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.
Anyone who has explored the chalk valleys of south Wiltshire will have noticed that close to each riverbank there is a village or hamlet every kilometre or two, and that each possesses a strip of land which runs from the river up the hillside and far away into the high downland. Enford, the first of the Avon valley parishes after the river’s headwaters have united and left the Vale of Pewsey, consists of no fewer than eight of these small settlements, four on each bank. Together they preside over nearly 4km of meandering valley, and from its downland extremities the parish has a total wingspan (for on the map it resembles a large bird in flight) of about 11km. Each hamlet has its separate identity, and at first glance one might imagine that there has been little to bind Enford together as a community. This impression would be borne out by looking at its medieval history, where the descent of no fewer than eleven manors has been traced, and individual hamlets were often assessed for tax separately, or in conjunction with neighbouring parishes. But reading a volume of reminiscences published in 1986 by the former landlord of the Swan Inn one comes to appreciate the plethora of communal services, occasions and facilities which have existed to knit the Enford hamlets together.
Enford lay in the Bishop of Winchester’s hundred of Elstub, a territory which at the time of Domesday appears to have been composed of the later parishes of Netheravon, Fittleton and Enford. During the middle ages other widely-dispersed properties of the bishop were added to the hundred. Elstub means ‘elder-tree stump’, and takes its name from a meadow in Enford parish between Fifield and New Town, which is now known colloquially as ‘Nelstop’. Hundred courts were held in this meadow during the middle ages and as late as the seventeenth century. Thus far the early history of Enford rests on fairly firm evidence; from here on the reconstruction is more speculative.
As well as being a secular unit of government it is likely that Elstub was also a Saxon ecclesiastical territory, with its minster church at Netheravon. When the minster system broke down in the later Saxon period and parishes began to emerge, the hamlets or tithings which had made up Elstub were regrouped into parishes. Fittleton and Haxton together formed one parish, and the former minster at Netheravon became a parish church, controlling Netheravon itself and West Chisenbury (which is now part of Enford). Part of Elstub – the tithings of Enford, Fifield, Littlecott, Longstreet and Coombe – had been granted by Athelstan to Winchester Cathedral as a single estate of thirty hides in 934, and became the major portion of the later parish of Enford. It is possible that Enford tithing, which is roughly twice the size of the others, had been a ten-hide unit, and became the Bishop of Winchester’s ten-hide demesne estate, which is recorded in Domesday Book. ‘Fifield’ means ‘five hides’, and the name was applied in the middle ages not only to Fifield itself, but also to Littlecott and Longstreet. This would suggest that each of them, and Coombe, had once been assessed at five hides apiece, thus accounting for the total of thirty hides. Two smaller estates, Compton and West Chisenbury, were separately assessed in Domesday Book, and they became part of the medieval parish of Enford. Finally, in 1885, West Chisenbury was transferred from Netheravon to Enford, and the present parish, with its eight constituent parts, emerged.
Continuing in a speculative vein we may assume that it was because the demesne farm was situated in Enford tithing that the decision was taken to build the church nearby. The later manor house stood in a bend of the river to the north of the church (the area is now called Manor Ground), and this probably marks the site of its Saxon and medieval predecessors. In 1826, according to Cobbett, only the stables remained standing. And Enford tithing, because it had contained both the principal house and the church, gave its rather lowly name to the whole parish – ened, the name’s first element, means ‘duck’.
The existence of Enford church is implied in Domesday Book, and the tall, narrow proportions of the present nave, with Norman arcades cut through its walls, suggest that it is of Saxon origin. The north wall of the chancel retains unusual medieval blind arcading, and a doorway leads into a strange octagonal vestry, which may have been built as a chapel. A second chapel was created in the fourteenth century by making a very large north aisle. The west tower until 1817 was surmounted by a spire, but in that year it was struck by lightning and fell, demolishing much of the western end of the church. Colt Hoare, writing before 1826, believed that the whole building was beyond repair. It presented a melancholy appearance, and he understood that there were plans to build a new church on the same site, reusing some of the fabric. In fact the damaged structure was repaired, rather inexpertly by a Devizes builder-turned-architect, and re-opened in 1831. Three of Enford’s hamlets, Compton, Coombe and West Chisenbury, had chapels-of-ease during the middle ages. All had ceased to function by the sixteenth century, but the site of Coombe Chapel, in Coombe Lane, is known, and the foundations are said still to be visible. Chisenbury chapel was dependent on Netheravon, and in 1405 it was reported that the chaplain kept his horse in it, tethered to the font. Three years later two parishioners claimed that it was totally ruinous. Part of a medieval cross, perhaps once a preaching cross from one of the outlying hamlets, now stands in Enford churchyard.
When Athelstan granted Enford to Winchester in 934, and so set in train many of these later developments, his gift was a tract of countryside already scarred and modified by millennia of settlement and cultivation. This is clear from the description of the estate boundaries accompanying his charter, which includes as landmarks features of varying antiquity, such as ditches and lynchets, walls, barrows and burial places, a prominent stone, pits and quarries, and roads of several kinds, including one which led to a Roman camp. Although most such landmarks have not been precisely identified, the archaeological fecundity of the downland on both sides of Enford’s valley was recognized by Colt Hoare at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and our knowledge of it has been augmented by excavation, fieldwork and aerial photography.
Especially rich is East Chisenbury Down, which, besides barrows, linear earthworks and prehistoric field systems, includes two early iron age enclosures, Lidbury Camp and Chisenbury Trendle, as well as one of the best preserved examples of a ‘native’ Romano-British village, Chisenbury Warren. To appreciate this site in its downland setting it is best to take the bridleway which runs south-west from Lower Everleigh. The earthworks of about eighty house platforms have been identified, ranged along a village street on the sunny south-facing slope of the wooded warren. At each end of the village, some 500m apart, the street divides to form triangular open spaces or greens, and all around are the low banks of the settlement’s long, rectangular fields.
Even more remarkable is a site discovered in 1992 on the spur behind East Chisenbury village. This was a low mound of some 200m in diameter and nearly 4ha in extent, which proved on trial excavation to be an enormous midden or ritual feasting site, dating from about 800-600 BC. This was a period of transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age, and similar middens have been identified from Potterne and elsewhere in the region. Strange as it may seem to us, the creation of a rubbish heap of monumental proportions (a kind of inverted landfill site) and visible from afar, seems to have served as a status symbol, a boast to one’s neighbours of conspicuous consumption.
Apart from Chisenbury Warren at least seven other probable late prehistoric or Roman settlement sites have been located on Enford’s downland, including well-preserved earthworks on Coombe Down close to the Haxton–Everleigh road. In the valley archaeological evidence is more likely to have been masked or destroyed by later occupation, but debris associated with possible Roman villas has been recovered from two sites at Compton, as well as from East Chisenbury. Primitive Saxon pottery was also found at Compton, and a pagan Saxon cemetery was disturbed in 1928 during building work near the main road at West Chisenbury.
Enford’s geology is uncomplicated, since almost the whole parish is upper chalk. The principal exception is the riverine gravel deposit which lines the floor of the valley, and extends up some of the dry coombes. The settlements are built on this gravel; indeed ‘gravel’ is the meaning of the first element of the name Chisenbury. Enford’s agricultural history, like that of all its neighbours, is a consequence of its geology, and consisted until the later-nineteenth century of the normal sheep-and-corn husbandry. The arable fields of each tithing lay behind its hamlet, and stretched up the chalk loam of the hillside until the soil became too thin for agriculture, and gave way to rough downland pasture for sheep. Between the settlements and the river the meadowland was ‘floated’, and the remains of hatches and artificial watercourses can still be seen, for example along the footpath between East and West Chisenbury.
At the East Chisenbury end this path is known locally as Milldrum or Milldrung, ‘the drong (lane) which led to the mill’. Until 1960, when it was replaced by the present structure, the path crossed the river by a Victorian suspension bridge. The mill, referred to in 1923 but later burnt down, stood close to this path, and the mill tail and other evidence can still be seen. Mill buildings survive at Littlecott and Coombe, the latter with a large iron wheel, 3.5m in diameter, which is visible from the road. Compton also had a mill at the time of Domesday Book, but it is not mentioned later than the fourteenth century.
As a purely agricultural parish, remote from any major town and with poor communications, Enford’s population has fluctuated in the wake of farming changes. In 1815, six years after much of the parish had been enclosed, it was claimed by Orator Hunt that half of Enford’s labourers were paupers. Another social reformer, William Cobbett, who passed through Enford in 1826, commented on the abundance of food which the farms were producing, but the almost total absence of people who would be allowed to eat it. In fact the population fluctuated around 900–1,000 (considerably more than today) for the next fifty years, and then began to fall, as a consequence of poor harvests, the switch to dairying, and, after 1897-9, the acquisition of downland for military training.
Over time old cottages burn or fall down in most parishes, especially when thatch was the principal roofing material, but the casualty rate in Enford during the twentieth century seems to have been exceptional. In his 1986 book Fred Phillimore of the Swan Inn compiled from memory a list of vanished houses and their occupants, and allowing for a few uncertainties, his total was about 33 east and 40 west of the river. Most stood in the valley, but the field barns high on the downs also had their pairs of cottages for shepherds and farmworkers. The lonely hand-to-mouth existence of their inhabitants has been graphically described by another Enford autobiographer, Winifred Grace, a shepherd’s daughter who spent her childhood before the first world war at Coombe Bake.
Two of Enford’s medieval villages, Compton and West Chisenbury, retain substantial earthwork evidence of their depopulation. West Chisenbury, in particular, the site of which is crossed by the modern main road, is a particularly well preserved deserted village, and was surveyed in detail in 1991. Saxon or early-medieval settlement along two east–west streets included a manorial complex with barn and paddocks, a chapel and small dwellings. Probably around 1200 some expansion took place on to lower-lying ground within the meander, and this involved canalising the river into a new course. Shrinkage began during the Tudor period and after 1700 only a single farm remained with a few cottages
Notwithstanding these retrenchments and losses, both during the last hundred years and much earlier, sufficient remains to make a stroll through Enford’s hamlets a rewarding experience. The fast, narrow and tortuous main road (A345), the former Kennet and Amesbury turnpike of 1840, which hugs the river’s meanders on the western side of the valley, should be avoided as far as possible, and its eastern counterpart, the lane from Upavon to Fittleton, preferred. Early council flats in pleasant, garden-city style are the incongruous prelude to East Chisenbury; then, beyond the Primitive Methodist chapel of 1896, the village street turns next to a former beerhouse, the Red Lion. The diversion is caused by the grounds of Chisenbury Priory, a large eighteenth-century fronted house with formal Tudor garden and exquisite parkland, on the site of a medieval grange of the alien monastic house of Bec-Hellouin. The park is roughly circular, and is closed at its southern end by a tree-lined earthwork, probably the park pale but conceivably of prehistoric origin, which is known as Gladiator’s Walk.
Littlecott, with a substantial modern housing estate hidden from the lane on the hillside behind, merges into the appropriately named Longstreet to form a linear settlement nearly 1km long, and it is here that most of the older village houses and cottages are to be found. The tithing boundary between Littlecott and Longstreet crosses the lane at the junction with the road to Enford, which until replaced in 1971 crossed the river by a Victorian cast-iron bridge. This road then continues past the driveway to the church, and climbs Enford Hill, where many cottages have been lost, to reach the main road. In Longstreet the most memorable feature is the much-photographed signboard of the Swan Inn, which extends across the village street. After the school and three notable houses (The Grange, Baden Farm and Longstreet House) at the further end of Longstreet, the lane continues to Coombe, which takes its name from the dry valley at right angles to the road. Coombe Lane runs up this valley on to the downs, and is built up with a straggle of twentieth-century housing beyond the site of the medieval chapel. Opposite the turning a footpath leads to a river bridge and to Fifield beyond, the most secluded of Enford’s shrunken hamlets, which is now a small cluster of thatched houses and outbuildings, but which in 1831 recorded a population of 157.
It was on the bridge between Coombe and Fifield in 1913 that a memorable crime occurred. Ernest Pike, the Enford policeman, whose chance of promotion from constable to sergeant had been thwarted by a disciplinary hearing earlier in the day, initiated by his superior at Netheravon, reported here on his beat one evening. He took along a shotgun and, when Sergeant Frank Crouch, the Netheravon policeman, appeared, murdered him on the footpath. He then shot himself on the bridge, and his body floated downstream.
Wrongdoing of a less heinous kind is recalled by one of the cottages beside the main road at New Town, between Enford and the Fifield turn. It has a large, low window, close to the road, and the occupant, who was eventually deported, used it for abducting hapless sheep whenever a drove was passing by.
NOTES (location: SU1451; area: 3,311ha; population (1991): 655)
General: VCH 11, 115-34; Phillimore, F, Enford days, 1986.
Chisenbury chapel: WRS 39; Lidbury Camp: WANHM 40, 6-36; Chisenbury Warren and East Chisenbury midden: McOmish, D et al, Field archaeology of SPTA, 2002, 98-9, 73-4; Antiquity 70, 1996, 68-76; Winifred Grace: Marlow, S, Winifred: a Wiltshire working girl, 1991; West Chisenbury: WANHM 89, 73-83; Chisenbury Priory: Sales, J, West country gardens, 1981, 198-9; Police murder: Williamson, E, Murder for the truth? 2000.