The Return of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda)

on Friday, 25 September 2015.

As a self–taught, amateur bird watcher, I am always eager to spot unusual birds, especially if they are in Wiltshire. I am yet to book a date with the Great Bustard Group (a dedicated band of Bustard enthusiasts), who provide an escorted trip out on Salisbury Plain for a reasonable fee. If you want to just go out and spot yourself a Great Bustard, it is very much discouraged. These birds are very private and shy- very easily alarmed. It is best to be guided by the experts so as not to upset the slowly expanding Wiltshire population.

Wiltshire has always been quite partial to the Great Bustard. Not only was it a palatable bird but also popular, especially in Georgian times, as a trophy to hang on ones wall. Even in the early 19th century, when numbers were considerably dwindling, naturalists were still bagging themselves a specimen; this was to prove to others of their sighting to avoid being scoffed at in scientific circles.

Until recently, it was understood that the Great Bustard had been native to Britain for thousands of years. Archaeological evidence has been found in various parts of the country and previous examinations of skeletal remains have been passed off as those of the Great Bustard. Now, with the advance of science and DNA screening, the specimens which have been re examined have been found to be those of the Common Crane (Grus grus). It is now believed that the first migrants came from the Iberian Peninsula during the late medieval period and not before the 16th century. This conclusion has been deduced from the lack of historical documentation ie. household accounts, feast lists and market prices. Also, there is no name for the Great Bustard in Saxon.

‘Catsbrain’ and ‘Breakheart’: The fascinating history of field names

on Monday, 21 September 2015. Posted in Archives

If you have ever spent time looking at the history of your town or village, or even used a map to go for a country walk you may have come across intriguing or unusual field names. But had you ever thought about what these names might tell you about the history of the field and its use over the centuries?

Field names can provide a link between the modern population and its predecessors; a bridge between history and place.

Field names are often made up of two separate words, for example, North Field, a different structure to most place names. To find out the meaning of a name, it is often necessary to try and find its earliest use. Field names can sometimes be traced back to Saxon times!

Names can draw their influence from the agricultural background of the site, its size and location, the lie of the land, its soil, crops, livestock, wild animals and plants, buildings, land ownership amongst many other things.

Sometimes the modern name can be unfamiliar; Catsbrain (which is found several times in Wiltshire – at Broad Chalke, Idmiston, Chisledon and Somerford for example) refers to the kind of soil on the site (rough clay mixed with stones). The reason for the name is obscure, older forms being Catesbragan (13th century), Cattesbrain (16th century), and Catesbruyne furlong (17th century).

Sometimes there are no early forms of the name, particularly if it’s more of a nickname; Fill Tubs, Butter Leaze, Helps Well. Often these kinds of nicknames are uncomplimentary: Bad Mead, Beggar Hay, Breakheart, Hunger Hill, Little Profit… presumably referring to poor agricultural value. Remote fields are often known by names of far-flung places such as Botany Bay, Jericho, and New Zealand. They can also be ironic - very small fields named Hundred Acres (for example at All Cannings, Urchfont and Whiteparish), and others like The City, or Little London (at Oaksey) etc.

The life of Ela, Countess of Salisbury

on Tuesday, 15 September 2015. Posted in Archives

Ela, Countess of Salisbury was a very interesting woman and this blog will look at her life, particularly relating to Lacock Abbey, which she founded in 1232.

Ela was born in Amesbury in 1187 and inherited the title of Countess of Salisbury as well as many lands and estates in 1196 when her father died, and at that time she was only nine years old. After her husband William died, she assumed the post of Sheriff of Wiltshire as well, which he had held.

Her early life is a bit blurred: following her succession to her father’s title, it appears she was taken to Normandy and imprisoned there. This may have been her mother’s family, so it may therefore have not been a prison: it is possible that she and her mother both travelled to Normandy and remained there with their family. Whatever the action, though, this was a secret place: it was not intended that she should be found. It has been suggested that the reason for this was to save Ela from possible danger from her father’s brother Philip. Bowles and Nicholls, in the book Annals and antiquities of Lacock Abbey, say that this suggestion “would account for her daughter’s confinement by an anxious and affectionate mother, that she might be placed out of reach of those who perhaps might have meditated worse than confinement”. Anyway, she was taken from the legal wardship of the King and hidden in Normandy. An English knight called William Talbot decided to go and rescue her and went to France dressed as a pilgrim. He then changed his disguise to enter the Court after he discovered where she was kept, and eventually managed to take her back to England where he presented her to King Richard. It was Richard who then arranged for her marriage to William Longspee, who was Richard’s illegitimate half-brother and probably about 13 years older than Ela.

William and Ela were probably engaged when her father died and she became the King’s ward, but weren’t married until she came of age. William then became Earl of Salisbury, taking his father-in-law’s title, and also Sheriff of Wiltshire. Together, they laid foundation stones for Salisbury Cathedral, in which William was buried a few years later.

Looking Back on the Festival of Archaeology

on Monday, 07 September 2015. Posted in Archaeology

As many of you are no doubt aware, the Festival of Archaeology was held from 11th to 26th of July 2015. This celebration of the diverse and intriguing archaeology present in the British Isles was 25 years old, and comprised a series of events to allow people a chance to engage with all aspects of archaeology. As part of this, the Wiltshire Council Archaeology Team held two guided walks to explore different parts of the county, and to show off some of the spectacular sites that can be enjoyed here in Wiltshire!

The first walk was held on 11th July at Cherhill, which lies between Calne and Avebury, and principally investigated Oldbury Hillfort and the White Horse hill figure. The day dawned sunny and bright and a party of 30 or so enthusiastic visitors (complete with several dogs!) set off up the hill to explore the Iron Age hillfort and the surrounding landscape and monuments. The intrepid walkers learnt how the distinctive Cherhill White Horse is one of 13 such hill figures in Wiltshire but is the second oldest having been created in 1780, possibly to imitate the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire.

Once the steep climb to the top of the hill was complete, there was a discussion of the Landsdowne Monument, the 120ft high obelisk that many of you will have seen from the A4 Bath Road in your journeys across the county! This was built in 1845 by the Landsdowne family as an ‘eye-catcher’ to commemorate their adventurous relative, Sir William Petty, who made his fortune through trading, banking and ownership of land in Ireland during the 17th century. Looking down to the road also brought to mind the infamous Cherhill Gang; a group of notorious highwaymen that robbed stagecoaches in the 18th century. The group were amused to learn that the robbers carried out their crimes entirely naked so as to conceal their identity – but even this didn’t prevent them from being caught and executed at Devizes!

Creation is Inspiration… Collecting and Celebrating Wiltshire’s Creativity

on Wednesday, 02 September 2015. Posted in Archives

The five year Creative Wiltshire & Swindon Heritage Lottery Funded project has now been running for just over 6 months, and we’ve been thoroughly enjoying researching (with the help of volunteers) creative people who have been, and who still are, working in and being inspired by the county of Wiltshire.

We have now identified over 400 individuals, many of whom can be included in the project, and are busy actively acquiring items on behalf of the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Swindon Museum & Art Gallery, and some of Wiltshire’s museums (a full list can be found under About on our Creative Wiltshire site).

Some highlights so far have been…

A set of 1930s ceramics by Katharine Pleydell-Bouverie. Katharine, of Coleshill House near Swindon and Kilmington, Warminster, was one of the founder members of the Craftsman Potters Association. She was also instrumental in setting up the Crafts Study Centre at Holbourne Museum, Bath. Her glazes are very well documented and have been a source of inspiration and study for many potters ever since.


An etching by Robin Tanner of Kington Langley, 1930. Robin was not only a unique etcher; he was also influential in bringing art and creativity to the school curriculum and environment with his pioneering work at Ivy Lane School, Chippenham, in the 1930s and later as HM Inspector of schools.


Malmesbury Fire Pump

on Saturday, 08 August 2015. Posted in Museums

Last year we posted a blog about work we did to conserve Malmesbury’s historic fire pump for display. The pump is one of the largest items the museum owns and arranging a space suitable for it to be displayed in was not straight forward for the museum. For this reason the fire pump had to go back into storage whilst a display area was arranged for it. But recently I have been able to go back and help with putting the item on display.

The pump belongs to the Athelstan museum in Malmesbury but is too large to fit in their own store so it has been kept in a commercial storage facility in an old aircraft hangar. I met the curator at the storage site along with two members of the modern fire brigade who had volunteered to help move the object. It was interesting to hear their opinion on this piece of historic fire fighting equipment. In particular I learnt that that although I had been calling it a fire engine it should in fact be called a fire appliance or pump. Apparently the modern fire service does not use the term fire engine at all. In the case of the appliance I had worked on it should not be called an engine as it does not have any sort of engine or motor. Its pump was powered by people pushing its handles up and down.

[12 3 4 5  >>