Footpath No. 8
Footpath 8 is a continuation of Church End, which used to be called Walnut Tree Lane, an old road down the hill to Victoria and Gibraltar Farms. The Romans brought walnuts from the Mediterranean when they settled in Britain but it is unknown whether the walnut tree was a descendant. It was cut down when the builders constructed the new houses on the corner of Well Elm during the 1960s. A young chestnut tree stands in its place but the house on the corner behind it has been appropriately named Walnut Tree House. Church Road is not much more than a hundred metres and passes the earliest cottages in the village.
Just as you begin to descend the slope there is a new kissing gate, replacing an old stile (TL 202513). Older residents remember this route being called Victoria Hill. It is a green lane running at an angle down the side of the ridge and was probably one of the trackways to the residence at Story Moats. An indication of its age is that it includes at least eight species of trees and shrubs including oak, sycamore, horse chestnut, ash, elder, crab apple, maple and dogwood. Just as you turn the corner, you can see a gas installation box on the edge of an overgrown sand pit. The sand was worked until the 19th century as a building material and as an addition to the heavy clay soils. This field was marked on the 19th century Enclosure Map as the ‘Coneygeare’ – a rabbit warren.
On the western side of the path, you can see some banks in a field of pasture, now used for grazing horses. This and another larger one a little further down the hill were worked for the clay in the 19th century (TL 202514). This is the junction between the Lower Cambridgeshire Greensand and the blue-green Jurassic Oxford (locally known as Ampthill) clays. A number of coarse grey earthenware shards from Roman and Saxon times have been found in Everton village. There were at least two kilns in operation. One has been unearthed behind The Lawns, a 1960s housing estate just east of St Mary’s Church, and another, just opposite the church on the site of Church Farm. Mrs Ball reported her husband locating numerous Roman pot sherds in their garden opposite the last thatched cottage at Church End. The Ampthill clay was worked in the 19th century for brickmaking. Exactly when the works opened is uncertain but there had been brickmaking centuries earlier as three fields at the bottom of the hill are named on the 1802 Enclose Map as Further, Middle and Hither Burntground.
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The moulder, the person in charge of a team of about six men, could make maybe 1000 bricks per hour by hand, and these ‘green’ bricks were left out to dry for several weeks before being fired in a kiln.
The correct firing conditions was the key to success. The earliest firings were done by heaping the bricks and charcoal together and covering with turf to stop the oxygen igniting the fuel. Simple kilns followed - a single ‘clamp’ of a brick arch covered with turf was one of the earliest, followed by round brick kilns. These were not fast enough, however, and various other styles were developed during the 19th century to give a continuous process. Another innovation to speed up brickmaking was the development of machine extrusion of the clay, which had only to be cut into brick-sized lengths.
According to Mrs Brooker of Everton, Mr John Richardson, her great grandfather, was sent by Mr Plowman of Maulden in Bedfordshire to test the clay. He did this by digging down to the blue clay, washing it, then putting it in his mouth and chewing it to find out how much salt was in it. He used to say Everton bricks were much better than Sandy bricks as Sandy clay contained a lot of salt and would always be damp. He was quite right as houses at Everton built with Sandy bricks are always damp in winter, and when they dry out in the summer a white film of salt can be seen on them. He made all the bricks by hand and his two sons, Samuel and Amos, and other labourers dug out the clay. There was a report that the works had a railway engine and tramway, with tip trucks to carry the clay to the kiln. The bricks were put into wooden moulds which were first coated with sand from the sandpit at the other end of the field. The kiln was in the field on the left hand side of the lane at the bottom of the hill and it was still there in the 1930s. Some of the brick tiles were used for the floors of local stables and barns.
Mr Richardson lived for a time in one of the three thatched cottages which stood on what was then called Walnut Tree Lane. The three 19th century cottages opposite Victoria Farm at the bottom of the hill were built to house the brickyard workers. According to Mrs Brooker
“When my great grandfather first came to start the brickyard he lodged in the village, going home to Maulden every few weeks to take his wages to his wife. He was a local Methodist preacher so always walked home in his Sunday best clothes ready to take the service at the chapel next day. One Saturday evening he was walking across a field path when he saw two ruffians standing near the stile he had to climb. He had his Bible with him so he opened it and in a loud voice started to recite a psalm. As he neared the ruffians he called out ”God be with you my friends”. One of the men stepped forward as if to intercept him but the other one said ”Let him go, he‘s only an old Bible puncher”, so he went on his way with several weeks‘ wages in his pocket.
My grandmother‘s father used to pitch the hymn tunes in Everton church before they had any sort of musical instrument. He had a tuning fork and used to sing the first line of the hymn solo. All the family were musical and although they could not read music they used to sing in harmony very like the barbershop singing of today.
John Richardson and his sons were very proud of the bridge at Shefford which used to carry the railway over the A507 road as this was built of Everton bricks. It took one thousand bricks.
John used to sleep in a shed at the brickyard when the kiln was burning and sometimes my father kept him company. He made the fires up at midnight and he knew the time by the wind which always whistled through the trees at that time.
He grew red poppies in his garden and when he had a feverish cold he used to shake the seeds from a dried poppy head into a saucepan of boiling water, boil for a time, then drink the poppy seed tea when he retired for the night. This made him ”sweat it out” and the next day he used to wear two sets of clothing to keep out the cold.”
(Notes written by Hilda Brooker to accompany her paintings of the village during Everton Church Flower Festival July 1984)
When the works ceased operations is not known but today they can be identified as water-filled pits on the western side of the track. (TL 202514) It continues at an angle down the side of the ridge to reduce the steepness. This indicates it was used by horse and carts. It was also one of the many sunken tracks up the ridge caused by cattle droves. Herds of cattle would have been a common sight a century ago. Before refrigerated lorries, the livestock had to be walked to the market and fed on the way on the commons and heaths. Some were brought down from Wales, Scotland and Northern England to be sold at the larger towns. Large droves of cattle often came through Everton on their way to the markets at St Neots and St Ives. There were usually three men with them; one went in front to wave to people to keep out them out of the way and to stand at road junctions to guide the cattle on their way, while the other two men walked behind and closed any gates left open.
Hilda Brooker told the story of "Tacky" Gilbert, one such drover, who lived in Everton. He had been a cattle drover all his life and when he grew old he could not stay indoors but was always roaming around the fields. He wore a straw hat summer and winter, but one night he did not come home, so the men of the village went down the hill in search of him. They found him dead under a hedge, in the open countryside he had loved all his life.
When the brickworks closed down, the labourers’ cottages were inhabited by some interesting local characters. In one there used to live a witch - or so the locals called her. She used to stop anyone going along the lane and ask for alms. If they refused, she used to put a curse on them and people were terrified of her. Hilda Brooker reported that the witch had told a relation of her grandmother's that he must run up and down his garden path from dusk until dawn because he had displeased her. He did and nearly died of exhaustion in the morning!
A Miss Masterson lived in one of the cottages and was often teased by some of the young lads in the village. Ted Smith recalls her always wearing a pill-box hat and much enjoyed one day letting her eight goats loose and running away. She must have recognised him as she called Sergeant Whitehorn, the local policeman, who duly reprimanded the culprit. Locals called her the “Hungarian“ as she swore in a foreign language.
The designated footpath does not actually begin until just past the pond (TL202514). The field gate at the top of the hill gives local landowners, farmers and horse-owners access to the top fields. Once at the bottom of the ridge there is a 90o bend in the track with two large oak trees. At one time it would have continued north-eastwards to the medieval settlement complex around Story Moats. Instead the track turns northwest and passes alongside the southern side of Victoria Spinney. It was on this site that the 19th century Victoria Farm was found (TL 201518) and behind which were three fields formerly used for brickmaking, Hither Burntground, Middle Burntground and Higher Burntground,. The farm buildings, the cottages on the south side of the track, as well as many other farms and agricultural buildings on the clay beneath the Greensand Ridge, were demolished in 1942 during the Second World War. It was part of Jasper Maskelyne’s deception plan. He was a well-known magician engaged during the war to deceive the enemy. His aim was to produce, what appeared from the air, to be a disused airfield. This track to Gibraltar Farm, and others across what was to become Tempsford Airfield, had to be closed to ordinary traffic and a special government act had to be applied for.
High hedges and deep drainage ditches on both sides of the path give one the impression this was once an old road and you would not be wrong. However, deep tractor-wheel ruts and horse-hoof prints in the soft, often water-logged clay can make this path particularly difficult after heavy rain. Sturdy boots with ankle supports are recommended. In places the vegetation encroaches the path so be prepared to bend it back or break it off. Beware of the brambles though. Plants found along it include blackberry, thistle, dock, teasel, burr, gunnera, cow parsley, rosebay willow herb, plantain and vetch, The hedge includes hawthorn, wild roses, sloe and rowan. The sound of running water can be mistaken for a flowing stream. In fact it is water from the field drains emptying into the ditch.
The path continues for a further 1200 metres over rough ground, alongside Waterloo Copse, past the south-western edge of Happy’s Plantation (TL 196523) and ‘The Butts’, marked on the map in the middle of the field opposite Gibraltar Farm (TL 195525) until it reaches the Roman Road (TL 193525). Judy Knight, the Bedfordshire botanist, commented on the natural history of this walk.
After leaving the path from the church you begin the walk along an ancient green lane where the intense blue flowers of Green (or Evergreen) Alkanet border the path. You may also find Cuckoo-pint (otherwise known as Lords and Ladies or Wild Arum) with its arrow-shaped leaves and curious, rather sinister, brown spike in a protective sheath. In high summer this spike – actually the clustered flowers - becomes a mass of scarlet berries. There are also two mature apple trees on your right.
As the path opens up there is plenty of bird song to listen out for. In spring warblers abound; the Whitethroat sings its scratchy song or emits its cross-sounding call from the bushes, Blackcaps flute and Garden Warblers bubble their frantic speedy notes.
Soon on your right you pass woodland, and in late April and early May the unmistakable scent of Bluebells arises. Bluebells are an indication that there has been woodland here for a very long time. Pause briefly to look underfoot and you should soon see the silvery feathery leaves of Silverweed, and perhaps its bright yellow 5-petalled flowers.
Listen out here for the close relative of the Whitethroat, the Lesser Whitethroat, a small warbler with a grey “mask” which utters a rattling song that always sounds unfinished.
Teasels abound at the side of the grassy path; in their first year they form a rosette of pointed leaves and it is not until their second year that the purplish flower heads appear, developing in autumn into the familiar spiny seed heads, much beloved of Goldfinches.