By Simon Tesler - All images by Simon & Carey Tesler
Many residents of Trowbridge and Southwick might not realise that there is a historical gem sitting just on their doorstep. Sitting in the middle of the fields between the two settlements is our house Southwick Court, a Grade II* moated manor. Unless you walk your dog in the fields opposite Southwick Nature Reserve you might not even know the house exists. Yet it's the only surviving private residence in the immediate area that dates back to the late medieval era, more or less unchanged in appearance since John Aubrey sketched it for his famous survey of Wiltshire's houses and history in the 1660s.
Still privately owned, the house and its garden and orchard are surrounded by a moat, which is fed by a leg of the Lambrok stream originating in North Bradley. This surrounds the house and in turn feeds an adjoining lake, which is enclosed at the northern end by a weir, also dating from the 15th or 16th century. The stream continues beyond the weir into the surrounding water meadows, and then on into Trowbridge where it joins the river Biss.
The current house dates to the middle of the 16th century - Shakespeare's time - but several parts are even older. The gatehouse was built in the late 1400s and there has actually been a house here since at least the 1200s, and possibly long before. Southwick Court has a long and fascinating history - previous owners have included John Stafford, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1443 to 1452 and trusted advisor to both Henry V and Henry VI; and also Sir David Owen, great uncle to Henry VIII. It was originally an old rectangular hall house, but was continuously adapted and rebuilt over the years.
In around 1567, its owner at that time, Walter Bush, added a wing to the old hall house, and left his mark on the outer walls in the form of an elegant set of carved initials. In around 1620, the house came into the ownership of the widely spread Long family, who made their fortunes in the cloth trade and owned many of the great estates of West Wiltshire at one time or another, including South Wraxall Manor and Rood Ashton House. Their main legacy now, though, is the number of pubs in the area that still bear their arms.
Different members of the Long family owned the house and its surrounding fields for the next 300 years. When they finally sold it in 1901 they gifted their large collection of leases and other documents to the County. These papers now sit within the archives of the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre at Chippenham. At the end of last year, we were lucky enough to be able to examine them in person.
They include documents, leases and indentures dating as far back as the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I, of Queen Anne and of George I. The older documents - inscribed on parchment or vellum in Latin, in ornate closely packed script and sentences that run to the entire width of a two-foot-wide page - are virtually impossible to decipher by anyone other than an expert. Those from the reign of Elizabeth I still bear the remains of a giant wax seal the size of a saucer. Each document from the reign of Queen Anne is headed by an identical hand-drawn illustration of the Queen herself and multiple shields of arms and ornate characters. Pity the poor scribe whose job it was to copy out the same illustration hundreds of times a day for every legal document that passed over his desk! I can tell you it's really something to be able to hold in your hands a document relating to your own house that was signed more than 450 years ago. We were so sad to hand them back to the safekeeping of the WSHC!
The fields between Trowbridge and Southwick are the ancient farmlands and water meadows that belonged to the house for more than eight centuries until they were separated 30 years ago. Now, though, this historic landscape and the ecology of its surrounding fields are under threat from plans to build a housing estate of 180 homes that will extend the southern boundary of Trowbridge towards Southwick and North Bradley and carve a new mile-long highway through the field opposite Southwick Country Park.
There's still time to file an objection to this application on the Wiltshire Planning Portal at https://tinyurl.com/1v4lvnm8. Although consultation is due to end on March 14th, it should still be possible to post objections after that date.
You can also find out more about the history of Southwick Court on its Wikipedia page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southwick_Court