“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.
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).
I came across a beautiful example of a tin tabernacle whilst exploring the area of Braydon recently, and I began wondering about the history of these most temporary of religious structures. Here’s what I discovered!
Britain saw a ‘revival’ of preaching in the 19th century through to the outbreak of WWI, with mass meetings attended by huge audiences. By the late 1850s churches were becoming overcrowded and the search was on for new buildings to use as places of worship. Non-conformists were not bound by the Anglican parish system and found it much easier to expand with new builds or altering existing buildings. Smith (2004) in his book Tin Tabernacles states that over 100,000 people were converted during this time, 80% of whom were non-conformist.