A botanical survey has discovered rare black poplar trees growing on the 15-acre Stonebridge Meadow, which Marlborough town council bought for £150,000 six months ago in a bid to save the town’s heritage.
It did so on the initiative of ARK, which covered half the cost of the meadow thanks to the generosity of a group of private donors.
Now the council’s Amenities and Open Spaces Committee is to urge the council to go ahead, in partnership with ARK, with a major project to manage the land on the banks of the River Kennet and introduce new activities.
And part of the cost of the plan will come from selling off additional strips of land to the owners of four houses that border the site, the sale of which will part pay for the project, the vast majority of the funding coming from environmental grant awarding bodies.
The committee was told on Monday that the project, being managed in association with ARK, is currently the subject of an environmental impact study carried out by the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
“The most significant finds on the meadow are eight native female black poplars on the southern bank of the river Kennet,” says a report by the Wiltshire Botanical Society following a visit to the water meadow in May.
“Although there are many hybrid black poplars in England, native black poplars are now very rare with an estimated 7,000 male ones and 600 female trees, most of which are old and decaying.”
“Other female black poplars have been found in the Cotswold Water Park and Gareth Harris of the Water Park Trust has been working on propagating these trees. The trees in Stonebridge Meadow have low easy reach branches, which make them ideal as donor plants for propagation. They are also host to a rare gall (Pemphigus).”
Councillor Richard Pitts (pictured), the newly-elected committee chairman, told Marlborough News Online: “This whole project needs careful consideration and that is why we are seeking the best possible advice.”
“But it is important that we do not lose momentum in making it happen and we shall be recommending the town council to go ahead with the scheme when it meets at the end of the month.”
Claire Perry, Marlborough’s MP, visited the site last month at the invitation of ARK and gave her support for imaginative new uses for the meadow.
They range from the introduction of catch-and-release fishing for wild brown trout found in the chalk stream Kennet, itself a rare river, and a place for dog walkers to the introduction of banded Galloway cattle.
A management plan is now being worked on. Funding will also be an issue but it is hoped that the AONB and possibly the Heritage Lottery will make substantial contributions.
“Both ARK and the town council are very interested to hear the views of residents on how this meadow might be managed and encouraged to enjoy an even higher level of environmental diversity and quality,” added Councillor Pitts.
Charlotte Hitchmough, director of ARK, told Marlborough News Online: “We are now jointly working on a management plan supported by funding from the AONB. The plan will carefully consider the best use of the river and the land, with the preservation of wildlife habitat and green space as the priority.”
“The project at Stonebridge Meadows is a continuation of the work ARK has been doing along the river to improve access for people at the same time as preserving this beautiful chalk stream.”
“As part of the process we will be interviewing local people to find out what they would like to see on the meadow, and we are establishing a Stonebridge Meadow Stewards group of local people who would like to help to care for the river and land. This is very much a community project.”
Marlborough’s MP Claire Perry, who has has teamed up with TV presenter Angela Rippon to support this year’s Carers Week (13-19 June), has paid her own tribute to the contribution made by local people who provide unpaid care for someone who is ill, frail or disabled.
The theme for Carers Week 2011, The True Face of Carers, calls for greater recognition for the diverse range of people nationally who have caring responsibilities. The work they carry out is vital for their families and friends, and for their communities.
Claire and Angela have joined together to pay tribute to carers, and to urge that they receive more support for the demanding roles they play.
“Thousands of people in the Devizes constituency sacrifice not only their time, but also their money and their health in order to care for a loved one,” Claire told Marlborough News Online.
“Together they save this country an incredible £119 billion every year. They deserve to be recognised for their contribution to both our local community and to wider society.”
“I am taking part in Carers Week to show my respect and appreciation for our carers. I also want to let them know that there are services out there to help them. Caring can be so incredibly demanding. It’s important that carers know that they don’t have to struggle on alone.”
Other celebrities supporting this campaign include Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Jason, Jack Charlton and former TV presenter Martyn Lewis.
One of the safest places to live in the country. That’s the view of Marlborough by its latest police recruit, Sergeant Vince Logue, who has taken on the role of being in charge of the neighbourhood policing team.
He agrees with the comment made by Wiltshire chief constable Brian Moore. “He’s probably right that it is probably the safest place on earth,” he says.
“There is usually a minority of people in any community – an absolutely handful - who commit the majority of offences. And we deal with them as effectively as we can.
“The detection rate for Marlborough and Pewsey is the highest for the whole of Wiltshire in regard to violent crime. It’s an extremely good picture that’s down to the current inspector in charge, Ron Peach, and his predecessor Andy Noble.”
Sergeant Logue, 40, a softly-spoken Irishman from Derry who has taken over following the retirement of Sergeant Ben Braine after 32 years in the Wiltshire force, has himself spent nine years on patrol in the county.
His career began as a security officer and store detective in London before becoming the first member of his family to join the police. Then, after serving eight years in another force, he transferred to Wiltshire.
A friend had invited him to the county for a weekend break and the countryside became an immediate attraction. “I thought it was a lovely place and decided that I wanted to transfer to the Wiltshire force,” he explained.
“I feel very comfortable here. Wiltshire as a whole is a lovely place to live – and Marlborough is one of the nicest bits of the county.”
As promotions followed, he has served in Warminster, Chippenham, Melksham and Salisbury, spending the past two years with the response team covering Devizes, Marlborough and Pewsey.
A single father, he lives with his two daughters near Devizes.
“There are no particular problems in the Marlborough area that concern us,” he adds. “There are not that many calls here for police help as there are in Trowbridge and Chippenham. Marlborough certainly isn’t as bad as some other places.”
But he is in no way complacent. His team keep a check on shoplifting and anti-social behaviour by teenagers, especially when they cause noise and nuisance late at night.
“The chief constable and the police authority do have a strategic plan for Wiltshire,” he points out. “Most of that is based around violence and violent crime and the management of offenders.”
“Serious crime incidences do come up from time to time, but there is not specific trend in this area.”
The huge mound that stands in the middle of Marlborough College is called by racier guidebooks Merlin’s Mount and is said to be his burial mound
.More reliable sources thought the sixty-two foot (nineteen metre) high mound was constructed by those domineering incomers from Normandy so they could build Marlborough’s castle on top of it and so lord it over the townsfolk down below.
Now new scientific research has confirmed that the mound was built way before any recorded sighting of that elusive fellow Merlin. Carbon dating of pieces of charcoal found deep within the mound prove it was built three thousand and more years before the Normans rode into town.
Dated now to about 2400BC, Marlborough’s mound becomes the ‘little sister’ of the world famous Silbury Hill – which dominates the skyline just westwards along the A4.
Peter Carey of the Bath architects Donald Insall Associates who are overseeing the mound’s extensive conservation, points out that this discovery makes Marlborough’s mound the second largest man-made, prehistoric construction in Britain. And as Silbury is the largest such mound in all of Europe, Marlborough’s mound may turn out to be the second largest in Europe.
Carey, who was at Marlborough College in the 1960’s, admits to being “carried away” by the news about the dating of the mound. He thinks it is the most significant archaeological discovery in Britain so far this century.
How could the experts have been so wrong? A.R. Stedman in his scholarly book Marlborough and the Upper Kennet Country (published in 1960 in Marlborough) comes down, with some rather strange logic, on the side of the Norman theory:
“This sixty-foot mound is certainly artificial, but whether it was raised, as tradition asserts, in prehistoric times as a barrow…or whether, more probably, it was raised in Norman times so that the castle could dominate the town…is unknown. That the Mound was built for the castle is confirmed by the fact that the Norman rarely put his castle on a spot with religious associations”
So scholars can’t be right all the time – especially when the science of carbon dating comes along to confound their theories.
Jim Leary, who led the recent English Heritage archaeological investigations on Silbury Hill, and took part in the investigations into the mound, says “This is an astonishing discovery. The Marlborough Mound has been one of the biggest mysteries in the Wessex landscape.”
“For centuries people have wondered whether it is Silbury’s little sister; and now we have the answer.”
The mound has had three distinct ‘lives’: it was the base structure for a very important royal castle built by the Normans, used at times by Norman and Plantagenet kings and the scene for some historic events such as the general oath of allegiance to King John in 1209.
The castle then passed from the Kings of England to their queens and eventually fell into disuse, before coming into the hands of the Seymour family of Wolf Hall fame.
Another ‘life’ started in the eighteenth century, when a house on the site was home to the Marquis of Hertford and his family, and Lady Hertford created what Peter Carey describes as “a wonderful and extravagant garden” - with the mound as its centre piece.
Lady Hertford gave the mound an extraordinary spiral ramp right round the outside, shielded from the common gaze by a hawthorn hedge. And she adorned it with several notable features including a shell grotto, a belvedere or viewing point and a water feature at the summit.
That the Hertford’s home was later the Castle Inn and a meeting place for Tory politicians need not detain us. It has since become part of the College buildings.
Now we know the mound had a third, much earlier ‘life’ – a prehistoric ‘life’. And the reason it was built around 2400 BC will almost certainly remain as lost in time, as mysterious and as subject to speculation, as Silbury Hill itself.
In an expensive and delicate operation, probes were drilled into the middle of the mound and surrounding ditch areas, and the carbon dating of the samples was carried out with the help of English Heritage. Six cores were drilled and four samples taken from different levels within the mound itself provided shards of charcoal that could be carbon dated.
This work – and plenty of careful conservation still to come – was made possible by initial gifts and a £1,200,000 legacy from former college student, Eric Elstob. On his initiative, the Marlborough Mound Trust was set up in 2000 and the first investigative work begun.
For more about Eric Elstob and the work to conserve and renovate the mound, see our companion story: “Marlborough Mound’s past is suddenly longer – will its future be longer too?”
And what about the Merlin connection? If Merlin was ever more than a brilliant invention of ancient story-tellers, he belongs in the so-called ‘dark ages’ rather than prehistoric times. Perhaps the slight similarity between the words Marlborough and Merlin was too much of a temptation for tourist guides of yore.
It is important to emphasise that as part of the College grounds, the Marlborough Mound is on private property and not open to the public. In fact at present there’s not a lot to see anyway – just a mound of trees.
Against the background of financial maelstrom affecting the parent Southern Cross Healthcare group, life at Marlborough’s Merlin Court is very much carry on as normal – with one significant fact emerging this week.
The purpose-built, 62-bedroom home is not for sale.
This was the reassurance that Mandi Short, Merlin Court’s manager, gave to a group of relatives of Merlin’s residents attending a regular meeting last night (Tuesday).
She told them the home is not one of the 750 homes in the Southern Cross group, which serve some 31,000 vulnerable elderly people, possibly being put up for sale by its owners because of a funding crisis.
Only if the much criticised endangered group were to fail would the home be sold, she pointed out, and then as a complete unit to a new owner.
And for the staff, residents and relatives the only apparent change would be the paperwork. Life at the home would continue as usual.
This came as welcome news to the group of supportive yet concerned relatives, for whom Merlin Court is regarded as a well-run caring home and a vitally important part of their lives and those of their loved ones.
Merlin Court is one of three Southern Cross homes in Wiltshire, the others being Ravenscroft, in Trowbridge, and Kings Court, in Swindon, but is not part of the care home operation of Wiltshire Council, which runs its own group of 32 care homes through the Order of St John.
But other local authorities do provide the funding for some of Merlin Court’s residents, an indication that it remains an approved care home, especially now that the government has guaranteed that it will step in to prevent residents being put under threat.
On its website, Merlin Court declares: “Welcome to Merlin Court, our purpose built home where we provide a high standard of care 24 hours a day. Our residents have varying needs from specialist nursing support to general assistance with everyday living.
“We offer residential and nursing care as well as specialist care for those with dementia.”
“We are very proud of our homely and welcoming atmosphere. We would be delighted to show you around so that you can experience it for yourself.”