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Alton Concise History
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 post: c/o 8 Lock Warehouse, Severn Road, Gloucester GL1 2GA.
Within its boundaries Alton encapsulates many of the themes which recur in the history of the Wiltshire landscape. It is an unprepossessing place, revealing its attractions only to those prepared to climb the hill to Adam’s Grave, or examine the footings of the simple Saxon church.
Adam’s Grave, which tops Walker’s Hill, lkm north of the village, will be our starting point. ‘Old Adam’ (Little Eve was the name given colloquially to one of the two sarsens at its south-eastern end) commands a fine view across Pewsey Vale and beyond. A nineteenth-century rector, William Crowe, accustomed to find through his telescope three distant landmarks from this spot – Salisbury Cathedral spire, Alfred’s Tower above Stourhead, and Fonthill Abbey – was surprised in 1825 that only two were visible; Fonthill had collapsed since his last visit. Today Westbury cement works chimney, more than 25km away, is clearly visible to the naked eye. Adam’s Grave is a chambered long barrow of neolithic date, and so is broadly contemporary with the earthworks of an interrupted ditch enclosure (or causewayed camp) on Knap Hill, across the combe lkm to the east. Excavations at Knap Hill, while not determining the function of the monument, have suggested that open scrub predominated on the hillside in Neolithic times and that the area was used for cattle-rearing. Land hunger in the late Neolithic and early Bronze age periods seems to have resulted in the cultivation of some of this high marginal land, as cereal pollen has been found beneath a Bronze age barrow near Wansdyke 1.5km north of Adam’s Grave. Iron age activity in the area is represented by an enclosed settlement site, known in the Saxon period as Eorth byrig on the parish boundary with Stanton St Bernard. In Roman times sheep farmers appear to have colonised part of Knap Hill, and a Roman villa estate was probably established at Stanchester, a field near West Stowell in the vale; marginal lands were again brought into cultivation in the extreme north of the parish, although these had reverted to pasture by, or soon after, the end of the Roman period.
The combe which lies between Adam’s Grave and Knap Hill, although dramatically steep-sided, offers the gentlest incline in the vicinity, and was used by the prehistoric Great Ridgeway as it descended into Pewsey Vale. A second track, the Workway Drove, which climbs the slope beneath Knap Hill to cross the Ridgeway north-east of Adam’s Grave, was probably in use in the Saxon period. It may have been partly in order to block the access to the south which these two roads provided for hostile invaders penetrating the Kennet valley from the east that Wansdyke was constructed across the north of the parish in the fifth or sixth century. Red Shore, the defensible gap in Wansdyke through which the Ridgeway passes, was known as read geat, the ‘red gate or gap’, to the Saxons, and it was probably in connection with defending this gap that two battles known as Wodnesbeorg (identified with Adam’s Grave) were fought, in 592 and 715.
The present road (turnpiked in 1840 but in use earlier), once it has descended the hill, skirts the western edge of Alton, and housing has developed along it since the nineteenth century, but the Ridgeway continued due south, passing close by Alton Priors church. We shall follow it into the village. Prehistoric and Roman activity in the Alton area was not of course confined to the higher lands which we have so far considered; it is for the most part only there, however, that the evidence survives. Only from the Saxon period onwards, with standing buildings and documentary evidence, can we begin to interpret the valley. Although it perhaps began as a single settlement, ‘the farmstead by the source of the stream,’ Alton village had been divided into two before the end of the ninth century and perhaps before 825.
The churches of Alton Barnes and Alton Priors which served the two communities lie no more than 200m apart, separated by the stream which divided their flocks. To walk between them, from Barnes to Priors, along the narrow metalled path which crosses the puzzling but pronounced earthwork remains of the settlements for which they were built, is always a moving experience. Arriving at Priors churchyard one pays one’s respects to the venerable yew tree – 1,700 years old according to the certificate in the church. And then one reflects that, if this is true, since the church cannot be so old, here is not a tree in a churchyard, but a church in a ‘treeyard’!
Throughout their history it is likely that Alton Priors was the larger community, and its church, though now redundant (and beautifully maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust), is the larger and grander building. It was not, however, autonomous; as a manor of St Swithun’s Priory, Winchester, it was administered, along with West Stowell (a hamlet in the extreme east of Alton parish and now in Wilcot), as a tithing of the neighbouring Winchester manor of Overton. Alton Barnes, on the other hand, was a separate parish, but it remained small and poor, and consequently never replaced its Saxon church. ‘If the pebble-dash could be removed and the fabric made good,’ wrote an archaeologist who excavated part of the church in 1971-2, ‘the nave of Alton Barnes could be seen as one of the most complete Saxon naves in England.’ In the area between and around the two churches, especially north of Alton Priors church, village earthworks provide evidence of shrinkage.
The difficulty of deriving a living from thin chalk soils is illustrated by the failure of downland settlements in Alton and its neighbouring parishes, Huish and Overton. The medieval village of Shaw lay 1.5km north of Huish where the border between Alton and Overton now runs, immediately south of Wansdyke. By 1066 it was divided between two owners, and so it continued until its demise, which may have occurred in the fifteenth century. By 1377 It was the smallest economic unit in Wiltshire to be taxed, with only three payers; it is missing from a list of small settlements in 1428, and so had probably by then given up as a place to live. It remained an identifiable estate, however, which was mapped in about 1618 and 1766. Its fourteenth-century church was quarried for building material, and three of its windows seem to have found their way into Alton Barnes church; the site of the churchyard was nevertheless remembered as late as 1838, when it was marked on the tithe map, and an excavation to discover the foundations was carried out in 1929. Village earthworks are still visible ranged along a street which runs from south of Shaw Copse in a north-westerly direction towards Wansdyke.
The disappearance of the two estates at Shaw followed the desertion of the village; their lands were taken over by Overton and Alton Barnes (hence the present boundary drawn through the area of former settlement), and the farming pattern of the area was further disturbed in the late-sixteenth century by one William Button, who for a time occupied the principal farms of both Altons and both Shaws. His memorial brass, depicting him smugly entering the portals of heaven, may be seen in Alton Priors church.
A similar process of consolidating landholdings occurred again in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when members of the Stratton family began to farm the majority of Alton, including Shaw. Arthur Stratton, who was killed in 1918 by a train at Woodborough Station, was a pioneer in the use of steam-ploughing tackle, and operated a successful hire company from Alton Farm. Recent Strattons, like William Button, have their memorials – delicate engraved glass quarrels in the windows of Alton Barnes church (and missed by the casual church visitor). They are the work of Laurence Whistler, who for many years was their neighbour at the former rectory.
Much more in evidence in Alton Barnes church are the several memorials to men of New College, Oxford. New College has owned Alton Barnes, including patronage of the rectory, since the college was founded in 1385. Consequently many distinguished Oxford men have held the living, including a poet, William Crowe (rector 1787-1829), and Augustus Hare (rector 1829-33). The latter’s biography, Memorials of a quiet life, by his nephew, records in affectionate detail four years of happiness and benevolence at Alton, marred only by the agricultural riot of 1830 (which is recorded in contemporary letters and a diary) and by Hare’s illness, which proved fatal in 1834. Towards the end Hare resorted to Italy for respite from his tuberculosis, and his duties were taken by a curate, Robert Kilvert (the father of the diarist Francis Kilvert). Crowe and Hare are remembered in adjacent monuments in the chancel.
The folly of one of Crowe’s contemporaries, Robert Pile, a farmer, leads us back on to the hills above the village. The Alton Barnes white horse, although sired by the Cherhill horse, lacks its parent’s equine grace. It was commissioned by Pile in about 1812, but John Thorne, his would-be leucippotomist (as cutters of white horses have grandiloquently been dubbed) proved dishonest, and absconded with the £20 fee before the work was completed. He was subsequently caught and hanged.
Marks of a different kind on the hillside were heralded by barking dogs during a July night in 1990. Next morning a strange line of circles ranged along an axis some 200m in length and with various enigmatic appendages was discovered in standing corn. It was by no means the first of the modern surge of crop circle phenomena, but this one, because of its complexity and oddity, became international news and an instant tourist attraction. Crop circles have appeared in Alton frequently since 1990. Most are of unexplained origin, but obvious hoaxes have included a stylized tree and a Japanese saloon car.
The white horse, Adam’s Grave and much of Alton’s downland form part of the Pewsey Downs national nature reserve, publicly accessible and a popular resort for walkers and lovers of chalkland landscape. An archaeologist at Adam’s Grave in 1950 was told that if anyone ran round the barrow seven times the giant would come out, and although a test by the author failed to confirm this assertion, a visit to ‘Old Adam’ is always an exhilarating experience.
NOTES (location: SU1162; area: 1,019ha; population (2001): 229)
General: VCH 10, 8-13; VCH 11, 181-203 passim; Gee, T R, Souvenir notes of a local history exhibition at Alton Barnes, 1952 [typescript in T].
William Crowe: WANHM 67, 163-6; Knap Hill: WANHM 60, 1-23; cereal pollen: WANHM 68, 120-2; Stanchester: WANHM 45, 504-5; 66, 71-5; Alton Barnes church: WANHM 68, 71-8; Shaw: WANHM 45, 156-65; Arthur Stratton: WANHM 40, 278-9; New College: WRS 13; Augustus Hare: Hare, A, Memorials of a quiet life, 1872-6; white horse: Marples, M, White horses and other hill figures, 1949, 92-5; Bergamar, K, Discovering hill figures, 4th ed. 1997, 60-1; Crop circles: Andrews, C, Crop circles: signs of contact, 2003; Silva, F, Secrets in the fields, 2002, 19-20; Devil: Grinsell, L V, Folklore of prehistoric sites in Britain, 1976, 113.