Index | History | Livestock | The owner's vision | Farming practice | Chalk downland | Nature | Birds | Diversification | Farming futures | Going organic | Stewardship Scheme | Contact us | Links | Map

History - introduction
The Cholderton Estate today is the result of a far-sighted Victorian acquisition of several farms and parcels of land on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border At its greatest extent, the estate stretched to some 5,000 acres (2,000ha), but today it is about 2,500 acres (1,000ha).

The estate has remained in the family of its creator, Victorian entrepreneur and polymath Henry ‘Inky’ Stephens, whose family name will always be linked with the famous ‘blue black’ ink. Today’s owner, Henry Edmunds, took over the estate in 1975 on the death of his father.

As well as being an experienced estate manager, Mr Edmunds is a skilled and passionate naturalist, and it is this passion for natural history that has led him to manage the estate in sympathy with the natural world.

To understand the estate, it is important to look at it in its natural and historical contexts.

click here


The entire Estate is located on the chalk uplands of southern England, and was once primarily given over to sheepwalks – huge open areas of unimproved downland that supported large numbers of sheep. Early maps show no woodland in the area apart from Hills Copse (which is undoubtedly ancient woodland) and possibly the oddly named Windy Dido, which has uncertain origins. It seems that much of this downland was replaced by ploughed farmland early in the 19th century, before the present Estate was created.

Archaeological excavations in the Windy Dido area support the theory that this landscape was cleared of its original woodland cover in Neolithic times and was farmed for as much as 4,000 years, perhaps up to and beyond the Roman conquest. After this time, the land became grassland, grazed by huge numbers of sheep in medieval times.

In most places, the chalk soils are thin. Famously ‘hungry’, they hold little in the way of rich organic material and require regular applications of manure to keep them in good heart. It is this ‘challenge’ with such soil types that attracted Stephens to the area in the first place; he wished to show that a scientific approach to agriculture could achieve good results no matter what the circumstances. In this he was spectacularly successful, creating a model example of farming for Victorian agriculturalists.

Much of the landscape of the Estate today is the result of those 19th-century innovations. This applies particularly to the numbers of trees and hedges.
Click to read about foot and nail fungus.


The Cholderton Estate lies in a part of Britain that is one of the richest in Europe for visible remains of the prehistoric past.

Stonehenge – perhaps the most famous prehistoric monument in the world – is only a few miles to the west, while all around are burial mounds, hill forts, earthworks and remnants of early farming. All of this attests to a landscape that was first colonised in the Neolithic period – possibly 6,000 years ago.

The Estate itself lies in the shadow of Quarley Hill, a site used for various purposes throughout the Bronze Age, and still important in Iron Age times. It is the earthworks and other manmade features on the Cholderton Estate associated with Quarley Hill that have been most closely examined by experts. Concentrated in the region of the Windy Dido woods, these consist of a series of long linear ditches and associated ancient field patterns. Excavated by a team led by Barry Cunliffe (who established his reputation during work at Danebury Iron Age Hillfort a few miles to the east), the area showed a complex and long period of use that changed over time. Quarley Hill certainly served as a focus, possibly because it is a natural landmark, and several linear earthworks presumed to mark boundaries can still be seen radiating from the hill. One of these branches across what is now Windy Dido, and it was this and nearby features that Cunliffe’s team excavated. Closely associated with the linear earthwork is a series of remarkably symmetrical field patterns. These probably date to the Middle or Late Bronze Age, but were abandoned after a comparatively short time. The linear earthwork outlived the field system and was re-cut on at least two occasions, a fact that underlines its importance. It was clearly a significant boundary, and remained so for something like 1,000 years.

The excavations also showed that between these times and the early 20th century there was probably no arable farming carried out in this particular area, and this supports the view that these chalklands became downland grazed by sheep.

Elsewhere on the Cholderton Estate there are numerous burial mounds and other ancient earthworks. As is usually the case, these have been damaged by amateur excavations and by agricultural machinery in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of particular note are three round barrows not far from the Windy Dido earthworks. These are scheduled ancient monuments, and form part of what was once a cemetery containing at least 12 round barrows. Part of the northern boundary of the Estate follows the line of the Hampshire-Wiltshire border, and this itself follows the line of the Devil’s Ditch, an ancient linear earthwork.

click here

Family history

Henry Charles Stephens (1841–1918) was a remarkable man, even by the standards of a time that many see as the Golden Age of British intellectual, scientific and creative achievement.

He is most famous as the proprietor of the ink business that still bears the family name, but he was also a chemist and MP (he held the Finchley seat from 1887 until 1900). In the estate at Cholderton, which he began to assemble in the 1880s, he showed multiple interests in arable agriculture, aboriculture and architecture and in breeding purebred stock.

Henry Charles’s father, Henry Stephens (1796–1864) had invented the ink, but Henry Charles was a partner in the business, and on his father’s death became its sole proprietor. Henry Charles had been born in Finchley, north London, where his father had practised as a doctor, and he eventually bought Avenue House in Finchley in 1874. The house and its gardens were bequeathed to the people of Finchley and remain a local amenity, although the house was damaged by fire in 1989.

When Henry Charles Stephens died in 1918, the Cholderton Estate was taken over by his grandson, Captain Lewis Edmunds. What Captain Edmunds inherited was a model of Victorian advanced farming, along with such features as a walled garden complete with an elaborate series of ponds especially built to display aquatic plants of many sorts.

Captain Edmunds died in 1975, and the Estate was taken over by the present owner, Henry Edmunds. He has done much to protect the inheritance, despite death duties that amounted to 80% – an overhead that still affects the financial status of the enterprise.

Henry Edmunds has protected and nurtured much of what makes Cholderton special. The Hampshire Down sheep and the Cleveland Bay horses remain only because of his dedication and affection. The same can be said for the natural history interest at Cholderton: without Henry Edmunds’ continued commitment to conservation it is certain that the considerable wildlife interest – some of it unique – would have gone for ever.


Hampshire Down Sheep

Henry Charles Stephens approached the stocking of his Estate as seriously as his other undertakings. Since this was downland on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border, Hampshire Down was the obvious sheep breed to choose. The breed has been kept pure on the Estate ever since, and Cholderton is now one of the most important gene banks for this breed.

The history of the Cholderton flock

The Hampshire Down owes its origins from the crossing of the Wiltshire Horn and the Berkshire Knot with infusions of Southdown. From the 1830s to 1850s the breed type gradually became stabilised, culminating in the formation of a breed society in 1889. By 1911, almost 200,000 ewes were registered by 514 members of the Association.

The breed was of extraordinary economic importance in the South of England with a very large number of farms, particularly on the lighter soils, relying on folded flocks of Hampshire Downs to provide fertility for subsequent arable crops. The flock was also a valuable cash crop in its own right, by the sale of fat lambs, cull ewes, wool and pedigree breeding stock.

The Cholderton Flock was founded by Henry Charles Stephens in 1890 and by 1911 the combined total of ewes and tegs had reached 2,772 with 562 rams being registered. The sheep were folded on a variety of root crops over the winter with vetches or sainfoin and grass leys providing the summer grazing. The sheep were tended by fourteen shepherds.

About this time, the Estate was visited by Professor A Hall. In his ‘Pilgrimage of British Farming’ he records that the fame of the flock had “gone forth into all lands”. He was also impressed by the excellence of the wheat and barley grown in rotation following the sheep.

Cholderton sheep have taken prizes at shows all over the South of England, recording their first win at the Royal Show in 1904 with a two-shear ram.

Captain L Edmunds took over the flock in 1919. Upon his death in 1975, Mr Maurice Flower wrote: “For many years he had been a keen and able supporter of our breed, carrying on to ever greater heights at shows and sales. The famous flock was one of the first to be registered. At the present day the flock has the largest number of sheep of any in the breed”.

The ownership of the flock passed to Henry Edmunds in 1975 and he has since concentrated on maintaining the numbers and quality of this outstanding breed.

Today there is growing recognition of the superb quality and flavour of Hampshire Down Lamb. Her Majesty the Queen has recently formed the Windsor Flock of Hampshire Downs, partly from the purchase of ewe lambs from Cholderton. These ewes are providing lambs for the Windsor Estate farm shop.

A leading supermarket has expressed the desire that half of all the lambs that it sells from 2004 onwards will be by a Hampshire Down Ram.

Certainly we are witnessing the swinging of the pendulum where quantity and price are not the only production criteria. The quality and flavour of the Hampshire Down are proving to be pre-eminent.

The Cholderton Flock is therefore not only representative of the epitomy of quality in the British sheep industry, but also a testament of the rural history of Hampshire and Wiltshire when the sheep ruled supreme and the shepherd was the Master of the Farm.

Cleveland bay horses

It is for the Cleveland Bay horses that the Estate is best known. The Cholderton Stud was created in 1885, when the breed was already threatened by cross-breeding. Henry Stephens believed the Clevelands were the perfect horses for carriage work as they were strong, agile and uniform in colour and size. They were also used as the Estate’s workhorses until mechanised power took over. The Cholderton Stud remained on the Estate as purebred horses, and have economic value again as stock that can be sold.

A detailed history of the Cholderton stud

The founder of Cholderton Stud was Henry Charles Stephens. At his Finchley home Mr Stephens had a stable block for twelve horses, where he kept some of his Cleveland Bays for driving to and around London. He also owned the 5,000 acre estate at Cholderton where he put into practice his theories on ‘scientific farming’, the estate being run along the lines of an agricultural research farm.

In 1885, a year after the Cleveland Bay Horse Society came into being, Mr Stephens purchased ‘Ryedale Lass’ bred by William Jackson of Kirkby Moorside, to become his foundation mare. Mr Stephens gave John Lett of Scampston, near Malton a free hand to purchase on his behalf the best stock available. He bought ‘Beauty’ bred by John Pearson, ‘Madam’ bread by John Welford and ‘Countess of Salton’ bred by Christopher Wood.

‘Lucks All’ purchased from John Welford became the principal stallion for a number of years. ‘Wellington’, foaled in 1897, became one of the most famous stallions. There were fifty six pedigree Cleveland Bays registered before the Cholderton prefix came into being in 1897 with the registration of ‘Cholderton Duke’.

At the end of the century there was a brisk export trade and many Cholderton horses were sent to South Africa and North America. Classes at the Royal and Great Yorkshire shows were well filled and many championships won by a number of Cholderton horses over the years. At about this time, Frank Coombs was a stud groom at Cholderton and he recorded that many horses of the heavy breeds, including Suffolks, were used as well as Cleveland Bays; but experience soon showed that the Clevelands were best for farm work.

Carters working a pair of horses were expected to stay at work until they had ploughed an acre. The teams of Clevelands were able to meet this requirement by starting work at 8.30am and returning to the stables at 3.00pm, whilst the heavy horse teams had to start at 7.00am returning at 4.00pm. At harvest and other times when exceptionally long hours were worked, the Clevelands were capable of more hours continuous work than the heavier breeds.

Henry Charles Stephens became a life member of the Cleveland Bay Horse Society in 1888 and was elected President in 1895. He died in 1918 by which time he had bred a further sixty three horses carrying the Cholderton prefix.

Captain Lewis Edmunds, Mr Stephens’ grandson, took over the Cholderton Estate in 1918 and continued the tradition of breeding and working Cleveland Bays. In 1921 ‘Cholderton Ryecroft’ was foaled and later purchased by the Society for use as its travelling stallion. His dam was ‘Cholderton Queen of Pearls’ whose portrait hangs in Cholderton Park today. Captain Edmunds was elected to the Council of the Society in 1920. In 1928 ‘Cleveland Farney’, a horse bred at Cholderton, was sold to Alexander Mackay Smith from the United States of America, where he founded the Farnley Stud. Large numbers of Clevelands were also maintained at Cholderton, mainly for working on the estate.

In 1946 two Cholderton bred Cleveland Bays were sold to King George VI. These had the distinction of drawing state carriages in a number of important parades at the end of the Second World War, including those for Field Marshall the Viscount Montgomery and Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten. In the victory procession on 8 June 1946 these same horses drew the carriage carrying Winston Churchill. This was a great honour for the Cleveland Bay Horse and for the Cholderton Stud. Cholderton horses have been used on many Royal and State occasions, including the Coronation.

‘Cholderton Druid’ was foaled in 1948 and this horse served many years in The Royal Mews. He was also the sire of ‘Cholderton Minstrel’, foaled in 1957, who was later to sire ‘Mulgrave Supreme’ who was saved from export by HM The Queen. ‘Mulgrave Supreme’ stood at stud for many years and was to have a big influence on the gradual resurgence of the breed after the 1960s. In 1953 Captain Edmunds was elected President of the Society.

As recently a the 1960s, Clevelands could be seen working the land at Cholderton and in 1964 ‘Cholderton Yvonne’ returned from ten years service at the Royal Mews to assist in teaching three year olds to work on the land. In recognition of the Cholderton Stud’s supply of horses to the Royal Mews, Captain Edmunds was awarded a Royal Warrant. He died in 1975 but lived long enough to witness an upturn in interest in the breed and could take pride in the knowledge that in the 1950s two of the remaining four stallions upon which the survival of the breed depended were bred at Cholderton.

Captain Edmunds bred fifty five Cleveland Bays and his last stallion, ‘Cholderton Yeoman’ was taken to America by his daughter, Mrs Joanna Dorman. ‘Cholderton Yeoman’ was well received and won many prestigious awards. Sadly, Joanna died prematurely and with her demise the Cleveland Breed lost one of its greatest advocates in the USA.

Today the Cholderton Stud is in the care of Henry Edmunds who, like his father and great grandfather before him, firmly believes in the preservation of the breed. He is committed to there being a large and influential stud of Cleveland Bays at Cholderton. There are currently ten purebred mares at the Cholderton Stud with nine purebred foals dropped in 1999.

I heard that four bays, apple brown,
Were brought into the hall, after the armour
Swift as the wind, identical.
Beowulf gave them as he gave the treasures.

Beowulf. Anon, ca 550AD

Click here for details about suplements


Back to homepage | site map