The Eighth Wonder of the Natural World: Royal Wootton Bassett Mud Springs by Rebecca Davies BSc. (Hons)
Introduction to the Royal Wootton Bassett mud springs
From time to time something gets discovered that is new and surprising. Royal Wootton Bassett mud springs are definitely new and surprising. These are springs that instead of upwelling water, as springs generally do, produce goopey clay mud.
So say in 1974 the staff of Wootton Bassett sewerage works were investigating a flow of mud into their stream. A fields length upstream from the sewerage works was a copse of trees, surrounding a marshy area. Here they decided to dig. Pressure was released, and SPLAT! Mud showered everywhere, coating the surrounding trees. Following this astounding event, powers that be called for the Geologist W. I. Stanton to investigate. He wrote about the interest of the site, but to no avail.
It has been known for cattle to disappear and such an area is hazardous. Many have lost their boots in the spring and one investigator ended up in up to his armpits.
The spring is well within walking distance of the town’s venturesome children and children might well want to investigate such an unprecedented location for getting dirty. Thus, those in charge had to take action to render the location harmless. So they tipped a hundred tons of rubble into the spring in 1990 to make it `safe`. This disappeared without a trace, except maybe an equal amount of mud squeezed out into Hancock water. So then council officials had to clear that.
These springs are deep…bottomless even … DO NOT APPROACH!!
It was in 1994 that this phenomenon was further investigated, studied and reported in scientific papers and even the international press. Suddenly the quiet town of Wootton Bassett (these were the days before it was `By Royal Appointment` and was then known as the town with four sets of double letters in its name…) became a sensation.
Then someone suggested that this seemingly endless source of mud might have useful qualities. Some claimed hat Wootton Bassett was actually a spa town in Georgian times. Indeed there are salt springs in the locality. In Purton Stoke for example.
Eric Hodges, when a councillor for the town, campaigned to have the springs accepted as a World Heritage Site. He proposed the building of viewing platforms and interpretative boards. And, presumably, long sticks for poking supplied. Sadly this appealing project was never accepted. But in 1997 did get designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Nowadays the furore is over. But the mud springs still produce mud.
The geology of the mud springs
Ordinary springs are a common enough feature of the landscape, why is this special?
The local geology consists of Oxford clay, capped with the limestone known as Coral Rag, forming the ridge that Royal Wootton Bassett stands upon. Covering over that is Ampthill clay.
The water flow originates in the Coral Rag layer, under enough pressure to force it up through the normally impermeable clays. Forced out as the mud it forms a blister of material, added to when the springflows strongly, in the winter and after heavy rain.
The mud springs are an upwelling of material from the Ampthill clay, clay that itself is rich in fossils. This washes out into the stream, which is in consequence a good hunting ground for them. Found there are many ammonites, belemnites, sharks teeth and the occasional bone.
Shame on me, I have never visited this fascinating place. I recall reading about it in the 1990s, when it was very much in the local news. I have also walked along the canal; but never crossed the field to the copse.
Time to rectify that.
There is no doubt the springs are dangerous. Though – as far as I know – mercifully never a location for human fatality. I aim not to change that. But I intend to get a good photo of them, and find some fossils.
The mud springs themselves lie in a grove of trees called Templars Firs Copse, alongside a stream. This stream is called Hancocks water and is a tributary of Brinkworth brook. That in turn flows into the Bristol Avon. It is just south of the popular walk along a restored section of the Wilts and Berks Canal.
From the towpath you cannot see anything special.
And there they are – securely fenced off.
I decided discretion was best when approaching the stream. The ground underneath was very slippery, and the stream was in spate. With its melodious gurgling it stood in stark contrast to the silence of the springs themselves.
Somebody had been digging in the stream bed.
And had excavated a quantity of stream gravel, which they had picked over for fossils.
I, personally was more interested in the everyday geology.
The mud springs are an unusual but not unique geological feature. There are other examples of this, -a bit further to the east on Greenhill Common, just south of the A3102.
As for the provocative name? A red herring. I think. Temple/Templars names in Britain often refer to the Knights Templar, who had properties all over Europe. But this time it refers to Templars Firs, a belt of trees between the railway and the canal. Planted buy someone surnamed Templar …
Thank you very much to Melinda Lewis and Luis Albornoz-Parra of the British Geological Survey for their advice and encouragement. My geology is shaky.
BRISTOW, C. R., GALE, 1.N., FELLMAN, L. & COX, B .M. (with WILKINSON, 1.P. & RIDING, J. B.) 2000. The lithostratigraphy, biostratigraphy and hydrogeological significance of the mud springs at Templars Firs, Wootton Bassett, Wiltshire. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association, 111, 231-245.
Indeed, as they go on to tell us, the Domesday Book of 1086 records the manor of Lydiard as having woodland of 1 league long and a half a league in breadth. Come the 13th century and Braydon had become the second largest forest providing timber trees in the whole of England. Further, it abounded with red and fallow deer. In 1254-56 King Henry III gave Lydiard’s owner, Robert Tregoze, forty-four deer from the Royal Forest of Braydon to restock the park at Lydiard.
Now follows a post from my occasional guest blogger, Rebecca Davies BSC. (Hons) about Braydon Forest – and about forestry in general.
I am a true Purtonian, and so have made a light study of the local history. Some of my knowledge, though, isn’t so much overtly learned as comes more from immersion.
Part of that is about the forested land below Pavenhill in Purton. This forest land is Braydon (or Bradon) Forest – a one-time royal hunting ground. This much I learned as a child. Yet no-one could tell me much about the place. There is a booklet published on the forest, by Thomson in 1953. It is 30 pages long and is about the only dedicated history of this area. Thus I am hoping this little article will make a difference.
FOREST: Hunting preserve of the king or lord-marcher, subject to forest law but not necessarily woodland. Originally an area of land in which only the owner had the right to hunt deer and boar. Special laws were applied in this area as it lay outside the jurisdiction of common law. (Forests and Chases glossary)
Every schoolboy is taught that forests existed to provide deer and other game for the king’s hunting. And that all Plantagenet kings rode to hounds, like Jorrocks, four days a week, and the royal keepers roamed the land inflicting capital and surgical penalties on any peasant caught doing anything that might, however remotely, interfere with the deer. This idealistic picture has never been confirmed by critical research. (Rackham)
The animals preserved included Red deer, Fallow deer, Roe deer and Wild boar. Fallow Deer are not natives. The Normans introduced them from southern Europe.
Organisation of The Forest
· Warden/Chief Forester. Often an eminent magnate, a deputy often exercised his powers. · Foresters, under-foresters. They went about preserving the forest and game and apprehending offenders against the law. · Woodwards, Rangers. Woodwards is a common place name in the forest. · Agisters – supervised pannage and agistment · Surveyors – determined the boundaries of the forest.
Court of attachment, (Forty-Day Court or Woodmote). Presided over by verderers and the Warden, or his deputy. It did not possess the power to try or convict individuals, and such cases passed to the swainmote
Court of regard, held every third year to enforce the law requiring declawing of dogs within the forest.
Swainmote or Sweinmote – held three times a year and presided over by the Warden and verderers.
·Court of justice-seat or eyre was the highest of the forest courts. It was the only court that could pass sentence upon offenders of the forest laws.
In practice, these fine distinctions were not always observed.
Rights and privileges
Payment for access to certain rights provided a useful source of income to the King. The common inhabitants of the forest possessed many rights:
Turbary, the right to cut turf, rights of pasturage
Wood pasture (Agistment)- the practise of grazing livestock in mixed grassland and woods.
Swine forage (Pannage) – both beech and oak trees give nourishing seeds for pigs.
Warren – rabbit warrens, managed by the warrener …
… and harvesting the products of the forest.
Lastly, land might be disafforested entirely. That else permission could be given for assart (small clearance) and purpresture. (Building)
The geology is Oxford clay, a stiff clay – not easy to plough. Forests did not get established on useful land. The topography has a gentle roll with a few streams going through it, often forming borders. The main stream is the River Key.
Industrial and Social History
In modern day forestry reports there is little discussion of economic activity. Indeed, we might say that forests arewastelands, as per the medieval definition – in that they created no income for the Crown.
In times past the people, whether king or inhabitants, could not afford the luxury of unproductive land. In fact for many forest people their immediate environment supplied all their needs. Probably, apart from grain and metals, the only products imported were luxury goods.
*Fuel wood *Timber – building materials *Wood – coppiced wood & small crafts *Charcoal *Herbs *Wild honey/wax *Fungi and truffles *Nuts & fruits *Stone and clay
In Coppicing, the trees get cut back to regrow into poles. Then, from time to time, recut. It’s possible to treat most deciduous trees this way. The practice produces small pieces of timber for a variety of uses. Such as:
Pea and beansticks
We see this practice in Ravenshurst Wood.
Forests were places outside common law and the inhabitants were likewise unconventional, often described as non-confirmist or even atheists. Most royal forests were extra-parochial and had no church. The first built in Braydon forest came at the end of the nineteenth century.
The royal forests attracted the Romanies for their resource rich environments with little outside interference. There’s irony in the fact that land established for the elite had the side-effect of creating a desireable abode for the marginalised.
Thomson gives a lot of his book over to the perambulations. This is an official record of a boundary – all done without the use of a map. This is an official record of a boundary – all done without the use of a map. The perambulation is followed on the ground and marked by describing landmarks, such as distinctive trees, earthworks or natural features such as ridgelines or streams.
As Rackham says, the royal forests, though of importance to the owners and inhabitants, have been little recorded or documented. We have no idea how many there were in total or for how long they were afforested. Nor where the borders were.
Braydon is not a big forest with distinct laws and culture. It is not a small, famous forest. However, it is my forest.
** All photos by the author, except the fallow deer photo. And the map is from Thomson’s booklet.
The Southbrook Inn Swindon My regular guest blogger, Rebecca Davies, sent me a charming account of an older couple she once visited in Ferndale. It’s a lovely story, well worth a read and it’s further down in this post.
But, as Ferndale is her story’s setting, I decided to tie it in with a Swindon in 50 More Buildings post. One that centres on the Southbrook Inn Swindon. And that happens to be in Ferndale.
About the Southbrook Inn
In this Swindon Advertiser guide to Ferndaleyou’ll find mention of the Southbrook Inn. The pub, now a Grade II listed building, had a former life as the Southbrook farmhouse. And in that existence it was the only building in the area. It’s hard to imagine now isn’t it? That what we know as Swindon once was green fields and not much else.
In 1908, Swindon’s expansion brought the farm, and the land surrounding it, into the borough. 1956 saw the farmhouse converted into a pub with the transfer of the license from the Golden Lion on Bridge Street which had closed that same year.
Says Frances: ‘When the property came up for sale in 1763 Thomas Goddard, Lord of the Manor of Swindon, was ready to sign on the dotted line.Having informed his attorney, Mr Thomas Athawes, that he was ‘very well satisfied with the Title of Southbrook Farm …
… In 1898 Fitzroy Pleydell Goddard sold part of the land to builder William Hobbs, heralding the end of the farming at Southbrook. However despite the continuing development at Gorse Hill north of the railway line, Southbrook Farm retained its buffer of open fields into the 20th century.’
The above are small extracts from Frances’ blog. DO follow the link above to Frances’ blog for the whole Southbrook story.
A bit about Ferndale
Before I move on to Rebecca’s lovely story some Ferndale facts. ‘The area became known as Ferndale after the building of Ferndale Road. Today that runs all the way from Gorse Hill to Cheney Manor. But in Victorian times the road was considerably shorter. All of this changed in 1902 after the building contractor Edwin Bradley began to construct houses along the road.‘
1908 saw the consecretion of All Saints Church, in Southbrook Street. The first building was a temporary one designed for use as schoolrooms.
During the Second World War, enemy bombs hit Ferndale killing twenty-five people in the area. The church held several funerals for those killed in the bombings.
A Swindon Story by Rececca Davies Bsc. (Hons).
This is an account of an elderly couple I once met in Swindon. This must have been in about the middle 90s? I do not recall the exact year. It was some years ago but not a very long time ago. At least it seems so to me. I will admit I have a limited sense of time.
I was delivering something to a Swindon address though what or why evades me. The subjects of my delivery duty were a retired couple. Pleased to see me they invited me in for a cuppa.
Their house was a small one. I do not know which street it was in. It may have been one of those small cul-de-sacs off of Ferndale road. But I am not sure – though I can visualise it even now. It was one of those Victorian terraced houses. You know the sort. They have a front door that takes you straight into the living room. Inside there is an open staircase up to the first floor and the kitchen out the back. If you’ve seen that sort of house you will know what I mean.
A room full of memories
Inside this living room was full of knick knacks. Hanging on the walls, covering the shelves and sideboard and placed on the edge of the stairs. Plates, ornaments, cups, mats, a wide selection of stuff.
It must have been a nightmare to dust. And they were all holiday souvenirs from all over the world. Central Europe, Australia, South America, Hawaii, China, Kenya. You name it – they had a souvenir from it.
Curiosity got the better of me
I wondered if they were someone connected with the big liners, like my Great Uncle Sid. Though I didn’t get the impression of either enough money or of then being globetrotters. My imagination went into overdrive. So it was no good – I had to ask them about it.
It turned out that they had indeed never been abroad. Though yes, they did get their eclectic collection of souvenirs themselves.
It had been their habit to take a weekend trip to the city every month. Each time they spent a weekend in London they visited a different ethnic area. They knew where the obscure ones were too – often in a single cul-de-sac. Though where they got the information on how to locate these places I didn’t find out. Bear in mind I visited pre-internet days – and they had made their journeys before even then.
They met the people and sampled the food and took home to Swindon a souvenir of their adventures. And in doing so they explored the entire world.
London – and then the world
London, like all great cities, has always been an international city. Roman London must have seemed astoundingly multicultural to the rural dwelling Briton. And the city of today is, of course, famed for its diversity. But as for using this attribute for global exploration…well, why not? I’m sure many people have done as my nameless couple did.
The chap did not specify but I suspect he was ex-railway – this is Swindon after all. Both my father and grandfather were in the Works. So he must have had a BR rail pass which would have helped with the travel expenses.
I felt so moved and impressed by their tale – as you might imagine. I asked them if they were going to write a book about their adventures. Or at the very least, they could write a London guide of unsurpassed originality and interest. (Not to mention utility). Yet they regarded their explorations as nothing out of the ordinary at all. This saddened me very much, but I said nothing.
They took their adventures to their grave. But I remember their story and am telling you it now.
The Wiltshire Mummers’ Play: Mummers plays are an old Christmas tradition in many parts of the country. A group of friends would dress up, and go round the neighbourhood performing a little play. This had a set script. But, thanks to oral transmission, this would have varied from district to district. In return they received money and food, and, no doubt, drink.
They also (a bit like the traditional Punch and Judy shows) would have contained topical references. F. A. Carrington tells us that the version he recorded mentioned Napoleon Bonaparte. But he cut this out.
Today these interesting tradition have seen revival. In Wiltshire, a group called the Potterne Christmas Boys perform the play.
Their Facebook page, from where the above image is taken, says:
Guardians of the traditional Potterne Mummers Play, we tour the pubs round the Devizes area in the week before Christmas, to present our version of the traditional folk play, and collect a few quid for local charities and the Wiltshire Air Ambulance.
‘Key characters in the plays include the heroes, who vary somewhat, and are usually King or St.George and father Christmas. The adversaries include Valiant Soldier, Turkey Snipe (Turkish Knight) and there are usually several others that drop in that include Little Man Jack, Little Man John and old Almanac and there is always a Quack Doctor, who carries the reviving elixir brought in to revive the loser of the sword fight between a hero and an adversary.
Local schoolteacher, Bernard Baker revived The Potterne Play back in 1953. Mick Hiscock, the Moonraker Morris and others subsequently kept it going.’
Sadly, they are unlikely to take place this year, but maybe, now you have the script shown below you can put your own on?
The cast of characters in the Wiltshire drama are:
1. OLD FATHER CHRISTMAS. 2. MINCE PIE. 3. A TURKISH (evidently a Saracen) KNIGHT. 4. ST. GEORGE. 5. An ITALIAN DOCTOR. 6. A character called LITTLE JACK.
The Wiltshire Mummers’ play – from around 1838
(Slightly Adapted from the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 1, 1853).
Enter OLD FATHER CHRISTMAS.
FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Merrily). Oh! Here come I, old Father Christmas, welcome, or welcome not, I hope old Father Christmas will never be forgot. Make room! Room! I say! That I may lead Mince Pie this way. Walk in Mince Pie, and act thy part, And show the gentles thy valiant heart.
Enter Mince Pie MINCE PIE; (Joyful). Room! Room! You gallant souls give me room to rhyme, I’ll show you some festivity this Christmas time.
Enter a TURKISH KNIGHT, with a wooden sword. TURKISH KNIGHT; (Boldly belligerent). I am a valiant Turkish Knight, And dare with any man to fight; Bring me the man that bids me stand, Who says he’ll cut me down with audacious hand, I’ll cut him and hew him as small as a fly, And send him to Satan to make mince pie.
Enter ST. GEORGE with a wooden sword. ST GEORGE; (Belligerently bold). Oh! In come I, St. George, the man of courage bold, With my sword and buckler I’ve won three crowns of gold; I fought the fiery dragon and brought him to the slaughter; I won a beauteous Queen a King of Egypt’s daughter: If thy mind is high, my mind is bold, If thy blood is hot, I will make it cold.
[ST. GEORGE and the TURKISH KNIGHT fight; the latter falls).
TURKISH KNIGHT;(Squealing like a sissy).Oh! St. George spare my life! FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Vaguely concerned). Is no Doctor to be found To cure this man who’s bleeding on the ground?
Enter the DOCTOR.
THE DOCTOR; (Improperly enthusiastic). Yes! An Italian Doctor’s to be found To cure the Knight who’s bleeding on the ground: I cure the sick of every pain, And raise the dead to life again.
FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Glumly). Doctor, what is thy fee? THE DOCTOR; (To business).Ten pounds is my fee, But fifteen I must take of thee Before I set this gallant free.
FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Sighing). Work thy will, Doctor.
THE DOCTOR; (prideful). I have a little bottle by my side The fame of which spreads far and wide, I drop a drop on this poor man’s nose.
[THE DOCTOR touches the TURKISH KNIGHT’S nose and he instantly springs on his feet quite recovered.]
Enter LITTLE JACK, a small man, with several dolls strapped at his back.
LITTLE JACK; (Cheekily). Oh! In come I, little saucy Jack With all my family at my back. Christmas comes but once a year And when it comes it brings good cheer: Roast beef, plum pudding, and mince pie, Who likes that any better than I?
FATHER CHRISTMAS; (Loudly and heartfelt). Me! [He gestures to the audience to join in].
MINCE PIE; (Sums up). Christmas ale makes us dance and sing; Money in purse is a very fine thing. Ladies and gentlemen give us what you please ALL; (Cheers). MERRY CHRISTMAS ALL!!
Carrington, F. A. (1853) On Certain Wiltshire Customs, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 1, 1853. (p. 79-86).
And now for some mincemeat
If you’re wondering what that’s got to do with Mummers the answer is: nothing at all. Except that Rebecca likes to make her own so is sharing her recipe!
As she says: ‘Pretty every much everyone loves mince pies, and some people love making mince pies, me, I make the mincemeat. Shop bought mincemeat consists of pureed apple, palm oil and the odd raisin. I can do better than that!
I was told by a person who makes home preserves for the market that good mincemeat is not cost effective to make for retail. Hence the uninspired products on the market. So by making your own you get the chance to experience truly wonderful mince pies.’
Now in the immortal words of Jimmy Young – Google him:
This is what you do!
Put lemon and apples though mincer (or finely chop or grate), add to other ingredients in bowl, mix well and jar up. If a little dry, add more water/sherry.
ANGLO SAXON ART IN WILTSHIRE, INTERLACEMENTS AND VINES by Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons).
We call it Celtic. Though it’s also Pictish, Viking, or Anglo Saxon. We call it Interlaced though it can be freeform, zoomorphic, spirals or tessellated. What am I talking about? I’m referring to the genre known as Insular art. (Some of which comes from the Mainland…) (Bain 1977).
But, whatever it is – we know it when we see it.
I don’t have a speciality subject in archaeology but for many years now I’ve had an interest in Early Medieval Christianity. I’ve travelled all over Britain to see antiquities of that period. Thus, I’m now particularly familiar with the collection on the Isle of Man, doubly interesting as it consists of Viking as well as Celtic examples. (Kermode 1994).
In which your scribe enters the Early Medieval Scriptorium
Celtic art is ideal for someone like me who is no artist but can do technical drawing. Yet it requires consistency and an awful lot of patience. Some examples are infamously intricate.
Recently I went on a course to further my knowledge of this art form. On the course I learned about parchment and how to cut quill pens. It also covered marking out the geometry using a compass and straight edge, and the traditional pigments. This was as close to texts such as the Book of Kells and the Lindisfarne Gospels as anyone is going to get these days.
The course was in Cromarty (a little north of Inverness) so this was a rather long journey – worth it though.
This art form is often associated with the West of Britain and so I wanted to know if there were any examples of it here in Wiltshire. (Wiltshire is only in the West Country if the inhabitants feel like it). Well, as it turns out, there are quite a lot of pieces, all produced in the Anglo-Saxon period (Circa 500-1066 A.D.)
The Anglo-Saxons were skilled in many different media, though not enthusiastic builders in stone. Thus they’d have made most buildings from timber. That said, there are stone churches. We’re so fortunate in Wiltshire to have one of the finest and most unaltered Saxon churches – that of St Lawrence in Bradford upon Avon. And a great many more contain elements of Anglo-Saxon carvings.
Artistic cues for Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire
The artists took their cues from both Celtic knotwork and Norse gripping beasts. Athough a favourite design element of their own was the foliate element, and so we see examples of all these concepts in Wiltshire. (Meehan 1995). Countering that are more classical figures and tessellated design elements.
Some examples of Anglo Saxon Art in Wiltshire now follow – Not an exhaustive list!
BRADFORD UPON AVON
St Lawrence’s church is famed for this magnificent pair of angels. (St Lawrence’s church website).
CODFORD ST PETER
Much has been made of this fellow’s posture. I reckon it’s a mere ploy to get him into the space in a tidy fashion.
I’m much more sympathetic to the monsters found in churches, rather than the angels – being a monster myself. Here are two Norse dragons.
Cricklade church is famous for its tower – visible for miles around. In the north porch are two much older carvings – part of a cross shaft and a grave cover respectively.
Eysey is a deserted village north of the Thames at Cricklade with its church demolished in 1953. Found in the river, these pieces are now in the museum. (Cricklade Museum website).
Knook has this grand example of a knotwork border and a Norse style tympanum.
According to the very helpful website `Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture`, there are no less than nine examples of this art in Ramsbury church. Here are three of them.
St Mary’s church at Rodbourne Cheney church is old and indeed has a couple of carving fragments.
To begin with I assumed that examples of this art were only found in the Celtic (i.e. western) parts of the country. I was very wrong, as you can see. Which goes to show how important research is. But, I enjoy researching new things very much…
SARSEN STONES: THE OLD ONES OF THE DOWNS, By Rebecca Davies BSc (Hons)
Introduction to Wiltshire’s Sarsen Stones
Wiltshire’s Sarsen Stones
A Canadian friend came to stay and, since they were a Neo-pagan, I decided to show them Avebury stone circle, a favourite place of mine. This didn’t go exactly to plan. For a start they were most upset because some Early Medieval people had decided to build their village on a sacred site.
To my perplexment and sadness my visitors found this was quite unacceptable. But then I’ve found that neo-pagans can be perplexing and saddening.
I once showed another new-ager Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, a stirring Shinto tale, and they were most horrified. But then, explaining that the world’s most technologically advanced society is pagan often doesn’t work out well.
I thought better of trying to explain that Avebury was not a sacred site to the Saxons and, after pacifying them with a pint of cider at the Red Lion, took them up the byway leading to Fyfield Down.
This was to show them wild sarsens in their natural habitat.
I am gratified to say that they enjoyed this trip very much.
Origins of the names of Wiltshire’s Sarsen Stones
t’s probable that the stones themselves got their names from the Knights Templar who had a Preceptory at Rockley. (Blackwell & Fowler). They called them Saracen stones because they’re alien to the soft chalk. Their other name, Grey Wethers derives from the way they look like a flock of sheep, particularly on a misty morning. (Delorme).
“I shall conclude with the stones called the Grey Wethers; which lye scattered all over the downes about Marleborough, and incumber the ground for at least seven miles diameter; and in many places they are, as it were, sown so thick, that travellers in the twylight at a distance take them to be flocks of sheep (wethers) from whence they have their name.” (Aubrey)
Formation and geology
Sarsens are the remains of a tough overlay of the chalk, now eroded away, formed of silicate cemented sand and are a very dense rock; one cubic foot weighs 150 lb. (Delorme).
These rocks are the survivors of sandy islands in the Cretaceous seas, Many sarsens have holes in them formed by the roots of tropical trees. They’re relics of a more fanciful time. (Hungerford Virtual Museum).
Later the stones were part of a periglacial landscape, redistributed by meltwater. Fyfield downs contain many examples of this climatic era for the geological student to seek out. (Hungerford Virtual Museum).
Sarsens are always found on chalk downs. Yet it’s not inevitable that chalk downs harbour sarsens. You can find them from Kent to Suffolk and across the channel on the French chalklands around Dieppe. Oddly though they seem to be absent from the Isle of Wight. (Delorme).
Nor are they exactly plentiful on Salisbury plain. They are common on the Marlborough downs, both in fields and in the forest.
West Wood is today famed for its bluebells. But in the past there was a considerable extractive industry in these woods including sarsens. There are the remains of sarsen crushing machines and plenty of loose cut stone.(Archaeology Data Service.)
Recently it was proven that this is the source of the sarsen component of Stonehenge. (BBC News).
The usage of sarsens
Over the millennia the sarsens have had many uses. In the first instance they were erected as part of megalithic monuments such as Avebury stone circle and Stonehenge. Then later their superior strength lent form to Windsor castle. (Delorme).
Exploring the village of Winterbourne Monkton I saw sarsens at every turn.
Sarsens are tactile, they invite touching and climbing upon. They come in a variety of colours, greys, creams, oranges and browns. Sarsens are well worth visiting.
The best place to see sarsens today is Fyfield Down. But there’s also a small National Trust estate at Lockeridge Dene and Piggledene which are a bit more accessible. All three places are Geological Sites of Special Scientific Interest. (National Trust).
But yet, there are many sarsens round and about Swindon, mostly upon the east side. (Hidden Swindon).
Pretty much all parks have them. You may well have seen them without actually noticing them.
Rebecca Davies is a private Researcher. Coming from the antiquity rich county of Wiltshire it was only natural for her to become aware of our ancestors and ancient landscapes. In her early forties, quite by accident, she left her home town of Swindon and travelled to Cornwall to study Archaeology. This has enabled her to develop special interests in Early Medieval Christianity, Industrial History, Vikings and Experimental Archaeology. (Though really she is fascinated by anything curious she might grab at).
She would describe herself as apart from University, mostly self-educated. Her interests are “eclectic” ranging from Bushcraft to Local history to Classic Cars. She does not think Swindon to be boring at all.
Her ambition is to have even more adventures in Heritage.