When we moved into the Old Cross in October 1970, the house was semi-derelict. The previous owner, a single lady who had died, had been a matron at the boarding house of the old Magdalen College Grammar School in Brackley, and was only resident in the house during the school holidays.
We were attracted to the property by its age, interesting history and its delightful position. It was surrounded on three sides by open fields and on the fourth by a working dairy farmyard, the owners of which, Ken and Marjorie Watson, were very kind and welcoming and we soon felt happy and at home. The gardens had been carefully tended for several years for Miss Oldham by dear old Bill Chester, and the fertile soil has regularly yielded us wonderful crops of vegetables and flowers. Miss Oldham had previously lived in Cuffley, where she was a Brownie and Guide captain and the district commissioner.
With very limited funds we tried to renovate and modernise the property ourselves, and we gradually progressed from an open plan bathroom with windows, but no glass, to a semblance of civilisation. The frequent visitor comment ‘You have got a lot to do’ spurred us on. The installation of a heating system proved the wonderful insulation qualities of thick, solid Helmdon stone walls, and from then on the house was always warm and dry even without foundations and damp course, etc. The original builders knew more than they are given credit for.
Our two older children enjoyed the friendship of the nearby families, the Tootall girls, the Chorley children, Steven Watson, the Nuttings, Kennards and Ewings and revelled in the safe freedom of our off-road location. We had friendly cows looking over our front gate, glorious open views to the Church and to Astwell castle, and one occasion a broken rear window, when a jealous ram charged at his own reflection.
We were sad but understood when Ken Watson decided to retire from farming and move down the village to the house in which he was born. After milking twice a day for many years with hardly a break he had done his share. We were not longer able to enjoy helping or play the jolly evening games of cricket in his back garden, but as the farmyard gave way to houses we gained another access to our house by way of Cross Lane. This also entitled us to membership of the exclusive Cross Lane Society, led at that time by the notorious Glanville Davies and Mary, the Gidmans and the Paynes. Whilst membership has changed over the years, the camaraderie remains undiminished!
With encouragement from Marjorie Watson, Dawn formed the Helmdon Girls Brigade at the chapel, and with the help of Jenny Saunders, enjoyed the great fellowship of most village girls and their parents from many years. Their annual camps and concerts were a highlight and their visits to our crude home-made swimming pool were wet, happy and very noisy affairs. Dawn was also one of the founder members of the then Young’ Wives Club.
When the farm was sold we were able to acquire the adjoining barn and the garden behind the house and a memorable lane party was held in the barn on the occasion of the Queen’s Jubilee. Excellent barbecue eats were produced by Messrs Lovatt & Wood, and we were honoured by the attendance of Mr Chester in his black, pre-war suit and mirror polished shoes. Some of the barn was expertly converted into a galleried lounge by Peter Payne & Son, the notches in an old beam of which were chaffed by a swing which Sue Wallace remembers enjoying as a child with the Watson girls.
Picture of the door of the Old Cross
(formerly the Cross Inn)
Dawn’s researches at Delapre Abbey and in the old book of village life in Helmdon in the seventeenth century, which belonged to Mrs Lees of Falcutt, revealed details of the annual feast and fair being held in front of the Old Cross, with food being served up in the barn and drink in the village inn, known as Crosses, which the house was from 1600s to about 1919. The sign is said to have been The George. Cross Lane had, in earlier times, been the road to Astwell and Wappenham until it became too muddy in winter and was moved to higher ground.
We also acquired a photograph of the front door showing the licencee to be a Mr Campin, who was licensed to sell ‘Beer and Fine Wines’. From the early 1600s for 150 years the house was run as an inn by generations of the Cross family, there being a Nathaniel Cross in each generation as long as the name lasted in Helmdon; hence the names Crosses or the Cross. Nathanial Cross was the village registrar and details of village meetings held at Crosses and financial transactions are recorded in Mrs Lees’ book. The inn also served as overnight accommodation for passing travellers who had to have a ‘passe’ hence the word passenger. Production of the passe obliged the village to give food and overnight accommodation free of charge and 6d to travel with. Among those passing through is recorded ‘a lady whose husband had been taken by the Turks’!
It is hard to date the property but is believed to be about 1640 with many of its features even older, said to have come from the once much larger Astwell Castle.
In 1974 we began our little agricultural manufacturing business in the converted cowshed in the garden. This was the direct result of the sudden dramatic increase in the growing of rape (bright yellow fields in May), at the time of the oil crisis. We produced an attachment for combines to ease the harvesting of this fragile, tangle crop. Our range of attachments for combines increased over the years, and Helmdon-made equipment has been exported to most countries in Europe and as far as Malaya. We thank Mrs Davis and her ladies at the shop and other residents who have kindly pointed harassed farmer customers in our direction seeking Harvest Services.
The recent demand for rural housing has transformed Helmdon out of all recognition during our stay, and whilst we have not always agreed with the way this has been done, realised that people may use their land as they like. The advent of Milton Keynes and the motorways will increase the rate of change further, but the old Cross a delightful and friendly family home. After a memorable musical send-off lunch organised in secrecy by the families Morris, Derbyshire, Davis, Payne and Lidgley we can only say “thank you Helmdon for 20 glorious years”.
Our stay of 20 years is very brief in the context of the long history of the Old Cross but we have loved it dearly and hope the changes we have made have not altered its character too much. As it is now listed perhaps it may not change so much again.
Tim and Dawn Law
(Tim and Dawn lived in the village from 1969-1989)
The "old book of village life on Helmdon in the seventeenth century" referred to above is William P. Ellis, Village Life in the 17th and 18th centuries, as told by the parish registers of Helmdon, 1900, privately published. There is a copy at the Northamptonshire Record Office.
1. Dawn and Tim refer to the word passenger and the production of a "passe" above. The Oxford English Dictionary derives "passenger" from the French "passager" via Middle English, with the sense "a passer by or through", a traveller, usually on foot.
2. Further research suggests that the Cross was first situated in Wappenham Road, approximately where Marriots is today, and that sometime between 1763 and 1813 it moved to its better known location in Cross Lane. Original article in Aspects of Helmdon 2. The Public Houses of Helmdon
3. The shop referred to above as being run by Mrs Davies was part of the old Post Office in Station Road, which closed in February 1995.
published in Aspects
of Helmdon 4 (1997), pp 173 - 176 inc.]