Thistledown Farm sits on the Cotswold Escarpment overlooking the Severn Vale. The Cotswold Hills were formed in the Jurassic period, when the area was in fact a warm, shallow sea. When sea creatures died their remains sank to the bottom and gradually formed layers of rock, resulting in the limestone that we see today. This explains the fossils of sea urchins and shellfish that you can see on larger pieces of Cotswold Stone, such as those in our stone circle. The layer of Cotswold Stone sits above clays and silts which were deposited earlier. Because limestone is porous, water percolates through it until it hits layers of clay. This impermeable barrier means that water is forced to move across the clay until it finds a way out. You can see this in action by searching for damp and boggy areas along the length of the valley. This is known as a ‘spring line’. In the 2nd and 3rd Pastures there are at least nine springs. One of these is tapped 3 metres below the surface and provides all of the water onsite.
The presence of a high level water supply meant that the area was settled thousands of years ago. We have discovered neolithic finds such as flintknappings, and a late Bronze Age / early Iron Age storage pit, which was used to keep foodstuffs safe and cool. The field around the 3rd Pasture car park has evidence for several Bronze Age roundhouses. The access to water and a high, defendable position above the surrounding boggy valleys meant that people were drawn to settle along ridges such as this, but the downside was that the soils are very thin – known to farmers as ‘hungry land’. This meant that it wasn’t possible to grow enough fodder vegetables to overwinter large animal populations. Therefore, most animals were slaughtered in the autumn, and fields were left fallow for a couple of years to naturally regenerate.
Some of the old drainage systems (still in use) on the farm are Roman in origin, such as the ‘V’ shaped buried gully that feeds the ponds in the 3rd pasture. There is a curved Roman trough between these ponds (in situ), and an old well above our water collection point that is thought to date from Roman times. The farm formed part of the Principality of Woodchester, which was overseen by the villa at Woodchester. This villa has one of the finest mosaics north of the Alps – the Woodchester Pavement – although it is now buried beneath a graveyard. There is much evidence of Roman occupation, such as an inkwell found at the top of the farm. Roman farmers, like many of their modern day counterparts, often removed hedgerows to create larger fields: the top four fields were farmed as one 30 acre field by the Romans.
After the Roman period, Woodchester Valley repeatedly changed hands, belonging to various large landowners such as the Bishop of Worcester, Gytha Godwin (wife of the Earl Godwin), the Countess of Devon and the Earls of Salisbury.
In the mid 1800s Lord Ducie (the owner of Woodchester Park) removed the tenants of what was then ‘common land’ and enclosed the park with a 7 mile deer wall. The remains of this wall can be seen opposite the animal paddocks, on the way down to the 3rd Pasture. We plan to run stone walling courses to restore this wall to its original height, which was around 6 feet.
The estate enclosed the whole valley, from this side up to the glider club opposite, and down the valley towards Woodchester. The valley was much more open than it is today, with pasture running all the way down to the lakes. The boathouse, dating from the late 1700s, is shown in the image above. The National Trust are currently trying to reinstate the former pastureland by clearing much of the softwood plantation established in the 1960s.
The farm was known as Park Farm right up until the 1950s when the name was changed to Easter Park Farm. When we bought the farm in the 1990s we changed the name to Thistledown Farm, as the fields were somewhat neglected and we wanted to mark a new beginning. It took several years to clear the thistles from the upper fields and the brambles from the lower pastures. We continued the Organic dairy and milkround, specialising in greentop, or unpasturised, milk. We also made cream, yoghurt, butter, and soft cheeses wrapped in wild garlic and nettles. Changing regulations made greentop milk unviable, so the upper fields were turned into the largest elderflower plantation in the world! We planted 35,000 trees in association with BottleGreen Drinks, a local company. This was relatively successful, but Bottle Green started sourcing their elderflowers from abroad which made the plantation unviable. In 2005 work on an educational environmental centre was begun. Unfortunately the match-funding was cancelled and the centre was never completed, so instead we began to set up facilities for campers. The rest, as they say, is history!
Our walking map has lots more information about the history of the local area – please ask for one when you arrive.
What To Look Out For Onsite
- Fossils in the limestone
- A Roman trough
- Remains of a deer wall
In The Local Area
- Numerous long barrows
- Mansions, castles and country houses
- Historic towns and villages
- Museums in Stroud and Cirencester