Stephen Dawson came to Wolfhampcote when he was six years old. His great uncle (Robert), aunt (Sue) and cousin (Kitty) were living in the Old Vicarage and he writes the day he arrived at the Old Vicarage was the ‘first day of the happiest years of my childhood’. Stephen’s father had decided to rent the neighbouring Wolfhampcote Hall in 1919, when he returned from WW1. Stephen then lived at the Hall from age 6 until he was nearly 14. His father became bankrupt in 1926 and they had to move.
Stephen John Dawson, 1913-2006, wrote a journal for most of his life. You can read these journals online, including an entry entitled Stray Jottings which mentions Wolfhampcote. An extract of those entries is shown below. When next visiting the church why not try to find the portrait of Stephen’s family maid Violet, which was carved by her fiancé Harry on the wall:
‘Harry, with a pen-knife, scratched a profile of Violet’s head in one of the soft stones of the wall, besides the gate. It was not a bad etching, about two inches high and I can still remember the clear outline of Violet’s hair bun. In recent years, I have looked for the etching but never found it. It was on a stone of the wall, near the gate and beside a cart track that led towards the railway embankment‘
Wolfhampcote (Halstead 1999)
Wolfhampcote is situated in what has been called ‘The Green Heart of England’ in the undulating country of Warwickshire but very close to the border of Northamptonshire.
The area is about a square mile with four natural boundaries. The four sides of the square are:-
The Oxford and Grand Union Canal. The River Leam, which also marks the County border. The Big Line, formerly GCR and LNER and, finally, The Little Line, formerly the LLNWR and LMS. Both these lines are now disused.
We called the latter railway the Little Line because even in the earlier twenties, it was a one track line which ran from Weedon to Leamington-Spa with about four trains a day. The Big Line was more important with passenger trains and long goods trains passing all day on the double tracks between Marylebone and Manchester.
The Village: –
In the early twenties the village consisted of our house, Aunt Sue’s house and a pair of stone built cottages. There was also St. Peter’s Church (services once a month in the summer), and Puddle Farm, an empty building, once a public house on a closed-off section of an old canal.
Today, Wolfhampcote consists of Aunt Sue’s house, our house and one stone built cottage – the two cottages having been converted into one respectable dwelling house. The Church, after a sad period of neglect, is again in good repair and well cared for. There is a service there two or three times a year. Puddle Farm has fallen down! So, Wolfhampcote instead of developing, has diminished in 80 years.
Aunt Sue’s house is, strictly speaking, outside the square of Wolfhampcote as it is the other side of the Big Line, but so close that the house seemed to tremble in the night when trains on the down grade from London thundered past. It was so close that when Uncle Jim came home from London at the weekend, he could throw his luggage out and into the garden as the train passed. Thus getting out at the next station, Braunston and Willoughby, a good mile away, he could walk home (along the track, by special permission) empty handed.
Wolfhampcote, know in the Doomsday Book as Ulfremcote, must once have been a large village. There are several legends about it’s decline ranging from a plague to the effects of the Enclosures Act.
Nearest Villages: –
These are Sawbridge, Flecknoe and Braunston. As a child, I always had the feeling that Flecknoe was a friendly place, whilst Braunston was slightly hostile. This may have been because of a Scarlet Fever epidemic which started in our house and spread to Braunston, with serious results.
The Way In: –
The old lane from Sawbridge has declined into a sort of bridle track and should be used only by farm vehicles. It comes into Wolfhampcote by the Ivy Bridge over the canal – once used by commercial long boats, horse drawn or motorised – now by the same boats converted into pleasure cruisers.
From Braunston, you leave the A45 at Braunston Bridge, swinging sharp left down a steep incline which leads into the fields. This route enters Wolfhampcote by a bridge over the Leam and there is the Church, just beyond, with our old home just visible on higher ground to the right.
The most meandering and pleasant approach is via Flecknoe which is a small, cosy, bosky village. One turns off the A45 at Daventry, for Staverton and Southam. After going downhill beyond Staverton Clump one sees a small lane on the right marked Flecknoe. Beyond Flecknoe there are no signposts; when in doubt, bear right! The road eventually goes to a farm and you think this is a private road but it is alright; the farm, built fairly recently, has it’s buildings on both sides of the track. Just beyond you come to a hedge. My young Mother lost her engagement ring near this hedge during a summer picnic. We searched for hours. She wept bitterly but the ring was never found.
The land falls away slightly. This was the great field known as Ladycroft. In the distance is a Church spire – Braunston. About a half a mile away is a large red-brick house on a slight eminence. This is Aunt Sue’s old house. From this direction it is the first house in Wolfhampcote.
Arrival and Departure:-
I first came to the hamlet of Wolfhampcote with my Mother when I was about four and we lived with Aunt Sue, Uncle Jim and their daughter Kitty. Then in late 1919 when Dad finally came home from the War, he rented The Hall. This was a large old farmhouse and we lived there until I was nearly fourteen.
I cannot remember anything about the move to the Hall but I will never forget the last day. Mum and the children had gone; and a loaded removal van stood waiting in the drive, and Dad and I walked all round the house, looking into each empty room, silently. It was a defeat; Dad had lost all his money and was bankrupt.
It was not the end of Wolfhampcote for me as Aunt Sue was to live there for many more years. I well remember the first day, the arrival at her house. We had been met at Rugby by Great Uncle Robert – Aunt Sue’s Father, a bearded former sea-captain who did not appear to like little boys.
We alighted from the train at Braunston and Willoughby Station (which is actually at Willoughby) and were met by Mr Cope, who drove the only local motor car. By road, it is a journey of several miles to Wolfhampcote, though only a mile or so if one walks along the railway line. So we eventually came across the Chapel Field, across the Leam, past the Church and the cottages and the Hall and up a slight incline to come in sight of Aunt Sue’s house, The Old Vicarage. Having seen us coming (one could always see people coming in that remote place) Aunt Sue and Cousin Kitty were ready to welcome us.
As Mr Cope’s car turned the corner at the top of the drive, I saw them, at the front door at the top of a great flight of steps, in front of this large house. It was not a great flight of steps really, but it seemed so to a toddler. Each lady held a small dog in her arms and both were smiling.
This was the first day of the happiest years of my childhood.
Walking home to Wolfhampcote (Halstead 1997)
The War Memorial
One evening during the nineteen twenties, having been to the village on some famiily errand, I came to the end of Braunston’s main street. It was a crisp autumn dusk and the lamp-lighter was just lighting an oil lamp – the last light of Braunston. I had passed the Church of All Saints and had I turned aside to glance at the Village War memorial to the Fallen of the Great War, I would once again have seen, among the many names: Lucas Clarke, Thomas Clarke, William Clarke.
Ahead of me was a walk of a long mile, most of it across open fields; there was only one more light before the fields, the lamp on the canal bridge. In those days there was nothing unusual in a boy of nine walking home in the dark. As I reached the gate, which opened into a small paddock, I heard the double clip! clop! of hooves coming along the village street behind me, so I paused and looked…
Violet Clarke was the first of our maids at Wolfhampcote. She told me that two of her brothers had been killed in the Great War. Immediately after attending the funeral of one brother, her third brother Billy had been sent to France, and was also killed. How could they send a third son to the Front when a family had already lost two? Violet told me these things without bitterness, with matter-of-fact acceptance.
One summer afternoon, Violet had taken me to meet her fiance, Harry, a sunburnt young man in his best Sunday clothes. We sat down on the grass outside the gate of Wolfhampcote Churchyard and Harry, with a pen-knife, scratched a profile of Violet’s head in one of the soft stones of the wall, besides the gate. It was not a bad etching, about two inches high and I can still remember the clear outline of Violet’s hair bun. In recent years, I have looked for the etching but never found it. It was on a stone of the wall, near the gate and beside a cart track that led towards the railway embankment.
By the way, in those days, every country lane had three ruts, not two; the third rut was made by the hooves of the horses.
A few years later, when I was at the Grammar School on Daventry, I once passed by a group of slummy houses and outside one, was Violet, beating out a rug or mat.
No longer the smart, uniformed Violet of Wolfhampcote, this was a tired, slatternly woman with untidy hair. However, she gave me a cheery wave and a smile as I passed by. Ah! the carelessness of children! I often walked past that cottage during the years of Daventry but never thought to call, where I would have been welcomed.
That was seventy years ago; too late now!
When my grandson was only a toddler, he became aware of the marvel of science and technology. Lifted onto a table or shelf, he realised the different perspective from this great height and gazed at the wonders with a cry of “Lookit!” Even more fascinating, you touched a switch and a light came on in the ceiling; an other touch, and the light went off, “Lookit! Lookit!”
Now nearly seven, he is a competent computer operator, telephones his friends for a chat and uses the TV and video with unthinking ease.
Now in 1997, it is already many decades since men constructed space rockets and propellants which could lift a ship away from the earth at over seven miles per second, thus achieving escape velocity to travel beyond the pull of earth’s gravity into far space. It is many years since men first reached the moon and walked on it’s alien surface. Now we have Virtual Reality and in the near tomorrow we will have genetic engineering and NANO machinery – that is, delicate instruments so tiny that they can only be seen by magnification.
… However, on that autumn evening, 75 years ago, life was simple and without technical complexity, although there were already occasional motor cars to be seen, travelling at a sedate twenty miles per hour (the official speed limit). There were many light horse drawn vehicles such as Dog Carts and Pony Traps, but a Carriage and Pair was becoming unusual. Therefore, I paused at the gate of the paddock and it passed slowly by.
The closed carriage was driven by a man in livery, he was well wrapped up against the night chill. On the door was a coat-of-arms and from the window above, the enamelled face of a very ancient lady looked out and our eyes met. She had been born long before the age of aeroplanes and telephones and wireless and even before the regular use of railway trains. She was already an anachronism and she was looking into the face of a small boy who would live beyond the time of the conquest of space.
I found later that this was Lady Riddell of Bragborough Hall, the last of her line. Lady Riddell had been born during the reign of King William the Fourth and died soon after our slight encounter. Bragborough Hall today is the country residence of some great industrial tycoon.
The Way Home – so well remembered
Nothing else eventful happened that night. The coach passed on into the darkness and I went through the gate, along the paddock path and out across the Daventry – Dunchurch road (now the A45) and over the canal bridge, where there was another lamp.
Below the bridge was a blacksmith’s forge, much used by the bargees – and the Castle Inn. Beyond a five bar gate was the complete blackness of the fields. Down across a small brook, one came into Chapel Field, a vast open space said to be well over 40 acres. A stunted, wind-twisted thorn tree stood at the highest point of this field and helped one to be sure of being on the right track. Another guide, even in dense fog and darkness, away to the left was the high embankment of the Blisworth Junction = Leamington branch railway, know to us as ‘the little line’.
There was a legend that once, long ago, a murder was committed in Braunston Church. Because of this sacrilege, the interior of the church was draped in black and not used for seven years. During this time, a temporary chapel was erected in the great field and the villagers worshipped there until All Saints could be re-consecrated.
After the twisted thorn, the way led downwards to the River Leam, where there was a bridge with a locked gate. This was also the County boundary; Braunston is in Northamptonshire, but Wolfhampcote is in Warwickshire. Our family held one of the keys to the locked gate and also one of the keys to St. Peter’s, Wolfhampcote.
After the Leam there was a rough stony road. The darkness would still be complete, but sometimes Violet would go up the back stairs from her kitchen and place a lighted candle on the sill of a window which faced towards Braunston. From the Leam I could just see the glimmer of that light.
Soon on my left I would see the dark bulk of Wolfhampcote Church, once important but now serving only four houses. It was not a place of ghosts or dread to me however, as I played there a good deal, sometimes climbing into the belfry and out onto the roof of the tower, sometimes crawling through a ‘secret’ door under the altar and into the burial vault of long dead Hoods and Tibbetts.
In the field on my right was a curious irregularity in the ground that we called ‘the hollows’. I often thought that this might be the site of some ancient fort, surrounded by a moat. After this, the road became hedged; there were some sheep pens on the right and then on the left, the cottage of Jimmie Burke, the Irish shepherd. Then through another five bar gate, into the small field opposite our house and the visible lights of home.
It was a quite ordinary walk home, but I have often pondered on the gap of years that spanned the lives of that ancient lady and a small boy, 75 years ago. The treads of our lives crossed, for an instant, by that last oil lamp and the paddock gate, one autumn evening.
Return to Wolfhampcote (April 1995)
In June 1944 during my last Army leave, I went back to Wolfhampcote, after several years of war, to visit Aunt Sue. I caught the 10:05 train from Euston to Rugby – and it was a sunny day. From the station I rang Braunston 206 and heard Aunt’s lively voice on the phone. Eventually caught a Midland Red bus, which ran into Dunchurch, past Willoughby, until I saw Braunston’s graceful spire amid the trees on the hill. (Such a lot of trees everywhere!)
I stepped off the bus and was almost at once in the vivid green quietness of the Chapel Field. The forty acre field seemed more small than I had remembered and the distance to the Leam and Wolfhampcote shorter; Staverton Clump still dominated the skyline, but it seemed slightly denuded of trees: perhaps there had been some felling because of the war.
On I went, past the old Church, past the house where we lived as children, when Mum and Dad were still young, where my brothers were born. At the half-ruined Old Canal bridge, I took the Sawbridge fork, towards the Ivy Bridge. Aunt Sue must have seen me coming at this point for when I reached her house, she was waiting in a tangled wilderness which had once been an immaculate tennis court.
In profile she seemed an old lady, but when she looked at me full-faced, blue-eyed, I could see the old, quick humorous fire still burning; this was a delight! She had not changed. “I shunna roar” (I shall not cry) said Aunt, misty-eyed, as she kissed me, defiantly.
There had been sad changes elsewhere. Amazing disorder of the once organised garden, gone back to wilderness, impassable in some parts. In one place, a circle of pink and mauve flowers had struggled above the rank grass into the sunshine, but otherwise it was not possible to tell where the great flower beds had once been.
The quiet days there and the war so very far away!
In the garage I saw my once beloved Slinky B., the Ford Ten car which I had brought here in late 1939, still on bricks as I had left it, after I had switched off the engine for the last time. Somehow I knew that I would never drive that car again; someone else would take it off the bricks and get the engine going again.
One day I walked over to Flecknoe and visited Mother’s old friend, Mrs Rowlands. Over a cup of tea, I asked Mrs Rowlands idly if there was any gossip in the village? Her eyes twinkled. “Well, you remember your Father’s farmer friend, Mr Chambers? He has a barmaid from Northampton living in the house. What we don’t know is – does she live under the same roof or under the same ceiling?”
On my return to Wolfhampcote, I told Aunt this amusing bit of scandal. She looked most grave and said “Fancy talking like that to a boy like you”. Here I was, a married man, over thirty years of age, just back from a war and yet I was still apparently a boy, with a child’s innocence!
Aunt had a well stocked kitchen. At each of my surprised remarks, she twinkled “BM” (black market). Of the vast stock of chickens, only three remained – Mrs Roup, Mrs Dark Brown and Mrs Light Brown. When opening the door of their ancient coop in the mornings, I always crowed like a cockerel, to give the old dears a thrill. I wondered which would be the last to die? – and how lonely she would be with all her companions gone. Finding plenty of eggs appearing at meals, I said “Surely Mrs Roup and Co don’t provide all these?” “No. BM” replied Aunt Sue placidly.
Engine drivers on the upgrade of the railway still waved as they passed by, on towards London.
Two visits to nearby farms were rewarded by a precious ¼ lb of butter and a dozen eggs to take back to Essex. One day we walked to see Aunt Sue’s daughter, Kitty, at Grandborough, some four miles away. Coming back, Aunt, aged 75, was stumping along at such a pace that she tired me, aged 31!
It was coming along that quiet lane through the fields between Sawbridge and Wolfhampcote that I thought of the war. A few weeks earlier, tired and disillusioned, I had gone to the West End to call at my old office in Piccadilly Circus and came up from the underground into Trafalgar Square. It was full of swaggering Yankee soldiers, tarts, spivs and scroungers and various crafty wide boys.
A big, blowsy woman was singing and ogling the Yanks, hoping for money. The words she bellowed sounded ridiculous – “Mairsey doates and dozie doates and little lamsiedivie”. (Only recently I discovered that the words were ‘Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy’. (Hardly more interesting.)
I saw all this and thought ‘have I wasted years of my life for this? Would it matter if the Panzers came here?’
However, now, on this June evening, following Aunt, in her old leather jacket, tweed skirt and shabby brown hat up the lane from Sawbridge; the quiet remembered fields, the hedges, the five bar gates… I thought ‘By Christ, I would not like those bastards to come rumbling along here! The war was and is worth it, after all.’
Visit the blog to read all of the Journals and Essays of Stephen John Dawson.