The Soft South

Naturally this blog focuses almost entirely on the north of England, as that is where we live. However, it turns out the country does have a southern part. And though much of it tends to vote the wrong way Sarah has selflessly been down there to see what it’s like. Here’s her special report ‘The Soft South’.

And a secret gate into the bowling green area.

“As much as I love my work as a funeral celebrant, I do find that time out is very important. And also time away, on my own. This year I have discovered a great organisation called Walking Women, who provide a range of holidays for women that involves, well, walking. Yes, walking, and also meandering and cafés and opportunities for mooching. I particularly enjoyed my trip with them to Northumberland in March – see the post here – and last weekend I was off down south.

I’d decided I would be ready for a break around the end of August so had booked this ‘Kennet and Avon’ holiday a few weeks back. Where’s that then? No, I didn’t know either – somewhere ‘down south’ and somewhere I’d never been before.

I really enjoy the setting off feeling of going away on my own. Tank of petrol, my rucksack and a bag of fruit pastilles. Phone off. Funerals diary with Ronnie. Freedom. I’ve decided to break the four hour journey in Gloucestershire to revisit Hartpury (where I did a bee keeping course a few years back) and also Highnam. Just outside Hartpury village is the church and ancient tithe barn. It still feels ancient.

Hartpury. A gem.
Hartpury tithe barn. A gem.

This barn would have been used by Gloucester Abbey to collect local taxation – paid to them in the form of agricultural products.

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Hartpury church. Lovely squeaky gate.
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Deep peace inside the simple church.

Ah yes, a reminder of why I come away. For this lovely feeling of peace.

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And the exquisite Hartpury bee shelter.
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With ‘skep’. The shelter is a unique structure, the only one of its kind.
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And ‘Hartpury Green’ pears. The name Hartpury is derived from the Saxon ‘Hardepirige – ‘hard pear-tree’.

I collect windfalls from the churchyard (which I make into pear jelly, like quince jelly, when I get home, I have enough for one jarful).

Next stop, Highnam, the church of Holy Innocents.

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I’ve come here because it’s home to a lovely collection of monkey puzzle trees – as featured on my blog here. (Thanks to Agent Jeff in Hereford for the photos for the monkey blog). It’s a bit of a dull day the day I arrive, and monkeys don’t look their best. But nevertheless I have visited them.

Home of 13 monkeys.
Home of 13 monkeys.
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Also very fine yews.
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There is a wedding taking place in the church when I arrive, so I have plenty of time to read the gravestones. I love this one.
A cathedral of grief for Isabella.
Inside – a cathedral of grief for Isabella, her husband built this church and painted the frescoes.
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Every inch painted in pattern and colour.

It’s time to move on, as I am headed for Froxfield. As I continue south I notice that the brickwork changes, and as I get into Wiltshire it’s often a mixture of brick and limestone. And it’s… sort of softer. Everywhere is so picturesque and I drive through villages with thatched rooves that seem to have become part of the landscape.

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Brick and limestone.

I arrive at Froxfield, our base, and set up home in the 17th century The Pelican Inn.

The next day, after a good hearty meal and sleep in a strange bed – like all good adventures begin – it’s ‘day one’ of my holiday. And our first stop on our walk is the Duchess of Somerset’s Hospital.

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Through this lovely entrance feature, and into the courtyard.

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No, it’s not actually a hospital, but a sheltered housing scheme – see the website here, which describes them as follows:

The accommodation was first founded around 1695, under the Will of Sarah, Duchess of Somerset, an important social benefactress, who wanted to build a set of houses and a chapel for widows from Wiltshire, Somerset and Berkshire. Over the course of time, this group of houses came to be called ‘the collegiate’ and is now referred to by residents as ‘The College’.

Today, these 50 historic self-contained units, known as cottages, are fully modernised and maintained to a good standard.  They are arranged in four terraces in the form of a quadrangle, with views into the serene and secure grounds, with the ancient chapel at the centre of the green. The residents, all female and over 55, are from a rich and diverse mixture of backgrounds.

And they are lovely cottages set in a quadrangle with a chapel in the centre.

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We are given a personal tour of the grounds by a resident, Lorna. (She’s at the front of our group on the lawn, in front of Gaynor, our guide, with her dog Pickle).

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Prayer in the chapel.
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Allotment gardens for those who want to garden.
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The back of the cottages.
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Their conference room.
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The Duchess. Each year a group of residents visit her tomb in Westminster Abbey and leave flowers in gratitude for what she left in her will.
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The Duchess’s bible.
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And after a look in Lorna’s home, we’re ready to catch the bus.

We leave ‘the college’ (as the residents call it), and get the bus to Great Bedwyn. See what I mean about the ‘soft’ landscape and houses….

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Picturesque or what?
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We walk along the Kennet and Avon canal.
Where it didn't always look so good.
Where it didn’t always look so good.

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Along the way we even help  work a lock - which is a first for me.
Along the way we even help work a lock – which is a first for me.

This canal has 105 locks on it, and is 87 miles long including the river Avon and the river Kennet at either end. As we are passing two boats just going into a lock, both with solo crews, I eagerly offer ‘help’ with the proviso that I am ‘urban’, but the help is gladly received as opening (and closing) a lock involves a lot of crossing over to the other side and winding and pushing… all boats carry a special ‘winching tool’ which fits onto the mechanism on the lock which opens the gates. I am delighted when the person who is showing me what to do, let’s go of the tool and it flies out of his hand and into the lock! Yes, it can happen even to experienced boat-hands!

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Arriving at Crofton Pumping Station. Very important at the head of the canal and provides a reservoir of water for the canal.
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Where 200 year old engines are still in use.

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These are the oldest working steam engines in the world still performing the job they were built to do. Marvellous! They have a number of ‘steaming days’ during the year to fill up the summit pound (canal reservoir). Their website is here.

A 'spare' engine, carefully preserved in case it is required.
A ‘spare’ engine, carefully preserved in case it is ever required.
The chimney.
The chimney.

We leave this fascinating piece of canal history, and walk on through unspoilt Wiltshire countryside, arriving back at Great Bedwyn.

St Mary’s Church, Great Bedwyn, started in 1092.
Autumn colchicum in the graveyard.
Autumn colchicum in the graveyard.
And the gravestone of Kenneth Cummins, Master Mariner, who was 106 years old, with his wife Shirley, age 83.
Passing through the village, an old stonemason's.
Passing through the village, an old stonemason’s.
And an advert for the stonemason's work...
And an advert for the stonemason’s work…

Think I’ll have heaven renewed and the flames of purgatory re-animated!

As with all good holidays there is a choice next, so me and my new friend from Tasmania decide to spend the rest of the afternoon in the pub, The Three Tuns, chatting while the others walk back to Froxfield and we are picked up a few hours later. Well, it is a holiday after all!

The next day, ‘day two’, we walk in the ‘other’ direction, towards Hungerford. The hedgerows are full and dripping with late summer abundance.

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Sloe fruits.

We walk along the valley which contains the canal, the road and the railway. A bit like a ‘Ladybird book of Britain’ illustration.

Carefully crossing the railway line.
Carefully crossing the railway line.
And into Freeman's Marsh, a nature reserve.
And into Freeman’s Marsh, a nature reserve.

I could have quite happily spent the rest of the day here, there are swans and cygnets, and ducks, we spot brown trout in the clear chalk stream, and the banks are full of wildflowers, not all of which I recognise. I’ve not seen this before, an orange balsam – Impatiens capensis. I am familiar with the larger pink balsam which I’d always thought as ‘thuggish’ although I know that it is a good source of food for bees (though it can become invasive).

Moving on, we have a boat to catch.

'Our' boat, the Rose of
‘Our’ boat, the Rose of Hungerford.
View from the boat...
View from the boat…
And view inside a lock.
And view inside a lock.

I’ve never actually been on a canal boat before so this is a lovely experience, although I am astounded at how slow they go, plus I know from our experience yesterday what hard work (and faff) it is going through locks. I decide never to have a canal boat holiday.

As you’ve seen from the earlier photograph, this canal, like many canals in this country, fell into disrepair with the arrival of the railways – as they provided a more efficient and faster way of transporting goods. It’s only from the 1960s onwards that various groups have formed to restore the canals. They are now a leisure activity, and this canal is managed by the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust – in fact this boat trip is run by their members and raises money to manage the infrastructure around the canal, like the pumping station. Whilst I do think they have done great work in restoring the canal, I did find some of their attitudes – especially to those who live in boats on the canal – to be stuck up. But then, I remember, I am in the south of England.

Pompous attitudes aside, we see a kingfisher, my first, on this stretch of water, and I am delighted.

Treasure hunting in Hungerford.
Treasure hunting in Hungerford.

In Hungerford we have a mooch in the antiques shop and eat ice cream at the delightfully old-fashioned café, called The Tutti Pole – a ‘tutti pole’ being a stick carried during the Hocktide festival, a medieval festival, that is now only celebrated in Hungerford.

Ice cream at The Tutti Pole.
Ice cream at The Tutti Pole.
And then meander back to Froxfield.
And then meander back to Froxfield.
In the evening sunshine.
In the evening sunshine.
And the canal lifestyle looks idyllic (even if I now know otherwise).
And the canal lifestyle looks idyllic (even if I now know otherwise).

Our last day dawns grey and drizzly. It’s only a half day, as everyone has plans for heading back home later. We’re off to Littlecote House.

Littlecote House. Yes, a pile.
Littlecote House. Yes, a stately pile.
With appropriately landscaped gardens.
With appropriately landscaped gardens.
And a Roman mosaic in the grounds. Natch.
And a Roman mosaic in the grounds. Natch. (Restored in 1980).

This has been a medieval mansion in private ownership. After the war it was inherited by the Wills family (tobacco), and then sold to the businessman Peter de Savary. Warners Leisure bought it in 1996, and it is now a hotel. But a lot of the very old part, and the gardens, is accessible to the public. And, it’s free!

Painting of Littlecote House and estate.
Painting of Littlecote House and estate.
Tables in the main hall. Now that's what I call a table.
Tables in the main hall. Now that’s what I call a table.

We wander through the ancient rooms and wood panelling, but it is the garden that I enjoy the most.

Littlecote House garden.
Littlecote House garden.
Lovely courtyard.
Lovely courtyard.
And a secret gate into the bowling green area.
And a secret gate into the bowling green area.

Yes, I know it looks like an algae covered swimming pool, but it is in fact an artificial bowling green. Yes, artificial. We’ll be returning to the theme of bowling greens at some point (a topic of frequent conversation for Ronnie and I – the beauty of bowling greens).

But for now, that is a glimpse into the ‘Soft South’ – the soft, rolling, gentle brick and limestone South of England, as seen from my three days in Wiltshire.”

All seen on a ‘Walking Women’ holiday. Highly recommended.

Join the Conversation


  1. hi sarah down south or just past Watford as we scousers call it is actually a really lovely countryside purely a geographical feature of course, what spoils its is PEOPLE lovely posting sarah I enjoyed it

  2. What a pleasure it was to read your description of ” Dahn Sahf”
    The photos were a particular joy. Thanks.
    An artificial bowling green? My dear old Dad will be turning in his grave!
    I learned, sadly, that the Liver pub in Waterloo has just turned it’s ancient bowling green into a beer garden. Philistines!

  3. Ahhh, Sarah: ‘But then, I remember, I am in the south of England’??!! I can’t resist rising to your bait, but surely that’s more about small town attitudes and the generally tendency towards busybody-ing of people on committees the world over, rather than the north/ south divide?!

    1. Yes, Fiona, you are right! We were reflecting on this in conversation and wondered, ‘Where does the ‘south’ begin then?’… and thought it was more small town attitudes than a regional difference! And you don’t have to go very far out of a city to find them either.

      1. Haha – yes, they’re scarily close! Have you read Stuart Maconie’s Pies and Prejudice? It’s his search for the spiritual North. It is by FAR the best book he’s written, but – if you haven’t – I won’t spoil it by telling you what he concludes!

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