The village of South Stoke is unusual in that three highways, which have done much to influence its history and people, pass through it. The most obvious is the river Thames, the second is the Ridgeway path, while the third is the Great Western Railway built by Isambard Brunel. These three routes converge as they cross the parish boundaries near Ye Olde Leatherne Bottle public house to the south and at the Moulsford railway bridge, known locally as the Four Arches, to the north.
Clearly the oldest of these is the river Thames which borders South Stoke to the west. Before the 16th century the lower land in South Stoke was marshy but then the river provided fish and the adjacent land brushwood and willows. Today from the footpath between South Stoke and Little Stoke one can still see remains of a series of fishponds which provided food for the medieval monks resident in the village at that time. These ponds were part of a much larger complex and were fed by drainage ditches connected to the river.
During the 16th century a series of weirs was constructed along the Thames to control the flow and to ease navigation for the increasing barge traffic. The barges were towed by horses, the towpath crossed the river at the village at a point opposite Moulsford and the horses were transferred by ferry from one side of the bank to the other. As elsewhere river traffic declined with the advent of the railway and the ferry ceased activity in 1961/2. In 2004 donations from villagers allowed the slipway on the South Stoke bank to be refurbished and this is now available to the public for the launching and recovery of small craft.
The Ridgeway path is an ancient right of way that was part of a comprehensive communication system long before the Romans arrived. Evidence of ancient enclosures and burial pits has been found in South Stoke, together with Roman remains and coins. Before it passes through the village, the Ridgeway now crosses land still owned by Christ Church, Oxford.
When the railway came in 1838 it changed the character of the village dramatically. It is built on a wide embankment with three low bridges over the only roads into the village. There is a small culvert, known locally as the bogey hole, which was constructed for the footpath to Little Stoke. The Four Arches bridge which crosses the river and the Ridgeway path together is, itself, a listed building.
Manor Farm, was originally beside the church, and has always been the largest farm in South Stoke and is still thriving today just north of the main village. Parts of the original farmhouse date from the 16th century and it still has the original oak panelling, moulded beams and a fireplace from an even earlier date. Within the old brick and flint walls around the house are several old buildings and barns. These include a square four-gabled medieval brick dovecote, reputed to be one of the largest in the south of England, and a granary standing on staddle stones.
St Andrew’s church incorporates several periods of architecture, with some of the arches on the north side suggesting Norman work. The font is Early English and a fragment of 14th century glass can be seen in the south-east window.
The chancel is dominated by a memorial commemorating Griffith Higgs. South Stoke’s most famous son was born in 1589, was ordained as a priest and became chaplain to King Charles I. The King sent him to be chaplain to his sister, Princess Elizabeth, when she married and became Queen of Bohemia.
Later Griffith Higgs became Dean of Lichfield but during the Civil War, like his sponsor, fell from grace. He saved his head but was stripped of all his titles and returned to South Stoke. He created many charities and, in particular, an educational charity which still benefits the children of South Stoke today.
During the early 19th century the parishioners of South Stoke became increasingly disenchanted with the church vestry’s conduct of local affairs. Twenty four dissenters who worshipped in Goring built their own chapel in South Stoke in 1820. Like the Goring chapel it came under the auspices of the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connection and flourished for over a century but this building has not been used for worship since 1976.
The river Thames remains the heart of the village and on summer days fishermen frequently line the banks, either in competition or just for pleasure. The public house, the Perch and Pike, still displays record catches of fish taken from the river in more recent times and large numbers of Ridgeway hikers stop here for refreshment. On their way they often meet tractors and combine harvesters, to say nothing of the Jersey cows from the two working farms. Up to the mid-20th century South Stoke was an agricultural village. In 1366 there were 32 tenant landholders. In Victorian times there were 11 farms. Today, while the village retains its agricultural connections, it is largely a dormitory village for people working in the surrounding districts and London, and for the retired. Thus the three highways are still very much a part of South Stoke’s character.
More details on the history of South Stoke can be found here.