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Fyfield

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Fyfield from the WI Scrapbook of 1956

Fyfield This village in the Domesday Book was ‘Fif-hide’, a variable distance, and afterwards ‘Fyfelde’, a tything in the Parish of Overton, its derivation (Saxon) meaning an estate containing five fields or hides.

It has a very old church, transitional Norman, the tower being the oldest part and may date back to Saxon times. The Dedication is St. Nicholas. It has two bells, originally there were three, but when Alton Priors formed a part of Overton Parish, the bell was taken from Fyfield and sent to Alton Priors as it had no bell. The seating capacity is for 158.

The Register dates from 1732, and there is a small book of accounts of money in the safe, raised in 1881 for Farr who perished in the snowstorm of January 1881.

The story is that Eli Farr, a carter in the employ of Mr. Lavington of Fyfield Farm made a journey with horses and wagon to Devizes market. He was accompanied by a second man and a young lad, named Lockwood, who incidentally was on a visit to friends in the village but thought a trip to Devizes would be a nice day’s outing. On their return journey they were overtaken by the terrible snowstorm and freezing wind. Reaching West Kennett they were almost persuaded by Mr. Butler to stay the night, but Mr. Farr was anxious to get home with the horses and proceeded on his way. They did not get far; in the deep snow they lost their bearings and in the blinding snow could not see but a yard or so in front of them. Hours later Farr was discovered half buried and frozen to death, near to his horses which were alive. The lad was found with the other man frozen to death beneath a poplar tree at Kennett. Mr. George Sprules, of Lockeridge, recalls his father telling him the story as he was one of those who helped to bring Farr to the ‘Bell Inn’ where efforts were made to revive him.

The description of the storm is under the heading of Overton history, recounted in a weather book of Mr. Swanton’s.

The Lychgate at the Church was erected in memory of Edwin Drew, Alec Taylor’s jockey who met his death on Brighton racecourse. Fyfield Down was a well-known training ground for Alec Taylor’s racehorses and in 1851 he sent out the Derby winner ‘Teddington’. His stables were part of the present farm buildings on the main road. Later they were moved to Manton Down.

The business of stone-cutting was carried on throughout the ages on Fyfield Down and most of the old cottages were built of sarcen stone. One business was founded by Mr. Edward Free, of Fyfield; another by Mr. Cartwright. Local men were employed, the family of Waite, Messrs. Fred and Harry and the latter’s son Cecil; Mr. Kimmer of Lockeridge and his two sons, Hedley and Ronald, were also stone-cutters. Sarcen stones were barged from Honeystreet to Windsor Castle in 1937 and Mr. Cecil Waite, of Fyfield, who cut the stones, holds the measurement order as a souvenir as it is the last of the sarcen stones to be cut.

In 1956 Fyfield Down was declared the property of the National Trust and as such is preserved.

Mr. Edward Free was also a Coal Merchant and the wharf and canal at Honeystreet was a convenient transport depot for both commodities, coal and sarcens.

The following is an extract from a treatise by Mr. Douglas Free, grandson of the founder of the stone-cutting business, on ‘sarcen stones and their origin’:-

‘The method of splitting the stone without shattering it, is an ancient and similar to that used in the quarries of the Isle of Portland.

A wedgehole is first worked into the stone, and then a wedge with ‘feathers’ of hoop iron to prevent the wedge ‘bottoming’ is inserted. A blow from a 14lb. sledge will then split the stone. Most sarcens have brown cracks, faults which go right through the stone. The slightest tap with a wedge on such a crack will open it, which explains why stones are sometimes found which have split without man’s assistance. White crack faults are also found on interior surfaces, but these are probably due to stresses caused in the splitting’.
It is interesting to record the different methods employed as set down by John Aubrey, 1663.

‘They make a fire on the line of the stone where they would have it to crack. After the stone is well heated, draw over a line of cold water and immediately give a smart knock with a smiths’ sledge, and it will break like the collets of a glass-house’.

The name sarsen or sarcens stone is a name also given to the ‘Greywethers’ of Cornwall, but which was named first, the ‘Greywethers’ sheep or stones, is a small matter of argument.

Over 100 years ago there was a brick kiln on the Downs owned by Sir Henry Meux but no-one can recall when the business closed down.

The old original Fyfield cottages, were standing near to the banks of the River Kennett. As at Overton they must have been menaced from time to time by the heavy flow of the river. Since then, the later Fyfield cottages were built each side of the road.

Looking at the village today it would be difficult to recognise it even from 30 years ago.

There was then a Congregational Chapel and an Inn called ‘The Fighting Cocks’, which backed onto the river side. The latter with many of the other cottages was the property of Mr. E. Rebbeck of Lockeridge.

The landlord of the Inn was 50 years ago Mr. Caswell, a blacksmith, and the last landlord was Mr. E. Pile who held the licence about 20 years ago. When the road widening scheme came into operation about the late 1930’s the Inn, Chapel and many cottages were demolished.

A popular sport in the county and the neighbouring county of Berkshire was ‘cock fighting’. This would be about 150 years ago when later an Act was passed prohibiting it.

When the old ‘Fighting Cocks’ Inn was pulled down, the structure of the building suggests ‘cock fighting’ could have been held there. The house was built on pillars or stilts which was unusual and the cellar reached the whole length of the house. The old sign too when once it was repainted disclosed a faded cup which could have been a Challenge Cup.

There apparently is no written record of the sport being held, but at that time in Newbury and at Bishops Cannings these fights were recorded. Shove-tide was a popular occasion for the sport, and the old ‘Bear Inn’ of Newbury Broadway, had a very famous cock-pit.

Today houses are still being pulled down to make way for a petrol filling station and pull-in, only three houses are now left standing.

Perhaps the oldest and most interesting is the attractive old world cottage at the bottom of the hill, the home of Mr. Bristow. At one end relics of an old Chapel are to be seen and a beam is clearly stamped with the date 1735.

Climbing Fyfield Hill to the right and left are cottages belonging to Mr. Swanton. There is Fyfield House too, at one time the home of Mr. Crees a farmer, and previous to this Mr. Lavington, also a farmer, lived there. A daughter, Miss Evelyn Rossell Lavington, became a hospital nurse who had a brilliant nursing career. For 40 years she was nursing, 27 of those years she was the much loved Matron of Savernake Hospital serving in a voluntary capacity. On retirement in 1939 she lived at Datchet. A photograph in ‘he Marlborough Times’ of herself and contemporary Marlborough Doctors appeared in 1956, with a fine tribute to her personality and her career. She might well indeed be called ‘Matron Saint’. She was decorated with the Florence Nightingale Medal, Royal Red Cross Medal, made a Serving Sister of St. John of Jerusalem and finally made a Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.).

Turning to the left half-way up the hill brings one to Lower Fyfield and Browns Farm, the old name derived apparently from a former owner.

A little beyond is ‘Long Mead’, a modern built house, the home of the Misses Giffard. At the end of the lane is another cottage and close by is the ‘Old Pound’, still recognisable, where cattle were impounded but no-one remembers the use of it.

Reaching the top of Fyfield Hill is the turning for Lockeridge and ‘Priest Acre’ where a number of Council Houses were built about 1930 to accommodate the people from the old Fyfield. The name ‘Priest Acre’ brings to one’s mind a religious association. It is sometimes thought to be connected with the Knights Templars on Overton Down; another theory is, it may be connected with the old Chapel now called ‘Castle Cottage’ at Lockeridge.

At ‘Priest Acre’ is the home of Mr. John Harris, still hale and hearty at 83, who can lay claim to 65 years of farm work. In 1954 he was presented, at Windsor Great Park, with two Certificates and Bronze Medal from the Royal Agricultural Society of England. He recalls the old days of long hours and less money, 11 shillings per week, but nevertheless also the merrymaking at the Harvest Homes held in Mr. Cree’s barn at Fyfield.

Of the field names shewing on an old map are Millers Close, Long Mead, Home Close and Priests Croft. It is also recorded that the old Roman Road from Bath crosses the Kennett at Fyfield making a slight detour opposite Lockeridge House in order to keep north of the stream, straight up to Folly Farm and then on to Minall (Cunetio), the old name for the famous old Roman Military Camp.

The old Roman road tracks were made by digging the earth each side and throwing up in the middle causing a ridge.

In dry summers it has been observed that on these tracks the corn will ripen quicker.
Before we leave Fyfield one more story must be re-counted of the redoubtable Mr. Henry Sprules of Overton. The keeping of bees was more prevalent in those days than now and Mr. Sprules was often asked to ‘Take the honey’. He was doing so at Fyfield one day as the Fyfield children were on their way to Lockeridge School, taking a short cut through the old right-of-way by Fyfield Churchyard. Viewing the procedure of ‘honey taking’ which was fascinating to watch, especially as an occasional handful of honey found its way to the eager drooling lips of the children. A quick rinse in the nearby river, and they hurried on their way to school. Honey is sticky stuff and much of it ran up their sleeves. In fact they blotted their copy-books well and truly as papers and books stuck to their sleeves. Many were spanked for coming to school so messed up, but history relates ‘no one split’.