The parish of Alton lies in the Swanborough hundred, bordering Stanton St Bernard to the West and Wilcot to the East. Although today it is one parish, it comprises of three villages; Alton Priors, Alton Barnes, and the abandoned medieval village of Shaw. This accounts for the parish's rather irregular shape, rising to the Marlborough Downs in the north and dropping to the Vale of Pewsey in the south.
Wansdyke intersects with the north of the former Alton Barnes parish. Here the land rises to over 244 metres, and is predominantly of upper and middle chalk. The highest points of the down are capped by clay-with-flints at 274 metres. Areas still further north of Wansdyke are flatter, and more suitable for cultivation. The downs themselves were more traditionally used for pasture, but there is evidence that they were used for arable land in the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age. Further south near the village is an outcrop of upper greensand, making this area more appropriate for arable cultivation or pasture. To the west the boundary with Stanton St. Bernard was traditionally lined with stones. An Iron Age enclosed settlement, known as 'Eorth byrig' in Saxon times, is near this boundary. The village itself is Saxon in origin, and several items from the Saxon and medieval periods have been found there. Honey Street is at the far south west of the village and there is evidence there of a Romano-British settlement, as well as later Saxon occupation. The old southern border with Alton Priors is marked by Broad Well (Saxon: Brade Wyll) stream.
The former chapelry of Alton Priors forms a large portion of the parish. The land is mostly chalk, with the village itself resting on a strip of upper greensand. The most northern parts of Alton Priors are of upper chalk, this being replaced by middle chalk 500 metres to the south of this. These uplands were mainly used for pasture. The middle chalk forms two peaks; Walker's Hill in the west and Knapp's hill in the east. Both peaks stand at 260 metres, and are two of the richest historic areas of the parish.
Immediately to the north, and south west of Walker's Hill, are the Alton Barnes White Horse and Adam's Grave, or 'Old Adam', a Neolithic chambered long barrow. Old Adam is also the site of several Saxon battles fought defending Red Shore (Saxon: Read Geat), the gap in Wansdyke. These battles took place in 592 and 715, and are known as being at 'Wodnesbeorg' in Saxon. The area surrounding Walker's Hill is pitted and speckled with barrows and ditches of many sizes and shapes. Knap Hill is separated from Walker's Hill by the modern A48, and is of equal historical significance. There is evidence here of inhabitancy from the Neolithic period; there are several barrows on the hill and a causewayed camp. Sheep farming took place at a British-Romano settlement, as a burial and pottery shards attest. Knap Hill was also of significance to the Saxons, as the Workway Drove track dating from that era climbs the hill, crossing the Wansdyke at Ridge Way. Evidence of hut sites also indicate that the hill was still a settlement in the medieval period.
To the south of Knap Hill is East Field, which contains Burlinch Hill. Burlinch Hill and the surrounding field both bear evidence of early settlerment from the Romano-British and Iron Ages. To the south west of the field is the village of Alton Priors itself, which has its own medieval origins. It is separated from the nearby Alton Barnes by several small streams. In the south-eastern-most corner of the parish is Tawsmead copse, which sits west of the boundary with Woodborough. Several ring ditches have been found to the north of this, which could perhaps be indicative of early activity in the area. Golden Ball Hill occupies the north eastern corner of the parish where Alton Priors meets the old Shaw land. This area has yielded a particularly extensive crop of archaeological finds; a Palaeolithic flint hand axe, Mesolithic flint tools and a Saxon sword stud topped with a red garnet are among the most significant.
North of Golden Ball Hill is Shaw, which juts out to the east of the parish. The land here is mostly over 183 metres in height and straddles the Wansdyke. Like most downland, the majority of the ground is of upper and middle chalk, but the very highest points are clay-with-flints, accounting for Shaw Copse. Arable cultivation here is only possible on the flatter parts of the downs. Traditionally the land has been used for sheep-downs. There has been no permanent human settlement at Shaw since the medieval village was abandoned, although discoveries of British-Romano pottery suggest that there could have been another settlement at an earlier time.
Alton was split into separate estates around 825 A.D., or possibly earlier in the 9th century. The land was then divided into three separate estates; Shaw in the north east, Alton Barnes in the west and Alton Priors in the east.
Hence forth Alton Priors and Alton Barnes with Shaw will be covered separately.
The Domesday survey entry for Shaw describes it as comprising of two hides of demesne land with one plough and one-and-a-half virgate shared by a villein and two bordars and with 40 acres of pasture, a league long and a furlong in width. It was valued at the time at 20 shillings and was held by William de Breuce. The total population is likely to have been between 12 and 20 people at this time. By the early 14th century the Shaw estate contained 110 acres of arable land held in common, a demesne farm, a freeholding (which would later become Shaw Farm), and 3 half virgates. The grassland and woodland on the downs was held in common with the farmers and villagers from below he downs.
The manor of Shaw had also been held by the descendants of Edward of Salisbury when, in the mid 13th century, William of Salisbury settled the manor upon the marriage between his daughter Maud and William Spillman. William of Wykham, bishop of Winchester and former Chancellor of England, subsequently acquired the manors of Alton Barnes and Shaw. With license from the King and the earl of Salisbury, he granted them to the scholars and warden of New College, Oxford in 1385, which he himself had founded. By this time however, the population of Shaw had dwindled to the extent that it had only 3 poll-tax payers in 1377 - the lowest number of any village in Wiltshire. Perhaps because of this, New College merged the three customary holdings at Shaw with the three at Alton Barnes, resulting ultimately in the abandonment of Shaw.
William Button acquired Alton farm in 1591. This was part of a long history with the Button family in Alton; his father, William Button (I), had attempted to lease the farm before, but had been rejected by the warden when it emerged that he also occupied land at Alton Priors and Shaw. Now his son united Alton farm with Shaw farm and the demesne lands at Alton Barnes and Alton Priors. This caused considerable consternation. In 1584 an order was made to view the lands at Shaw in order to establish which lands there belonged to Alton. The Buttons were succeeded as tenants of Alton Farm by Antony Mawkes in 1596, but not before the Lords of the manors around Shaw enclosed their common land. This increased the demand for common land at Shaw, resulting in a disagreement between New College's tenants and the Skillings of Draycot Fitz Payne over the pasture rights, title to and right to cut wood on the forested eastern part of the Shaw Downlands, which appear to have remained unfenced. This woodland brought not inconsiderable economic benefits to the tenants, and was therefore hotly contested. Pressure on the common ground continued to grow so that by 1659 the pastures of Shaw were home to nearly 3000 sheep. The tenant of Shaw farm had flocks of around 1,100.
Alton Barnes was valued at £6 in 1086 and was held by Edward of Salisbury; it totalled five hides of demesne land sufficient for four ploughs, and 25 acres of meadow and pasture, three furlongs in length and two furlongs in width. However it had only two ploughs and 4 serfs. Three villeins, a bordar and 6 cottagers also shared a plough. This would have given a total population of between 50 and 60 people. Alton Barnes continued to be held by the descendants of Edward of Salisbury until 1275, when the manor, along with the earldom of Salisbury, passed to Margret Longspée and her husband, Henry de Lacy, the earl of Lincoln.
In 1322, Alton Barnes, which by then had been inherited by Alice, Lincoln's daughter, was surrendered to the crown along with her other properties in favour of Hugh Despenser upon her husband Thomas of Lancaster's execution. However four years later in 1326, Despenser's own lands were forfeited to the crown when he himself was executed. The earldom of Salisbury and overlordship of Alton Barnes was then bestowed upon William de Montagu. William of Wykham, bishop of Winchester and former Chancellor of England, subsequently acquired the manors of Alton Barnes and Shaw. With license from the King and the earl of Salisbury, he granted them to the scholars and warden of New College, Oxford in 1385, which he himself had founded. From this period, the College leased its demesne land along with Alton Farm (the composite demesne lands of Alton with Shaw Manor), which was subjected to annual inspections from the College warden.
In the mid-15th century there were 6 farms in Alton, all including Shaw land. Besides the Alton farm and the glebe farm, there was a freeholding called Barnes, which comprised of 20 acres and was held with Alton farm in the name of John Benger, and three copyholds. These copyholds were four and-a-half virgates and each made of two former holdings. They were worth £4 12s per annum to the college in rent. At this time the parish meadowland in the south was separated between the copyholders' common meadow and the farmer's meadows. Around the north and the west of the parish was the tenants' common arable land, and beyond that was the farmer's own arable land. Further to the north, where the chalky Marlborough downs began, the uplands were split between a sheep-down and a cow-down. These were held in common to both the farmer and the tenants.
William Button acquired Alton farm in 1591. This was part of a long history with the Button family in Alton; his father, William Button (I), had attempted to lease the farm before, but had been rejected by the warden when it emerged that he also occupied land at Alton Priors and Shaw. Now his son united Alton farm with Shaw farm and the demesne lands at Alton Barnes and Alton Priors. This caused considerable consternation. In 1584 an order was made to view the lands at Shaw in order to establish which lands there belonged to Alton. Button was evidently though to have been injuring the college estate in favour of his own; he was accused of keeping too many sheep on the common, demolishing the Alton Barnes mill and diverting the stream so that it would work his own mill at Alton Priors. It is his tomb chest and monumental brass which are to be found in the Alton Priors church. The Buttons were succeeded as tenants of Alton Farm by Antony Mawkes in 1596, but not before the Lords of the manors around Shaw enclosed their common land. This increased the demand for common land at Shaw, resulting in a disagreement between New College's tenants and the Skillings of Draycot Fitz Payne over the pasture rights, title to and right to cut wood on the forested eastern part of the Shaw Downlands, which appear to have remained unfenced. This woodland brought not inconsiderable economic benefits to the tenants, and was therefore hotly contested.
Pressure on the common ground continued to grow so that by 1659 the pastures of Shaw were home to nearly 3000 sheep. The tenant of Shaw farm had flocks of around 1,100, the farmer of Alton Barnes around 600, the tenant of Alton farm also had 600, and the Skillings of Draycot kept their 300 sheep on the Eastern Downs. This was at a time when the population of Alton Barnes would have been no more than 50 or 60. More land was enclosed in the late 17th century with the result that every farm increased its acreage.
A century later there were six farms in Alton; Alton farm, a freehold farm, the glebe farm and three copyholds. Alton farm was the largest of these, with lands of 595 acres. The copyholds were 87 acres, 76 acres and 68 acres respectively. By this time all of the farmers, barring the tenant of Alton farm, used 75 acres of common arable land and three acres of meadow at Alton. At Alton and Shaw, the sheep downs, totalling 94 acres in size, were used by the flocks of the copyholders and the freeholder, who also fed forty of each the rector's flock and the farmer's flock. Four decades later, in 1839, there were only three farms in Alton. The smallest of these was Neate's farm, which amounted to 89 acres and was added to Alton farm in 1882. The second in size, at 206 acres, along with 36 acres of glebe land, was Maslen's farm, which had been formed in 1797 when Maslen's and Chandler's copyholds had joined together. This too would gradually be incorporated into Alton Farm, first in 1882 and then in entirety in 1907. Alton farm, whose tenant at the time also owned the freehold farm, was 629 acres in size. It was then leased by a certain Robert Pile, who had done so since 1805 and would continue to do so until at least 1855.
In 1966, the part of the sheep-down at Shaw which had belonged to the Rector was measured at 23 acres and sold to New College, before being leased to Alton farm. The farmer who leased Alton farm at that time was Mr A. C. Stratton, a member of the same family who are commemorated by the engraved glass quarrels in the windows of Alton Barnes Church. The result of these acquisitions was that by 1970 the entire parish was part of one farm, and was at the time mainly devoted to dairy and arable farming.
As they were in separate parishes, Alton Priors and Alton Barnes were under the authority of different ecclesiastical districts and therefore had two distinct churches and congregations.
By far the older of the two is the Church of St. Mary in Alton Barnes. The nave is thought to be Saxon and almost certainly pre-dates the Conquest. As such, it is a rather square, plain building when compared to the church at Alton Priors. The chancel was built later, likely using salvaged materials from the abandoned Shaw church; the 14th century west window is widely held to have come from Shaw.
Very little is known of the church at Shaw beyond the fact that it was built in the 14th century and was likely abandoned when Shaw became depopulated. Excavations of the foundations in 1929 shed some light on what the church would have been like. It appears to have been larger than St. Mary's and fairly simple in design, with a rectangular nave, north and south doorways and windows in the east and west. One of these windows can possibly be seen today at St. Mary's.
While Alton Priors, as a chapelry, would have been ministered by a curate, Alton Barnes had its own rector. Within the parish the rector was entitled to the glebe land, tithings and the glebe house, or as it is now know, the Old Rectory. In the 16th century, the glebe land amounted to 15 acres, but this gradually increased so that by the 17th century the rector had an additional three acres and pasture rights for one hundred sheep. After enclosure a few years later the glebe comprised of 39 acres, the rector also holding some rights at Shaw common down. In 1915 most of the glebe was sold, leaving the common pasture alone in the rector's possession. Between the years 1829 and 1831, the stipend was an average value of £294 per annum, however in 1839 the great and small tithes of the parish were commuted to a rent charge of £269 10 sshillings per annum. An attempt was made by New College to increase the value of the rectory in 1861 by drafting Neate's copyhold to the estate, but this was deferred until a vacancy to the living and the revolution was rescinded.
The glebe house itself is to the immediate west of St. Mary's church. The front range of the house dates from the early 18th century, with chimneys being added in 1739 and 1785 and the back of the house being extended in the years 1785 to 1787. The right to present a rector passed with the lordship of the manor and, from 1385, was held by New College. Many rectors were therefore fellows of New College, and as a result the parish enjoyed the ministering of many interesting characters. One of these was the religious author and royalist Richard Steward, who followed Charles II to France and was replaced by Odadiah Wills. Wills was a strict Puritan and attempted to unite the two congregations at Alton Priors and Alton Barnes for the first time in several hundred years. However in 1660 the two congregations separated and Wills was ejected.
Two more interesting New College men were William Crowe and Augustus Hare, who were both rectors in the early 19th century. William Crowe took up residence in Alton Barnes in 1787. A poet and divine, he would often walk between Alton and Oxford, where he was the public orator. In 1829 he was succeeded by the young Augustus Hare and his wife Maria. Besides serving St Mary's, Hare also held alternating services at All Saints' in Alton Priors. In their four years in the parish, he and his wife did tremendous amounts of work for the community, setting up a co-operative in the village, splitting the glebe land into allotments and establishing a school. Their tenure also saw several traumatic events in the area, most notably the Swing riots in 1830.
The Swing riots were a protest against the mechanisation of agriculture, which was gathering pace at the beginning of the 19th century. Rioters in rural areas smashed machines and set light to fields and farmers' buildings. Wiltshire, its main source of income being agriculture, was particularly badly affected. The Hares wrote of the riots in Alton in their diaries and letters. On 24th November, labourers smashed the machines on Alton Farm and then dragged the farmer, Mr Pile, from his horse. They proceeded to ransack his house and lit fires in his fields. In the mêlée his elderly mother was injured and Mr Pile himself was badly beaten before being taken downstairs and forced to give the rioters £10. Augustus Hare wrote at the time; 'They have nearly killed him'. The men were finally dispatched by the yeomanry. The rector and his wife, despite receiving threats and demands for money, escaped unharmed. It appears from a letter of Mrs Hare's that none of the rioters were from 'Little Alton' (presumably Alton Barnes) but there were several from 'Great Alton' (Alton Priors). She also wrote of them that 'the greater part of our rioters are men who earn from twelve to twenty shillings a week at the wharf and spend it all in the beer shops'. Maria Hare was not the only one who held this view.
Due to the Rector's poor health, the Hares had to leave Alton for Italy. He died of tuberculosis in 1834. There are three volumes, titled 'Memorials of a Quiet Life', containing their letters and diary entries from their time in Alton. The school that Mrs Hare established was the first in Alton Barnes. Opened in 1829, it was initially a Sunday school during the afternoon in church. At the beginning it was rather informal, with older girls teaching the younger pupils, and children often had to be spared for farming duties such as shepherding on the uplands. The school was later moved to the barn, where the Reverend Hare would give the pupils a lecture once a week. The children would often go to the rectory, where Mrs Hare would make picnics in the garden. By 1833 the attendance was 10 boys and 16 girls, including some pupils from Alton Priors. Mr and Mrs Hare also helped support a local woman, Mrs Patrick, who taught a few children reading, sewing and writing from her cottage.
The record of land-ownership at Alton Priors goes back slightly earlier than that of Alton Barnes and Shaw. Around 200 years before Domesday, Ceolwen, widow of Osmod, granted the reversion to the church of Winchester of fifteen hides for its refectory between the years 871 and 899. It is from this that Alton gained its suffix 'Priors'. This early ownership of Priors by Winchester is also the reason why it would later become a tithing of the Winchester-owned manor of Overton.
Bu the 11th century, Winchester's estate in Alton had expanded to include the near-by manor of Patney. The estate as a whole was judged to be 20 hides in size and had been designated for the support of the monks of the Old Minster. During this period the manor would be leased several times by the bishop to various tenants before being restored to the convent in 1108. It remained thus until 1284 when the estate, now separate from Patney, was confirmed to St. Swithun's by the bishop. It now comprised the land of the tithings of Alton and West Stowell. At the same time the convent received a grant of free warren within the demesne of the manor of Alton Priors. The manor of Alton Priors and Stowell, as it was then known, remained in the possession of St Swithun's until the Dissolution, upon which it passed to the crown.
In 1541, Alton was granted to Winchester Chapter, before being returned to the crown six years later. It was then granted to Sir William Herbert, later earl of Pembroke, who also returned it to the crown five years later. Over the succeeding years it returned to the Pembrokes and was still in the family when Philip, earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, sold it in moieties in 1680 to Nicholas Fownes and Samuel Brewster. The earl retained the manorial rights. The moieties were then sold on until 1717 when Sir William Pynsent conveyed the manorial rights to John Smith (II) who also owned both moieties, uniting them again. The manor then passed through Smith's three daughters until his grandson Michael Burrough sold the estate to Thomas Caldecott in 1812. Thirty seven years later Caldecott's nephew, the Reverend T. J. Parker sold Alton Priors to J. G. Simpkins, who then in turn sold it to Head Pottinger Best in 1850. Eventually Alton Priors was inherited by Marmaduke Head Best in 1911, and upon his death a year later was sold by his widow to New College, who were still the owners in 1977.
As they were in separate parishes, Alton Priors and Alton Barnes were under the authority of different ecclesiastical districts and therefore had two distinct churches and congregations.
The Church of All Saints at Alton Priors was a chapelry of Overton, and as a result services were not always regularly held. It is of a later date than St. Mary's at Alton Barnes and has a chancel, nave and west tower. It appears rather grander than its cousin at Alton Barnes, as was lamented by Maria Hare.The overall structure is mainly of freestone, rubble and redbrick, with the chancel arch dating from the twelfth century. The current nave was rebuilt and widened two centuries later and the tower was an addition of the late 15th or early 16th century. A notable feature of All Saints' is the yew tree in the churchyard which is thought to be around 1,700 years old.
A section of the Kennet and Avon Canal was built in this area by 1807, with the whole canal completed in 1810. A wharf was built at Honey Street by 1811, the main cargo landed being coal which was carried by narrow boat from the Somerset coalfields. Honey Street became a hub for the various cargoes landed there, to be distributed to the hinterland. Passenger barges also plied the canal. The Honey Street settlement, formerly in Woodborough parish, expanded with the arrival of the canal, and the building of the wharf, and as commerce developed so the settlement grew. In 1854 the wharf buildings were destroyed by fire, but were rebuilt. The local landmark, the chimney, was constructed in 1859 and by 1871 the settlement had a Workmen's Hall. Church services were held in the hall, but by the mid 20th century the hall was derelict. The settlement is served by the Barge Inn which is listed in a trade directory of 1848, and although part of the hamlet, the inn is in the parish of Stanton St. Bernard.
The boundaries of Alton parish itself were finally moved to their current position at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1913 the rectory of Alton Barnes and the chapelry of Alton Priors were made one, bridging the gap between the lands at Alton Barnes and the old Shaw village site. Two further acts in 1928 detached the hamlet of Honeystreet from the ecclesial parish of Woodborough and affixed to Alton Barnes and made West Stowell part of the parish of Wilcot, it having formed part of the Alton Priors chapelry since 1284. Finally, under an order of the council, the rectory of Alton Barnes was united also with the rectory of Stanton St Bernard in 1932. The result of these changes was that, by 1951, the population of the parish was 306 parishioners.
Although the landscape of Alton bears many marks of its ancient history, it is perhaps more widely known for the more modern sites one can see there today.
The most visible of these is the Alton Barnes White Horse, commissioned by the farmer Mr Pile in 1812. White horses are perhaps archetypal of downland Wiltshire, and the Alton horse was intended to be a sibling to the Cherhill white horse, which had been cut in 1780. The craftsman to whom he paid £20 for the job, John Thorne, absconded with the money and hired a sub-contractor who requested payment again from Mr Pile. Thorne was eventually hanged. Alton celebrated the 200th anniversary of their white horse in 2012.
Another attraction for which Alton is becoming renowned is the proliferation of crop circles which can be seen on the surrounding fields. Since a July evening in 1990 these mysterious patterns have been imposed upon the land every year from May until August. Wiltshire is the centre of crop circle making in Great Britain, containing around three quarters of the annual national total. However, if Wiltshire is the centre nationally than Alton is the centre of Wiltshire; one farmer in Alton Barnes has had 125 circles appear in his crops since 1991. It has even become a commercial enterprise, with companies such as Mitsubishi paying to have their designs pressed into Alton corn fields. Other local businesses have also benefited; the Barge Inn on Honey Street is the brewer and vendor of crop circle-themed beverages such as 'Alien Abduction' and 'Croppie'. The penetration of crop circles into popular culture can also perhaps be attributed to Alton; one of its first crop circles in 1990 was then used by Led Zeppelin for the cover of their album 'Remasters'.
Today Alton remains a small rural parish mainly devoted to farming, with a population of 229 in 2001.