Sars­den Sheep­wash

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 [1811] 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

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