by The Romsey & District Society
Author: Harry Tuffill
Originally published August 2005
As you speed in your car from Romsey to cross the boundary between Hampshire and Wiltshire, you pass through the parish of Sherfield English. If you blink, you may well miss it. I think of it as a parish, rather than a village; all the elements of a village are there, including a church, a pub, a village hall, a garage, a farm shop and even a post office and village store.
But these are all scattered around this 2,226-acre parish with no clearly defined centre. There was a centre of sorts back in the eighteenth century, with the original church and the principal house of the village close to Manor Farm, along Church Lane near the watercress beds. All that now remains of the original church are a couple of ancient yew trees and a scattering of gravestones, and the principal house too is long gone. Its bricks and other fittings have been recycled into many of the current properties around the parish. Church Lane would originally have been the main thoroughfare through the village, joining up with Old Salisbury Lane to form part of the old road connecting Romsey with Whiteparish and onward to Salisbury. An inspection of the Explorer OS map of the district exposes the old route, with footpaths now forming the connections between the remaining runs of metalled road. With the coming of the stagecoach in the mid-eighteenth century a new turnpike road was opened up, forming what has since become the modern A27.
The village has many of the characteristics of the New Forest and its flora, with larger and older trees and denser undergrowth than the rest of Test Valley.The Sherfield English Estate was sold at auction in 1921 and the Melchet Court estate, on the edge of the village, in 1936. The various lots then became the current farms and many of the larger properties. The present population of approximately 550 live in 200 homes in Sherfield English. If you threw 200 darts randomly at the map, they might well form into a similar pattern with small clusters of homes in the gaps between the dozen or so small farms. Five of these are still actively farming in the village, but where most included dairy farming twenty-odd years ago, now there is just one. Manor Farm, however, still breeds and rears pigs using traditional methods, and there is a inconspicuous chicken farm on the Plaitford boundary. There is one small herd of beef cattle and a few sheep in the fields on the northern side of the parish, but the majority of farming land is now arable. Several fields which would once have been barley for animal feed are now covered with the blue flowers of flaxseed, producing cash crops of linseed oil. Of the remaining former farms, Doctor’s Hill Farm was converted to a successful holiday caravan park, and many fields have become accommodation land for horses. On the southern edge of the parish there is now a livery yard at Pilgrim’s Farm in Wellow Wood Road. Many a farmer sees the coming of horses as the final step in the dismantling of their farm.
50 years ago a good part of the parish was given over to garden produce, such as strawberries and beans. Of these, only the watercress remains. Watercress has been grown at the source of the Sherfield English brook for many years and before WWII bunches were sent up to Covent Garden and sold for 1d a bunch. Sherfield English watercress can be obtained in the local greengrocer in Romsey, and is still supplied to London hotels.
Elsewhere in the parish, former small holdings have simply become a family houses with very large gardens, rather than being sub-divided into suburban-sized plots. Professional and business people live in a high proportion of these houses. This trend has helped keep the average density down to one home per ten acres across the parish, creating a feeling of spaciousness about the whole village. The downside is that neighbours are often far enough away that they have to be visited by car rather than on foot. There is, nonetheless, a network of footpaths within the parish, but very few kerbside paths.
In terms of local business, there is no industrial or business estate as such, but a surprising number of small businesses are hidden away down narrow lanes. There is also a traditional village garage (not just a filling station) and a few specialist services. Many of these businesses are self-employed people living in the village. Many people, of course, work outside the parish, but there is no feeling at all that this is a commuter village.
Sherfield English has survived a number of challenges during the past fifty years. The bakery was closed during the 1940s and the mill, on the brook to the east of Mill Lane, stopped operating after the war. It was rebuilt to make a large private house in the 1960s. The village had a cricket pitch with a pavilion until 1957 at Glebe Farm. It lost its Sunday school in the church hall; a second garage with its popular snack bar was lost during the 1980s, and the village school was closed, in spite of a valiant rearguard defence headed by Lord Denning, also in the 1980s. The former private Wellow Wood School became Lyon House and is decorated with stone lions that came from the demolished principal house. Gravel and sand has been widely extracted for centuries, with the old pits now pleasantly recovered as leafy hollows; more recently the village has survived the now capped landfill site at Birchwood Farm. The challenge in 2005 is to withstand the planning application for a waste transfer station at Sole Hill Farm. Fortunately this application is not supported by the local planners, despite their need to measure waste disposal in terms of percentages recycled. They, like the rural recipients, see this proposal as unnecessary lorry movements, noise and dust in an otherwise tranquil rural area, with the added risk of creating groundwater pollution along an ancient spring line. The villagers believe they will win the battle over this new plant, and their past history, and reputation for being well-organised, suggests that they will, indeed, prevail.
The name of the village has changed over the centuries. It is first identified as Scirefelde (1000-1099?), which is probably Old English for ‘bright open land’. By the time of the Domesday Book it had become Sirefelle, (1086) then Shirefeud (1256) and by the 16th century it had become Shervill. The manor was held by Richard l’Engleys 'the Englishman' in 1325 and this is probably the source for the rest of the name.
The church is dedicated to Saint Leonard, a sixth century chief of the Franks. He is the patron saint of prisoners. Legend has it that he visited England since over 170 churches are dedicated to him, including the namesake village of Sherfield-on-Loddon, near Basingstoke. The original 13th century church along Church Lane was pulled down between 1859 and 1907. The first church on the present site was built by Revd, the Hon. Frederick Baring, presumably from the proceeds of his sale between 1854 and 1858, of Alstone Manor in Somerset. This church, described as a ‘small and dilapidated building’ in the Romsey Chronicle, was pulled down in 1902. Lady Louisa Caroline Ashburton, another Baring, then built the present church in memory of her daughter Mary Florence, who died in 1902. Its red bricks are from the former brickyard at Dunwood Manor and the nearby Cowesfield kilns. Mr. Fred Bath, an architect from Salisbury, designed it in a 15th century style. The church has a ring of eight tower bells, famous for their superb sound. These may best be heard on the second Tuesday, when a full team of ringers may be performing. There are some fine art nouveau style stained glass windows, the old village stocks, a 13th century coffin and old carvings. The well-designed brochure of the history of the church is a useful source of information during a visit.
In such a small community there is an impressive range of activities. The village hall is in regular use with groups including a garden club, whist club, tap and dance classes, children’s nursery and WI. The latter also run croquet and darts teams and the skittles team recently won the County Championship, and not for the first time! Not only is there is a monthly parish magazine, but the Sherfield English & District Community Association also produces a monthly newsletter which goes to nearly 200 homes. There is also a very active environment protection group, known as SEEP, and last, but certainly not least, SERP 2000. This is the village recreation project which over the past 5 years has delivered football pitches and a cricket pitch, bowls and croquet, plus a children’s play area which looks suitable for any budding commando. The next stage, now in construction, will provide a multi-sport tennis and netball court. In a community of around five hundred and fifty there is no room for a hierarchy of committees. Instead there is a can do attitude that pervades the village – when someone identifies a need, they get on and do it. With no village school, the children are dispersed around a number of the local village schools. The recreation project provides the children with a common meeting and activity locale.
The village has just started a yearlong project to produce its Parish Plan, a new concept within the framework of local government reform. A Parish Plan goes a step further than the village Design Statement which is now quite common across Hampshire, by tackling longer term development issues. Sherfield English is among the first parishes in Test Valley to take this step. If a Parish Plan can be shown to reflect a consensus across the village it can be formally adopted into Planning Policy by TVBC. Two of the principle questions being addressed are “Should there be some further housing development, in particular of more affordable homes?” and “Will the village benefit from a more clearly defined centre?”
There may be no centre to Sherfield English at present, but its heart can be discovered down its leafy lanes.