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Features

Archaeologist Jim Leary and his work on Wiltshire’s three giant prehistoric mounds

Jim Leary has carried out archaeological research on all three of Wiltshire’s pre-historic mounds: Silbury Hill, the Marlborough Mound (whose provenance as a Neolithic mound he helped prove) and, most recently, on the Marden site in the Vale of Pewsey.

The mound at Marden, which may have been fifteen metres high, was levelled some two hundred years ago.  But during the dig they found its vital remaining fifteen centimetres.  That was exciting enough, but to find the floor of a pre-historic building was amazing. It’s quite a story.

How did Jim Leary become an archaeologist?   He told Marlborough News Online that his interest began when his family lived in Cyprus and he found bits of ancient Greek sculpture in the garden.  Then, back in England as a teenager, he used to walk the family dog near their Sussex home and pick up scores of worked flints.

A-levels in the bag, he went to Cardiff University to study archaeology under Professor Alasdair Whittle. And the professor’s specialism was the pre-history of Wessex and he had written an important book on Silbury and the West Kennet palisade enclosures.  The rest, as they say, is history – very ancient history.

Silbury Hill
Just as the new millennium began (notching up just another thousand years of Silbury’s history), a major subsidence happened at the summit.  This was the result of the failure of past excavators (in 1776, 1849 and 1968) to back-fill their tunnelling properly when they left.

It looked like a disaster waiting to happen – might Silbury collapse altogether? However the mound’s unstable state allowed English Heritage to mount another and this time very expert and technologically supported excavation into the mound.  Jim directed the fieldwork on Silbury during 2007-2008.  Dating the fragments they found inside the mound showed Silbury had been constructed between about 2450 to 2300 BC. 

Using an initial analysis of what they found inside Silbury, Jim and colleague David Field wrote The Story of Silbury Hill (published a year ago by English Heritage.)  This is a general account of the Hill’s history.  Now they are working on the academic monograph which will be a doorstop of a book – “a meaty volume, very technical, telling what happened and what we found.”

It was probably a once-in-a-century excavation: “I cannot imagine anything else happening at Silbury for a long time now. There's always going to be that air of mystery about Silbury.”

The Marlborough Mound
Fresh from his work at Silbury, Jim was asked to help on the investigation in the Marlborough Mound. Jim says “I always believed it to be a prehistoric mound.”  But then he admits that lots of people say that.

He has enormous admiration for the Marlborough Mound Trust which financed the research and for Peter Carey of the Bath architects Donald Insall Associates who manage the conservation work.  (The photo left shows the crane lifting the drill gear to the mound’s summit – October 2010 – copyright Donald Insall Associates)

Financed by a former college pupil, the trust had to dig deep into its funds.  Just drilling the two main cores through the full height of the Mound – each one just ten centimetres across – cost about £25,000.
“As the costs spiralled upwards, I thought they were going to pull out, but they stuck with it – as a really important piece of work. They were brilliant.”   He admits that as the costs rose he began to have doubts about the Mound’s age.

But carbon dating on the charcoal they found at various levels inside the mound prove it was created over a period of about eight hundred years from 2840 BC.  The theory that it was nothing older than the foundations of a Norman castle was blown away.

The Marlborough Mound is almost certainly the second highest man-made prehistoric structure in Europe, but at 83 metres wide at the base and nineteen metres high, it’s quite a bit smaller than Silbury’s 160 metres wide and 31 metres high.

The conservation programme being undertaken by the Trust will take several years to complete and not all the decisions have yet been made about the end result.  It will probably look more like its eighteenth century incarnation with a spiral path to the summit than like Silbury’s grass covering.

See Marlborough News Online news story: Challenge to local author over the future of Silbury’s ‘little sister’.

Marden Henge
It’s a bit of a secret, but west of Pewsey there is a ‘Henge’ at Marden marked on ordnance survey maps. There’s little or nothing there now (see aerial photo below – photo courtesy English Heritage) and recently little archaeological attention has been paid to it. Originally this ‘henge’ included a mound that might, at about fifteen metres in height, have been Marlborough Mound’s ‘smaller sister’.

Just what is a henge?  Confusingly, it’s not something like Stonehenge. It’s a neolithic enclosure which has a ditch inside its bank and is therefore not defensive, but more likely to be a site for rituals of some kind. The Marden henge may be one of the largest and most important in the country.

It hasn’t helped that Marden lies on Pewsey Vale’s greensand and neolithic monuments survive better on chalk – like Avebury. And because the Vale is rich farming land, the area has been well ploughed over the centuries.  It may even have had standing stones like Avebury – and these have all disappeared.

Jim Leary was directing the field work at Marden for English Heritage and he was amazed to find those fifteen centimetres of the mound had survived – in it they found an animal bone fragment that will enable accurate dating.  But another surprise was to come.

The excavations revealed a very rare find indeed: the sunken floor of a Neolithic building (pictured left – courtesy English heritage.)  Jim says of this find: “The building was the most incredible discovery.”  So incredible that it made the national newspapers.

Only a quarter of this has been excavated, but it showed a circular feature that was not an ordinary hearth.  One theory is that this was the floor of a ‘sweat lodge’ into which heated stones were carried to perform cleansing of the human body rather like a Scandinavian sauna – but this was probably for ritual purification rather than for personal hygiene.

And Jim believes the henge has a clear connection to rivers.  Marden may have had an avenue leading down to the Avon – a feature of other henges.  Could it be that rivers provided the routes inland for the people from continental Europe who were bringing their metalwork to England?

The future
Jim Leary lives in Hampshire with his wife and two daughters – one a very recent arrival.  He is employed by English Heritage, but because of the government’s cuts, they have stopped doing archaeological research.

However, Jim is a true enthusiast and is determined to go back to do more work on Marden – and the technology is there to help him and his team:

“Archaeology is no longer just a social science, it’s becoming a really hard science.  What we’re getting now is really refined dating techniques – we can identify a period of thirty years in pre-history.”

Silbury’s place on the tourist map is assured.  The Marlborough Mound may yet become a  must-see site – as and when the college can allow visitors.  “However, it is now time for Marden to step up in our collective consciousness and take its place as one of the truly great prehistoric monuments in the country.” Jim Leary is sure to be there to help Marden take that place.

At the college on Monday, September 19, Jim Leary is giving the Marlborough Mound Trust’s fifth annual lecture: “The Marlborough Mound and the other Giants of Wessex."

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Horse lovers swap four feet for two

Horse lovers Anna Alcock and Chloe Roberts will be swapping four feet for two as they race around Bristol in aid of retired racehorses.

Anna Alcock and Chloe Roberts, who are both 17 and come from Pewsey, will be running the Bristol Half Marathon on Sunday, September 11 in aid of Greatwood, the charity that cares for retired racehorses and children with special needs.

Anna told Marlborough News Online: “Many people clearly go racing for either the joy of watching horses or for the social occasion, but we've realised that hardly anyone knows what happens after racing and when the horses come out of training.

“Similarly some people are unaware of the amazing effect of horses on children with special needs.

“If you would like to sponsor us for the run, it would be very much appreciated by us and by Greatwood, who are very much in need of financial help at this time.”

The pair hope to raise £700 for the charity. To sponsor them, log on to www.justgiving.com/annaandchloe

For more information about Greatwood, go to www.greatwoodcharity.org 

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Closed but not forgotten: a worthy history of East Kennet school

Close a school and you’re closing the door on a whole history of learning and community life.  When East Kennet school closed this summer, it was a sad day for the village. But its history has been rescued by Ruth Lamdin in her book A Village Education.

From 1990 the primary schools in East Kennet and in Lockeridge operated on a federated basis – sharing heads and resources.  Now the two schools have been united on the redeveloped Lockeridge site and East Kennet school’s one hundred and fifty-four year story is over.

The school was founded in 1857 by Maria and Anne Mathews who lived in East Kennet Manor.  It was a totally independent foundation catering partly for local children and partly training girls to work as domestic servants – in the ‘big house’ and beyond.

After Anne died, Maria set up an endowment for the school of £2,300 (equivalent to about £111,000 today) and the school was to be known as ‘Miss Mathew’s School’.  But neither the name nor Maria’s wish that the school be independent lasted long.  Soon after her death in 1892, it became a Church of England Public Elementary School.

Of course the school has gone on changing. The original school building (photo left) – fronting the road and opposite the manor – is now a private house, but it still has its ‘1857’ brick plaque.  Behind it stand classrooms ancient and modern - in various styles and of varying quality (see photo below.)

Ruth Lamdin, who has been a governor of Kennet Valley School, has traced the school’s story using records kept in the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.  Her book gives a wonderful insight into the conditions and teaching methods in a small rural school over the years.

Today inspectors from Ofsted strike fear into teachers and produce headlines for the newspapers.  Mrs Lamdin reminds us that English schools have been inspected since 1839 and she uses to great effect reports by Her Majesty’s Inspectors and by diocesan inspectors – as well as the school’s own log books.

In 1891 the school possessed twenty slates (on which the children wrote their exercises) and three maps: “The World, England, Palestine” - days when much of the world was Empire red, most of England was green and pleasant and Palestine was ‘the Holy Land.’

And in 1900 the headmistress reported that because of the lawn was in a sodden state all winter “I have found it necessary to make the children use the road for a playground.”  That’s enough to send shivers of health and safety rules through any modern staff room or PTA.

The earliest school photograph (left) – with all the pupils in their Sunday best  –  is from 1915 when Mrs Billeness was headmistress and the school leaving age was twelve.  Agriculture was still king in the Kennet valley: in July 1900 “Elsie Ellis came and asked for some work (sums) to work at home as her mother could not let her come to school owing to the haymaking.”

This group photo (left) is from 1920 – two years after the school leaving age was raised to fourteen.  Mrs Lamdin has used records which don’t just show us how the school developed, but also remind us how slowly village life changed.  In 1942 the school log reflected the lack of central heating: “15 January: 26 degrees [fahrenheit – six degrees of frost] at 9 a.m.  Ink in wells frozen hard. Ink in stone bottle frozen solid so that when room thawed the bottle had cracked and ink ran across the floor.  Children exercised until room warmed up.”

Even by 1959 the headmistress, Mrs Freeman, showed great frustration at the lack of facilities: “During this term, Russian space rockets have reached and encircled the moon…We use radio and TV for school purposes and before long hope water and proper sanitation will be laid on at this school.”

The newly enlarged school in Lockeridge is certainly not short of up to date facilities and will be able to give the children of the area a great start in life.

Mrs Lamdin’s book also includes the testimony of several former pupils and is very well illustrated.  And for those who want to dig even deeper into this little corner of Wiltshire history, she has included a full list of her sources.

The paperback book costs £5 and can be bought from Mrs Lamdin. You can contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">mailto:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by ‘phone 01672 861550.

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Scarecrows join speed limits in villagers’ armoury against speeding drivers

While Wiltshire waits for a programme of mobile speed cameras to replace the fixed speed cameras which were withdrawn last year, and for the results of the county’s 20MPH pilot schemes for village centres, parishes are working to reclaim their streets and make them safer.  In the second of our articles on how villages are tackling the problems of speeding traffic, Marlborough News Online visits a parish with two very different problems to solve.

No two parishes have quite the same problems with traffic and speeding drivers. But the parish of Fyfield and West Overton has more than its fair share of those problems: it includes Fyfield which has a straight stretch of the A4 running through it, and Lockeridge which has something of a rat-run as its main street.

In the area of this parish council, only West Overton, with no through traffic, is spared the blight of speeding drivers.

Before the M4 was built, the A4 was the main artery between London and Bristol.  When it was widened to cope with increased traffic, Fyfield lost some houses and was in effect split into three parts. There are Upper and Lower Fyfield and the part of Fyfield across the A4 on its north side.  Importantly, this part includes the villages’ only village shop.

Indeed if you add to the village shop, the petrol station, two turnings onto the main road and the lack of a stopping place for the school buses, Fyfield and the A4 do not mix well at all. In recent years this stretch of the A4 has seen several serious accidents and fatalities.

The parish council’s traffic committee have won approval for a 50MPH speed limit along the stretch of the A4 that includes Fyfield.  This won’t come into force until November 2012.

Although this should make a real difference for villagers, some think 40MPH would be more appropriate.  Changes to speed limits come at a cost: in 2009 Wiltshire Council identified 116 changes to speed limits and estimated they would cost between £900,000 and £1M.

However, one solution brings another problem. Once the 50MPH limit is in force, you will turn off the A4 towards Lockeridge and have a 500 metre stretch of 60MPH speed limit before you meet (in some cases ‘hit’ would be the better word) Lockeridge’s 30MPH sign.

Ruth Scriven, who chairs the parish council’s traffic committee, wants the 30MPH limit pushed northwards, out from the village, past the houses of Upper Fyfield, to meet the A4.

But Wiltshire Council have offered a 40MPH limit between the village's 30MPH sign and the A4.  However, Whitehall rules say you cannot have a different speed limit that runs for less than 600 metres – so can the limit between the village and the trunk road be set at 40MPH?  Are you following this so far?  Rules are, after all, rules and have to be followed.

Lockeridge have put up village gates to show drivers they’re entering a village.  But the start of the 30MPH limit is at a very tricky bend and it’s become something of an accident black spot with several accidents – and smashed village gates – in a year.

When you get into Lockeridge the problem changes radically.  The main street is narrow and in places very twisty.  It has a busy pub, lots of driveways and a newly enlarged school all emptying directly onto the village’s main street. 

The road through the village is too narrow and used by too many large agricultural vehicles to install chicanes.  Anyway, though they’re supposed to calm traffic, they’re often taken as a Top Gear challenge.  Though it must be said that parking along Lockeridge’s main street sometimes presents a chicane-type of obstacle course – not, it should be said, an obstacle race.

Several years ago the villages became really fed up with speeding drivers taking short cuts from the A4 towards Salisbury and Devizes – a problem made much worse with the introduction of ‘satnavs’. So they called in an internationally recognised traffic management expert, Ben Hamilton-Baillie.   Based in Bristol, he puts forward unorthodox ways to calm traffic and share spaces between cars and people.

In some places, he’s even proposed doing away with markings in the middle of the road. As Ruth Scriven told me: “Instead of providing information so a driver knows where to go, you take the information away so a driver has to think what he’s doing and realise where he is.”

Hamilton-Baillie came up with solutions that avoided sprinkling flashing signs and lights around the village.  He wanted the villagers to show drivers that they were entering a living village and not driving along some kind of ring road. 

He proposed ‘mental speed bumps’ – ways to encourage drivers to slow down as they passed through the village. In the words of parish councillor Judith Woodget, they had to “make the village look inhabited.”

One scheme that attracted a great deal of comment was the scarecrow competition.  Two years running villagers were asked to make scarecrows that would sit about the village  inviting drivers to slow down and notice them. The competitions – apart from revealing some striking hidden skills among the villagers – were deemed a success.

But even the scarecrows and a number of very visible village events held beside the road – Christmas drinks, an Easter bunny show and art hung on the school railings - did not do enough to solve the problems.

The flow of traffic – even with frequent examples of inappropriate or illegal speeding – was not deemed large enough for a community speed watch scheme to be launched in conjunction with Wiltshire police.

Ruth Scriven would like a 20MPH speed limit through the village. This has become more urgent with the increased number attending the school after the closure of its East Kennet branch – more children walking to school, more being dropped off in the narrow road and more buses.

There was some dismay that Lockeridge was not chosen to be one of the county’s five pilot schemes for 20MPH village limits.  Of those chosen, three were in the west and north-west of the county (Biddestone, Limpley Stoke and Westwood.) The other two were Great Cheverell (on the edge of the Plain) and Great Bedwyn (the only one in the east of the county.)

Twelve villages put themselves forward for the pilot, but Wiltshire Council says Lockeridge was not one of them.  The pilot schemes will last at least until April 2012.

 

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Priming the Marlborough area’s parish pumps

At a meeting in the Town Hall on September 6, Wiltshire councillors on the Marlborough Area Board will be voting on whether to make a grant to a local organisation most people will have never heard of.  And that’s how the ‘parish forum’ likes it.

The Marlborough area parish forum is a very lower case organisation.  It has no logo, no website and a chairman who is determined to chair no more than four of its meetings.  In the words of the song, it’s a ‘loose affiliation’ of the chairmen of the area’s eighteen rural parishes.  They work behind the scenes as facilitators and advisers.

The forum was started this year by James Keith (Broad Hinton & Winterbourne Bassett and current chairman) with Mary Spender (Fyfield & West Overton) and the assistance of Jemima Milton (Wiltshire Councillor for West Selkley - covering a swathe of villages.)

As the Marlborough and Village Community Area Partnership (MAVCAP) faded away, James thought a fairly informal organisation which would meet just four times a year and do most of its business by email, could help parish councils.  All but two parish councils attend the meetings – but all parishes are on the forum’s email circuit and receive minutes and papers.

(Marlborough council which sits as both a town and a parish council, was asked to join but declined, and this was accepted as appropriate for the time being.)

The forum has three main aims: to hold the area board to account and add parish input; to share knowledge, experience and resources among the parishes; and help resolve issues which affect more than one parish.
On the first aim James Keith told Marlborough News Online: “Something we want to bring about is to give the parishes a stronger voice in the Marlborough area board.”

Examples of the second aim have been the sharing of details of the legal hoops and processes one council has been through to provide new allotments in their village and the compilation of a central register of parish assets, services and issues solved so that each knows where to look for help.

An example of the third aim is finding solutions to the common ‘running sore’ of speeding drivers and traffic flow in villages.  Through the forum parish councils with experience of successful traffic initiatives are already sharing details on this topic.

The forum can help with specific issues.  The proposed Great Stones Way linking Avebury and Stonehenge will cross through Avebury and East Kennet parishes and the forum is helping bring together expertise to advise on the likely problems.  But it will do nothing to bind any parish council.

Councillor Milton told Marlborough News Online that “The Marlborough area board is hugely supportive of the new parish forum.”  And she points out that it is not only about parishes working together and sharing knowledge and good practice: “The forum also helps the area board to consult with the parishes as it offers an excellent conduit for cascading information and gaining opinions.”

James Keith says that the coalition government’s localism legislation – now before a House of Lords committee – gave “a sort of green light for us to get [the forum] going.”  Greater devolution down the chain of government will put more responsibilities onto parish councils and increase the need for their voices to be heard clearly by town and county councils.

“I hope,” says Keith, “the actual provisions within the [localism] bill will in time prove to support the spirit of the bill and not be used to prevent a bottom-up system.”

One longer term challenge for the forum is how to increase the electorate’s interest in parish council affairs.  A recent parish council election in Avebury saw a turn-out of just over twenty per cent (almost exactly the same, incidentally, as the recent ward by-election for Devizes Town Council.)

James Keith admits this is a problem.  But he says that when important issues arise then the public will get involved.

While it is hard to get people worked up about a consultation for a long-term local development plan, the priority the government is going to give to pushing through housing projects may well get people in the villages out of their homes and pubs and into the polling stations.

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Pewsey Music Festival books a date for 2012

Here’s a date for your 2012 diary: Saturday, August 4 will see Pewsey’s sixth music festival at Cooper’s Field.  Never mind the London Olympics - if the responses to this year’s festival are anything to go by, that’s the day in August 2012 to be sure to keep free.

The Festival is rapidly gaining a reputation across the country for showcasing a wide range of original music – with groups from the south-west and from afar.

On August 6, with some sunshine and lots of clouds, the main stage featured seven groups playing hour-long sets: Dolly and the Clothes Pegs (pictured above and left), Will and the People, Melodramas, Bite the Buffalo and Slagerij - topped off with the headliners Charly Coombes and The New Breed. 

In all twenty groups covering a multitude of musical styles filled the Festival’s twelve hours.

 Bite the Buffalo, two brothers who grew up in Zambia and are now based in Bath, stepped in at the last moment when The Bohemian Embassy were unable to make their slot. Stos (guitar/vocals) and Dimitri (drums/vocals) only started performing at the beginning of 2011. They call themselves a ‘soulful rock duo’. After Pewsey, Bite the Buffalo played slots on three nights at the London O2 Arena.

Five groups took to the main stage for twenty minute sets: The Banzukes, Not Rocket Science, The Racket, Nudy Bronque and Southwest central.

In addition there was an open mic tent with nine musicians and groups competing.  The four judges named Mark Nelson the winner.  His prize was a slot on the main stage at ten in the evening, just before Charly Coombe’s headlining set.

Besides the music there was a beer tent, food from Pewsey outlets and plenty for the children to do – including some wild face painting.

Organiser Liz Boden reports a blizzard of appreciative messages.  Festival fan Laura Thomas wrote: “Fantastic day, best music line-up to date and the whole family had a wonderful time. Thank you. We are still humming the songs!” And Matt Dennehy from the Swindon-based ska-punk act Slagerij sent a message:  “Blimey! What an ace day at Pewsey Music Festival! Truly an epic load of fun and an awesome fun crowd.!”

Liz has publicly thanked the Festival’s sponsors: Wessex Print Centre, Pewsey Spar, Stowell Farms, Mike Williams of Outlook Private Hire, Pewsey Area Community Trust and Richard Dewey.

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Vintage fair steams in to town

A reminder of Mop Fairs gone by was visited on Marlborough at the weekend, with the arrival of the largest original touring vintage fairground in the world.

Carter's Steam Fair features pre-1960's equipment, transport, sideshows and rides – and its appearance at The Common on Saturday and Sunday created an atmosphere that makes it obvious why older residents get misty-eyed about the Mop Fair of days gone by.

The Mop's pounding Euro-dance and gravity-defying rides were replaced by steam-driven attractions, set to a soundtrack of pipe organs and rock 'n' roll.

Attractions included a helter skelter, complete with rush mats, and a merry-go-round. Thrill seekers were invited to ride the Divebomber (pictured) and put their stomachs in the hands of centrifugal force.

Some rides, of course, haven't changed since the 1960s – dodgems are still dodgems, and hook-a-duck is still hook-a-duck, but one thing that wasn't vintage about the fair was the ticket prices – with rides costing anything up to £3.50

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