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                                                      The Welsh Lane

                                                  an article by Margaret Fonge


map of the route of the welsh laneNorthamptonshire, lying as it does at the centre of England, has always been crossed by many highways: Roman roads, drovers' roads, salt ways, canals, railroads and finally the motorways.

The earliest of all roads to cross the county was the Banbury Lane, part of the old Jurassic way which ran from the Humber to the Avon near Bristol. It was not a made road in those far off days but rather a wide open track leading where possible across high ground such as the Northamptonshire wolds for the simple reason that the lower ground was always the muddiest. Then came the Romans who built Watling Street and whose straight roads formed a network over the country connecting Roman camps and towns.

But these were not the roads used by drovers or for conveying salt, for the latter used existing lanes which began in the 13th century as green lanes connecting village, town, and religious houses. Although not surfaced to wheeled vehicles, they were hardened down by the constant tread of feet, the merchants, their pannier horses laden with merchandise, travellers, pilgrims, friars, cattle, sheep and horses, all passed along these winding lanes on their business or pleasure, the same peaceful country lanes that we use today.

These roads, however, were dangerous to travel for thieves and robbers abounded. A decree was passed in the reign of Edward I that all brushwood should be cut back for 200 yards either side of the road as a precaution against ambush. It is small wonder that a prayer for travellers was included in the Litany.

These were the roads the drovers used but choosing for the most part those that lay over uninhabited country and avoiding towns and villages where possible. Cattle had always been driven along the roads from farm to farm and from farm to market, but it was not until the 16th century that drovers roads came into existence and Welsh store cattle were driven down the roads into England as they still are sent to Midland Markets today.

Why was it that this trade did not start until the late l5th and the l6th century? Probably the answer lies in the question of winter keep which at one time only sufficed to overwinter the breeding stock, everything else having to be slaughtered and salted down for the winter. With the introduction of root vegetables such as turnips, mangolds and swedes from Holland by "Turnip Townsend", young stock could be overwintered and in the spring driven down the drovers' roads to the rich fattening pastures of Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, to the fertile plain of Aylesbury and on to London.

The starting point for the Welsh Lane that passes through our county was on the western side of the Clun Forest from the Anchor Inn where the farmers brought their cattle and handed them over to the drovers. The route lay through Ludlow and Bewdley, passing south of Birmingham and Kenilworth, on through Offchurch to Southam, approaching it now through suburbs by Welsh Lane West. From Southam it goes to Priors Marston and it is between here and Upper Boddington that it enters Northamptonshire as The Old Welsh Lane. From Upper Boddington it drops down to Lower Boddington and on to Aston-le-Walls, through quiet, lovely, unspoilt countryside and so across the river Cherwell to Trafford Bridge where many thirsty cattle must have stopped to water, and so on to where it crosses the Banbury Lane.

The MagpieLeaving Culworth, the road turns right and a mile further on Sulgrave can be seen in a hollow to the left and here the road divides. Opposite the turn to Sulgrave stands a typical Northamptonshire stone, three-storey farmhouse with its buildings, known as The Magpie. This suggests that it might have been an inn, and so it was, for as droving increased so inns sprang up along the roads to provide accommodation for drovers. At the same time a small field called a "stance" where the cattle were put for the night was found close by. Here at Sulgrave turn we have both, for The Magpie was indeed an old drovers' inn and the small triangular field opposite was a stance for the cattle.

The road to Banbury leads to the right but to follow the Welsh Lane one takes the signpost for Marston St Lawrence but on reaching the crossroads turns left and it is here along this stretch of road that one neither passes through a village nor often sees a dwelling by the roadside.

There is a signpost to Greatworth just half a mile to the south and a little further on the lost village of Stutchbury can be seen up in the fields a mile to the north, with its three remaining farmhouses. It is at the entrance gate to Stutchbury that there was another small irregularly shaped field called Butchers Close which again was a cattle stance. Unfortunately it cannot seen now for in recent years it has been amalgamated with another field in the interests of modern farming. The double hedge bank which was bulldozed away was part of the Saxon boundary between Greatworth and Stutchbury.

Mr Stanley Adkins of Greatworth Hall remembers in his young days the Welsh Lane being only wide enough to take a pony and trap. Up until recent times the verges on the north side of the road were very wide and a favourite site for gypsies before they became "motorised". They encamped here with their traditional caravans, their ponies and horses, their hens in a crate behind their caravan and their lurcher dogs. Every spring, for many years, an old gypsy couple used to pitch their canvas-covered cart at the Stuchbury entrance for it was here many years before that the old gypsy lady had been born.

After passing another tune to Greatworth, the old railway line is crossed and Greatworth Hall is seen to the right, but it is on the opposite side of the road that the greatest interest lies for here is a very large meadow called the Gallows Field. It was in this field bordering the Welsh Lane that the gallows stood and where cattle thieves were hung. Gallows Field lay in the parish of Stuchbury, which was originally in the hundred of Eadboldesstowe but is now in the hundred of Kings Sutton. It was here in this field that a courthouse stood where doubtless judgement on cattle thieves was passed and until late in the nineteenth century a mound denoted the site of the old building. John Mole of Stuchbury, who was related by marriage to the Washingtons of Sulgrave, was at one time the magistrate.

The Welsh Lane near HelmdonContinuing along this uninhabited road, Helmdon is seen to the left. Climbing up the hill and passing the hamlet of Faulcutt and Crowfield one comes to the main Northampton-Oxford road, the great medieval highway of the Midlands, and having crossed this one soon enters the village of Biddlesden and so into Buckinghamshire.

Cattle droving for long distances along these country lanes came to an end with the advent of the railways, but by the late 1920s the railway in its turn gave way to the cattle lorry which today reigns supreme.

January 1988

Article by Margaret Fonge, "Life Magazine" January 1988

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