To its villagers Colerne is known as 'the village on the hill' and this sums up both its position and much of its history. The parish lies on an upland spur of land with the valley of the By Brook to the south and east and a scarp slope to the north where the land drops steeply to North Wraxall. Much of the parish lies on limestone with Great Oolitic limestone in the north, which has been used for much of the local building. In the south, where the land falls away below the village, is an area of sands, rubbly limestone and some clay. Traditionally the higher land was used for sheep-rearing with corn and root crops grown on the lower.
The parish borders Gloucestershire and Somerset to the west and the Three Shires Stone, where the three counties meet, is on the parish boundary. Today the proximity to Bath means that many villagers will look to that city for work and shopping, but for much of the past Box and Corsham probably exerted a greater influence. Historically Colerne has been bypassed by major roads and even today the minor road that connects Batheaston and Bath with the A420 has been moved to the north of the village leaving the High Street free of all but local traffic. As a result of this many children can cycle to the village school.
The earliest settlement seems to be at Bury Wood Camp, an iron age promontory hill fort in the north of the parish. The site covers 32 acres and has three entrances. Finds of coins date it to around 100 B.C., which makes it late iron age, and it is a very well developed structure. At this date it is quite likely to have been a small iron age 'town' with a permanent population keeping sheep, oxen, pigs and poultry.
The Fosse Way forms the western boundary of the parish and there are several possible Roman sites nearby. The major one is a villa from the 4th and 5th century AD near the airfield. It was built of stone and timber and had 11 rooms, three with mosaic floors. The Romans probably quarried stone in the area and would have farmed extensively. There is likely to have been a scattered settlement here at that time.
There is little evidence for Saxon settlement although there were definitely estates based at Colerne and Thickwood. It is impossible to say when these were founded but the fragments of a 9th century cross in the church would seem to indicate a settlement at that time. This could have been one of the crosses set up to mark the resting places of the body of St. Aldhelm between Doulting (Somerset) and Malmesbury Abbey, and it is unlikely that the party would have rested overnight where there was no shelter or houses.
In the Domesday Book (1086) two settlements are recorded in the modern parish and, by implication, there were likely to have been two or three more small ones, including one at Euridge. Colerne itself belonged to Humphrey de Lisle and included a mill and a coppice wood. Using modern interpretation of Domesday figures it would seem that between 80 and 110 people lived here. The settlement at Thickwood was much smaller, being between 20 and 30 people.
The manor of Colerne was passed to the de Dunstanville family and in 1190 Walter, 1st Baron of Castle Combe, started building the stone church. There may have been an earlier one but nothing is known of it. Unless the site of the manor house has changed over the centuries the Norman house was to the north-east of the church. Stone from local quarries was used in all the buildings with normal practice being to open a quarry close to the building site. It was in the time of Walter de Dunstanville, 3rd Baron of Castle Combe, that the right to hold a market was granted around 1250. After 1270 the manor passed into other hands and in 1388 it was granted to New College, Oxford, who held it until 1877.
The medieval village developed to the west of the church around the open market-place, which was a part of the main street through the village. It is difficult to determine the extension of settlement at this time but it is likely that there was a nucleated area around two roads with other people thinly scattered in the parish. Enclosure of land began in the 13th century and by 1311 Colerne Park, of 200 acres, had been created by William of Colerne, the forward-thinking Abbot of Malmesbury.
By the late 13th century the cloth trade, including carding, spinning, weaving and finishing had become well-established and fulling mills were set up on the By Brook with both Chapps Mill and Widdenham Mill being early examples. By the 14th century Colerne was a prosperous community with an economy based on sheep-rearing, cloth production (which continued until the late 18th century) and stone quarrying. Examples of survival of late medieval housing are numbers 1 and 3 Market Place, while in the High Street Daubenys was a longhouse of c.1400 with a barn to the west of similar date.
The pattern of life in Colerne would not have changed greatly for some centuries but will have followed the pattern of slow evolution in an agricultural community. In 1447 New College were granted a Friday Market and a 3 day fair on the eve, feast and morrow of St. John the Baptist (28th-30th August). The fair is likely to have brought annual excitement to the village with traders travelling some distance to attend. Unfortunately, the fair later became the venue for fights between the menfolk of Colerne and Box, an almost inescapable pastime of neighbouring villages.
In the 16th century the manor house was rebuilt in the Elizabethan style and remained so until 1900 when all but the southern block, which was incorporated into the new house, was demolished. In the latter part of the 17th century John Aubrey said that Colerne Down was 'famous and frequent for playing stowball. The turf is very fine and rock within ½ inch of the surface gives the ball a quick rebound'. Stowball was played with a hard stuffed leather ball, about 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, which was hit by sticks, made from withies, about 3½ yards (315 cm) long. Stowball seems to have been an English version of the Scottish game of golf.
There seems to have been much rebuilding and new building in the 18th century with many village houses dating from that period. This was partially caused by a very damaging fire of 1774 when, on April 1st, 42 houses, 2 malt-houses, 18 barns, 7 stables, and 36 outhouses were destroyed. Nearly 60 families were rendered homeless. A list of these can be found in 'The Fire at Colerne, 1774' in the booklist and it is interesting to note the following clothworkers among them - woolcomber, scribblers, spinners, and shearman. There must also have been a fair amount of destitution at this time as the church house (one built for the secular business of the church) was being used as the parish poor house, and by 1783 there were two others. Most poor relief, though, was 'out relief' where people were paid to enable them to live in their own homes or other people were paid to take them into their homes. The village cloth industry continued until the late 18th century but the increasing mechanisation of the industry in towns spelt the end of the centuries-old business in Colerne. Chapps Mill was converted to paper-making at this time. By the 1770s there were separate settlements at Thickwood, Euridge and Easthrop as well as Colerne.
At the opening of the 19th century agriculture was the mainstay of the local economy although paper-making provided a small amount of employment. Chapps Mill, which is associated with Slaughterford although it is in Colerne parish, continued in production until the 1990s, mainly under the Dowdings, but paper was also made at Widdenham and Doncombe Mills between the 1790s and 1847. In the early 1840s there was a demand for labourers for the building of the Great Western Railway and specifically the Box Tunnel. Demand for labour outstripped local supply and in 1841 66 labourers were being lodged in Colerne. Later Colerne men worked in the Box stone mines and some were also quarrying in their own parish. By the mid 19th century 23 men were employed in the stone industry while others were in a range of trades and crafts typical of a self-supporting village of that time. The fact that 12 women were dressmakers and seamstresses and 10 were laundresses and washerwomen working at home indicates that a fair number of families needed extra income to the man's wage.
Colerne remained a fairly isolated parish until the First World War and had most of the shops and trades needed by its villagers. Most transport and communication was by means of the carrier's cart. On the edge of the parish Chapps Mill was producing grocery papers, bag papers (including sugar bags), brown paper, straw paper and all sorts of wrapping papers. Later it made sugar paper and art papers for schools.
Until 1935 the village water supplies were drawn from three springs and many wells - there were 41 in 1905. However, mains water was then laid on but the village had to wait until 1950 for a mains sewerage system to be completed. Even then it was inadequate and it was not until 1989 that final improvements were made. The real growth of the village and its amenities was to come from the construction of RAF Colerne, known locally as 'The Camp'.
Unlike many World War II airfields this was always planned as a permanent RAF station. A survey was carried out in 1936 and in 1938 the site was assessed for the suitability of a Blind Landing System. Construction began in June 1939 and although this was largely good for the village economy, with many local men employed, it caused much distress and hardship for the farmers and cottagers who were dispossessed.
There were early problems with a very severe winter in 1939/40, difficulties with supply and transport of materials and labour shortage. Although it was not finally completed until 1944, it opened in January 1941 in a maintenance role with aircraft using grass strips before the runways were built. No. 39 Maintenance Unit remained throughout the war and beyond.
On 16th September 1940 RAF Colerne officially became a fighter station with No. 87 Squadron arriving in November and converting to night flying. Many squadrons had spells at Colerne and some were actually formed at the station. In the early years of the war Hurricanes and Spitfires were based here but in January 1945 the first jet fighters arrived - Gloster Meteor IIIs. There was a great influx of servicemen during the war and afterwards, when the station was being developed for its Cold War role, came the arrival of many RAF families and the building of married quarters. This caused a substantial rise in population and impacted on village services, including the school, which was far too small. Throughout this time relations between the village and the RAF were generally good and the village felt that the camp was a good thing.
The station closed in 1976 and was handed over to the army for use as a barracks. This caused a substantial drop in population (3,142 in 1971 to 2,643 in 1981) and the end of an era for the village. The Vineyard Restaurant probably came about as a result of the camp, being opened on 7th October 1945 by Iris Fuller serving Sunday teas mainly to RAF personnel at first. It soon achieved a national reputation for its catering and cuisine by the 1950s and a special bus had to be provided to it on Sundays. After many successful years as a restaurant it was sold to the comedian Ben Warris in 1966 and continued in the same successful vein.
Meanwhile, the village consolidated and in 1956 the parish hall was opened, 34 years after a trust fund had been first formed for it. Today the village is a pleasant stone-built community with public houses, shops and other businesses, and with a range of village organisations.
Lucknam is likely to have been a Saxon settlement and was originally a farm. It was bought in 1688 for £500 by James Wallis (of the wealthy family of Trowbridge clothiers), who had also purchased the manors of North Wraxall and Biddestone. He started rebuilding Lucknam to turn it into a mansion and his son, Ezekiel, probably finished this work. Stone from local quarries would have been used for the work. The property passed to Paul Methuen in 1760 and was occupied by various families. In the mid 19th century the Boodes made improvements and later in that century the Walmesleys added the water tower to the mansion. The house was partly reconstructed by 1925 and in 1987 it became the Lucknam Park Hotel. More recently an equestrian centre has been set up in the grounds.