Just like many, many others, at the end of March we picked up laptops, chargers, diaries and the odd office chair and settled down to life and work in lockdown at home.
My work is centred on the Wiltshire and Swindon HER (Historic Environment Record), a database and fantastic resource that holds information on all the currently known archaeology and historic monuments for the county. This still functions extremally well for any enquiries we have had, from commercial searches undertaken during planning applications to the finding of interesting flints when someone is out walking on the Wiltshire downs.
I now start work in the morning at my kitchen table and am very lucky to have my garden to look at with the myriad of spring and summer life that goes with it, from baby long-tailed tits to a sparrowhawk sitting on the garden chair, an inquisitive crow and a less welcome rat.
A family lockdown walk developed fairly quickly and I’ve used the route frequently from March onwards, enjoying the seasonal changes and the variety of architecture and countryside in and around Corsham.
The following is a brief description of some of the associated sites from the lockdown walk which are also present on the HER. Each site is identified with its unique number.
My route takes me past the playing fields of The Corsham School. Second World War allotments are visible on this site from aerial photographs taken in 1946 and these were created as part of the Dig for Victory campaign that was introduced in September 1940. MWI74074 - Second World War Allotments, The Corsham School. On my left is Hatton Way, named after Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite courtier of Elizabeth I. Sir Christopher, when expressing devotion for his queen, always signed his letters with a hat drawn over the word ‘on’. Hatton spent about four years at Corsham House (Corsham Court) until financial problems caused him to sell up. Down Hatton Way is MWI65896 - Site of Purleigh Barn, a demolished 19th century outfarm of regular courtyard plan. The farmstead and all historic buildings have been lost.
The Wiltshire and Swindon Farmsteads and Landscapes Project Report summarises the results of mapping the historic character and survival of more than 4000 farmsteads and 2700 outfarms and field barns, all mapped onto the HER. Knowledge and protection of these historic farmsteads is inevitable if they are to be retained as a distinctive part of the rural landscape: otherwise, they risk decay and dereliction.
The route now reaches Pickwick, once a separate settlement from Corsham with strong Quaker roots. The area contains some 44 listed buildings and is a designated Conservation Area in its own right. Although the A4 speeds through the middle, it is always a great pleasure to admire the Georgian architecture. To my left is Pickwick Manor, MWI34416 - Pickwick Manor or Pickwick Farm Grade II* listed, described by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as an "unusually impressive example of a late 17th century manor house, having remnants of a 14th-century wing”. In the 1920’s the building was restored, altered and lived in by Sir Harold Brakspear, noted restoration architect and archaeologist, renowned for the restoration of St. George's Chapel, Windsor.
Crossing the road and passing some lovely 18th century houses, the walk reaches Academy Drive, named after the Bath Academy of Art, which was established in 1946 by Clifford Ellis after the destruction of the original premises. The then Lord Methuen, artist Paul Ayshford, allowed his home Corsham Court to become the centre of the Academy and Beechfield House, where the drive leads, was an annex to this and accommodation for male students. Aerial photographs taken in 1946 show several military buildings dispersed within the grounds of Beechfield House, presumably associated with the nearby military quarries, MWI74106 - Military Camp, Beechfield House. More aerial photographs taken in 2009 show the area to have been redeveloped and the wartime structures demolished - their locations are now partly occupied by the houses on Academy Drive and Woodlands.
Continuing along the main road our route passes a lovely roundhouse or toll house, MWI34400 - Roundhouse or Toll House, a Grade II listed building once locally known as the ‘Pepper Pot’, a sweet shop, kept by an elderly lady called Sally Watts. It is now a summerhouse.
Further on we can see the Church of St Patrick, which was originally built as the Pickwick District School in 1858. Later used as a glove factory and then a gas mask factory in WWII, the building has had many uses in its comparatively short life MWI34419 - Church of St Patrick and Pickwick School.
The footpath that takes the walker away from the road branches off to the right across a 24-acre field. On first glance, the field looks like any other large area of agricultural land but a quick look at our HER database gives a more detailed description. The entry states ‘These fields appear to have been created by converting an area of designed landscape associated with Guyer's House and Beechfield House into agricultural use. This former character is faintly legible through small plantations and scattered trees’ HWI4496 - Re-organised fields. The information for the field is part of the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Landscape Characterisation Project. This complete dataset of c.14,500 records covers every part of the county, giving details about the present and past character and attributes of the landscape for each land parcel. This was done by studying historic and modern maps, aerial photographs and archaeological data to build a complete record for Wiltshire and Swindon.
NB - This data is free to use but is the copyright of Wiltshire Council and Historic England and not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.
Back to the field! The scattered trees stand tall over a landscape that was once divided into smaller portions, as field boundaries and ridge and furrow, (ridges and troughs created by a system of ploughing, possibly medieval), were identified by a geophysical survey MWI74428 - Field Boundaries, North of Bath Road & MWI74430 - Ridge and Furrow. A small pit was also discovered during some archaeological fieldwork, which contained pottery possibly dating to the earlier Neolithic period MWI76326 - Neolithic Pit. The field also contains evidence of undated ponds but possibly the most exciting feature to wind its way through the land is underground. This is a former stone quarrying tunnel which probably ran from the Hartham Park Quarry and sometimes known as the Pickwick Quarry. Bath Stone, a warm, honey-coloured oolitic limestone, has been sought after since Roman times and Brunel's cutting of the Box Railway Tunnel, close to Corsham, revealed a rich seam of high-quality stone. The Corsham mines were extensively worked with miles of tunnels, chambers and air shafts and became the ideal underground storage location for the War Office during the Second World War and of further use during the Cold War – but that’s for another blog! MWI31707 - Stone Quarry Tunnel.
The path makes its green way through the field (hovering kestrels are a bonus) and crosses a lane which leads to Guyers House, MWI65891 - Guyer's House, originally a 17th century farmhouse and now a hotel and restaurant. It was the home for 14 years of Lancelot Charles Brown, the great grandson of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the landscape architect who enhanced Corsham Court and laid out the gardens and parkland. Hopefully he had a chance to admire the work of his great grandfather!
After a short distance across a paddock, the next field is reached, one which became a golden sea of colour in May and June. I’ve never been a fan of rapeseed fields but to walk through the crop was quite a pleasure during the dark news of Covid-19.
In late July the field is brown with drying oil pods, but the eye is drawn away from this to the spitfire swifts, flying just overhead for their insect meals.
To the right of the path a square, concrete structure sits in the field – is this a ventilation shaft from the tunnels?
The path reaches a country lane which leads to Pickwick Lodge Farm, a beautiful 17th century farmstead of regular courtyard plan. Note the 19th century gabled stone porch.
MWI65890 - Pickwick Lodge Farm.
If you are very lucky, you will be escorted on your walk by the farm cats for quite some way…
Back in 2014 we were fortunate in securing a National Heritage Lottery Fund award as part of their Collecting Cultures project. This gave us funding to connect and support museum collections throughout the county of Wiltshire in a variety of ways. We could add to collections, perhaps filling gaps where creativity was unrepresented, provide conservation, training and support for museum staff and volunteers and generally connect with our museum network in a way that would build strong links for the future. We hoped to create a legacy that would reflect the creative influence of our county.
The journey has taken five years to complete and we have recently submitted our final evaluation and report to mark the journey’s end. And what a journey it has been; we have learnt so much and connected with so many different people and organisations along the way, it has been an absolute pleasure to be part of it.
Our focus has been primarily on the creators who have associations with our county and the chart below will give an indication of the mediums represented and objects subsequently purchased.
It would have been easy to concentrate on fine artists alone, but we quickly realised that there were many different creative industries within the county, so we tried to represent as many as possible. Generally, the work purchased reflected the twentieth century and mid-century design in particular. It was a time of great change as WWII ended and new ideas about art and design began to emerge, some of our objects purchased certainly reflect those changes. The whole project has been supported by accredited Wiltshire museums and we need to especially thank Salisbury Museum, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, and Chippenham Museum, all supported by a range of organisations and individuals associated with the creative industries and museum service.
Many of our purchases were made direct from the makers and this has led to detailed background knowledge and provenance to accompany the objects, as well as developing strong ongoing relationships that will lead, in some instances, to the deposit of an artist’s archive at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. These archives will be available to all for further study. For some more expensive items, the purchase became a joint effort as partners applied for matched funding from larger organisations, making such additions to collections possible.
Inspired by and supporting this project a wide range of activities and events have been delivered increasing access to, knowledge of and participation in heritage. These have been enjoyed by over 47,000 participants. A mapping project was produced to help museums work together, supporting purchases and collecting policies so there is less overlap and more efficient working. 105 individuals have attended a series of training courses for museum staff and volunteers, covering a variety of topics that will help make their own museums and heritage organisations as sustainable as possible. Exhibitions have been held across the county highlighting newly acquired material and encouraging responses from the audiences and other artists and creators.
This wide-ranging project created the landscape for other activities to grow, raising the profile of creatives across the county and it has been wonderful to focus on this type of contemporary art and give it recognition. Many makers enjoyed the new-found connection with heritage and were inspired to create new works.
Please allow me an indulgence to choose my favourite object purchased during the project; this is a painting by Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn of the countryside surrounding Stratford Tony, where he lived. He was a painter previously unrepresented in a main collection in Wiltshire and his impressionistic work is an important addition. His association and friendship with John Singer Sargent resulted in many painting trips abroad, especially to France and Italy, where they were also accompanied by de Glehn’s wife, Jane Emmet. The painting is now part of the collection at Salisbury Museum and I hope that we can add more works in the future by this accomplished artist.
We are fortunate to have had such a unique opportunity to connect with each other in this way and are so pleased that we have been able to put new collecting practices in place to reflect the legacy of the project. The work does not stop here, it is the start of so much more and we look forward to showing you future collections and acquisitions that reflect the creativity of the county and its people.
To all our visitors and researchers who are enduring lockdown with the rest of the country, first and foremost, we hope you and your loved ones are safe and well in these difficult times.
While the History Centre is closed we wanted to reach out and let you know that the world of heritage is still accessible in many forms online. In the first of a series of blogs we highlight all that is available on our website and draw your attention to external websites that you can connect with from it. This is a generic overview and we will be publishing more detailed blogs on specific resources and how to best use them at home in due course.
Using the ‘Our Services’ tab you will unearth huge amounts of useful research tips and tools within the Archives section, from tips for the advanced family historian to how to research LGBT history. You will also see links to information which may be of interest, such as the work of an archivist – discover what we do behind the scenes (spoiler alert, we do not spend all day reading in the basement looking at dusty documents). There really is too much to highlight in just one blog post, so head over to the Archives page and explore for yourself.
In the Local Studies section of the website you will now find video recordings of County Local Studies Librarian Julie Davis conducting a virtual memory box reading group. Simply follow this link and then choose from the sessions by following the blue links listed after each session. Enjoy!
In this section there is also a link to the Wiltshire Community History website which is a wealth of information in itself, providing information on 261 Wiltshire Communities. This is well worth checking out for anyone interested in Wiltshire as a whole, but especially for more specific locations. It is arranged very simply in alphabetical order by location and every community page already has certain basic information, such as early maps, local administrative bodies, population from 1801, newspapers for its area, lists of local maps, the registration district, information on buildings and links to other sites of interest, plus a thumbnail history of the parish.
Of course our archive collection, the largest source of information in the History Centre, is locked away in the strong-rooms and is inaccessible for the foreseeable future. However our archive and library online catalogues remain accessible. The archive catalogue will give you a descriptive overview of our collections, but please be aware you cannot view the documents online. With that in mind, make a note of the reference number of any items you may wish to consult in the future once we reopen. If you are looking for new books or magazines to read, you can search the library catalogue. If you are not already a member you can sign up to access eBooks and eMagazines. The library service is also developing more online resources, such as poetry readings; keep an eye on their website for details.
Within the ‘Explore’ tab of the History Centre’s home page there are links to fabulous websites for all forms of local history. For those of you interested in researching local maps follow the link to Know Your Place West of England, which has historic maps for all participating counties in the region, though the Wiltshire map is available here.
It is an interactive website that layers historic maps of Wiltshire, which allows for easy map comparison and is useful for seeing how your local area developed over time. Watch this space though, as we are working on adding more useful information to it in the near future.
The Creative Wiltshire link is also well worth having a browse at, the project aim was to collect and celebrate the work of the county’s creative people, and the latest blog tells the story of the project as it reaches its conclusion.
This really is just a starter and, as mentioned above, there is so much more available on and via the website. So, whether you are a keen researcher already, or new to this heritage game then have an explore but also keep an eye out for the next in this series of blogs highlighting accessible heritage in Wiltshire during lockdown. Also follow us on Twitter and Facebook for instant updates.
(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)
At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?
According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.
I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature:
“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution. ‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back. ‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.” – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut
To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.
Museum and archive collections are, in their very nature, eclectic. They often have roots in one person’s fascination with the past and they develop and grow much like a tree putting out roots. They are often dependent on donations, and collecting policies within museums are developed to provide some structure to this form of collecting, making sure that very valuable storage space is used to advantage and the best are represented. It is not that often that choices can be made by museum and archive staff about what to purchase, what gaps to fill and who to represent.
The Heritage Lottery Funded Creative Wiltshire project has aimed to facilitate just that. With a carefully prepared bid back in 2014 we were successful in achieving funding to add to some of our Wiltshire collections and with careful consideration we have purchased items that aim to fill gaps, often representing a new creator with a strong Wiltshire connection. We are now reaching the end of this project and our final exhibition at Salisbury Museum will show off some of our recent purchases.
This project is not just about the purchases, it is also about offering training and development to volunteers and staff associated with museums within the county, as well as education workshops, a tool kit for teachers and other events in the wider community. The exhibition at Salisbury Museum has provided a perfect opportunity to put an ‘Exhibitions Assistant Trainee’ in place, to plan, oversee and install the final exhibition with the support of the Salisbury Museum Director, Adrian Green and his team. Thank you to Emily Smith, our successful applicant, who has been able to gain great ‘hands on’ experience of all aspects of exhibition work within a museum context. We gave her a tough brief; expecting planning, curation, exhibition design, mounting of work, co-ordinating staff, borrowing and transferring of objects required from around the county and she has had a busy four months putting this in place. We thank you for your enthusiasm and we are thrilled with the results. The exhibition at Salisbury Museum has now been extended to 29th September 2019; why not pop in and see what you think? You will find work by Rex and Laurence Whistler, Howard Phipps, Nancy Nicholson, Nick Andrew, Jonathan Wylder and Wilfred Gabriel de Glehn, amongst others.
During the course of the project other exhibitions have been held at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery and Chippenham Museum and both have focused on recent acquisitions to their collections. Sophie Cummings of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery says the project has exceeded her expectations and allowed them to purchase pieces by Ken White, previously un-represented in their collection, as well as fine art by Joe Tilson, Harold Dearden, David Bent and Janet Boulton and ceramics by Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie, Patricia Volk and Sasha Wardell.
The current exhibitions at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery are well worth a visit.
An Art of the People – Ramsbury & Cricklade Potteries features work by Ivan and Kay Martin of Cricklade, and Peter Holdsworth of Ramsbury.
Out of the Box: An exhibition of paintings by David Bent
An exhibition of work by David Bent which includes geometric landscapes, intricate photographic collages and paintings as well as his aviation art and “Movement 2000” series. Stunning and inspiring work by this Swindon based artist.
Walk into the search room at the History Centre and you will notice a couple of objects not normally associated with archives – a bodice made out of maps and a bathtub.
A closer inspection reveals they are two of 17 pieces of artwork produced by students from Wiltshire College’s Chippenham campus who explored the archive and various aspects of the county’s heritage.
The exhibition of 2D and 3D work – on display in the foyer as well as the search room – is already prompting questions from visitors and is encouraging people to engage creatively with our collections.
The project came about when art and design course tutor Alyson Minkley popped into the History Centre to see whether her students could use the archive as a stimulus to creating artwork. She wanted the class to explore the concept of archiving and create pieces that reflected aspects of Wiltshire’s heritage.
We were delighted to be involved in the project as it was another way of encouraging young people to engage creatively with archives. People often think that being the heritage education officer means that my work begins and ends with helping deliver the history curriculum in schools. But archives offer so much more.
For this project I delivered a facilitated session at Wiltshire College where the students were introduced to the concept of collecting and archiving with the help of a handling collection. This was followed by a tour of the History Centre and an opportunity to see behind the scenes as well as explore the practicalities of accessing the archives.
The afternoon generated a huge range of questions and it was clear the students went away inspired. We were delighted to see many of them return to the History Centre in their own time to request documents and carry out detailed research. The result of those visits is the thought-provoking artwork on display in the foyer and search room.
The individual pieces of work explore a wide range of topics including family history, Wiltshire’s asylums and how patients with mental health problems were “treated” in the 19th century, the county’s role as a training ground for the army and its iconic chalk figures – all of which are represented in our archives and local studies collections.