CHERITON WOOD – 16 miles – Wednesday 25th March 2015
March is an important month for the neighbouring villages of Cheriton and Tichborne, despite having walked this circular route several times, I’d always wanted to do it specifically on the 25th of March. In 2015 that day fell on a Wednesday and as luck would have it, Wednesday was the best day of an indifferent week of weather. The walk explores a part of Hampshire around the gathering grounds of the River Itchen that positively drips with history, a history that lingers and shapes the land itself. From centuries old folklore still religiously maintained to the violence of battle, a famous 19th century scandal and a house haunted by a monkey, this walk had the lot. Central to it all was the 224 acre Cheriton Wood, a huge cluster of trees that seems to watch your every step. This was the scene of much bloodshed one day in March 1644 and knows more dark history than most living things in this neighbourhood.
There is nothing like a walk around this part of mid Hampshire and the perfect place to start is the tiny village of Beauworth. Beyond Hamilton Farm I turned right to head north along the South Downs Way to cross the A272. I came to a sign on a gate that told me to shut it, how rude, and not just once but several times in Russian, French, Swedish, Italian and Polish. Honestly, where’s Nigel Farage when you need him! The Farage family are descended from Huguenots, French Protestant immigrants who settled in this country during the 16th and 17th centuries to escape persecution. Ironique, ne est-ce pas? A worn and permissive path over a grassy field passed the 2nd mile to Gander Down, a lovely stretch of the South Downs Way on its way to Winchester but on this occasion it was soon abandoned in favour of an intriguing 2 mile track northeast along a shallow valley. From the track a field path went up to the tower of Tichborne’s St. Andrew’s church. Already the brooding mass of Cheriton Wood could be seen on a rise of land 2½ miles to the west. With the time at 11:30 I wandered beyond the ‘Tichborne Arms’ to a right turn off the narrow lane. Opposite Vernal Farm a permissive path led to a line of tall trees and hedgerows that protected a large field known as the Crawls, a field with a fascinating story.
The tale of the Tichborne Dole dates back to around 1150. As the charitable wife of the dastardly Sir Roger de Tichborne, Lady Mabella, lay dying of a wasting disease she asked of her husband that a small area of the estate be given over to the poor of the parish. His response was that he would give as much that could be produced from any land she could walk around whilst holding a burning torch. The good Lady Mabella then crawled around an area 23 acres in size, which only goes to show you should never trust a woman on her deathbed! She then charged her husband to continually provide the poor with the produce of that land value on each Lady Day, the 25th of March, with the threat of impending disaster to the family line should the custom ever cease, i.e. seven sons followed by seven daughters = Sayōnara Tichbornes! Remarkably, over 850 years later, this custom of distributing the Dole to the locals of Tichborne and Cheriton still holds and, to my gathering excitement, this was the day. The field edges brought me to the entrance gate of Tichborne House. Ordinarily this would be closed to the public but on this occasion a temporary sign pointed down the drive to the ‘Dole.’ I approached the house expecting to see hoards of people fighting for their gallon of flour like a scene out of Black Friday at ASDA, but the place was empty with not a sole to be seen. Originally the alms was given in the form of loaves, but since the early 1800’s it reverted to its current form in flour, today it is locally sourced self raising flour. At the entrance porch the door was ajar with a large wooden box in front from which the flour is distributed after being blessed by the family priest. The Tichborne family has a strong tradition of Catholicism, St. Andrew’s is one of only three Anglican churches in the country that accommodates a Catholic chapel. These days the family are happy to continue the tradition but as most of the 21st century ‘poor of the parish’ rock up in BMW’s and four-wheeled drives, they ask for a charitable donation. This was part of my reason for venturing so close to the flour box, I didn’t want any flour but I had a bag full of coinage to leave. In the end I saw nothing of the family, locals or indeed the charity box so I took my leave before the stampede of hungry locals arrived.
In 1796 things turned ugly after an influx of unruly vagrants forced local magistrates to ban the annual dole ceremony, in so doing the curse of Lady Mabella kicked-in. Sir Henry Joseph Tichborne, who became 8th baronet in 1821, had seven daughters but no son and as baronetcies could only pass to male offspring this was jolly bad form. Henry Joseph himself was one of seven brothers and these would ultimately pick up the male line on his passing. One of the brothers, Edward, eventually became 9th baronet in 1845 but when his only son died in 1836 he insisted the dole be reinstated in fear of the curse. Another brother, James, became 10th baronet in 1853 but the eldest of his two sons, Roger, perished on a ship from Rio de Janeiro a year later. James had a second son, Alfred, and he eventually became the 11th baronet in 1862, but there was a problem, Alfred was a wastrel and blew much of the family fortune before dying young in February 1866 leaving a pregnant wife. Despite this, there was some good news for the family Tichborne as the child was male and would eventually grow up to become 12th baronet. The bad news was that he was too young and as such the family was subjected to one of the greatest scandals of the Victorian era in was infamously known as the case of the Tichborne Claimant.
Cast your mind back to the unfortunate Roger Tichborne who was lost at sea in 1854. His mother, Henriette Felicité, sank into a spectacular case of denial. In her refusal to accept his death she pursued a tenuous rumour that he had been rescued by a passing ship bound for Australia. In desperation she dispatched adverts around the globe appealing for her son to come home. Sure enough, as if by magic, in 1865 a man from Australia was found in Wagga Wagga (that is a real place, honestly, Dame Edna Everage comes from there). This overweight, flatulent butcher from New South Wales arrived in England on Christmas Day 1866 and on the 11th January met Lady Tichborne at the Hôtel de Lille in Paris. Despite being shorter, fatter and could speak no French (Roger Tichborne’s first language) he seemed the perfect match and the dowager promptly accepted him as her missing son. The rest of the family were not so convinced and refused to relinquish the line of inheritance passing to the infant 12th baronet. However, all the time the dowager was alive the Claimant was provided for handsomely with a substantial income, but when she died on 12th March 1868 the case against him gathered pace. To further his cause the Claimant launched a civil case against the Tichborne family on 11th May 1871. This expensive trial catapulted this small village onto the front pages, cost the family its fortune of £90,000 and ultimately saw Arthur Orton, who had ballooned to over 21 stone by this time, exposed as an impostor on the 4th March. The Claimant’s case collapsed and Orton was subsequently found guilty of perjury in February 1874 after a 188 day trial which still holds as the longest in British judicial history. He was jailed for fourteen years. Victorian Britain had never seen anything quite like this. After jail, Arthur Orton, who originally came from Wapping in London, sank into poverty and died in Marylebone, fittingly on April Fool’s Day 1898.
I don’t know about you but I’m exhausted after that. I needed something to eat and on the delightful green in Cheriton next to the infant River Itchen, I knew just the place. I left the fields of Tichborne Park to pass Cheriton Mill, a delightfully scenic spot, to follow the youthfully exuberant river towards Cheriton’s church. When I once passed this way in 2011 I was transfixed by the outline of a horse and rider in one of the adjacent fields that hadn’t moved for ages. Closer inspection led me to believe that this was no ordinary horse and rider, not a lot gets passed me! It turned out to be a sculpture made from different coloured metals, quite an ugly thing really. The horse was okay but the rusted face of its rider was grotesque. Such a bizarre thing to find in a field, I wasn’t disappointed to find it gone on this visit I must admit. From St. Michael and All Angels Church in Cheriton I dropped to the main centre of this sleepy village and settled down for some lunch at 13:00 in the company of several menacing looking ducks.
The way up from there was via an alleyway between fences and walls along the Wayfarers Walk to a field edge. Once over a style the land ahead stretched out across a succession of fields to Cheriton Wood, scene of the Battle of Cheriton which took place in 1644 during the English Civil War. Looking at the picture above, the Parliamentarian force of Sir William Waller would have held the ground to the right whilst the Royalists, led by Sir Ralph Hopton, held the higher ground to the north, left of Cheriton Wood. Hopton had taken up position overnight whilst Waller moved his troops forward during the early hours of March the 29th, but the battle was delayed by a heavy ground mist. Waller had earlier sent 800 troops to occupy Cheriton Wood and on his left advanced his line to the ridge end close to Cheriton, roughly from where this photograph was taken. Hopton meanwhile moved his force back to a ridge north of Cheriton Wood. Numerical advantage lay with the Roundheads who had 10,000 men to Hopton’s Royalist force of 6,000 but as the rising sun burned off the mist, Hopton ordered four divisions of around 1,000 musketeers to capture Cheriton Wood. Amongst the trees a ferocious duel of musket fire unfolded although it must have been near impossible to tell who was who with the blinding gun smoke and musket balls cracking through the branches. After the single lead shot was spent then came the brutal close quarter fighting with clubbed muskets and short swords. The Parliamentarians eventually cracked as the Royalist musketeers bludgeoned their way forward. Cheriton Wood changed hands once again as the length of the ridge came under Royalist control.
An interesting 5½ mile walk from the ‘Hinton Arms’ can be followed as a series of four information boards explore the battlefield. Along with some grim faced soldiers carved into wood, it tells the story of how the full drama of this conflict unfolded. With Cheriton Wood under their control the Royalists defended their commanding position and allowed Waller’s army to weaken itself with a succession of futile attacks. It was a tactic that almost worked until the day was undone by the impetuosity of a hot-headed officer, Sir Henry Bard, who decided to attack the Parliamentary horse unaware of the hidden dangers due to the lie of the land. The Royalist leaders must have watched in exasperation as he led his men blindly into a Parliamentarian cavalry regiment of 300 fully armoured cuirassiers. Bard’s unit was wiped out and as Royalist cavalry tried to help, their access to the lower ground was bottlenecked by a narrow lane and they met the same fate. From his vantage point Hopton watched helplessly as the battle spiralled out of control and the Parliamentarians moved up the ridge unopposed, retaking Cheriton Wood as they advanced. A day that began well for the Royalists ended in confusion and defeat. With their cavalry in disarray and infantry under increasing pressure, Hopton’s force fell back to Alresford, torching Cheriton as they went. The whole of the Royalist’s strategy for the West of England lay in shreds along with of the dead and dying on the fields of Cheriton Down. No one can be certain as to the death toll, each side greatly downplayed their losses, but it is estimated that 300 to 500 men on both sides lost their lives that day.
There is no right of way through Cheriton Wood but it can sometimes be walked with the owner’s approval, alas not on this occasion, so I took a footpath skirting its southern edge. Previous walks had been unnerving experiences especially when considering the violence that took place in there. In the end Cheriton was just one of thirty battles during the English Civil War, a conflict that killed more English soldiers than any other including two world wars and all because of one man’s belief in ruling through the divine right of God. These days the battlefield is working farmland but in 1644 it was common land. From there I arrived at the 100 acre Bramdean Common at 14:45. Within this splendid area of wide open grassland and trees can be found the curious ‘Church in the Woods’ made of green corrugated iron. It was built in 1883 over five days for commoners, charcoal burners and gypsies to attend church. It is still used today from May through to September. On a rainy day in 1992 myself and a friend came this way on the anniversary of the Battle of Cheriton expecting to see commemorations and re-enactments. We saw nothing, so took refuge in a local pub called the ‘Flower Pots’ only to find it full of Cavaliers and Roundheads avoiding the rain. Sealed Knot my arse!
A stretch of road can be avoided by cutting through to Bramdean and walking a ridge of land between Brockwood Park and Hinton Ampner. It’s a path I love to walk at the latter end of a splendid day. Cheriton Wood continued to lurk beyond the hedgerows to my right whilst in the opposite direction ran the darkened line of another, well defined rise of land 3 miles to the south. This formed part of the South Hants Ridgeway where an ancient track once stretched from Kent to Salisbury Plain. At 14:50 I arrived at a church next to a miniscule village and not so miniscule house. At an elevation of 360 feet, Hinton Ampner House has a troubled and strange history. In 1550 the first house was built 55 yards to the north and demolished two-hundred years later due to its insufferable ghosts. Curiously, when it was pulled down the small skull of a monkey was discovered in a box under the floorboards. A new house was built in 1793 but that was replaced by a Victorian structure in 1867. In 1935 the estate was inherited by Ralph Dutton, 8th and last Lord Sherborne, who revamped it in 1937 to a neo-Georgian design and remodelled the garden. In April 1960 the house went up in flames. After it was rebuilt and Ralph Dutton died heirless in 1985, he left the house, gardens, village and countless ghosts to the National Trust.