April/May 2020 – Towcester Watermeadows
While I appreciate that for some people the lockdowns imposed in various countries (or not) have been at best mixed blessings and at worst a constant source of concern and alarm. For us, it has been no problem at all really, with both of us working full time from home since March 16th, and for the foreseeable future it would seem. It has meant we have had to make our entertainment where we can though, and that very locally.
As a result we’ve instituted a regular walk together every Sunday, after breakfast, and have thus spent a lot of time exploring our local pathways because we are being sensible and not getting in our cars to go anywhere. I thought I knew the town fairly well from running round it over the last decade and a half, but it turns out there are still places to discover, so that’s what we’ve been doing, starting with the area now set aside for public use and known as the Watermeadows. The clue, needless to say, is in the name and while I’d run there once or twice I hadn’t really spent much time looking closely at it.
It’s a park made up of 60 acres of Grade II listed watermeadows (no surprises there!) full of parkland, woods and grass and three waterways, the River Tove from which the town gets its name, the Mill Stream and Silverstone Brook which runs close to our house. It was originally part of the Easton Neston estate. The house itself is a massive Grade I listed structure built for William Fermor, 1st Baron Leominster (1648–1711), to a design by the architect Nicholas Hawksmoor. It may be the only mansion that was solely the work of Hawksmoor who worked with Sir John Vanbrugh thereafter on buildings such as Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace. This is the only recent photo I could find of it.
Sir William Fermor, later Baron Leominster, had inherited the estate from his father Sir William Fermor, 1st Baronet and plans for the new building were commissioned in 1694. Basically what was built was a miniature palace which makes it even more of a shame that pretty much no one has seen the place. It was rented out in 1876 to the Empress Elisabeth of Austria when she visited England, and it does have a racecourse in what were its grounds.
In 2004 Alexander Fermor-Hesketh, 3rd Baron Hesketh, a descendant of the builder via a female line, put the house, and the surrounding estate including Towcester Racecourse, up for sale for an asking price of £50 million, presumably in an attempt to recoup some of the money lost playing at running a Formula One racing team back in the day, to say nothing of his other failed business ventures. Clearly no one thought it worth paying that much for and eventually it was sold off in chunks, with the main house, outlying buildings and 550 acres (2.2 km2) of land, going for around £15,000,000 to Leon Max, a Russian/American businessman and designer. The farmland and the “Gothic” model village of Hulcote were sold off separately, and the racecourse was retained, going into administration two years back and finally being sold last year. The company that bought it had planned to reopen at Easter this year…
For an idea of what we’re all missing, there’s a series of slides here that you may feel are worth a moment of two of your time. However, I’ll have a little more to sat about Hulcote and Easton Neston in a separate post. For now I want to concentrate on the parkland that is accessible to us mere plebs! That’s because the watermeadows section of the estate’s parkland is now owned by the public and registered as Grade II in English Heritage’s Parks & Gardens Register. Although their design is predominantly early 19th century they have older parts that date back to 1700. They also have a lot of wildlife, ranging from the prosaic (ducks, which means ducklings at present) to the rather more glamorous, in the shape of at least one gloriously feathered blindingly white little egret (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Little_egret), a slightly mad heron, and a kingfisher or two, through they are hard to spot and even harder to photograph. I have seen one once so far and suspect that if I want to catch a proper photo I’m going to need to park on the river bank and stay there!
In the last few weeks I’ve finally managed to catch the heron on the wing, not easy using just my iPhone, but finally achieved recently, in fact on the same day I got some footage of the egret. We’ve known it was there for some years, having initially caught a glimpse from our garden as it flew along the brook that runs close to our house. For some reason I hadn’t actually known that they were common in the UK and my various guides to British birds are so out of date that they are listed as being common “in coastal areas”. Well you can’t get very much further from the sea than we are here, so clearly they’ve adpated and moved inland.
Obviously there’s a lot we haven’t found, with some spectacular droppings suggesting that muntjac may well browse there when it’s quiet (I did encounter a trio of them on an early morning run nearby – they just looked at me and then casually ambled off into the nearby trees). As the Watermeadows are appparently home to 70 species of birds, butterflies, bats and bees, we obviously have some work to do yet. There are frogs which we have heard but not seen though we did see hundreds of tiny tadpoles recently, presumably providing food for the heron, and the little egret, which is a species of heron of course.
Adding to the charms of the area, the watermeadows is also home to hundreds of trees and bushes, many of which have been putting out a profusion of glorious flowers as the spring has progressed. We’re now at the point where most of the blossom is gone and there’s only the elderflower left to go, so I’m guessing this is going to lead to some culinary experimentation over the next few weeks while the flowers are available. The berries give me a headache so we’ll see if the flowers are as bad.
Oh and if you want to get out of the sunshine, there’s a shady stretch along the old railway line which used to run between Oxford and Cambridge and intersected with the north/south line that still exists at Towcester Station (which no longer exists thanks to Dr. Beeching). You have to watch where you’re walking up there because it’s riddled with holes – I found that out trying to run along it – but it does give you a different perspective on the surroundling landscape.