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.
If you take a ruler to a map of Wiltshire you will find that the small parish of Stert lies dead centre; and if you stand on the parish boundary where it crosses Monument Hill above the village you will be rewarded with a spectacular view, east along Pewsey Vale to Martinsell and beyond (almost to Hampshire), and south-west to the grey hills of Somerset behind Westbury. Stert is a village of views, as it is built along a ridge or tail (the meaning of the name) of greensand which overlooks and falls steeply to the clay vale below. It has in consequence attracted a number of twentieth-century houses and bungalows, which appear ordinary enough from the village street, but when seen from the valley reveal their picture windows and conservatories to soak up the south-facing panorama. Below the village springs feed a stream which has cut a secluded wooded valley beneath the tail, before turning to flow westward towards Potterne, and ultimately to join the Bristol Avon. The flat pastures of Hatfield, by contrast, which make up the eastern half of the parish, drain into the Salisbury Avon. The parish therefore forms a watershed, and this is followed by an early route from Salisbury to Devizes which is known here as the Lydeway. A milestone at the bus stop opposite the former Clock Inn persists in giving the miles to Sarum, although the road no longer goes there. The present road alignment across Monument Hill dates only from 1768 (the proud lion monument commemorates its construction). Before that the road struck further north across Etchilhampton Hill, and part of its line is marked by a deep holloway (now part of the Wessex Ridgeway long-distance path) leading up the hill from the present Stert turning.
The modern parish was formed in 1894 by the union of two small territories, Stert and Fullaway. Both were dependent on nearby parishes, Stert on Urchfont, Fullaway on All Cannings, and all four places lay in the ancient hundred of Studfold. Fullaway, ‘the muddy way’, sat largely on the Gault clay south of Stert, but it also extended up the slope to take in houses on the south side of the village street, including Stert House. The name is first recorded in 1327, although little is known of its medieval history. Uneven ground around the present Fullaway Farm is perhaps the vestige of a once larger settlement, but since the sixteenth century it seems to have consisted of no more than a single farmstead surrounded by its pastures. The Victorians regarded it as having been extra-parochial, and so made it a civil parish in 1858; but with its total population of twenty dwindling to eleven by 1891 it was doomed as a unit of local government, and so was absorbed into Stert in 1894.
Stert was more populous. Its 65 taxpayers in 1377 and 132 adults in 1676 imply total populations at those dates of about 100 and 200 respectively. Since 1800 the population has always fluctuated within these limits, from 193 in 1821 to 112 a century later. Its name is first encountered in Domesday, when it was basically a five-hide estate. An inquisition of 1311 depicts a demesne estate of almost 250 acres of arable and 60 acres of meadow, as well as pasture, woodland, vineyards and a court (the farmhouse or manor house) with a garden. This estate passed in 1393 to New College, Oxford, as part of William of Wykeham’s foundation grant. The college let it to tenants, including the influential Topp family of Stockton in the seventeenth century and the Watson-Taylors of Erlestoke in the nineteenth; but they continued to own and supervise it for more than five centuries, until sales disposed of it piecemeal to tenants and incomers during the twentieth century.
Stert’s arable lands lay on the chalk hillside above the village, and the tenants’ two open fields, East and West, displayed remarkable tenacity, since they continued in the traditional way through the nineteenth century, and were not entirely consolidated until 1928. The supposed site of the medieval vineyard, on the sun-soaked hillside sloping south below Barn Cottage, was replanted with vines in 1977, but the enterprise failed twenty years later. The flat area of greensand in the east of the parish was of poorer quality than the chalk loam – the name given to it, Hatfield (‘heath field’) is normally a term of reproach – and although the remaining traces of ridge and furrow imply medieval cultivation, the area was primarily used for pasture, and much was enclosed in the seventeenth century. A portion of this remote stretch of country was cultivated again in the nineteenth century, and the area might have been opened up had the Great Western Railway’s plan to build a station on the Urchfont–Stert boundary south of Hatfield Farm in about 1900 come to fruition.
Apart from farming other activities which are known to have taken place in the parish include milling, brickworks and clockmaking. There were two working watermills on the stream below the village until the nineteenth century, probably on the sites of the two mills recorded in Domesday. A third, Crookwood Mill, lay in Urchfont parish until a recent boundary change brought it into Stert; the building survives as a private house, and with many of the mill-workings intact. A windmill between the village street and the former railway cutting is shown on a map of 1884, although not present in 1839 or 1899. It has been suggested that it was the last built and most short-lived working windmill in Wiltshire. Brick pits and kilns lay near Lower Mill in the Gault clay at the western end of the parish. Another brick kiln appears near the road west of the former Hood’s Farm on maps of 1817 and about 1843; the kiln has gone, and Hood’s in 1967 was renamed Wabi Farm, after a Canadian foundry, shares in which enabled its purchase. It may have been the brick pits serving the Wabi Farm kiln that were the scene of gruesome discoveries during the 1840s.
On the main A342 road, opposite the former Clock Inn and behind the milestone, was formerly an alehouse called The Shepherd and his Dog, run in the 1770s by one Thomas Burry, descendant of an old Fullaway family. He seems to have specialized in providing hospitality to pedlars and itinerant travellers, whom he murdered for their belongings and buried in the brick pits. More than a dozen skeletons, some showing evidence of violence, were later discovered there. After his trade, quite understandably, declined members of the Raymond family of clockmakers – Charles, Evi and James – set up beerhouse-keeping as a sideline from their thatched cottage opposite. From surviving examples they are known to have made clocks between 1761 and 1811, and the Clock Inn remained in the family until the 1870s. Outside over the door a large clock dated 1773 could be seen until the 1970s, when it disappeared; the pub itself has recently ceased trading.
The nucleus of Stert is the triangle formed at the western end of the village street where it divides, the left fork (Mill Lane) descending the hillside to a footbridge across the stream in Stert Valley. It then continues as a right of way towards Potterne, and is probably part of an early route between Potterne and Pewsey Vale, which may pre-date the creation of Devizes. The right fork keeps to high ground, and leads past the church and Manor Farm to Stert’s ‘tail’. The church, a reconstruction in 1844-5 of a very small (about 7 x 8m) medieval building on the same site, is built in a vaguely coffin-shaped churchyard perched on the hillside, and abuts the garden of Manor Farm. Since the thirteenth century or earlier it has been a chapel-of-ease to Urchfont, although in the seventeenth century it was regarded as a separate living. Until 1845, when it was rededicated to St James, it bore the uncommon dedication to St Faith.
Manor Farmhouse, according to a document of 1662, had used oaks from Hatfield in its construction, and it retains seventeenth-century work, although it was partly rebuilt after arson destroyed farm buildings in 1846. Until renovation and some demolition during the twentieth century it almost touched the churchyard; and it still dwarfs the little church which, when viewed from the driveway, seems to be trying to hide behind it. The farm complex sports a fine pond, and it is well known in Stert that every midnight the lion leaves his post on the monument and strolls down the drive to drink from it.
Early estate maps (of 1638, 1766 and later) show a regular rear boundary line running parallel with the village street on its northern side, which suggests a planned linear settlement. They also depict more buildings than survive in the area of Manor Farm and Manor Cottages, and slight earthworks are still visible near the pond. North-east of the churchyard the 1638 map depicts ‘Football Close’, one of a number of early Wiltshire references to a national obsession. It might be expected that the church house, mentioned in a court roll of 1660, also lay somewhere nearby.
Traces of the Devizes branch railway, built in 1862 and closed in 1966, may also be seen just north of the Manor Farm buildings. Further east, although its sizeable cutting has been completely filled and levelled, the railway bridge which carried the village street over it remains. The line, originally broad gauge, served as a through east–west route until 1900, when a second line was built to become the main London–Exeter route, which it remains. This line leaves the old Devizes branch just south of Hatfield, and now forms the parish boundary between Urchfont and Stert. The line has not been without its problems; collapses at the Clock Inn in 1936 and Crookwood in 1961 involved major engineering works and disruption.
Despite several older cottages, the east end of the street, from the main road to Stert House, is architecturally disappointing. But along Mill Lane are a number of well-kempt timber-framed and thatch cottages which revel in their picturesque surroundings. Most were built or rebuilt in similar style by New College in the mid-seventeenth century, and some were in poor condition when the college relinquished ownership in the twentieth. Vale Cottage, everyone’s idea of the perfect country cottage, is particularly well documented. It was built as a farmhouse in about 1574, has a detailed probate inventory listing its furniture in 1621, and was extensively restored and studied during the 1990s. Further up the hill Barn Cottage fell victim to a disastrous fire in 1994 and has been sensitively rebuilt. Between the fork and the substantial brick Stert House stands the former Baptist chapel, closed in 1957, and converted to a private house (Maitland). Nearby the village school, closed in 1927, was sold by the parish council in 1961 in order to pay for a bus shelter. It too was converted to a house during the 1960s, but has since been replaced.
Stert today is an affluent, spick-and-span village, whose community spirit is evidenced by the research for and publication of their millennium history. During its months of preparation more of Stert’s inhabitants visited New College, Oxford (the college archivist asserted) than at any time during their more than six centuries of association.
NOTES (location: SU0359; area: 306ha; population (1991): 167)
General: VCH 10, 155-9; Stert Millennium Project, Stert: the hidden village, 1999.
New College connection: WRS 13; Pub murders: Chandler, J, The day returns, 181-3; Maps: WSRO 1234/29; Stert: the hidden village, 121-3; miscellaneous records: WNQ 4-6 passim.