Put­ting on a wool wash

Eleanor Doughty ex­plores a Cotswolds pool used for the an­cient prac­tice of sheep­wash­ing

Country Life Every Week - - My Week -

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

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