Tuesday 9 October 2012


"I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land."

The final verse  of, “And did those feet in Ancient Time,” also known as the hymn ,”Jerusalem,” England's unofficial national anthem. It was first published as part of the preface to,” Milton,” by William Blake in 1804

In the late 1950’s very few people had cars. They were beyond the income of the majority. People relied on buses, coaches and trains to  get around the country. When I was about seven years old,  the  Hants & Dorset  bus company had a small booking office situated on the corner of Portsmouth Road and Victoria Road in Woolston.  Woolston was the part of Southampton where myself and my family lived, next to the Itchen River. I was always fascinated by a large colourful poster displayed in the window of the booking office. It advertised, “Mystery Coach Tours.” The tours promised a drive through a picturesque part of the Hampshire countryside. You would pay for your ticket a day or two in advance, arrive at the coach office at a given time, board the coach and be taken on a mystery trip in one of the distinctive Hants & Dorset dark  green single decker buses. Nobody knew where they were going.  However, those people who had been on one of these trips would return and tell neighbours and friends and in turn they would tell others. The mystery trips that left from the coach office in Woolston always travelled along the beautiful valley of the Meon River, north east of Southampton and situated to the east of Winchester.

West Meon High Street in the heart of Hampshire.

Over the last forty years I have lived in Wimbledon, South London and my parents, in their old age have continued to live in Woolston, Southampton. I always enjoy driving down to Southampton along the rural route by way of Guildford, Farnham, Alton and along the Meon Valley. I drive through the village of West Meon that is situated on the A32 road. It is a very beautiful part of Hampshire, rolling chalk downland, lush green fields, thick clumps of woodland interspersed with small villages of rose and wisteria clad thatched cottages and clay tiled roofed houses, walls of flint and, locally made russet red bricks. Cars are required to slow to 30 miles per hour or less as you drive through West Meon. So I always get a chance to look and take in the beautiful gardens and rustic buildings. Sometimes I stop and park the car. It is a wonderful experience to just walk around the village.  West Meon surrounds you with old buildings, stone walls and thick shrubbery. There are modern houses but they are hidden within groves of trees off  the main road and out of site but the old is most obvious and prominent in the village. The village hall commemorates Queen Victoria's Jubilee. Cottages cluster together and stretch around the curving serpentine high street winding downhill towards the valley bottom and the River Meon that slips like pure liquid silver and as clear  as glass over it’s pebbled bottom through and on past the village.

 The stone cross at the centre of the village.

In Kelly’s Directory of 1878 it is described thus;
“WEST MEON, a parish and a large village, pleasantly situated on the banks of the small river Aire, or Meon, 8 miles W of Petersfield and N.E. of Bishop’s Waltham, in Droxford union and county court district and Meon Stoke hundred, had about 931 inhabitants in 1871 and comprises 3774 acres of generally light and fertile land, rising in bold undulations and including WOODLANDS hamlet, two miles north of the village, and several scattered farms.”

Nowadays West Meon has shrunk slightly in population to 690 inhabitants. It was possibly mentioned in Anglo Saxon documents. A few miles away at Corhampton there is a very rare example of a complete Saxon church that is dated 1020. The Normans didn’t leave many Saxon buildings untouched. They preferred to eradicate the world of the Saxons, ruthlessly. There is evidence of early Stone Age activity going back 50.000 years in the vicinity. Old Winchester Hill, nearby, a good defence point to protect against attack from neighbouring tribes, has evidence of flint tools 20,000 years old. The village of West Meon itself has remains dated to the Iron Age and bronze ages when people had progressed from the hunter gatherer period to create settlements and  become farmers. There is also evidence that the Meonwara tribe lived here.  There are the remains of a Roman Villa in Lippen Wood. 

A West Meon thatched cottage.

The manor of West Meon was listed in the Domesday Book as being owned by the Bishop of Winchester. The Domesday Book was instigated by William I (The Conqueror) .The first draft was completed in 1086 and contained records of 13,418 settlements.  William wanted to know what exactly was in his kingdom and what it was worth. This enabled the Normans to assess the taxes they could exact and  what wealth they could derive. The book was written in Winchester. Data was gathered from all over England. William’s officials scoured every corner of Britain. They recorded  landholders and their tenants, the amount of land they owned, how many people occupied the land (villagers, smallholders, free men, slaves), the amounts of woodland, meadow, animals, fish and ploughs on the land and buildings such as churches, castles, mills and salt houses.

If your internet breaks down you can still phone home.

A charter in 1205 showed that the land was granted to the prior and Convent of St Swithun. St Swithun was important to Winchester because he was the local patron saint who pilgrims came to pray to in the great cathedral.It remained in the hands of the convent until  the dissolution of the monasteries. In 1541 it was granted to the dean  and chapter of  Winchester Cathedral.In 1544 Henry VIII granted it to  Thomas Wriothesley Earl of  Southampotn. Thomas Wriothesley is most famous because of his friendship with Shakespeare. There are suggestions that Shakespeare visited and stayed on the earls estates at Titchfield in the Meon Valley and wrote some of his sonnets in honour of the Earl.

During The English  Civil war  West Meon was the sight of several  skirmishes before The Battle of Cheriton, which took place about six miles  from West Meon to the north  west, which was  fought on  29th March 1644.
Some famous people, who lived and died in West Meon, are Thomas Lord (1755-1832) the founder of Lords cricket ground in St Johns Wood, North London. Also there is the grave of the infamous Guy Burgess. Guy Burgess (16 April 1911 – 30 August 1963) was a British radio producer, intelligence officer and Foreign Office official. He was part of the Cambridge Five spy ring that passed Western secrets to the Soviets before and during the Cold War.

St John the Evangelist, West Meon.

The fine flint built church in the centre of the village, St John the Evangelist, was designed by Gilbert Scott and was built in 1846 on the site of the ancient church. In an extraordinary twist, the design was taken to New York where an exact replica was built as the church of St Thomas, Mamaroneck.

West Meon is situated in a beautiful valley in the South Downs about 66 miles south of London, 15 miles  east of Winchester and 25miles north of Southampton. The South Downs is a range of chalk hills that extends for about 260 square miles across the south-eastern coastal counties of England from the Itchen Valley of Hampshire in the west to Beachy Head, near Eastbourne, East Sussex, in the east. It is bounded on its northern side by a steep escarpment. The South Downs National Park forms a much larger area than the chalk range of the South Downs and includes large parts of the Weald.

It is characterised by rolling chalk downland with close-cropped turf and dry valleys, and is recognised as one of the most important chalk landscapes in England. It was formed from a thick band of chalk which was deposited during the Cretaceous Period around sixty million years ago within a shallow sea which extended across much of Northwest Europe. The rock is composed of the microscopic skeletons of plankton which lived in the sea. The chalk has many fossils, and bands of flint occur throughout the formation. The Chalk is divided into the Lower, Middle and Upper Chalk, a thin band of cream-coloured nodular chalk known as the Melbourn Rock marking the boundary between the Lower and Middle units.
The strata of south-east England, including the chalk, were gently folded during a phase of the Alpine Orogeny to produce the Weald-Artois Anticline, a dome-like structure with a long east-west axis. Erosion has removed the central part of the dome, leaving the north-facing escarpment of the South Downs along its southern margin with the south-facing chalk escarpment of the North Downs on the northern side.

The River Meon begins its life high on the South Downs as spring water seeping out from the edge of the water table contained within the structure of the chalk downland. Chalk is porous and so absorbs rainwater easily and acts as a great aquifer. It naturally regulates the flow of water into the river systems of the South Downs. Chalk streams transport little suspended material  but are mineral-rich. The surface water of chalk streams is often described as 'gin clear'. The channel bed consists of angular flint gravel  from the natural flint deposits found embedded within the chalk.

The unique characteristics of chalk stream ecology are due to a stable temperature and flow  combined with  transparent  water and lack of sand grade sediment particles. The river stretches for 21 miles flowing through the Meon Valley. The river  supports valuable wildlife habitats. Within the river system it is home to water crowfoot, brown trout, kingfishers and otters. The reed beds at Titchfield create their own unique habitat too.

A thatched cottage in West Meon.

The River Meon is renowned for its fly fishing particularly at The Meon Springs where the river is stocked with brown trout and rainbow trout. Izaak Walton, who wrote The Compleat Angler in the 17th century lived  towards the end of his life, in Winchester. His tomb is in the Silkstead Chapel inside Winchester Cathedral. It is a chapel dedicated to anglers. He went to Droxford, near West Meon, to fish in The River Meon. He said that it was the best river in England for trout.

Izaak Walton born August 9th 1593, died December 15th 1683  fished  in the  River Meon.

In and around West Meon there are watercress beds to be found. Long regular troughs have been dug into the land bordering The River Meon. Through the use of sluice gates to regulate the flow of the water they are  filled with  pure chalk stream water from the  river. At times of the year they are lush with the greenery provided by the water cress floating on the surface of these ponds. The stems of watercress are hollow so this makes the plant buoyant on the surface of the water. The leaves are pinnately compound, which means petals are arranged on either side of a stem and the watercress produces small white flowers in clusters. The Latin name for the watercress is nasturtium officinale,N. microphyllum.

Many of the cottages, garden walls and houses in West Meon, as well as the church ofSt John the  Evangelist,  are  constructed with knapped flint. West Meon’s position in the chalk South Downs is well situated near to a source of good quality flint for building.
Flint is one of three forms of compact crystalline silica which have been used in building. It is found in Chalk geological formations. It is closely related to quartz, chalcedony, chert and jasper. Flint, chert and jasper are important rocks for building, with flint the most common.

A young flint knapper with Box Hill behind him. (The Stonebreaker by John Brett exhibited 1858)

 Its origin is generally  thought to be the siliceous sponges once inhabiting the waters of Cretaceous seas.
Flint and chert are concretions, natural growths of mineral matter which form around a centre or core. Sometimes the core may have been a sea urchin or a sponge. The silica solutions from which flint was created could also have flooded cavities formed by marine borers. The colours of flint are black or dark blue-grey, and they are usually nodular in form, and coated in a white calcium carbonate. The nodules break forming sharp edges. Axes, adzes, spear points and arrowheads were made from flint by Stone Age tribes by hammering and flaking the  flint.Flint knappers were common in the Victorian countryside. There is a Pre-Raphaelite painting of a knapper working on Box Hill in Surrey. West Meon is full of buildings constructed with blue, black, glassy silica flint pieces.

 A  flint  wall in  West Meon churchyard.

Another characteristic of buildings in West Meon are the number of thatched cottages. Many of the cottages have clay roof tiles too which  proved to be a cheaper option but both thatched roofs and clay tiled roofs provide a warm natural effect and fit perfectly side by side within this rural community. A thatched cottage looks warm and cosy like a house topped with a thick head of hair. It’s contours are rounded, and rough textured. Thatched cottages are built with local materials. The houses people live in are the soil and rocks and grasses grown and formed naturally scooped up and skilfully fashioned.  The straw from the wheat fields or the reeds from the marshes become the roofs. People used whatever was available locally. This meant materials as diverse as broom, sedge, sallow, flax, grass, and straw were used. Most common is wheat straw in the south of England, and reeds in East Anglia. Norfolk reed is especially prized by thatchers, although in northern England and Scotland heather was frequently used.  Some of the cottages in West Meon have walls constructed from timber frames formed from large oak or ash branches hewn from the local woods and dragged to the building site. The spaces between the oak beams were filled with wattle and daub, itself a mixture of ash fencing, clay from the ground mixed with  straw to bind it and solidified with cow dung and sealed by lime from the lime quarrys. Some were constructed in bricks from local clays baked in fiery kilns. The very elements were combined and used to form these homes. 

In constructing a thatched roof   first the thatch is tied in bundles, then laid in an under-layer on the roof beams and pegged in place with rods made of hazel or withy. Then an upper layer is laid over the first, and a final reinforcing layer added along the ridge line  It is at the ridge line that the individual thatcher leaves his personal "signature", a decorative feature of some kind that marks the job as his alone. In West Meon a couple of the cottages have straw pheasants standing on the roof ridges. There also seems to be decorative stitching created with twigs along the roof lines. These are individual designs to show the thatcher’s personality and trade mark.

Having visited West Meon many times, it is a diverse and vibrant community. Not only does it have it’s church community with it’s social gatherings, festivals and religious year, there is a village hall for community parties and meetings. There is a junior school for the young children of the village and there are two pubs to socialise and relax in. There are a number of local grocers and  general stores too. It comprises people of all ages and situations  amongst it’s numbers. It appears to  me to  be a happy and lived in place.

The Thomas Lord pub in West Meon.

West Meon Parish Council:  http://www.westmeonpc.org.uk/

A History of The Meon Valley: http://www.localhistories.org/meonvalley.html

The Thomas Lord public house: http://www.thethomaslord.co.uk/

Thatching information: http://thatch.org/


  1. Hi Tony. I enjoyed your post. The countryside is gorgeous and the history interesting. I once went on a mystery tour, leaving from North Jersey. We ended up at a German Hall in NY State and listed to a cow bell competition. I kid you not. :)

  2. Great stuff Tony! More local history please. Netley Abbey? Royal Victoria Park?

  3. Thanks David and Mary. Netley Abbey was actually a place that Jane Austen and her family visited for picnics but apart from that it has an amazing history anyway.

    Yes, David, it has been used in one of those Austen spin off novels and so too has The Wool House at the end of Bugle Street. The author whose name I forget, visited all these sites a few years ago. Mary didn't write them though. Mary do you remember who wrote those Jane Austen detective style novels that feature Netley Abbey and the Wool House?

    All the best,

  4. Thanks for the tour, Tony! And I love the reference to Jerusalem - such a beautiful tune (and coming from Northern stock, I've always appreciated the line about the "dark satanic mills"). I always learn so much from your posts. For example, in this case, about flint knappers, to name just one thing.

  5. Interesting post, Tony. And, as usual, a fine set of photographs!

  6. Hi Tony! I've enjoyed your blog and I start to follow you! Thanks for the beautiful images!:)
    Greetings from Italy!