Making a Splash

With Maggie Chaplin, first piblished in the September 2017 issue

There’s a resounding splash accompanied by squeals of delight from the assembled onlookers as Rupert Ponsonby, company director, consultant, and owner of Sarsden Glebe disappears under a swirl of muddy water, having been dragged to the edge of a pool and pushed in by a determined sheep farmer, ably assisted by a very enthusiastic child.

Why would a respected pillar of the community consent to be subjected to such indignity? Clue: Mr Ponsonby was wearing a Shaun the Sheep outfit at the time. This escapade was one of the highlights of the Grand Opening of the restored Sarsden sheep wash pool, a family-friendly event intended to increase awareness of the area’s agricultural legacy, and also to raise funds in support of the Churchill Heritage Centre.

The Four Shires has a rich cultural heritage, and many of the villages have a fascinating story to tell, none more so than Churchill with Sarsden. Churchill has its own “lost village”, which didn’t disappear because of the Black Death as might have been assumed, but because of the stingy nature of one its crafty but ill-fated inhabitants. The village overlooks the Evenlode valley and was originally centred round the old church half way down the hill. In 1684 disaster struck. Fire destroyed twenty houses and their outbuildings and several people died. The remaining wood and thatch properties were abandoned and the population moved to a new stone built village further up the hill. Whenever there are taxes, there are tax dodgers. At that time there was a hearth tax and the fire is said to have started when a village baker tried to avoid paying her dues by attempting, unsuccessfully, to connect the flue from her oven to her neighbour’s chimney.

Much of the old church survived the fire, but became redundant when a new one, consecrated in 1827, was erected at the top of the hill. The original building was demolished, apart from the chancel, which was retained to serve as a memorial and mortuary chapel to the surrounding graveyard. This delightful little chapel has now been re-purposed as a Heritage Centre for the village, and if you stand outside it and look over the fields at the irregularities in the ground, you can just make out where the buildings of old Churchill stood.

There’s much to be learnt in the Heritage Centre. Churchill was the birthplace of at least two distinguished men. One was Warren Hastings, first Governor General of India from 1773 to 1784, who was born in 1732 in a house on Hastings Hill, renamed from Church Lane in his honour. Warren Hastings eventually returned to the area and died at Daylesford in 1818.

The other, more widely acclaimed, was William Smith, who was born in 1769. His geological studies, particularly relating to fossils, gained him the nickname “strata” Smith, and he put forward the idea that creatures lived, died and became extinct but their remains were preserved for posterity. We accept this now as fact, but in Smith’s time many people fervently believed that the world had been made in its entirety over a period of days, and that even to contemplate the possibility of prehistory was heresy. When you consider that Smith was working in this climate of opinion, it makes his achievements even more remarkable.

Churchill not only acknowledges the importance of its famous sons, but also recognises the contributions made by ancestors who led more ordinary lives, yet nevertheless played an important part in the day to day economy of the area. Sheep were vital to that economy and this year a display about sheep washing was added to the Heritage Centre’s exhibits.

Sheep are rarely washed nowadays, so why was it necessary in former times? In Medieval times it was easier to get all the water-soluble dirt, debris and vegetation out of a sheep fleece whilst it was still on the animal, because before the Industrial Revolution there was no effective mechanical means of doing it after shearing. A loose fleece is difficult to manage and a dirty one soon deteriorates. For centuries it was traditional to bathe the animals in a river or stream each spring.

This was hard physical labour and the men spent the day up to their thighs or even waists in cold running water. The burrs, thorns and other detritus that sheep collect in their coats – especially under their bellies and round their bottoms – don’t come out easily. The animals had to be rubbed and pummelled to remove as much as possible because dirty wool doesn’t store well and is no good for spinning. The fleeces would often have to be kept for months, and many were exported. Lanolin or ‘wool grease’ wasn’t removed by this cold water wash, but its presence didn’t affect the keeping qualities of the fleece so it was extracted later using harsher means (hot water and lye or urine!).

Understandably the sheep didn’t relish the ablutions and weren’t always co-operative! Bath time could easily descend into chaos and often provided a spectator sport for the village. It’s uncertain exactly when, but probably in the eighteenth century, purpose built sheep wash pools were devised. Often they’d be situated in the same spot in the stream that was previously used, whereas at other times water from a nearby pond or spring would be diverted. The aim was to enable better control of the sheep, make the process more efficient and, probably as an incidental, make the cleaning job easier for the men.

The pool would be built of stone with a paved surround and have sluice gate or gates to maintain a water level of about five feet, so that sheep could be corralled, then thrown into the pool without risk of injury. Men no longer had to spend the day in the water and could control the animals from the edge with crooks, give them a thorough brushing and make sure they got a good dunking. After their ordeal the animals would escape in single file up a paved ramp into an adjacent field to dry off completely before being sheared a few days later.

Wherever sheep were kept in large numbers these wash pools were commonplace until the advent of mechanisation. Then it became possible to process the fleece much more effectively and wash pools became obsolete. Many disappeared without trace and this was nearly the case at Sarsden. A jumble of stones, decayed timbers and tangled roots surrounding the Sars brook on the edge of the Sarsden Glebe estate had lain virtually unrecognisable for decades. The Ponsonbys who own the land decided to take on the challenge of restoring this historic wash pool. And what a challenge!

With advice from experts in a variety of fields, the input of skilled craftsmen and the sheer hard work both of employees and numerous volunteers, the wash pool was rebuilt.  It took around eighteen months and needed a lot of determination to carry it through, but by this spring it was ready, and of course, some “volunteer” sheep had to try it, and, as in medieval times, provide entertainment for lookers-on. A Grand Opening of the sheep wash was arranged.

The Cotswold Sheep Association was represented at the event and several handsome pedigree animals took part in a demonstration of how a sheep wash pool works. Without putting up too much resistance they were nudged in, pushed under, swirled around and then allowed to escape up the ramp.

These were show animals that were used to being handled and were cleaner than the average sheep in the first place. Each one spent no more than a minute in the water, whereas when the pool was in use in the eighteenth century it could have taken up to five minutes per animal, but nevertheless the point was well illustrated. Onlookers gained an insight into what would once have been an annual event in the agricultural calendar. Cameras clicked from all directions, and one reporter was even seen holding a microphone in front of the sheep, whose comments were subsequently broadcast on BBC Farming Today.

Whilst this was happening, a figure dressed in a black and white sheep suit with pop eyes, and a big black muzzle was spotted circulating amongst the crowd. Suddenly the murmur went round, “Rupert’s going in!” Everyone rushed to get a good view of the pool, either from the brook side or from the bridge over it.

The sheep had cleared the water and there was a collective holding of breath as the man dressed in sheep’s clothing was hauled to the brink, and, after a tussle, shoved in. Cameras clicked some more. A round of applause greeted Shaun, whose real identity was then revealed, as he clambered onto the bank and made a short speech thanking everyone for coming and reiterating the purpose of the occasion. It was a fitting end to a well-planned event that was entertaining and educational in equal measure.