Secret Swindon by Angela Atkinson Amberley Press, 2018 95 pages, includes bibliography, paperback ISBN 9781445683386 £14.99
The aim of this colourful publication is to prove that Swindon is so much more than you might think; a multi-layered, unique and vibrant town. As a reader you are invited to discover things you never knew, aided by ‘Did you Know’ fact boxes to guide the way.
The book begins with an interesting synopsis of the history of the town before the railway. The stories of Swindon’s major families, writers such as Richard Jefferies, Edith New, Swindon suffragette and houses now lost figure here, alongside secret locations and tips on how to while away a happy hour in the town on a historical theme.
Travel back with the GWR and the amazing feats of its employees to create a healthcare system and some wonderful works of culture; also included are the origins of the Mechanics Institute and Swindon’s aviation history for good measure. Modern Swindon is not overlooked, with architecture, the magic roundabout and the strength of today’s cultural activities being investigated.
Angela’s style is witty, snappy and easy to read, weaving information with a conversational tone reminiscent of her origins as a successful blogger.
The content is a lovely mix of old and new on a multitude of topics that goes to the heart of the character of the town. The images reflect the content and complement the text well.
The aim of the book has indeed been met. It will prove an eclectic revelation to both Swindonians and non-Swindonians alike.
It is available to view at here at the History Centre under ref: SWI.940
With all this lovely sunshine in the last few weeks, it has been good to see so many people of all ages getting out and about in the great outdoors. I have been doing quite a lot more walking myself recently and it has reminded me how lucky we are in Wiltshire having so many monuments and historic places that are easily accessible and make great walks. Many of our sites and monuments are very impressive, give commanding views and are free to enter.
I have always enjoyed that physical engagement with the past that you get from climbing up to a steep ancient monument, such as an Iron Age hillfort, a castle mound or the top of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. The physical exertion has always helped me to understand the scale of effort required by the people who built them and encourages enquiry about who, when and how the monuments were built.
I distinctly remember my first visit to Maiden Castle Hillfort in Dorset when I was 9 or 10, and after a steep walk the sense of discovery and wonder at the size of the ditches and banks. Several decades later, three of which as an archaeologist, I still get that same buzz about visiting these types of site, and what better way is there to get fitter and heather and explore our wonderful monuments at the same time?
Since 2007 the Wiltshire Council Archaeology Team has been organising annual archaeology walks each summer, usually to coincide with the annual Festival of Archaeology organised and promoted by the Council for British Archaeology in July and August. The walks, led by members of the Archaeology team have been very popular and have include places such as Avebury, the Stonehenge landscape, Littlecote Roman Villa, Barbury Castle, the Wansdyke, Adams Grave and Knap Hill and Oldbury Castle.
The very first walk I led as County Archaeologist in 2007 was one of the most challenging. It was a very rainy and wet Spring and Summer and the July walk to Avebury, Silbury and West Kennett Long Barrow was hampered by flooding, so much so that we lost some of the group as they weren’t wearing appropriate footwear to wade across the flooded Kennett on the way to the Long Barrow. Nevertheless, there was plenty to talk about at Silbury as English Heritage were in the process of repairing the Hill after a partial tunnel collapse some months earlier. The repair work was a great opportunity archaeologists to learn more about the monument and how it was built. The 2014 publication of the results by Historic England are fascinating.
This year for the first time in 27 years the Council for British Archaeology is taking a break from organising the Archaeology Festival. However, the County Archaeology team are still organising three exciting and diverse walks, one each in July, August and September.
Sunday 29th July - Iron Age Hillforts. Starting at Battlesbury, Warminster
Long before the Army started training on Salisbury Plain, and even before the Romans ruled, massive earthwork defences were created on the chalk downland. The edge of the Plain above Warminster has been sculpted to created massive hillforts over 2000 years old. Were these structures intended to defend ancestral lands, or to say "this is us”? Were they citadels, granaries, or temples? The hillforts enclose older remains – sites of burials and sacred places, so there may be more to them than defence and power. Join us as we explore these massive monuments and the landscape that they occupy, see how archaeology has deepened our understanding of the hillforts and wonder why, after so much work, one fort may have been abandoned before it was finished.
Sunday 5th August - Avebury World Heritage Site
Avebury is well known for having the largest Prehistoric stone circle in the world. However, the stone circle is surrounded by a range of other funerary and ritual monuments dating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, some of which are unusual and unique. This exciting tour takes you through and between the monuments, exploring the monuments and their relationship with the landscape. The tour will take in the Avenue, Waden Hill and Silbury Hill amongst others and explore the reasons why the Avebury landscape has been designated as a World Heritage Site.
Sunday 2nd September - Oliver’s Castle Roundway Down Battlefield, Bromham
The Battle of Roundway Down was fought on 13th July 1643, when the armies of King Charles I and Parliament clashed on the hills above Devizes. Our walk will explore the battlefield and its importance, as well as its place in the wider landscape. Join us to find out why there were Lobsters on the battlefield, how the Bloody Ditch got its name and what occasioned Charles I’s only recorded joke. We might also explain where Devizes castle went.
We will also explore the remains of much older monuments, Oliver’s Castle Iron Age hillfort and associated burial mounds, which are testament to how our Prehistoric ancestors used this landscape for settlement, defence and ritual activities.
The walks promise to be interesting and stimulating events for all age groups. They all start at 11 AM on a Sunday morning and will involve walking for 2-3 hours. The Iron Age Hillforts walk may be a little longer (3-4 hours).
All our walks are free but you will have to book a spot as we have a limit on numbers.
I have been asked to write a few words about the participation of Wiltshire Buildings Record in the ‘survival’ of a suburban library in Swindon. To partly fulfil the requirement in WBR’s constitution, that is, to provide information to those who have any interest in Wiltshire’s heritage building stock, an ‘outreach’ policy has been pursued for the past few years, when volunteers and opportunities have been available. With a fixed location like a local library it is a situation where the public comes to a WBR source for advice or research resources. So the base is an intermediate role between archive and buildings of the area.
Wiltshire being a geographically large county contains a diverse mix of vernacular building styles, so the libraries’ resources need only reflect its own close vernacular characteristics. Volunteer-run village museums could offer the same opportunities but do not have as many communal facilities. Aldbourne on the Marlborough Downs, provides a very well-run active Heritage Weekend in March from their own created museum including tours. There was a large scale village street map on which almost every building was dated, a very creditable achievement. Purton to the west of Swindon has long had a museum in the same Victorian building as their County Library. The WBR’s published book stock is on sale at Beechcroft Library providing some basis for research. There are four schools within a half a mile radius, but with restrictions of all sorts weighing down on the education system they rarely use the facilities. Display boards of the history of Stratton buildings are on show with the contents eventually going to the WBR archive.
Clive Carter, Wiltshire Buildings Record Volunteer
“But here, on the downs, you are not compassed about with trees and boughs, and locked fast in rich meadows… Instead there are bareness, simplicity, and spaciousness, coupled with a feeling of great strength and uncontrolled freedom, an infinity of range, and an immortality of purpose.”
Alfred Williams is better known for his poetry, having gained the title ‘Hammerman Poet’ whilst working for the Great Western Railway in Swindon.
Williams wanted to sketch a view of the people and landscape covering a whole locality rather than just one village or parish. The site was well known to him; along the ridgeway overlooking the Vale of the White Horse which extends into Oxfordshire, now part of the North Wessex Downs AONB.
Alfred’s attempt was successful and what remains are a collection of stories and imagery that takes you from community to community over a 20 mile area. Alfred notes that the characters he writes about are exactly as he found them, and he paints a good picture, describing their clothes, their speech, their backgrounds and trades, but the picture appears to have always been so rosy… perhaps possible artistic licence makes for a more nostalgic read?
The downs are described in detail including how they were cultivated and the flora and fauna that could be found. There were also the buildings; where they were located, what they looked like and their uses. The journey is fondly itinerated, from village to village, up slopes, through thickets and coombs, beside springs. Information on the history of the locations as Alfred knew it is recorded, along with tales of poaching, thieves, smugglers and ghosts. Time was spent talking about local sports such as cockfighting and backswarding and their importance in the community, the relationship between locals and their bees, and the customs that bound these traditions together. Williams presents a unified picture of old village life with ballad sheets in every house and many songs sung in pubs; fairs and revels; village ales. He also vividly notes the changes in the area from the first threshing machine, the first train, the arrival of telegraph poles, the decline of village trades.
Alfred encapsulated the lives of a number of local craftspeople such as the carter, the sawyer, the weaver, the tailor and the basket maker to name a few, describing who they were and how they worked. He also went into great depth regarding how to make certain products, from soap and candlemaking to watercress and elderflower products. Elderflower wine stood high in the estimation of the villagers. The famous north Wiltshire bacon could not be excluded.
We are trying to get as many societies and history groups as possible to take photos of traditional farm buildings. The pressure on buildings that have lost their original use is enormous. Many redundant farm buildings are either converted into homes and offices or face demolition to make way for new development. Some are left to decay. In an effort to record this rapidly-changing farming landscape we are urging local history group to take a snap-shot or two from the public footpath, road or hill-top and send them in to us. We want to record buildings that have been converted as well as those in their original state, even if still in use. This will give us an indication of the rate of change in Wiltshire, and a record of buildings that may disappear in the future.
We are not a pressure group that wants to stop change, we merely want to chronicle the changes that occur, and keep the information for future study. We also want to learn from the information submitted, so that people living and working in Wiltshire can understand their built heritage better. Many traditional farmsteads have already been lost to the pressures of development, and maybe nobody will remember what they were like, which is a lost opportunity and a great shame. Once they are gone, they are gone, along with a way of life that has persisted for hundreds of years! If you are interested please contact the office and we can supply you with further details, or just get out there with your camera and snap away, making sure you can identify the farm, and date the photographs.
Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record
Wiltshire Buildings Record was recently asked to look at Red Lodge Farmhouse, Braydon. This was a farm created in the mid-17th century out of the royal forest of Braydon, which had formerly been a royal hunting ground. The house is of great interest and reflects changing ownership over time until the 20th century, as does almost every house we look at. This time, however, it was a very human tragedy that took our attention.
By sheer coincidence I was on my way there and had called into another farm at Brinkworth nearby. When I mentioned my destination, the farmer exclaimed that his great, great uncle, Hezekiah Matthews, had been killed as a poacher at Red Lodge in 1882, and gave me a transcript of the poor man’s inquest.
Hezekiah Matthews had been one of a group of poachers, all cousins from Brinkworth, who were looking to bag something for the pot on the night of 27th December 1882. Because of previous incidents, a watching party consisting of the Neeld Estate head keeper, William Collins, Henry Reeves, Henry John Reeves, Thomas Reeves, and three others ambushed them, and after a struggle, apprehended them. Unfortunately, two of the keeper’s party were accidentally shot, and Hezekiah Matthews received a blow to the head. They were all taken off to Red Lodge Farmhouse to await the doctor and the police, who were coming from Purton.