“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 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!
Join the Wiltshire Council Archaeologists for two free guided archaeology walks. This year we are celebrating the annual Festival of British Archaeology by organising walks in two archaeologically rich and exciting locations.
In the morning of Saturday 11th July Rachel Foster, Assistant County Archaeologist will be leading a guided archaeological walk up to the fabulous Iron Age hillfort at Oldbury near Cherhill and across the Cherhill Downs. You get a chance to see the multiple and well preserved ramparts, the location of the Iron Age settlement, the Cherhill White Horse and Lansdowne Monument. From the top of the hill you will experience the fantastic panoramic landscape views and Rachel will point out and discuss key archaeological features such as Roman roads, the Wansdyke and Silbury Hill.
Sir Terry Pratchett has lived in south Wiltshire for many years and is well known in the county for his work at literary, community and charity events. In some recent books the influence of the chalk landscape in which he lives has been very apparent. However it is his latest book that has just been added to the Wiltshire Collection at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. In Raising Steam the power of steam locomotion comes to Discworld and the small settlement of Swine Town on the Sto Plain becomes a fast growing centre of engineering, mirroring the growth of our own Swindon. His railway company also provides homes and social facilities for railway workers, just like the GWR. There also happens to be a Fat Controller, the original of which was created by the Rev. Awdry after living in Box when a boy, listening to the steam locomotives chuffing and puffing around Box Tunnel, and later writing Thomas the Tank Engine books based on these memories.