The Hampshire Parish of Sopley is located in the far south west corner of the county, bounded on its western edge by the River Avon (which forms the County boundary with Dorset) and by the Parishes of Burton, Bransgore and Burley to the South, East and North respectively. It embraces the village of Sopley and the hamlets of Shirley, Avon, Ripley and Thorny Hill. With fewer than 300 dwellings until recently, it is a beautifully rural area characterised by narrow lanes and footpaths affording glimpses of farmland, flood plain, and open forest.
There are many thatched cottages in the area. Some timber-framed buildings have survived but most have been replaced with orange-red brick – mainly in Flemish bond.
A small stream bisects the village of Sopley, passing besides The Woolpack Inn before joining the Avon south of the St Michael’s Church. Whilst the northern end of the village has seen some modern development, the village centre retains much of its 19th century charm where a one-way system helps the narrow lanes cope with the sometimes-heavy flow of traffic between Ringwood and Christchurch.
History of the area
The village of Sopley and the surrounding cottages and farms form the centre of a large conservation area. The village of Sopley itself is situated on an ancient commercial trade route along the Avon valley that linked the old port of Christchurch with Ringwood, Fordingbridge and Salisbury – and settlements in the area date back to the Bronze and Iron ages. The Manor of Sopley pre-dates the Norman Conquest, but detailed records exist only for the last two hundred years or so. The Manor House itself is believed to have been rebuilt by the vicar of Sopley in 1790. After many changes in ownership, the Kemp Welch family acquired it around 1867 – when the house was known as Sopley Park.
After the Second World War the main house at Sopley Park was used variously as a nursing home and as an independent school. It was sadly demolished in 1988, and Sopley lost a building that had played a major part in its landscape and history. The site is now occupied by the Moorlands Bible College, and the Lodges at either end of the Park wall are all that remain of the estate. They are both individual in style and detail, and are beautiful examples of later 19th century architecture.
The former RAF site known as RAF Sopley was closed by the MOD in 1974, and was eventually redeveloped for housing in 2018. Renamed Heatherstone Grange, this development increased the number of dwellings in the parish to nearer 400, and saw the parish population increased to around 800.
There has been a mill on the River Avon at Sopley since the time of the Doomsday Survey, when an annual payment of 10 shillings and 875 Eels is recorded. The current mill dates back to 1878 and was operated by an undershot wheel – and later superseded by a turbine – and was operational until 1946. In recent years the Mill buildings have been used as a restaurant and as a popular local venue for marriages and wedding receptions.
The Parish Church of St Michaels and All Angels stands in a prominent position overlooking the mill on the site of an old Saxon Church, and was endowed by Earl Godwin in 1050. It is constructed from ironstone rubble with dressings of Binstead stone from the Isle of Wight. The vicar at the time of the English Civil War was Thomas Lake. He was a proud supporter of the Royalists and allowed his congregation to celebrate the victories of the king, and mourn his defeats. He was despatched in 1642.
The Avon Valley Site of Special Scientific Interest.
The adjacent meadows of the River Avon flood plain are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, which stretches from Bickton down to Christchurch Harbour. There is a greater range of habitats and a more diverse flora and fauna than any other chalk river in Britain. These habitats support internationally important groups of breeding and wintering birds, rare species of flora and a diversity of notable invertebrate fauna. The valley contains one of the largest expanses of unimproved floodplain grassland in England.