We could see the enemy’s whole body of horse face about and run with speed… and our horse in close body firing in their rear, till they had chased them down the hill in a steep place, where never horse went down and up again.
Sir Henry Slingsby, Royalist Cavalry Commander, describing the endgame of the battle of Roundway Down.
Slingsby’s laconic words describe the best-known moment of the 1643 Battle of Roundway Down, when the broken Parliamentarian cavalry were chased from the field by the troopers of King Charles I. During this rout, both those fleeing and their pursuing enemies rode off the steep, western edge of the chalk down. The moment captured the imagination and that part of the down is known as the Bloody Ditch!
The rout of the Roundheads might be the most famous part of the action, but it was part of a bigger battle that was, in turn, part of a wider campaign as both sides tried to take control of the west of England. Both sides were seeking to exploit the region’s resources, recruit its menfolk, seize the horses and tax the populace, who were, often unwilling, participants in the increasingly bitter civil war that had broken out in 1643. Meanwhile, the battle took place on chalk downland that had already seen millennia of human activity, the landscape is rich in archaeological remains as a result, with barrows and a hillfort. The edge of the downs also gives superb views across the surrounding landscape and its archaeology.
In early September, we led an archaeological walk across part of the battlefield to explore and explain both the flow of the battle and the more ancient remains in the area.
The Roundway Landscape
The Wiltshire Historic Environment Record includes data for a number of later Neolithic or Bronze Age barrows. Like many other barrows in Wiltshire these occupy prominent locations with extensive views into the wider landscape. They have also, like many similar monuments, been investigated by 19th century antiquarians. Although some of these monuments are similar to others in the county, with prehistoric burials beneath and within earthen mounds, one barrow is exceptional. When it was opened in the 19th century a number of metal fixings were found that suggested there may have been a bed burial inserted into the Bronze Age mound during the Anglo-Saxon period. Bed burials are an unusual Saxon burial practice, usually reserved for women of high status, another example in Wiltshire comes from Swallowcliffe, between Salisbury and Shaftesbury, with others known elsewhere in Wessex and around Cambridge. These bed burials appear to date to the 7th Century AD and may relate to the conversion of England to Christianity, and the woman was buried with a dress pin decorated with a cross. The burials may also relate to the wider power struggles between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including the expansion of Wessex. The mound and the artefacts were re-investigated by Sarah Semple and Howard Williams in 2001 when they suggested that the Roundway burial might actually have included an elaborate coffin, rather than a bed. Whatever the mode of burial, the status of the deceased remains in no doubt, while the reuse of the much older burial mound is typical of Anglo-Saxon burials associated with barrows. This practice suggests not only the use of the barrows as landmarks, but also that they retained some form of mythic or folkloric power to the people of Anglo-Saxon England.
The walk also visited Oliver’s Castle, an Iron Age hillfort that overlooks St Edith’s Marsh. This monument includes a ditch and bank creating a rampart that encloses a promontory on the edge of the downs. The ramparts respect two earlier Bronze Age burial mounds. When excavations took place in the later 19th century, there was little trace of settlement, suggesting that the hillfort was, perhaps, used as a place of safety in time of danger, or that it was used for ceremonial events. In either case, the prominent location meant that views of the surrounding landscape were excellent, whether to see enemies or to be closer to the gods. The site enjoyed a later life as a sheep fold; a dew pond, providing water for sheep and probably originating in the 18th century, still survives within the ramparts. By the later 19th century, a shepherd is known to have had his hut close to the pond.
Below the fort is a site known as Mother Antony’s Well. This has been the site of excavations in recent years that have found probable Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age enclosure, and Roman remains that included kilns used to dry grain. In addition, the Romano-British population seem to have regarded the springs in the area as special, and one had an elaborate well head that may suggest a shrine.
On 31st July this year, as part of the Festival of British Archaeology, Tom Sunley (Historic Environment Records Data Manager) and I led a tour of a section of the Wansdyke in Wiltshire. Our focus of the walk was looking at the most impressive part of the Wansdyke which runs from Morgan’s Hill to the western edge of Savernake Forest (known as the eastern Wansdyke), across the stunning landscape of the Marlborough Downs, see map below.
We had a great turn out of people and were blessed with a pleasant summer's day. We started the walk from Knapp Hill car park, SU 11570 63822, just over a mile north of Alton Barnes and walked up to Tan Hill which affords the best views of this section of the East Wansdyke.
From Tan Hill we headed east back along the Wansdyke path to Red Shore then headed south down the byway back to the car park. In total this circular walk is approximately 5 miles long.
The Wansdyke is a long linear defensive earthwork consisting of a substantial bank and ditch. At its most impressive on Bishop’s Cannings Down it is over 45 m wide, with a bank of over 5 m, producing a scarp slope of 12.5 m. Whilst there is still some debate over the exact western terminal, it is generally considered to be the hillfort of Maes Knoll in north Somerset and at its eastern end Savernake Forest near Marlborough.
As The Tour de France has just finished and we can start celebrating the success of Chris Froome, now twice winner of the competition and the first British man to accomplish this, I thought readers might be getting withdrawal symptoms. So I have dipped into our archives to see what they might say about Wiltshire and Swindon’s connection to cycle racing. Cycling fever most recently came to Wiltshire in 2014 when the Tour of Britain passed through the county, including British riders Sir Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish. There are also many clubs and individuals who put on the lycra and take to the road, which puts me to shame as I can barely pump the tyres up on my bike these days. But our earliest references go back certainly to the 1890s.
An illustration of the opening of the Trowbridge Cycle Club cycle track appears in the Kings Quarterly magazine, 1891, no. 8, for seemingly no other reason that the illustrator happened to be just passing through. However, it gives us a useful starting date and it is accompanied by illustrations of the committee men, who were Mr Mackay, President; Mr DP Wise, Vice President; and two honorary secretaries, Mr George Rose and Mr Ernest Williams (presumably a mistake, where one of them was Treasurer). The Swindon Cycle Club was also established at least during the 1890’s, as in 1897 they submitted plans to extend their club building in Dixon Street, New Swindon, even though the building already contained everything a club needed. It included an assembly room, a kitchen and a cellar, a skittles alley and, of course most essential of all back then, a bar.
The Swindon Wheeler’s Cycle Club was established in 1923 for a potted history go to this link http://swindonwheelers.wix.com/swindonwheelers . At the History Centre we are delighted to be the custodian of the club’s archives, which date back to 1924. The club was established to “promote road-racing, touring and social club runs.” The subscription was 4 shillings and activities included a run to Cycle Show in Olympia; a charabanc outing to Weston Super Mare; and, perhaps this should have been earlier, a map reading competition. Rules included that when road riding, “the captain shall have complete command and no rider shall pass without his permission”; with two sections being formed – a fast section and a ‘social’ section; while during time-trials “every competitor must carry a bell on the handlebars of his machine” (there does not seem to be any references at this stage to women riders).