Lambourn is a village located in the Lambourn Valley, between beautiful chalk downlands, in the heart of the North Wessex Downs, which has been designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The open views are interspersed by clumps of beechwood on the chalk summits. Sparsely populated, the Downs have a sense of remoteness and isolation, but in a short distance, have access to the M4 motorway corridor.
Lambourn is famed for its association with the training of the world’s finest racehorses. The Lambourn Valley is known as the ‘Valley of the Racehorse’. Over fifty racing stables provide training facilities for national hunt racehorses. The connection started in the 18th century, when the Earl of Craven held regular race meetings at Ashdown Park, near Ashbury.
Lambourn Church, (official title, Lambourn Minster) is thought to date from the reign of King Alfred, who mentioned the village in his will. The church is dedicated to St. Michael. It lies on the St. Michael’s Line, a line which stretches across the country from St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, to East Anglia and joins places associated with the Saint. St. Michael’s is mostly Norman in origin, with 15th and 16th century chapels added. The old village stocks are stored in the north chapel. My great grandmother, Jane Ebsworth Thatcher, lived in St. Michaels Cottage in Newbury Street. The Thatchers were a prominent family in Lambourn and had connections in several local villages. Frank Thatcher ran a car repair garage and established Lambourn Universal Stores, both of which were in the High Street in the 1920’s. Together with Sir Hugh Nugent, the racehorse trainer, Frank constructed horse boxes and in 1930, founded Lambourn Racehorse Transport Service, a company providing a hire fleet of horse boxes. With the demand from an area dominated by racing stables, the company prospered and is today the largest racehorse transport company in Europe, run by Merrick Francis, son of Dick Francis.
Close to the church are the Isbury (or Estbury) Almshouses, which date from 1502, when John Estbury was granted a licence by Henry VII to found a chantry and almshouses for ten elderly men. However, Henry VIII dissolved all chantries and confiscated their assets. In 1589, Queen Elizabeth I restored the almshouses and appointed two trustees, one of whom was the Warden of New College Oxford. The almshouses have been reduced to eight and there are now eight trustees, but still includes the Warden of New College.
The number of inns in Lambourn has reduced from the 19th century, but The George Hotel still remains. The Red Lion in the Market Square is no longer an inn and is known as ‘Lion Mews’. It is not known when it was built, but it was trading in 1665. In 1832, John Carter, after an argument with his employer about extra wages, set fire to the Red Lion stables. For this and other acts of arson, he was hung at Reading Prison, the last person to be executed in this country for arson. He is buried in Lambourn churchyard, where his headstone tells his story. Lambourn is believed to be the village, ‘Marygreen’ in Thomas Hardy’s last novel, ‘Jude the Obscure’.
Two miles north of Upper Lambourn, are the famous ‘Seven Barrows’, (in fact there are over thirty) the bronze age burial mounds.
Lambourn was once served by the Newbury to Lambourn Railway, but was closed to passengers in 1960. My Mother travelled on this line every summer throughout her childhood. She left London on the Great Western Railway, with her Mother and brothers and sister, to travel to Newbury, where she changed for the Lambourn Valley Branch Line. She travelled on this line through East Garston, to stay with her Grandmother in her cottage called, St. Michaels, in Newbury Street. She spent many happy times in and around Lambourn, either walking or travelling by pony and trap.
When the line was closed, coal was no longer transported on the railway. The coal merchant, who was situated next to Lambourn Railway Station, needed to expand his yard and my Great Grandmother’s cottage was demolished. My Mother was very upset when she discovered this on a visit to Lambourn many years later. Today, Station Road, off Newbury Street, and the Station Master’s house, indicate where the railway station was situated. The Lambourn Valley Way footpath follows the route of the old track.
The Great Western Railway, also known affectionately as, “God’s Wonderful Railway”, was built to link London to the West Country, South Wales and the South West of England. Bristol merchants were desperate for effective transport links to London, to prevent Liverpool becoming England’s second most important port.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel was the engineer on the project, personally surveying the route.