10 January 2017
This morning I thought I’d cheat a little and start my walk with a drive to Lakeside. The plan was to walk to North Stoneham Park and take the trail we bypassed last time we walked this way. Then we got slightly lost. This time I’d spent some time looking at the map and thought I’d worked out a nice circular route to take us back through Eastleigh to Lakeside. Of course, getting lost was still a distinct possibility but, undeterred, CJ wanted to come along.
Hopeful of an early coffee stop, CJ was disappointed to find the new visitor centre still closed. By then we’d walked past the little cafe at the Lakeside Steam Railway station but I urged him on with a promise of a visit to the Swan Centre later. Today there was no time for strolling around the lakes either. We trudged through the mud, straight along Doncaster Drove to Stoneham Lane, with a quick stop to look at the ford over Monks Brook as we passed.
It took a while to get across the road and negotiate the first twists and turns of Stoneham Lane. There are no footpaths along this section so it’s always a little nerve wracking and we were glad to turn off onto the trail beside St Nicolas Church and reach safe ground. The land beside and behind the church has a rich history. It has been in use, more or less as it is today, for almost two thousand years. In AD 932 King Athelstan gave the estate at North Stoneham to thegn Alfred. Later the lands were passed to the New Minster at Winchester, which became Hyde Abbey. It was used as a deer park. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries it came into the hands of Henry Wriothesley, second Earl of Southampton. Just over fifty years later, in 1599, the third Earl of Southampton sold the estate to Sir Thomas Fleming who was then MP for Hampshire.
Fleming was a very important man, a politician and a judge, who presided over the trial of Guy Fawkes after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was also Lord Chief Justice, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer and Solicitor General for England and Wales. His death at Stoneham Park house in 1613, was sudden and unexpected. The previous day he’d given his servants and farm labourers a ‘hearing day,’ a kind of bank holiday, and had spent the evening enjoying the festivities with them. During the night he was taken ill and, by morning, he was dead. He and his wife are both buried in st Nicolas Church and, one day, when the church is open, I hope to see his elaborate tomb. Sadly, today was not that day. A peek over the wall showed us the church with its distinctive one handed clock, was closed. Slightly regretfully, we turned our backs on it and headed along the wide lane towards North Stoneham Park.
The horses we saw last time were still in the field beside us. CJ leaded over the fence and tried to tempt the chestnut mare he’d made friends with to come closer. Today she ignored him though and we walked on with barely a pause. Once, this place would have been swarming with horses. It was used as one of the camps for the Swaythling Remount Depot.
Our plan today was to explore the area where Fleming’s Manor House once stood. Of course, it is long gone now but the farm buildings we passed were once the stable block and coach house for a later incarnation of the house. Behind it the remnants of the old kitchen garden are hidden behind a high stone wall. We passed it last time we came this way. This time we would be cutting across the fields.
At least that was the plan. Somehow we missed the style and had walked quite a way before we realised. CJ was not impressed when we had to turn back and even less impressed by my efforts to get across the style with some modicum of dignity.
Any idea of dignity that remained was soon abandoned when we saw the muddy trail ahead. We picked our way, slipping and sliding, mostly by sticking as close to the fence as possible and steadying ourselves by holding onto the fence posts. The cows in the field watched us, probably wondering why humans were so bad at negotiating a little bit of mud.
At the far end of the field a huge bull eyed us suspiciously. Thankfully he was behind the barbed wire fence but I didn’t fancy our chances much if he decided to charge. Luckily, he didn’t seem to think we were much of a threat to his hareem and, after a short, glowering stare, he went back to munching grass.
Once we’d passed the bull the ground got a little firmer and more grassy and we were soon heading into the trees. This was where North Stoneham House once stood, beside the pond we glimpsed between the trees.
When the estate passed to Fleming’s distant relatives, the Willis-Flemings, in 1737, they employed famous landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to improve the grounds. Even so, the old Manor House wasn’t really to their liking and, in 1818, they had it demolished. Architect Henry Hooper was employed to build a new house, far larger than the original. The project was considerably delayed, first by a fire and then by a lack of money. It was never fully finished and the Fleming family ended up living in nearby Chilworth Manor. Later part of the house was turned into flats but, in 1939, it was finally demolished.
The narrow trail we were on skirted the lake and led us to a rather ornate cast iron kissing gate. On the other side was Avenue Park, once the grounds of the Manor House and now a wildlife haven. Of course there wasn’t much wildlife to see today, apart from lime trees full of mistletoe. In spring though, there will be wildflowers aplenty. Perhaps we’ll come me back then for another look.
There may have been precious little wildlife but there was something interesting to see. At the top of a steep hill we found the Stoneham War Shrine, the main reason for our walk today. Built by John Willis Fleming between 1917 and 1918, it was dedicated to the memory of thirty six local men killed in World War I. Amongst them was Willis Fleming’s own son, Richard.
The hill we climbed is called Cricketers’ Hill and the shrine was designed by Christopher Hatton Turnor, with an identical shrine built at Havenstreet on the Isle of Wight, where the Fleming family originated. It’s an impressive little building, with a tiled roof topped by decorative ironwork, ornate grey gates and gold painted writing on the wooden eves. Today the gates to the wrought iron fence surrounding it were closed so we couldn’t go inside. Perhaps we will have better luck if we come back in spring?
Until recently the shirne was in a poor state of repair, basically a crumbling ruin. In 2011 it was restored to its former glory by the Willis Fleming Historical Trust and Eastleigh Borough Council, with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Grants for War Memorials scheme. They did an amazing job but, sadly, it may not stand in such an idyllic setting for much longer.
The lovely and historic parkland we were walking through, once seen as an important greenbelt between Southampton and Eastleigh, has been earmarked for development. Eastleigh Borough Council now own the land and they plan to build over a thousand houses on it. The shrine itself will be protected but the avenue of trees will go. Local people are not entirely happy but I doubt they will have their way. I guess it’s just as well we visited now while it’s still there.
After a little wander, cut short by the slippery mud, we took one last look at the shrine at the top of the hill and headed for another ornate kissing gate. This one led onto Chestnut Avenue and, after a bit of map checking to make sure we were going the right way, we set off towards Eastleigh.
We hadn’t gone very far when we came to the first of the thatched cottages that are all that remains of rural Eastleigh before the Railway came and changed it forever. Beside the cottages is the Cricketers Arms, the first pub in the area. The Cricketers began life as Yew Tree Farm but, in 1845 it was converted into a pub and has remained one ever since.
A little way along the road, near the junction with Stoneham Lane, another thatched cottage with whitewashed walls, was once the village post office. Beside it is Keepers Cottage, perhaps named with a nod to a past life as a gamekeepers cottage.
Turning onto Passfield Avenue we found the final thatched cottage, one I’ve photographed many times. Now we were almost in the centre of Eastleigh with its grid like streets of terraced railway cottages and a coffee stop at the Swan Centre. Seeing the streets crowded with shoppers, it’s hard to believe Eastleigh was ever just a small village of scattered thatched cottages. One day soon I suppose it will be hard to believe North Stoneham Park was every a quiet place of trees with a lonely shrine on a hill. Somehow, I can’t help thinking it’s a shame to lose so much beauty and history, even if we do need more houses.