Michael Marchman is in Bromham this month where he finds a thriving community with a butcher, post office, farms shops and a collection of hard-working market gardening folk.
Bromham from a distance
BROMHAM IS a favourite village of mine in all seasons of the year. In spring the fields are full of the promise of good food to come from the fresh green shoots of market garden vegetables, while summer brings to mind pleasant meals taken in the garden of The Greyhound and the earth of the small farms covered in salad crops.
With autumn comes the main harvest of root crops, visits to the farm shops and great piles of pumpkins on the roadside. Winter is a more mixed pleasure: the satisfaction of watching my son play football against Bromham teenagers is often tempered by the wind and rain that can sweep down between the hills and across the exposed pitch.
The Greyhound Inn
Bromham is fortunate in having both the Jubilee and Millennium Fields of the parish council and the Pound Playing Field. The former, next to the thriving social centre, has both full-size and youth pitches, a pavilion and children’s play park.
The tall stone Millennium Cross nearby symbolises both the year 2000 and the early Christian roots of this community. On the Pound Playing Field villagers can engage in a variety of sports – tennis, basketball and both 11 and five-a-side football.
People from several local hamlets also enjoy these facilities as Bromham parish contains other settlements apart from the main village. To the south is Hawk Street, south-east is St Edith’s Marsh, while due east is Netherstreet; Westbrook is naturally to the west and to the north-west lies Chittoe, only transferred from Bishops Cannings in 1934. They are like a group of planets around Bromham’s sun, each giving and receiving produce, goods and services over the centuries.
Bromham Growers Tom, Ross Paget and Ray Cargill
As we see it today the community seems to be one large market garden, a rare sight in Wiltshire and one better fitted to Worcestershire or Kent. Despite this appearance it is only the southern part of the parish that is cultivated like this for here is the only large area of lower greensand in Wiltshire.
Broken down this provides a lovely fine brown soil that is ideal for the vegetable growing that has sustained generations of many Bromham families. This is the most recent widespread economic activity although its origins date back to the 17th century.
Prior to that, this was a weaving village with cloth woven from the 14th century. Spinners and weavers worked in their own homes that were often built on areas of wasteland that became some of the hamlets we see today. A couple of centuries later there were clothiers here, owning the yarn and the cloth throughout, but subcontracting most processes of cloth production to people still working in their own homes.
Bernard Smart, of Smart Country Fresh, at work cutting cabbages
Then, in the mid-17th century came a spectacular collapse when coloured broadcloths superseded the old undyed broadcloth industry and a contemporary report stated that 800 people in the parish were unemployed.
Unlike the town clothiers, those in Bromham failed to adapt and although handloom weavers worked in their houses for the town clothiers until the early 19th century, many turned to farming and, later, to market gardening, supplying produce to local towns.
This was a return to the earliest economy, that of farming and growing your own food dating back 5,000 years or more, for people have lived in this favoured area for five millennia. The most dramatic reminder of this lengthy occupation is Oliver’s Castle, an Iron Age hill fort on Roundway down.
Unseen below the ground, however, lie four Roman villas whose occupants thoroughly changed the landscape into well ordered, assiduously tended farmland.
Roman activity was centred on the neighbouring small town of Verlucio to the north and the London to Bath road that traversed the land between Bromham and the present day village of Sandy Lane. This could have been the centre of a very large Roman estate in which Bromham was especially favoured owing to its good soil.
So once again in these pages we have a village set in an ancient landscape overlaid by modern buildings and farming practices. But Bromham is different from most Wiltshire villages in that nearly 500 people are employed full-time within the parish boundaries.
Rosemary and Roger Keen, who are the owners of Sandridge Farmhouse Bacon
Many are in the labour intensive market gardens but the largest employer is the furniture workshops of Mark Wilkinson, who now has eleven showrooms around the country as well as his one in Bromham at Overton House in the High Street.
Bromham remains what a village was always intended to be: a working village with its own industries and with many of its people working within its boundaries. This has enabled it to keep the school, the village shop at The Chantry, and the post office in New Road – places that have disappeared from so many villages.
At the Greyhound Inn are landlord Kevin Fraser, chef Adam, barman Paul, chef's assistant Renata, landlady Louise Fraser and customer Fred Parmenter
In the High Street you will also find the village butcher, H F Stiles and Son, while further out, in The Pound, is Topset, the hairdresser, while on the Devizes Road are the farm shops of V and P Collins and A Paget. Not a bad selection of retailers and services nowadays for a parish of just over 1,800 people.
Roger Keen with some of his pags
If you want to get the best view of Bromham approach it from the Melksham road (the A3102) via the minor road that slides down Sandridge Hill past the farm shop of Sandridge Farmhouse Bacon, curers of bacon and hams in the traditional Wiltshire way.
The memorial west window at the Church of St Nicholas
As you pass Mark Wilkinson’s extensive workshops at Elms Farm the house-clad hillside, topped by its church rises above you. Climb Church Hill and you find yourself in the High Street and the centre of the village.
The road has taken you around two sides of the churchyard and at the far end you are confronted by an unusual little wooden lock up or blind house in the eastern wall. The Church of St Nicholas is well worth a look and is the burial place of the lyricist and poet, Thomas Moore, who is commemorated by a large Celtic cross and a memorial west window.
A priest is recorded in the Domesday Book so it seems likely that there was a Saxon church here, although the present edifice is a 13th century rebuilding of the Norman church. Inside the extremely ornate Tocates and Beauchamp chantry chapel became the Baynton Chapel in the 17th century.
The Cross at Westbrook
Sir Edward Baynton had bought the estate at the dissolution of Battle Abbey, the owners from 1087. He had been the abbey steward and would have known the area as a productive and valuable holding. He built a fine mansion, Bromham House, to the east of the village. It was said to be nearly as large as the palace at Whitehall and played host to both Henry VIII and James I on various occasions.
Unfortunately, the Parliamentarian Edward Baynton, who was head of the family at the time of the Civil War, was a quarrelsome individual who was often at odds with his own side, particularly Sir Edward Hungerford. They often suspected him of treachery but the Royalists obviously knew better as they burned down his great house in May 1645. One of the finest mansions in England survived for only about 100 years. Sir Edward abandoned the site and had salvaged materials to build a new house in Spye Park by 1654.
Outside the village, to the south and west, you come to the level lands growing acres of brassicas, root vegetables and salad crops. Beyond these are the easternmost outliers of the chalk downs, notably Beacon Hill at more than 200 metres.
Nonsuch House at Westbrook
At the foot of the hills is Mother Anthony’s Well, a holy well close to one of the four Roman villas. These hills are mirrored by lower limestone ones to the north-west of the village. Here are some fine houses including Nonsuch House at Westbrook, a fine stone house rebuilt around 1700 and giving its name to the nursery on the other side of the road.
Nearby is Sloperton Farm and the pretty early 19th century Sloperton Cottage. To the north is Chittoe, the name derived from a Celtic word for wood. A medieval villageand chapel grew up here but it has disappeared and the modern village is on an adjacent site.
At Costcutters village shop are owner Chris Drake and Jacob Adams
North again is Spye Park. The long, twostorey house built by Edward Baynton at the edge of a steep slope was demolished in 1864 by new owner J W G Spicer and replaced with an ornate structure in red brick.
Rachel Scott, Deb Thompson and Isobel Smart at Topset hairdressing salon
He spent much of his money, obtained via the beerage, in building new farms, cottages, a school and a vicarage. However, much of the house burned down in August 1974, on the day after a house warming party for the fifth generation of Spicers to live there, and the rest was demolished. As in the 19th century the privately owned park still seems a world away from the working village of Bromham that it overlooks.
BROMHAM’S LOCAL historian is Dennis Powney, who is currently working on a history of the village. In 1894 one of his family gave and erected goalposts at the school so that the boys could make proper use of a football they had recently been given.
The Irish poet Tom Moore lived at Sloperton Cottage from 1818 until his death in 1852.
He was part of Lord Lansdowne’s literary and scientific Bowood circle but often had to leave his wife and family in Bromham while he went to London to look for work to pay the household bills.
Antiquarian and writer John Collinson (1757-1793) was born in Bromham.
He wrote The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset (1791) but unfortunately an early death prevented any thoughts of a similar work on the county of his birth.
Bromham’s most famous current resident has to be Mark Wilkinson whose furniture company has grown enormously, both in size and reputation since its foundation in 1976.
At the Mark Wilkinson showroom are Richard Moss, Steve Franklin, Jane Moore, Hannah Jackson, Jennifer Hardy and Daniel Johnson
Did you know?
THE NAME Bromham comes from the broom plant that was suited to the soils of the lower greensand.
Bromham was the winner of the prestigious West of England Calor Village of the Year title for 2006/2007. Villagers were delighted when the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall paid a visit on Camilla’s birthday on July 17, 2007.
Bromham really celebrates at carnival time. Festivities last two weeks with the choosing of the queen, butterfly princess, prince and princess, and events such as quizzes and treasure hunts culminating on the final Saturday with the carnival procession winding through the village to the playing field that has become a showground for the day.
In the later 19th century the village school remained open for infants during the harvest (summer) holidays so that parents and older children could work in the fields.
This Victorian crèche was in the charge of Bessie Powney, a pupil-teacher from the elementary school.
In 1964 a row of six almshouses dating from 1612 was demolished despite local protests. They were replaced by old people’s bungalows which will probably not last for 350 years.
In 1735 the church spire was damaged by a steeple flyer who ‘flew’ on a board down a rope attached to the spire and a tree at a lower level.
Mike Gale, Mark Wareham and Mark Bailey at Mark Bailey Racing
Reproduced with kind permission of Wiltshire Life magazine