Walking the Wansdyke during the festival of British Archaeology

on Friday, 21 October 2016. Posted in Archaeology

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.

View east from Tan Hill

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.

To sing, to dance and to cook in all languages

on Thursday, 13 October 2016. Posted in Archives, Wiltshire People

Matilda Talbot (B. Jul. 15, 1871. D. Mar. 25, 1958) seated on the terrace of the Cheval Blanc, Vezelay, May 1957. Photograph taken by Mr Sam Walker

"My own life has been rather like a kaleidoscope", writes Matilda Talbot in her autobiography. For somebody who experienced the two world wars at first hand, travelled in three continents, and went on to unexpectedly inherit Lacock Abbey, her life was truly kaleidoscopic; a constantly changing sequence of patterns punctuated by bursts of colour.

It was perhaps due to her natural flair for languages, combined with her kind and down-to-earth manner, that many of these colourful experiences came about. She readily accepted invitations to visit old friends and new acquaintances in far-off places, sometimes travelling with her family, but never fearful of travelling independently. When she did travel on her own, she was never alone, striking up friendships with passengers and crew, on-board boats as she tried out her language skills.

Language learning was to become an important element when preparing for a trip abroad and she often came up with enterprising ideas in order make progress. Before spending Christmas in 1908 with Lord and Lady Methuen in their new home in South Africa, she went to the “Dutch Church in Austin Friars” to find a teacher: "I found a verger and asked him if he knew any lady of the congregation might be willing to give me some lessons in Dutch”. From there, her studies continued on deck, which must have made for a curious sight, for she and a new lady acquaintance sat down to read from a "big Dutch Bible"  that she had brought with her from Lacock: "We sat together on the deck and I tried to talk, and she read to me. The captain was highly amused, when he found us reading the Psalms, verse about, in Dutch, but she really was a good help".

Earlier on she had turned her attention to Scandinavia after delivering some illustrated papers at the Scandinavian Sailors' Home, near the West India Dock, where she met a young Norwegian girl, Fredrike Betzmann. A friendship developed between the two young women and they met regularly in London, later holidaying together, first in Scotland and then in Norway. While Fredrike perfected her in English, Matilda and her sister Mary made good progress in Norwegian. "For nearly a month we stayed with Fredrike's family and were soon able to talk Norwegian quite fluently. […] Some of our pleasantest expeditions were in rowing boats up the little inlets of the fjord, going ashore and picnicking where we liked. Looking back, it seems to me that every afternoon was fine".

Besides Dutch and Norwegian, she understood French from an early age which she continued at a day school in London: "We always talked French to our French nursemaid, Emilie, and also to my mother, who spoke French as readily as English". During World War I she put these skills into practice when working for L'Œuvre de la goutte de café which ran a canteen for convalescent soldiers near Paris, and then later at Bussang in the Vosges where troops went to the trenches or returned from them.

A natural talent for languages was helped greatly by her indomitable spirit. While staying in Scotland in February 1925, she writes a letter in Italian despite of her deficiencies in the language: "Today Miss A asked me to help her write a letter in Italian: She recently received a letter from an Italian but still hasn't replied. I tried but it was awful. It's hard: Now everything I think is in Russian" . Undeterred and determined to help her friend, she goes on to explain that with the help of an Italian book and some difficulties, she was able to finish the letter in half an hour and give it to a "quite contented Miss A", who could copy it out in her own hand.

Out of all the languages she learned it was certainly Russian which required her to draw the most on that indomitable spirit. "[Learning Russian] was like paying court to a beautiful woman and capricious woman: she is maddeningly unreasonable and one is furious with her but all the same one cannot cease making love to her".

Although she never visited Russia or the Soviet Union, she learned the language to a high level. She describes the Estonian town of Pechory on the Russian border which she visited twice during the 1930s: "One day we went by train to the extreme south-east of Estonia, to a place called Pechora. There was a monastery there with a wonderful church. […] Everyone in Pechora spoke Russian and very few people spoke Estonian, but the notices were printed in both languages. […] We had a look round the monastery and went into the church for part of the service, but I could not understand a word for the Orthodox Service is always said in old Slavonic".

Matilda Talbot riding in a sledge in Estonia in winter 1938

Also, while in Estonia she experienced a real steam bath where she is beaten with birch twigs to stimulate the skin. On leaving the bathhouse she notes "We had lots of little birch leaves clinging to us which had to be rinsed off. The Russians have a saying about the kind of person one cannot shake off: 'She clings to me like bath foilage'".

John Aubrey – Wiltshire's 17th Century Pioneer

on Tuesday, 11 October 2016. Posted in Wiltshire People

I’ve just finished reading the fascinating book ‘My Own Life’ by Ruth Scurr about the life of the 17th century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey. It has left me with such a great impression of both his life and the times he lived in, that I thought I’d share them with you.

Aubrey was born on St. Gregory’s Day, 12th March 1626, the eldest son of Richard, a gentleman, and Deborah. His cousin and patron was Sir John Aubrey, 2nd Baronet, who had homes in Buckinghamshire and the Vale of Glamorgan.

His love of Wiltshire was derived from growing up at Broad Chalke and Easton Piercy, and through his years spent at school at Leigh Delamare, but also from association with some of the county’s major landowners such as the Pembrokes of Wilton House, spending time at their estates. His father’s death caused financial difficulties. Over time Aubrey had to sell off his property, spending the majority of his time moving between friends, patrons and lodging houses.

Manor Farm at Broad Chalke. The site is associated with John Aubrey and the dovecote to the left may well have existed in his lifetime. Image courtesy of the Wiltshire Buildings Record.

Aubrey had many, many friends, some of whom appear to have taken advantage of his good nature and his genuine wish to help further their work. Aubrey loved science and learning, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1662, only two years after it had been founded, but he also loved nature and the world around him, especially the Wiltshire landscape, and folklore. He had a belief and interest in astrology, and had correspondence with Edmund Halley.

John was particularly interested in springs, and noted many in Wiltshire, testing their composition and presenting them to the Royal Society. He also had a surprising ability for the age; the ability to talk to anyone and show interest in their views, from Kings to lowly peasants.  

Aubrey lived in turbulent times and worried about the lack of care given to historic material, seeing stonework looted, ruins uncared for, old manuscripts used in kitchens and to cover school books. His sense of caring for the past for the future was evident in his relationships with men such as Mr Ashmole who was instrumental in the founding of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He also paid for the etching of the Osney Abbey ruins by Hollar; concerned to document them before they were lost forever.

Discoveries from the Deverills, Part 7: Marvin’s: a good stone house

on Thursday, 29 September 2016. Posted in Architecture

Following on from my last blog about the wealth of architectural detail found in the relatively humble village of Kingston Deverill, attention is turned to Marvin’s; a substantial mid-late 17th century rubblestone and flint house much altered and extended to the north. It is situated next to Humphrey’s Orchard, mentioned in my previous blog. Marvin’s Farm was known in 1887 as Newport’s Farm suggesting that this and Hedge Cottage, a building also mentioned in a previous blog and confusingly also known as Newports Farm, were linked in some way.


Ovolo-moulded mullioned window

At the front of the house are two 3-light ovolo-moulded mullioned windows with hood moulds. The term ovolo comes from the Latin word for egg, and means a rounded convex shape. The way that the stone frame of a window is treated is very helpful in finding out how old it is. The very earliest stone frames in farmhouses and cottages were just simply chamfered inside and out to help allow light to penetrate the interior. From the late 16th century onwards the ovolo moulding appeared and was the universal shape for window frames, door frames and all sorts of moulded details until the beginning of the 18th century.

Shared space: Conserving a leather Sedan Chair

on Tuesday, 27 September 2016. Posted in Conservation

This leather sedan chair was on display at the Assembly Rooms, Bath. Staff from the Roman Baths Museum and Pump House contacted CMAS conservators with concerns about the condition of the item following an active pest infestation in objects displayed close to the chair.

The chair was removed from display and treated to remove the pest infestation using a non-destructive heat treatment.

On closer examination following the pest removal treatment it was determined that the chair was too fragile to return to display, and in need of a little TLC.

The leather exterior had been damaged and repaired a number of times during the life of the object. Notably, blue chalk script on a back panel identifies HF Keevil as the repairer of the chair in April 1942 following an air raid!

Leather damage detail
Leather repair detail

Many of the old repairs were failing and risked more significant damage if the loose areas were caught. Some small areas of fresh damage and loss had been noted, possibly due to areas being caught and knocked whilst the item was on open display; a common occurrence, for example by the bags of unsuspecting visitors.

Textile damage

In addition the textile interior was extremely fragile with large splits and tears and unravelling braiding.

Textile conservator

Due to the size of the item, its fragility and the combination of materials from which it is composed this project has proved challenging. The complexity of the textile repairs necessitated the expert assistance of specialist textile conservators from the studio Textile Conservation Limited. The large size and the fragility of the sedan chair’s surface meant that transportation was not recommended, requiring the work to be carried out on site.

Thomas Adlam, a Salisbury Hero

on Monday, 19 September 2016. Posted in Archives, Military, Wiltshire People

In the past I carried out some research on behalf of Salisbury City Council into Thomas Edwin Adlam, a native of Salisbury, who won the Victoria Cross in 1916. In the course of my research I uncovered a fascinating story, which I thought I would share with you, although I am sure there is a lot more still to be learned, in family papers not yet deposited at the History Centre.

Tom (as he preferred to be known) was born at 14, Waterloo Gardens in Salisbury, on 21 October 1893 to a coach-builder, John Adlam, and his wife, Evangeline. Tom began his education at St Martin’s school, Salisbury, then gained a scholarship to Bishop’s Wordsworth’s School, for which we hold the school admission register showing his admittance on 12 September 1906:  

WSA ref F8/700/19/1/10/5

Tom was training to be a teacher when he joined the Territorial Force (precursor to the T.A.) in September 1912, and had only spent one month as assistant master at a Basingstoke School when war broke out, and he was mobilised. Originally stationed in India, he applied for a commission and became Second Lieutenant in the Bedfordshire Regiment in November 1915. At school he had excelled at sport, including cricket, which benefitted him in the war owing to his ability to throw bombs further than many of his peers! On 21st June he got married to Ivy Mace, a month before he arrived at the Western Front on 18 July 1916, having, fortuitously, missed the 1st Battle of the Somme on 1st July in which his battalion received heavy casualties. He received his VC for his part in the assault on the Schwaben Redoubt at Thiepval, at the end of September 1916. This well-guarded defensive position had been held by German forces for several months, and they did not give it up without a fierce and bloody fight.

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