A bend in the road

All roads incline to straight
Ask then of the bended way
What diverted the surveyor’s eye?
Or ask of thyself if it is thee,
Eyes close upon the present,
Who walks the road less travelled
And sees the turn awry?

Thomas Warbrook (1924~2001)

Avebury looking north

Some men believe their father’s life overshadows theirs while others think the success of a parent provides them with an example, or a light to follow. I am of the latter view and my father’s poem, ‘King of the Road’, provides both an apposite reference to this article and an opportunity for a son to praise his father. Regrettably, my own son has yet to stay with any road for long and I fear I have proved a better son to my father than I am a father to my son, offering him neither shadow nor much in the way of light.

But enough of family troubles; let us take to the road.

It is one of Avebury’s many peculiarities that that by which the village draws the attention of the many passing through passes almost unnoticed by those who call upon the place. I refer to the curious double bend at the heart of the village: a bend which, evidenced by the stone ‘fortifications’ outside the village’s antique shop, has caught out many a motorist speeding on the Route 471, that long straight road south from the railway town of Swindon.

Avebury's Red Lion Public HouseI wonder how many of those motorists, as they slowed for the right-hand turn by the car park of the Red Lion public house, then accelerated out of the left hand turn by the village war memorial, paused to wonder what in Avebury had distracted the surveyor’s eye and left the road’s ‘inclination to straight’ in such disarray.

The answer, as my father’s poem suggests, lies in history, for the motorist is indeed too close to the present and Route 471 was once the road less travelled.

The R471 follows the course of a turnpike surveyed in 1784 and was the last to be built of the five roads serving Avebury. Entering the ancient henge by the north ‘yett’, or ‘pythen’ as they are called in the Wiltshire dialect, it then joined with the existing main road through the village just to the east of the Red Lion, a long established coaching inn. Swindon was then a mere village for it was only with the coming of the railway in 1854 that it grew and became the principal town of the county and the speed of a country cart was little different on the bend than it was on the straight.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Better start at the beginning and in the beginning, so far as Avebury village is concerned, was the road to Marlborough.[1]

Herepath looking west toward Avebury. Manor Farm lies in the top centre of the imageYou will not find this road on any map today. A rump of it remains as a single track lane leading east of Avebury to Manor Farm, but beyond that, and especially as it climbs the chalk scarp to the downs, it is fit only for tractors, horses, and, of course walker. Alas, sight of a Marlborough bound coach and four labouring up the rutted chalk road is lost to memory.

At another time I will follow this road all the way to Marlborough, but for now let us return to the heart of Avebury. Entering the ancient henge by the east yett, the Marlborough road reached almost to its centre before turning south toward Devizes and exiting by the southern yett. At the turn of the road developed a coaching inn, now the Red Lion, and a cluster of houses and later in the 1700s a congregationist chapel. The village’s high street, once considerably more populous, extends west from the Red Lion, past the village church of St James’, and exited the henge by the west yett. At one time it continued on to serve the neighbouring village of Yatesbury but now a brave motorist might, by sundry turns and junctions, reach Calne or Cherhill or even Windmill Hill, once an ancient outlier of the henge at Avebury, but not Yatesbury, for that part of the road is now a mere bridleway. Having left by the south yett, the Devizes road forked, the right hand continuing on, while the left turned toward the villages of East and West Kennet and, following, more or less, the alignment of an ancient causeway, joined with the Roman road between Lundinium and Aquae Sulis.

It was the turnpiking of this road through the Vale of Kennet in 1762, and the resulting improvements, that led to the slow abandonment of the downland route between Marlborough and Bath and the bypassing of the village of Avebury. With it came the end for the Red Lion as a coaching inn and the village’s place upon the old high roads of England. Devizes, destination of the old Marlborough Road, was now served by a turnpike from the improved Lunden to Bath Road. Swindon was still a mere village and on the way to nowhere in particular, while the lane to Yatesbury dwindled away.

All changed with the building of the Lunden to Bristol railway via the Vale of the White Horse and the village of Swindon. Needing an engineering headquarters for his railway, Monsieur Burnell, the Belgian born genius behind the Great Western Railway, decided on Swindon and the village swiftly grew into a major town. Some years later, the railway arrived in both Devizes and the county town of Trowbridge, and Avebury was once again on the road to somewhere, but now that somewhere was Swindon, not Marlborough, and what had been a single track lane between two villages grew in the twentieth century into the major road the motorist sees today. Thus, while one road has faded to a scar across the chalk downs, another has grown and today the motorist speeding south from Swindon must beware the turn in the road where the present fleetingly meets the almost forgotten past.

[1] Far more ancient roads, including the Ridgeway, the Roman Road between Londinium and Aquae Sulis, and the Herepath, pass through Avebury parish, but only the last of these, a predecessor of the Marlborough Road, actually enters the village itself. The Herepath will be the subject of an article to itself, for it is likely that ancient man used the Herepath to bring the great sarsen stones to his temple at Avebury.


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