One of the joys of freelancing is that you get to travel around, meet new people and discover new places and stories. I guess I’m basically nosey and I’m lucky to be able to have these opportunities to indulge my curiosity. I had reason to go to Malmesbury on the Wiltshire / Gloucestershire border recently. It’s a town with a huge amount of history and it knows it!
The town’s Neighbourhood Plan 2015 recognises the essential historic character of the town with its hilltop silouhette, central place of the Abbey and the ancient network of streets at the town’s centre
Malmesbury neighbourhood plan 2015 volume 1 A7.1
The setting to Malmesbury and its Abbey in
particular will continue to be the most
distinctive feature of the town’s appearance.
This aspect will be protected and enhanced over
the coming years. Its historic buildings and the
pattern of its streets, paths, public spaces and
alleyways will be conserved and the public realm
I first went to Malmesbury a couple of years ago with colleagues from the Wiltshire Archaeology Service to see some of the projects that they were working on. This included a house under restoration whose garden, an old burgage plot, met the towering town walls. The views were spectacular. It’s one of the many towns in Wiltshire where you just have to scratch the surface to discover something fascinating and ancient.
On this visit I discovered Malmesbury’s beautiful Market Cross, which Pevsner describes as “one of the finest in England”, had been damaged by a recycling lorry late last year. This Grade 1 listed structure was constructed in the late 15th century and has some fine carvings. The photograph below shows the extent of the damage. A post on the Malmesbury Town Council website dated 12 February 2019 notes work is progressing and that this is a ‘lengthy process’. Having cared for historic buildings with English Heritage I feel their pain and frustration with the time that a repair of such an historic structure will take. However, it seemed that there was a missed opportunity here.
It may be that I am unaware of such a project, but it seemed that the time that a conservation project like this takes could be used to its advantage and that some community engagement could be undertaken to help the residents of Marlborough understand the Market Cross better. A Town Council minute notes that the Civic Trust wanted to undertake an aerial survey in 2017 – I do hope that this was completed as the survey will be useful in ensuring that the work restores the Cross to its former state. Some really fun and creative work could be done by local schools and groups to help them discover more about the Cross and the history of the Town. What about an inter-generational reminiscence project asking people about their memories – after all how many sweethearts must have met here?!
After pondering this, on the recommendation of a friend, I sought out the Moravian Chapel. I had read about this fabulous community project run by the Friends of the Athelstan Museum. Although closed, our attempt to enter had not gone unnoticed and one of the volunteers graciously showed us in. I was not disappointed, this is an exemplar project and the quality of the work was evident. It’s a beautiful and flexible space which still retains the character of the Chapel but can be used for a variety of community events. As a result of their work this beautiful heritage building has a long term future.
Finally I took a trip to the Athelstan Museum itself. I had heard lots of good things about them and was not disappointed. This Museum which is entirely run by volunteers offered a warm and knowledgeable welcome from the volunteer on duty when I arrived and excellent displays, well presented on the various aspects to Malmesbury’s long history – and its all free.
I particularly liked the hats which featured Malmesbury lace and the temporary display on the pubs of Malmesbury as well as the timeline and features on specific events and people such as Thomas Hobbes.
Sometime after my visit I happened to meet up with a colleague that I knew had worked with the Museum. He confirmed that the team there run the Museum well and that he often uses them as an example of best practice. They are an Arts Council Accredited Museum and from my discussions with the volunteers on duty their members are actively engaged in research into various aspects of the history of the town, including the Market Cross. They definitely had a sense of place. It’s so important for us to understand where we live and how it has developed and changed over the years and the Athelstan Museum does an excellent job at sharing this with residents and visitors alike. (Oh and they have a nice shop too!)