A Brief Early History of Spencers Wood
The earliest settlement in the Shinfield/Spencers Wood area was in Anglo-Saxon times and the Domesday Book, compiled for William the Conqueror in 1087 records that before 1066 the land had been held by Saxi from King Edward the Confessor. The report of continues:
There is land for six ploughs. (There are) eight villeins and five borders with seven ploughs.
(There are) two serfs and a mill worth five shillings and 150 eels
and five fisheries worth 550 eels and
sixteen acres of meadow and woodland for render ninety swine.
It was (formerly) worth seven pounds, now eight pounds.
Left: Extract from John Roque’s Topographical Survey of Berkshire, 1761
At this time this was an insignificant area on the western edge of Windsor Forest, with the River Loddon its main asset. The church at Shinfield and any early village settlement on the well-drained land nearby would have been the local centre. Villagers were bound to the open field farming system where each man had scattered strips and all had to cooperate in deciding the rotation of crops and sharing the oxen to draw the plough. Until the middle of the fourteenth century most men were also bound to the lord of the manor to work his land which was in the east of the parish, away from Spencers Wood. In 1229 King Henry III sold some of these lands to Geoffrey le Despenser, whose name may be the origin of ‘Spencers Wood’. The Black Death and recurrent plagues during the fourteenth century created a shortage of farm labour and made the opportunity for labourers to rent their own farms. In due course increased prosperity lead to more independent farmers, and the emergence of tradesmen to serve their local community.
However most people in rural areas like Spencers Wood lived in great poverty and this became an acute problem during the late eighteenth and early nineteen centuries. The Poor Law was intended to help and the Overseers of the Poor were appointed to deal with poverty among their communities. Substantial farming families like Pither and Body cared about this, made decisions and paid much of the poor rate. One scheme started in 1700 was to provide land or parish cottages on the edge of the common at Spencers Wood where families could have room to grow vegetables and keep pigs and geese, but life was still hard there. In the 1770’s a new workhouse for the poor was built at Great Lea Common just north of Spencers Wood. People hated having to go to the workhouse, and preferred to take ‘outdoor relief‘, in which the Overseers provided items like ‘a truss of straw to lie on’, shoes, smocks, or coals for the truly destitute.
In the first half of the nineteenth century when Mary Russell wrote her account of village life in “Our Village”, many families living in Spencers Wood were very poor however this does not feature in her writings. As she herself wrote ‘if anything be ugly you strike it out’, following the tradition set earlier by Jane Austen and Charles Lamb. However she does record the trades that catered for the local people – blacksmith, butcher, and bootmaker for example. She also relates how the main roads through Spencers Wood were surveyed by the Scottish engineer, John McAdam who decided that the low road – Woodcock Lane – was less suitable than the road along the higher ground for his new system of paving. Improvements from tracks to paved road surfaces made a great difference to movement between communities.
By the end of the nineteenth century the trades listed in the census returns and the directories list more trades catering for a wealthier population. Spencers Wood had been farmland in 1872, and continued to supply food which now could be taken on the improved roads to the quickly expanding town of Reading. Much of the better drained land on the hillsides of Spencers Wood was used for market gardening and orchards.
Patricia Green, January 2020
Off the Map
When we were researching ‘Before the Village’, the first chapter of our book More from Our Village of Spencers Wood, we discovered that the common ‘belonged to’ not one but several manors. In the Berkshire Record Office there are maps of three of these manors, Diddenham to the north-west (c.1760), Shinfield to the north-east (1756), and Little Shipridge (Sheepbridge) to the south-east (1625). If we’d found a map of the manor of Bealmes, we could – we fancied – have put them together and the hole in the middle would have been an outline of the common.
The maps of Diddenham and Shinfield are gorgeous but it was the 1625 map of Sheepbridge [left] that fascinated me. It’s not very big, and it’s extremely dark and mottled. We could only see the detail by ‘enhancing’ the photos in Photoshop! (What you see here are my ‘tracings’ of the map.) There were two things in particular that I loved about it: the detailed drawings of scattered houses and even the mill (1), complete with mill wheel! The manor house is a larger, more detailed version of the others (2).
North isn’t at the top of the map, because the manor’s southern
boundary was the River Loddon, which they put along the bottom, with the moated manor house half way along it. ‘Spencers Wood’ is written across the top, twice, hinting that there was then a long thin wood running roughly N-S. You can see Lambs Lane (3) and Back Lane (4), both marked ‘to Spencers Wood’. There are two buildings drawn at the top end of the field across the main road from the junction with Back Lane (5), two on the bend where ‘Sheepbridge Cottages’ are, and one opposite them (6). The ‘Highway’ (marked ‘to Reading’) corresponds to the current main road until it reaches the corner of the field just before the two houses opposite Hill View (7). You can then see two buildings, one about where Body’s Farm now is and another just below it. The road is shown as running between them.
The other interesting thing was that many of the field boundaries of 400 years ago were almost exactly as they are today. Most of the fields marked on this map, with their size in acres, roods and perches, are still farmed: the built-up bit we now know as Spencers Wood – on both sides of Basingstoke Road – was part of the common, and therefore off the map – indeed it was off all the maps! Before the late nineteenth century, Spencers Wood could only be seen out of the corner of your eye.
Catherine Glover, March 2018
The Loddon Valley
The River Loddon has had a profound effect on the history of the parishes through which it flows. After flowing through Swallowfield it is joined by the Blackwater after which it forms the boundary between Arborfield and Shinfield. It has been suggested that the parish name derives from the ‘shining fields’ seen when the sun shines on the flooded meadows. Maps of 1761 and 1790 use the word ‘Shinefield’ for the parish. A tangle of small streams, ditches and backwaters flow slowly across the flat valley floor and were a major impediment on routes between the Thames valley at Reading and the towns of Hampshire and the south coast. Tracks came downhill from the north towards tentative river crossings. Pearmans Lane is shown on Ordnance Survey maps passing Pearmans Copse in Earley and continuing through fields south of the M4 and Cutbush Lane, to cross the Loddon near the remains of the paper mill and old Arborfield Church. Part of this route is followed by Shinfield Parish footpath walk no. 2. Two other bridging points are now main road routes, on the A327 to Arborfield and on Basingstoke Road B3349 at Sheepbridge. Further upstream, the historic Kings Bridge crosses the Loddon, extending from Woodcock Lane. This route was used in the early C19 by the author Mary Russell Mitford when she moved from Three Mile Cross to Swallowfield.
The river was essential to the mediaeval economy. It provided food (fish and eels), water power for mills at Arborfield and Sheepbridge, and was navigable for small boats. Wildflowers and small animals were abundant in the damp woodlands and meadows along the valley. Mary Mitford wrote of her delight in ‘the bright, brimming transparent Loddon’. However she also tells of the river flooding over ‘fields, roads, gardens and houses‘. Such floods are still frequent. It is expected that the improved A327 road will no longer flood as it by-passes Shinfield due to ‘gated’ tunnels where it is raised across the meadows to allow more retention of water on the fields. At Sheepbridge, a mill was recorded in the 11th century Domesday Book, and Guy Stiff, in an article for the WI, in 1996, recalled seeing the last mill at work. The three storey building had a pair of 12 feet (3.6 metres) diameter cast iron wheels taking their power from the river. The mill became disused after World War II, and the building was destroyed by fire on 2nd August 1961. Now all we can see are the mill pond, the mill race and its weir. The Mill House hotel next door is a modern building but the moated house across the road is a historic moated building.
In dry times the meadows can be grazed by sheep and cattle. The Loddon is part of the Thames catchment and when levels rise on that river, then the flow of the Loddon is likely to be held back and water levels rise in Shinfield. Riverside land by the old bridge from Pearmans Lane is a site of nature conservation value. In 2010 the braided watercourses were restored and improved by the Environment Agency, which put in a fish by-pass to assist fish spawning, and reinstated weirs to lower the risks of flooding upstream.
Gravel deposits over river alluvium have provided pockets of better drained land suitable for grazing animals and growing crops. In the past gravel was extracted on a small scale to maintain tracks and improve access. This often left uneven ground and hollows which became ponds, for example northwest of School Green and south of Sussex Lane. Now major extraction works are proposed for the fields west of the A327, to supply forthcoming developments. It is intended that affected land in Shinfield will be restored for public use with lakes and meadows. This will link with the Langley Mead area which is designed with restored wildflower grazing meadows and footpaths, parts of which are raised boardwalks for times of flood.
Casual play in the fields and by the river has always happened. Children would swim in the Loddon and jump and splash in its ponds. Nowadays access is more restricted. Fishing has become a club activity with special fishing rights, and playing fields are planned with careful drainage to be useful for as much of the year as possible. The south-facing sloping fields near Sheepbridge are used for arable crops, and recently a solar panel array was installed over one field to feed electricity directly into the overhead pylon national grid line.
We are fortunate that despite the changing landscape, the valley retains its visible presence.
Patricia Green, February 2017
Sussex Lane off Hyde End Road is marked on old maps. The 1740 map shows some plots of land that were unchanged for centuries. The plot where “Hardy Cottage” was built in 1889 was marked on the map of 1740 with a “bothy” and the plot outline was exactly the same when it was purchased by Harry Cook in the 1960s. The Lane is part of the route from Swallowfield to St. Mary’s Church in Shinfield, which goes partly across fields as a footpath, and partly on tarmac roads.
When St. Michael’s Church was built and the new ecclesiastical parish was carved out of the original St. Mary’s parish in 1911, the centre of Sussex Lane formed the boundary between the two, with houses on either side in different parishes. The Lane still forms the boundary between the separate parts of the civil and ecclesiastical parishes. The fields at the southern end of the Lane were worked for gravel extraction from gravel pits owned Mr and Mrs Robbins of Glenwood, and local children used to swim in the lakes. The pits were filled in with rubbish during the 1960s by Wokingham Council. At that time the Lane was called “Gravel Pit Lane” or “Pits Lane” and the later residents had to petition to change the name to Sussex Lane.
Only three dwellings along the Lane date from before the second half of the twentieth century. The oldest property is Meadow Cottage, formerly “Glenwood” and originally two Elizabethan cottages. It now retains parts of the sixteenth and eighteenth century Georgian building. Wooden stables with a loft over were pulled down in the mid-1960s to make room for the Meadow Cottage Nursery School which took children between the ages of three and five years. Sussex Lodge has deeds dating from the mid-1850s. Hardy Cottage, previously called Lane End Cottage, was built in 1889 and was lived in by the gardener to one of the local estates. The soil there is a deep rich loam built up over the years and there is still a working well in the garden. At the entrance to Sussex Lane there was a market garden where no.205 Hyde End Road now stands. The production of fruit and vegetables for markets in the Thames Valley was a major land use in Spencers Wood during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Beyond Hardy Cottage, the land where Laburnum was built in 1958 had been a small-holding. The Lane and Hyde End Road were re-aligned in the 1960s and further properties were added in Sussex Lane during the 1960s – 1980s. Jordan Close and new houses fronting Hyde End Road were added in the 1990s.
Mrs Kay Kennedy, Sussex Cottage (2004) and Mr Harry Cook, Hardy Cottage (2004)
Patricia Green, February 2011
Woodcock Lane is an ancient track starting at the junction with the A33 in Three Mile Cross and running south between the villages of Three Mile Cross and Grazeley. It lies in the Foudry Brook valley and skirts the hills rising to Spencers Wood. The Lane is shown on old maps and is named on Roque’s map of 1761, and Thomas Pride’s map of 1790. It is possibly named after an old manorial family living in the area. In mediaeval times, lands were passed by kings to favoured religious groups and temporal knights, and just as land around the former Battle Hospital in Reading belonged to Battle Abbey, it is recorded that Robert Woodcock of the Hartley Battle estate paid dues to the Abbot of Battle in the fifteenth century. At one time the Lane lead to a modest manor house, Woodcock House.
Three Mile Cross was a busy village community even before Mary Russell Mitford wrote in the 1820’s and 1830’s her series of famous articles later published in the book ‘Our Village’. She describes the Lane with its trees and wildflowers. In wet weather the track becomes muddy, and people preferred to travel up the hill to the south where the ground was drier. The author tells of
seeing John MacAdam surveying both routes, to decide which to pave as the main road between Reading, Winchester and the south coast ports. It was decided to tarmac the high road, and Woodcock Lane became a quiet green lane. Mary Russell Mitford chose to walk along the lane when she moved from Three Mile Cross to live in Swallowfield, sending her luggage by cart on the high road.
Photographs and drawings in the late 19th and early 20th centuries show the Lane as a wide grassy track bordered by tall oak trees, with a double line of the trees on the east. Only a few old trees remain, and new younger growth surrounds the path. Land adjacent to the ‘low road’ was chosen for the A33 by-pass, leaving Woodcock Lane intact but subject to the noise of traffic. However, the Lane is a bye-way and footpath, and can be followed south into Hampshire. Within Shinfield parish, it is part of Parish Walk no.5, going along Woodcock Lane, up through wooded hillsides to Spencers Wood and back across fields to Three Mile Cross.
Walks leaflets are available from post offices, the Library and the Parish Office as well as on the parish website – The one for Woodcock Lane can be found here.
Patricia Green, September 2014
The Line not built
History is not only about what happened; it is also about what might have happened, the road not taken. So it is fruitful to discuss what might have happened if the Armada had landed in 1588 or if there had been an invasion in 1940; or if Jim Callaghan had called an election in the autumn of 1978 rather than the Spring of 1979. Here we consider a ‘might have been’ on a smaller scale: the railway through Spencers Wood.
The year is 1909. Private cars are beginning to appear, as are petrol-driven buses and lorries. But the future was not so obvious at the time and public discourse was still about trains. The Berkshire Chronicle carried a flurry of articles about stations and train services, prompted by the success of Reading West station (opened in 1906) and suggestions that a station might be built to serve Palmer Park (then a developing suburb). But an article by ‘Q. T.’ drew attention to another grievance: the poor connections at Basingstoke between trains from Salisbury and the south-west (the London and South Western Railway) and trains from Basingstoke to Reading (Great Western Railway). The last train of the day from Exeter arrived at 9.11: the last connecting train to Reading left at 9.10. Obviously, this was no accident. Q. T. wanted a much better service.
The following week the President of the Reading Chamber of Commerce made a different suggestion: that the LSWR should continue its recently built line from Alton to Basingstoke through Sherfield, Spencers Wood and Three Mile Cross to Reading. This would open up the area to the south and west of Reading which had (and indeed has) poor railway facilities.
A couple of months later ‘Q. T.’ reported on a meeting of the Railway Institute at Reading where this idea, and others, were discussed. The idea which the Institute favoured was a new line, leaving the Waterloo line west of Earley station and then travelling cross-country through Shinfield, Spencers Wood, Swallowfield and Sherfield, before connecting with the Basingstoke-Waterloo line near Hook. The Institute thought that the line would not be expensive to build, being only 15 miles long and without any great engineering problems to overcome. It would serve the ‘populous districts of Shinfield and Spencers Wood’ whilst giving a direct route to Portsmouth, Bournemouth etc.
The Berkshire Chronicle was all in favour: but little more was heard of the idea. Whether the London and South Western Railway gave it more than a moment’s thought is unknown and the agreement in the summer of 1910 that the LSWR and GWR should co-operate more closely made it redundant anyhow.
In retrospect the idea was completely daft. And if the line had been built, it would probably have never carried much traffic, making it exactly the sort of line that Dr Beeching would have identified as hopelessly uneconomic half a century later. It seems unlikely that readers of Loddon Reach would ever have had the option of waiting for the Reading train rather than the Reading bus. On the other hand, a station in Spencers Wood would inevitably have changed the character of the village and encouraged house building: indeed, as we have seen, the development of the area was part of the justification for the building the line. And so, if the line had come to pass, twentieth-century Spencers Wood would have been very different, but this was not so much the road not taken as the line not built.
A guest contribution by Professor Richard Hoyle who lives in Spencers Wood and was a contributor to More from Our Village of Spencers Wood
The Landscape of the early Twentieth Century
Before the M4 and the By-pass, the local landscape was one of fields, hedges and orchards with small clusters of houses. It was truly rural: people lived ‘in the country’. Old photographs and maps show many groups of trees, particularly the double avenue of Wellingtonias surrounded by even older oak trees near the hilltop. The west side of the main road through Three Mile Cross and Spencers Wood was thickly bordered with trees defining boundaries of farms and estates. The grounds of Highlands and Stanbury House were enhanced with more ornamental trees and, beyond the common, a mix of native trees formed a wooded skyline.
Footpaths had developed for people to get to church, work, and to the new schools. One took people from the Stanbury estate down to Grazeley Church (part of Spencers Wood was in Grazeley parish). Important paths were paved, but not Woodcock Lane. Beneath its avenue of oaks, it developed a wooded complex of trees, shrubs and ground flora. Woodcock Lane joined Basingstoke Road north of Three Mile Cross, passing the pond at the end of Grazeley Road. There were many ponds in corners of fields and beside footpaths and roads. The largest one reached to the side of
Left: Stanbury, 1931
Basingstoke Road and had an eastern outlet stream which continued partly culverted in a series of ponds and damp ground south of Hyde End Road. A pond at Three Mile Cross and one near the entrance to Basingstoke Road allotments were later filled in.
Other ponds survived and trees shaded them to create rich wildlife habitats. The ponds held rainfall run-off from fields and roads, fed through open ditches protected by banks and verges. These were a major feature among the small late-enclosure fields north of Hyde End Road. Here corners of dense hedgerows grew into copses complete with hazel, elder, wild roses and brambles, giving a harvest of nuts, berries and fruit for animals and people. Many houses were for farm workers who were expected to feed their families with produce from their long back gardens. After World War I, allotments were established on fields in Beech Hill Road, behind Basingstoke Road and Clares Green Road, in Ryeish Green and Three Mile Cross.
The area was renowned for the many small farms and orchards. Food and flowers went to market in Reading and by train to London. Priors Market Garden was on the hillside south of Three Mile Cross and Dearlove’s Nursery in Spencers Wood supplied their shop in Reading. Dairy farms delivered milk, and there were poultry farms, a pig farm and even a tomato grower with greenhouses on the hilltop. The Ordinance Survey maps show many orchards, for instance in Three Mile Cross, along Basingstoke Road and Hyde End Road, around the junction of Croft Road and Hyde End Lane, and even in the centre of The Square. There was a large orchard off Clares Green Road – now the Appletree Lane area where many houses had an old fruit tree left in their garden. The blossom of these orchards and the hedgerows was a splendid sight in spring.
Patricia Green, October 2019
Water only from Wells
There is a well in front of a property in Three Mile Cross. It is not used now, but less than eighty years ago, many homes locally relied on getting all their water from wells. The 1871 Ordnance Survey map shows eleven wells in this area which were probably those for communal use. The geology here is London Clay, hard, sticky and relatively impervious, which is overlain in places by gravel beds through which rain percolates. Valley Gravels occur on wet land near the Loddon and around Hyde End Road roughly from Sussex Lane to School Green, while Plateau Gravels lie on the drier high ground especially around Basingstoke Road. Wells were dug in the clay, but the gravel sites were easier to excavate and flowing water would be found there. (The nursery rhyme is correct in making Jack and Jill go UP the hill to their well.)
Private wells were dug sometimes at the edge of a property near a small stream or ditch, or they were put by the side of a cottage, even inside the kitchen where water was pumped up to a basin or sink. Outhouses for laundry, cooking or making ale often had a well in the floor. An important communal well was on ‘The Common’, opposite Spencers Wood Post Office. It was at a dip in the ground, and the head fittings with the pump and its enclosing shed were still in place in the 1980’s. Local families remember their parents collecting all their water here. Evacuees from London in WW2 recorded their astonishment at such primitive conditions!
Digging a well was a complex and potentially dangerous job. We have a photo showing six men with their horse and cart from Grover’s, ‘Water Supply Contractor’ from Beech Hill, with timber for shoring the sides as they dug, and bricks to construct the well. Bricks were shaped as wedges to form the circular outline, and it is probable that the brick works west of ‘The Common’ made these special bricks.
The Arborfield Brick and Tile Works provided hundreds of wedge-shaped bricks for many years. The well head would be a timber structure supporting the bucket and its winch. Later hand pumps were introduced to facilitate raising the water, often on routes between towns and near milestones. A farm in Grazeley still has a pump standing on the water supply line from a small reservoir through fields to the farm buildings. Electric pumps are now used where people have extraction rights to draw ground water for their gardens or animals.
Patricia Green, October 2014