Where the Ragged Robins Grow – Reflections on my Village
The village where I grew up lies in a valley on Salisbury plain at grid reference SU175435. Originally a handful of farms and thatched cottages on the gravels beside the river Avon, Bulford village probably derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon Bultesford or ‘the ford where the ragged robins grow’. There hasn’t been a ford in the village for several centuries now but you can still find the pink ragged robins growing in the field opposite the church.
It’s not unfair to say that one could drive through Bulford without it leaving a lasting impression. If you entered the village via Durrington, you would pass a flint fronted manor on your right, with mullioned windows and four even gables, and on your left a medieval church with a squat south tower and a pyramid roof. An attractive village certainly, but it’s only when you’ve lived somewhere that you learn what a place really means to a community, how each field and copse has its own name, and its own folk stories and traditions.
Kent Ryden in his book Mapping the Invisible Landscape explains how ‘sense of place results gradually and unconsciously from inhabiting a landscape over time, becoming familiar with its physical properties, accruing history within its confines’. This is how I feel about Bulford. I don’t mean a sense of place like being part of the gang that loitered outside the chip shop or a member of the local scouts (although I admit to both) but belonging to a community that has lived here since at least the Neolithic period.
As a child I used to be the crucifer at our parish church, St Leonards. Built in the twelfth century, the church originally belonged to Amesbury Abbey, and thanks to the learned scholars of the abbey, its history has been well documented. I dressed in a blue cassock with a white collar, and served there on Sundays during Communion. What I recall, and even before I fully understood the significance and importance of the liturgy, was feeling a part of something ancient and wonderful. I’d sit in the chancel listening to the sacred rituals and watch the sunlight filter through the single ogee-headed windows. There were also these beautiful fifteenth century wall paintings on the north, east and west walls of the nave. One was a painting of St Christopher wading through the water with an infant Jesus on his shoulders. Above the wall painting was the Royal Coat of Arms with the motto ‘fear God and honour the king,’ an interesting quote from the First Epistle of St Peter’s (2:17), and a powerful symbol of church and state which has probably hung in the same spot since the Restoration. The church was rich with this sort of workmanship, and it had a profound effect on me. It was evidence that people had been worshipping here for nearly a thousand years.
In the thirty years that I lived in Bulford we saw many changes. When I first arrived it boasted a paper mill, a bakery, an antique shop, a vicarage and a post office, but these were all converted into residential properties aptly renamed ‘The Old Bakery’ or ‘The Old Mill’. There was infilling in the old part of the village, and a high volume of new private estates were built in the east and west. We lived in one of the new streets on the eastern side presumably built for the civilians working in the army camp adjacent to our village. Our street was at the very edge of Bulford, and until the 1950s, the Amesbury and Military Camp Light Railway used to run down what is today the middle of our street. Our heavily sloped front gardens were the banks for a small stretch of the railway. This was historically interesting for me, but of course a pain for my father who had to mow the lawns every weekend during the summer.
Behind our street was a long strip of conifer woods and behind this several fields of arable land. There was a track that ran between two of these fields where I regularly liked to walk. About half way down there was a crossroads where the track was dissected by an old Roman road that linked Old Sarum to Mildenhall near Marlborough. Turning right at the cross roads and up a slight gradient I would follow a grassy lane and walk through a tunnel of hawthorn to the main road. Opposite the road to the right of the playing fields are two tumuli where I used to sit and think about the history of my village. These tumuli were excavated in the nineteenth century by ‘barrow-diggers’ or amateur archaeologists from the wealthy upper classes, who made a hobby of destroying historical sites. In the county museum in Devizes are the fruits of their labour. There is a funeral urn, horse and pig bones, fragments of pottery, flint axes, and other evidence there had been Neolithic and Bronze Age people living in my village. There are dozens of tumuli all over Bulford, but I have always preferred the company of these two as they’re on high ground and when I stood on them I had a panoramic view of the village before me.
My brother and I spent many of our afternoons during the summer holidays wading through the Nine Mile River down in the original part of the village where the old thatched cottages formed a line parallel with the river. It has to be said, the Nine Mile River wasn’t much of a river, and neither was it nine miles long. It was named by an unimaginative cartographer who figured the confluence of this river with the River Avon (near the village manor) was nine miles from the city of Salisbury. During the summer the water was rarely deeper than our shins so we could walk through it turning over the rocks, catching bullheads, and collecting things that looked interesting. At one point we had about thirty fragments of clay pipes in our collection and a whole range of Victorian pottery shards that had been tumbled and smoothed by the water. How did they get there? What was their story? I still don’t know much more about them today, but I used to marvel over our findings, and this would add to the exciting and complex sense of place I felt for Bulford.
If you followed the Nine Mile River eastwards towards the military camp, there was a forest where we used to camp as children, and beyond the forest, a field with a collection of beehives and two abandoned cottages. Peering through their Crittall windows was like stepping back in time. The kitchen had a Belfast sink with a wooden drainer, a herringbone wooden floor, and a square carpet with polished edges. And outside in the garden there was a rusting light blue Morris Minor covered with ivy and honeysuckle that grew from a neighbouring fruit patch. Over time the kids from the village broke into the cottages and destroyed everything. This was followed by an arson attack, which led the council to bulldoze the remains, destroying forever that precious and probably unique time-capsule of rural life in 1950s Bulford. I often thought about those two cottages imagining what it was like there before the advent of modern communication, living off the land in that beautiful and secluded part of the village.
In my room I have a pile of old treasure in a box. Not a stash of gold five guinea pieces but something even more special. This box holds the objects I found metal detecting in the field behind out street. There are First World War buttons from army uniforms, the odd bullet case, an Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) badge from the Second World War, and the end of a pistol. I also have a hammered silver long cross penny from the reign of Henry III, a badly worn Charles I shilling, and my favourite, a bronze coin from the reign of Constantine III, who in the fifth century AD declared himself ‘Western Roman Emperor’ in Britain. Coincidently a Roman villa was recently discovered only a few miles from this site. I wonder if there was a connection between that villa and the coin I found?
Metal detecting was a pastime I thoroughly enjoyed, and every year after harvest, when the field had been ploughed, I would methodically walk up and down looking for traces of Bulford’s history. Although most of these items have little monetary value they have been important to my understanding of continuity in Bulford, and like the clay-pipes and the objects from the tumuli they represent snapshots of my village through different periods.