Saturday 10 February 1990

The Old Way Of Life In The Wylye Valley


Danny Howell has a loyal following of supporters, especially in the Warminster History Society, so when he gave a slide show to the Society, the February weather did not deter weaker spirits.

Hence there was a full house at Warminster Library, on the evening of Monday 5th February, to enjoy hearing Danny talking about a way of life that has disappeared.

He was showing slides to illustrate his talk and nearly all of them were being shown in public for the first time. Some of the pictures were very old indeed, with several dating back to the 1860s and 1870s.

Danny's talk took the audience up and down the Wylye Valley, seeing aspects of life that are now history: the work of dew pond diggers, flint knappers, china rivetters, and others, which have now vanished - so it is fortunate that some pictures survive.

Danny is often able to relate stories about well-known characters in the pictures. They would otherwise be forgotten but for his interest in them.

The main occupation in the valley was farming. Intensive labour in the fields made the countryside a hard place to live in before sophisticated machinery was invented.

Wheat was taller and crops were light before the introduction of new varieties and the use of chemical fertilisers.

Hay would be brought in during the third week of May, before the change of weather in June.

Rickmakers were always accompanied by a tribe of rats (or sometimes mice), so they always tied up their trouser legs.

The shepherd had a very tough time. Folding was backbreaking work as the bigger folds could weigh about a hundredweight and had to be frequently moved.

Taking the flocks to market or fairs like Wilton and Yarnbury, meant walking many miles, often with an early morning start at 1.00 or 2.00 a.m. If the sheep went unsold, the shepherd had to walk them home again.

Sherrington's famous watercress beds survived, with various vicissitudes, from the 1880s until 1970, when Common Market regulations demanded improvements to the banks of the cressbeds which were uneconomic. Some growers preferred to harvest the cress only when there was an 'r' in the month.

Sport was important to village life and broke down social barriers. Football and cricket were played and each village had its own teams.

The farmers would hunt, and there was a famous pack of otter hounds who hunted the river Wylye.

The changing scenes included the busy railway line, where one of the sights was Clancy's racehorses from Chitterne being put on the train at Codford Station.

And we were shown the huge cloth mills, notably Hatch Mill at Upton Lovell, which burnt down in 1895, although its tall chimney remained for many years afterwards.

Most villages had their own shops and traders - some, like Sutton Veny had additional shops to serve the soldiers camped there in time of war - but other shops and businesses ceased after villages, like Wylye, were bypassed by main roads.

We were treated to some fascinating pictures and we heard about things from Danny that cannot be read in books.

Next month the Warminster History is holding its AGM, some special entertainment is planned, and the forthcoming programme of speakers and events will be presented.