This is a piece that I first posted in May on The History Girls blogspot but which I thought I would like to share again here.
At this time of year, my daily walk takes in three of the “industrial” features of this lovely part of Hampshire, the Meon Valley: the River Meon itself, the long defunct Meon Valley Railway and the remnants of a royal hunting ground, the Forest of Bere.
The peace and beauty of the Meon’s landscape – with its gently flowing stream, the occasional heron or egret fishing for trout at the river’s edge; the lush water meadows, sometimes occupied by grazing cattle; the odd rushing weir; and the few surviving stone and brick arch bridges that span it at various points along its length – somewhat belie its powerful past. The railway once played its part in bearing passengers and goods from leafy Hampshire to noisy London (and had an important role in World War Two). And the forest – particularly lovely at this time of year, when the bright green foliage is just beginning to clothe the branches of the beech trees, yet is still sparse enough to allow the sun to light up the glades of bluebells – is but a small part of a much greater forest that has a long and important history.
The River Meon is not a grand river, only twenty-one miles in length, and, for much of that length, a somewhat shallow chalk stream – in summer months, at any rate. The river rises in the South Downs, near the village of East Meon, and winds and meanders through the other villages of the Meon Valley, until it rushes, broader and deeper, out into the sea, the Solent, to the south of Titchfield.
The early form of the name, Mēon, is Celtic or pre-Celtic. The meaning and etymology seem unclear, but it may be associated with a word that means ‘damp’ or ‘to wash’.1 Yet that seems unromantically mundane, and I prefer to think of the lovely Meon simply as the river that meanders…
But despite the apparently gentle, meandering nature of the Meon, it nonetheless has power.
Within the past few years, villages at either end of the Meon’s length – East Meon and Titchfield – have experienced severe flooding when the river burst its banks and overwhelmed their roads and houses. In 1953, the flooding in East Meon was the worst seen for forty years.
More helpfully, for centuries, the steep gradient of the terrain over which the upper reaches of the river flow has enabled the water to be exploited for a surprising variety of manufacturing processes – iron working, cloth processing, paper making, tanning, and flour milling.2
Until the seventeenth century, the Meon was navigable as far as Titchfield, which at that time was a significant port, and the area was heavily involved in the woollen industry and also produced iron, tanned goods and cloth. Eventually, silting restricted the passage of ships and, in 1611, to ensure that Titchfield could remain a port, the Earl of Southampton, Thomas Wriothesley, had a canal built directly from the sea to the town, and the Meon estuary was blocked off. Some say that, at one time, boats could come up the river as far as Soberton, where smuggled goods were unladen and hidden in the church vault, though one does wonder at the veracity of this romantic tale.3
There were mills all along the River Meon, from one end to the other, including ones at Titchfield, Funtley, Wickham, Soberton, Droxford, Meonstoke, and East Meon. Many buildings survive, although they are not necessarily original. The mills were mainly used for grinding grain, although at Warnford was one of the very earliest paper mills in Hampshire, and at Funtley there was an iron mill in the 17th century. The water mill below Bere Farm in Soberton Heath – Soberton Mill – was probably, in the 16th century, a fulling mill, where cloth was scoured (cleaned and whitened) and milled (felted and then rinsed), before being stretched. Later, into the 20th century, Soberton was used as a flour mill.
Chesapeake Mill in Wickham replaced an earlier watermill on the site. The present mill was built in 1820 using timbers from HMS Chesapeake, the former United States Navy frigate USS Chesapeake, captured by the Royal Navy in 1812. The outside of the mill is of brick, but the beams, joists, and floors are built from the ship’s deck timbers, still, apparently, blood-stained from the ship’s fighting days. The mill, used for producing flour, remained in operation until 1976.4
Both Chesapeake and Soberton mills sit not only on the river but also alongside the defunct Meon Valley railway line, now just a woodland track, on which you can walk (or trot or cycle) all the way from Wickham through Soberton to West Meon.
The Meon Valley Railway opened in 1903 and ran for 221⁄2 miles (36.2 km) between Alton and Fareham, closely following the course of the River Meon. It was intended to be part of a through route from London to Portsmouth, but it never fulfilled its purpose. The line passed through the Forest of Bere before heading across the water-meadows at Wickham on an embankment. The meandering course of the River Meon, the constraints of the landscape and the railway’s ruling gradient meant that the railway needed five under-bridges within half a mile (1 kilometre), three to cross the Meon and two to cross roads in Wickham.
In the early days of the railway, it was used for shipping local agricultural and horticultural produce, including watercress (from the still active watercress beds at Warnford), fruit (especially strawberries and apples), milk and cattle. Local residents and businesses apparently had high hopes for the railway, and an inn was built next to Droxford station in the hope of accommodating tourists and travellers.
People were impressed by the line’s speed, the scale of its engineering works, the high quality of the stations and the beauty of the scenery it passed through. Unfortunately, the expected London through-traffic never materialised, and after only fifty years passenger traffic was cut in 1955. The line was closed altogether in 1968, and subsequently, 17.5 km (11 mi) of the route was made into the trail for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.
However, the Meon Valley Railway did have an important role to play during World War Two. During the build-up to D-Day, men and equipment had to be moved to the south of England, and large numbers of tanks were moved by rail to Mislingford goods yard, from where they were then dispersed to local lanes and fields for temporary storage.
(As an aside, I’ve a small tale to tell… I’m not really a particularly mystical individual, but I’ve often sensed “something” at this spot… Ghosts perhaps of those D-Day soldiers disembarking from the trains? In fact, there’s a timber yard quite close by, so maybe it has only ever been the noises from there, the clanking of machinery, and the sound of workmen’s voices that I’ve heard…? Or maybe not…)
The railway’s most famous wartime role came on 2nd June 1944, when Winston Churchill and the War Cabinet met General Eisenhower, General de Gaulle and other Allied leaders in a special train parked at a heavily guarded Droxford station. Their mission was the final preparation for the D-Day landings. The station was only a short car journey from Eisenhower’s invasion headquarters at Southwick, and, being mostly hidden, was considered a safe location for the crucial meeting.
If the river and the railway run alongside each other, so the railway line also runs alongside the remains of the Forest of Bere where it lies within the parish of Soberton.
Bere Forest was once very extensive, stretching from Romsey, south towards Southampton, east to beyond the Sussex border, and as far north as Winchester. It is presumed that the Norman kings used Bere Forest for hunting, as well as the New Forest over in Dorset, and it is reputed that Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Charles I also hunted here.
But the Forest of Bere was not just a royal hunting ground.
Evidence of a Roman bloomery, a type of furnace once widely used for smelting iron, was found during excavations for one of the forest’s car parks in Soberton Heath. For centuries, the oak woods provided timber for building and acorns for pigs. Villagers of the southern part of the village (Soberton Heath) had rights to turn their cattle into the forest, including horses and pigs but not sheep. The deer that roamed the forest – which we often still see these days both in the forest and on the road – were not of course for the common people (except, one supposes, illicitly).
In the 13th century oaks were cut in quantity to repair warships and build bridges, and for building work in Winchester. At the beginning of the 14th century the size of the forest began to decline, presumably because of the amount of timber being taken. In Tudor times, the timber was reputedly used extensively for Henry VIII’s shipwrights, including perhaps the building of the Mary Rose, which in 1545 would sink in the Solent at the far end of the Meon Valley, and can now be seen in all its wonderful glory at the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth. In the 17th century, Cromwell, Lord Protector, reputedly used a vast quantity of Bere Forest timber to repair his ships, then, in the later 18th, there was so much work for Portsmouth dockyard associated with the Napoleonic Wars that, by 1815, there was apparently no suitable oak left!! Replanting didn’t start until 1855.
Great quantities of timber were again felled during the First World War and then again over the period of WWII, this time for the building of aircraft, using beech wood. During WWII, two land mines were dropped on the forest – the enemy was probably looking for the railway – creating two large and very deep ponds. Alongside the involvement of the railway in the war effort, our lovely forest was also used, both to hide tanks within the trees, and to shelter people who, during the worst of the bombing, came out from Portsmouth to find a degree of safety.
It’s somehow wonderful, and somehow humbling, to remember, in these places where I take my walk, and where I sometimes stop to stand and stare, how very many men and women have been here in the centuries before me.
1 From “Saxons in the Meon Valley: A Place-Name Survey” by Dr Kelly A. Kilpatrick, Institute for Name-Studies, University of Nottingham, Sept 2014. http://www.saxonsinthemeonvalley.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/MeonValleyPlaceNameResearch_Sep2014.pdf
2 The River Meon, National Rivers Authority, Southern Region, July 1993. http://www.environmentdata.org/fedora/repository/ealit:3872/OBJ/20003280.pdf
3 Stories of the river, railway and forest can be found in The Story of Soberton and Newtown by Ann Pendred (1999).
4 From The Warship and the Watermill https://web.archive.org/web/20081030083543/http://www.chesapeakemill.co.uk/historypdf001.pdf accessed 10th May 2017.
The River Meon at St Clair’s, Soberton Photo © Carolyn Hughes
Map of Hampshire by William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, Netherlands, 1645. From: http://www.geog.port.ac.uk/webmap/hantsmap/hantsmap/blaeu1/bla1smaf.htm
The River Meon in flood in the 1950s. From East Meon History Archive: http://www.eastmeonhistory.org.uk/content/catalogue_item/east-meon-floods-1953/severe-flooding-in-east-meon-in-the-1950s-picture-gallery
Chesapeake Mill, Wickham Photo © Richard Thomas [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Soberton Mill, Soberton Heath. Photo © Carolyn Hughes
The Meon Valley Railway trail. Photo © Carolyn Hughes
Bridge over the Meon Valley Railway at Mislingford. Photo © Carolyn Hughes
The old loading gauge at the former Mislingford goods yard. Photograph in Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Forest of Bere (Upperford Copse), near Soberton Heath, Hampshire. Photo © Carolyn Hughes
Crater pond in the Forest of Bere (West Walk). Photo © Carolyn Hughes