Ride a White Horse

PUBLISHED: 16:52 28 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

Winifred Pottow, baker's daughter, at village pageant

Winifred Pottow, baker's daughter, at village pageant

Cherhill was once home to a gang of highwaymen who perpetrated their crimes naked to guard against subsequent identification, but one other claim to fame is that is where the editor's mother-in-law was born and brought up.

Malcolm Twigg makes a nostalgic journey back to a family homeland

Cherhill has a number of claims to fame. It was once home to a notorious gang of highwaymen who perpetrated their crimes naked to guard against subsequent identification - presumably on the grounds that the ladies would have to avert their eyes through sheer modesty and gentlemen sensible of their masculinity would automatically look either at the stagecoach ceiling or rigidly ahead in the way that all men everywhere will recognise. Other claims to fame include the Iron Age Oldbury Camp overlooking the village and, since 1780, one of the county's ubiquitous white horses carved into the hillside. There is one other, more personal, claim to fame, however, in that Cherhill is where my late mother-in-law, Winifred Pottow, was born and brought up, and generations of Pottows before her.

The Pottows were yeoman farmers for generations and many of them served as church wardens and overseers. In my mother-in-law's case she was the daughter of the village baker. Their house - now known as the Old Bakehouse - still stands on the main road between Calne and Marlborough. 'Pottow's Field', a development of houses built at the rear, recalls the paddock where the delivery horse used to live. The village is much developed since Winnie Pottow's day, although I suspect that much would still be recognisable to her now were she still around. Even the village school is still there, now converted into a very attractive house.

It is always the way when relatives speak of their earlier lives; it all goes over your head until it's too late to do anything about it and there are no other close relatives left to fill in the gaps. Her only sibling, William Theodore Pottow, died aged 11 from scarlet fever and lies buried in the churchyard, and contact has long been lost with any remaining cousins or second cousins who may live round about. From enquiries there seem to be few, if any, Pottows known in the village now, although they are shown in village records from as far back as 1685. The immediate family seems to have developed more along the distaff side, with Harris, Evans, Spittals and Downing being some family names recalled.

Winnie was the daughter of William John Pottow and Eliza Ann Taylor who, like many rural girls of the late Victorian/early Edwardian period, was in service. Photographs show her surrounded by her fellow servants at nearby Spye Park House, then owned by the Spicer family, in a pretty relaxed mood for group photographs of the day. It is not inconceivable that she met William Pottow through deliveries of bread to the house.

After they were married, William and Eliza Pottow ran the bakery business from the kitchen of the farmhouse on the Marlborough Road, and when she was old enough, Winnie Pottow used to help out by delivering the bread daily around the neighbourhood by pony and cart and also helped look after the Spicer children for a while.

Community life was always central to a predominantly rural village such as Cherhill then was. Family conversations were interspersed with references to the village hall and reading room and the various activities organised. The local manor house seems to have played a very prominent part, with group photographs of the villagers taken on the lawns. One particular activity that is commemorated in family photographs is a village fête where Winnie Pottow is dressed as the Queen of Hearts.

Winnie met her future husband, John Norman Bailey, in nearby Calne where he was apprenticed to an ironmonger. Trips to the coast by motorcycle and to see cousins in Chippenham, and courting trysts on Cherhill Downs and Oldbury Camp by bicycle featured prominently in tales of those more relaxed days.

Few people stay put in the place of their birth nowadays, and it was apparent, after calling at the church on my brief visit to Cherhill and looking at a brochure put together by the community, how many of the elderly 'locals' originate now from all over the country, and from as far away as Italy in one case. But I doubt that the community spirit has been lost. Cherhill seems to me to be that sort of village.

Spye Park House

Spye Park House was one of the ancestral homes of the Bayntun family dating back to Norman times, although it was sold off to repay debts in 1864. Interestingly, one of the prospective purchasers was the then Prince of Wales who later became King Edward VI, whose offer of £300,000 was refused. The royal family instead purchased Sandringham, so my wife's family might well have found themselves working for royalty had circumstances been otherwise. As it was, the estate was sold to retired army Major JWG Spicer for only £100,000. Finding the 17th-century mansion not quite to his taste, Major Spicer replaced it with a red brick structure, the source of some local ire, but this was destroyed by fire some four years later, removing the eyesore and the public indignation at the same time. The Spicers built an ornate Victorian Gothic house in its place and it was this house which was the workplace for Eliza Taylor and, later, her daughter, Winnie Pottow.

Unhappily Spye Park House is no more. The latest incarnation, too, was destroyed by fire in 1974.

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