It’s got to one of the most iconic shapes on the skyline – viewed to one side of the A46 heading out – or back into – Bath on your way to or from the M4.
People around here seem to know this landmark as the Caterpillar. It’s a defined line of fifty plus beech trees that continues to make a visual statement on the horizon – whatever the season.
I remember when l moved to Bath three years ago that l was calling this long-standing feature ‘the soldiers’ until corrected by a local in-the-know!
However, in an effort to look deeper into the origins of these trees, l have discovered that ‘caterpillar’ supporters may not necessarily be on the right track.
The trees stand on the top of Freezing Hill – a great name for a high point with a grand view but one that offers little shelter from winter chill. However, whatever the weather, it’s a vantage point that has been used by man for thousands of years.
To one end of the line of beeches is an escarpment topped by an Iron Age linear earthwork – a bank with a ditch on either side.
It’s been suggested that this formed part of a civil boundary connected with the earthworks on nearby Tog Hill. It is called the Old Dyke in Saxon charters and appears as Royal Camp on Isaac Taylor map of 1777.
I read on-line that a Neolithic sandstone axe head from Freezing Hill is now in the collection of Kingswood School?
Royal Camp is a bit of a clue to a more recent event played out within this area. during the English Civil War. The Battle of Lansdown in 1643 saw a major confrontation between Parliamentary forces and Royalists troops.
Lansdown Hill, Tog Hill and Freezing Hill were all part of that engagement.
The Mysterious Britain and Ireland website – http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/england/avon/hauntings/freezing-hill-bath.html – tells me that its been suggested that apparitions of 17th century figures have been seen on the hill.
It was all too much for me. I wanted to get up there. With my partner at the wheel, we circled the hill top.
Driving up Freezing Hill Lane – and turning to follow the old Bath Road past the Tracy Park Gold and Country Hotel – but still no obvious way to the top of the hill.
We called into Tracy Park where James Tuck – the Head PGA Advanced Professional at the Club – was kind enough to drive me around both courses – looking for a way through to the top of Freezing Hill.
We had no luck but it was quite a trip around the two 18 hold championship courses set in over 240 acres. Echoes of that Civil War battle live on in their names. The more challenging is the Crown Course and the less taxing – the Cromwell.
Driving around the hill again we spotted a farmer manoeuvring his tractor through an open farm gate. Pulling in, we stopped and l went over to ask if we could gain access across his land.
The man l talked to turned out to be Matt Kinder whose family – over the years – can claim four generations of family farming on this land.
Yes we could go through to the trees and no he didn’t know much about them – but maybe his dad Simon could help. He wasn’t around so we walked up to them and took in the amazing view from the top of Freezing Hill.
It’s a commanding spot with a great sense of history. A special place for others too it would seem as the family – this is land belonging to Tracy Cottage Farm – have allowed several people to scatter ashes at the foot of several of the beech trees.
There have also been finds of ‘Anglo-Saxon straps and buckles’ from one of two people allowed onto the land with metal detectors.
We viewed the feature from both sides and managed to get some clear images of the earthwork and take in the view from what has been such a clear vantage point for centuries.
Back home l managed to speak on the telephone with Mr Simon Kidner who told me his family had farmed in the area for four generations – going back to his great-grandfather.
He did not know anything about the origins of the trees but could remember seeing a photograph – taken in the 1920’s – that showed them in situ.
Simon put me onto his dad’s cousin – Mrs Elsie Fishlock – who now lives in nearby Doynton. She is an energetic lady in her early 80’s who clearly remembers playing hide and seek amongst the trees as a little girl.
Elsie told me she knows the landmark ‘ as the toothbrush’ – an image that became more obvious in the early 1990’s when winter gales blew down four giant beeches – at one end – that have since been replanted.
The land around the trees has changed hands several times in the last couple of hundred years. The original Tracy Park estate owes its name to a small park formed in the Middle Ages by the Tracy family who were lords of the manor of Doynton from 1246.
The park – which occupied about 100 acres at the bottom of Freezing Hill – was sold by the Tracys in 1595. The house was built shortly after the sale in the early 17th century.
During the 18th century the property – now 200 acres – was held by a succession of prosperous Bristol tradesmen. In 1856 the Rev Charles Raikes Davy inherited it, bought more land and further enlarged the house.
This was done between 1858 and 1871 when most of the estate walls and buildings were erected.
Until around 1914 the Davy family lived at Tracey Park and at that time it was let to Charles S Clarke who bought the freehold in 1926. His descendants kept the house until 1973 since when it has been a golf and country club and an hotel.
Elsie Fishlock told me she had seen the Tracy Park deeds and those for Tracy Cottage Farm and neither of them show the line of beech trees as a feature on the maps enclosed with them.
According to Elsie the trees were due to come down and be sold for timber at the end of the Second World War but her mother had fought hard to get the then landowner to change his mind.
So l am still no nearer to knowing who planted the beeches and why. Maybe it is just an accident of fate that a line of trees has just naturally grown into such a landmark feature.
It is certainly one that has captured the imagination of Bath artist Nick Cudworth – who has his studio in Walcot Street.
Nick enjoys international acclaim with paintings and drawing in countless private and public collections around the world.
He is equally well-known for landscapes, still life and portraiture and – locally – for painting the Caterpillar!
Indeed Elsie Fishlock had told me that her family bought her a Cudworth painting of the trees for her 80th birthday!
I went along to Nick’s studio to talk to him about how he first came to notice the beeches on Freezing Hill.