Ford Then and Now: Lady Waterford’s Village

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Ford village, picturesque and secluded, is still recognisable as the place it was a hundred years or more ago. After centuries of border warfare, the union of England and Scotland led to a more peaceful time, and by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the area was a quiet, rural backwater.  But it was also an era of change – industry was growing, travel and communications becoming easier, the population was expanding, and agricultural estates like Ford were vital for food production.

Most of the current buildings date to that period, when the growing farms required many workers, and every village held its own small industries. Although agriculture has changed, and tourism has brought more visitors and businesses to the region, evidence of the people who shaped the estate is everywhere, and a visitor to Ford can immerse themselves in the Victorian history of the village.

One name is more inextricably bound up with the story of Victorian Ford than any other:  Lady Louisa Waterford. Lady Waterford came to live permanently in Ford Castle after the death of her husband, the Marquis of Waterford (who had inherited Ford from his grandmother), in 1859. She is remembered as a philanthropist, who visited her workers, knew them by name, provided care for the needy, and made many changes and improvements to the estate. However, she was also a talented artist of the Pre-Raphaelite school, who had studied under Rossetti and Ruskin, and travelled extensively in Europe in her youth. Many of the buildings in Ford were built under her instruction, and her mark can be seen all over the estate, especially in the village itself.

Shadows of bustling cottage industries remain at the Horseshoe Forge, once the village smithy and now housing antiques and rare books. Its use may have changed, but the great forge fireplace is still to be seen inside, and the distinctive horseshoe-shaped doorway that gave it its name makes it a favourite with photographers. Here the horses would have been brought to be shod by the blacksmiths – although according to the men who worked there, the shoe that forms the door would, from its shape, have been more likely to grace the foot of a riding horse than a heavy carthorse. Next door to the forge is the Jubilee Cottage, a sign of Lady Waterford’s concern for the wellbeing of the villagers, for the cottage, built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, was the home of a nurse, who treated the people of Ford for free. 

The village school, however, was Lady Waterford’s masterpiece. Built in the 1860s, not long after she arrived in Ford, it’s a work of art in itself, for Louisa Waterford’s own murals adorn the walls with biblical scenes in glowing watercolour. Her models were the village children and estate workers, and many of them can be identified. These, along with her other paintings and sketchbooks, provide an extraordinary link with the past, and a rare glimpse into the lives of ordinary rural Victorians. The building was used as the village school until 1957, and is now open as the Lady Waterford Hall, a museum and gallery dedicated to her life and work.

Ford Castle was originally built in the fourteenth century, but the current structure, which was Lady Waterford’s home, dates mostly to the eighteenth century. It is closed to the public, but a walk from the village will take you past the gates, along the route that Lady Waterford must have taken when visiting the villagers, past the fountain (now dry) erected to the memory of Lord Waterford, through an avenue of trees, and out past the eleventh century church of St Michael and All Angels. One of these trees is the sole remainder of a grove of giant sequoia, grown from the seeds of the great redwoods of California, which were first brought to Britain in 1853 and became a popular Victorian addition to wealthy estates.

This once busy, working village is now a quiet haven, with many pleasant walks, spectacular views, small shops, and several places to find refreshments or somewhere to stay. Around it, the work of the farms still continues, and many people living in the villages and farm cottages are still employed by the estate. The conditions of employment, however, are very different – in the Victorian era, farm servants were employed at Hiring Fairs for a year at a time. They often moved frequently, and ‘flitting day’ would see large numbers of workers loading their belongings onto carts and moving on to new ground. The old farming heritage is preserved at Hay Farm Heavy Horse Centre, a mile from Ford village, where you can meet the gentle Clydesdale horses that would once have pulled the ploughs and carts, and find out more about the history in the museum area.

More Information:

Under a Border Tower by Rev. Hastings Neville, published 1896, available second hand at Abe Books

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