Deep in the heart of Wiltshire’s Clay Vale, sandwiched between the limestone belt of the Cotswolds and the chalklands of the Malborough Downs, lies the village of Great Somerford. Geologically speaking, the Clay Vale is made up of a mixture of Oxford and Kimmeridge Clay – 160 million-year-old deposits which were originally laid down in a shallow, tropical sea that teemed with squid-like animals such as ammonites and belemnites, which have long since perished and been transformed over millennia into a heavy, impermeable bed of clay. This is the ‘cheese’ part of the ‘county of chalk and cheese’ – a topography which produced the rich, sweet grass that has fed the county’s dairy herds for generations.
The area was once renowned for its cheese – North Wiltshire cheese was prized more highly than Cheddar in the late 18th Century – but alas, those days are long gone and there are only a couple of makers of North Wiltshire cheese today. Clay, however, is mucky, sticky stuff to have underfoot – particularly when you’re trying to wade a river – so perhaps it’s no coincidence that the ‘summer ford’ after which both Great and Little Somerford are named, is found in the only spot between Malmesbury and Kellaways (near Chippenham) where sands form the bed of the river.
A Riverside Village
The village of Great Somerford lies almost exclusively on the southern bank of the Bristol River Avon, peering across the river at its smaller sister, Little Somerford, a little less than a mile away. Before the course of the river was straightened last century in an attempt to control excessive flooding (sadly, the effect of this seems purely to have relocated the flooding further downstream to Chippenham and Melksham), it used to meander in great oxbow loops across the fields. In winter, the fields along the riverbank flooded regularly, often cutting the villages off from one another for weeks. The ford – which lies behind the western end of the church, and not along the road which now connects the two villages – was only passable between the months of March or April to October. During the winter months, the level of the river was too high to allow safe passage of animals, carts or people, and regularly spilled out onto the surrounding low-lying fields. In one notorious incident in the winter of 1605, the village rector, Richard Atwell was drowned whilst trying to cross the swollen river to Little Somerford.
The river has long been a natural line of defence against invasion by land from the north and west. The remains of what was probably a Norman castle have been found close to the church, and during the Second World War, a number of brick and concrete ‘pill boxes’ were erected along the riverside to serve as lookout posts – three of these survive today; one in the Show Field, another on the bend of the river close to the weir behind Brook Farm and the third to the south side of Dauntsey Road.
The first written references to a settlement here are in the eighth century, but there were almost certainly people living here long before then. Flint tools from the Early Upper Paleolithic period (around 45,000 to 30,000 years ago, when small groups of hunter-gatherers lived nomadically, often along the banks of rivers where food supplies were more abundant) have been found in the river gravel at nearby Seagry, and a fragment of what appeared to be flint arrowhead was unearthed in a garden in recent years. Ancient field formations; winterbournes – broad, sculpted man-made furrows forged to drain the slopes – and the vestiges of arable strips can still be clearly seen in the village landscape, notably on the Glebe Field or ‘Churches’ as it used to be known.
The name ‘Sumresford’ appears six times in the Domesday book, showing a well-established community here with farms, woodland and mills by the 11th Century. After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror divided the land surrounding the village between two of his noblemen and two separate manors were established; one at what is now the Mount House adjacent to the church and the other at what is now Manor Farm in West Street. The man-made mound close to the western wall of the church is possibly the remains of a motte created for a Norman bailey or castle.
Village life revolved for centuries around the church, now dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, although before the late 19th century, its dedication was to St Michael and All Angels. The present church building dates from the 15th century, however traces of an older building dating from the 12th century (together with some eerily headless skeletons) were discovered during some building work to install a heating boiler in 1974. The churchyard, which slopes down to the river, holds the graves of generations of village families as well as a pit which was used for the bodies of village plague victims.
Great Somerford has the honour of being home to what is almost certainly the oldest allotment site in the country. Given to the poor agricultural workers of the parish in 1809 as part of the village’s enclosure act to provide them with a little independence and a sustainable supply of wholesome, fresh food, Great Somerford’s Free Gardens are still cultivated by villagers some 200 years later. The allotments are special in several ways – they are allotted annually by the Parish Council on the Tuesday after Easter Sunday, and villagers still work them free of charge as laid down in the original act of parliament.
The Age of Steam…
A railway line came to the village in 1877, running from Malmesbury through Kingsmead and Great Somerford to join the main express line to London at Dauntsey, and shortly afterwards a village railway station opened. As well as providing new, much-needed non-agricultural employment for the area, the railway was a great asset to local farmers and tradesmen – the station had a milk bay, a coal depot and a goods yard – and village boys used to earn a bit of pocket money fetching parcels from the station during their lunch hours. According to Portia Hobbs in her excellent history of the village, Somerford Magna, ‘Connections with the main line were so good that local ladies could walk across to the station in the morning, spend a day in Bath, Bristol, or even London, and be home comfortably by the evening train.’ Sadly, the Malmesbury branch line closed in 1933 and the station is now the site of the village’s sewage works, built in 1962. Much needed, but perhaps not as immediately attractive.
After 1933, the disused railway line and what is now known as The Show Field was used to store old railway carriages, and later, during the war years, ammunition was stored here and troops were stationed in the old carriages with a restaurant car on what was the station’s milk bay as their mess room.
The oldest house in the village is thought to be The Mount House, whose timber-framed barn stands adjacent to the church field. The present house is thought to date from 1573, and the Old Rectory on the opposite side of the church was also built towards the end of the 16th century. Right up until the middle of the last century, the village was pretty much self-sufficient, with its own butcher, a grocer, a bakery, a blacksmith, a school, a post office, an undertaker, a coffin maker, a wheelwright and several cobblers or ‘shoe snobbers’ – and there were at least four public houses or inns at one time or another, although now only one remains, The Volunteer, which stands at the crossroads opposite the village shop.
Notable villagers include the MP, philanthropist and hot-air balloon enthusiast, Walter Powell (1842-1881), after whom the present school is named; Reverend Stephen Demainbray (1759-1854), Chaplain to George III, George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria, Superintendant of the Royal Observatory who secured eight acres of land as allotments for the poor of the village; and Captain Mark Phillips , who married Princess Anne in 1973.
A selection of Village Photographs. If you have any you would like to share on the site please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More old pictures from the 50’s & 60’s can be found at the FRANCIS FRITH collection.
1. The village church of Sts Peter and Paul.
2. The Mount House, with its timber-framed barn, dating from 1573.
3 & 4. Great Somerford’s Enclosure Act of 1806 included the provision of allotments for the parish’s poorest tenants.
5 & 6. Great Somerford’s Free Gardens & allotments today.
7. Former villager Stuart Frayling tending his allotment as a child in the 1950s.
8. Stuart Frayling today.
9. Great Somerford’s 200-year-old allotments are almost certainly the oldest in the country.
10 & 11. The meandering River Avon at Great Somerford.
12. The Village’s old post office around the turn of the last century with Pam Bridges as a child. Pam was to become the village postmistress in later years.
13.1809 Village Map.
14.Welcome to Gerat Somerford?
This Webpage written and owned by Jill Shearer