Helmdon Historical Articles
The Welsh Lane
an article by Margaret Fonge
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.
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
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
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.
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.