Visitors to a town can get a good snapshot of its history from its listed buildings. Marlborough (including Manton) has 294 listed buildings the vast majority of which are Grade II. This preponderance of Grade II buildings is quite normal – Grade I and Grade II* listings are quite rare.
Some of the listings are for parts of buildings and some include more than one building – as in a crescent or terrace – and some are not for buildings at all. Altogether in England there are about 375,000 listed buildings.
Ninety-two per cent of those are Grade II. Five-and-a-half per cent are Grade II*. And just two-and-a-half per cent are Grade I – about nine thousand buildings.
All buildings built before 1700 which survive in anything like their original state are listed, as are most of those built between 1700 and 1840.
The criteria for listing become more exacting the nearer a building’s completion is to the present day – and most have to be older than thirty years to be eligible.
Although listing does put certain responsibilities onto owners, it does not freeze a building in time. All it really means is that a building is of special interest and should be protected.
Marlborough has two Grade I buildings and eleven listed as Grade II*. To put things in perspective, Salisbury as forty Grade I buildings.
Other Grade I listed buildings in the Marlborough area include Savernake’s Tottenham House, the Crofton pumping station on the canal and Oare House.
Marlborough would almost certainly have more Grade I’s but for a succession of ruinous fires which swept through the town – notably the fire of 1653 which destroyed much of the town including the Guildhall, and badly damaged St Mary’s Church.
However, damaged or not, the Parish Church of St Mary is Grade I listed. The most important survival from the fire is its Norman west door.
But the most remarkable feature of the interior is the south arcade of five rounded arches built in 1653 immediately after the fire. It is said that this magnificent arcade is similar to some churches built at the time in the Netherlands.
The chancel is a Victorian addition – added in 1874. It gives the interior of the church its strange off-centre or skewed look.
Appropriately, Andrew Bumphrey’s architectural practice specialising in building conservation, is based in a listed building in Silverless Street - a street that features a number of times on the Marlborough list. He has worked on recent alterations to St Mary’s church.
In 1999 he oversaw a successful application under the ‘Faculty Procedure’ to the diocese which resulted in the reopening the west door as the main entrance (entrance had previously been through door on the south wall.) He was also able to install a toilet and small kitchen and a room over the entrance for a crèche.
More controversially, the Chancellor of the diocese allowed the removal of the Victorian pews. And then in 2006 the work was completed with the removal of the low platforms the pews and been built on and levelling the floor with flush parquet flooring. This enabled the church to be used for a wider variety of events.
The church at the western end of the High Street, the Church of St Peter and Paul (now known simply as St Peter’s) is a Grade II* building. It was built in 1460 on the site a smaller church which had served the Norman Castle.
Despite its connection to Thomas Wolsey (he was ordained priest in the church in 1498) and being described as ‘The best church in Marlborough, remarkable for the vaulting and its site’, it has not made Grade I.
St Peter’s was closed as parish church in 1974 and left empty, unheated and locked. In 1978, to save it from at least partial demolition, St Peter’s Trust was formed and now manages it as a community centre.
Marlborough’s other Grade I building is C House – Marlborough College’s main building which faces you across the quadrangle as you look in at the main gates. Rather quaintly the register of listed buildings gives this a High Street house number – No. 65.
A house was built on this site in 1621 by Sir Francis Seymour. The present house was built in 1702 by Charles, 6th Duke of Somerset – known as ‘Charles the Proud’.
He lived at Petworth and his son, the Earl of Hertford lived at the Marlborough house. His wife, Frances, Lady Hertford (and later Duchess of Somerset), turned the mound and surrounding grounds into a picturesque landscaped garden.
She also built the Mound’s famous grotto and with her friends lived out an arcadian fantasy, She was patron to the poet James Thomson who wrote some of his poems at Marlborough – and later wrote the words of Rule Britannia.
But in 1750 the house was sold and became the Castle Inn – a favoured ‘watering-hole’ on the road from London to Bath. Like the town itself, the inn suffered badly when the Great Western railway was opened in 1837.
And as with many a failing pub, it found a new use. It was bought in 1843 by the newly established Marlborough College. The college now contains at least nine other listed buildings – including the 1933 science block constructed in reinforced concrete complete with ‘careful shutter marks and exposed aggregate’.
It is important to make it clear that ‘listed’ status does not mean the public have access. All the College’s listed buildings and the Mound are on private property.
The Ivy House Hotel is Grade II listed. This building has travelled the reverse arc to the College’s C House – it went from school to inn. It was originally home to the Marlborough Academy founded in 1780 by the Dissenting minister John Davis.
Until the mid-nineteenth century it continued to provide education for Dissenters who were not allowed to enter Oxbridge colleges. It then became an inn and a hotel – one of the very few hotels in the town and the area.
Now – after a pretty fierce controversy – it has reverted to being part of an educational establishment: it has become a residence for sixth form girls from Marlborough College.
Other High Street hotels that have disappeared – at least as hotels – include The Angel Hotel and The Ailesbury Court. The Castle and Ball (Grade II) remains.
Most of the town’s remaining pubs feature on the list – including The Sun, just across the road from St Peter’s. It now goes by the name of The Marlborough.
A good example of the changes through the centuries that inevitably alter the town’s historic houses is No. 99, The High Street – listed as “Chantry Priest’s House”.
Originally built in the late 15th century, it was altered during the 17th and 18th centuries, and extensively rebuilt between 1908 and 1923. Viewed from the High Street it does not look with its very twentieth century front as though it is an historic building.
The current street front of the house dates wholly from 1923 and the building was only given listed status in April 1985. Currently housing the Prezzo restaurant, the interior has recently undergone further changes.
But historically the house is very important. It was home to one or more of the priests employed by Isabel Bird’s chantry. Isabel (circa 1402- 5 November 1476) was the widow of John Bird who had represented Marlborough in eight parliaments and was a figure of some standing and influence in the county.
A chantry was a trust fund set-up to employ priests to say masses for the souls of certain deceased notables. In 1446 Isabel Bird’s chantry was established in St Peter’s church with the priests living nearby – at No 99.
During the Reformation, chantries were outlawed by laws of Henry VIII and Edward VI. But any priests who lost their jobs because of their abolition were guaranteed state pensions – so they were probably able to keep a roof over their heads .
A few doors westwards from No 99, there is still a “Chantry Lane” leading off the High Street.
Other listed historically significant bits and pieces in Marlborough include two milestones, several boundary walls, two K6 telephone kiosks designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (one outside the library, the other by the Green), lots of railings and two lengths of pavement.
Some entries on the list are tricky to locate and not just because for most shop fronts street numbers seem to have fallen out of fashion. The building in the High Street listed as ‘The Cinema’ is now part of the Waitrose supermarket.
It was originally built in about 1860 by the Marquess of Ailesbury as the town’s Corn Exchange – and was indeed more recently the town’s cinema.
(The former Kennet District Council’s “Marlborough Conservation Area Statement” (June 2003) includes useful historical and architectural information about the town – some of it now dated.)