Four miles from north to south
Reproduced with kind permission of the author.
Stewkley parish occupies an area some four miles from north to south and 2.5 miles across at its widest point. In the south the parish boundary is at the edge of the Wing wartime airfield (now a chicken farm). From there it runs south westwards to Kingsbridge where there used to be a ford. Following the course of the stream and continuing beyond Littlecote Ford, it reaches its most southerly point halfway between Cublington and Creslow. The boundary then turns northwards upstream along a small tributary, and crosses the Dunton road west of the hamlet of Littlecote.
Narrow, linear development
In the north, the parish extends to a point just beyond Pig and Whistle Corner - the sharp bend on the B4032, half a mile past the Drayton Parslow turn. Stewkley village itself is a narrow linear development along two miles of a single street and runs more or less diagonally from SSE to NW like a kind of spine. The greater part of the parish lies westwards of this spine and drains to the Thames basin. The lesser northeastern part drains to the Ouse valley. The street lies along the watershed, mainly about 500 feet above sea level.
The fact that there was a denser nucleus of housing at its southern end and that the village gradually reaches its highest point in the north of the parish is undoubtedly some justification for the old categories of those living south of the church as down-towners and those to the north as up-streeters.
The old maps indicate that on the east side of the village street, Clarendon House, Griffin's farmhouse and outbuildings, and several small cottages were the only developments between the Carpenters Arms and the Black Swan.
Cottages on the opposite side of the road to the present 90-98 High Street South must have been demolished early in the century. The one or two immediately close to and just south of the Black Swan remained into the 1920s, by when they had become derelict.
In contrast to the sparse development on the east side, one of the densest concentrations of dwellings in the village occurred on the west-facing side of the main street, between Dunton Road and Orchard (or Chapel) Lane. The lane was the only spur to the main road in the southern half of the village in those days, as was Fishweir in the northern half. Northwards from Orchard Lane, buildings were more widely spaced and included a smithy, malting yard, bakery, Manor House and several farmhouses.
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Went to bed by candelight
Those villagers who were around seventy-five years ago will recall childhood days, when few homes could boast a phone and only a privileged minority had a car. Piped water and electricity were distant dreams. Without the former, sanitary arrangements remained primitive, and to have a bath even once a week was a major undertaking. Because water for washing, drinking, cooking etc had to be drawn or pumped by hand from a shared well and then carried home by the bucketful, it was used with much greater care than presently. Heating kettles and cooking pans over an open coal fire was still the common practice. Without electricity there were no fridges, vacuum cleaners or washing machines; no television, no street lighting. One went to bed by candelight.
Walked to School
Of necessity, all of the pupils walked to school. Apart from the privileged few, their formal education from infants to leaving at 14 was entirely at the same Stewkley Church of England school. Some had over a mile to walk each way, morning and afternoon. The walk passed more pleasantly and generally more quickly for those bowling a hoop along the road. Whipping a top or leapfrog were other favourite activities. Up to the time when the slow trundling farm cart was replaced by motorised vehicles, it was safe to play in the road. An inflated pig's bladder, obtained from one of the two slaughter houses, provided a makeshift soccer ball.
To Leighton - 6d return
In addition to the roadmen, the village had its own resident headmaster, policeman and district nurse. The vicar devoted all his time to the one parish. With butchers, bakers, builders, plumbers, carriers all living in the village, and, earlier in the century, as many as ten shops and ten pubs, there was little need to travel. For special shopping, there was always the possibility of getting into Leighton on Tuesdays and Fridays on the carrier's van (6d return), or on Wednesdays and Saturdays to Aylesbury for one shilling (10p) return. Other than the above trades, employment was almost entirely within farming or brickmaking.
The first six council houses in Stewkley were built along High Street South in 1929 on a field known as Upper Close, opposite the Dovehouse Farm. The first occupants were from old rented cottages, which had been condemned as unfit for human habitation. Two at least of those same cottages were later knocked into one, whose thatched charm now ensures that it commands a high price whenever it changes hands.
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Dutch elm disease
Consulting the old maps, one could be forgiven for thinking that the countryside surrounding the village has not changed either. The field boundaries today remain much as they are shown a century ago. What does not become apparent is that the majority of the fields then were pasture or cropped for hay. Most had their own pond and showed a profusion of wild flowers, and elms were the commonest tree in the hedgerows. This dominant species was wiped out about 1970 as a result of Dutch elm disease. Most of the ponds where children could fish for sticklebacks or collect frog spawn have gone. Years and years of such activities and the gathering of wild flowers never appeared to reduce their population but the applications of chemicals, whether to control pests or increase yields, seem to have had that effect within a few decades.
Everyone knew everyone else
The Second World War again halted local expansion; and it was not until after the threats to the village of a third London Airport in the area had been removed that a period of comparative stalemate came to an end. Then the layout of the village began to change and develop a kind of middle age spread! Earlier house building had been planned for and allocated to village families. This policy ensured that close family ties remained intact and the social structure remained unchanged. Everyone knew everyone else, how they were related to who, and so on.
Many of those who have taken advantage of the new developments and chosen to adopt Stewkley as their home will undoubtedly stay, and they and their offspring may become increasingly integrated into the village. They may not be able to look back and find their family names on old Stewkley registers of hundreds of years ago, nor even on census returns last century. It will take some time before they fathom the intricacies of local family connections, or automatically know what area is referred to when someone mentions Clack Road, Durrance Hollow, Sow Lane, Mad Hill or Old Leighton Hill. But the prospect of their playing an increasing role as they join the old uns in the various village organisations and activities and of introducing new ideas and a fresh outlook, holds promising possibilities for the welfare of Stewkley in this new century.