In the Mercury Country

Taken from the Mercury Oxford Gazette, Newbury Herald and Berks County Paper Saturday April 23rd 1955.

IN THE MERCURY COUNTRY – UPTON

Domesday Hamlet’s Importance As Junction Of Ancient Tracks

Upton has small significance today, surrounded as it is by better known villages including Blewbury and the Hagbournes, and it was for a long time a mere dependent hamlet and chapelry. Nevertheless it can claim place in the Domesday Survey as “Optone”, and its situation on the route of the Icknield Way, where other tracks form a junction and a direct major route leads up to the Ridgeway, indicates that in very ancient times it had importance for the traveller. Its church of St. Mary’s has what is almost certainly a Saxon doorway, and as St Birinus is said to have made one of his earliest exhortations to the Saxons on nearby Churn Knob it may well be that Upton church sprang directly from his ministry.

Brictric held Upton in the reign of Edward the Confessor, and Turstin, son of Rolf, after the conquest, these lands passing shortly after 1086 to Winebald of Baalun; he gave part of them in 1092 to the Clunic Priory of Bermondsey, which retained what was known as Prior’s Barne until the Dissolution. The Crown then took over. In 1600 Queen Elizabeth granted the manor to the Stanhopes; it was sold in 1636 to Sir Thomas Vachell, of Coley the family keeping it for more than half-a-century. By 1770 however, the separate manorial rights had apparently been merged with a manor called Upton Russels, which Winebald had given to his daughter on marriage; Isobel Russel in 1219 and the Russels remained owners until 1388, when John Latton bought it. Another manor, Upton Moles, was held by the De Moles from about 1219 until the latter part of the 15th century, while a fourth manor has been traced from the 13th century.

Railway Improvement

Hagbourne Parish first claimed the hamlet, Blewbury afterwards, and it gained separate ecclesiastical and civil status in 1862. Its population, now about 240, can never have been large, although it was swollen for a while during the building of the Didcot-Newbury railway line, upon which Upton was given a station opened in 1883. This station, once a blessing to the remote community, is little used at the present day although it would no doubt became very popular were the county itself more widely publicised. For here is a gateway to one of the loveliest and most facinating areas in the whole of Berkshire. Following the “Hollow way” which passes through the village from quaintly named Frog Alley and up the watery Stream road, then crossing over the main highway which here keeps to the line of the Icknield Way, you may climb a clearly indicated track into the heart of the brooding hills, to where the Ridgeway stretches as for thousands of years; to the prehistoric domain of Churn Knob, with its “fairy guarded” tumuli, to Grims ditch, to Lowbury’s Roman camp and The Slad and Roden downs, when many finds have led experts to think that here existed, yet to be rediscovered, a Roman city. History lies here excitingly, challengingly. We have mentioned the “fairys” of Chum Knob; when barrows were being investigated here in 1815 and also fifty years before, a thunder storm held up operations on both occasions! The fairy folk could be kind when they chose, it seems, for tradition has it that a ploughman who broke his share found it mended when he returned next day. You may refresh yourself at an Inn of character, the George and Dragon, before exploring Upton, which holds much for those who delight in well thatched roofs, sturdy old timbering, mellowed brickwork, and a Church in the true british tradition. Soon there will be added attraction in the blossom of extensive orchards which border the village.

A Vanished Pound

The Forge, which curiously had a bakehouse attached, is now a private house; Pound Cottage indicates the site of a vanished pound; Stocks Cottage, a dream of a place in its herringbone brickwork and thatch, stands opposite where a buried stone marks the former position of the village stocks. Owlscote Farmhouse is picturesque, partly Elizabethan and partly 17th century, with a fine timber-framed outbuilding. Upton Lodge, solitary on its eminence above the main road is Jacobean in origin and retains that appearance despite alterations. [The writer of this article has rather over-enthusiastically invented a Jacobean house which stood on the site of the present Upton Lodge. In fact, Upton Lodge was built by Nathaniel Humfrey in 1875 on open ground.]

Apart from the crude Saxon like doorway it possesses, the church is in it s oldest early 12th century and has a small graceful chancel which brings our Norman ancestors very close. The main doorway is Norman, so is the plain tub font. A heavy oak chest stands in the vestry, and the quaintest little organ in the nave. Regrettably, all the old memorials in the church have gone. We noted with interest the churchyard grave of Moses Anger and his wife Ellen, who died in 1910 within a few weeks of each other, both in their 83rd year; and remembering that the local halt was opened in 1883, found sad the tombstones side by side of 14 years old Daniel Howson and his brother Edward, aged 21, both of whom lost their lives in accidents on the railway works, the boy in November of 1880 and the young man the following July. How these two tragedies shocked the village.

Ravaged by Fire

Upton shared a cruel blow in 1934, when fire ravaged the village centre, destroying two farms with five big barns and other buildings. For ten days the wreckage smouldered, said Mr. E. D. Butler, who owns the excellent store and post office which alone serves Upton from within, and which has arisen amidst the several modern houses erected on the burnt-out site. There was almost another disaster in 1940 when an enemy plane dropped a 500 lb. bomb and 600 incendiaries one Sunday evening. Fortunately the high explosive missile dropped just outside the village, and the incendiaries claimed only two ricks.

Mr. Butler, now 48, was born at Upton and educated at its tiny school. His father and grandfather, both farm labourers, lived here; when his grandmother was left a widow with 11 children, only two of whom were working, she maintained her family by making shirts, recieving 7d. per garment and having to find her own buttons! After much weary hand sewing she was able to buy one of the earliest sewing machines, which later the firm begged back as a curio.

Opposite the shop, he also told us, is to be erected soon a new Methodist Church to serve a growing congregation: this will replace a church 100 years old.

Hill Discoveries

Hagbourne Hill is so close, although in Chilton parish, that Upton, may take pride in the discovery on this hill in 1803, of what is ranked as the most important hoard of bronze age and late Celtic objects that Berkshire has yielded. In a field adjoining the Icknield Way were found several oblong pits about four feet below ground. A circular excavation at the bottom of one pit held horse-bits, rings, pins, lance-heads, and celts; it is thought that here was buried someone of distinction, with his horse and possibly his chariot. Perhaps this warrior drove in marshall pride along the way of the horse-loving Iceni, clattering through what is now the village of Upton, to meet his end in battle on those sweeping hills. Who knows, and what does it matter after all the years that the possessions buried by those who sought to do honour to his corpse now rest far away in the British Museum. For a while he lived – stormily maybe! – and he knew Berkshire, which is to have lived indeed.