Westbury Heritage Society News

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Michael Wood on Alfred the Great and the Battle of Edington

On the evening of Thursday 16 November 2017 the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre was delighted to welcome renowned historian and television presenter, Michael Wood, as our guest speaker. Michael travelled from London to present a special one-off lecture to help celebrate our 10th anniversary as a History Centre, and the 70th anniversary of the archive service. It was very well attended by almost 180 people. All the profit from the talk went to support the work of the History Centre thanks to Michael generously waiving his fee.

Principal Archivist Claire Skinner with Michael Wood

Michael brought out the importance of archives for society through assisting our collective memory and understanding of the past. His colourful slides and video clips brought the shadowy Anglo-Saxon era to life. (Michael did his postgraduate research on Anglo-Saxon history and still retains a passion for it – he is due to publish a book on King Athelstan in 2018.)

Michael laid out the background to the Battle of Edington, which took place the second week of May 878. He explained how after a surprise attack at Christmas by the Danes at Chippenham, King Alfred hid in the Somerset marshes at Athelney, building a fortress there. Alfred called a levy at Ecgbryhtesstan (Egbert’s stone) which Michael attributes to Penselwood in Somerset. Alfred was joined by men from Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, and quite possibly Dorset as well. The next day they moved to Iley Oak, just south of Warminster, and thence to Ethandun or Edington, in Wiltshire, where they made a surprise attack on Guthrum and the Danes. Michael argued that the conventional belief that the battle took place on the hillside overlooking the settlement is incorrect, and that the archival sources would indicate instead that the battle took place actually within the royal settlement, possibly on the site of the old vicarage of Edington. (Edington was one of Alfred’s family estates and he left a manor called ‘Ethandune’ to his wife in his will.) This needs to be followed up with archaeological investigation such as geophysical surveys to see if evidence of the battle can be found.

After the Battle Guthrum became baptised as Athelstan, and agreed to a treaty with Alfred in which the Danes would leave Wessex and return to East Anglia. In 879 they left Chippenham and went to Cirencester, and the year after to East Anglia. In 886 Alfred and Guthrum made a treaty which defined the boundaries of their kingdoms, and tried to establish peaceful commerce between them.

Michael ended his talk by discussing Alfred’s legacy and the fact that he is the only monarch remembered today as ‘The Great’. There are many myths and legends associated with Alfred, such as the burning of the cakes, which can turn Alfred into a bit of a figure of fun, but Michael reminded us that behind these myths lay a shrewd and intelligent military leader who promoted a revival in learning using texts written in English as well as Latin.

This immensely enjoyable and fascinating lecture was followed by a Q & A session and a well-earned vote of thanks from Councillor Richard Gamble. After that one or two lucky people managed to get Michael to sign copies of his books, before he was whisked off to catch his train back to London!

Claire Skinner, Principal Archivist, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

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Wiltshire Watermeadows

A highly informative interactive display about Wiltshire watermeadows is being hosted by the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, on view in November and December 2017. It includes video footage from a drone looking at a number of sites to give a new perspective.

Display on show at WSHC


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New Local History Resource

The Redress of the Past: Historical Pageants in Britain 1905-2016 is a new free-to-use resource for local history: http://www.historicalpageants.ac.uk/pageants/

Dressing up and re-enacting the past through dramatic performance was a popular activity across much of twentieth-century Britain. Historical pageants were put on in villages, towns and cities up and down the country; hundreds of thousands of people were involved as volunteer actors, organizers, dressmakers, fund-raisers, and much else besides; millions more enjoyed these often large-scale events as spectators. Pageants told the stories of local communities through chronologically-ordered scenes or episodes featuring notable events from local history. Sometimes captured on film, these pageants are vivid, fascinating, and extraordinarily rich sources for local historical research.


Until recently, relatively little was known about the spread and extent of this ‘pageant fever’. But now a team of researchers have created a free, publicly-accessible database of historical pageants, available here. This database, which is fully searchable, contains detailed information about hundreds of historical pageants. Each pageant has its own entry, which includes factual material (e.g. names of organizers, dates and times of performances, financial profit/loss, content of episodes), but also a readable essay setting the event in its local and national context.

Few places in Britain were untouched by the pageant movement. Historical pageants were very popular in the south west, and you can find out about the events held in Wiltshire – and indeed elsewhere – by visiting our database. The Redress of the Past project website also contains a range of additional material and information, including images, details of some pageant films, and illustrated essays on particularly notable pageants.

A number of groups have found that pageants provide good subjects for talks, exhibitions, and projects of various kinds. In the last few years, for example, there have been exhibitions at Carlisle, Bury St Edmunds and Scarborough. You can read more about these exhibitions here. The Somerset & Dorset Family History Society has also started running a really interesting genealogical project on the performers who took part in the 1905 Sherborne pageant.

Please do spread the word about this project: we’d be delighted to hear what you think of it. Contact paul.readman@kcl.ac.uk or by phone on 0207 8481573.

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Alan Ball Award Local History Submissions Due – deadline next month

It is that time of year again when the CILIP Local Studies Group start calling for submissions for the Alan Ball Award for Local History publishing. Once again there are categories for the best printed and the best digital publications released, this time published between July 2016 and June 2017. The award is open to all heritage and community organisations […]

via Local studies publication and e-publication of the year award – nominations open now — Local Studies Group Blog

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50 years of Conservation Areas in England

This month marks 50 years of conservation areas in England, and the biggest birthday party of all is in Stamford, Lincolnshire.

via The First Conservation Area — Heritage Calling

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Much more than a Salisbury Suburb…

Bemerton is situated to the west of Salisbury and was once a village in its own right. It was the home of George Herbert, rector of Bemerton from 1630 until his death three years later. Some of Herbert’s works were written whilst living at the rectory in Bemerton, and he also has links with nearby Fugglestone St. Peter (the mother church of Bemerton) where he also spent time with his congregation.

          Bemerton St. Andrews and the rectory             Ref P15471, courtesy of the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre

The Bemerton Local History Group was established in 2002 upon receipt of a Millennium Award which helped the group get up and running.  They have published a number of books, including ‘Memories of Bemerton in Wartime’, ‘George Herbert in Bemerton’ (an excerpt from Ronald Blythe’s book Divine Landscapes which is now out of print) and ‘Memories of the Hut’, a fond look at Lower Bemerton’s Village Hall.

Social events include walks and parish tea parties. Their hopes for the future are to publish a history of Bemerton.

To find out more about the group please contact info@bemerton-history.org.uk

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Alan Ball Award 2017

Diana Dixon from CILIP Local Studies Group committee presented the certificate for the 2016 Alan Ball Award to Peterborough Local Studies and Archives Service for their interactive website Peterborough in the Great War on May 3rd 2017. Despite keen competition this was clearly the winner and Diana pointed out how impressed she had been initially with looking at a changing display on Peterborough Station […]

via e-Alan Ball award winners get their prize — Local Studies Group Blog

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Art in the Landscape

When we think about local history, it is perhaps easiest to think about the use of the land; those who made use of it and the changes they brought. The landscape is constantly transforming from season to season. There are changes in industry, in working practices, settlement use and advances in technology from cement to the combine harvester to the motor car.

But what about the impact art has made on the landscape? Creativity goes hand in hand with inspiration of the landscape, and we often see the results of this creativity in art galleries, museums; in our own homes. The 2014-2019 HLF funded project Creative Wiltshire is looking at the impact that creativity has made on our county, acquiring items made by creative people on behalf of the county’s participating museums, archive and local studies libraries. More recently the project has been considering public art; the extent, location and condition of works in Wiltshire and the role it plays to enhance the places where we live and work.

Statue at Dewell Mews in Old Town, Swindon with embellishment!

I have been running a number of volunteer workshops, calling for volunteers to help locate, investigate and map public art in the county, and our discussions have centred on that quite often very personal idea of what exactly is public art? To some it is an eyesore, to others a show of creativity to inspire others, a display of craftsmanship, perhaps sometimes evoking a sense of community effort or setting a community’s celebration or commemoration in time.

Public art is vulnerable; sometimes temporary, sometimes controversial, but without it we would not be a society which strives, which shares, which inspires, which provokes thought in spaces that are open to all. What a richer society we are because of it.

Art is part of who we are. It is an important addition to local history which gives us an insight into the mindset of communities past and present.

There’s still time to take part in the Public Art Project. Visit

Visit Creative Wiltshire and I hope to see you soon!


Julie Davis

County Local Studies Librarian & Project Co-ordinator

Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre


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Avebury Squaring the Circle on Radio

You can find out more about our astonishing discovery at Avebury by listening to the Radio 4 Today programme podcast (interview at 53 mins 30 secs) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vwn6f

via Avebury – Squaring the Circle Radio Interview — FragmeNTs

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