Old Stratford - The Town on the Ouse

Susan Hatton

One could be forgiven for thinking that Old Stratford, divided by a bridge across the river from its better known neighbour, Stony Stratford, which has so much history attaching to its long High Street that it has been described as 'the jewel in the crown of Milton Keynes', has less history, less past to remember. Yet, in its time, Old Stratford has also seen history ebb and flow as life lived alongside the busy Watling Street has changed, sometimes slowly, sometimes dramatically. The very name Stony Stratford ('Stane Streetford' or 'Stani Stratford') is a reminder of the stone paved road crossing the river. Strangely, it is only since the inception of postal addresses in the early 1950s that Stony Stratford and Old Stratford have been separate entities and indeed lie in different counties. Before that they were one and - logically - Old Stratford was the older part, being built on higher land, which did not flood.

Old Stratford lies in the flat lands formed by the rivers Nene and Ouse bounded by Whittlewood and Salcey forests. It is possible that the Romans had a minor station at Old Stratford, being strategically placed on Watling Street midway between Little Brickhill and Towcester. It is possible that in AD 61 the great Queen Boudicca led her troops in chariots along Watling Street near to Old Stratford only to suffer a terrible defeat them.

The Grand Junction Canal Act was passed in 1795, at the instigation and with the backing of such worthies as the Marquis of Buckingham, and work began almost immediately. Whilst the main canal was five feet deep and forty-three feet wide, the branch from Old Stratford to Buckingham was much less - being only four feet deep and twenty-eight feet wide - and was finished in eight months. This branch was opened in 1801. The opening of the canal (or 'cut' as it was known locally) was to change the lives and expectations of the people living near its banks as well as dramatically altering the surrounding landscape. Slaymakers Wharf was built adjoining Watling Street thus creating employment not only for the people of Old Stratford but for the villages around. A new bridge, to the delight of local people, had to be built over the Ouse in 1834 (following an Act of Parliament) because the old bridge collapsed under the sheer weight of traffic passing over it. Alas, a toll-gate and toll-house were also erected. Both Stratford parishes petitioned parliament against the tolls but they remained in place for some twenty years. When the bridge toll-gate was abolished there was such rejoicing that an ox was roasted in the Barley Mow field!

For those who could not work at this time workhouses were built and under the Poor Law Act of 1834 outdoor relief was abolished and a dozen or more parishes formed 'unions' where the aged and infirm could be set to work if possible or looked after if not! In 1836 the Potterspury Union, which included Stony Stratford was built. But Old Stratford had another workhouse - the casual - where passing tramps rather than the infirm could spend a night or two in return for doing some specified work. Rings where dancing bears were tied up were in evidence, so perhaps passing entertainers used the casual as well as tramps. It is hardly likely that they would have entertained the inmates. Intriguingly, there is still the Bear Watering brook nearby, and another ting and colourful name is the Dogs' Mouth spring!

Old Stratford did not then have its own church building and does not now although regular services are held in the village. Possibly there was no need for a church because local people could attend places of worship in Stony Stratford or the villages around and because Old Stratford Was really just a stopping off place which saw its heyday during the brief years when coaches were constantly changing horses there before continuing their journeys to the north or the south. There were some seven public houses in Old Stratford at one time where people could take a meal, or a bed for the night, while they waited to cross the river. Today only The Swan remains. It is reputed that Dick Turpin rode up to the gates at Old Stratford (painted white and over six feet tall) and because he was not allowed in, he jumped over them (presumably on Black Bess). He stayed at the Black Horse inn, opposite the new hotel just off the round-about, which was formerly the little Chef. It was, apparently, at the Black Horse that deer from the forest were put on the coaches to go to London and poor people used to go to the keeper's house at Shrob Lodge (two or three hundred yards behind the inn) to get the 'snips and humbles' (the innards of the deer, I believe).

Many of the large, imposing houses which front Watling Street must have been built during the coaching era but it was with the coming of the railways and the move away from agriculture to industry that the rows of industrial redbrick terraced houses, which can still be seen, were built. There was also a number of small wooden houses built by Mr. Chapman in Cosgrove Road to house his relatives. He used to have a repair business, A.E. Chapman & Sons, Wheelwrights, opposite The Swan public house. The new Community Hall was built some three to four years ago to replace the old Memorial Hall.