The Roads of Malmesbury
It is known that Stone and Iron age man were active in this area for many of their implements have been found. The Thames had settlements along its banks; droving roads like the Ridgeway wound over the downland. What is not known where the trails around Malmesbury were. Malmesbury was a hill fort with a gateway on Holloway Hill so presumably a track led away from there – but to where?
The Fosse, or Foss Way, is the first road we know of locally and it still exists today. Built around 47AD soon after the Roman Conquest it runs straight between Cirencester Corinium) and Bath (Aqua Sulis). It crosses the Avon at White Walls near Easton Grey. The whole road ran from Exeter (Isca Dumnoniorum) to Lincoln (Lindum Colonia) and when built was the frontier with the still unconquered west of England and Wales. It probably included a defensive ditch – hence the name.
Other Roman roads are known in the area including one running just south of Malmesbury towards Swindon, which presumably linked with the tile factory in Brinkworth and the extensive pottery works at Toothill.
The recently discovered Roman “villa” on the way to Charlton has a track leading from it directly towards Malmesbury.
The Kingsway is recorded around 1100AD as part of the road to Chippenham. It may have existed earlier in Saxon times as a circular route connecting the king’s lands at Foxley, Norton, Hullavington and Corston with Malmesbury.
Malmesbury lies at the mid-point of the North Wessex Way, an ancient route that ran from Oxford to Bristol. Going East, it leaves Malmesbury via Blicks Hill and out through Milbourne and Garsdon, and across the Braydon Forest to Purton. To the West, it crosses Trucklebridge heading south of the Avon and follows the road through Foxley, eventually crossing the ford at Luckington to join up with the main road west.
The North Wessex Way can be traced back to the Iron Age, where it connected the hill fort at Malmesbury with others along the route; Ringsbury camp at Purton, Blunsdon Hill fort, Badbury Camp and the hill fort to the West at Hinton. The route would have been used during the Roman Occupation as the way to get the heavy building tiles being made at the recently discovered kiln in Minety delivered to customers along the Fosse Way and Ermine Street. And maybe it was a Roman traveller on the route that hid his hoard of coins at Milbourne for some unknown reason.
It maintained its importance in Saxon times as Malmesbury became a centre of religion with the founding of the Abbey. In the early 900s AD, Malmesbury was one of Burhs created by King Alfred; fortified towns across Wessex to stop incursion by the Vikings from the North. The North Wessex Way would have been one of the Herepaths (army paths) that would connected the Burhs, allowing troops to be moved quickly.
As the Abbey grew as a centre of education, the North Wessex Way would have been used to travel to Oxford University. The route appears on the Gough map, the earliest map of Great Britain from about 1380, showing it as the only road mapped across the North of Wiltshire.
A view of this ancient route just east of Garsdon. Note the wide verges as mentioned below
Because of its strategic position on the North Wessex Way, Malmesbury was fought over and changed hands six times during the English Civil War. The Royalist Forces were based at Oxford and Abingdon whilst the Parliamentary Army occupied Bristol and Gloucester. On August 1st 1643, King Charles I travelled the route from Oxford to Bristol, which his troops had just captured, staying overnight in Malmesbury.
In 1675, John Ogilby was instructed by King Charles II to map the main strategic routes in the country. The Oxford to Bristol route was number 79 of these maps. However, today, the ancient route of the North Wessex Way is mostly forgotten as it passes through North Wiltshire and still exists as minor country lanes. Echoes of the old route can be seen in the wide verges all along the way.
A close up of the part of the Ogilby map showing Malmesbury
In 1741, The Lord’s Horseman, John Wesley the founder of the Methodist Church, documented his journey from Malmesbury to Oxford via Purton and Highworth on horseback, leaving Malmesbury at 6.45am and arriving at Oxford at 5pm.
In 1755, the Act of Parliament that created the Faringdon to Acton Turville turnpike was passed. Instead of following the ancient route across the Braydon Forest, it was diverted at Blunsdon and taken via Cricklade. At the time, Cricklade was a ‘Rotten Borough’ and had two MPs (one of which used to be the MP for Malmesbury). Their names appear on the Act of Parliament as trustees of the Turnpike, so they would have had a financial benefit from having the route go through Cricklade! This meant that the traffic through Purton and the Braydon Forest would have dried up and the ancient route has become a distant memory.
However, there are still reminders – why else would Malmesbury have an Oxford Street and a Bristol Street?
Other Turnpikes followed later in the 18th Century. Gates were erected and tolls charged. These gates often had keeper’s cottages attached and many examples still exist, such as the one half a mile south of town on the Chippenham road or at Charlton. The road to Cirencester via Tetbury was turnpiked in 1756. A direct road was later constructed through Hankerton and was turnpiked in 1778. The road to Swindon was turnpiked as late as 1809.
Tolls were removed in the 1870s and are now the roads we drive on today – the B4040 and the A429.
In 1973 the Malmesbury bypass was built after a major campaign led by Max Woosnam and the Civic Trust. However, this may not have been Malmesbury’s first bypass. The tracks that lie to the south of the town, joining up with the North Wessex Way in either direction, suggest that Malmesbury may have had a bypass for many centuries earlier.
Many thanks to David Mitchell for supplying the information on this forgotten road and sharing his copy of the Ogilby map,