After the excitement last month of the release of the eBook of the third Meonbridge Chronicle, De Bohun’s Destiny, immediately followed by a two-week trip away, I find I have neglected to post May’s blog… If you follow my blog, you’ll know that, each month, I like to republish here the posts I write for the History Girls blog, and this one was first published there back in January 2019.
After last month’s [December 2018] excursion into the topic of language in historical fiction, today I am continuing my series of blogs about the history of the Meon Valley in Hampshire.
I have mentioned the little village of Warnford in previous posts, in particular my post, Lost worlds, changed lives: life beyond the Black Death. Discussing how the shape of the countryside changed in the centuries following the Black Death, I referred to the creation of parks on great estates – “emparking” – and showed how some estate owners, seeing a great country house and a fashionable park to set it in as a visible expression of their wealth, were more than willing to evict their tenants to realise their ambitions. Although some owners simply evicted their tenants and expected them to fend for themselves, others built their tenants a new village outside the estate. And Warnford is an example of a village where it is thought that the existing settlement was moved to a new site, to enable the creation of the landscaped park, though exactly when it happened isn’t clear. The still standing church and the ruins of the medieval manor house are evidence of the location of the original village.
I was interested to explore Warnford a little further, and in particular some of its buildings…
The parish of Warnford lies between West Meon and Exton, mainly along the main south-north road (the A32), which follows the line of the River Meon, though outlying areas of the parish climb up to the downs. Warnford Park lies to the east of the road and has the river running through it, whilst the village pub, the 17th century George and Falcon, and the majority of the village’s houses lie on the north and west side of the road.
The parish is now very small, with a population of around 220, but is well-known for its extensive watercress beds, which are fed from the waters of the River Meon. At the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, Warnford was relatively large. It consisted of two manors, both held from St Peter’s Abbey (Winchester) by Hugh de Port, an Anglo-French Norman aristocrat who amassed a great number of properties throughout the south of England, and in particular in Hampshire, possibly as many as fifty-three all told at the time of Domesday.
One Warnford manor had eight hides (1 hide=120 acres) and a mill, and its population consisted of eight villagers and six smallholders and their families, and six slaves. The other manor had seven hides, two mills and the church, and was inhabited by the families of 31 villagers and nine smallholders, and six slaves. This is presumably the manor that eventually became the Warnford Park estate, as it had the church and two of the mills.
Those population numbers for Warnford might equate to roughly 250 people, which made it actually quite a large place for those times – bigger in the 11th century in terms of its population than any other Meon Valley village except East Meon, in contrast to the present day, when it is one of the smallest.
The four buildings I am going to discuss all lie in the Park: the Church of Our Lady, the 13th century ruin of King John’s House which stands close to the church, the long-demolished Warnford Park House, and the Paper Mill building.
Domesday claimed three mills for Warnford. Today there seems to be evidence of the locations of two of them. One is the remains of a water wheel at a small weir a short distance from the church in the middle of the Park. The other is a restored paper mill building, also in the Park, presumably built on the site of one of the mills referred to in Domesday. This mill was one of the earliest, if not the earliest, paper mill in Hampshire. It was built around 1618 by the then owner of Warnford, Sir Thomas Neale, and paper was made at Warnford for at least 170 years, though by 1816 it had stopped working, perhaps due to the technical changes in the industry that led to the establishment in the country as a whole of far fewer but much larger mills. Currently the building has been restored and is available as a bed and breakfast.
Church of Our Lady
Warnford’s parish church, the Church of Our Lady, stands in the middle of Warnford Park, isolated for centuries from the village it once served. It is presumed that this isolation occurred, as already mentioned, when the owners moved the village to its present location outside the park, though exactly when this happened isn’t clear.
It has been suggested that the original church in Warnford was founded by Saint Wilfrid in the 7th century, during the years when he was bringing Christianity to the heathenish people of the Meon Valley. When the original church was built in Saxon times, the people who came to worship here would have belonged to the Jutish Meonwara tribe who, according to Bede, were “ignorant of the name and faith of God”.
In 1190, when Adam de Port, son of Hugh, decided to rebuild the church, he must have believed that it had a particular association with the saint, for he had a stone tablet inscribed in Latin to record the fact. Today, the tablet sits below what is thought to be a Saxon sun dial. The words on it are:
“Brethren, bless in your prayers the founders of this temple: Wulfric who founded it and good Adam who restored it”
The circular sun-dial is set on a square stone, with leaves carved at the corners, similar to the dial at Corhampton (described here). It is probably also of Saxon date. One presumes it was once on an outside wall which was at some point covered by the 13th century? porch.
Within the church itself is a monument to the family of Sir Thomas Neale, the man who built the paper mill referred to above. The monument has alabaster effigies of Thomas and his two wives lying beneath a panelled canopy. Around the base are the kneeling figures of two sons and seven daughters, four of whom are, somewhat gruesomely, holding skulls, showing that they died before their parents.
There’s also a rather grisly gravestone in the churchyard. In the 19th century, George Lewis was the estate carpenter, and used to cut down trees on a Sunday even though he was apparently warned against such an ungodly practice. But, in 1830, George, persisting in felling trees on the Sabbath, was hit by a tumbling branch and died. His gravestone illustrates his foolhardiness!
King John’s House
Close by the church are the ruins of what is variously called St John’s or King John’s House. This is a very rare example of a 13th century hall, built in 1210 by a member of the St John family who had married into the de Ports.
The ruin consists of a hall 52 ft. long by 48 ft. wide, divided by 25 ft. high columns into a central span and north and south aisles, and a two-storey building attached at the hall’s west end. The two-storey section seems to have been divided into two rooms on the ground floor, and on the first-floor level are traces of a doorway opening to a staircase or perhaps a gallery at the west of the hall. One imagines this structure might have been part of a larger house though there is no evidence of any other remains adjoining it.
The building appears to have been already in ruins by the 17th century, and was later incorporated into the landscaping as an interesting feature of the pleasure park. In 17th and 18th century documents, the building is referred to as The Old House.
Warnford Park House
Little is known of the early history of the Warnford estate. The earliest park enclosure was possibly a deer park that stretched between Beacon Hill and Old Winchester Hill. In the late 1500s, the estate was owned by William Neale, an auditor to Queen Elizabeth, who built a house near the site of the later mansion. One presumes that King John’s House was either already a ruin by then or perhaps considered by William as unfit as a residence for his family.
William’s son and heir, Thomas, was later knighted and became auditor to King James I. He was the man who built the paper mill. On his death in 1621 – it is his grand monument that lies in the church – Warnford passed to his son, another Thomas, and this Thomas built the later mansion that was apparently referred to as The Place House. His son, yet another Thomas, sold Warnford in 1678 and it moved out of the Neale family, passing through the ownership of several different families until, in 1754, John Smith de Burgh, the 11th Earl of Clanricarde, bought the estate. In 1752, John had changed the family name from Burke to the earlier form of de Burgh, to reflect their Norman-Irish origins. He called his new house Belmont, and the park Senfoy (Saint Foin).
In the 1770s, the earl hired Lancelot “Capability” Brown to improve the landscape of his Warnford estate. An estate map of 1811 shows that the River Meon was diverted as it entered the park and a long tear-shaped lake was created in a loop, and the river’s exit from the park was arranged via a series of sluices. A walk was created encompassing a sequence of garden buildings including a grotto, a hermitage and a bath-house, the design of which closely resembles an unexecuted Brown design for a lakeside pavilion at Rothley, Northumberland. The old hall, King John’s House, was also apparently deliberately incorporated into the landscape design as a “scenic ruin”.
An illustration from the 19th century shows the house in a landscaped park typical of Brown’s style, with the River Meon forming a lake to the south.
In 1865 the estate was purchased by Henry Woods, a colliery owner and the MP for Wigan, who carried out further alterations to the house, created a formal garden and undertook considerable ornamental planting in the pleasure grounds.
During the Second World War, the house was requisitioned by the military, but the troops apparently “severely damaged” it and, after a long decline, the house was demolished in 1956, though the park and pleasure grounds remained in private ownership and a new house was built.
There is, I suppose, nothing very extraordinary about what happened in Warnford over the centuries since it was recorded in the Domesday survey. Estate owners have always done whatever took their fancy to create the environment that met their private and public ambitions. If that meant moving a few tenants out of the way, well so be it. At least, in Warnford, though we don’t know exactly when it happened, the tenants were not entirely displaced. Despite further development in the past century or so on the south side of the road, it is interesting to see to what extent Warnford is, geographically, still a village of two halves and to understand what brought it about.
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