Thursday 2 February 1989

Fellowship Learns About Bishopstrow


St. John's Women's Fellowship held their first meeting of 1989 at St. John's Parish Hall, Boreham Road, Warminster, on 24th January, when the guest speaker was local historian Danny Howell, who has produced several interesting books on the town and the Wylye Valley.

He gave a unique slide-show on Bishopstrow using pictures, old and new, from his own personal collection.

Members saw Middle Hill with its barrow mound and lynchets, and were told of the deserted village of Middleton nearby, where there were 18 poll-tax payers and 12 closes of houses in the Middle Ages.

Middleton Farm, which the great 19th century writer and politician William Cobbett visited in 1826, is now a redundant farmyard awaiting possible residential development. Cobbett was impressed with Middleton Farm and in his book Rural Rides wrote that he would gladly give up politics and forget Whitehall if he could have this particular farm.

Mr Howell told next of some of the folklore associated with Cromwell's Yew, which stands beside the Warminster-Heytesbury road. Oliver Cromwell is said to have had his breakfast under the shade of this yew after the Battle of Newbury in 1643.

Mr Howell explained that Cromwell was in Cambridgeshire throughout 1643, which dismisses this story.

Other historians say Cromwell ate there after the Battle of Roundway Down, two years later. Cromwell was certainly at Devizes and Salisbury in 1645, so perhaps he did come Bishopstrow way.

Mr Howell confessed that Cromwell was one of his heroes and he liked to think that there was some substance in the tale.

Mr Howell said he had sent details of the tree's measurements to a survey of Britain's yew trees being organised by a national magazine. He has now received a certificate confirming that the age of Cromwell's Yew is 360 years. The certificate is signed by the botanist David Bellamy, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Robert Hardy (the actor who is an authority on the yew long bow and has written a book on the subject).

The response to the survey was overwhelming and a book about Britain's yew trees, including the one at Bishopstrow, is now planned for release by a national publisher next year.

The old photographs of Bishopstrow Farm, when Mark Gauntlett was the tenant, reminded all of the pre-mechanised days of farming.

The road connecting Bishopstrow Farm with Bishopstrow Field Barn was once known as Cox's Drove. John Robert Cox, who died on Christmas Day 1899, farmed there during the last years of the 19th century.

Members were also privileged to see some slides of today's agricultural activities, because Mr Howell is currently making a photographic record of a year in the life of Bishopstrow Farm. Farmer Laurence Rice and his staff have come under close scrutiny of the camera lens.

The picture of the combine harvester in the field of golden grain last summer brightened up the winter evening. Was last summer really like that?

Another delightful picture showed farmworkers having their lunch in the harvest field.

Bishopstrow Mill is a private residence today. A mill at Bishopstrow is mentioned in the Domesday Book and was valued at 15 shillings.

The present mill dates from the mid-1870s because the previous mill, built almost entirely of wood, burnt down in 1873. The son of the miller, William Hayter, went into the mill one Sunday morning to get some grain for the fowls. He lit a candle and wandered about inside, inspecting the rat traps. Later that day, at 2 p.m., the mill was ablaze. Even though the fire brigade arrived promptly from Warminster and had a ready supply of water from the mill pond, the mill was totally destroyed by 4.30 p.m. Fortunately no one was hurt.

The name Bishopstrow is thought to be derived from "Bishop's Tree" or "Bishop's Trow". St. Aldhelm, it is said, while preaching a sermon at Bishopstrow, placed his ashen staff in the ground and it sprang buds and grew.

A church at Bishopstrow is first mentioned in 1120 and little is known about it before the 18th century when an inscription records its "restoration from the lowest foundations" in 1757. The church was restored again by W.S. Campion of London in 1876.

The spire of St. Aldhelm's Church has been struck by lightning on at least three occasions. The fixture of a new lightning conductor, recently, revealed the old foundations, showing that the church was formerly positioned slightly at an angle to the present direction.

The clock in the tower, made by J. Smith and Sons of Derby, was installed in 1901, at a cost of £72.

Next the audience saw Carson and Miller's parish boundary marker adjacent the wall of Eastleigh Court's grounds. The marker was made in 1840 at the Wiltshire Foundry in Warminster. Eastleigh Court was formerly known as Eastleigh Lodge and was the home of the Astley and Southey families.

The "armchair" tour ended with a visit to Hallett's shop on the east side of the village street. The shop closed in about 1970, when Rosella Hallett decided that decimalisation was the "final straw".

Bishopstrow's village street of today, compared with an old photograph taken in 1875, has changed little except for the introduction of telegraph poles, and the thatch of the cottages is now replaced with tiles.

A vote of thanks for an entertaining evening was given by Olive Gillingham on behalf of more than 40 members who were present.

The meeting ended with a raffle and refreshments. In February the Fellowship will make the annual visit to the pantomime in Warminster.