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Wantage Waterway

Restoring for the Future

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The following two articles are the result of local research carried out by Chris, and show that
there is still lots to be found out about the canal and the surrounding areas.

CANALSIDE COTTAGES
by
Chris Naish

Less than two miles northeast of Wantage lies a small section of the canal which, by its very remoteness, managed to remain almost intact from 1914, the year of the official Act of Abandonment, until the mid 1960’s, a time which has generally been considered to be the Age of Destruction for any kind of edifice or structure worthy of preservation or restoration.
 
This little-known section runs north from Pinmarsh Bridge (map ref. 423903) to the railway, beyond which it bears northeast towards Cow Common and the Hanney Road. The unclassified road which passes over the canal at Pinmarsh Bridge was originally a private drive constructed by Col. Robert Loyd-Lindsay, Lord Wantage, in the nineteenth century which afforded him, his family and guests a faster and more convenient route between Wantage Road Station (map ref. 410913), which has long been closed, and Betterton House where he lived (map ref. 431868). Today the road is used as a rat-run to and from work by those residents of the nearby village of Grove who work at Harwell Laboratory or farther afield.
 
 
Today, the canal north of Pinmarsh Bridge and its structures are in good condition due not only to its remoteness but also to the absence of public rights of way alongside it. Ardington Top Lock has not changed much over the last few decades, still looking decidedly derelict although parts of the lock gates and their mechanisms can still be seen. A forlorn milestone informs us that we are 46 miles from Semington. Between Ardington Top Lock and the railway lies the Long Pound where only a scattering of bricks and stones amidst the ploughland on the eastern side marks the site of Canalside Cottages. Regrettably, the demands of prairie farming have caused many of the hedgerows and copses in the fields around Canalside Cottages to be grubbed up.
 
Beyond the railway, the canal heads off in a northeasterly direction, leading to Ardington Marsh Lock which is still very well preserved with one gate still standing. Shortly beyond the lock, the canal meets a field boundary and disappears for the half-mile section from there to the Hanney Road has been completely filled in.
 
It was not always so. Until about thirty years ago, things were quite different, mainly because Canalside Cottages (map ref. 427913) were still standing and inhabited by a couple and their family. If I remember rightly, there were two cottages which had by that time been knocked into one. Lying a few yards from the canal bank, the cottages presented to the world a skewbald patchwork of brick and stone in an expanse of green pasture. They were surrounded by a large, hummocky vegetable and flower garden. At times, the washing-line was hung with gaily coloured garments which lent a welcome atmosphere of homeliness and domesticity to these remote dwellings which possessed neither mains electricity, running water nor proper sanitation.  
 
Although one would never credit it now, a well-trodden towpath led from Pinmarsh Bridge to Canalside Cottages, following the west bank of the canal. One left the road by an old wooden gate, the remains of which can still be seen near the park fence, and followed this path which was so wide that I used to be able to cycle along it quite easily although, in places, it threatened to slide into the canal. At the tail of Ardington Top Lock just past the old lockkeeper’s cottage, one descended sharply to a single-plank bridge over the spillway leat (or whatever Geof Austin would call it) and then crossed the canal by an old wooden accommodation bridge at the southern end of the Long Pound to reach Canalside Cottages.

As well as being the occupants’ sole means of access to the road, this path was also used by others. Whilst exploring the canal here, I myself quite often met both the postman and the milkman who included Canalside Cottages in their daily rounds.

Up until the same time, about 1965, the canal bed had remained intact right up to the Hanney Road, together with the arched bridge which carried the road over the canal. The bridge was eventually demolished, I believe, in order to give contractors’ lorries access to Didcot during the construction of Didcot Power Station. At the time the main A34 ran straight through the villages of Steventon and Drayton and right through Abingdon town centre. The Hanney-Steventon Road therefore offered the only route which would cause the least disturbance to centres of population. The bridge was certainly there in the mid-sixties because a school friend and I used to hide an illicit moped beneath its arch and roar up and down Ardington Wick Lane on it after school and at weekends. Ardington Wick Lane lies about a mile to the east of the canal which it joins at Cow Common not far from the Hanney Road.

Nowadays, the towpath I used to cycle along has now been obliterated by 30’-high trees deliberately planted along the canal bank. I now have to walk down the canal bed itself or along the edge of the field on the eastern side. One may still discern a faint linear indentation marking the original towpath. Farther along, enormous and venerable willows, still alive, have collapsed across the path. Just before Ardington Top Lock, the old path climbs imperceptibly on to a slight embankment where the lock pound begins. At the lock itself, the original towpath follows the side of the lock chamber and then descends to the spillway leat where I found the single—plank bridge, or one of its successors, still in place and passable.

The accommodation bridge which crosses the canal today is of girder and concrete construction and has been cleared of brambles and undergrowth because it carries a public right of way across it. The Rookery and Marsh Copse, both marked on a 1910 Ordnance Survey map, are still there. Phillip’s Barn (map ref. 429909) has gone although the site remains uncultivated to this day. The bridge which carried the public footpath across the Portobello Ditch (map ref. 432912) has also disappeared (a little job, perhaps, for the Vale of the White Horse District Council!). It must be admitted, however, that probably nobody before me had walked that path for years.

This section would be an ideal place to try and reinstate the towpath as a right of way in return, perhaps, for extinguishing the rights of way along other footpaths in the vicinity which have fallen into disuse. If this section of the towpath were to designated as a permissive path, it would mean that there would be a continuous right of way from Abingdon all the way to Georgesgreen Lane, half-a-mile north of Sparsholt (map ref. 348888).

And finally, I offer the following unsubstantiated tale which may or may not be apocryphal. I would dearly love to know whether it is true or not.

In days of yore, when the Bay Tree at Grove was a proper local village pub before Morland’s went and tarted it up, I used to live on the village green opposite. Having established myself as a regular of the Bay Tree, I fell into bad company, to wit, a bunch of dreadful old reprobates who assured me, after a few pints, that that in their grandfathers’ time in the late nineteenth century Canalside Cottages was an alehouse of ill-repute whither the more dedicated drinkers of the parish would repair whenever they felt the need for a jolly good booze-up. Now my elderly drinking companions were much given in their cups to inventing old Grove traditions on the spur of the moment for the benefit of the more credulous incomers to the village and derived immense pleasure from telling stories, true or false, malicious or in jest, it didn’t matter, as long as they were entertaining. Baron von Munchausen didn’t have anything on this lot! I shall therefore take that particular story with a hefty pinch of scepticism until I receive confirmation from a reliable source.

It is interesting to note, however, that on the 1″ Ordnance Survey map of 1919 Canalside Cottages are marked as Ardingtonmead Farm so perhaps, if it did sell beer, it was not a full-time alehouse but rather a farmer who brewed beer on the side and sold it to the local inhabitants and the ever-dwindling canal trade. It has also been said, and perhaps somebody more knowledgeable than I could confirm it, that when Canalside Cottages were demolished a large number of old beer bottles was discovered on the site.

 

THE TALE OF ARDINGTONMEAD FARM
by
Chris Naish

Chris Naish, ex-General Secretary to the W&BCAG, recalls his childhood memories of our canal near Wantage and tells us of a more recent encounter that he had with Dolly Rivers, and the story she had to tell.

All of you will be familiar with the photograph of Henry de Salis’ steam launch, Dragon-fly’, taken at Ardington Top Lock, near Wantage, map ref. 426912, in 1895 because it appears inset behind the title of the cover of each issue of this magazine. There’s an even better version of the same photograph on the front of the Wilts & Berks Canal Trust’s brochure - and now also, of course, in Doug Small’s excellent book, 'Images of England, The Wilts & Berks Canal' of old photographs of the canal! - and if you look closely at it, you will see behind Dragon-fly the almost ghostly silhouette of a house. This was almost certainly Ardingtonmead Farm; later called Canalside Cottages on the OS. map, of which hardly any trace now remains, although it survived well into the sixties.

Although only about six miles from the canal’s junction with the River Thames at Abingdon. Ardingtonmead lay pretty well off the beaten track and was, in fact, almost the last settlement on the canal before it reached the outskirts of Abingdon.

From Wantage, the canal entered the floodplain of the River Ock, a tributary which joins the River Thames at Abingdon not far from the original junction of the canal itself. The stretch upon which Ardingtonmead stood, from Pinmarsh Bridge, map ref. SU 423903, to Cow Common, a quarter-of-a-mile from the Haney Road, map ref. SU 435924, is still in surprisingly good condition, principally not only because of its remoteness but also because it helped to drain into the Ock the waters of the multitude of small unnamed streams which meander across the map of the area like thin blue arteries.

Ardingtonmead Farm was a nineteenth century, brick-built edifice which stood on the eastern bank of the canal about three-quarters-of-a-mile north of Pinmarsh Bridge which took the Grove Park Road over the canal. Grove Park Road had been constructed as Lord Wantage’s private drive from Lockinge House, demolished in 1947, and his estate at Lockinge to Wantage Road Station. This is the reason why Pinmarsh Bridge boasted some fine, delicate ironwork instead of the usual stone or brick arch. Ardingtonmead Farm may be found very easily on the new Explorer map no. 170, Abingdon, Wantage and the Vale of the White Horse, because, for some strange reason best known to the Ordnance Survey, it has made a dramatic and phoenix-like reappearance at map ref. SU 426913, having been deleted altogether from both the Landranger map no. 174 covering Newbury and Wantage and the old two-and-a-half-inch Pathfinder map of the Abingdon area. Before that, it had been demoted to Canalside Cottages on the 1967 1" Ordnance Survey map but was still called Ardingtonmead Farm on the 1919 edition. It even appears on a mid-nineteenth century edition of the Ordnance Survey map of the area, albeit unnamed. I have drawn a detailed map of the Ardingtonmead site for the benefit of those who are not familiar with the area.

Whenever I help conduct guided walks for the East Vale branch from Abingdon to Wantage, I am continually met with incredulous stares when I stop in the middle of a flat, featureless cornfield in the middle of nowhere and announce that here, on this very spot, there once stood a farmhouse within a walled farmyard which was once home to a family who worked at nearby Ardington Wick Farm.
 
The photograph, taken in January 2001, clearly shows that all that remained of Ardingtonmead Farm then was a wide scattering of bricks and stones. Compare this with the photograph taken almost forty years earlier! Today there almost nothing; only the eagle-eyed are able to spot a few bricks churned up by the plough after the harvest.
 
However, in days of yore when I was but a lad and dinosaurs roamed the earth, Ardingtonmead Farm was still inhabited. Marooned as it was in a veritable sea of farmland just south of the railway the easiest and shortest way to reach it, and the route used by the family who lived there for about thirty years from the early thirties to the mid-sixties, was by trudging three-quarters-of-a-mile along the towpath from Pinmarsh Bridge.
 
I first came across Ardingtonmead in the mid-fifties as a boy of nine or ten whilst exploring new and out-of-the-way places and even then I was aware that this was somewhere special, a little chunk of Berkshire - for it was still Berkshire then -somehow set apart from the surrounding countryside, unknown and unvisited except by a few farm workers and the occasional intrepid young pioneer such as my goodself venturing into terra incognita. Their very remoteness and inaccessibility ensured that Ardington Top Lock, map ref SU 426912 and also Ardington Marsh Lock, map ref SU 427919, half-a-mile to the north, both remained in a remarkable state of preservation and, even today, you may see milestones in their original positions and parts of lock gates still standing. At Ardington .Marsh Lock, there is even a balance beam still in situ and the metal frames which held the paddles are lying nearby at the bottom of the lock chamber.
 
As we all know, if you turn your back on a canal for one moment, Mother Nature moves in straight away with a vengeance and turns your painstakingly dredged canal and your immaculately shorn towpath into an impenetrable jungle. This is what has happened at Pinmarsh Bridge. Although you would hardly credit it nowadays because a variety of trees has grown up over it and made it unrecognisable as a navigable thoroughfare, the towpath followed the western bank of the canal and was once both well-used and well-trodden. So well trodden was it even in my youth that I was able to ride my bike down it with ease. The postman and various tradesmen also used it to get to Ardingtonmead Farm. On the other hand, the canal bed is surprisingly clear and one may walk along it for some distance.
 
Just north of Ardington Top Lock by the lock-gate, there still stands an old concrete bridge which carries a public footpath across the canal. However, the towpath used to carry on past it a short way to the bungalow which stood on the west bank of the canal, the opposite side of the canal from Ardingtonmead. At one time, there was also a bridge which made a short cut from the bungalow to the cottage which I also used to use (see the photograph taken of it in about 1970). If you go down there today, look closely and right on the eastern bank of the canal just north of the cottage you may still see the remains of its brick pillars and wooden railings and the steps leading down to it.
 
There was nearly always plenty of life going on at Ardingtonmead; the garden being tended and the grass being mown, washing being hung out to dry on the washing line, the bustle of daily life with always time for a friendly wave or greeting whenever I passed by. However, when you are young, you think your surroundings will forever remain immutable so when, one day in the mid-sixties, Ardingtonmead cottage and bungalow were abandoned and demolished, I kicked myself severely for never having thought to take any photographs of it for posterity. The barns which had formed its farmyard, however, remained in use for some years thereafter.
 
Now and again over the years I would take a Sunday afternoon walk down the canal from Pinmarsh Bridge and gaze around me and wonder whatever had become of the family who had lived there and what sort of life they had led.
 
Then, one day last July, I went on senior citizens’ summer outing from Steventon, near Abingdon, to some gardens in Warwickshire and, no, before you ask, I wasn’t quite eligible; I was merely one of the organizers! The bus was almost full but I saw that there was an empty seat at the back. After I had sat down, I started chatting to the lady sitting next to me who told me that her name was Dolly Rivers. After a while, she just happened to mention that she used to live ‘up the canal’. My curiosity whetted, I asked Dolly where exactly up the canal she had lived. She replied that her parents, a Mr. and Mrs. Potter, had gone to live at Ardingtonmead Farm in the early thirties and that she had been born in 1929 at Ardington Wick, a nearby hamlet which belonged to the Lockinge estate, map ref. SU 436896, where her father was employed as a cowman. Dolly went on to explain that Ardingtonmead had consisted of the ‘cottage’, which was the farmhouse itself within its walled farmyard, on the eastern bank of the canal and the ‘bungalow’ built about the same time as the cottage, almost opposite it on the western bank where her Great-uncle Jim lived who was a hedger and ditcher for Ardington Wick Farm.

Dolly went on to explain that Ardingtonmead had consisted of the ‘cottage’ which was the farmhouse itself within its walled farmyard, on the eastern bank of the canal and the ‘bungalow’ built about the same lime as the cottage, almost opposite ii on the western bank where her Great-uncle Jim lived who was a hedger and ditcher for Ardington Wick Farm.

She told me that she had been brought up at Ardingtonmead with her two brothers and had lived there until her marriage in 1946. She and her new husband then went to live with her Great-uncle Jim in the bungalow for a few months before moving to Steventon. However, the rest of the family, she said, including her brothers, Clifford and Ernie, continued to live there until the mid-sixties just before it was demolished And, what’s more, she went on to reveal that she had some old photographs of Ardingtonmead and her family which she promised to show me.

And so, not wishing to miss such a golden opportunity, I arranged to visit her at her home in Steventon. Therefore, a couple of weeks later, I turned up on her doorstep, clutching a box of Ferrero Rocher chocolates in my hand. After she had accepted my bribe and made me a cup of tea, we spent an enjoyable evening swapping reminiscences of the canal. I, for my part, told her all about the Canal Trust and the progress the Amenity Group had made and gave her a copy of the Trust brochure with its photograph of ‘Dragon-fly’ on the front. I also lent her my copy of Jack Dalby’s book, ‘The Wilts and Berks Canal’. She was both amazed and thrilled to think that boats might once again ply up and down ‘her’ canal.

She then went to her sideboard and drew out several photographs, some of which are reproduced here. Although there are none of the canal itself, they are nonetheless a fascinating historical insight into life beside the Wilts & Berks Canal over forty years ago. They have never been published before.

And, if that weren’t enough, during one of my more recent visits to Dolly, I found that she had written a brief story of her life on the canal for me. This is what she says;

“I was born at Ardington wick on 7th. May 1929 and then went to Ardington school at five. Then we moved to Lower wick (a nearby farm of which hardly any trace remains) for a while and then moved to Sutton Courtney (a village two miles south of Abingdon) for two years. We then came back to the canal-side which were the happiest days walking up the canal path to school to Ardington two -and-a-half miles away. Then Dad moved over to Grove for a while and then went back to the canal and worked on the farm again to look after the pigs.”

“I used to go over to Grove at weekends and stay with a family called Golding. I then went to work over at Milton depot (an army camp near Didcot, now Milton Park Trading Estate) and met my future husband, Harold, there. I got married to him when I was seventeen and we lived in the bungalow beside the canal path with my Uncle Jim for eight months.”

Dolly and her husband eventually moved to Steventon, a village three miles to the east of Ardingtonmead, but all her young days were spent ‘down the canal’.

She goes on to say that she used to take her young family by train from Steventon Station to Wantage Road Station, ironically passing within two hundred yards of her parents’ home! From Wantage Road Station, she then had to push a pram and shepherd the older members of her young family two-and-half miles along the Grove Park Road and down the towpath from Pinmarsh Bridge to Ardingtonmead.

“How I wished we could have seen the boats going down there,” she says. “It must have been a lovely sight. However, when my dad moved back to Ardington Wick because of his ill-health, that’s when the towpath became overgrown because there was no-one to look after it.”

Dolly Rivers also told me that her father had worked at Ardington Wick Farm and had lived in a cottage there before moving to Ardingtonmead where Dolly lived with her brothers, Clifford and Ernie. Her Great-uncle Jim lived in the bungalow on the other side of the canal. No photograph of the bungalow exists but Dolly’s family very kindly drew for me a picture of it as it appeared when they lived at Ardingtonmead.

Although the cottage boasted running water in the form of a tap by the back door, lighting was provided by means of Tilley lamps and oil lamps.
 
But poor old Uncle Jim, although he also had an outside privy and used oil lamps for lighting, he fared even worse in one respect because, having no water supply of his own, he had to cross the bridge over the canal to the cottage to fetch water from the outside tap. In other respects, however, he was well provided for because he kept chickens and bees and had a lovely Victoria plum-tree which had been planted by Dolly’s father who had also planted some plum-trees and greengage trees on his, the eastern side of the canal. As the nearest pub was the Volunteer two miles away at Wantage Road Station, Uncle Jim, canny fellow that he was, also used to brew his own beer!
 
As for Dolly’s mother, whenever she wanted to go shopping, she used to cross the little canal bridge and walk the mile or so along the railway line to Wantage Road Station where she would catch a ‘bus into Wantage. Later, laden down with her purchases, she would make her way back to Ardingtonmead following the same route.
 
However, the fellow I always felt really sorry for was the postman who must have sworn in the most voluble and virulent of manners whenever he had to deliver any post for Dolly’s family because he then had to trudge all the way down the towpath to deliver it; I myself met him frequently on the towpath during the school holidays.
 
The roundsman from Theobald’s the bakers in Ardington, however, was a little shrewder and reached a compromise with the Potter family; he would place the bread in a sack which Dolly’s mother would leave halfway down the towpath together with the money to pay for it. Milk, of course, came straight from the udder!
 
Dolly also told me that the ‘lockhouse’, i.e., the lockkeeper’s cottage at Ardington Top Lock had always been derelict but that she can remember when all four walls had still been standing. Now only one is left.
 
My story doesn’t end there, though, One Sunday afternoon, at about the same time as I was paying regular visits to Dolly, I walked down the canal to the site of Ardingtonmead in order to refresh my memory of the place and look for any other remains which might still be visible. When I got there, I found two couples busy picking the plums and greengages which had been planted by Dolly’s father.
 
As it was most unusual to find anybody else on that stretch of the canal, we stopped and chatted. After a few moments’ conversation, it became apparent that I was in the presence of two of Dolly’s daughters who were able to fill in a few gaps in the story related to me by Dolly. They reminisced about their childhood antics at Ardingtonmead and assured me with all sincerity that, despite having been deprived of many of the amenities which the twentieth century could offer, the days they spent ‘down the canal’ were the happiest of their lives. In fact, they told me that they visited the site of their grandparents’ former home now and again in order to rekindle many fondly remembered memories.
 
Because the bank of the canal and its bed were so overgrown, it being high summer, they helped me find the few pitiful remains of the little wooden bridge that once crossed the canal and also pointed out to me the place beneath it where they used to dump all their rubbish.
 
I spent many hours with Dolly while she plied me with cups of tea and told me of her life and that of her family at Ardingtonmead. For my part. I was delighted just to sit there and listen because Dolly was fulfilling my almost lifelong wish to know the full story of Ardingtonmead. She has gone out of her way to provide me with a great deal of information, both oral and photographic, for which I am most grateful.
 
I would also like to thank Dolly’s daughters, Jean and June, for their contribution to this story when we met that Sunday afternoon ‘down the canal’
 
And finally, one last matter (Please take note, Messrs. Murrell and Austin, East Vale organisers), Jean, Dolly’s eldest daughter, also mentioned to me one prized family heirloom which she wished she had rescued when she had had the opportunity. She told me that, one day, she had discovered, half-buried in the canal bank, the old privy bucket upon which she and the rest of the family must often have been enthroned in solitary contemplation so many times so many years ago. Unfortunately, despite a prolonged and exhaustive search, she was unable to relocate it. Therefore, when they eventually penetrate into these northernmost limits of their territory, I would appeal to the East Vale work-parties to keep a look-out for this valuable and much-cherished artefact and to return it to its rightful owners who will no doubt be thrilled to have it back. In sentimental value alone it must be priceless!