In January 2022, Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Environment Record (HER) joined many of its cousins on Historic England’s Heritage Gateway. Heritage Gateway covers the whole of England and is the only place where you can search across county boundaries for heritage information. It also includes links to individual County and National Park HERs.
So how and why did these collections of historical sites arise?
General Augustus Pitt Rivers, perhaps better known for his archaeological excavations on his estate on Cranbourne Chase, became the first Inspector of Ancient Monuments in 1882 and created the first catalogue of archaeological sites.
In 1908, the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) was formed to create an inventory of ‘Ancient and Historical Monuments and Constructions’.
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…
As an archaeology student it is beyond useful to have a resource like the History Centre so easily accessible, so when I was offered the chance to undertake a work placement with the Archaeology Service I jumped at the opportunity to get a better understanding of the full range of what the Archaeology Service does and what the History Centre has to offer.
Over my time at the Archaeology Service I was given a number of duties to complete from research to cataloging and many other things in between.
One of my main roles during my time here was to research the Iron Age Hillforts of Wiltshire. This is a topic I am particularly interested in and I have been studying Iron Age communities for the last year. While at the History Centre I was asked to create some information boards about the hillforts of Wiltshire as well as a map showing where they all were in the county. Having access to the local studies library was a huge help with this research, having over 25,000 books in the collection it wasn’t difficult to find a lot on the Hillforts in Wiltshire. Even better the library also had every volume of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine so I could look at excavation and research reports on Hillforts going as far back as 1853!
A lot of the work I was doing during my placement involved using the HER or Historic Environment Record. The HER is a detailed record of local archaeological sites and finds, historic buildings and historic landscapes which is regularly updated. In my research into Wiltshire’s hillforts the HER was incredibly useful as an information source but also there were some records that I found that needed to be added showing just how the HER is constantly being improved and added to.
As well as the wealth of knowledge contained in the HER and Local Studies library, the Archaeology Service also has hundreds if not thousands of aerial photographs and files on each of OS map square in the county containing pieces of unpublished information, maps, letters and photographs of archaeology around the county, part of my job was to catalogue what was in these map square files which was incredibly interesting as there were all manner of amazing maps and hand drawn sketches going back to the 1960s.
Although my time with the archaeology service was ultimately cut short because of the Coronavirus Pandemic I still got an invaluable insight into what the Archaeology Service do, from assisting the County Archaeologists with determining archaeological potential for planning applications to going out on site visits to building projects where archaeological work had uncovered Roman and Medieval features in an unsuspecting field.
The Archaeology Service also works closely with other areas of the History Centre which I was lucky enough to be introduced to, such as the conservation labs who were working on conserving a large hoard of Roman coins, the archives who have thousands of records about Wiltshire going back hundreds of years and containing amazing maps, photographs and even Henry VIII marriage settlement to Jane Seymour. The Wiltshire Building Record also works closely with the Archaeology Service, they work to record the buildings of Wiltshire collecting a wide range of documents, plans and photographs on thousands of buildings across Wiltshire, during my time at the Archaeology Service I was actually able to assist the WBR by identifying a number of buildings in the Parish of Southwick which had yet to be identified.
The History Centre is an invaluable resource for research into local history (and for me also Pre-history) and it was a brilliant placement that has significantly widened my knowledge in the work of County Archaeologists and the HER. Having worked on archaeological sites in Wiltshire, working in the Archaeology Service was almost like getting a behind the scenes tour of the work that goes into protecting and educating people on the county’s archaeology. I have no doubt that I will be back to the Centre in the near future for my own research and taking full advantage of the amazing resources housed there.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a national programme run by the British Museum in partnership with local bodies; in Wiltshire these are Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire Museum, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. The primary aims of the scheme are to provide a framework by which members of the public can identify and record finds of potential archaeological significance, as well as to encourage awareness of archaeological issues and best archaeological practice. Whilst the scheme is available to everyone, from field walkers to builders, by the nature of their hobby Metal Detectorists find the majority of the archaeological artefacts we record onto our database; and it is our job to help those engaged in the hobby record as much archaeological information as they can, while also minimising disturbance of in situ archaeological remains.
Metal detecting as a hobby is actually highly comparable to fishing and, anecdotally, I have noticed there does seem to be a great deal of overlap between the two groups. Both hobbies are relatively solitary affairs which can require great deals of patience – they both also exploit a resource in our environment, but this is where the similarities begin to end. Whereas fishing is carefully licenced and managed in order to ensure that the exploitation of our river’s fish is sustainable, there is no such monitoring of the archaeological record.
Crucially, and unlike fish, the archaeological record cannot repopulate itself, once a deposit is disturbed and/or artefact removed, the context is lost for good. This is why it is imperative that detectorists behave responsibly as they exploit this resource which, ultimately, belongs to everyone.
Legally speaking, detectorists in England and Wales are only required to report objects which meet the criteria of the Treasure Act 1996, this is a very specifically worded and narrow set of criteria which frequently miss nationally important finds; a recent example has obviously been the Gloucestershire Dog hoard, but more locally this narrow definition has missed a large hoard of Roman pewter, containing a rare and well preserved tank, thankfully reported by the finder. There is more to detecting responsibly than simply making me aware of unusual finds however, and the perception that I would only be interested in nicer finds is something I often run up against.
Do you have an interest in archaeology? Would you like to know what has been found in your local area, or want to know more about how people lived in Wiltshire in the past? If so, then you might be interested to access our new website that allows you to research the finds, buildings, sites and monuments that exist on the county Historic Environment Record (HER).
The Historic Environment Record (HER) is a fantastic resource that holds information on all the currently known archaeology for Wiltshire and Swindon. This includes everything from Palaeolithic flint tools that are half a million years old to World War I practice trenches created only a hundred years ago – as well as everything in between! Using the HER can be fun and helps to guide your research, as it can tell you about the character and date of archaeological sites/finds as well as how they have been investigated and where you can find more (such as in journals, books and reports).
The new website allows people to easily search the archaeology of Wiltshire and presents data on both a map and dynamic database. To have a go, click to visit the HER homepage
The new website is easier to use than our previous one and allows you to search by the following themes: • Unique identifier number – so you can find records you’ve accessed before… • Keyword – to find particular find/site types – such as castles or axeheads! • Site name – for place names you know like your parish church or famous sites like Stonehenge! • Period – so you can see all Roman artefacts or all prehistoric archaeology we know about… • Grid reference – if you know exactly where you want to research - whether rural or urban!
You can also browse by navigating the interactive map – which can show both Ordnance Survey mapping or aerial photography. You can pan and zoom using the tools and the grid reference of your location handily shows at the top in case you need it!
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.