This parish history by John Chandler is taken from his books ‘Marlborough and Eastern Wiltshire’ (Hobnob Press, 2001, £20.00, ISBN 0 946418 07 1) and ‘Devizes and Central Wiltshire’ (Hobnob Press, 2003, £20.00, ISBN 0 946418 16 0). The books are the first two of a projected series of seven, under the series title 'Wiltshire: a History of its Landscape and People', which together will offer short histories of every parish in Wiltshire, including the areas now within Swindon Borough. The text included here is the author's copyright and should not be further reproduced for publication without his consent. There may be minor textual variants between the text posted here and the published version.
Dr Chandler will be happy to supply hardback copies of either Marlborough and Eastern Wiltshire, which includes histories of 34 parishes in eastern Wiltshire (from Tidworth in the south to Aldbourne in the north and Avebury in the west), with illustrations and maps, or Devizes and Central Wiltshire, which includes histories of 42 parishes in central Wiltshire, with illustrations and maps, for £20 each post free. He can be contacted: by email: John Chandler ; by phone: 01747-830015; or by post: c/o Hobnob Press, PO Box 1838, East Knoyle, Salisbury SP3 6FA.
The origins of Little Bedwyn are to be found in a larger territory, which embraced also the whole of the modern Great Bedwyn and Grafton parishes, and parts of their neighbours. In 778 this area, of unknown antiquity and at that time a royal estate, was split into two by the granting away to a subject of a part corresponding more or less to the present Little Bedwyn parish. Ecclesiastically, however, the two remained linked until the fifteenth century, when Little Bedwyn became a separate parish, and in a looser sense until 1846, when the prebend in which they both lay was abolished. The practical consequence of all this is that the various settlements of Saxon and medieval origin which lie in the modern parish of Little Bedwyn – and Little Bedwyn village itself – should be regarded as constituents of the larger territory of Bedwyn, and as satellites of the estate centre at Great Bedwyn. They occupy the northern quarter of this larger estate, an area some 8km from east to west lying mostly on upper chalk, with superficial deposits of clay with flints and, in a few places, tertiary clays and sands. Nearly all the parish lay within the medieval Savernake Forest, and substantial areas of woodland remain. Two shallow valleys which cross the parish have been chosen by the principal lines of communication – the canal and railway follow the River Dun (or Bedwyn Brook), the London-Bath road (A4) follows the Froxfield stream.
The most interesting of the settlements within Little Bedwyn parish is Chisbury, which lies on higher ground between the two streams. The strong iron age hillfort here, which stands guard over the Bedwyn valley, was probably refortified during the Saxon period so as to provide a refuge for the inhabitants of the Bedwyn estate; it is almost certainly the place called Cissanbyrig or Tyssanbyrig which was included in the chain of burghal hidage forts provided by Alfred for the security of his kingdom of Wessex. If so it was regarded in the tenth century as the place of last resort during times of emergency or invasion for the whole of east Wiltshire, whose inhabitants were required to contribute to the maintenance of its defences. According to a tradition preserved in Abingdon Abbey, one Cissa, who was sub-king in Wiltshire and Berkshire during the late seventh century, made Bedwyn his headquarters and had his stronghold there. If the Abingdon chronicler is to be trusted then we have an explanation of the name Chisbury, and an approximate date of its reuse.
But Cissa was not the first to exploit the defensive strength of this prehistoric relic. A late-Roman or Dark Age linear ditch (possibly even prehistoric), known in places as Bedwyn Dyke, can be traced leaving the hillfort’s southern entrance (where it is followed by the modern road), across the Bedwyn Brook and up the valley side to Jockey Copse and the parish boundary at Round Copse. The names West Borough (on maps of 1792 and 1842) and Borough Heath (1773 – now Burridge Heath), which are both in this area, presumably refer to it. It has sometimes been regarded as an eastern continuation of Wansdyke, with which it may be contemporary and complementary.
Corroboration that the hillfort was occupied during the Saxon period may be offered by the evocative medieval chapel of St Martin which stands astride the defences by the hillfort’s eastern entrance. It is a simple thirteenth-century building which was still used in 1496, when there is a reference to the appointment of John Blythe as its chaplain; thereafter it was used as a farm building and allowed to fall into disrepair, before being rethatched and restored in 1942. It is now under the guardianship of English Heritage and may be visited. Its unusual position, which commands a splendid view, is reminiscent of Saxon gateway churches, such as survive at Cricklade, Wareham and Wallingford (all burghal hidage places); it has been suggested, therefore, that the present building replaced an earlier chapel on the same site.
Unlike many burghal hidage places Chisbury did not develop into a town, and probably – in view of Great Bedwyn’s proximity – this was never the intention. At Domesday it was a five-hide estate with about thirty households and two mills. It appears to have remained a thriving community in the 14th century, with an adult population of at least 87 (the same as Great Bedwyn) in 1377; it is somewhat surprising, therefore, to find it included in a list of poor parishes with fewer than ten households in 1428. Either some calamity occurred, or (more likely) boundaries were redrawn with the creation of Little Bedwyn parish at about this time. A map of 1612 depicts the hillfort as containing only a farmhouse, farm buildings and the chapel (much as now). Interestingly, no buildings at all are marked to the north of Chisbury, where the present hamlet is situated, so this must be regarded as a later ribbon development along the lanes which converge on Chisbury’s northern approach. Surviving buildings date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (one cottage has a datestone 1726), and maps of 1773 and 1792 show the hamlet more built up than at present, despite the intrusion of Victorian estate cottages around the triangular green and council houses along Chisbury Lane.
The northern edge of Little Bedwyn is traversed by the Bath road (A4), which runs for about 5km within or along the parish boundary. During the three minutes or so which most average motorists spend in the parish they fail to notice several places of interest. As they emerge from Savernake Forest the medieval village earthworks of Henset or Puthall stand on the hillside to their left, behind the buildings of Puthall Farm. Puthall is probably the older and more usual name, being mentioned in charter bounds of 778, but Henset also occurs through much of the middle ages, and is recorded as having had a taxpaying population of 35 in 1377. It is possible that they were separate hamlets, and there was probably also another, close to the site of Timbridge Farm. About 1km beyond Puthall, on the right, is a Victorian estate house with the unusual name of Voronzoff Gate. Catherine Woronzow was the Russian mother of a Marchioness of Ailesbury (St Katharine’s Church in Savernake Forest was raised to her memory), and Voronzoff Gate was built in the year of her death, 1856.
Knowle, the next farm on the right, is set back from the road in a fine position on the hillside. Here was another small settlement, with a medieval chapel contemporary with, and similar in proportions to, St Martin’s at Chisbury, but built largely of sarsen and flint. Like Chisbury, it may have replaced an earlier chapel, as evidence of burning has been noted. It survives, inconspicuously, among the outbuildings of Knowle House, its age given away by remains of its pointed windows. Next to the farm buildings a gravel pit (now filled in) was discovered in 1901 to contain a rich deposit of palaeolithic implements, and more than two thousand artefacts were excavated and subsequently dispersed to museums and collections within two years. Many of these flints have a remarkably glossy surface, and the site is regarded as of major importance in early prehistoric studies. A small section was cut in 1977 for the benefit of visiting experts attending a conference.
A little before the A4 leaves the parish it passes Harrow Farm. ‘Harrow’ as a place name often denotes the survival into Christian Saxon times of a pagan temple, and it has been suggested that here is an instance of a former temple being christianized by the erection of a cross nearby. The 778 charter, when it reaches this point, mentions ‘ancient monuments’ at a place called ‘Holly Stumps’; much later (in 1773) the spot is referred to on a map as Cross Ford – unfortunately there is no earlier evidence of this name. It is also possible that the name ‘Harrow’ is merely that of an inn which traded here in the early nineteenth century, before the business moved to Little Bedwyn village.
The present Bath road replaced a Roman road (which also connected London and Bath). This ran a little further north, on course for the Roman town of Cunetio, near Mildenhall, and it has been suggested that Little Bedwyn’s wandering northern boundary by Hens Wood marks the southern edge of a swathe of traffic ruts which formed as the Roman road disintegrated and became impassable between the fifth and eighth centuries. The 778 charter describes the boundary near Harrow Farm as running along gemaerweges, ‘the boundary way’, which suggests that this portion of the present A4 (which indeed still marks the parish boundary) had by then come into use. By the thirteenth century the A4 formed the northern limit of Savernake Forest almost the whole way from Hungerford to Marlborough, and is described in forest bounds of 1228 and 1244 as the king’s highway. It is one of the five main roads of England shown on the fourteenth-century Gough map, but as wheeled traffic increased under the Tudors and Stuarts many travellers seem to have preferred the less hilly alternative through Ramsbury. Both roads are shown by Ogilby in 1675. The present main road was turnpiked in 1725/6, and by 1752 to prefer ‘the old waggon-track’ through Ramsbury was considered eccentric.
The Kennet and Avon Canal (in 1799) and the Berks and Hants Extension Railway (in 1862), following the floor of the Bedwyn valley, have shamelessly sliced the village of Little Bedwyn in two, in a manner which would not even be contemplated, let alone attempted, today. On the north-west side is the medieval church (originally a chapel-of-ease, as we have seen) approached along a delightful street of estate cottages. As at Great Bedwyn, the church has transitional Norman arcades and fifteenth-century windows, but the narrowness and height of the nave suggest a Saxon origin. The street is mid-Victorian, and the cottage which forms the centrepiece has a datestone 1860. However, earlier maps show the street built up on both sides in 1773 and 1842, and disturbed ground beyond the churchyard suggests that there may once have been buildings there too – there is a blocked entrance on this side of the church.
Overlooking the village to the west of the church are the old vicarage, a rambling Victorian gothic affair, and the former National school, now the offices of a window company, which is a smart and solid brick building, its date – 1854 – picked out in dark bricks. Unfortunately the ‘4’ has been written backwards – hardly a good example for generations of formative minds in the playground below! The schoolmaster from 1864 to 1885 was the much-loved and respected E R Pole, whose son Felix (1877-1956) became general manager of the Great Western Railway.
The south-east half of the village is dominated by the substantial eighteenth-century Manor Farmhouse, and its even more substantial walled garden, gazebo, game larder and complex of farm buildings, which include an enormous weatherboarded barn and a granary on staddle stones. Manor Farmhouse was the home from the 1870s until his death in 1926 of Samuel Farmer, a self-made farming magnate who, in partnership with Frank Stratton, bought up one arable farm after another at knockdown prices during the agricultural depression of the 1880s and converted them to milk production. It was said of him that ‘farming only appealed to him as a means of making money’. A charitable trust was set up after his death, which built a crescent of houses in Kelston Road at the southern edge of the village. The other notable building on this side of the village is the Harrow Inn, the name taken over by 1840 from the establishment on the main road, which now doubles as the post office. The Horse and Jockey, presumably an inn, is shown on the 1773 map on the north side of Jockey Green, and just within the parish, but was no longer licensed in 1822. A parish workhouse existed in 1792 beside the road to Fore Bridge, and there were two cottages, which have now disappeared, on the site in 1842.
Fore Bridge itself, which crosses the canal, has attracted a little group of cottages on either side; there was a malthouse here in 1842, and watermeadows beside the stream running north in 1792. Little Bedwyn mill lay further upstream, close to Great Bedwyn and the parish boundary. A new road bridge was provided across the railway and canal by the Great Western Railway some distance south of the village; the former road is now marked by a footbridge and a pair of recent water-pumping buildings, complete with finials on their pyramidal roofs, in imitation of the Manor Farmhouse gazebo.
NOTES (location: SU2966; area: 1,710ha; population (1991): 286)
General: VCH 16, 50-69
Chisbury: Medieval Archaeology, 8, 74-89; Hill, D, and Rumble, A R, The defence of Wessex, 1996, 197-8; Hotstetter, E, and Howe, T N, The Romano-British villa at Castle Copse, Great Bedwyn, 1997, 28-33, 384-6; WANHM 46, 4-7; Chisbury chapel: WANHM 50, 104-5; Bedwyn Dyke: Hotstetter and Howe, 359-67; Harrow Farm: WANHM 45, 525-7; School: Pole, F J, Little Bedwyn School centenary, c. 1956; Samuel Farmer: WANHM 43, 494-5.