0250…The Saxon Path

owlA History of STOKE GIFFORD & Nearby Parishes
Edited by Adrian Kerton

 

The Saxon Path

By Sharon Newton

Sharon Ubank

Sharon is sadly no longer with us but her memory will be retained as South Gloucestershire council, with the agreement of her family, will be naming a new road in Little Stoke off Collins Avenue, as Sharon Ubank Close.

Saxon Path is a public footpath that once crossed the fields where Bradley Stoke now stands. Much of it still remains, although it has been fragmented by the development of the new town.

But why Saxon Path?

Several years ago, Jackie Bowater- a local resident surveyed the landscape on her doorstep as part of a degree course. She noticed that the hedgerows that accompanied this footpath seemed to be very old. They were rich in trees and shrubs, deep, dense and often double.

She employed Hooper’s law in order to establish the age of these hedgerows. This law is based upon the observation that, as a hedge matures, it becomes more diverse in woody species. Jackie followed the recommended surveying technique which entailed measuring out random thirty metre stretches of hedgerow and then counted within a section indicated a century of that hedge’s existence. The results proved to be remarkably consistent. Most sections yielded nine woody species which suggested that these hedgerows had been in existence for nine hundred years. That would take the origins back to the Anglo Saxon era, the time before the Norman conquest of 1066.

Further studies revealed other ancient hedgerows in Bradley Stoke. Many still survive, flanking public footpaths or bordering back gardens. They are historical monuments, established centuries ago by unknown hands and they are of ecological significance too, for they provide shelter and sustenance for our local wildlife. They are precious, and deserve our love and care.

The soil of Bradley Stoke tends to be calcareous clay, as any gardener who has attempted to dig it will know only too well. The soil determines the kind of plants that will grow upon it, and so our local hedgerows abound with ash, oak and hawthorn but are further enriched with other treasures. A Little bit of searching will reveal such delights as hazel, holly, field maple, blackthorn, buckthorn, spindle, dogwood, crab-apple, guilder, rose and wayfaring tree. The latter seems a particularly apt species as to find beside an ancient footpath. This glorious mixture creates an intricate tapestry of bough, leaf, blossom and seed. Jewelled ropes of honeysuckle and bryony become intertwined with it, whilst upon the mossy floor; bluebells and other flowers bring a sensual feast, full of richness and beauty whatever the season of the year.

Saxon Path starts in Stoke Gifford, just to south east of Bradley Stoke. It takes a north westerly route until it reaches its destination at Patchway common. Before Bradley Stoke took on its status as a town in its own right, Stoke Gifford and Patchway were the only parishes that the path crossed. Both the start and finish of Saxon Path reveal a lot about the places where people first settled centuries ago. It is interesting to note how these centres of population have shifted over the years.

It can be argued that the path begins at Rock lane in Stoke Gifford. This lane lies roughly half way along North Road, the main route the village. The Poplar Rooms and fields stand next to it, as does the village’s Baptist church. Nowadays, when people think of the heart of Stoke Gifford, what probably comes to mind is the green, flanked by the church, the Beaufort Arms inn and the ‘Old School Rooms’. But it is believed that the village actually originated where Rock Lane now stands. And this may explain why the Saxon Path starts from this point.

Rock lane is triangular in shape. Apparently, during the Middle Ages, it enclosed a village green but the feature has long since disappeared beneath a succession of buildings. A tiny scrap of council mown grass still lies close to one of the lane’s entrances, and it could be argued that this is all that now remains of that ancient green. But now days, it wouldn’t offer decent grazing to anything larger than a guinea pig.

The earliest buildings of the village would have gathered around the green, enclosing it and thus providing protection for the villager’s livestock. But the outer edges of that triangle would have been flanked by the vast communal fields. There would have been three of them so that each side of the triangle would have a field attached to it.

These great fields would have been worked within a rotational system to ensure the fertility of the soil. Each field would be divided into strips and bundles of these strips would be shared amongst the villagers. These bundles would be distributed randomly across the fields so that no one household would acquire all the best soil. To further ensure impartiality, these bundles would be redistributed by lot each year.

This communal method of farming certainly had its advantages. For example, an individual villager was unlikely to be wealthy enough to own a plough and a team of oxen. But such essentials could be owned by the entire village and employed for the benefit of all.

The three fields were named Great Field, North Field and West field. Westfield lane once connected the latter with the rest of the village when in later years, it extended beyond Rock lane. A road by this name still exists, but it is not original, but it is not the original thoroughfare. That disappeared beneath later development. Westfield lane is a busy new road running past twentieth century buildings.

In later centuries, the great fields were divided into smaller enclosures. A map was drawn up in the 19th century reveals that one of these fields was divided into smaller fields that run parallel with each other, reflecting the communal strip system already described.

It is difficult now to get a feel for how open and wide our countryside was before landowners of later centuries created the pattern of small fields and hedgerows that is so familiar today. Perhaps the closest we can get to it is by gazing across the fields of various recreational grounds across the parish.

At the far edge of the great fields, rose extensive tracks of woodland. Their location made sense. The villages would have cultivated the land that they lay closest to their homes and this of course, was convenient for crops that needed tending on regular basis.

But perhaps that same distance made those woodlands seem rather wild and mysterious places in the minds of the villagers. Did they feel a little uneasy as the packed up their tools at the end of a winter’s day whilst a fresh red sun dropped swiftly down from the sky? As the first stars peered through the bare branches, did the hollow call of an owl or the terrible scream of a vixen send the workers scurrying hastily towards home?

Those great woods are now long gone, The Stoke Path Woods to the south represent a shrunken remnant, whilst Bradley Stoke evangelical church stands more or less on the old site of the great wood.

At its northwestern end, Saxon Path enters another ancient settlement.

Just as the centre of Stoke Gifford has shifted, so has the heart of Patchway. Most of the town now lies to the west of the A38, but this is a 20th century development. This is not where Patchway began.

The original settlement was Patchway Common, and this also marks the end of Saxon Path. Thus it has completed its task, linking own ancient habitation with another.

The common now runs through Bradley Stoke, and although it is hemmed in with houses and fragmented with roads, it still possesses a quiet, rural atmosphere. It takes the form of a lane, the grassy common itself, unravelling like a ribbon beside it. The heart of the common was once dominated by Manor farm, but that disappeared towards the end of the 20th century. A pond dimples the grass close to where it once stood. The stone from the farm building was salvaged and then used to construct a bridge across ‘Three Brooks Lake’ to the south of the town.

The common was at one time quite a self-contained community. It could boast several shops, a small school and a couple of chapels. At its eastern end, Primrose Cottage possessed a bread oven which was used by everyone in the village. Sadly, the cottage was demolished to accommodate Bradley Stoke way, but in recognition of it, Primrose Bridge now spans the new road. If you stand upon the bridge and gaze towards Savages Wood in the south, you will see immediately below you a few fruit trees bordered by a shaft hedgerow – all that remains now of the cottage garden.

I especially love Patchway common in the early spring, when manor farm pond is bubbling with frog spawn, and the dark soil in the remaining cottage gardens is glistening with snowdrops.

Now that we have considered the two ancient communities that stand at either end of the Saxon Path, it is time to explain the path itself. We will start with Stoke Gifford.

As the footpath runs from Rock Lane, once it would have crossed the open fields, but now we have to work out its route amongst the pavements. Cross North Road and enter Court Avenue, walk to the end of this road until you reach a row of houses running in front of you. A lane passes between two of these houses, follow it until you enter another road, and continue to your right until you enter another lane which will take you in Meade road.

This road is graced by a number of beautiful old cottages. Knightwood Farm stands at the very top – slightly beyond our glare- an interesting 17th century building whose origins may be much further back in time.

It is along Meade road that you will find the first of the hedgerows associated with Saxon Path. Tall trees mark its length, bringing beauty and stature to the road. However, it was nearly lost to development several years ago. Only the protests of a local resident saved it.

At the end of Meade road, busy Beacon lane cuts across Saxon Path. Use the pelican crossing to get to the other side, and you will find the path again as it begins its journey through Bradley Stoke. This particular section is known as Meade Lane, and it possesses a beauty all of its own. It was once a green lane, turfy underfoot and hidden within the hollow of two hedgerows as it ran across the fields, a secret highway between the trees. The soft, grassy track has now given way to tarmac, but it is nevertheless, a magical place. Here and there, the hedgerow trees almost meet overhead to create a tunnel, a leafy cage where the birds can perch and sing.

At the end of Meade Lane, Saxon Path meets Baileys Court Road. Cross this road and rejoin the path on the other side. It starts at the post box that stands at the pedestrianised end of a cul-de-sac. Sadly, this particular part of the path is not easy to follow as it has been fragmented by the development of the new town. But we will walk along it as best we can.

At the start of the cul-de-sac, there is a low ornamental hedge which marks the original line of Saxon Path. The old hedgerow that grew here has long since gone. Follow the cul-de-sac until it meets with another road. Turn to the right and follow this road until it passes through a gap in a long hedgerow that runs between rows of gardens. Look out for one or two old fruit trees along this stretch. This hedgerow follows the line of Saxon Path but alas, you can no longer follow it without trespassing on other people’s property- not recommended.

Still, it is good to gaze along its length. If you look northwards, you will see that it is dominated by a very large ash tree, which is a popular gathering place for the local starlings.

Walk through the gap in the hedge and continue along the road until you reach a lane which begins on your left. It is accompanied by another old hedgerow, and although it may not be Saxon Path, it provides a pleasant diversion.

One spring morning several years ago, I took a walk through the surrounding streets. They were strangely silent and empty, as if the town had been evacuated without me knowing anything about it. I remember that I felt quite lonely.

Then I turned into this little lane and everything changed. The hedgerows were bustling with birds. Sparrows squabbled in its depths, whilst starlings whooped it up in the higher branches. Blue tits uttered their small sounds and a pair of wood pigeons calmly cooed to each other. It was at that moment that I realised just how important our hedgerows are for our local bird population. Without them, the dawn chorus would be a rather quiet affair.

(You can follow this lane on the right hand side of the road as well. It will take you to the bluebells where Webbs’ farm once stood. It’s a nice enough lane, but most of the hedgerows along it have disappeared.)

When you reach the end of this bird haunted lane, look to your left and you will see a line of hedgerow from which two beautiful oak trees arise. They are particularly lovely in the autumn, when their leaves become old gold sovereigns. This once again, marks the line of Saxon Path but you will still be unable to follow it here, because a row of houses interrupts it.

To rejoin it, you will need to turn to the right. Follow the road along until you find a short lane to your left. This will take you down to a wooden bridge that crosses Stoke Brook. Before you runs an all weather path. If you follow it to your right, you will eventually find yourself at Three Brooks Lake. However, we shall be turning to the left, after walking forward for a few metres in this direction you will see another bridge – this time made of metal – spanning Stoke Brook. This bridge brings us back in line with Saxon Path. Behind it, rises a mighty ash – all that remains of the hedgerow here. Beyond it, lie the backs of the houses we encountered before, we turned right and crossed the wooden bridge.

After leaving behind the metal bridge, Saxon Path crosses the all weather patch and continues northwards and at this point, we encounter the most dramatic part of the route. Here it follows a tarmac footpath that rises steeply towards Diana Gardens. Running beside it, is a deep, wooded gully.

This gully is a little devoid all of it sun. It was carved out by a stream that once tumbled through it on its way to Stoke Brooks. That stream still exists but it has been cultivated, so that it now runs unseen beneath the footpath. You can still hear it after a downpour of rain.

Before the houses that now surround it were built, it felt a very secluded place. I would sometimes sit amongst its leafy confines and feel as if I was the only person left in the world. It was especially lovely in the springtime when the trees were spangled with new leaves and the earth was fragrant with bluebells. Here you could come face to face with a fox or experience a sparrow hawk skimming just above your scalp.

Hidden deep within that wooded gully, you sometimes had the sensation that the whole of Britain was covered with tress, stretching from shore to shore, just as it had been centuries ago.

Several years ago, this magical little place was almost lost to development. But local people rallied round to save it, which is why it still exists today. It is still special in the autumn; it is sweet with the scent of fallen crab apples, whilst in the springtime it rings with bird song. Look out for woodpecker holes in the old tree at the bottom of the gully.

If you are lucky you may see a white squirrel scampering through tress. I only ever encounter it when wintry weather is on its way, and I sometimes wonder if it travels here from the far north, pulling the snow clouds behind it at the end of an invisible string.

At the top of the gully, Saxon Path originally turned right, and then right again in order to follow the eastern edge of the next field.   Sadly, most of that stretch of hedgerow is now gone. However, when it re-appears a little further north, it is well structured with a variety of tree species – a beautiful feature of the landscape. Walk along Diana Gardens and through the little lane at the top that takes you into Snowberry Close. Turn right at the end of this lane and you will encounter Saxon Path again.

The road you are walking along cuts through it to the right, it disappears behind houses to the left. It is flanked by an open, grassy area that eventually becomes a lane that runs behind Meadowbrook School.

This section is rich – double hedgerow enclosing a deep ditch. In places, it is almost like a green lane. In the past, I have squeezed into the hedge and followed that lane, eventually emerging scratched and triumphant with bits of twig stuck in my hair.

At the end of this section, Savages Wood Road cuts across the line of Saxon Path. You can see where it continues through, by looking across to the Three Brooks Inn where the old hedgerow used to run behind the car park.

However, it is interrupted yet again by the road that serves the towns’ retail centre. Beyond that, it is represented by a tarmac footpath that cuts diagonally through the buildings on the far side of that road.

Any hedgerow associated with that section disappeared a long time ago. But, where it straightens itself into a more northerly direction, the hedges are there again, deep and rich and full of tall and stately trees. As you walk along it, look for, an old cattle drinking through – a relic of the towns agricultural past.

At the end of this path, our hedgerow intersects with another old hedge, running at right angles to it. This hedgerow is also significant because it corners form the boundary line between Patchway and Stoke Gifford. Parish boundary hedges are often very old.

For me, there is something significant about this meeting place between two such veteran hedgerows. And in the space between them, there is an interesting landscape feature. For there, lies a small pond, nestled beneath pollarded willows. Its edges are cobbled to facilitate the thirsty livestock that once grazed in the fields here. This pond tends to dry out during the summer months. Despite this however, it was and maybe still is an important breeding site for our local amphibians.

If you wish to follow the boundary hedge to the west, it will take you behind the Jubilee Centre where it shelters another pond and forms a boundary for the grounds of Stoke Lodge School. It then runs behind gardens until it reaches Little Stoke Lane.

To the East, it runs between houses and the northern end of the towns retail centre. Sadly, it has become somewhat fragmented here. Beyond Bradley Stoke Way, it forms the northern boundary of Savages Wood.

Saxon Path turns to the left of the cobbled pond and passes through the parish boundary hedge before resuming its route along Dewfalls Drive. It is now quite difficult to follow as, for while, there are no hedgerows to mark the way.

Walk along the left hand side of the road, crossing the turning that leads towards Brook Way. A little further along and Dewfalls Drive turns left into a cul-de-sac. Follow it round and after a few metres, you will see a lane to your right. Walk through it and cross Wheatfield Drive to its far end. Another lane in front of you leads you into Cornfield Close and then into yet another lane and by this point, Saxon Path is once again accompanied by hedgerows. This last lane will lead you into Patchway Common and the end of your journey. Relax and enjoyed the peaceful atmosphere of this green pace before returning home.

If you wish to vary your return journey, you may like to follow the lane that begins at the row of cottages just east of Manor Farm Pond. Here again, you will find yourself accompanied by a lovely old hedge. The lane takes you across Wheatfield Drive and into Dewfalls Drive. Follow the latter around to your left until you reach an expanse of green. A path cuts across it, eventually veering south and taking you back through the parish boundary hedge. Once you are through the latter, follow the path to your right and you will soon be back on the route of Saxon Path again.

When landowners plant hedgerows, it is usually because they wish to create a barrier. They want to prevent livestock from straying, provide a windbreak or mark the borderline between the land belonging to them and their neighbours.

But for our wildlife, hedgerows do not represent barriers. They are in, fact, quite the opposite. They are green highways, linking woodland with woodland, brook with brook. They provide shelter, seclusion and a rich supply of food for creatures travelling to and fro.

Plant can move along them by means of seed and sucker. Without hedgerows, our woods would be like little islands and the plants that grown within them would not spread very far. But hedgerows offer them escape routes, acting as linear woods which link up with other woodlands in the landscape.

In a built up area like Bradley Stoke, hedgerows bring a bit of wildness back into our lives, a breath of fresh air from the countryside. If we are grateful to find a hedgehog snuffling about our lawn, a robin singing in our ornamental tree or bluebells blooming at the bottom of the garden, I t may be that they have arrived in a hedge that runs behind our property.

Really, hedgerows are unique remarkable structures, talking up relatively little space yet representing an enormous   area, a ribbon of nature reserves running through our town.

Any of course, Saxon Path is a highway for humans as well as for plants and animals. It may only be a footpath linking a couple of parishes a mile or so apart but when you have set your feet upon one road, you are then linked to every road that runs across the earth. What journeys have started from this path in the past? And what journeys will mark from it in the future?

Saxon Path stretches far back in the shadows of history. And with a little help from us, it can extend beyond our time, providing beauty and richness for the future.

Sharon Newton

October 2007

Editor’s Note:  Sharon was one of the historians of Stoke Gifford I am very grateful to, without her we would have lost so much. Don’t miss her Stokes Standard

Sharon Ewbank's map of the Saxon Hedge 2

South over the foot bridge to a dead endA1 South over the foot bridge to a dead end

Into the housing estateA2 at the start of the NS walk

Towards Meadowbrook schoolA3 Into the housing estate

At Meadowbrook schoolA4 towards Meadowbrook schoolA5 at Meadowbrook school

At TescosA6 at Tescos

On from TescosA7 on from Tescos

Dewfalls PondA8 Dewfalls Pond

Dewfalls PondA9 Dewfalls Pond

Dewfalls DriveB1 Dewfalls Drive

Towards CornfieldsB2 towards Cornfields

The final stretchB3 the final stretch

The end of the Saxon PathB4 the end of the Saxon Path

B7 the Saxon Path Plaques

B5 The Saxon Path map plaqueB6 The Saxon Path map text

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