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
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
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
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
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
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
"I only went in to cut a stick, my lord," replied
"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?"
"Aw! this belongs to owld Lard Radner," she
"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
"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
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
'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
"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
"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
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'
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
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
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
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
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