Chiseldon is one of the many local villages that Alfred Williams wrote about in his books, and this page is one of a series (currently a 'work in progress') that will look at each one of them in turn.

Alfred talks about the village extensively in Villages of the White Horse which he mostly researched in the summer of 1912 and published the following year.

There is also a Chiseldon connection in Alfred's life story because he purchased surplus timber from Chiseldon Camp which he used in the building of his cottage, Ranikhet.

Alfred might be disappointed to discover that some of the places he wrote about, including the foundry and the windmill, have now gone, but the presence of the thriving Chiseldon Local History Group, which even has its own museum, would undoubtedly bring him much consolation, along with the fact that the Plough Inn still bears the same verse on its sign that he wrote about, a century ago.

blank



View Larger Map



  The village of Chiseldon is a prosperous place, of over one thousand inhabitants, though a great many of these are town workmen, who take advantage of the facilities offered by the railway-line to live at some distance from their employment; the agricultural element has been sadly reduced in late years. Of the houses and buildings, half are ancient - built of chalk, or rough sarsen-stones - and half are modern, of shabby red brick and tile, ill agreeing with the locality and the surroundings. The chalk, or flint-made cottages, with their thatched roofs and quaint gables, fit in exactly with the conditions of the downs, and harmonize so completely with the earth and hills as to appeal a natural part of them, while brick-made dwellings are peculiarly unsightly and disagreeable to the beauty-seeking eye of the traveller. The oldest part of the village is situated on the higher ground of the hill, and is grouped around the neck of a deep gully, at the bottom of which, under your very feet, a tiny spring of crystal water bubbles out of the earth and flows down, soon to accumulate in the waters of Coate Reservoir, two miles away. This stream is afterwards the River Cole, which winds away, and enters the Thames at Lechlade.
   In times past Chiseldon and the country beyond were the stronghold of robbers and smugglers, and others of an undesirable kind, who committed their depradations, and retired with their spoils into the hidden seclusion of the outlying woods and places, amid the solitude of the downs. There is a tradition among the villagers that the smugglers of the Bristol Channel had a regular trade with the people of this locality, and that they used to convey large amounts of contraband up from the mouth of the Severn, and conceal it about the downs here...

   The village church, a large, ancient pile, stands immediately on the brow of the hill overlooking the deep comb in which the mill formerly stood. The tower is a huge structure, with thick, solid walls, the outer parts of which are of stone, and the interior composed of huge blocks of chalk, obtained from the hillside, and still bearing the marks of the quarryman's tools, or of whatsoever cut them into the requisite shape for fitting into the walls, many centuries ago. The top parts of the walls have become unstable, and are held together with a strong iron band, which goes round the tower, and is secured with stout bolts, fastened through the masonry. There are five bells on the third floor, the biggest of which is a ton in weight, and the smallest about half a ton. These are hung in a massive framework of oak, half-rotten in places, and crumbling away under the slow finger of Time, and by reason of the rain which for ages has been driven through the apertures of the windows. From this cause, and on account of the unstable condition of the walls, the bells have not been rung for several years; a little steady chiming at festival times is all that has been permitted by those responsible for the safety of the building.
   A few years ago a strike of bell-ringers took place at the village church, and there was no music from the tower for three months. The fact of the matter was, the men missed the old-time annual supper, which had been discontinued, to the detriment of the church's interests and the discipline of the workers. The old bell-ringer was disconsolate at the lack of interest in things about the village; everything is too much trouble now, he says...

     The Elm-Tree Inn stands in the centre of the village, near the railway, and close to a clump of elms, from which the house derived its name. Before the railway was made there was a broad space, called the Square, before the inn; when a way had to be made for the panting iron horse, with hoofs of thunder, and sinews of steel, the old village meeting-place had to be cut into; the swarm of brawny toilers with pick and shovel attacked it below, and cleaved a passage through the deep chalk up to the open downs above.
  Here it was that the feasts and revels were held, with the inevitable back-swording, wrestling, and other games so dear to the older generations of people. Challenges had been issued all round the neighbourhood for wrestlers and single-stick players, stages were erected in the square; there stood the challengers crying out: "Will any young gamester come upon the platform?" The inn had been decorated, without and within, for the occasion; and a mighty bundle of top hats - fifteen or twenty, trimmed with coloured ribands, and all bound together - was hung out from the signboard.
  Formerly the Elm-Tree Inn was a picturesque thatched house, but now it has been rebuilt and modernized; stone, wood, and straw have given place to brick, tile, and concrete, and the interior has been made to match with the outside. The old style of seat and furniture has gone with the walls; pewter pots have given place to glass mugs; landlord and all have been metamorphosed. The nearness of the railway has been responsible for the transformation of things at the inn; where there is continual contact and intercourse with towns-people the atmosphere of the village inn is bound to be changed. Here, now, in the winter evenings, instead of the village gossip of ploughing, threshing, reaping, revelling, and the rest, the talk is chiefly of the town: of football, the cinematograph shows, the theatre, "Sacco" the fasting freak, and a good deal of other sickly mess and rubbish, not half as manly and interesting as the hearty speech and ready wit of the independent crowd of cheerful rustics...

   On the opposite side of the road from the inn stands a small foundry, with yards packed full of all kinds of agricultural machinery and implements, of various degrees of usefulness, some falling all to pieces and entirely dilapidated, some stable in parts, and some only slightly defective, awaiting repairs, then to return to the field or farmyard. Here are sets of steam-ploughing tackle, with the huge engines and cultivators, horse-ploughs, reapers and binders, threshing-machines, drills, harrows, horse-rakes, elevators, farm-waggons, and other paraphernalia of the countryside...

   The village foundry has existed for nearly two centuries, and, though it is only a small place, it has sufficed for the immediate needs of the neighbourhood. It is chiefly repairs that are executed, and not new machinery made, though there are a few new implements constructed, and especially heavy farm waggons and carriages. Nearly every village of any importance had its foundry till a few years ago, and though the number has diminished, there are still many to be met with here and there: there are no less than seven or eight within a radius of twelve miles of the village. It is true that the amount of work required of them has tragically fallen off of late years, but the owners and staff keep plodding away, with true rural grit, and the determination not to be utterly extinguished. Steam-traction and ploughing sets provided them with much work, and now they are on the decline the steam motor-lorry has come into being, and many of the larger village foundries are occupied with the manufacture of them.
  The foundry at Chiseldon finds work in all for thirty-four hands. Of this number about half are mechanics employed in the worksheds, the others are engaged with the steam-ploughing and threshing sets, steam-rolling the roads, and acting the part of hauliers...

   The foundry staff proper includes the working manager - a fine type of the village engineer, tall and square, with ruddy cheeks, bluff and hearty, and clever at his trade, having a practical knowledge of everything connected with this work, in strong contradistinction to the ordinary railway works official, who is crammed full of theory, and lamentably weak in practice, relying on the draughtsmen and mechanics for everything - two smiths, a boilermaker, three fitters and turners, a moulder, and three or four carpenters and waggon-builders. These occupy a small group of buildings connected together, and are able to see each other at work, to communicate with, and consult one another on various points, and to work co-operatively, which is impossible in the big factories of the towns...

   The mechanics are nearly all young men, smart and up to date, and well skilled in their several crafts. Of their number, some have served time in the sheds at the big railway works, while the others were apprenticed in far-off villages; as they journey from place to place they carry fresh knowledge with them, and enrich the collective wisdom of the local staff. In addition to the more friendly spirit existing among the men, there is an absence of that tension which is the characteristic of big factories; the laws and rules are not so stringent here; there is not the perpetual watching and timing of operations which is so galling to the man of character and spirit, and which never succeeds in the end, unless it be to produce dissatisfaction, and measures of retaliation...

   It is a well-known fact that the choicest smiths are usually those who have had their forge in the villages. It was said of honest Mark Fell, at the railway works, that "he could make anything you like, from a shut-link to a steam-engine," and he was only a village blacksmith in the beginning...

   Leaving Chiseldon and following the road, which runs in the shape of a Z, we immediately emerge upon the downs in sight of the Vale of White Horse, which opens out to the north-east, stretching into the distance as far as the eye can see. On the right hand, as you come from the village, standing in a small field, is the tower of a wind-mill, where much corn was ground till a quarter of a century ago. Now, however, the mill has been dismantled of its fans and turned into a store-house, though a part of the inner machinery still remains. There were formerly two wind-mills close together, but one was taken down at an early date, the reason of its removal being - as it is alleged - that there was not enough wind to turn the fans of both...

   The road continues past the wind-mill till it presently crosses the main highway leading up from the valley to the distant town of Marlborough. The long telegraph wires, strained tight upon the poles, stretch far away, gleaming with a copperish tint in the sunshine, while a faint humming sound proceeds from them, where they are in contact with the supports. This sound is many times intensified in rough or wet weather; then the shrill treble of the wind in the wires, and the deep bass of the joints and supports, form together a weird concert of sounds. The country children believe that by laying an ear to the telegraph pole it is possible to intercept the messages...

   About half a mile from the junction of the roads towers Liddington Hill, with the castellum on top. Another name for this is Beacon Hill, so called because it was from here the beacon fires shone out, in days long past, to warn people in the vale of impending danger from foes and invaders, and to summon them within the walls of the fort. Formerly, too, it was called Mount Badon, and also Battlebury Hill; and one tradition says it was here that King Arthur fought the Saxons and defeated them in a great battle. The villagers believe there is a subterranean passage leading under the downs from the top of the hill to Burderop, two miles away, which was used as a final means of escape from the entrenchment when the besieged were hard pressed by the enemy...

   Badbury Plough Inn stands some little distance from the village, high upon the roadside, where the main way comes up from the valley to pass over the tops of the downs. The picturesque old building has been taken down in late years, and a new house erected; only the old name and associations remain, but even they are sufficient to invest the new place with an air of romance: many years must come and go before the fame of the Plough Inn will have passed away. The sign-board, hanging over the doorway, is characteristic of the place. Here is depicted a team at plough, and underneath is a rude rhyme, which runs as follows:

  "In hope we plough, in hope we sow,
      In hopes we all are led,
  & I am here to sell good beer
      In hopes to get my bread."

As to the games and sports and "goings on" at the old inn, it is impossible to know all that. "Nobody knows what hev bin carred on ther, afore now; summat o' everything, you med depend upon't," the old carter declares, with a sage wag of the head, and in a voice little above a whisper. Back-swording, wrestling and prize-fighting were of the most ordinary occurrence, and bull-fighting, too, according to one account. This latter sport took place in a small field at the end of the hollow; it is a further proof of the hardihood of the old-time rustics, and their love of fierce plays and games...

  





Chiseldon Local History Group

Chiseldon on Wikipedia

Chiseldon Parish Council (including history section)

More about Chiseldon Camp

Chiseldon on www.british-history.ac.uk



Alfred's Villages - map and index