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The Puddingstone Track: Deconstructed

  Puddingstone Track

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Along the Track: OXFORDSHIRE

 

 

Stonor (Pishill)

"Stonor chapel stone and stone circle" (first mention 1955):

In June 1955 Dr. Rudge received a letter that led him to revise the projected course of his Track. In earlier years he had been thinking that at some point after the Kimble Farm stone it would turn more southerly and possibly head for Henley, where there was a puddingstone of which he'd known since 1949. The letter was from Major Ralph Sherman Stonor, 6th Baron Camoys, of Stonor Park, two-thirds of a mile west of the farm. The major told him that "The Chapel at Stonor has a large puddingstone incorporated in the foundations, and there is a stone circle a few yards away." Rudge commented that he hadn't yet checked it out, but this information seemed to help clarify the "hitherto obscure section" heading towards the Thames.1

 

The private chapel is attached to the southern end of the east wing of Stonor House, and was built in the 13th century (although guide books like to say that it's older, and Rudge claimed it as Saxon.) Small chunks of sarsen and conglomerate are built into the fabric, but it is the large boulder of puddingstone at the south-east corner (bottom left in the photo) that - quite literally - sticks out (SU7429789189.) It protrudes by about 30cm just above ground level on both the eastern and southern sides, not unlike the odd stone at Broomfield church in Essex. This is the closest corner to the 'reconstructed' stone circle about 55m to the south, leading many to assume that it was part of the 'original' circle. Indeed, the owners of Stonor Park claim - without evidence - that the chapel actually stands on that original site, advancing the frequently-repeated (but inaccurate) line that Pope Gregory told his 7th century missionaries to build their churches on pagan sacred sites.

 

Dr. Rudge came here at least twice, in the 1950s and again in 1960. When he first saw the circle he said that it was very overgrown, but after he explained its significance to Major Stonor, it was "cleared and exposed." At that time it seems that the stones were a little closer to the main house. Sources say variously that it was reconstructed in its present position (SU74318913) in either 1975 or 1981. But as Major Stonor died in 1976, the work was probably begun by him and finished by his son, the 7th Lord Camoys. An article published in April 1981 quoted him on the subject: "There can't be many people who have reconstructed a stone circle on their property in the last few years".2 And in the same month from a local newspaper: "It has been the main work during the winter season, Lord Camoys said".3 The park had been opened to the public for the first time two years earlier.

 

The relevance of the circle to this study of the 'Puddingstone Track' is that Rudge claimed it is composed of alternating sarsen and conglomerate boulders, which is not so today, nor was it when Rudge saw it. Sarsens greatly outnumber conglomerates on the site. Virtually all the stones now forming the ring are sarsen, but with three small puddingstones surrounded by seven sarsens in an odd off-centre 'huddle'. Plus, there are two sarsens and four puddingstones forming a curious 'extension' at the north edge of the circle. An article in 'Country Life' magazine of May 7th 1981 apparently contains a claim by the Stonor family that the circle has been reconstructed "as near as possible in its original formation".4 If so, it bears little resemblance to any authentic prehistoric monument.

 

The antiquary John Leland visited Stonor in the period 1535-43. Although keen to record all items of archaeological interest, he made no mention of any stone circle nor a prehistoric structure of any kind at the park.5 According to the 'Country Life' article, the circle had first been reconstructed in the 17th century. Although the word 'puddingstone' hadn't come into use by then, it was such rocks that the naturalist and antiquary Robert Plot was referring to in 1677, when he wrote: "After consideration of Flints and Pebbles apart, let us now take a view of them jointly together, for so I found them...in the way from Pishill to Stonor-house in clusters together of diverse colours, and united into one body, by a petrified cement as hard as themselves...But the best of all are in the close at Stonor".6 Again, there was no mention of the rocks being in a circle.

 

According to Dr. Rudge, "The authenticity of the stone circle was confirmed by its inclusion on a 17th century map of the district, and also by an oil painting of the same age, hanging on the wall of the lounge in Stonor House. In this, it is shown as a complete circle of small standing stones, situated immediately before the entrance to the house".7 There are problems with this statement. Firstly, the painting. It dates from 1680-90, and hangs on the east end wall of the Drawing Room. It's reproduced in the official guide to Stonor Park, and shows no boulders at all, let alone in a circle right in front of the house. Secondly, the map. There is no 17th century map of Stonor. The earliest known is an estate map of 1725-6, which is framed and hangs in the Study. It too shows no stone circle.8

 

A field visit by an archaeologist in 1960 revealed the existence of a photograph in the family archive dating to c.1873 which shows the stones at approximately SU74288917.9 This is about 25m NNW of where they are now, closer to the house and chapel, and probably where Rudge saw them in the late 1950s. Another source says that at this location, they were actually lining the rim of a pond.10 This may be why they were in a roughly circular formation at that time. Other sarsens, some standing, some recumbent, are scattered about the grounds near the house and along the drive.

 

This whole region on the dip-slope of the Chilterns is known for both sarsen and puddingstone. Even the name Stonor is generally believed to derive from the Anglo-Saxon 'Stān-ōra', meaning the stony ridge or slope. In the form 'Stanora-lege' it appears in a land charter dated 774 (which is now known to have been forged in the 11th century), although the place referred to was probably a little to the west of the present park. The Stonor family have held the estate for perhaps 700 years, and it wouldn't surprise me if, in the antiquarian zeal of the 17th or 18th centuries, one of the landowners had indeed created a circle out of the scattered boulders. But the current structure is certainly an archaeological 'folly', and the presence of a puddingstone in the chapel fabric does nothing to help prove the former existence of a genuine stone circle.

 

1. E.A. Rudge: 'Further Observations on the Conglomerate Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 4 (1955), p.258.

2. 'The Catholic Herald', 17/4/1981, p.10.

3. Ray Bryant: 'The stones of Stonor' in 'Reading Evening Post', 9/4/1981, p.13.

4. Oxfordshire Historic Environment Record, HER No.2064.

5. John Leland: 'The Itinerary of John Leland' Vol.5 (ed. Lucy Toulmin Smith, 1910), p.72.

6. Robert Plot: 'The Natural History of Oxford-shire' (Oxford, 1677), p.73.

7. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper): 'The Lost Trackway' (1994), p.7-8.

8. John Steane: 'Stonor - A Lost Park and a Garden Found' in 'Oxoniensia' Vol.59 (Oxfordshire Architectural & Historical Society, 1995), p.450-1.

9. Oxfordshire HER No.2064, field notes of C.F. Wardale, 1960.

10. Steane: op cit, p.458.

 

 

Stonor (Pishill) (NOT ON FINAL VERSION OF TRACK)

"Warmscombe Lane, on verge" (only mention 1957):

Although it would have fit the alignment from Stonor, being 1 miles south-west of it, this stone didn't make it into the final itinerary of boulders on the Track. Possibly this was because Rudge was told about it, but never confirmed its existence (although that never seemed to bother him before.) The map reference given, SU723877, places it along an unsurfaced public byway (often just a muddy bridleway) called Warmscombe Lane. This tree-lined and in some places deeply-sunken track forms part of the boundary between Pishill with Stonor and Bix and Assendon parishes, and is also likely to have been the boundary of an 8th century Anglo-Saxon estate called 'Readonora', which included Stonor.

 

 

Stonor (Pishill) (NOT ON FINAL VERSION OF TRACK)

"Warmscombe stone, at side of lane" (first mention 1950):

A second stone was recorded along Warmscombe Lane, but three-quarters of a mile further to the south-east. This and the two stones that follow seem to have been part of the "hitherto obscure section" mentioned above, leading towards Henley (B - D on the map.) They need to be dealt with before returning to the 'Lost Trackway' version of the route heading south-west from Stonor. Although Rudge never saw the first Warmscombe stone, he may have seen the second, at SU731870, where "on the highest point commanding a view across the valleys on each side, is a large puddingstone in the hedgebank".1

 

1. Letter from Dr. Rudge in 'The Bucks Examiner' 1/9/1950, p.4.

 

 

Bix Bottom (Bix & Assendon) (NOT ON FINAL VERSION OF TRACK)

"Bixbottom Farm" (first mention 1950):

Since Rudge went there in the summer of 1950, the farm has become Valley or Valley End Farm (SU72778667), and is now home to various business units and workshops. This is about 400m south-west of the previous boulder. "Here again", he said, "I found conglomerate stones in the farmyard".1 However, by the time of his 'Essex Naturalist' paper read in 1951, it had become "At entrance to farm".2 There are no boulders visible in the yards today, nor at any of the entrances.

 

1. Letter from Dr. Rudge in 'The Bucks Examiner' 1/9/1950, p.4.

2. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'The Conglomerate Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.29, part 1 (March 1952), p.28 (read 24/11/51.)

 

 

Henley-on-Thames (NOT ON FINAL VERSION OF TRACK)

"At junction of roads" (only mention in print 1950; read 1949):

Rudge said that "a very typical markstone stands at the corner of the junction of the Marlow-Henley-Nettlebed roads".1 The map reference he gave was fairly close, but the exact spot would be SU7602883075, almost three miles south-east of Bix Bottom. This was and is the only actual 'corner' where Marlow Road, Fair Mile (from Nettlebed) and Northfield End meet. This puddingstone, like many others, has gone, and I haven't been able to find a photograph when it was in situ.

 

While attempting to track down this object I came across another puddingstone in Henley, tucked away in a small public garden about one-third of a mile to the south-west. The garden is sandwiched between West Street and Gravel Hill, at their western ends. The stone isn't very large, but has the slightly conical shape that Rudge saw as being a 'typical markstone', so I wondered if it had been transplanted there from the junction. I made enquiries of the Henley Archaeological & Historical Society and the town council, but neither knew anything about where the Gravel Hill stone had come from, or when it was placed there. I later found that it had been rescued from a demolished inn, which a local woman then persuaded the Borough Surveyor to incorporate into the garden.2 Of Rudge's stone, I have been unable to discover anything more.

 

1. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.28, part 4 (March 1950), p.180 (read 29/10/1949.)

2. Letter from Ms. J. Morgan to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 22/8/1982.

 

 

'Confirmatory evidence' (NOT ON FINAL VERSION OF TRACK)

"A well-defined track" (only mention in print 1950; read 1949):

Shortly after his first talk on the subject, Dr. Rudge told his correspondent Mrs. Pilcher that information gained "not from actual observation, but from old records" indicated that, after St. Albans, his Track went on "still further by way of Chesham, Denner Hill, Henley, Goring, and possibly to Avebury".1 Nine months later he was convinced, after various field trips, that beyond Goring it continued south-westwards through Streatley, Aldworth, Chievely and Hungerford in Berkshire, then to Ramsbury and Ogbourne St. Andrew in Wiltshire, perhaps even passing through Avebury and on to the chalk downs of North Wessex.2

 

His evidence for this was immediately west of the Henley puddingstone, where what he called "a well-defined track aligned on Streatley, on the River Thames, passes through the site of a moated mound".3 The first part of this track has to be what is known as Pack and Prime Lane, a bridleway that starts about a third of a mile south-west of the stone's former location. In Rudge's time, and until recently, it was thought to have been part of an ancient route recorded in 1353 as a 'via regia' or 'royal way' from Henley to Goring.

 

More recent research suggests that Pack and Prime Lane is actually a later, and secondary, medieval route, not part of the original 'royal way'. The earlier line may well have been a more southerly path, by way of Greys Lane. Both meet near the beginning of a track called Dog Lane which, beyond Rotherfield Peppard, becomes Wyfold Lane. But then, the 'via regia' completely abandons Rudge's westward alignment, diving south-west across Goring Heath, and approaching Goring from the south-east through Gatehampton. While parts of the 'royal way' are likely to be late Anglo-Saxon in origin, other parts are more probably medieval - there is certainly nothing to suggest that any of it is prehistoric.4 The only 'moated mound' that Rudge could be referring to is a probable Bronze Age bowl barrow, with faint traces of a ditch round it, just south of Rotherfield Greys (at SU72688161.) But this is 350m south of the old route, and too late in prehistory for Rudge's Track.

 

By mid-1951 this was all forgotten anyway, as Rudge had by then concluded that his Track crossed the Thames at Pangbourne, not at Goring, and its direction after Stonor was completely reimagined.5

 

1. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 23/11/1949.

2. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 28/9/1950.

3. E.A. & E.L. Rudge: 'Evidence for a Neolithic Trackway in Essex' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.28, part 4 (March 1950), p.180 (read 29/10/1949.)

4. R.B. Peberdy: 'From Goring towards Henley: The Course, History and Significance of a Medieval Oxfordshire Routeway' in 'Oxoniensia' Vol.77 (Oxfordshire Architectural & Historical Society, 2012), p.91-105.

5. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 18/6/1951.

 

 

Bix Bottom (Bix & Assendon)

"Page's Farm, by gate" (first mention 1957):

Returning to the 'final version' of the Track - now simply a private residence, Pages Farm (SU72028775) is in a very isolated spot at the end of a long, narrow and badly-maintained by-way that winds between the hills just south of Warburg Nature Reserve. It stands about 1 miles south-west of Stonor House. Here was said to be "a broken boulder, one piece resting by the farmyard gate".1 A new driveway and entrance to the house have been made since Rudge's time, in a different location, and I couldn't find any fragments of puddingstone nearby in 2017.

 

1. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper): 'The Lost Trackway' (1994), p.20.

 

 

Nettlebed

"Nell Gwynne's Bower, Soundess House" (first mention 1957):

Footpaths lead south-west from Pages Farm for two-thirds of a mile, past the entrance gates to Soundess House. This is essentially a 19th century building, with no evidence on site of an earlier one, but seems to be a successor to a mansion owned by the Soundy family, known there in the 13th century. In the grounds just south of the house, at SU71098718, is a feature known as 'Nell Gwynne's Bower'. Dr. Rudge termed it a 'listed ancient monument', describing it as "a small enclosure surrounded by tall yew trees. Within it lies a group of boulders two of which are large conglomerates".1 In 'Lost Trackway' he further explained it as consisting of "some very large boulders, some of sarsen and others of conglomerate, in a quadrilateral enclosure".2

 

Local tradition claims that Nell Gwyn, mistress of King Charles II from 1668 to his death in 1685, lived - or at least stayed - at Soundess, although the story is unproven. Another tale says that she was buried in the Bower named after her, despite the fact that her burial place is known to be within a London church. Rudge of course thought that the spot could claim "a much greater antiquity." Unfortunately, no illustrations of it seem to exist, and the grounds of Soundess are not open to the public. By itself, the Bower is not and never has been a 'listed monument'; it's merely included with the house as Oxfordshire HER No.2097. The archaeological field notes on this entry simply say "Nell Gwynne's Bower comprises ancient yews planted along three sides of a rectangle 18m by 11m. In the area so contained are a few sarsens and pudding stones. A folly rather than an antiquity."

 

1. E.A. Rudge: 'The Puddingstone Track' in 'Essex Naturalist' Vol.30 (1957), p.55.

2. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper): 'The Lost Trackway' (1994), p.8.

 

 

Nettlebed

"Roadside verge, at corner of by-road" (first mention 1957):

Another half a mile to the south-west reaches the village of Nettlebed. From the High Street, a road called 'The Green' runs east to join with the road (Crocker End) that runs past Soundess. A puddingstone "inset into the road bank" was found by Rudge "at the corner of the lane leading to the Congregational Church, at the junction with the lane from Soundess House".1 The lane to the church (now a private house) is Chapel Lane, which has two entrances from the north side of The Green. Luckily the map reference given by Rudge in 1957 enables me to pinpoint the corner as SU70318684, the eastern entry of Chapel Lane. There are actually no 'road banks' at either entrance now, and although there are small pieces of rock spaced all along the verges, none are puddingstone, and all are clearly placed there to keep vehicles off the grass. It should be noted, though, that puddingstones in the Nettlebed area are not at all rare; they can apparently be found scattered across the woods and commons surrounding the village.

 

1. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper): 'The Lost Trackway' (1994), p.20.

 

 

Nettlebed

"The Bull Inn, High Street" (first mention 1957):

The name of the inn and its location were all that were given in that first mention of 1957. Then in 1962, Lilian Rudge said "only last September we found a very fine specimen in the coaching yard of the old Bull inn at Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, which is now listed as of historical importance by the British Museum".1 The discrepancy in dates is only cleared up in 'Lost Trackway', where Dr. Rudge said that "A second stone is within the coaching yard, seen in 1961." Misnaming the pub as the 'Bell Inn', he added that the first puddingstone "stands outside the coach entrance and beneath the bar window."

 

The Bull was closed in 1991, and is now private housing at Nos.19-23 on the south side of the High Street (SU70058678, 185m west of the Chapel Lane corner.) The present building is of the early 18th century and later, but an inn by that name was known in the village in the 1600s. A hostelry of that date, and on a major route halfway between Henley and Wallingford, would naturally be a coaching inn, and it has a tall (but not particularly wide) archway leading to its courtyard.

 

Only 125m to the east is a small circular grassy area, a detached part of the larger Green, with a public shelter upon it. There, along with an information board, are two puddingstones that were both supposedly found in the courtyard of the Bull, and moved here when it was closed. Once, the board used to display information directly based on Rudge's Track theory, and even contained the line "This stone is known and registered in the British Museum as a 'pudding stone'." Research later showed that the Museum knew nothing about the stones, and the county archaeologist cast doubt on the trackway notion, so the old board was discarded. I measured the larger of the stones on the Green at 1.1m x 90cm x 50cm high, while the other is 62cm x 53cm x 50cm in height.

 

Examining the frontage of the Bull, a patch in the pavement can be clearly seen where the first stone once stood, to the left of the archway and close to the bay window of the bar. What Rudge never mentioned is that there is the jagged stump of another puddingstone on the opposite side of the arch. Painted white, it looks as if the bulk of it has been broken off, and it now measures 25cm x 15cm x 40cm high. During research I came across a black and white photograph of the Bull Inn dated c.1955, which shows both of these stones in situ. It's hard to be certain, but the one to the right looks taller than that on the left, and more of it is intact, jutting out a little into the archway.

 

Then I spotted another photo of the same era, but taken from the opposite direction, which to my surprise revealed that there was a third puddingstone present. This had also been painted white, and was standing - possibly loose on the surface - against the left hand edge of the archway, close to the first stone. Further research uncovered the recollections of an inhabitant regarding the Bull in a local newspaper: "Laureen remembers that the Bull was a very popular pub but was difficult to access by car due to the narrow entrance and a pudding stone".2 Since neither of the stones on the left impinged upon the entrance, it must have been that on the right that caused problems. An attempt may have been made to remove it whole but it broke in the process, or perhaps the protruding part was simply smashed away. Presumably one of the others was then taken into the courtyard, where the Rudges found it in 1961.

 

1. Lilian Rudge: 'Mystery of the Stones' in 'Essex Countryside' Vol.10, No.68 (Sept. 1962), p.469.

2. 'When village bustled with pubs and shops' in the 'Henley Standard', 31/10/2011.

 

 

Witheridge (Stoke Row)

"Stoke Row stone" (first mention in print 1952; read 1951):

This puddingstone, about two miles SSW of Nettlebed, featured in three of Rudge's published works, but the first two, in 1952 and 1957, gave no more information than a map reference: SU690841. This location is beside or near the road from Highmoor Cross to Stoke Row, and about halfway between the two. Dr. Rudge mentioned the stone to Mrs. Pilcher in 1950, saying "there is a real beauty, with a legend, at Stoke Row".1 In 'Lost Trackway' he admitted that, after Nettlebed, "the route is not clearly defined, and it is not until Stoke Row is reached that a huge stone at Witheridge is found. This is the object of a legend, and obviously an ancient landmark." (Witheridge is a small community of a pub and a few houses on a hill of that name, on the road from Highmoor Cross.)

 

Then, in the only available history of the area I read the following: "Quite a few puddingstones are to be found in this locality....There is a very large one on the right hand side of the hill as you go from the bottom of Witheridge Hill up to Stoke Row".2 Rudge's coordinates were very nearly correct, as this stone can be found at SU6910684123, about halfway between Clare Cottage and the Witheridge crossroads. It's just within private (unfenced) woodland, but only about five metres from the north side of the road. The stone (conglomerate, not true HPS) is deeply embedded, with the visible portion measuring 1.7m x 1.5m x 50cm high. As far as the 'legend' goes that Rudge referred to, he never gave any details, and I can find no record of it. However, I suspect it was a misunderstanding of the following: "Bill George told me that in the early days of this century [the 20th] several local men tried to put chains around this rock in order to pull it out, using the power of a steam engine, 'but it wouldn't budge an inch - I reckon it goes down very deep, like an iceberg'".3 This probably mutated into the folklore attached to many large stones, that it was 'immovable'. (The same tale appears in one of the author's other books, a historical novel set in the Stoke Row area.4)

 

It probably would have messed up the line of his Track if Rudge had known about the other puddingstones not far away, to the south-east in Greyhone Wood and north-east near Bromsden Farm. Not to mention the fact that all these stones were probably dug up from the numerous old chalk-pits that used to dot the landscape hereabouts.

 

1. Letter from Dr. Rudge to Mrs. R. Pilcher, 28/9/1950.

2. Angela Spencer-Harper: 'Dipping into the Wells' (Robert Boyd Publications, 1999), p.5.

3. Ibid.

4. Angela Spencer-Harper: 'The Old Place' (Robert Boyd Publications, 2007), p.22-3.

 

 

'Confirmatory evidence': Rotherfield Peppard flint mines:

Just over two miles south-east of the Stoke Row stone is the village of Rotherfield Peppard, where Rudge was keen to point out "a small area of flint mines" was excavated in 1912 by A.E. Peake.1 This was at SU71008143, on Peppard Common. In 'Lost Trackway' Rudge commented that "These mines were never of great importance, and not to be compared with Grimes Graves, but they were significant in one respect, that they contributed to the meaning of the trackway [his italics], as I shall later describe".2 Unfortunately, there was to be only one more page and an epilogue in his book, and he never did describe the meaning intended.

 

Considering their location, these mines would have made more sense as evidence on his earlier supposed route heading west from Henley-on-Thames, as they sat virtually on the old 'via regia' to Goring. However, they have since been reassessed by archaeologists, and it seems now very unlikely that they were mines at all. According to Miles Russell, "a number of Neolithic surface finds, possibly related to flint working, have been recorded, but no conclusive evidence for the existence of actual mines has yet been found".3 Barber, Field and Topping classed it as "a depression containing much debitage...once thought to be a quarry or mine".4 (Debitage includes all the tools, blades, chips and flakes created during the working of flint.)

 

1. A.E. Peake: 'An Account of a Flint Factory...at Peppard Common' in 'The Archaeological Journal' Vol.70 (Royal Archaeological Institute, 1913), p.33-68.

2. E.A. Rudge (ed. John Cooper): 'The Lost Trackway' (1994), p.20.

3. Miles Russell: 'Flint Mines in Neolithic Britain' (Tempus Publishing, 2000), p.54.

4. M. Barber, D. Field & P. Topping: 'The Neolithic Flint Mines of England' (English Heritage, 1999), p.31.

 

***********

 

After Stoke Row, Dr. Rudge was never entirely sure of the direction that his Track then took. As stated earlier, by mid-1951 he had become confident that it crossed the river Thames at Pangbourne, rather than at Goring. He sent out letters to newspapers in Newbury, Basingstoke and Alton asking for any information about puddingstones in those areas. The results led him to believe - for a while at least - that perhaps the Track was heading south into Hampshire, and not for Avebury after all.

 

At some point he received word of an actual puddingstone boulder at Pangbourne, 6 miles SSW of Stoke Row, and so, tentatively, plotted the Track's course onward into Berkshire. Of the next and final ten stones listed, eight were never actually seen by him. I think it's entirely possible that he never saw the other two either. This final stretch covers 32 miles across Berkshire and just nudging into Wiltshire, and is purely speculative on the part of Dr. Rudge.

 

Berks & Wilts

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