Warminster is a market town lying in close proximity to Salisbury Plain. Its history starts with the discovery of two Roman villas at Pit Mead, Bishopstrow. In Anglo-Saxon times it was a royal estate and residence, but it was not until the 13th century that it began to develop into the town we know now.
The earliest settlement was likely around the parish church of St Denys and nearby Manor House (now embedded within Manor Gardens), but nothing else survives. The town grew east from the site of the old Emwell Cross, an open space which tradition says was an old market site originally and now contains a grade II* stone obelisk commemorating the enclosure of the parish in 1783. At that time the eastern limit of the town was at the junction of George Street and High Street. In the early 13th century the ‘market of Warminster’ with a shop ‘covered in stone’ appears to have been a separate area based around the chapel of St Lawrence, a chapel-of-ease for St Denys (the Minster) which had become isolated on the north-west fringes of the town.
Very little is known about the medieval development of the town apart from the mention of houses in Church Street, High Street, West Street and Portway, and until fairly recently, only hints of older buildings behind later fronts have been coming to light. During inspection and recording when town centre buildings are redeveloped, more evidence has been uncovered of the survival of early fabric that could be medieval or early modern.
Historic England have long understood that there is more to many ordinary or modern-looking towns than meets the eye and are actively fostering groups to uncover their history through the physical fabric of bricks, mortar and timber. It has recently been discovered that the row of buildings between the Athenaeum in the High Street and North Row contain the substantial remains of jettied timber-framed houses, probably shop-houses of the late medieval/early modern period. No. 16 (Bon Bon Chic) was dated to 1513 in 2014. No. 6 High Street (Café Journal) was found to date between 1499 and 1531. Cordens (no. 4 High Street) is likely to be the oldest in the row from architectural details evident. Fragments of earlier buildings have been uncovered at the Bath Arms (now Wetherspoons) and 32 Market Place (Coates and Parker) which hint at the type of buildings that preceded the present shops.
Warminster has been underappreciated as a town in architectural terms. Wiltshire Buildings Record is hoping to bring out knowledge of exactly how Warminster is unique and special, and this should foster greater interest in our town. Thanks should be given to the Warminster Preservation Trust who have kindly donated £2,000 so we can kick this project off with dating some key buildings using dendrochronology. Watch this space!
Dorothy Treasure Principal Buildings Historian, Wiltshire Buildings Record
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.
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.
After eight years working for the Museums Service at the History Centre, I was lucky enough to be given the chance to change direction slightly and join my colleagues in the Archaeology Service working directly with the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Environment Record (HER). This was a somewhat daunting prospect – moving from the sunny uplands of the first floor in the History Centre down to the darker, subterranean office with stellar views of the car park. However, my welcome was warm and friendly, regardless of my ignorance in the matters of tree throws, debitage and test pits….
In the august words of Historic England, ‘HERs are an important starting point for anyone interested in the archaeology, built heritage, and history of an area. They can provide information on a wide variety of buildings and sites, from finds of prehistoric flint tools to medieval castles and Second World War pillboxes.
HERs are a primary source of information for planning, development-control work, and land management.’
There are over 85 HERs held in England, maintained and managed by local authorities and often held by joint services such as district councils and national parks. Similar records are maintained by the National Trust.
The Wiltshire and Swindon HER is not only used to advise planning authorities and developers of the implications to the historic environment when a proposed development looms but is also consulted by a variety of different users. They include archaeologists, historians, community groups, students, schools and general members of the public.
One of my favourite queries was in June this year from the 12th Cambridge Scout Group, asking me for the dimensions of Stonehenge, as the troop were about to recreate the monument with cardboard boxes. You can check out some photos of their creation on their Facebook page!
Most HERs contain three types of record, Monuments (the archaeology or buildings), Events (fieldwork such as excavations or building surveys) and Sources (the associated documentary source). The records include non-designated archaeological sites and buildings, designated Heritage Assets (e.g. listed buildings, scheduled monuments, protected wrecks, registered parks and gardens and registered battlefields) and other areas such as conservation areas.
Wiltshire is obviously rich in all of these monuments (apart from the protected wrecks!) and our HER can be used as a signpost to discover further information about them. Something as splendidly evocative as the Amesbury Archer, whose grave was discovered in 2002, a Central European man suffering from an abscess and missing left kneecap who was buried with an unusually large number and variety of objects including pots, arrowheads, two bracers (archers’ wrist guards), flint tools, three copper knives, a pair of gold hair ornaments and a cushion stone (used as a small anvil during metalworking). The gold ornaments are the oldest gold objects yet to be found in Britain.
As the most recent member of the Archaeology team, I found this information fascinating and used the HER database to search for other sites and monuments in the near vicinity of the discovered burial, using the GIS layers on which the data is linked.
Having worked with the National Buildings Record many years ago, I’m also passionate about architecture, quite often post-medieval and dare I say it, 20th century, much to many archaeologists’ bemusement. The HER can also signpost the user to the built heritage and in Wiltshire we have an interesting supply of military building types with evidence at Larkhill of a First World War training battlefield and trench system (including finds of associated bottles!).
(For more information about this fascinating site see first world war tunnels, a blog by my colleague Clare King, Assistant County Archaeologist).
Our HER is constantly being added to and enhanced, with various projects also included into the database including a farmsteads project, an Extensive Urban Survey and the Historic Landscape Characterisation project, which is an overview of the modern and historic processes that have influenced the character of the landscape.
Are you interested in the rich and diverse landscapes of Wiltshire but wondered what influences and activities have shaped them? Have you ever tried to identify traces of the historic in the present day? These questions and so much more can be answered by the use of the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Landscape Characterisation Project dataset!
It could be useful for those:
• Producing neighbourhood plans or design statements
• Investigating their local parish, town or village
• Involved with planning or strategic decision making • Undertaking academic research for school, college or university
The project started in 2012 and ran until the end of 2016 and was sponsored by Wiltshire Council, Swindon Borough Council and Historic England. The actual data itself and was created by studying historic and modern maps, aerial photographs and archaeological data to build a complete record for Wiltshire and Swindon. But what exactly will be made available to you?
• The complete dataset of c.14,500 HLC records, covering every part of the county giving details about the present and past character and attributes of the landscape for each land parcel
• Maps of historic landscape character built from the records so patterns and distributions across parishes, districts and the whole county can be seen
• A comprehensive and easy to read report explaining how the project was carried out, the sources used and descriptions of the different landscape types out there
• Case studies showing how you can use HLC data to investigate historic towns, historic farms and places like the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site
In the archaeology service most new archaeological discoveries tend to be through our advice on planning applications. If a proposed development has the potential to impact heritage assets and in particular those with archaeological interest (as referred to in the National Planning Policy Framework), then we advise planning officers that a programme of archaeological investigation needs to be carried out in order to determine the significance of heritage assets affected by the proposals. Since I joined the archaeology service in August 2012 there have been some really exciting discoveries through development management, an overwhelming amount dating to the Romano British period. To name some of the top sites over the last few years that date to this period, we've had a Roman villa in Devizes, a roadside settlement near Beanacre, a high status farmstead outside Chippenham, two farmsteads on the outskirts of Trowbridge...the list goes on. In fact I have been surprised at just the amount of activity going on during this period in our county. Maybe it's not surprising considering we have some major Roman roads running through (see map below) including the main routes from London to Bath; from Silchester to Dorchester (Port Way); from Lincoln to Exeter (Fosse Way) and from Winchester to Charterhouse (Mendips). The two towns of Cunetio (Mildenhall) and Sorviodunum (Salisbury) lay at important junctions of the strategic road network and other towns of Durocornovium (Wanborough) and Verlucio (Calne) are also known to lie along the road network.
Many of you no doubt have read recently in the newspapers or heard on the radio that there has been a major new Roman discovery in the Deverills. We got a call from Luke Irwin who explained that whilst constructing an electricity cable to one of his outbuildings his workmen stumbled upon some kind of tiled floor surface and the tiles appeared to be quite small and colourful. He ordered the workmen to stop digging and that is when he contacted us. Of course my initial reaction was that of incredible excitement tempered by the realism, "what are the chances", people often tend to over exaggerate the significance of archaeological discoveries in their gardens. Despite my cynicism I quickly arranged to visit the site the following day with the County Archaeologist, Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger. Upon our arrival Luke explained that one of his workmen was interested in archaeology so had meticulously cleaned the floor. When we peered down the cable trench both our mouths must have dropped open and I think we both said at the same time "I don't believe it, you have got a Roman mosaic!!!” There was no arguing with the clearly distinctive Roman mosaic pattern, a common geometric border pattern known as guilloche.