for Air Force officers, and subsequently as a sick quarters for men from RAF Hunsdon’s airfield; but it really marked the end. People could now earn higher wages elsewhere and were no longer content to be employed within the narrow confines of the estate system. Good staff were hard to find.
In 1948 the feudal system finally did come to an end. The Bowlbys moved away, accompanied by a very few of the key staff. The remainder found alternative employment elsewhere. The furnishings were taken away, and the once great house entered an uncertain period. At one time people could rent flats within the manor house, but this did not last long. The house again came on to the market, and in due course was purchased by the pharmaceutical firm of Smith & Nephew.
For many years the house was busy with the comings and goings of a successful and active business corporation. The lower floors of the house were used as offices, board room, canteen and so forth, but the upper floors were used less.
On the unexpected relocation of the firm to York, the house came on the market yet again. A failure to find any purchaser over the next three or four years led to the final decision to convert the manor house into apartments. The project survived a major fire and was finally completed several years ago. The laboratories nearby were pulled down, and nine villas built where they had been, creating a walled enclosure.
The occupants of the manor-house apartments live in a house with a long and fascinating history, of which they will be a small part. The gardens leading down to the brook were always beautiful. There was at one time an ingeniously-thought-out system for a water garden. This entailed the pumping of water up from the brook via a pump house opposite Goldenbrook. The remnants of this tiny little structure, resembling a dolls' house, remain in the wood to this day. The water was collected in a tank which, when full, cascaded the water over the rock garden below and back once more into the brook. Smart, eh? Also in the garden are some attractive old trees, and (wonder upon wonder), another great historical survival. The old porch, tampered with over the ages, but the last standing piece of New Place manor house, was kept as a folly. It still reminds us of the great Tudor house that originally stood on this site.
Why John Hodgson kept it we do not know, when he had scant regard for anything else that was old. But it is pleasing that he did, for through this very door would have passed many of Gilston’s residents, rich and poor, over the centuries. The capricious Lady Jane Plumer greeting her party guests; the kind Sir John Plumer comforting the convicted witch Jane Wenham; the sour-faced Captain Willett arriving with his Roundhead soldiers – here our history was made.
A set of attractive 'Narnia'-style lamp-posts stand in front of the house; and in a fragment of parkland a little further away stand some mighty oaks, many now dead but still reminding us of how big these trees can get. One or two have tiny little metal fences round them, showing that even the trees found especial favour in the estate’s eyes. Today a strand of barbed wire would suffice to keep farm animals off.
From the manor house (incidentally always known as the Big House by the locals) we travel by way of the avenue of lime trees, once the site of a rookery, towards the church. On the right, past the walled garden, we encounter Blackthorn Cottage, another house of some age, possibly 18th-century. In the past it had connections with gamekeepers and gardeners.
At the end of the avenue we have a clear view of the church standing proudly on the hill. At this point, the winding and narrow Penny's Lane heads northwards towards High Wych. After about half a mile we encounter Keepers, a former gamekeeper's house. Sadly, redevelopment here has practically eroded all evidence of the original building. The gamekeeper was responsible for the adjacent grandly named Golden Grove.
As we climb Church Hill, we first reach Overhall Farm, built by John Hodgson and always the most important farm in the village. It was built on the site of the old medieval manor house. At the rear is a fine array of outbuildings, many rebuilt in recent times. At Overhall we have had a history of English farming: all the changes, all the innovations have occurred here and, over such a long period, not all to the good. Small fields with hedges have, over the years, given way to soulless prairies; huge numbers of men have given way to machines. More than 40 men and boys once worked on this farm, and now it has been leased out and hardly anyone works here, and no one from the neighbourhood. Horses were replaced by tractors, and now by ever-larger machines. The harvest has been revolutionised. Once it was so important to village life that every available man, woman and child laboured from morning to night to get the crops in. Now they, along with the binder, the threshing-machine, the elevator and the traditional bread-loaf straw-stacks have all been thrust aside by the mighty consuming combine harvester.
Never has an industry been so turned on its head by continual progress. But still I recall the beautiful creamy Charolais cattle dotting the fields and the mighty bull, Balmoral; later the delightful Chianina calves that were born with soft honey-coloured hair that turned white and coarse as they grew. Tiny ponds, verdant hedgerows – all are now but a memory as great plains of wheat, barley and rape stream across the landscape. The yield is immense, and we have to eat; but what is the cost? Where are the song-birds, the butterflies, the flowers?
From Overhall it is but a short step to St Mary’s Church standing on its hilltop. For a tiny village it is a church of imposing size. On the exterior it is a bewildering medley of dates and styles: Victorian flint, Tudor brick and some early Norman flint and plaster. There is a proud tower, rebuilt in brick in the late Tudor period, and capped with battlements and a thin Victorian spire, a 'Hertfordshire spike'. There are two 17th-century bells with inscriptions. As bellringers are in short supply, they are rung only infrequently. The small, well maintained churchyard contains old tombstones and ancient yew trees. The tall conifer is a Lawson cypress, a cultivated tree.
In the south-western corner of the churchyard are the three memorials of the Johnston family of Terlings, comprising a cross flanked by standing stones. The work is ascribed to the famous 20th-century sculptor Eric Gill. To the east of the church are two early tomb chests, commemorating the 17th-century Gore family and the 18th-century Turvin family.
The interior of the church is attractive, although much of the woodwork, the ceiling, the pews (seats), and stained glass is Victorian. The glass is a fine collection of mainly late-19th-century date, depicting religious themes. There is, however, much to find of an earlier date.
On first entering, the tall pillars that support the ceiling catch the eye. These date from the late-13th century. On the left, under the tower, is the font, of late-12th-century date. It is the only item that still survives from the original church. In this font, until recent times, most children of this village have been baptised. It has been a silent witness to all the events I have listed in this history.
Turning eastwards towards the altar, the pulpit on the left is constructed of wood panelling from New Place manor house. Opposite it used to stand the ornate 'eagle' oak lectern, a gift of 1900; but this is no longer in use and can be found on the north side near the big cupboard. Behind the pulpit stands the glory of the church, the 13th-century chancel screen. It is not ornate, but screens of its date (mid-1200s) are extremely rare in England, so this is a survival of great importance.
Over the centuries the screen has had a wandering existence. In Victorian times it was found in pieces lying on the floor of the tower. It was collected together and re-erected in its present position. At the same time the opportunity was taken to replace any missing pieces. If you look very closely at the screen today you can discern what is old and what is new; the new work is smooth, the old rough-carved.
As we enter the chancel through the screen, we find on our left a large pipe organ. This also originated from New Place, and was once in the drawing-room there. Sadly its condition has deteriorated and it cannot now be played. Also in the chancel used to hang the colour of the Gilston troop of Yeomanry.
The altar table was a gift from the squire of Terlings manor over a hundred years ago. It is flanked on both walls by memorials to the Gore family, whose ledger stones also cover the floor. On the sanctuary step is a tragic row of small stones to commemorate infant Gore children, which I call the Innocents.
The east window behind the altar is full of coloured glass, but this is not old. In fact, much of the Victorian work in the church was John Hodgson’s doing. At Eastwick, he pulled the church down but here, thankfully, he did not; and, although his hand fell heavily upon it, there is still much that is old to discover.
Services have been held in this place for all of our 881 years: over the centuries the ritual has altered as Catholicism was replaced by Protestantism; but the continuity of observance is impressive, and the church is a living church.
The Gilston troop of Yeomanry, by the way, was a fascinating affair, a real “Dad’s Army”. In 1831 the country set up volunteer military units to serve within Britain to counter rebellion and civil insurrection, and Colonel Plumer of Gilston Park founded the Gilston troop, a cavalry unit. The county provided the money, but the Colonel probably provided the horses. The men were uniformed and armed as light cavalrymen; newspaper reports of the time suggest they were smart and efficient. I don’t know the size of the force, but it must have been small. I raise my hat to the farm lads, for they were by repute very good riders when mounted on their fiery army steeds. What a splendid sight they must have made as they galloped round the village, resplendent in their tunics and helmets! The hearts of many young village girls must have fluttered as they made faltering glances at our soldiers, especially when the lads twirled their military moustaches. Fortunately the men were never tried in action, and were disbanded in 1842, but not before Colonel Plumer organised a farewell banquet at Gilston Park for them and their families.
To the west of the church a farm track (New Road) leads to Actons. Although in High Wych, the first house we encounter, a quaint thatched cottage, is of interest to us, for it is the village 'sin bin', of perennial interest to the present-day ladies of the village. From time to time, couples who had outraged the moral standards of the time were housed here. There they would remain, out of sight and out of mind, until they had purged their guilt and done the honourable thing – get married and thereby prevent the child from being born out of wedlock.
We now leave the church and continue our walk up Church Lane. On the left-hand side we find Nos 3 and 4 Dairy Cottages. This is the old dairy: the 'Tudor' frontage is unfortunately 'mock'. The dairy was built in 1888, but extensions and building work have completely removed any exterior trace of its past function, although it is fair to say that it lost its charm during conversion to private houses at the time of the First World War.
By repute the dairy was a most attractive building, though I have never met anybody who has actually seen it, nor have I ever seen a photo. I know it had a black and red tiled pavement, and a covered walkway running round on all sides. It must have been a lovely sight to see the dairy cows coming in to be milked. No. 2 next door originally housed the church sexton, and later was the residence of the chief dairyman.
Up the road from the dairy we meet open fields. Near the wood, on the left once stood the original 17th-century rectory, whence the village parson used to walk down the field path through the sexton’s garden to reach the church. The rectory was demolished when the new one was built. Of a large group comprising house, outbuildings, gardens and orchards nothing now remains, but the plough frequently turns up some of the foundations. On a 'dig' there I once found numerous fragments of a costly willow-pattern porcelain set, and pieces of ancient port bottles. The life of the clergy in the olden days can’t have been too bad.
Finally we arrive at No. 1, Homewood Cottage, the first house in the village, but the last on our walk. This is on private land, but is an important building in the overall plan. Built in 1851, it was one of the very first Hodgson houses. It was originally the gamekeeper’s cottage. The keeper was responsible for the conserving of pheasants and partridges in the village woods. The pampered birds were subsequently the targets at the periodic shoots held by the squire and his associates.
Gamekeeping was a traditional village pursuit, now greatly destroyed by changing economic conditions. It was always a controversial subject. Ultimately, however, the winners were those creatures once ruthlessly exterminated by the keeper, and which have now had a chance to partly recover their numbers: stoats, weasels, rooks, etc. Some at least are not the villains they were once made out to be.
The house has now been converted for private occupation, but the fine dog kennels are reminders of its original usage.
Close by, and under the fields lie the cottages of old Gilston and High Trees Lane, all destroyed in John Hodgson’s great purge. At this historic and lonely point I complete my journey.
May I conclude by recommending that this is read in conjunction with ‘The History of Gilston’, also to be found on this website.