28 March 2017
On the far side of Eling Causeway we passed the modern sluices that have kept it safe since the 1940’s. These days it’s hard to imagine the tide washing away the bridge across Bartley Water, which is probably a good job or we could have been stuck in Eling for a long time. We’d successfully crossed Hampshire’s only surviving medieval toll bridge, in use since at least 1418, without having to pay a penny, now it was time to explore.
Our first stop on the far side of the causeway was a conveniently placed public convenience. Once we’d taken advantage of this we stood on the banks of the creek looking back at the tide mill and the causeway for a moment. Some brave forget me nots had decided to put in an early appearance and, beside them, we found an interesting looking stone carved with a map of Eling. Who put it there and when is a mystery but we stood and admired it for a while.
On the stone the various names the village had been called were carved along with the dates those names were used. There has been a village here since the Bronze Age and the name probably derives from Edlas’s people, or Edlingas as it appeared in the Domesday Book. At that time Eling was a relatively large village with a population of around three hundred, two mills, a fishery and a church. There were fifty acres of salt marsh used by the villagers as common land to graze their horses and a cattle fair each year on 5 July.
For a long time the village and its lands belonged to the crown and passed through the hands of a succession on twelfth and thirteenth century kings. In 1130, it belonged to Henry I, who sailed from Eling quay on one of his last trips to his territories in Normandy. His great grandson, Richard I, granted the manor to Gervase de Southampton, the man who built God’s House Tower in 1193. On Gervase’s death it reverted to the crown and King John, Richard’s son, then granted it to Emma de Clere or de Staunton. When Emma’s daughter married Henry Husee in 1217 the manor was forfeited and returned to Henry III, the eight year old who was then king.
With a final look back at the causeway, we turned towards Eling Hill and the church we’d seen from the other side of the water. This is the tenth oldest church in England. It began life as a wooden Saxon church, later rebuilt in stone. Excavations a few years back uncovered part of a Celtic cross dating from the ninth, or possibly the sixth, century. In 1537 a Norman church was built on the Saxon foundations but this was drastically restored between 1863 and 1865 by Benjamin Ferrey so most of what we saw today is Victorian rather than medieval.
We walked slowly up Eling Hill. There are no pavements on the hill and a tight bend opposite the church. There is also a surprising amount of traffic heading for the toll bridge so there were several stops on our short climb to let cars pass. Every time we stopped I peered at the church and compared the view to a photo I’d saved on my phone. Surprisingly F.G.O. Stuart didn’t take any pictures of the Tide Mill as far as I can tell but he did make a postcard of the church and I was determined to recreate his photograph as best I could.
As usual, Stuart appeared to have taken his picture from a far higher vantage point than I could manage but I did my best, standing on a grassy bank and then pressed up against a wall, half afraid a car would come round the corner and run me over. The wall or at least the fence above it were obviously not there in Stuart’s time and I doubt he had traffic to contend with but I think my second shot is as close as it could be to the original.
With my photograph taken we crossed the road and headed up the steps to the church. A mass of primroses greeted us as we climbed. St Mary The Virgin is the mother church to the area, much as St Mary’s in Southampton is the mother church of the city. It looks out over the bay to the Port of Southampton and stands between the industry of the large city and the tranquility of the New Forest. Sadly, the doors were closed today so we couldn’t go inside.
From the top of the steps we looked down over the narrow road and the spot I’d stood to take my photographs. Opposite pretty cottages seemed to crowd in on the narrow road, creating a tunnel that winds down the hill towards the Tide Mill. The Slow sign painted on the tarmac seemed a little superfluous to me but it seems the villagers zoom down the hill so this is not a road for wandering aimlessly looking about you.
Apart from all the traffic, it appears to be a sleepy little village but all is not always as it seems. In 2003 there were vampires wandering about this church yard, or at least two young men and a young woman who believed they were vampires. For several months they hung around the church after dark, drinking each other’s blood, making howling noises, letting off fireworks, posting obscene things on the church noticeboard and generally harassing the vicar and his family. Eventually they were taken to court and jailed. From what we saw today, there is no sign of any recent vampire activity.
“Perhaps we should have brought a wooden stake or some garlic with us just in case,” CJ laughed, when I told him about it.
Despite the lack of vampires, the cemetery does have a dark, forbidding air to it, being almost completely enclosed by dense trees. In the centre the old, lichen covered grave stones lean at odd angles and most are so weathered any inscriptions are almost worn away. A dirt path bordered by a fence runs along the edge of the plot with a few solitary graves nestling amongst the trees. Curious we walked down it a little way until we saw a gate ahead. Beyond it we saw the glint of water and a glimpse of containers in the distance. On another day, with more time and a more reliable knee, we might have gone further and explored but, as it was, we turned and headed back towards the road.
Despite its shady aspect, the grass was liberally sprinkled with celandine and a few clumps of daffodils, now past their best, were dotted here and there. We came across a curiosity, part of the old wrought iron fence that must once have run along the path had been completely encased by a growing tree. It made me wonder how the tree survived with so much iron inside it and which would crumble first, the rusting railings or the poor tree?
The path lead us to a second gate, emerging further up the lane and, wIth one last check about for stray vampires, we left the churchyard and began to head back down the lane. As well as having two gates, the church also has two F.G.O. Stuart postcards. The second is in black and white and was taken from the lane.
By the looks of it Mr Stuart stood on the front step of one of the houses to take his second picture. As we walked back down the lane I thought I could see the gateway to the garden he stood in. Obviously, I couldn’t just go marching up someone’s path though and, since the original photograph was taken, a wall has been built and a large tree has grown so, even if I had, I wouldn’t have seen much of the church.
In the end I had to concede defeat and take the closest approximation I could. Frankly, it wasn’t very close at all but it does go to show just how much has changed even in a village that outwardly looks as if it has remained the same for centuries.
At the bottom of the hill, rather than going back across the causeway, we turned left along a dirt lane with a high bank on one side and trees on the other. CJ, who’d been longing to explore the trail along Batley Water since he’d first seen it, was puzzled and a tiny bit annoyed.
“Trust me,” I said when he began to grumble, “I know exactly where I’m going and you’ll get to walk the trail soon enough.”
We hadn’t gone very far before CJ noticed graves beneath the trees at the top of the steep bank. We were walking through a second graveyard, built on the opposite side of the road to the church on land purchased from the Baker Mill Estate. The first graves we passed were shaded by the trees and almost completely overgrown by celandine, ivy and the strappy leaves of spring bulbs.
In the summer of 2014 I came through this graveyard on my way to visit Eling Tide Mill. Back then I was walking in the opposite direction, coming from the Boardwalk along Bartley Water. As usual I was ever so slightly lost but now I thought I knew the way. Memory told me the Boardwalk began on the far side of the graveyard. Going in the opposite direction though it wasn’t quite as simple as it seemed. Nothing looked the same. The gate wasn’t where I thought it was. We walked up and down and round and round looking for it until I thought someone might stop us and ask what we were up to. After a while of this I began to think I’d imagined the gate. So much for knowing exactly where I was going.
“Maybe we should just walk back to the mill and go along the path there,” I said.
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