Thursday, 16 February 2017

Wiltshire way

Walking the dog, up on the Wessex Ridgeway, I can see everywhere I’ve lived since 1969. Is this a good thing, to have seen so much of one place, risking the loss of a better life somewhere else? Perhaps, and I certainly thought so as a teenager stranded in a rural wasteland, peering into a brighter world through the prism of the motorcycle press.
But then I started to travel and work around the world and came to realise my discontent was connected to a lack of transport rather than where I lived. And now I think this probably is one of the best places in the world to live, especially if you like a bit of social history. Yet Wiltshire remains a forgotten county: even our kids have learnt to stop saying they live in Wiltshire, but just say near Stonehenge. Funny that everyone knows Stonehenge, but few know Wiltshire. And yet from up here on the Ridgeway you can trace human civilisation from its beginnings to the highest of today’s high tech.
Wiltshire is the now least populous county in England, ironic given that it was the most densely populated place in the UK when Stonehenge was built. And although you can’t see Stonehenge from the Ridgeway, one the oldest manmade routes in the world, it’s only ten miles away. Ten miles in the opposite direction is the even more impressive Avebury, Stonehenge’s World Heritage Site sibling. Avebury is where the science of archaeology started, back in the Eighteenth century, some 5,000 years after it was built.
Below the Downs in the middle distance is Devizes, with one of the finest Norman church and street plans in the country. There’s also the remains of the castle that marked the divide – hence Devizes – between crown and church control.
The church’s centre of power in these parts was down in Salisbury where the cathedral was built in a single style and at great speed – 38 years, where most took over a century to build. It is home to one of the Magna Cartas, the document that started to limit the crown and state’s power over its people.  
Power over people of a different sort can be found back in Devizes. The Colston family have the finest tomb in the town’s churchyard, paid for by the slave trade. It might appal us now, but slavery was what powered civilisation before the industrial revolution: slaves built and fought in Rome’s colosseum, raised the pyramids, and possibly Stonehenge. The Colston’s were considered great philanthropists in their day building and funding Roundway Hospital (named after their estate on the northern side of Devizes) as the county lunatic asylum. The buildings are fabulous, today converted into housing.

The other market towns are further away from the Ridgeway, following rivers. They are punctuated at roughly ten mile intervals, that being a reasonable day’s travel if droving livestock, or travelling to and from an outlying village. Early on people lived up on top of the Downs, building hill forts and terraces to grow food: there’s one such terrace, known as strip lynchets, a few hundred yards from where I climb up to the Ridgeway. Little but grass grows up here, just a few inches of soil covering solid chalk, which is why there are occasional white horses carved onto the slopes. The one I can see above Devizes was created for the millennium, and most are only a few hundred years old. The valleys below were heavily wooded and home to bears and wolves, so trips down to collect water and firewood were fraught with danger.
Some of the steep slopes made these lands easily defended, but this could be a double edged sword. The steep, rounded rise near Devizes is Oliver’s Mount, scene of a bloody battle in the English Civil War, still the bloodiest war in human history: a greater proportion of the population were killed than in any other conflict. The mounted Royalists drove Cromwell's Roundheads down  the slope in the biggest cavalry victory of the first civil war.

Over by West Lavington there’s a short church tower, and above it the plague pit. The plagues killed a third of the population, and mass graves near the church – and so consecrated ground – were the only way to cope. This is the reason churches are often on the edges of villages, as people moved away from the burial sites.
Gradually human activity cleared the woodland that covered Wiltshire’s plains and valleys to the extent that felling oak was an offence by the end of the Eighteenth century, the timber reserved for warships. The chalk uplands became home to the sheep that can still be seen occasionally, and were a great driver of England’s wealth. The barter of wool for Port from Portugal is the oldest surviving commercial agreement in the world, but the wealth it created was soon mopped up by the rich for themselves. The 1773 Enclosures Act allowed anyone with a title to claim common land as their own, leading to desperate rural poverty. My own home is built on such land, and from the Ridgeway I can see the Lansdown monument, an obelisk built by the Bowood Estate near Chippenham (just visible down by the River Avon) to mark the end of their land. Bowood has one of Wiltshire’s Capability Brown landscapes, although it is far less impressive than the one at Stourhead, down in the south west of the county.

Also near Chippenham is Lacock, a village perfectly preserved in time by the National Trust, and the star of many period dramas. I would stay with family here when parents went on holiday, getting soaked in the ford or building model aircraft in the front garden while trying to avoid inquisitive tourists. The village’s Abbey was confiscated from the church during Henry VIII’s reformation and the Fox Talbots who lived here invented photography. It was also used for the early Harry Potter films.

Up to the north is Swindon where Brunel based his Great Western Railway, now a museum and shopping village.  In front of me is Calne, where Harris the butchers were the main employer. You still see free-range pigs around Stonehenge and, with the new railway, Harris developed the Wiltshire ham cure that used less salt but still allowed hams to be taken to London without refrigeration. Pigs and ham were so central to diet here that some houses still have a brining bath in the cellar, added as the house was built but too big to be removed.
The gentle slope to the west of Devizes is home to the longest series of canal locks in the world. “Putting your back into” was how a lock was opened, and only the Victorians would think to bring a canal up to a town 400 feet above sea level. It’s a mightily impressive sight, and when you get to the top you can visit Wadworth’s brewery for a sharpener.

The Ridgeway marks the northern boundary of Salisbury Plain, Europe’s largest area of open grassland and the main practice zone for the UK military. As reminders of our high tech world Apache attack helicopters are commonplace, fast jets a regular sight and tanks occasionally block the roads. Makes a change from a hunt or a tractor. Over beyond Chippenham is Malmesbury, home to Dyson one of the biggest engineering research and development facilities in the country. They also make the odd vacuum cleaner.

So it might look empty, but Wiltshire is home to much of our history. And, if you must stray, the fabulous city of Bath is just over the border and London’s an hour on the train. We even get far less rain than the average for England. And there are some bloody fantastic roads and trails when you want to mess around on motorbikes. The countryside varies from soaring Downs, hidden lanes, forests and empty valleys. I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather live.


1 comment:

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