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Andover, Westbury and reshaping our communities

I’ve been living in Westbury for around 5 years now but my relationship with the town goes back to 2003 when I was the English Heritage manager responsible for the White Horse. It’s a funny old place. Most people simply drive through it on the busy A350 , a route which doesn’t show the town in its best light. There is an historic core which is pretty much hidden from the drivers passing through. This means that not only the commuters and travellers using the A350, but even the new residents of the many houses built in the last 10 years, are unaware of the history of the town in which they live.

Despite nearly doubling in size, like many towns it has suffered a massive decline in its retail offer with just a small number of mostly small independent shops (baker, butcher, chemist, cards and stationery) and a range of charity and fast food shops. It does of course have the wonderful Aladdin’s Cave, Davies store where you can find pretty much everything from a tap washer to a clothes airer, to baking and sugar craft essentials along with plants and garden equipment; without it Westbury would be much poorer.

At a recent consultation session I led for the Westbury Neighbourhood Plan it was sad to hear so many older residents talking wistfully of the range of shops that there used to be and which are no more. I guess this would be common in most small UK towns. When asked for suggestions to improve the town it was clear that they simply wanted a return to the past. The change has been so rapid for those people that they cannot conceive of any other more positive future for the town. Many of them clearly felt that there was no hope for the town and that “they” had given up on Westbury.

Undoubtedly Westbury has not benefitted from any major public investment for many years. A failed attempt in 2009 at a by-pass which would have compromised the setting of that famous White Horse appears to have resulted in Wiltshire Council washing its hands of the town. There must have been planning permission for over 1,000 new houses in Westbury in just the last 5 years with more still on the cards but the town seems to not to have benefitted from any imaginative use of Section 106 or Community Infrastructure Levy from the developers. This growth in the town should have reaped economic benefits for the community but there does not appear to be any and the population growth might have been expected to result in more growth in retail and other services.

Going back to the history of Westbury this is long and rich. Like most Wiltshire towns you don’t have to dig (either literally or figuratively) very deep before finding evidence of the past as a recent blog from the Wiltshire Archaeology Service demonstrates. That historic core hides a pre-Norman centre to the town with a fine Grade I parish church and an attractive churchyard with houses clearly linked to the church community with names like “Verger’s Cottage”. Beyond that are some fine Georgian buildings such as the Old Town Hall and town houses built for the owners of the local mills and other local gentry. The Lopes Arms, a coaching inn dating back to the 1700s. It is an attractive building that has lain empty for over 2 years and would require considerable investment to be able to open again. The ‘Market Place’ hasn’t fulfilled this purpose for some years and would benefit from some radical thinking to make it a more attractive public space which could benefit both residents and businesses alike.

But the new developments are inward looking and often have very poor pedestrian access to the rest of the town. It’s easier to drive to the next town than to walk into Westbury.

Our towns in many cases, it seems to me, have become less human. They are designed for the car not the pedestrian. We seem to spend more time shut up in our homes viewing life vicariously through electronic devices or with our heads bowed staring at a screen and less time talking to others beyond our immediate circle. Our towns need to be better shaped to enable encounters and create opportunities and spaces to join together in community activity.

I have been following the work of the Wiltshire based artist James Aldridge for some time. I first came across him in connection with his work in the Stonehenge landscape as part of the preparation for the Stonehenge Visitor Centre which opened in 2013. There’s another blog developing in my head which connects to his work on walking, art and landscape but for the purposes of this piece I’m interested his most recent project Asking Andover on which he has recently published his own blog.

I attended a celebration event for the project at the Andover Museum. It was great to speak to team members from the Hampshire Cultural Trust who led the project, James Aldridge, volunteers and people who have participated in some of the sessions. Everyone was positive about the experience. Some had loaned family items to the exhibition to share their memories of Andover with the rest of the community. James’ workshops had led to the creation of some beautiful work which will be added to the Museum’s collection in time.

From Anton Lake – 16 Walking Pages James Aldridge
Asking Andover Exhibition, Andover Museum

I love this quote from his blog:

We need a town with places for meeting, connecting and sharing’ was for me the main message that came out of the session.


The hopes and dreams for Andover that the participants in the project shared with James were very similar to the comments made by those people who spoke to us in Westbury. These are the same issues being discussed by the members of the heritage sub-group which I chair, and the steering group of the Westbury Neighbourhood Plan which is being led by Westbury Town Council.

  • Focusing the town centre on pedestrians and cyclists rather than giving priority to cars. Linking up green spaces and existing pathways
  • Strengthening the relationship between the town and surrounding landscape
  • What can we bring into the town centre to replace the empty shops – homes, work spaces, artist studios, community spaces and many other ideas
  • Making the town more inclusive and welcoming

I am slowly turning ideas over in my mind for something in Westbury using some of the great ideas from the Asking Andover project to help the community of Westbury reconnect with and learn to love their town and its community. If you have an idea, please get in touch as it could only be done in partnership with key organisations already working within the community.

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Linda Brothwell: Conversations in the Making Stonehenge Visitor Centre

Anyone who has had any association with Stonehenge will know that it keeps calling you back. I only live a short distance from this World Heritage Site and my membership of English Heritage means that I can pop in any time. This time it was to see the new exhibition in the Visitor Centre – Linda Brothwell’s Conversations in the Making

One of the criteria that Stonehenge and Avebury met as a World Heritage Site was Criterion ii “have exerted great influence , over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture, monumental arts or town planning and landscape”. Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site’s case for meeting this criterion is: “The monuments and landscape have had an unwavering influence on architects, artists, historians and archaeologists, and still retain huge potential for future research.”

One of the new elements of the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site Management Plan 2015, which I co-authored with Sarah Simmonds, was the introduction of Policy 5d: Artists and the creative sector will offer new and inspiring ways for communities and a wide range of visitors to engage with and learn about the OUV of the WHS and the wide range of artistic responses to it both past and present.

To begin to fulfill this we held an Arts Symposium in November 2015 which brought together practitioners, archaeologists, museum and property managers to consider how we could work together to use the arts to interpret, explain and enjoy the historic landscape, building on the incredible creative work of Constable, Turner, Nash, Inshaw and many others. Peter Tyas submitted a guest blog to the Arts in Wiltshire blog after the event.

At that meeting and others, using the Visitor Centre for exhibitions of contemporary art was discussed, and something that I was personally keen to see, so that this tradition of drawing inspiration from the amazing landscape of Stonehenge and Avebury could be shared with both local residents and international visitors to the this iconic archaeological monument. I was delighted when I heard about the exhibition and that this vision was finally coming to fruition so of course I had to come and see for myself.

I had the gallery to myself for the majority of the time which meant that I could enjoy this carefully lit exhibition in peace. Each of the 40 vessels is given plenty of space to demonstrate the range of texture, shape and colour that Brothwell has carefully crafted. Some of them sang out like brightly coloured jewels which is hardly surprising given her training in jewellery, metalwork and silversmithing.

The creation of 40 vessels for this exhibition has been inspired by speaking to ten makers who live and work in the community; key cutter, hairdresser, tattooist, and leather worker, among others. She has also been inspired by prehistoric tools and pottery vessels in both Wiltshire Museum and the Salisbury Museum.

Tools, vessels, making and using our hands; these are the threads that link people and place through time. These are Conversations in the Making.

English Heritage

Commissioned by Ginkgo Projects for Bloor Homes in partnership with English Heritage
Linda Brothwell’s exhibition (the first contemporary art exhibition at Stonehenge) provides an intriguing new way to think about the landscape surrounding Amesbury and Stonehenge and the archaeological objects found here.

“Stonehenge has inspired art and artists for centuries – from those who illustrated medieval manuscripts, to the Romantic paintings by Constable and Turner and more recently artists such as Jeremy Deller. So it’s really exciting to host a contemporary art exhibition at Stonehenge for the first time. Linda Brothwell’s work, which looks at tools and vessels as a thread linking people and place over time, will provide an intriguing new way to think about Stonehenge and the archaeological objects found here. A visit to the new exhibition coupled with a trip to Wiltshire and Salisbury Museums to see some of the ancient objects that have inspired Linda’s work would provide a fascinating picture of Stonehenge and make a great day out.”

Susan Greaney English Heritage historian

It’s really positive to see the use of the Stonehenge Visitor Centre temporary exhibition space for this purpose; joining the historic landscape, community and art together in this way and introducing contemporary art which reflects the landscape and its archaeology. I hope that this will be the first of many such exhibitions. Stonehenge and Avebury has had such a powerful effect on artists in the past and will certainly continue to do so.

The exhibition is on until 24 November. Do take the time to take a look at this exhibition and to visit both the Wiltshire Museum in nearby Devizes and The Salisbury Museum which should be an essential part of any visit to Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.

One final link that some may find interesting is the project 30 objects / 30 years These objects were put together by Courtney Burmaster as part of her work experience while undertaking her Masters at UCL. This collection of objects demonstrate the range of objects found in or inspired by the landscapes of Stonehenge and Avebury.

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Malmesbury – oodles of heritage and a sense of place

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

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

Malmesbury neighbourhood plan 2015 volume 1 A7.1

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.

Malmesbury’s Market Cross

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.

Moravian Star outside the newly refurbished Moravian Chapel, Malmesbury

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!)