First published in Earthlines magazine. Buy a subscription to support their wonderful work!
Steventon, Oxfordshire, June 2015. We would have been straight through and out the other side, were it not for the wedding we were going to in the next village.
‘Steventon? Which one was that again?’
Just a conduit, a linear development along the road to Oxford, ten miles north. A clutter of pubs, street lights, a shop, red brick Victorian houses under slate roofs, front gardens scrubbed out for parking, blank picture windows of 1970s bungalows, squat community hall on the corner of the green. Nothing special.
But hiding in plain sight is a twelfth century earthwork that is marvellous for being there at all.
We might have missed it entirely. The bypass is the A34, the post Roman trunk road between the great port of Southampton and Manchester, via Oxford and the Potteries. Until 1998, it passed through Steventon (it was turnpiked in 1755). Its relocation, splicing the water meadows between Steventon and Milton, was less contested than further south at Newbury, where construction of the bypass twenty years ago spawned a new kind of protestor, who took to the trees and tunnelled under ground in a bid to protect ancient woodland. On this mizzly day in the village you could barely hear the dual carriageway. The main road through Steventon has been reclassified – or detrunked – as the B4017, obscuring the passing past.
We could have skimmed the village’s straggling southern edge at even higher speed. The Great Western Railway reached the village in 1840 and this stretch is dead straight, an iron causeway through the Vale, at right angles to the A34. How satisfying it must have been for those new Victorians to impress their technology so emphatically on the landscape. On this low land they could raise their eyes to the horizon and pinpoint their destination. ‘There!’ As the crow flies. Simple, efficient, fast. No regard to the old lanes, the watercourses, the minor inclines, the manor boundaries.
Travelling at speed, vistas open on hills and valleys in quick succession. As we left the bypass and drove down Steventon Hill in fine midsummer rain, the cooling towers of Didcot’s power station loomed out of the flood plain, their grey bulk flattened and smudged by low cloud. Around them the vale banked in tiers of hedge, field, copse as far as the eye could see.
In getting the overview we lose the detail. Steventon lies in the Vale of the White Horse, just north of a line of chalk downs that keeps the Thames running eastwards. At speed, the eye doesn’t see the prehistoric ridgeway, the Roman road, the medieval drovers’ track to the south. It doesn’t see the ruins of Wilts and Berkshire canal that scythes through the parish between the Thames at Abingdon and its junction with the Kennet and Avon at Melksham sixty miles away.
The Bronze age traveller would have looked out from the ridgeway across a dense patchwork of forest and marsh, would have found something sacred in the complex of brooks and rivers fed by the clear streams springing from the chalk. The village evolved to the standard Anglo Saxon formula and even now its rural past echoes in Stocks Lane, Mill Street, Sheepwash Lane, Kennel Lane.
But what’s this? The Causeway.
It’s a raised path born of a lost landscape. It runs for a mile across meadows that would have been flooded often. It starts out from the higher ground that bears the church of St Michael and All Angels, built in the 14th century. This elevated site must have been significant for far longer – a church at Steventon was recorded in the Domesday Book and by then the yew tree was already more than two hundred years old. After another nine hundred years, its torso is a mass of ruddy cylinders, like a vast rustic pipe organ, tinder dry under its dense canopy.
The Causeway runs north east from the church, tracking the Ginge brook as it curves towards the common, dark fists at the heart of the shimmering willows recalling decades of pollarding. The Causeway is twelve foot wide and raises the traveller three feet above the surrounding land. In places it is cobbled with small, dark setts, but long stretches are paved with irregular slabs of stone. On top of its steep grassy banks are hornbeam and cherry, horse chestnut and hawthorn, though it was probably an avenue of elms at the time of enclosure. It runs through the heart of the village, past the pub on the corner, past the playground and the tidy allotments, ending at the far eastern reach of the green, where a paved path at ground level continues across fields of ripening corn to Milton, the next village.
Today the Causeway is interrupted many times: by the level crossing and the grey hogging embankment of the Great Western Railway, by the tarmac of Stocks Lane, by the High Street (the detrunked A34), by the unnamed road that cuts through the allotments. Swallows slip from the gables of the many mellow timber-framed buildings that look out over it. They were constructed on lower ground and must have been built sometime after it, when the land became less prone to floods either through drainage or climate change.
So if it was obsolete within a few generations, how has it held sway over the residents of Steventon, who have maintained it – for better, for worse – for more than eight hundred years?
A tablet in the church from around 1620 says that ‘Two sisters by ancient report gave a yard of land, one acre of Meadow, four Swathes, one Taylors yeard, one close, and a Coops to ye Maintenance of ye Cawseway of Steventon.’ Even now a group of parishioners is appointed as ‘Causewaymen’ to ensure that the path is kept up. Why?
Was it commerce? Steventon Priory lay near the church and it’s thought the Causeway was constructed for the Prior. It would have brought passing merchants straight to his door. Was it industry? One theory is that it carried an aqueduct delivering water to the cloth makers. Was it ritual? As a raised path to the church, it might have played a leading role in the marking of birth, marriage and death. Was it about Michaelmass? Feast day of the patron saint of the church, festival of harvest time, pivot of the husbandman’s year. Could it have been superstition? In times of pestilence, at the heart of rites that sought to protect the people from the horror.
We walked to the wedding. The rain had stopped and we walked east on the Causeway in sun and dappled shade and sun again. Then at the end of the green we took the paved path along the meandering Ginge, lit with yellow flags in full flower and sun on water. We walked in the heat of midsummer’s eve, crossed the thundering A34 on a metal footbridge, and the path led us to the church of St Blaise, patron saint of wool combers, another 14th century church on a Saxon site.
How many people have walked this way? Was it flight or dalliance or plain old commerce that drove them? How many weddings did they walk to? And christenings and funerals and harvest festivals and blessings of the sick. Our walk became part of the ritual, tied in to the landscape, as its people were tied until very recently.
Two strange survivors. The Causeway and the wedding. Proof of the power we invest in landscape and ceremony. We cling to the idea of permanence, kicking against change, but in spite of the delusion this is about hope. The Causeway is something that the people of Steventon have held on to. Something that for whatever long forgotten reason they have not ceased to value down the generations. There are plenty of obsolete and ancient customs that should be done away with, but the Causeway shows we can preserve things if we want to, can collectively nurture and care for and hand on.
How do we tell stories about our countryside that resonate with enough people to give us reason to preserve it? Just as the people of Steventon have preserved the Causeway. Stories that show how intertwined our lives are with countryside and nature, what’s left of it, even now that Michaelmass is meaningless to most of us.