Wednesday, October 23, 2013
On the A44
Shires and stones
As I've said before on this blog, I have a mental map that charts my comings and goings, and this map is populated with landmarks – lone trees, filling stations, telephone boxes, barns, and so on. One of these landmarks is the Four Shire Stone, a boundary marker by the side of the A44 just east of Moreton-in-Marsh. It commemorates an unusual phenomenon, a point where the boundaries of four counties once met. It's inscribed with the names of these counties – Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, and Worcestershire – and for many travellers it means either' 'You've nearly reached Moreton-in-Marsh' or 'You have about 7 miles to go before you reach Chipping Norton', depending on their direction of travel.
If you look on a modern map that includes county boundaries you will see that nowadays only three counties meet here – Worcestershire is some way off, and was included on the stone because in years gone by there was an outlying parish, Evenlode, that formed part of Worcestershire but was as it were in a land-locked zone or exclave of Worcestershire that was surround mainly by territory that belonged to Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire. There were several of these curious exclaves and the Worcestershire antiquary Thomas Habington (1560–1647) deals with them rather poetically, declaring: 'Meethincketh I see our Shyre as mounted on a Pegasus flyinge over the neighbouring counties, and coming to the confines of Oxfordshire … he caryethe the authority of our county about and over Coteswould … as at Evenlode… which altho' seperated with parishes not attending our county yet is wholy ours. It joynethe on Morten Henmarsh heath on the stone which touches four sheeres.'
So four shires there were. I'm not sure exactly how old the stone is, though. Habington obviously knew of such a stone in the 17th century, and the beautiful Barcheston tapestry map of 1580 labels a 'Fowre Sheer Ston'. Samuel Rudder, the historian of Gloucestershire, also knew about the stone, describing it in 1779 as consisting of 'a handsome pedestal about 12 feet high with a dial on the top and an inscription to inform travellers that "This is the Four Shire Stone".' Oddly, however, some early maps depict four stones, one for each county, and the stone's listing text suggests that it is 18th century. These confusions suggest that it has probably been replaced, or altered, during its long history.
Looking at the stone recently it occurred to me that the lettering on it looks 19th century. Local historians seem to confirm the late date of the lettering, at least – apparently the stone was damaged by vandalism in the late 19th century and the sundial at the top removed. When the stone was repaired, the present lettering and the ball finial were added.
In 1931 there was one of the periodic revisions of the county boundaries. The Worcestershire exclave that included the parish of Evenlode was incorporated into Gloucestershire, and only three counties have met at this point since then. But the stone keeps its place on the maps, both literal and mental, and marks the journeys of many as they whiz on their way along the A44.