Coleshill is one of the many local villages that Alfred Williams wrote about in his books, and this page is one of a series (currently a 'work in progress') that will look at each one of them in turn.

The village appears in Round About the Upper Thames, which did not appear in book form until 1922. However, Alfred began researching it before the end of 1913, completed the first draft during a month's convalescence in Devon and South Wales - paid for by a gift from friends - in the spring of 1914, and it was serialised in the Wilts and Gloster Standard in 1915. So it gives us a priceless insight into English villages and rural life at the beginning of the First World War.

Coleshill is one of the most unspoilt of all the villages Alfred wrote about, now being almost completely owned and administered by the National Trust, although Coleshill House was completely destroyed by fire in 1952 - perhaps as the result of the curse on the house that Alfred tells his readers about...


View Larger Map

   The village of Coleshill, which bore the proud title "THE FLOWER OF BERKS," lies along the western slope of a graceful hill immediately opposite Highworth, two miles away on the skyline. To the foot of the hill comes the river, winding round the small dell, as though it knew in the beginning that there would be work to do and a mill to turn at some future time.

   Coleshill House, visible for many miles in its setting of elms and beeches, stands near the top of the hill overlooking the vale towards the faint blue downs. This is a moderate-sized mansion, built in the year 1660, to the plans of Inigo Jones, and representing that architect's skill at its best. A mysterious and jealously guarded tradition is associated with the house, though particulars of it have leaked out and are known to the villagers and others in the locality around. It is said that, concealed in a secret chamber in the inner parts of the house, is the embalmed body of a baby or of a young woman, which has been preserved there for several centuries, and upon the preservation of which the luck and security of the house depends. So long as the embalmed body remains, the house and property are assured to the family in possession, but should it ever be stolen or removed from the room in which it is concealed, then the luck of the house would fail and the estate would pass into other hands. Some, eager to shatter the romance of the embalmed child, say it is a wax doll, and not a human body, that is concealed in the secret chamber, but the belief of the villagers on the point is not to be shaken.

   The villagers are very proud of their church, and consider it to be of great antiquity. "Sir," says the sexton enthusiastically, "this church is one of the howldest in the land. Why, the Romins builded this church, sir, when they was about 'ere, as I've hallus bin told bi they as hought to know." Doubt less there are those who would not be inclined to favour the view, but village people cling to their cherished opinions.

   The sexton of nearly every village comes in for attention, and it is well-nigh impossible to overlook him. Sometimes he is made the subject of a rhyme, or he is famed for his shrewd wit and humour, or he may be remarkable for his oddness, or for the sharp ness of his temper. In a village close at hand the sexton was a cobbler, and was celebrated by the cowman in the following lines:

   "As I walked along and looked over the wall
     I saw the sexton diggin' a hawl,
     A left-handed cobbler just backwards at work,
     He wore his waistcoat a-top of his shirt.
     Between the living and the dead,
     That's how the sexton got his bread."

   Another used to sleep and snore loudly during the sermon, and sometimes he woke up and shocked the worshippers with irreverent expressions, or disturbed the service by hurling the coal-hammer across the church at the children talking and laughing in the gallery.

   On one occasion the board containing the numbers of the hymns was inadvertently placed hind-before, and after the clerk had several times called out,

   "Hymn number - hymn number -" waiting to proceed, he cried loudly to a worshipper near: 'Jest turn that boord round, young man, wool 'e?'

   Here at Coleshill the sexton - whose name happened to be Sexton - used to imbibe too much of the home-made liquor, and when he came to church he was incapable of performing his duties and made inexcusable blunders. Accordingly he was dismissed and the village blacksmith preferred for the post, but he was soon afterwards removed. A carter near Coleshill bore the nickname of "Blackbird," which he received in consequence of his having fallen asleep at church one Sunday morning. Half-way through the sermon he began to snore, and very soon the people were startled with a loud cry of "Come idder, Blackbird!" The carter was dreaming that he was in the field ploughing up the wheat stubble.

   There was never an inn at Coleshill, so the villagers were forced to provide ale for their own use. Accordingly, they grew their own barley, threshed it out at home, or in a barn lent for the purpose, made their own malt, gathered wild hops from the hedges, and brewed their own beer in the cottages. This they did in a large copper pot of twenty gallons hung from chains over a wood fire. The vessel - named the "Parish Kettle" - was given to the villagers by the Lord Radnor, and was used alternately by the cottagers. His Lordship also paid the duty on one sack of malt per annum for each labourer on his estate.

   The ancient game of back-swording was practised at the feast. At one time two heads were broken simultaneously, which was a very rare occurrence, and a notable event. A swaggering professional back-sworder, unbeaten with the sticks, used to visit the feast and overawe the local men with the "cocksureness" of his attitude and behaviour. At last a young carter determined to make a supreme effort to humble his pride and carry off the prize of thirty shillings offered by the champion. Accordingly, when the swaggerer cried out: "Will any young gamester come upon the platform?" the carter responded: "Yes, I ool," and leapt nimbly upon the stage. Seizing the single-stick firmly, he turned to the crowd and cried: "Well, gentlemen! What be I to do wi' this owl' man? Be I to break 'is 'ed or no?" "Ef 'e ool be obstinate, go at un," they cried, whereupon the young carter began fencing, and presently broke the head of the old gamester, who wept at his disgrace and never more showed himself in the neighbourhood. After that the carter was pressed off to fight against the French at Waterloo, and on returning to the village he introduced the game known as "Prisoner's Base," or "Crossing the Line," which was for some years popular with the youths of the countryside.

   Several amusing tales are told of the old Lord Radnor, who, although a stern man in some respects, had the welfare of the village at heart, and did his best to provide employment for the workpeople and keep them in a prosperous condition. The clothes he wore about the farms and grounds were extremely plain, and his old white top-hat and threadbare coat were more fitting for a beggar than an aristocrat.

   He was rather eccentric, and he caused some amusement around the neighbourhood by reason of his singular behaviour and his weakness for wanting to know how he was regarded by his workpeople. On the passing of the Reform Bill he entertained the rustics to dinner at Coleshill House and feasted them on the lawn to commemorate the event. He ran about in the marquee carrying the plates of meat and shouted loudly to the carvers to cut thick slices "Now, Pinnegar," cried he to a farmer who was carving, "put that knife into it, and give the men some victuals, and don't be frightened of a bit of meat."

   He had a bullock killed once a fortnight and five sheep every week for use at the house, and he gave the inferior parts and gallons of good soup to the villagers.

   It greatly amused old Angel, the rustic, to learn that his lord and master sat in a chair on runners in front of a fire on the hearth and had a long staff with a spike and "cruckle" (crook) on the end of it to push himself farther back or draw himself nearer to the fire.

   One day he came upon some men sorting over a pile of stones.

   "That's a nice little job, men. I think I could do that," said he.

   "Come on, then, an' have a go, if you wants to," said an unsuspecting workman, who took him to be a stranger at one of the farms.

   Thereupon Radnor threw off his coat, and began to load the wheelbarrow with stones. Very soon he began to question them. "What sort of a man is this old Lord Radnor? " said he.

   "Oh," said they, "ther's two ways to take un - the right way er the wrong way. If you takes un the right way you'll find he yent much amiss."

   "Oh, I'm glad to hear there's a bit of good about him," he replied, and, giving them half a crown each, he put on his coat and departed.

   While he was presiding at Faringdon Police Court a case came forward in which a poacher was the defendant. He pleaded not guilty.

   "What were you doing in the wood?" asked Radnor.

   "I only went in to cut a stick, my lord," replied the defendant.

   "How would you like me to go into your garden and cut a cabbage?" promptly returned Radnor.

   While he was talking to two labourers one morning, several others, dressed in Sunday best, went by on their way to Highworth Fair.

   "H'm! Looks as if they are going to enjoy themselves," said he. Then, putting his hand into his pocket and taking out a crown he gave it to the men and continued: "Well, you go and enjoy yourselves, then, but don't drink too much of that beer."

   He used to declare to one of his tenant-farmers that every pheasant reared on the estate cost him a pound, and he was furious when a party of young sportsmen, whom he had invited to Coleshill Woods, went out and shot nine hundred birds in one day around Badbury Hill.

   His desire to know how he was regarded by the villagers exposed him to certain dangers, and he did not always escape scot-free. Meeting with an old woman who was gathering wood in the field one day he addressed the usual questions to her.

   "And whose field might this be, my good woman?" inquired he.

   "Aw! this belongs to owld Lard Radner," she replied.

   "Ah! And what sort of a man is he?" asked Radnor.

   "A crafty, covechus owld bagger, as ull never be satisfied till 'is mouth's chock full o' dust," she answered spitefully.

   "Ah! Is that so? Good-day, my good woman," said he, and went his way.

   The next morning the old woman was sent for to the house, and was met at the door by Radnor, who gave her a sovereign and a bundle of clothing. "I'm very sorry to hear such a poor account of Lord Radnor. I didn't know he was quite so bad, and I hope you'll think a little better of him in the future," said he to the bewildered dame.

   Notwithstanding Radnor's fair reputation he was severely handled once or twice at the Cricklade elections; the last time he appeared there his carriage was smashed, and he was fortunate to escape without injury.

   One of Lord Radnor's tenants was a rich farmer who was noted for a remarkably keen eye in looking up and down the drills. He was driven everywhere in a small carriage drawn by two horses, and he crossed the rough ploughed land or young crops at any time of the year. If he found a small portion of land missed by the drill he discharged the carter and put him on again within the hour.

   One day he was arranging with Moses, the day man, about the hoeing of a patch of beans.

   "Now, Mose! What ca'st do this for?"

   "Aw! I don' know, maester. What can you gie?"

   'I'll gi' tha 'aaf a crown " - i.e. an acre. "Aw! Aaf a crown. Well, I'll show 'e 'ow I can do't for 'aaf a crown. Like this, look!"

   Here he put the handle of the hoe between his knees and dragged it behind him up the drills. "Daal! That wunt do. I'll gie tha sixpence more," said the farmer.

   "Must still trot wi' the 'ow, maester," Mose replied.

   "I'll make it another shillin'."

   "I'll gie one blow yer an' another ther'," Mose answered, indicating his meaning with the hoe.

   "S'pose I must gie tha five shillin's," said the farmer.

   "Tha's more like business, maester. Now I can do't, an' do't well," Mose replied.

   The village of Coleshill was unmolested with witches, but it is said that one Robert Polebrook, who lived not far off, was in league with the Evil One. Robert had been cowman for the greater part of his life, and when he got old he left the herd and did a little odd work on the road. He it was who went to Longworth Lodge, that was haunted and deserted of its tenants, at midnight, and attempted to carry off a table for use in his cottage. Clutching the table, and hoisting it upon his shoulders, he succeeded in getting it outside when a terrific contest began. The table struggled violently and overthrew Robert, who got up again and tried hard to master it, but the table hopped and jumped about around him and struck him on the head once or twice and finally overpowered him, and he was constrained to carry it back to the Lodge and replace it in the room. The operation took him all night to perform; he just managed to get it over by daybreak and met the shepherd coming to work on his way back home. But the old fellow was cheerful at times, and sang merrily as he pushed his wheelbarrow along the road or clipped the edges of the green turf:

   "My pack at my back, and they all wish me well."

   Often in winter, when it was bitterly cold and the snow fell, he would be out at work, whistling cheerily, with no hat, and only half dressed. One morning, when the snow was falling in thick, heavy flakes, Robert was out stone-breaking, with his hat tossed in the hedge, full of snow, and his clothes nearly buried on the ground. Then Brown, the fogger, came past on his way back from breakfast.

   "Good morning, John Brown! Very muggy warm this morning, John Brown!" said Polebrook.

   "Aa, 'tis, Robbut, an' thee't very zoon be buried out o' zight, 'ammer, stwuns, an' all, if thee dossent lave it an' get along whum wi' tha," the cowman answered.

   When at length the old man became very sick and felt that death was drawing near he addressed a final entreaty to his lifelong friend and neighbour. "Betty," said he, "plaaze to put the owl zythe an' shart-'andled hoe into the coffin wi' ma, for I dwunt know what tha'll put ma at when e gets to t'other country. I'll lose a bucketful o' sweat wi that owl' hoe."

   After he was dead his two sons, who lived afar off, came with a waggon, put up the coffin first, then piled the furniture of the cottage, the garden tools, wheelbarrow, and clothes-props on top and carted them all off together.

   Before the days of the old Lord Radnor the Cole was crossed by a ford and the road was diverted from its original course in order to approach the bridge. Even after the bridge was made the carters continued to use the ford. The horses were accustomed to wade through the river and to take a drink of water, while the carters liked to wash the wheels of the waggons or to soak them if the weather was hot and dry.

   Fording the river at deep water was dangerous, however, and accidents occasionally happened. One day a Cheap Jack with his stock of jewellery was being driven in a coach to Highworth Fair and came to the river, that was swollen with recent rains. The driver thought he would take the ford and drove his horse into the river, but the current was strong, and the coach was washed downstream and smashed against the bridge. The Cheap Jack escaped by climbing through the window and clinging to the roof of the battered coach. "I'm a ruined man, but save my life," cried he to the villagers who had assembled to give assistance on hearing of the accident.

   When the workmen were clearing a flam out of the river in order to make the bridge they found embedded in the sand several human skeletons, probably the remains of gipsies, which had been disposed of secretly. The old Lord Radnor's French valet is said to have been buried on the roadside. This was in accordance with his private wish: he objected to being interred with the Protestant villagers.

   While the carter was at plough one day near the river the front mare of the team stumbled and her fore-legs sank into the earth up to her knees. Upon examination it was found that she had stepped into a stone coffin buried just below the surface; though the field had been in cultivation for untold years no one had made the discovery before. Inside the coffin were the bones and dust of a corpse, and a small urn full of ancient coins, which were claimed by the bailiff of the farm, while the carter received the bones for his share of the booty. These he carried home with solemn care and reverence, intending to keep them, but the house was immediately disturbed with ghostly sounds and unaccountable happenings, and the carter was compelled to leave the cottage.

   Many attempts were made to unearth the coffin but to no purpose; even the two strongest horses on the farm could not move it from its low bed. Then the carters were doubly assured of the supernatural agency and declared that the coffin was never intended to be moved. Accordingly it was left in the field, where it still lies beneath the yellow wheat stubble. I have been confidentially informed of an old farm labourer - a very quiet and unobtrusive individual - who is said to possess a sackful of ancient gold and silver coins which he dug up with skeletons in one place and another. Whether it is true or not I am unable to say; the whole matter may be no more than a romantic fabrication.

   At one time the sermons at the church lasted an hour, and the parson frequently criticised the farmers' methods of cultivating their land and took them to task about the couch. He told them that sin was just like couch, and if any of the congregation did not know what that was they could see plenty of it by just going outside and looking over the wall into farmer Gosling's field.

   Beyond the mill the stream, that before had been but a few yards wide, assumes greater dimensions and puts on the dignity of a real river. Here its course is more open and direct. The willows and poplars have been left behind and the hawthorn clumps are fewer and smaller in size than they are farther back towards the head. A great part of the charm has gone, too; the sweet mystery of the pools beneath the boughs is laid bare under the searching light of the open heavens. The haunting spiritual presence is no longer felt and the spell is broken, for we have almost reached the consummation of the river's course and learned that which before was beautifully hidden from us.

   As well as the greater beauty of the upper river in the almost continuous lines and massive round clumps of white and pink blossoming hawthorn, and the richer profusion of flowers growing in midstream and along the borders, there is the incomparable delight of exploring all the crooks and crannies, the twistings and windings of the channel, and peering down through the dense bushes into the quiet holes beneath. Very often the high bushes, interlaced together, completely cover the water.

   The thick blackthorn, laden with purple fruit, has grown like a wall along the edge. Wild rose and woody nightshade intertangled clamber along the top of this, or hang down to the bottom of the bank, or trail for several yards in the quietly flowing stream. Here a bank of sand, thickly overgrown with flags and reeds, projects out and almost cuts off the current. Beyond this is a pretty pool, with the beautiful ovate leaves of the yellow water-lily calmly floating on the surface, and, a little farther on, a large bed of sky-sweet forget-me-nots softly glimmering beside the dark green bank.

   In the spaces between the hawthorns the river is fringed with a luxuriant growth of creamy meadowsweet and fragrant pink willow-herb, with an occasional spike of purple nettle or tall hemp agrimony. At the drinking-place are sure to be several clumps of brilliant marsh marigold, plants of the water persicaria, and one or two roots of celery- leaved crowfoot growing out of the soft mud and bursting into bloom. Above the stream flits the blue-bodied May-fly, now and then alighting on the reeds and grasses; the dragon-fly, or "horse stinger," whizzes by overhead in the bright sunshine. In the shallows the caddis worm and destructive waterbeetle are busily engaged. On the grass, a short way off, is a large roach freshly caught and half eaten by the old heron, whose footprints are visible in the soft mud of the drinking-place and along the shallow stream-bed.

   There is more bird-life, too, higher up the stream than towards its end, where it draws near to the Thames. The closeness of the banks, the continuous boughs, and the forests of reeds and grasses give the birds much protection. There the wild ducks and moorhens build their nests and hatch their young in safety and lead them up and down the shallow waters, or about the silent pools, running over the broad lily leaves expanded on the surface.

   If you come to the river's edge when the grass is newly cut in the large field and, falling on your hands and knees, creep quietly along in the shade of the hawthorn or withy boughs, you may see pretty sights on the waters of the stream. There you may easily surprise the wild ducks, motionless under the roots projecting from the bank, or see the mother sailing gracefully along, surrounded with her tiny brood, nibbling at the edges of the lily leaves, and sipping the water with their small bills; or behold the moorhen, with red bill and white tail, and a flock of little sooty followers paddling behind. Occasionally, too, you may come upon the gaunt old heron himself fishing in the shallow, and be nearly struck with his wing as he rises and immediately soars high up, hovering near to see what your intentions may be about the place.

   Of fish there are not so many, except in the pools lower down, and where the water has been bayed up for the mills. Being confined with the flams and shallows they fall an easy prey to the heron, and also to the otter, that leaves the deeper water of the Thames and works its way up to the stream's head under cover of the bushes and reeds. The otter also plays havoc with the wild fowls, though it is often discovered and shot by the farmer whose fields lie alongside the river. A favourite lurking-place of the otter, by day, is a hollow withy tree; the farmer's dog occasionally scents out one there. If it is disturbed and surprised out of the water it is easily taken. The shortness of its legs prevents it from running away, though it is very fierce when attacked by the dogs.

   Below Coleshill the course of the river is interrupted and the water turned aside and led away at right angles to meet the Thames a mile above the original junction...

Coleshill, along with nearby Buscot and Eaton Hastings and the land in-between are almost entirely owned by and administered by the National Trust - more than 7,500 acres of woods and farmland.

The village, which was formerly in Berkshire but is now just inside the boundary of Oxfordshire (formed here by the River Cole, which skirts the south of the village), is largely unspoilt, and despite being small and compact, with only 60 dwellings, contains a wealth of Listed buildings.

Sadly, the grandest of all, the 17th century Coleshill House, was destroyed by fire in 1952, its location and outline now marked by a herb garden, which is dotted with information boards that feature photographs of the interior.

However, many of the buildings and the estate associated with it remain, and apart from the spectacle of large wind turbines at Watchfield, the surrounding area gives the impression of being much as it would have been in the house's heyday and Alfred's lifetime.

Several of the estate buildings are now occupied by small businesses, including Coleshill Organics, which would no doubt have had particular approval from Alfred, who spent some of his life toiling as a market gardener.

Another appropriate tenant, given Alfred's Indian connections, is Denny Andrews' business which imports and retails fine India materials and clothes from her base in the manor's old Clock House.

The old estate buildings also include a thriving tearoom and shop, which rely on volunteers, including several Japanese wives of employees at South Marston's giant Honda factory.

Since the Second World War, a story of espionage has emerged from Coleshill because the old manor house was the home of the Auxiliary Units, set up by Winston Churchill to train spies. Up to 5,000 people were secretly trained here, and the story is now being told by enthusiasts, whose website also includes an excellent history of the village and house.

The church that Alfred mentions in Round About the Upper Thames is All Saints Church, parts of which are 12th century, and it is noted for its proliferation of gargoyles and impressive monuments to local worthies in the Lady Chapel.

As Alfred notes, there was no pub (and never had been) at Coleshill, even though the Radnor Arms, which opened in 1949, looks like it has always been one. These days the pub brews and sells its own beer, thanks to a micro-brewery founded in 2010 and called The Old Forge Brewery.

The River Cole, which gives the village its name and finally completes its journey to the Thames just to the west at Lechlade, doesn't have a straightforward history, either. Its course has been changed over the years - primarily to serve the water-powered corn mill, which is still operational. The mill dates from the late 18th century, but one is recorded at Coleshill in The Domesday Book and is most likely to have stood on the very same stretch of the river.

More recently, the course of the Cole has been changed to control flooding, but the river has also been used to positive effect on the neighbouring farmland because, as Alfred often notes, it featured a series of hatches which could be used for irrigation.

The most famous resident in Coleshill's history is still there; Sir George Martin, producer of The Beatles and often referred to as 'the fifth Beatle', has lived in the village for some years.

2010 photos by Graham Carter and John Forster

Coleshill on the Oxfordshire Villages website

A Coleshill walk designed for dog owners

Alfred's poem, The River Cole in Flood

Alfred's poem, Homeland, which includes references to the River Cole

Read the whole of Round About the Upper Thames online

Alfred's Villages - map and index