Local Studies Library – the elderly volumes that might surprise you!
I can’t believe it’s been 5 years this month since I was lucky enough to become the County Local Studies Librarian here at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre. In this time, I’ve had the exciting opportunity to learn a lot more about Wiltshire’s fantastic Wiltshire Studies collection, both at the History Centre and in the county’s many local libraries. You could spend a lifetime delving into the items we hold; there is never enough time in the day to enjoy looking at the collection and the many and varied topics, people and places that span hundreds of years.
The items in our collection have found their way to us through many different means. Some have been purchased, others gifted or donated by kind individuals, many local residents who share our belief that Wiltshire’s treasures should stay in the county for everyone to access and enjoy. Others have been in the ‘library’ system much longer, from reading rooms at places such as the Mechanics Institute in Swindon, historically part of the Wiltshire local authority before Swindon became unitary in 1997.
Local Studies libraries are classed as a ‘special collection’, and within Wiltshire’s are items dating from the 17th century to today. You would be surprised to learn how robust the most elderly items in our collection are; the acid in modern paper makes modern books more troublesome to keep safe. Even so, we like to keep an eye on our oldest items to ensure they are well looked after. I am currently conducting a condition survey to check on their wellbeing and the process has been very informative, opening my eyes to the rich variety of items we hold.
Our journey begins with some of our oldest items; Civil War and Commonwealth pamphlets from 1647-1658 (ref. AAA.946). These include the impeachment of members of the House of Commons by Sir Thomas Fairfax in 1647, an account of the speech of King Charles I on the scaffold in 1649 and a copy of the Commonwealth Mercury dated 25 November 1658, describing the removal of the body of the late Oliver Cromwell from Whitehall.
We could see the enemy’s whole body of horse face about and run with speed… and our horse in close body firing in their rear, till they had chased them down the hill in a steep place, where never horse went down and up again.
Sir Henry Slingsby, Royalist Cavalry Commander, describing the endgame of the battle of Roundway Down.
Slingsby’s laconic words describe the best-known moment of the 1643 Battle of Roundway Down, when the broken Parliamentarian cavalry were chased from the field by the troopers of King Charles I. During this rout, both those fleeing and their pursuing enemies rode off the steep, western edge of the chalk down. The moment captured the imagination and that part of the down is known as the Bloody Ditch!
The rout of the Roundheads might be the most famous part of the action, but it was part of a bigger battle that was, in turn, part of a wider campaign as both sides tried to take control of the west of England. Both sides were seeking to exploit the region’s resources, recruit its menfolk, seize the horses and tax the populace, who were, often unwilling, participants in the increasingly bitter civil war that had broken out in 1643. Meanwhile, the battle took place on chalk downland that had already seen millennia of human activity, the landscape is rich in archaeological remains as a result, with barrows and a hillfort. The edge of the downs also gives superb views across the surrounding landscape and its archaeology.
In early September, we led an archaeological walk across part of the battlefield to explore and explain both the flow of the battle and the more ancient remains in the area.
The Roundway Landscape
The Wiltshire Historic Environment Record includes data for a number of later Neolithic or Bronze Age barrows. Like many other barrows in Wiltshire these occupy prominent locations with extensive views into the wider landscape. They have also, like many similar monuments, been investigated by 19th century antiquarians. Although some of these monuments are similar to others in the county, with prehistoric burials beneath and within earthen mounds, one barrow is exceptional. When it was opened in the 19th century a number of metal fixings were found that suggested there may have been a bed burial inserted into the Bronze Age mound during the Anglo-Saxon period. Bed burials are an unusual Saxon burial practice, usually reserved for women of high status, another example in Wiltshire comes from Swallowcliffe, between Salisbury and Shaftesbury, with others known elsewhere in Wessex and around Cambridge. These bed burials appear to date to the 7th Century AD and may relate to the conversion of England to Christianity, and the woman was buried with a dress pin decorated with a cross. The burials may also relate to the wider power struggles between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including the expansion of Wessex. The mound and the artefacts were re-investigated by Sarah Semple and Howard Williams in 2001 when they suggested that the Roundway burial might actually have included an elaborate coffin, rather than a bed. Whatever the mode of burial, the status of the deceased remains in no doubt, while the reuse of the much older burial mound is typical of Anglo-Saxon burials associated with barrows. This practice suggests not only the use of the barrows as landmarks, but also that they retained some form of mythic or folkloric power to the people of Anglo-Saxon England.
The walk also visited Oliver’s Castle, an Iron Age hillfort that overlooks St Edith’s Marsh. This monument includes a ditch and bank creating a rampart that encloses a promontory on the edge of the downs. The ramparts respect two earlier Bronze Age burial mounds. When excavations took place in the later 19th century, there was little trace of settlement, suggesting that the hillfort was, perhaps, used as a place of safety in time of danger, or that it was used for ceremonial events. In either case, the prominent location meant that views of the surrounding landscape were excellent, whether to see enemies or to be closer to the gods. The site enjoyed a later life as a sheep fold; a dew pond, providing water for sheep and probably originating in the 18th century, still survives within the ramparts. By the later 19th century, a shepherd is known to have had his hut close to the pond.
Below the fort is a site known as Mother Antony’s Well. This has been the site of excavations in recent years that have found probable Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age enclosure, and Roman remains that included kilns used to dry grain. In addition, the Romano-British population seem to have regarded the springs in the area as special, and one had an elaborate well head that may suggest a shrine.
With all this lovely sunshine in the last few weeks, it has been good to see so many people of all ages getting out and about in the great outdoors. I have been doing quite a lot more walking myself recently and it has reminded me how lucky we are in Wiltshire having so many monuments and historic places that are easily accessible and make great walks. Many of our sites and monuments are very impressive, give commanding views and are free to enter.
I have always enjoyed that physical engagement with the past that you get from climbing up to a steep ancient monument, such as an Iron Age hillfort, a castle mound or the top of the spire of Salisbury Cathedral. The physical exertion has always helped me to understand the scale of effort required by the people who built them and encourages enquiry about who, when and how the monuments were built.
I distinctly remember my first visit to Maiden Castle Hillfort in Dorset when I was 9 or 10, and after a steep walk the sense of discovery and wonder at the size of the ditches and banks. Several decades later, three of which as an archaeologist, I still get that same buzz about visiting these types of site, and what better way is there to get fitter and heather and explore our wonderful monuments at the same time?
Since 2007 the Wiltshire Council Archaeology Team has been organising annual archaeology walks each summer, usually to coincide with the annual Festival of Archaeology organised and promoted by the Council for British Archaeology in July and August. The walks, led by members of the Archaeology team have been very popular and have include places such as Avebury, the Stonehenge landscape, Littlecote Roman Villa, Barbury Castle, the Wansdyke, Adams Grave and Knap Hill and Oldbury Castle.
The very first walk I led as County Archaeologist in 2007 was one of the most challenging. It was a very rainy and wet Spring and Summer and the July walk to Avebury, Silbury and West Kennett Long Barrow was hampered by flooding, so much so that we lost some of the group as they weren’t wearing appropriate footwear to wade across the flooded Kennett on the way to the Long Barrow. Nevertheless, there was plenty to talk about at Silbury as English Heritage were in the process of repairing the Hill after a partial tunnel collapse some months earlier. The repair work was a great opportunity archaeologists to learn more about the monument and how it was built. The 2014 publication of the results by Historic England are fascinating.
This year for the first time in 27 years the Council for British Archaeology is taking a break from organising the Archaeology Festival. However, the County Archaeology team are still organising three exciting and diverse walks, one each in July, August and September.
Sunday 29th July - Iron Age Hillforts. Starting at Battlesbury, Warminster
Long before the Army started training on Salisbury Plain, and even before the Romans ruled, massive earthwork defences were created on the chalk downland. The edge of the Plain above Warminster has been sculpted to created massive hillforts over 2000 years old. Were these structures intended to defend ancestral lands, or to say "this is us”? Were they citadels, granaries, or temples? The hillforts enclose older remains – sites of burials and sacred places, so there may be more to them than defence and power. Join us as we explore these massive monuments and the landscape that they occupy, see how archaeology has deepened our understanding of the hillforts and wonder why, after so much work, one fort may have been abandoned before it was finished.
Sunday 5th August - Avebury World Heritage Site
Avebury is well known for having the largest Prehistoric stone circle in the world. However, the stone circle is surrounded by a range of other funerary and ritual monuments dating to the Neolithic and Bronze Age, some of which are unusual and unique. This exciting tour takes you through and between the monuments, exploring the monuments and their relationship with the landscape. The tour will take in the Avenue, Waden Hill and Silbury Hill amongst others and explore the reasons why the Avebury landscape has been designated as a World Heritage Site.
Sunday 2nd September - Oliver’s Castle Roundway Down Battlefield, Bromham
The Battle of Roundway Down was fought on 13th July 1643, when the armies of King Charles I and Parliament clashed on the hills above Devizes. Our walk will explore the battlefield and its importance, as well as its place in the wider landscape. Join us to find out why there were Lobsters on the battlefield, how the Bloody Ditch got its name and what occasioned Charles I’s only recorded joke. We might also explain where Devizes castle went.
We will also explore the remains of much older monuments, Oliver’s Castle Iron Age hillfort and associated burial mounds, which are testament to how our Prehistoric ancestors used this landscape for settlement, defence and ritual activities.
The walks promise to be interesting and stimulating events for all age groups. They all start at 11 AM on a Sunday morning and will involve walking for 2-3 hours. The Iron Age Hillforts walk may be a little longer (3-4 hours).
All our walks are free but you will have to book a spot as we have a limit on numbers.