Hidden Places Around Portsmouth: The Tree That Saw The Plague

St Thomas Churchyard, Bedhampton. Image by John Callaway

Local resident and photographer John Callaway, gives us a glimpse into the little known history of Portsmouth and the surrounding area, alongside some of his stunning photography.

Blessed with good weather, the east, in the form of Bedhampton, beckoned me.

The village, its population, resources and value are recorded in the Domesday Book. Completed in 1086, it also records the existence of a church. The present day church of St Thomas has architectural detail (the chancel arch) dating back to around 1140.

For all that, it is the yew tree in the churchyard that fascinates most (see featured image, above). There’s no concrete proof of its age, but as an ancient yew, it is several centuries old. It is thought to be over 600 years old, and if so, would have potentially borne witness to the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history; The Black Death, which reached Europe in the late 1340s, lingering on for centuries, particularly in cities, where outbreaks included the Great Plague of London (1665-66).

A little further on, a footpath running parallel to the railway line takes you under Mill Lane, the name of the road a reminder of an earlier time. A description in the Hampshire Advertiser (19 December 1846) is less than succinct:

The most remarkable of all the railway works between Chichester and Portsmouth is a bridge over the line, erected at a cost of £6,000, for the sole accommodation of Messrs. H. and J. Snook, of Bedhampton Mill, the extent and importance of whose business may be in some measure inferred from their having made choice of this mode of access to its principal seat, rather than accept offers, really munificent, made by the Company for a level crossing.

‘The bridge consists of seventeen arches, and is all the more noticeable and costly for the obliquity of its angle with the railway. We understand that the gentlemen for whose use it is made secured this compliance with their views and wishes by an agreement, made while the Bill was in Parliament, which they would otherwise have opposed.

Mill Lane Railway Bridge. Image by John Callaway 2020

And finally, after walking alongside Portsmouth Water land, I emerge alongside Hermitage Stream, fed by spring water from the South Downs. The Bedhampton and Havant spring complex in Hampshire is evidently one of the best examples of chalk karst springs in the UK. There’s more information here for the geologically inclined, but the short version is that this is how Portsmouth gets its water…

Hermitage Stream. Image by John Callaway 2020

As a certain Mr Stewart once sang…

This article was originally published on John Callaway’s website, Ideas & images from Portsmouth and beyond. You can read more of John’s writing on his website and also see his live music photography.

Images by John Callaway.

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