16 August 2015
For the next part of my walk Botley I’d be following part of the Cobbett trail, a self guided walk in the footsteps of William Cobbett, the renowned political journalist turned radical politician and farmer. Cobbett moved to Botley in 1805 to farm the land and one of the first interesting buildings I came to was Cobbett’s Cottage. A house no bigger than my own with a crumbling wall and bricked up window backed with slate tiles seemed a fairly humble place for such a rich and famous man to have lived. Of course he didn’t actually live there, this little cottage is all that remains of his estate which was opposite Botley Mills.
Cobbett was a thorn in the side of the Establishment. He fought for parlimentary reform and religious freedom and against unfair taxation in a time before opposition to authority was popular. Although he wrote much about politics and religion he is best remembered for his books ‘Cottage Economy’, ‘Advice to Young Men’ and, his most famous work, ‘Rural Rides’ in which he explored the English countryside on horseback. Poking the hornets nest of the powers that be was bound to lead to trouble and Cobbett spent two of the twelve years he called Botley home locked up in Newgate Prison convicted of sedition.
So I carried on along the lane in Cobbett’s footsteps, passing the malt house that once supplied a brewery near the river. These days it’s a bathroom centre but it’s not your average retail outlet. The signs are small and unobtrusive and, at first glance, you might think this was a terrace of cottages. The walls are lined with window boxes bursting with flowers, old fashioned lamps hang between the arch topped windows and there’s even a pretty porch.
From the the map I’d expected a leafy green lane but, at least at first, the road was lined with red brick houses. One garden gate caught my eye and I couldn’t help wondering what lay behind the old lichen covered brick wall and the green painted wood of the gate. A tantalising glimpse of greenery between the top of the gate and the arch above it told me there was a garden on the other side but the cobwebs above the latch and growth of greenery on the threshold told me it was rarely opened.
Further along the prettiest little cottage with a garden overflowing with flowers made up for the unsolved mystery of the gate. It’s hard to see how more could have been packed into such a small space. It was the epitome of an English country cottage right down to the honeysuckle and the roses round the door. Bees buzzed around the colourful flowers spilling through the picket fence and my house envy rose to unprecedented levels. It was hard to tear myself away.
Not long after I’d turned for one last look I came to a sign that told me the next part of the walk might not be quite as pleasant as the first. Roads with no footpath are not on the top of my list of favourite things. The road was narrow with nothing much in the way of verges to jump onto, if a car came I could be in trouble. Still, according to the sign, it was only one and a half miles, I’d just have to keep my fingers crossed I didn’t meet a car or, if I did, it was going nice and slowly.
With a deep breath I set off. Almost at my once I came to a strange looking building with a curved front, no windows and a green wooden door facing the road. As I stood there some young men came through the door and went along the side of the place where I could see canoes. This was the old bark store where oak bark, used in the tanning of leather, was once stored. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries wooden hoops used to make barrels were made there and these days it is home to the Upper Hamble Canoe Club. The men I’d seen were probably members and they were almost certainly going to the Parish Quay behind the building. The stone quays there are the only signs of the thriving river port of Cobbett’s time.
Just past the Bark Store there was a bridge and, naturally, I stopped and looked over the side at the River Hamble. On this side large green doors opened onto the water. This was probably where the goods would have been unloaded onto barges or boats back in the days when this was still a port. It might have been nice to wander down to the quay and have a look but I had other fish to fry so that will have to wait for another visit.
So far the only cars I’d seen were parked near the Bark Store and the views over fields of black and white cows along with the blue sky and fluffy white clouds almost made up for the lack of footpaths. This was English countryside at its best. Better still there was a wide grass verge on the other side of the lane beside a high brick wall. It was only a short distance but it was a chance to relax and stop listening out for the sound of approaching cars.
In the next field a pair of white cows were hanging about the gate. It looked as if someone had been feeding them vegetable peelings as the ground was scattered with shavings of carrot, potato and cabbage leaves. When I wandered over for a look the cows looked up from their lunch. Perhaps they thought I was bringing them more food or maybe they were just interested in the stranger gawping at them and wanted to gawp right back. One poked her wide pink nose through the fence. It was freckled with black with rather more whiskers than I’d expected. Chewing noisily, cows are not the most decorous of eaters, she fluttered her long white eyelashes and stuck out her tongue. How rude!
A little way along the lane I passed Steeple Court, an Elizabethan manor house built on land given to John de Botleigh by William the Conqueror. Cobbett was a frequent visitor to his good friend James Warner who lived there and was Lord of the Manor at the time. Later Squire Jenkyns inherited the place. His wife, was related to Jane Austen. These days it is a popular venue for wedding receptions. The house at the end of the long gravel drive was imposing but I think I’d prefer to live in the little cottage back at the beginning of the lane.
In between listening out for approaching cars I took time to admire the wildflowers growing on the edges of the fields of tall corn. Bees buzzed, the sun shone and ahead I could see buildings and a sharp bend. Here I knew Church Lane ended and Brook Lane began. The old church I’d come to see was somewhere behind the buildings on the bend although it wasn’t quite clear how I’d get to it.
When I got to the bend there were two tracks. The one leading off to the left was going in the wrong direction so I dismissed it. The one going straight ahead looked, from the map, as if it might lead to the church but it was obviously a private driveway past some farm buildings. If I carried on along Brook Lane, on Cobbett’s walk, I’d end up back at the village but that wasn’t part of my plan. Hopefully, I looked about for a sign of some kind but there were none. The map wasn’t much help either and, under the gaze of some horses in the field opposite, I stood on the corner dithering, unsure what to do next.