Last weekend I was out on a walk in Oxfordshire near Henley-on-Thames and came across something I never expected to see in the English countryside. This. I suppose I should have learned by now to expect the unexpected - Britain is eccentric in so many ways and so to find an Indian-style obelisk in a small village is not that surprising.
This is The Maharajah's Well in the village of Stoke Row. It was a gift to the people of Stoke Row from the Maharajah of Benares, a friend of a prominent local landowner, Mr Edward Anderdon Reade. Mr Reade was Governor of the Northwest Provinces of India and during his time there presented a well to the people of India. As there was an absence of available water in the Stoke Row area, the Maharajah generously reciprocated the gesture to demonstrate his feelings for England and as a token of friendship with Mr Reade.
Work on the well commenced in 1863 and it was officially opened just over a year later. It is 368 feet deep (taller than St Paul's Cathedral, twice the height of Nelson's Column) and was dug entirely by hand. The Maharajah also donated the purchase price of a four acre orchard nearby to be stocked with cherry trees so that the profits of the local fruit harvest could endow the well, as was the custom in India. These days you don't get enough income from cherry trees to support a well so the site is run by a charitable trust and the orchard belongs to the community. There is also a Warden's Cottage, where the wellkeeper lived, which cost just over £74 to build compared to the £353 for the well itself. The Warden paid no rent and had an income £1 per annum. In return he or she was expected to be on duty for all daylight hours, to "admit people to the well," to keep the well machinery in good working order and "to guard against mischief or abuse."
Going to the village well must have been quite a social occasion as it took all morning simply to draw the 9 gallons of water contained in the two buckets! I loved the wellhead cover, which is very ornate and includes a golden elephant under a domed canopy.
Even more startling than stumbling across the well was that it apparently started a sort of "charity contest" between rival maharajahs because the Maharajah Vizia Nagran of Madras then endowed a drinking fountain in Hyde Park near Marble Arch!
On the way home we passed through the nearby village of Nettlebed (I love that name!) and stopped for a look at the disused lime kiln, which was originally built in the 18th century for making pottery and bricks. It's quite a fun thing to have in your back garden! The Fleming family of James Bond fame had connections to Nettlebed and I am told that it has also been used as a setting for a number of episodes in Midsomer Murders. There you are - an eclectic and eccentric mix of facts about a couple of Oxfordshire villages!