Monday, 14 November 2011

From Where I came, Again Continued

In my posting about the various Walton Bridges, I made reference to Cowey Sale..  In many respects Cowey has little to recommend it for modern lives.  It is an open space, a flat stretch of sometimes marshy, sometimes flooded , land on which a car park stands.  Much of it destined to host the new bridge or its feeder roads.

Whilst, I certainly played there as a kid and caught sticklebacks in the Engineer River, and leeches in the backwater, it is not the place that the average safety conscious modern mum will let her little dears play.

What gives it a marginal interest is that Local Legend as long declared that Julius Caesar, crossed the
Thames at Cowey Sales to meet and defeat King Cassivellaunus of the British Catuvellauni Tribe, who defended the opposite bank with a breastwork of Stakes.  Caesar in his own account briefly refers to his invasion, the Roman Historian Tacitus makes a reference, and so too does the Anglo-Saxon Historian Bede,  But none of them are specific as to where the battle took place or where the Thames was crossed..  The reason for Cowey being selected was that it was supposedly one of only two places where the Thames could be crossed on foot.

The Venerable Bede stated that the stakes were still visible in his day, but he doesn't say where.  It as always been assigned to Cowey without any evidence to suggest that that was what he was talking about, or that he was even aware of, Cowey Sales
.                                                                                                                                                             The Legend was given more credence, and almost Official Blessing, with the assertion of the Elizabethan Antiquarian, (the Father of  British Archaeology) William Camden that Cowey Sale was the actual place where Julius Caesar crossed the Thames.  He wrote, in his History of Britain"...I am on the banks of the River Thames.  Perhaps, the great Caesar crossed at this place. I am indeed fortunate to be the first to find this place .."

All following historians and commentators picked up on this and just repeated the assertion as a fact. Daniel Defoe, mentions it in his  "Tour Through England and Wales"  and so too many others.

The legend has it that Caesar, camped on St Georges Hill - once the home of Gerard Winstanley and Diggers (see the Novel Comrade Jacob) and now the gated abode of the rich - before making his attack on the British.  Archaeologists have found that the so called Caesar's Camp shows no evidence of Roman occupation or, for that matter,  occupation of any kind.

In 1750 stakes were dredged out of the River and this was immediately taken as evidence in support of the Bede and Camden statements.  These however, ran across the River, not along it length.

In the 20th century doubts began to expressed about the evidence for Cowey being the site of Caesar's crossing. Documentary evidence showed that since Anglo-Saxon times the Meads on either side of the Thames was leased out as Cow Farrens,  an area supporting a certain number of cattle according to the variety and quality of its vegetation.  Dr Gardener, a Curator of the local Museum, suggested that Cowey was derived from Cow Way and pointed out that Weybridge Heath, prior to the construction of Oatlands, was known as Cow Bridge Common.  The proportions and positions of the 1750 stakes suggest some form of bridgeway  to cross the river to join the Farrens on the North and South banks, not a defensive structure.

Certain other factors are cited that discredit the crossing theory.

This place is on a bend in the River.  Fords never occur where rivers bend.  The flow of water makes for deep, and fast, water on the outer bend and shallow silty water on the inner.  Secondly, the course of the river has moved North, and both Banks are now within what was the old Middlesex.  Surrey did not start until some distance after the river was crossed from the North. And, Finally, there is absolutely no evidence of any Roman Roadways approaching or leaving the Thames any where in the locality.

1849: Rambles by Rivers: The Thames By James Thorne -
"We ... notice in passing the long straggling combination of arches called Walton Bridge. It is in fact a sort of double bridge, a second set of arches being carried over a low tract of ground, south of the principal bridge, which crosses the river. According to the popular tradition this marshy tract was the original bed of the Thames ; and the change of the river's course here is mentioned in many books, and in some with considerable embellishment.

That most credulous of collectors, Aubrey, has recorded a report, which he had from Elias Ashmole, that when the river changed its bed, a church was "swallowed up by the waves"; and a much more recent writer tells us that the tradition states the river to have run (up hill and down valley) south of Walton town !" 

Cowey, or what remains of it, has become more and more sanitised and gentrified.  It is no longer fit to be the habitat of the ragamuffin urchin in the daytime or the erstwhile lover - of all kinds - in the night.

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