Putting on a wool wash
Eleanor Doughty explores a Cotswolds pool used for the ancient practice of sheepwashing
Sarsden road in oxfordshire winds its way from Churchill to sarsden, through the most soughtafter parcel of the Cotswolds. on either side, rolling fields whisper their pastoral history down the wind, where shepherds watched their flocks by night. It was here that geologist Geoffrey Walton, out walking one day, discovered a curious structure under the bridge. an expert in the work of William smith, a local man described by some as the father of english geology, Mr Walton thought he’d stumbled upon a stopcock ‘related to irrigation’.
In fact, it was a sheepwash, thought to be of 19th-century origin, next to the bridge leading to amanda and rupert Ponsonby’s farm. now, the trio have restored the sheepwash to its former glory and, later this month, it will open to the public with a demonstration.
sheepwashes have been in the Cotswolds for centuries, with some sources dating them back to the middle-saxon period. Their reason for being is simple: in May, the sheep would emerge from the fields covered in mud and a quick dunk was sufficient to give each a good clean as the ‘natural detergent in the wool helps to lift the grease… once it is wet’, writes derek Hurst in his 2002 report for the Cotswolds aonb Partnership.
shepherds usually chose a natural, fastflowing stream, finding a bend where the sheep could be placed in deeper water for washing before being herded out into shallows. However, as Mr Hurst notes, ‘one of the most important aspects of the design was to have a clean area for the sheep to get out of the water, and pasture for them to dry out in afterwards’ where they could await shearing.
The washing of wool was of practical and financial benefit: washed, it was lighter to transport and fetched a prettier penny. designs varied—the Cotswolds aonb report found some could be circular, C-shaped or even L-shaped—but the premise was the same.
as technology developed, the practice died out, says Mr Walton. ‘Because of the variability of washing, they no longer worried about it and the differential between unwashed and washed wool fell away.’ Instead, ‘sheep dipping’ evolved, using disinfectant to guard against mites and occurring after the sheep had been sheared.
For the local community, the sheep wash would have been a point of entertainment as well as practicality. ‘It would have been popular—the school was at the top of the hill,’ Mrs Ponsonby smiles as her spaniels frolic in the water. When the restoration began, in 2015, the structure was covered in earth, she reveals: ‘There was 9in–10in of dirt on top of the stone.’ The next step will be to see how far back the flagstones go from the edge the sheep were dropped off.
although Mr Hurst’s report identifies more than 130 sheepwashes in this aonb, the structures weren’t confined to the Cotswolds. In sutton-under-brailes in Warwickshire, a bricklined example fed by sutton Brook still exists. nor is the sarsden sheepwash the first to be rescued: in 2005, the village of Little Cheverell, Wiltshire, set about restoring its own, for which it received £20,000 from the Local Heritage Initiative Fund.
The late david Crudge, a local farmer, described the bridge over the sars Brook as ‘an attractive spot and a favourite place to linger… I wonder how many of those realise that this was once the scene of much activity?’. This number can only increase with the sheepwash’s new lease of life. The opening of the washpool is on May 20, 12pm–2pm. There is also an exhibition at the Churchill & Sarsden Heritage Centre (www. churchillheritage.org.uk)
Bleatin’ marvellous: geologist Geoffrey Walton stumbled upon the 19th-century Sarsden sheepwash in Oxfordshire while out for a stroll