Ashton Keynes is a village in the picturesque Cotswolds with a fascinating history. From a secluded village for a self-sufficient community to a boys school for troubled teens. This exploration had a lot to offer, including history, wildlife and an array of abandoned buildings.
The site’s first notable point in history is 1936, when 3 members of the Bruderhof were in search of land to set up their community in England. The Bruderhof is a self-sufficient Christian community that was founded in Germany in the 1920s. They bought a 200 acre farm in Ashton Keynes and over the next 5 years the community and farm grew as more Bruderhof members escaped the Nazi regime. The Nazis were persecuting Bruderhof members due to their pacifist beliefs. By 1938, over 200 individuals from different nationalities, including British, were living a self-sufficient lifestyle on the land. The Cotswolds Bruderhof cared for destitute adults, Jewish refugees and orphaned children. In 1940, pressured by anti-German feeling in England during the Second World War, the Bruderhof sold up and moved to Paraguay.
In the early 1940s the Farm was owned by the Home Office and became a boys’ Approved School. Approved Schools are residential schools for young offenders or children who were deemed beyond parental control. Youths could be sent to an Approved School if they were found guilty of an offence which, in the case of an adult, would be punishable by a prison sentence. Some young people were also sent there for running away from care. Boys arrived from all over the country to the Cotswold School after being placed at the school by juvenile courts. Life was tough for the young people living on the plot. One boy was caned on each hand for walking out of line on his way to chapel. When the cell blocks were gutted, graffiti saying “I can’t stand any more of this. I think I’m going mad. If they don’t let me out I will kill myself.” was found.
However things changed for the site in 1967. New Principal Balbernie was selected to make radical changes to the Approved School in the Cotswolds. Immediately the number of boys dropped from 120 to just 30. All 90 boys were returned back to their families. It is clear that the changes from 1967 were positive. The cell blocks were shut down and the staff hierarchy system overhauled. Ex-students of the Cotswolds School speak fondly of their time there with Balbernie.
John Whitwell’s website is a fantastic resource if you would like to find out more about the history of the site. If you were a student, at any point of its history, then there is a great community group on Facebook you could join.
The site is close to public footpaths that are frequently used by walkers which helped stake out the location. When driving past the original main entrance to the farm there was a car parked at the front. This put us off using that entrance but it might have just been a deterrent. After successfully navigating our way through a hedgerow we could see a row of abandoned houses in the distance and knew we were on the right track.
Gaining access to these boarded up houses was fairly simple. These homes are standard family style terrace houses. When walking around these houses there was a sense that somebody had just upped and left. There were still signs reminding people to wash their shoes upon entry and hangers still filled the wardrobes. It was whilst we were exploring these rows of houses that we first heard the sounds of security. A white pick-up truck slowly drove past us down the path. Our hearts stopped as we dashed inside the building and ducked under the window and prayed we were quick enough to not be seen. Luckily, we avoided capture so early on in our adventure. Exploring a 250 acre site whilst knowing that security were on the prowl did cause us to jump a few times when wildlife made a noise! All of this added to our sense of adventure and made our time on the site very thrilling.
After exploring the row of houses and gardens we found the centre of the community. The buildings were larger and more spread out. These didn’t look like ordinary houses. By this point a different security van had driven past and it was clear the reports of security being very active were true. We could hear a banging sound in the distance and the sound of dogs. We crept around the buildings and kept to the edge of the site to avoid detection. Unfortunately, a number of the large buildings were well secured with no obvious entry points. It was at this point that we considered whether it was worth continuing. How long could we evade detection by security dogs?
As we approached a building with the front door open we spotted a security guard fixing a fence post. He must have been the source of the loud noises we heard earlier. To get into the open building it would mean crossing into his vision. We quickly darted across the grassy patch and made it into the building undetected. Once inside, we were not disappointed. This building had a nursery inside and was still full of toys! Toys were strewn throughout but it gave us the opportunity to have a look through the belongings that were once played with by the children of the teachers and support workers employed by the school.
Action for Children left the site in March 2013 and it has since been sold to developers. There has been speculation about building 180 houses on the unused 250 acre site. The developers have been in talks with Wiltshire and Ashton Keynes Parish Council since 2014 and nothing is yet to come to fruition.
This explore was definitely a highlight for me. It was so vast that we didn’t get to see everything on offer. The history of the place is also fascinating, it’s not everyday you get to visit a place like this. Don’t let the security and dogs put you off this exploration. If you are ever in the Cotswolds and want to see a slice of hidden community life then this spot is really for you. The security cars driving past and the sound of dogs all added to the atmosphere of the exploration!
Last Updated on 16 March 2022 by Michael