I always thought the best thing to come out of Wiltshire was XTC. And perhaps their song ‘English Roundabout’ refers to that particular madness in Swindon. But within the confines of the county lay some really beautiful and interesting towns and villages.
On the Somerset / Wiltshire border is the town of Frome and where many of these hamlets have the same character, I’ve often though that perhaps Frome should belong in Wiltshire. Anyhow, my mum lives in and loves Westbury and I’ve friends in Warminster and Marlborough. So, being left to my own Devizes, here’s a look at some of these places that are worth a visit, like the village of Upavon…
Amesbury is a small Wiltshire town. It lies on a meander of the River Avon, eight miles north of Salisbury, at a point where the main road from London to Exeter bridges the river. The chalk downlands of Salisbury Plain surround the town, pocked with the remains of earlier civilizations.
Until the present century Amesbury depended largely on agriculture, but now its population of some 6000 inhabitants looks mostly to the neighbouring defence establishments or to Salisbury for employment. The nucleus of the town and its medieval abbey church remain, although the ‘ great thoroughfare’ which once formed the High street has been channelled into a modern by-pass.
The abbey mansion, the abbey was founded in 979, is now a nursing home, the 18th century houses of the town centre are interspersed with modern shops, and housing estates have encroached onto the common fields.
Amesbury may not impress the casual visitor, or even the resident, with a sense of history in the way that Salisbury (an altogether younger place) does, but there is plenty in Amesbury’s past that deserves to be remembered.
Bradford on Avon
Bradford on Avon grew up around ‘broad ford’ and the slopes of the river. The narrow roads are lined with grey buildings in mellowed Bath stone. The textile industry had been the backbone of the local economy for six ceturies until its demise at the begining of this century.
At one time Bradford had more than thirty cloth factories. However when King James I enacted a law compelling all cloth to be dyed in London, by a merchant to whom he was in debt. This law ruined most of the trade in the West Country. The trade changed when Paul Methuen (one of Bradfords great clothiers, whose family now own Corsham Court ) brought over a colony of Flemish weavers to introduce improved techniques.
The 19th century cloth mills still line the banks of the river and the old clothiers houses and weavers cottages provide plenty of old world charm.
Well worth a visit is the Saxon church of St laurence, this building dates back to the eleventh century but was only rediscovered in 1871. It may even be built on the site of the earlier construction by St Aldhelm in 700AD.
It is incredible that a building this old is still in such a good condition. It owes its survival to the fact that it was not recognised as a church at all, as families used to live in it and even a school was once housed inside.
Other places of interest include the Holy Trinity Church, St Mary’s Chapel and the Tithe Barn at Barton Farm.
Currently the town centre is going through transition, following the demolition of the Harris Factory. A new supermarket is under construction and the intention is that the town centre will be landscaped.
Historically, Doctor Joseph Priestley discovered Oxygen while living in Calne from 1772-1779. There is a memorial to him by the Doctors pond, not far from St Mary’s Church.
Walter Goodall George (1858-1943) was born near Calne Town Hall, and held the World Record for the mile from 1886-1915. A memorial to this was unveiled by Sydney Wooderson, the next British runner to achieve the fastest time (in 1935) on the centenary in 1986.
Calne also has St Mary’s Girls Public school. A centre for teaching excellence which ranks very highly in the national schools league tables.
Calne is one of the very few towns where you can stand in the centre, look up and see hills around you, towards the White Horse.
On the death of Alfred, that monarch bequeathed the lordship and town of Chippenham, with its palace, to his daughter Elfleda. In the Domesday Survey, the manor of Chepeham, or Chippenham, is entered as belonging to Edward the Confessor, and after the Conquest it continued in the possession of the crown. In the reign of Richard II. it had passed to the Hungerfords, who rebuilt the church; and in that of Charles I. it was taxed £30 as ship-money.
It had been a market town from the earliest times, as its name implies, being derived from the Anglo-Saxon word Cyppenham, a market-place, but it received its first charter from Queen Mary. It was subsequently incorporated under the Municipal Corporations Act, when the government was vested in a mayor, 4 aldermen, and 12 councillors, with the style of the “bailiff and burgesses of the borough of Chippenham. “The principal employment of the inhabitants is agricultural, but many of the townspeople are engaged in the manufacture of broadcloth and silks. Chippenham is the centre of the North Wilts Agricultural Association, and there is an annual show of cattle, sheep, pigs, and poultry.
The town is situated on a declivity on the S. side of the Avon, which is very wide at this place, and has a beautiful stone bridge of 20 arches, with an ornamented balustrade. It is well built, and extends for about half a mile in length, containing a townhall, market-house, two banks, savings bank, and literary institution. In 1834 it was improved under the provisions of an Act for lighting, cleansing, and paving it.
There are a few grist-mills and tanneries, and the town is connected by a short branch with the Wilts and Berks canal. It first returned two members to parliament in the reign of Edward I. The limits of the present parliamentary borough are much more extensive than the municipal, the former containing, according to the census of 1861, 1,345 inhabited houses, with a population of 7,075, while the latter comprises 300 houses, inhabited by a population of 1,603. It is also remarkable that while the municipal borough has declined 104 in the decennial period since 1851, the parliamentary has increased 792. The population of the parish of Chippenham is 4,753.
The living is a vicarage* annexed to which is the rectory of Tytherton Lucas, in the diocese of Gloucester and Bristol, in the patronage of the Dean and Chapter of Christ Church, Oxford. The parish church, dedicated to St. Andrew, is an ancient edifice in the Gothic style, partly built by the Hungerfords in the 12th century, and has a beautiful spire and peal of eight bells. It contains several brasses and tombs of the Bayntons, Prynnes, &c. The district church, situated near the railway station, stands in the parish of Langley Burrell, and is dedicated to St. Paul. It is an elegant building in the early English style, and was erected in 1555. There are five Dissenting places of worship, two of which are Baptist, the others Independent, Methodist, and Wesleyan. The Roman Catholics also have a chapel.
Here is an endowed school for the sons of freemen, as also National and British schools. The charities produce about £200 per annum. Bowood, the seat of the Marquis of Lansdowne, is not far from the town. In the vicinity were two chalybeate springs, formerly celebrated, but now neglected except by the poorer classes. One has recently been filled up. A paved causeway was constructed by Maud Heath in 1474, from Chippenham Cliff, through the town, to Wick Hill, a distance of 4 miles, at various points of which causeway stones have been erected, each bearing an inscription commemorative of its erection.
Friday is market day. Twice in the month the markets are for the sale of cattle and sheep, and once for cheese, of which several thousand tons are sometimes sold. There is also a corn market. Fairs are held for the sale of horses, cattle, and sheep, on the 17th May, 22nd June, 29th October, and 11th December.”
Though it almost lies in the centre of Wiltshire, Devizes did not come into existance until after the Norman Conquest, making it rather unique among the other Wiltshire market towns.
Also evident in Devizes was the Castle originally constructed in 1080 by Bishop Osmund. Rebuilt in stone in 1120 (after a fire) by Bishop Roger. The castle changed hands twice during the civil war but originally Empress Matilda (daughter of Henry I ) held the castle until her death in 1167 where it passed to her son Henry II.
The castle was later dismantled after the battle of Roundway Down. The present castle was built in the 19th century as a private residence and is not open to the public. Devizes is home to over 500 listed buildings.In 1810 the Kennet and Avon opened, with its 29 locks that raise the water 230 feet (70 metres) and trade increased with the transport of tobacco and Bath stone.
The town’s name — formerly Marlebridge or Marleberg — is taken from the marl or chalk hills in the vicinity.
In the grounds of Marlborough College there once stood a castle, first constructed in wood in 1086 or thereabouts. Local folklore asserts that the motte on which the castle’s keep was founded (known as the ‘Marlborough Mound’ and/or ‘Merlin’s Barrow’) is where the bones of Merlin — King Arthur’s magician — are buried. Whether that is true or not, samples of charcoal extracted from the Mound prove that it was built around 2004 BC, which makes the Marlborough Mound a prehistoric structure of historical significance.
Marlborough’s castle was a royal residence and in 1204 the town was granted a Royal Charter by King John (yes, he of Robin Hood fame) so enabling Marlborough to achieve market town status. By the end of the 14th century however, the castle was in a state of disrepair as it had become militarily outmoded and not sufficiently comfortable for the occasional royal occupant. Although a Crown property, King Edward VI passed ownership of the castle over to the Seymour family — relatives of Edward’s mother. The site of the castle is now the property of Marlborough College.
On March 10 1498, Thomas Wolsey — later to become Cardinal Wolsey — was ordained in St Peter’s; one of the two churches which stand at either end of Marlborough’s wide High Street.
Because the people of Marlborough were against King Charles I, preferring instead to support Parliament, the town was sacked and burned following a fierce battle in 1642. The legacies of the violent historical past can in fact be seen in Marlborough’s architecture. Some of the town’s buildings (St Mary’s church in particular) still bear the scars of the 1642 battle.
In April 1653, The Great Fire of Marlborough burned the Guildhall, St Mary’s Church, the town’s armoury and many houses to the ground. Devastating fires also swept through Marlborough again in 1679 and in 1690 causing an Act of Parliament to be passed which prohibited the covering of houses and other buildings with thatch in the Town of Marlborough.
This part of the world has many attractions for visitors, not the least of which is Savernake Forest (good Sunday morning walking just a five-minute drive away) established by William the Conqueror as a royal hunting ground — King Henry VIII being the last monarch to use it for that purpose.
The jewel of the town’s High Street is the Merchant’s House. Built and occupied by a prosperous silk merchant, middle class but with grand ideas, it contains nationally acclaimed wall paintings and decorative features. Humming with activity, it is an outstanding destination for anyone interested in fine old buildings and the craftsmanship needed to create and restore them.
If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, then motor west on the A4 for 20 minutes or so. And low and behold you find yourself in front of, or close to, a couple of World Heritage sites — Avebury Henge and Silbury Hill. Avebury’s stone circle is a prehistoric and massively atmospheric monument of unknown purpose; Silbury is Europe’s largest prehistoric man-made mound, but again, why is it there and who built it? Literally over the road from Silbury Hill is West Kennet Longbarrow — a burial chamber that dates back to 3700 BC and one of the biggest of its kind in Britain. All strange stuff!
On my first visit to Marlborough this past weekend, I went into the Green Dragon pub where a pint of Wadworth 6X was £4.05 (strange amount, that, the odd five pence!) and two guys were playing The Jam’s “English Rose” on gutiars; a rather upbeat version too where it’s a sombre song for the most part.
And one might be forgiven too for imagining that XTC’s “Great Fire” would pay deference to the fire of 1653 mentioned above. It’s one of my favourites (though reading Chalkhills it isn’t one of Andy’s) so I will use any excuse to play it!
On the Saturday morning, hardy souls out in shorts in the autumnal sunshine…
Typical of many of these market towns are the alleys and courtyards; just like in Frome I found a lovely record store…
Marlborough where, yes, old red telephone boxes still prevail!
When I saw this one, I instantly remembered that scene from Clockwise! Apologies for the subtitles – this is one of only two clips on Youtube and the other one was really ropey.
In a beautiful pocket of rural Wiltshire, Melksham is a lovely market town situated on the banks of the Bristol Avon.
A beautiful historic quarter in the Town Centre features St Michael and All Angel’s Church, Canon Square and Church Walk. Nearby are the historic villages of Lacock and Castle Combe and the splendour of the Cotswolds. The friendly Town Centre is full of independent shops and plenty of cafes, pubs and restaurants, with a regular Tuesday Market. Compact and easily accessible, Melksham’s library, gym, swimming pool, tourist information centre and parks are all in easy walking distance of the centre.
The strong and vibrant community spirit ensures a busy calendar of events, including the Scarecrow Trail at Easter, the summer highlights of Melksham Music Festival, Carnival, Party in the Park and Melksham Comic Convention, and the Food and River Festival in September. The popular Christmas Fayre features the highly anticipated switching on of the Melksham Christmas Lights, a spectacular display put on entirely by volunteers.
Melksham people take great pride in their town, and the effort and creativity invested in the Christmas Lights is matched by the dedication in adorning the town with fantastic flowers in summer.
There are some beautiful walks in and around Melksham, including the Riverside Walk along the Avon. The Conigre Mead Nature Reserve is a fascinating and tranquil space hidden just a few minutes’ walk along the river. Managed by a voluntary team of enthusiasts, it is home to dragonflies, butterflies and the occasional kingfisher.
The Kennet and Avon Canal also passes through the Melksham area, offering a great bike ride or walk to the famous Devizes Caen Hill Locks to the east and Bradford on Avon and Bath to the west.
“Melksham has a wealth of clubs and societies for all ages and tastes”
They’re not kidding. Some townies might not even know that in an industrial unit there is a thriving adult swingers club… I won’t name it but you may know the one.
City of Salisbury
The story begins at a place called Old Sarum, two miles north of modern Salisbury. It was known to be an Iron Age earthwork and later became a Roman fort. In Saxon times was an important political centre, a Witenagemot being held there in 960 AD. In 1070, William the Conqueror reviewed his troops there and it became a Bishopric with a Cathedral and a Castle.
The first Cathedral was mostly destroyed within days of its consecration by a huge storm. Only the nave survived to be incorporated into Bishop Roger’s restoration. Osmund, a powerful Bishop and Chancellor of England, completed the rebuilding and established the Constitution based on the Chapter of the Bayeux Cathedral in France. In 1220 the authorities decided to abandon the site after problems arose between the military and the clergy.
The old Cathedral fell into ruin and many of its stones were used to build a new Cathedral in Salisbury. Situated at the confluence of four rivers, Salisbury is the only city within the county of Wiltshire.
The Cathedral hosts the tallest spire in England at 404 feet and it dominates the city. Many legends grew from the choice of the site to build the Cathedral; some say that the flight of an arrow shot by an archer from the ramparts of Old Sarum marked the place, another that the Virgin Mary appeared to Bishop Poore in a dream telling him to build in ‘Mary’s Field’ which was the site selected, even though is was low-lying and marshy.
Salisbury is one of the few Cathedrals built in the shape of a double cross with the arms of the transept branching off on either side. The cloisters are larger and older than any other of the English cathedrals.
The spire was added 100 years after its concecration and its immense weight, some 6000 tons, meant much strengthening. The Cathedral is home to a wealth of history and many unique treasures including an ancient clock mechanism dating from 1386 and said to be the oldest piece of machinery still at work in Britain, if not the entire world.
Swindon is a modern town surrounded by some of England’s finest countryside and famous attractions. Enriched with Victorian parks and gardens, museums including the award winning Steam Museum, and an art gallery.
Originally, Swindon was a small market town mentioned in the Domesday Book. This original settlement is now known as Old Town. Here you can take time to wander through its quiet courtyards and alleyways, stroll around the Town Gardens, or enjoy a vibrant mix of traditional shops, pubs, bars, and cafes.
The arrival of the GWR in 1840 led to great expansion and the creation of the town as it is today.
The town centre is fully pedestrianized and offers both an indoor and outdoor shopping experience. Whether you are in search of the latest fashion, or have an eye for a bargain, this is the place to be. For those more creative purchases look out for the local and international markets that regularly come to the town.
There is also a buzzing arts scene with many events taking place throughout the year at venues including the Wyvern Theatre, Arts Centre and Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
There are lots of things to see and do in Swindon including a visit to Lydiard House an elegant Georgian abode set in rolling parkland. or shopping at the McArthurGlen Designer Outlet.
You can also discover the history of the Great Western Railway at STEAM Museum, learn about the history of various gadgets at the Museum of Computing or visit nearby farm park Roves Farm or the butterfly world and craft village at Studley Grange.
Last but not least, there is a great selection of accommodation to be found in Swindon to suit all tastes and budgets.
Situated beneath the chalk downland, with its abundant flora and fauna, Warminster lies on the edge of the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The town derived its name from the Minster Church of St Denys which was built in Saxon times within a loop of the River Were. There is evidence of earlier settlements in the seven hills that surround the town, three of which are Iron Age hill forts, the most notable being Cley Hill to the west of Warminster. Once part of the Longleat estate, it was entrusted to the National Trust by the sixth Marquess of Bath.
The town boasts many historic attractions including Warminster Maltings, Britain’s oldest working maltings, and Dents glove factory. Founded in 1777 the latter has been supplying gloves for royalty since the reign of George III, including Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation gloves. Visits by groups to the Dents museum can be made by private arrangement.
The town park with its tranquil lake is the jewel in Warminster’s crown and is being lovingly restored. The children’s paddling pool is a huge attraction in the summer months and a skatepark, tennis courts and putting green are available all year round.
The park leads to Smallbrook Meadows Nature Reserve which is run by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust and has a thriving population of water voles.
A rich variety of routes to nearby picturesque villages provide plenty of opportunities for cycling and walking activities, as well as sailing at Shearwater Lake.
Warminster is the nearest town to Longleat – home of the UK’s first ever Safari Park and one of Britain’s most impressive examples of high Elizabethan architecture.