We recently decided to visit Amesbury. Intrigued by history and legend, I wanted to see the Abbey Church of St Mary and St Melor as well as some other hidden aspects of the town.
I often feel that the town of Amesbury is a little overlooked. Perhaps its recent expansions close to major roads might lead passing visitors into thinking the town is a modern development. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, with the uncovering of Blick Mead, Amesbury is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the British Isles ( https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/may/01/oldest-britain-settlement-amesbury-wiltshire-stonehenge) and it is great to see that even the new estates acknowledge this with their statues of the Ancestor and the Amesbury Archer https://www.visitwiltshire.co.uk/towns-and-villages/amesbury-p477123). However, for us, it was some of the older parts of the town and its environment that we wanted to see.
We started our visit in the town centre car park and headed towards the High Street. The High Street itself is a mix of flint and stone chequered buildings and interesting shops and eateries. Passing the reputedly haunted George Hotel and the Antrobus Arms Hotel it took no time to reach the abbey church.
Here we found an unadorned, lovely Norman building, fortunate to have survived the ravages of the dissolution of the monasteries. It does show some signs of remodeling but externally its appearance is very much as you would expect of such a building of this period, its attractive simpleness and straight walls are a testament to its ancient abbey church status. Inside is light and airy but somewhat austere. Besides a memorial to one of the, locally important, Antrobus family, there is a 15th Century clock and a sanctus bell but few other items, which seems a little strange for a building of such long standing and links to royalty. For it was Queen Ælfthryth who founded an abbey here in AD979. She dedicated it to St Melor a boy saint who had been murdered in similar circumstances to her own stepson. This murder allowed Ælfthryth’s natural son Æthelred to become king, so it is thought that she might have had the abbey built as a penance. Later another queen, Eleanor of Provence, spent her last days at the abbey and it was to here where Mallory banished Arthur’s Guinevere after her fall from grace.
Some relics of St Melor may have made their way to the abbey but there is no evidence of them today. Neither are there any signs of the remains of Eleanor although they might still be located somewhere in the abbey grounds. With few artefacts to view it was left a little to our imagination to think back to how it might have been through the ages from nuns praying to relics of saints through to modern day christenings using a plastic replica of a conch shell, each era having its own uniqueness.
We left the abbey church through a side gate and then found ourselves inadvertently trespassing on the privately owned abbey grounds. However, it was here looking over the peaceful and beautiful water meadows that we really could imagine nuns or the penitent Guinevere walking in silent contemplation.
However, tempted as we were to stay longer but realising our mistake, we reluctantly returned to the road heading towards the Iron Age hillfort of Vespasian’s Camp, admiring the River Avon and the old Queensberry Road Bridge on the way.
From the road there was little to see of the Camp and peering into the private grounds where it stands we felt a little sad that this area was not really visited, knowing that beyond the gate marked private a number of interesting areas exist such as Blick Mead, the grotto of Gay’s cave (https://gohistoric.com/places/436043-gays-cave-diamond-amesbury) and the Nile Clumps ( https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Vespasian%27s_Camp or https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/features/vespasians-camp-cradle-of-stonehenge.htm).
From the Camp we continued on the road until we saw a National Trust sign for Coneybury Hill. Here we turned left then at the top of the hill left again and headed towards the very pretty hamlet of West Amesbury.
We had wanted to stay as close as we could to the processional route that is formed by the Avenue from Stonehenge. On maps, The Avenue only appears to lead to the imposing, flint chequered West Amesbury House.
However, it is now believed to have extended from the house to an area at the river beyond. In fact another henge, dubbed Bluestonehenge, was found at this site in 2009.
This river area is in the private garden of West Amesbury house, so it was interesting to reflect on what was probably once a deeply sacred area through the iron railings of a garden gate. Perhaps the crow we photographed was a mythological guardian of the place?
Although there isn’t access to some of these ancient sites we were heartened to see a sign that suggests that is now possible to walk from West Amesbury to Normanton Down over the National Trust property that incorporates Coneybury Hill (see https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/stonehenge-landscape/features/protecting-more-of-the-stonehenge-landscape) and it is great to know that more of this wonderful and sacred landscape can be looked after and explored.
Having paid our respects to Bluestonehenge and the crow we retraced our steps back towards the town. On reaching Little Thatch we decided to turn towards the river and Ham Hatches pausing briefly to look at the brick and timber 19th century gateway to the cemetery before taking the footpath alongside the River Avon.
Although the walk was pleasant the river was at times difficult to see and fenced off with signs for private fishing, which was a little disappointing. At the end of the footpath we emerged back again into the central area of Amesbury where we stopped to photograph the 19th century Toll House and Antrobus House before heading to Ratfyn Road.
We had chosen to also visit Ratfyn Road because we wanted to see two special houses one with a bronze age barrow in the garden and the other constructed in an unusual way. We also wanted to take in views of the Abbey Gatehouse and Lords Walk.
Ratfyn Barrow house is the first house you see as you exit Lords Walk and I am not aware of many town houses that have such a barrow in what is no more than a reasonably sized front garden. Peering over the garden gate at it I marvelled at the responsibility of having such a precious item of antiquity to look after. It is so pleasing that it is still intact. Although, looking around me towards the A303 and back into town I realised that it is possible that other such prehistoric areas might not have been so fortunate. Thankfully, the famous nearby burial of the Amesbury Archer was found during excavations made ahead of one of the town’s new housing developments https://www.wessexarch.co.uk/our-work/amesbury-archer.
The second house we wanted to see was Avon Mead, a 1919-1920 experimental house built from rammed earth https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1318492. This construction provides excellent insulation. The thickness of the walls is evident by the porch and the internal windows. Sadly the building now seems to be in quite some disrepair and suggests that, in this case, the construction may not last beyond 100 years. So food for thought for this sort of sustainable living in an area where chalk and earth would be the main constituents of the walls.
From here we could have walked up to Ratfyn and round to the modern Solstice Park to see the Statue of the Ancestor but, as it was getting close to rush hour we felt, for us, that could wait for another day.
So next time you are in the area do consider visiting Amesbury and stay a while in this ancient place with its memories of the queens of yore and legend.