In medieval times, sheep-washing was not just a necessity; it was sheer entertainment for the watching hoards, learns Katie Jarvis, who visited a restored Cotswold washpool at Sarsden, near Chipping Norton
The restored sheepwash near Chipping Norton
There’s a festive air to the brook-side on this fine medieval morn. The shepherds have been watching the weather: today is perfect. Over the past few weeks, the teeming April rains have filled the Sars Brook with fresh, clear water; then, this very dawn, a beaming sun broke through the clouds to elicit from the fields the sweet green scent of warm clover.
Do the peacefully grazing sheep roundabout sense what’s in store for them? Probably not. But the raggedy, high-spirited locals do. They’ve gathered on the shallow banks, where the young brook bounces downstream on its way to meet the Evenlode way beyond the old farm on the Lyneham road. Word has got round that it’s sheep-washing day.
In this ancient Oxfordshire landscape, where life is short and brutal, entertainment is to be seized wherever it presents itself. Cockfighting and bear-baiting are for holy days. But now, in late spring, when food stores are low and new shoots yet to fill empty bellies, at least there’s free fun to be had.
First the sheep – medieval gold – will be rounded up and penned behind moveable hurdles whittled in ash and willow. Then, in the pool that gathers behind the old stone bridge, the animals will be pushed in, a few at a time, and dunked below the waters with long hooked poles.
For the flock owners, there’s serious purpose to this ritual: greasy fleeces – matted with dung, mud and vegetation – are far more valuable when sold clean to the woollen mills. Today, in the cool running brook, the sheep will be scrubbed with birch brushes, before skeltering off to drying in the warmth of a new-season sun.
But for the peasants raucously watching, the day truly begins with the first sheep to make an early bolt for it, pursued by a flailing labourer up the cobbled exit rank. Or –best of all – when a beast gets the better of the sturdy man washing it, butting him hilariously under for a chill dunking of his own.
In the Aga-warmed kitchen at beautiful Sarsden Glebe – once the hamlet’s rectory; but for the past three decades, home to Amanda and Rupert Ponsonby – there’s an animated discussion taking place about washpools (aka the local sheepwash).
“I’ve seen a picture of a man in a sheepwash, standing in a barrel,” Professor Geoffrey Walton, a geologist from Charlbury, is saying, clutching a steaming cup of coffee.
“Really?” queries Maggie Chaplin, a retired vet-turned-journalist, who has researched the subject extensively. “I’ve never heard of that. How would you anchor it?”
“With rocks and stones. He’d stand in the barrel to keep dry, while others were pushing sheep in from the bank. There’s a picture of a man doing just that in John Farey’s  A
General View of the Agriculture and Minerals of Derbyshire,” he adds.
There are accounts of sheep-washing – illustrations and even old photographs – but not many. Not enough to fill in details of exactly how this practice, that began in medieval times and meandered on as late as the mid-20th century, took place.
“Come and have a look at our sheepwash,” Amanda says, as we down our coffee and pile into cars. With help and advice from Geoffrey, and local historian Alan Watkins, she and Rupert have spent the best part of three years restoring Sarsden’s own washpool that lies on their land.
We pull in a quarter of a mile or so from the Glebe, just shy of an old stone bridge, and lean over the parapet: there it is, below us, where the Sars Brook meanders through.
Looking at it causes a slight intake of breath. Even this simple agricultural expedient is a thing of beauty: curved stonework constructed by knowledgeable masons (this latest incarnation probably dates from the 19th century); a cobbled pathway (like a narrow Georgian street) up which newly-cleaned sheep would bound – dignity affronted – desperate to escape the chilly waters; and a restored sluice-gate, running through a groove in the stonework, that could be lowered to trap the flowing water at sheepwash time.
The locals always knew it was there, hidden beneath a tangle of elderberry - brambles rampant – tumbled earth, and self-seeded trees of hazel, sycamore and poplar…
The old sheepwash (some of them could even dimly remember it in action), still with its lovely sweep of flagstones peeping through the undergrowth.
But no one thought much more about it until Geoffrey Walton ‘rediscovered’ it back in 2004. Something of an expert on William Smith – the 18th century surveyor, born in nearby Churchill – Geoffrey thought, at first, he’d found part of an early irrigation system used to improve agricultural land. “Looking round [by the bridge], I could see a bit of
stonework with a slot going down through it. It was all overgrown – hardly visible – but it looked very much like a stop-lock, the method by which farmers controlled water in and out of streams.”
Smith – whose study of fossils kickstarted the science of geology – was also a pioneer of agricultural irrigation systems, and had been commissioned to do work on Sars Brook. But Geoffrey soon realised he had chanced across something much more basic: a washpool, used to hand-clean fleeces before the invention of mechanisation or sheep-dip chemicals.
“In fact,” Geoffrey muses, “this sheepwash is only 500 metres from the cottage where William Smith was born and lived as a child. His irrigation systems would have been partly informed by [the mechanisms of] sheepwashes such as this.”
The Ponsonbys already knew the washpool was there; but Geoffrey’s visit helped inspire a new plan: they would restore and refurbish it. And in May this year, it had its official reopening, with a volunteer flock of sheep baptised in its waters.
It’s been a team effort. Amanda and Rupert did the original clearing; Geoffrey did the surveying; farm workers Trevor Allen and Matt Candlin have put in much of the restoration graft. A local carpenter, Justin Howells, was commissioned to recreate the sluice in green oak, partly copying one of the remaining boards – now stored in a barn – still pierced by foot-long bolts forged by one of three blacksmiths who once worked in Churchill village. Alan has gathered information on the Sarsden sheepwash itself, while Maggie has assisted with more general historical facts on sheep-washing. (You can see the result of some of this research on display in the nearby Churchill & Sarsden Heritage Centre.)
As we stand peering over the bridge into the cool depths beneath, it’s not hard to comprehend how hard a graft sheep-washing must have been. “A skilled washer would be expected to work on around 70 sheep in a day, probably spending around five or six minutes per animal to get them thoroughly clean,” Maggie elaborates.
Cold, hard, uncomfortable work at best; entertainment only for the jovial onlookers.
Once there were sheepwashes all over the country and scores in the Cotswolds alone. (Indeed, the name Shipston-on-stour derives from the Saxon for ‘sheepwash town’); now, a mere handful are left, and fewer still are restored, with public access.
“It’s probably taken us about three years to complete, though we’ve worked on it in fits and starts,” Amanda says. “But it’s been an absolute labour of love.
“We’ll keep the sluice-gates up in the farmyard, apart from on special occasions, but anyone can come and see the sheepwash itself.” Special occasions? She laughs. “Actually, I think we might find a new use for it as a glorified dog-wash,” she says.
A Cotswold Sheep in the sheepwash
Above: Rupert and Amanda Ponsonby with their sheepwash
Left: Local farmer Steve Parker puts one of his Kespar flock pedigree Cotswold Sheep through the sheepwash
The 18th century restored sheepwash on Amanda and Rupert Ponsonby’s land