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Warminster: West Saxon

 

My home town of Warminster is situated at the south western edge of Salisbury Plain, England. People have lived and farmed in the area around the town for millennia, long before Warminster itself even existed.

 

The town was first recorded as Worgemynster in 901 AD. The name is West Saxon and has been understood to mean “the Minster on the river Were”. A Minster was an early church/monastery, which served a wide area. Both the river and the church (St Denys) still exist, but have no doubt changed a great deal over the centuries. The current church dates back to Norman times (circa 1100 AD), and is situated somewhat to the east of the original Saxon church.

 

Exactly when the Saxon settlement at Warminster came in to being is not known, but many West Saxon minsters were founded circa 700 AD, in the reign of King Ine. Minsters were usually built close to already existing royal residences, and Warminster had such a residence.

 

Coins were minted in Warminster during the reign of Aethelred II (the Unready), presumably to help provide the Danegeld used to buy off the Viking raiders that were attacking England at the time. Coins were still being struck long after the Norman Conquest.

 

Warminster: Roman & Post Roman

 

Archaeological evidence of Roman settlement is scattered around the Warminster area. The most notable is the Roman Villa site at Pitt Meads, a couple of miles to the east of the town near Norton Bavant. Also, the Roman road from Old Sarum to the Mendips (where lead was mined) passes to the south of the town along Pertwood Down. But, apart from the road, none of this is visible above ground today.

 

There is no written record of settlement at Warminster during this period, but it does seem that the area was being farmed, possibly as part of the Pitt Meads villa estate. An archaeological excavation in Emwell Street, Warminster, found traces of pollen that indicate the cultivation of farmland within 50m of the dig throughout the late Roman to early Saxon periods. The area of the excavation was open water during the Roman period, but sometime during the Late or immediate Post Roman there seems to have been massive sediment run-off from cultivated land. As a result the water silted up and became marsh land. This appears to have occurred during an extended period of wet weather that has also been recorded at other archaeological sites throughout England. Cultivation in Warminster may well have declined after this event.

 

Warminster: Iron Age

 

Warminster is surrounded by three Iron Age Hill forts. Scratchbury and Battlesbury are situated on the edge of Salisbury Plain to the north east of the town whilst Cley Hill makes a prominent landmark to the west. Recent archaeological excavations have shown that Battlesbury was preceded by an Iron Age settlement on the ridge to the north of the fort that connects it to Salisbury Plain proper.

 

There are indications that a Middle Iron Age settlement may also have been situated near the Crusader Trading Estate, just west of the town.

 

It appears that both Scratchbury and Cley Hill went out of use before Battlesbury, leaving it as the prominent hill fort in the area. Battlesbury itself, may have been replaced by the Bury (or Buries), a possible opidum on the Wylye valley floor near the village of Bishopstrow. Many Romano-British remains, including armour, were found there in 1812. Pitt Mead villa was situated not far away, to the east.

 

Warminster: Bronze Age & earlier

 

Given the large number of round barrows that scatter the landscape around Warminster, it appears this was a well populated area during the Bronze Age. It seems that almost every hill in the area has at least one round barrow in a prominent position. However, they are not restricted to hill tops. A widespread group of round barrows can be found on the valley floor near the river Wylye at Bishopstrow and Sutton Veny.

 

The Neolithic is represented by the King Barrow in the grounds of Bishopstrow House. This barrow is unusual in that it is located down in the valley near the river Wylye. Long barrows, along with round barrows and other earthworks are normally found on high ground, such as Salisbury Plain.

 

Half way between Sutton Veny and Longbridge Deverill can be found the ploughed out remains of a small henge, and nearby to the east is Robin Hood’s Bower. How old this particular earthwork is, I do not know, but it does seem to align with the henge and could be Neolithic.

 

To the best of my knowledge there is only one standing stone near Warminster, although I have no idea how old it may be. It could be Neolithic or a much more recent boundary marker. It is called the Nutball Stone, and as it’s name implies, it can be found in Nutball Wood, at the Longleat end of Cannimore Lane. A local legend threatens dire consequences on anyone who should be stupid enough to move or destroy it.

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