“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.
Iron Age hillforts must be one of the most visited types of archaeological sites in the country. Recently I have been up to Barbury Castle a couple of times and have been reminded how impressive and commanding this site is, not just because of its massive ramparts, but also its good state of preservation and all of the other archaeological features you can see from here. It is one of the most impressive of the 35 hillforts we have in the Wiltshire and Swindon area, with panoramic views that take in the Marlborough Downs and the Vale of Pewsey.
Barbury is located between Wroughton and Swindon and the County boundary, as well as parish boundaries, run through the middle of the hillfort. The hillfort was built in the Iron Age, probably around 700 BC and is likely to have been continuously used until the Roman invasion in the mid 1st century AD. It was one of a string of hillforts built close to the line of the Ridgeway, considered to be an ancient long distance routeway. Three other hillforts, Liddington, Uffington and Martinsell are all intervisible with Barbury. It is the most developed and most impressive of the Ridgeway hillforts, having double ramparts on the south side and triple on the north side (possibly an unfinished circuit). In places the banks or ramparts stand over 3 metres in height even now and in the Iron Age would have been topped with wooden palisades and defensive towers. Located at 262 metres above sea level Barbury was built on the highest point of the local area, a beneficial defensive position with commanding views of the landscapes below.
The ramparts at Barbury enclose an area of about 5 hectares and there were two original entrances that survive today at the east and west sides. Unfortunately there has been little modern archaeological investigation to tell us details of the lives lived at Barbury. However, the results of a geophysical survey carried out by English Heritage in 1998 indicate that the interior is littered with hundreds of pits (probably for grain storage) and other features, some of which are the remains of huts or roundhouses.
The interior of the hillfort as well as the ramparts have suffered some damage in the 1940s from the activities of American troops and the Home Guard who were based at the nearby Wroughton Airfield during the war and used Barbury as a training ground. The original hillfort entrances were unfortunately widened by American troops in order to get their trucks into the interior. Fortunately, we have a measured survey drawn in 1884 by General Augustus Pitt Rivers, the first ever Inspector of Ancient Monuments, to show how they would have been.