- published 28.09.1963
In the pretty lane, called Monks Alley, which lies behind Binfield House stands Wiltshire Cottage. This is more than a random name, for until 1832 it marked the traveller's passage into the county of Wiltshire. Before that date Wokingham town lay in two counties, and the land to the north-east was an enclave of Wiltshire, surrounded by Berkshire. This Geographical anomaly had arisen because this part of the ancient hundred of Sonning was historically, "appurtenant to the hundred and manor of Amesbury".
The average guide book, if it deigns to illustrate Binfield at all, tends to portray the prosaic and utilitarian cross-roads (now a mini-roundabout) at the "Royal Standard". This is less than just as Binfield is one of the most rewarding villages for gentle exploration. At Binfield House not a stone's throw from the "Standard", the poet Alexander Pope spent his most productive years from the age of twelve. Here he "sand sweetly" in the church choir and was chided by his father, a retired linen-draper, for the quality of his verses. Pope's precocious poetry was the product of an irascible and nervous temperament, for he suffered from what were, in the less tolerant times of the early 18th century, two severe handicaps: he was a hunchback cripple and a Roman Catholic. His religion made it well-nigh impossible for him to receive proper schooling. Of himself he said: "A lively little creature with long legs and arms; a spider is no ill emblem of him: he has been taken at a distance for a small windmill".
Pope appreciated the tranquillity of his village and the peaceful life and sport of rural England. -
Pope too, must have known Monks Alley, and many of its secrets which have been lost in the whirligig of time. A double line of find horse-chestnuts marks the commencement of this secluded lane, which still straddles boundary, that between Binfield and Wokingham Without before it dwindles to a footpath leading to Forest Road. (This technicality apart, the whole is now regarded as a part of Binfield village). Here there is a picturesque community of dwellings, of a complexity of styles, and with a multitude of legends.
By the converted stables which are now "Monks Pond Cottage" is a fine shaded rectangular pond about 80 feet long, and containing a large mud carp. The story goes that this was a stewpond serving a monastery, the second of a series of seven, stretching over towards Billingbear. Other ponds there certainly are in the neighbourhood, and the local inhabitants have learned to their cost from time to time of the existence of culverted and underground waters. Monks Alley house, built in this century on the site of "Elm Grove," which was destroyed by fire, contains an old wall which could have been part of the monastery. But local histories mention no monastery, and it is curious that an ecclesiastical or other settlement should have arisen at what was always a local frontier, between hundreds, between bishoprics, between counties. The original Binfield village was centred around the lovely church of All Saints about a mile away.
Although the avenue of horsechesnuts appears to link Monks Alley with Binfield House, its real association is reputed to be with Binfield Place on the nearby Forest Road, the oldest of Binfield houses, constructed first as an E-plan half-timbered building in the reign of Henry VII, and amended over the centuries to meet the tastes and requirements of successive generations. A few of the first rectangular windows with small leaded panes, and part of the original roof remain.
Is there, as is averred, a secret tunnel from beneath the house to Monks Alley house nearby? This is a persistent legend but the present owner, Wing-Commander J.M. Helme, thinks its existence unlikely as there are wells in and by the house in which the water level is consistently high and an underground passage would be flooded in the water-logged clay. The cellar which might have been the point of entry for such a tunnel was enclosed during the replacement of a staircase during the 1920's.
Is Binfield Place haunted? Local children fear so; possibly the "white lady" who used to frequent the home of the Nevilles at Billingbear has "moved in" since her former residence was destroyed.
There has shuffled the relics of this neighbourhood to form a historical anagram. It is typical that one of the more interesting memories of this area, a large plaque commemorating the construction of the Forest Road from monies obtained by voluntary subscription, is now situated close to the junction of the Wokingham-Twyford and Forest roads about two miles away. It stands on a brick plinth surrounded by an iron palisade and obscured by trees. It reads: This road was made by subscription of the Countess of Leicester, Countess Gower, Lady Hervey, Mrs Montage, Mrs Hewer, Mrs Barrum, Richard Neville Esq, James Edward Colleton Esq, Samuel Bowes Esq, Roomsey Bowes Esq, Robert Palmer Esq, Survey'd by Mr ...snett 1770." On the plinth is a further tablet: "Removed from Marchfield, Binfield 1936.".
"Near the top of the well within the house itself is a cavity in the brickwork, through which water flows away when the well is full and oddly enough no one knows where it goes."