25 January 2016
On Monday I had boundary stones on my mind so, for once, there was a real plan for my morning walk. This was no half arsed wandering in the general direction of somewhere or other and seeing what I’d find. There was a proper purpose and some real pre walk research. On Sunday morning I’d thought about walking to the Common and having another poke around for the boundary stone that’s supposed to be there somewhere. When I got up though, it was pouring with rain and Commando had left early for his fourteen mile Sunday run despite it. Not being sure whether he’d taken his door key or not seemed like a good excuse to stay at home and clean the kitchen. It also meant I had time to find out more about this boundary stone.
Of the twelve 1988 boundary stones, I’ve managed to locate four so far but have only been able to photograph three. The first was on Weston Shore, near the stream, the second was beside Cross House and the third by the river between the White Swan and Gaters Mill. The fourth, glimpsed through the fence, is in The Gregg School and I will have to wait for an open day before I can get a clear view of it. Hopefully, my walk today would have me ticking off another, on the Common near Cutthorn Mound. Everything I’d read told me it was there somewhere, but no one seemed to have been able to find it. Perhaps I’d be the first.
On Sunday night I re read all the information I had, did another fruitless Google search for more and checked the OS maps to pinpoint Cutthorn Mound as best I could. It was as armed as I was ever going to be as there don’t appear to be any maps anywhere showing the position of these illusive stones and most people seem to stumble upon them by accident and end up wondering what on earth they are. This was exactly what happened to me when I found the first one and it was over a year before I found out what it was and that there were more of them.
It was another damp day but not actually raining, which was handy because I was in for a walk of at least six miles. The route I’d planned was a circular one, to save the boredom of covering the same ground twice on what would be mostly road walking. Crossing Northam Bridge I spotted a mass of new flowers appearing on the blackberries beside the water on the northern embankment. There seems to be no end to the out of season flowering at the moment.
Mostly I walk on the opposite side of the road. On the other side of the bridge, I got an unusual view of the river path and the the log pond. It looked pretty muddy and I was glad I hadn’t chosen to walk that way today. It also gave me a far better view of the work going on at the old TV Studio site. The diggers were busy moving rubble about and I stopped for a moment or two to watch. They have cleared quite a bit but it seems to be a painfully slow job.
After that I put my phone back in my pocket and concentrated on not getting lost and making quick progress through the unfamiliar streets of Mount Pleasant and Beovis Valley. This is an area I may well come back to as there were a few interesting buildings but further research is needed first. I came out onto The Avenue just below Cemetery Road, about forty five minutes after I set out. Keeping my phone in my pocket meant I made good time and, if I was very lucky, I might just beat the rain and get home dry.
Opposite the Cowherds pub I came to the first of two curious iron posts along this stretch of road. I’ve passed them many times and always wondered what they are. They seem very old and I thought at one time they may be the remains of old gas lamps but I don’t think there are enough of them for that. Whatever they are I stopped to take a picture in the hope that someone, somewhere might be able to enlighten me. Then, as I had my camera back out of my pocket anyway, I took a picture of the old pub for good measure.
Southampton Common is a result of a dispute between the burgesses of Southampton and Nicolas de Sirlie, or Shirley. It ended in 1228 with about one thousand acres of land being set aside as common land belonging to the inhabitants of the town for grazing, fishing, peat cutting and wood gathering. Today there are just three hundred and sixty acres left but the rights remain. Of course, no one drives their cattle up there to graze any more but, back in the day, the town’s people, were allowed to graze two branded animals each. This right was widely used, even abused by some, and townsfolk would take their cattle to Houndwell Cross (now Poundtree Road) in the morning where a team of eight drivers drove them through the streets and turned them out on the common. The animals were looked after by the Cowherd who charged two pence a week per cow for his services. The cowherd was also responsible for maintaining the common boundaries, ditching, fences and gates. The Cowherd’s pub was built in 1762 where the old cowherd’s house used to stand, the name being a reminder of those far off days of common grazing and cowherds.
A little further on I came to the second iron post. This one is better maintained but, sadly, the makers mark on the side has worn too much for me to make anything of it. Nearby is the old milestone telling me I’m two miles from Southampton, the old town walls at least, ten miles from Winchester and seventy three miles from London. It seemed strange to think I was nearer to Winchester here than standing outside the White Swan at Mansbridge but I suppose the signs don’t lie.
My quest for the day began at the very edge of the Common near the junction of Burgess Road and The Avenue. If the maps were right I’d find an old carriage road, now just grass, and a semi circular trail with the Court Leet mound beside it. If I was very lucky, I might just stumble upon the boundary stone. Leaving the road I took the first part of the carriage road looking around for the trail I could see so well from the satellite map. Straight away I could see I was going to get muddy.
The soil on the common is rich in clay. In fact, in the sixteenth century, the commoners used to dig it and build kilns to make bricks right there on the common. They were supposed to fill the holes in again but often didn’t, making walking on the Common a bit of a dangerous game at times. Thankfully there are not too many holes left today, at least none that I found, but the clay soil was much in evidence. It sucked at my boots and squelched under them. I slipped and slid, my feet sank in, in places so deep I was worried the mud would come over the top of my boots. Each step was an effort, even though I tried to stick to the edges of the path.
In my efforts to stay upright I completely missed the side trail but, by chance, spotted the mound and the Court Leet sign through a gap in the brambles. Luckily the trail leading up onto the mound was covered with dead leaves and firmer underfoot than the carriage road. Feeling excited at the prospect of another boundary stone ticked off, I carefully climbed.
At the top of the slope was a small clearing with the arched Court Leet sign in front of me. The Court Leet began long before 1066 as a royal court where free men met to deal with local crimes, make complaints and resolve disputes. Most towns would have had something similar but the majority disappeared in the eighteenth and ninteenth centuries. Southampton was one of the few towns to keep its Court Leet when they were abolished in 1972. Records show that the meeting place was the Cutthorn Mound as far back as 1549 and most probably before then. From 1670 the court moved to the Bargate and then the Guildhall.
Standing in the clearing I looked around and tried to imagine what it would have been like during the annual Law Day meeting, on the third Tuesday after Easter. The dignitaries would have been there, Aldermen, Mayors and past Mayors, Sheriffs and past Sheriffs, Councillors, prominent citizens and rich merchants along with the Steward of the Manor of Court Leet and local citizens who’d come to make presentments. The commoners probably shuffled their feet while the Steward formally opened the proceedings, and through the official speeches and swearing in of the jury, impatient to get on with business.
Finally the Steward would begin to call the presenters in turn. The records from the 1500’s show most presentments concerned water supply, rubbish control and the weights and measures of beer and other goods. It would be interesting to see how different, or similar the presentments at the modern day Court Leet are. After each presentment the jury would vote to accept or reject the matter. Rejection would usually mean the matter raised was outside of the court’s remit. If the presentment was accepted, it would either be decided upon there and then or forwarded to the relevant person to deal with. The meetings ended with a feast, with food and drink provided for all who attended. I imagine some of the presenters were there just for the feast. Sadly, since the Court Leet has moved indoors there’s no longer a feast.
Originally I’d hoped the boundary stone would be on Cutthorn Mound and easily visible. Looking around and a little poking about in the ivy and brambles made it obvious it wasn’t there. My research told me it was most likely south west or north west of the mound and I felt it was likely to be near the road so I clambered down from the western edge of the mound onto the muddy, leaf strewn trail. Slowly I walked eastwards, heading for the road but looking about all the while just in case. When I came to Burgess Road, close to the university entrance and Lovers Walk I carried on to the furthest boundary of the Common and then walked slowly back along the pavement with my eyes scanning the undergrowth. Anyone watching must have wondered what I’d lost.
At The Avenue I turned the corner and carried on looking and poking about until I was back where I began. Instead of following the carriage road as I had before I headed off along the barely discernible trail running behind the road. This, I felt, was my best hope being north west of the mound. Mud made walking slowly vital anyway but I was barely moving forward between watching my step and examining every bush and bramble. When I got back to the place I’d left Cutthorn Mound without finding anything my quest began to look futile.
Then again, the carriage road was south of the mound. Ok, so I’d already squelched my way across the part that was south west but still, if I didn’t walk it I knew I’d sit at home imagining that stone just sitting there laughing at me. It was ridiculously muddy and, for a brief moment, I thought about abandoning it but then I realised winter, when the brambles and other greenery were at their least, was the time I was most likely to find the blasted thing and it was always going to be muddy in winter. Very, very slowly I slithered and slid through the thick, oozing clay. Every step was a gamble and I was afraid to stand still in case I sank and couldn’t get out. Visions of firemen and winches danced through my mind but I kept looking for that illusive stone. All I found were some turkey tails.
By the time I reached the grass my boots were completely covered in thick mud and I still hadn’t found the stone. I’d come out in the middle of Lovers Walk and the passing students and University staff all seemed to be looking at my boots, no doubt wondering what on earth I’d been up to. Now I was faced with a dilemma. If I turned right I’d end up on Highfield Lane and the beginning of my route home but I’d have missed out the first half of Lovers Walk and the stone might be there. Some years ago I went for an interview at the Uni, got there early as usual and wandered up and down this path thinking how nice it would be to have this as my lunchtime walk. I didn’t get the job but I’d explored the path quite thoroughly. If there was a stone there I was pretty sure I’d have seen it, then again, I didn’t know about them back then …
By this time it was after midday and my tummy was growling at me but I knew it would play on my mind if I didn’t explore the whole path and at least it was paved so there’d be no mud. Inch by inch I checked every single piece of the path. There were so many students and faculty members going back and forth I felt sure one of them would report me for acting suspiciously and the police would arrive but I kept going all the same.
Right by the Burgess Road entrance, beside the stream that runs across this part of the Common I thought I’d found it. My heart jumped and my phone came out of my pocket but, as I got closer I could see the oblong stone with rounded edges might be the same shape and size but it didn’t look like it had the makings. It turned out to be some kind of drain, at least I think it was. At the road I turned around and walked back the way I’d come, still looking about, still vaguely hopeful.
Further along a glimpse of concrete between the trees got my hopes up again but a short detour through mud and brambles soon showed me another drain, this one with a missing cover. I’d never really expected to find the boundary stone on Lovers Walk but at least I’d ticked it off the places to look and, by some miracle, no one had called the police to report my suspicious lurking in the bushes. If there was a boundary stone on the Common somewhere it wasn’t there in the triangle of land at the north east unless it was hidden away somewhere amongst the trees.
There are two ancient boundary stones in the area, one further along Burgess Road on the other side of the Avenue and the other a little way up Hill Lane towards the Sports Centre. Both are beside the road and it would stand to reason that this one, if it exists, would be near the road too. Hiding it amongst the trees makes no sense and I’m sure I didn’t miss it, well as sure as I can be.
All the stones I’ve found so far have been near roads, even the one in the Gregg School is on the edge of Cutbush Lane and easily accessible if you can get inside the school. There’s a good reason for this. The original boundary stones marked the boundaries of the town and there were ceremonies surrounding them. Back in the fourteenth century and possibly well before that, there was an annual ceremony for Beating the Bounds on the first Tuesday after Michaelmas. The Mayor, Sheriff and other civic dignitaries toured the boundary of the town on horseback checking it was intact and literally beating back any undergrowth that might be covering the boundary stones. They had to know where they were and they had to be easy to get to on horseback.
In 1957, after a gap of over a hundred years, the ceremony was revived, in a car rather than on horseback. The modern ceremony includes some of the old boundary stones but also the modern boundaries. This is where the 1988 stones come in. They have either replaced old stones that are missing or mark new city boundaries. Obviously someone knows where they all are. What a pity they can’t share that information a little more freely.
Apparently the new stones cost £20,000 and were specially carved in the council’s own workshops. It seems a terrible shame that the council went to all the trouble and expense to have them made and then to place them but didn’t make more of an effort to tell people about them. You’d think, at the very least, there would be a map somewhere. If there is, I’d very much like to see it.
Feeling rather fed up at the lack of a result, I walked back down Highfield Lane towards home. This is not the end of the hunt though. If there is a stone there on the Common somewhere I’m going to do my best to find it. There are only three hundred and sixty acres after all, how hard can it be? In the meantime, if anyone happens to spot any stones like the one below, especially on the Common, please take careful note of where they are and let me know!