| home | search | back |
home > history resources > articles index > the level crossing


Helmdon Historical Articles

The Level crossing: One Man's
Contribution To Its History

an article by Jean Spendlove

For the history of the ground we tread, there are two easily accessible sources from which to begin, the memories of those who have trodden it before, and what we can still see on the ground itself. This October, Reg Batchelor brought his own memories to bear on a patch of ground many in Helmdon know well. This is where the old railway along the bottom of the valley from Towcester towards Banbury crossed our brook. I use the footpath across there almost every day, but it was Mike Barnes who pointed out to me that the cattle drinking there had trodden the bank down so far that they had exposed layers of flat stones nearly a yard below the level of the path. I consulted Reg Batchelor upon it on October 10th. I used a tape recorder, so I can quote him fairly exactly. Those who have enjoyed his ready reminiscence must imagine they hear him, and in the background the birds I caught on the tape*.

I pointed out the exposed stones and asked what he made of them.

"That was put in to hold the bank back. ... It must have been put there, those stones, right the way along, y'see."

But it isn't like a wall to hold a bank: now that the cattle have trodden so much below the stones, they've undercut them - the stones are only two or three deep. Isn't that more like paving?

"I don't know. It's never been seen before, y'see." He indicated the brook. "Never seen it back ere."

The stone isn't, then, along the line of the bank. In any case, why should the bank have been protected? When the railway was built, damage by cattle was not to be feared here, because they wouldn't be grazing between the rails and the stream. This particular piece of bank was also fenced off, as an allotment, by a fence along the "ten- foot right o' way over", between the field below the Nursery allotments and Wicket Mead.

We looked again at the stones.

"Well, if they didn't put them in ... "


"Well, the railway people, when the railway were made." He had been told sometime that the brook used to "wriggle its way" just where the line was to be laid, and therefore was diverted to the straight cut we have now between this spot and the road bridge. And at this spot, a curve was dug, by hand of course, to connect that new stretch to the natural course of the stream where it winds north a little, round what is now the school's conservation area. This was long before Reg was born, in the 1860s, he thought. Frank Branson had told him "his grandmother were a little girl about five years old. She lived up there, you remember where Mrs Wibberley lived? [in Cross Lane] ... And they went down the garden to watch the first passenger train come up." That would have been in 1872.

By then this curve would have been dug to link the new straight cut to the lower stream, and over it the brick and stone bridge made to bear the railway over the

Cattle had exposed layers of flat stone nearly a yard below the level of the path.
Cattle had exposed layers of flat stone nearly
a yard below the level of the path.

brook, and the wooden bridge to serve the farmers. "Jack Jeffs said on the deeds it were three-ton bridge ... in wagons and that sort of thing, and carts, it would be plenty, y'see." It was made of railway sleepers, with wooden posts fifteen inches square. But much later, when the railway was closed and Jessetts had sold the fields to Gullivers, Tate's drainage machine attempted to cross that bridge and toppled over the side into the brook. Frank Branson's wife photographed it. Frank's father and Bill Duncombe's father were down on the allotments when this happened. "Sid Blackwell came down and pulled it out."

I suggested there had been some sort of paved road. "It's possible." The soil above the stones is deep, and was already quite deep before Reg himself added to it. Perhaps the paving was there before "the railway people" dug out the new channel, and they threw up the earth over it. "It could be, yeh," There would be a great deal of soil to shift then. Perhaps part of the path from Wappenham Road to the church had been paved across mud. If so, the men would at some point have had to dig through paving to make the new channel. "As I remember it, y'see, it wasn't very wide ... It used to be neat and tidy down ere." The channel is still being widened, by beasts' struggles to get so far down to the water. One of the newly exposed stones had already been pushed down into the mud at the foot, just before the cattle went away for the winter, "They used to find it awkward to get in. Did you watch them? ... They sunk in the mud with their fore feet ..." while their hind feet were still up on the high bank. No wonder they often chose to enter at the far side.

"There had used to, many years ago, be a drinking place there. And that's stone, the bottom of that's stone." It was for cattle in Wicket Mead. "D'you see how the children used to pull 'em out ... to put them across the brook ... ? And Clive used to come down and throw them out." Before the filter was installed at the coach-yard, when the diesel got washed into the brook, any dam could hold it back. Reeds had to be cleared too. Diesel and oil, and detergents, all together used to be a problem.

Before the diesel-driven coaches, while the trains still ran, there had been the traffic, too, of cattle over the crossing. At each end of the "ten-foot right o' way" was a ten-foot gate with a clap-gate beside it. The big gates "always used to be locked, y'see ... Jessetts had a key ... They used to bring their cows down every day, all through the summer. They used to turn them out about May Day, y'see. They lay in all the winter ... They had about fourteen ... Then they brought them down in the morning; and then they'd graze that one [he pointed to one field], and then the next week they'd graze that one [indicating the field the other side of the brook]. ... That continued like that all through the summer ... They had to bring them down here because that were a bad watered farm up there", at Luke's Farm.

Perhaps before the railway was built, cattle's water and grazing were provided in the same way. From Wicket Mead they could reach the brook where it wriggled along the bottom of the field. And so they could further east, from Rushy Ground and so on, before the railway cut off the bottom of those fields to make what is now Long Meadow, half a mile long, between the brook and the line. For the cattle in Rushy Ground, "the railway people" put a trough in the bottom corner near the newly cut curve of brook. They put "one timber", Reg said, like a thick, solid, low fence, across the brook to hold the water back. (The channel was narrower then.) "It were like a waterfall." Above this dam a pipe led water to the trough, and another drained from the trough to the stream

Click for a larger image.
(Click for a larger image)

again below the dam. Thus those cattle had "continuous cleared water", brought to them from above any mud that might be stirred by heavy rain or paddling children.

I went back to the subject of the allotment on the bank, fenced from the right of way which the cattle walked. Kathleen Webb's grandfather had it, George Humphrey. "E were employed on the railway, y"see - like a plate-layer - you know, e used to repair the track." The plot was above the paving we can now see, though not so far above as the ground is now. When more space was needed to park coaches, Reg and Alan Hirons "borrowed the equipment from Bowen-Jones" and moved soil to dump it here, and "these old things" as well, pointing to the pieces of wood set in the path. I pointed to a tall piece of rusty wire projecting from the ground. Yes, probably they had brought that too. He agreed it wasn't safe so near the bank down to the stream's deep mud, and he'd cut it off at once. "It seems as though it doesn't annoy anyone only you and I." He chuckled. But he remembered a tragic drowning at Greatworth. "I'll do that," he said, "I'll cut that off." He fetched spade and hacksaw at once when we parted, and did as he had promised.

There were several more allotments for railway staff on the other side of this crossing. "All down that side were allotments", between the line and the field hedge. "Jack Gibbons, he ad the top alf, and Kate Humphrey's father [Jonas] ... e were brother to George Humphrey, y'see, e ad the bottom alf. Until the soil were washed off... The brook flooded, up there ... You know, it comes under the viadux, and it comes along Williams' side, and then it crosses under like it might do ere, under the railway, and then it comes into Water Leys. Well, when it flooded ... it came down the railway ... It couldn't get through quick enough, y'see and it came on down. And then it came in front of the platform, and then straight down in front of the goods shed, and then down ere - and washed the soil away. Jack Holloway told me about that first ... " He and Jack Bazeley could remember it. Jack Bazeley said, "It's right, because we ad the allotment.'" He "used to help his uncle [Gibbons] plant it ... I didn't see it but it did flood once, while I were down at Jeffs', one evening." It came down the railway line again, "and flooded all round Jeffs' bungalow. ... Williams put two gates on his side of the arches, and Mrs Jeffs said it came over the top of the gates ... But when it got to the offices, y'see, it had to turn around in front of em, and go down the yard ... It came on down ere, y'see"

That first flood finished those line-side allotments. "They didn't plant again ... the topsoil had gone. It left the potatoes exposed ... " They'd been narrow plots, like many railway staff allotments. "From the end of the sleepers to the boundary, y'see, there were about eight potatoes, that's all the width of it."

There was much more land between the line and the new cut of the brook, and there were some wider allotments on it. There-was space too for some timber waiting for transport. "I remember they used to cart trees down ere and load em on the rail, and they used to put them down ere ... And on a Sunday they'd bring a steam crane, bring it up on the railway, steam crane, and load them up on to the trucks. ... And apparently there used to be a saw-yard down there. When I ad a tractor from John Bowen-Jones when I first came down ere," he began. They borrowed a 5000 tractor and a three-furrow plough, "and I ploughed some down ere" for a garden. "And I had a puncture, in the tractor. ... I ploughed up ever so many files, what they used to sharpen the saws with ... and one went right through the side of the tyre ... on the big wheel, not the little one, not the front one - on the back one."

That garden didn't come right down to the crossing. The young trees at the crossing end were planted by Clive Haynes who worked and still works for Jeffs Coaches. He later dug out a trench to drain the patch so that the saplings could flourish. Reg said, "We were going to plant whatsemame trees ... you know, like in the Acre ... populars." (The Acre is the plot originally belonging to the house Long Acre and now to Pettifers Barn.) "They were going to plant all this, and be'ind Mrs Earne, in that paddock." But though they got an offer of the poplars free, when Jack Jeffs found they would take thirty-five years to be big enough to sell, he wouldn't have them. He had wanted to build on the paddock, and bought it, but failed to get planning permission, even on appeal. Trees would have been a use for the land, but would have blocked the view from Wappenham Road. If it had been done with Lombardy poplars the screen would have been very high. "Those spoil our view - you know, what are in the Acre? - now they've got leaves on. In the winter we can see through those right across that area, but now we can't ... " He is quick to feel trees are too big: "Those willows, y'see, they've gone up too igh."

I remarked how much the ashes have grown along the hedge where the allotment soil was washed away, since I first saw that prospect in 1970, when there were no tall trees on this part of the line. "But before the railway sold it, Blackwells fell' all that hedge, all down ere. They were paid to." There was ash in that. "They'd grown up like they are now ... after it were taken out. And they fell' all that down there, and up ere, and cleared it up ... And it's grown up again. That were the old original railway hedge, y'see ... It were all thorn ... and had to be maintained. The fence outside didn't come until 1934." Why then? "Well, I suppose the hedges had got so they weren't stock- proof, I suppose. I can remember them fencin' ... and a man's still alive now, at Bugbrooke, lives at Bugbrooke, George Stockley. E were a Helmdon man ... and he'd been a spell in Canada ... and then he came back. His mother were a widow, Mrs Bazeley", who lived near the Bell. "He got a job with the railway, and e elped on that fencin'. When the post rotted off there, o' th'old gate, and when Geoffrey [Gulliver] put that fence up, and Michael Ayres, they pulled the stump out, and I ad it up there for a long time. And the piece that were in the ground were as good as the day it were put in. It had rotted off at the top of the ground... It were pine ... And the date on it, 1934. ... I should have kept that." It was used to jack up an old coach after Reg had left Jeff's, and then the stump too was got rid of.

So the hedges planted when the railway was laid remained stock-proof for over sixty years? "Because they used to grow quicks, th'other side the bridge, ... the men that worked on the railway. ... If a place got weak, y'see ... And they used to trim them, all the way, with edge trimmers ... It'd got to be stock-proof."

I admired the stone and brick bridge. "I've been under there, lots of times when we were kids." There was a second wooden bridge for farm use, from the field into what is now the school's conservation area. You can still see the bank raised that supported the ends of it. Children used to dam under that wooden bridge, arid paddle to the brick bridge. "That's all brick bottom in there ... round brick bottom ... like a brick tube. ... Underneath the viadux, that were another favourite place to paddle, where the brook comes under the viadux. That's all brick bottom ... And the fence where it went across, y'see, we used to have a dam. The fence would hold the dam, y'see. ... I remember we had it all dammed up once, and - see, the station used to get the water from the brook. There used to be a dam up there as well ... for cleaning down. ... No, no. not for the engines, for cleaning down at the station. The toilets - there were flush toilets up there, y'see, in the station, one in the gents and one in the ladies, in the waiting-room. And then there were a cesspit. But the water used to come through, and then the porter ... on the back side of the station there were a hand-pump, which e ad to pump to fill the tank, over the top of the toilets. ... And the brook... the pipe's there now ... there's a churn, an old milk-churn put in the entrance of it. There used to be a dam across, to raise the water up, and then it used to go down that pipe and into a well by the station. And we had the brook dammed up there, and the station-master. Smart is name was, he came up and made us unblock it, coz we were stopping the water comin' down ... Y'see it were ... probably like it's been this summer..." We agreed the channel here was now too wide for anything but flood water, but there was nothing could be done. Digging out the mud would make a channel there wasn't water to use.

I thanked him for talking. "Jack Holloway could have told you a lot," he said. I did once take a tape-recorder to Jack, but it was too late in his life. Poor Jack; we remembered him in sad silence. "Or Jack Bazeley, e could have done ... " We have let too many memories die.

At the bottom of the Nursery, as we separated, he pointed to the stone paving of the side gateway as part of what some woman, whose name he couldn't remember, had paid for to improve the path to the church. I pointed to the pieces of an old stone stile beside that gate. This is evidence that the path from Field Way has for a very long time passed through the bottom of the Nursery. There was a hedge from the Nursery corner to the brook before Gullivers had that field, more or less where the new boundary fence is now. Reg and I agreed that these stones are like the thin vertical stone stiles elsewhere in the village (a good one goes from the Jitty into Backside), but these pieces seem much too sunken to have been useful for a very long time. "I didn't see it before," he said; "but it's been there a good many years."

Most people who have enjoyed talking with Reg expect to find him a source of information; but Reg himself is still seeing old things in Helmdon for the first time. The stone base of the path along the Nursery he discovered only when he set about to shovel off some mud; and a few days after our talk on the bridge, he told me he'd just realized that the stump of a thick post on the level crossing (by that hawthorn on the left as you go towards the church) is all there is left of the notice "Beware of the trains" - it's still quite hard. He will go on puzzling about the stones the cows have exposed by the brook, satisfied with no easy answers if the circumstances are not fixed by his own recollection.

Jean Spendlove [Article first published in Aspects of Helmdon 1 (1997), pp 18 - 24 inc.]

*There is no established convention for cuts that is different from the convention for pauses. Here I have used dots to convey the cuts. Reg is not a hesitant speaker.
home > history resources > articles index > the level crossing
| home | search | back | top