As the circle of the seasons drops down into autumn, and wilting leaves are shed from trees causing, one presumes, all manner of train delays across England's railways, The Shitron and its occupants rumbled into the county of Wiltshire: its wheels going round and round just like on the proverbial bus.
Wiltshire is so called after its former principal town of Wilton, which was designated after a tribe, who had baptised themselves from the name of the river. This renders one clueless as to who initially cleped the river. Still, the river Wylye (a homophone to “wily”) is the origins of the settlement made home by a family group who in turn christened the county right up until the unfortunate day when Wilton was ousted as the centre of the universe. Ousted ignomoniously by the adjacent spire-ladened-cathedral city of Salisbury. A place, which incidentally, witnessed the origin of law: the Magna Carta. These days Wilton is little more than a teeny tiny nonentity suburb of Salisbury. Such is the circle of village life.
This isn’t Salisbury’s first offence of usurping local attractions. In recent times, it bedimmed the neolithic circular arrangements otherwise known as Stonehenge. This prehistoric collection of appropriated sarsen stones, and homage to the solstices, used to draw a million tourists to the country per annum right up until a pair of Russians declared Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, Britain’s tallest at 123 metres, to be worthy of a two-day flying visit and by doing so deterred anyone with an aversion to Novichok. That event, in addition to a more recent world-wide viral plague, made now a very good time to visit Stonehenge. So I did. It was disappointingly heaving for a Tuesday.
Apparently, Salisbury’s spire used to be Britain’s second tallest until the unfortunate collapse of St Paul’s after an arson attack in London way back in the days of a different plague. This one a plague of darkness in the 14th century. Alas, none of this is of interest to me except that I had to circumvent Salisbury with its piercing spire in my quest to find Nomansland.
Nomansland is a place that could either be Britain’s only matriarchal hamlet or an uninhabited area between two occupying armies. I was sorry to record that it was an underwhelming morning: the houses looked ordinarily ordinary and there seemed to be a dearth of fighting. In fact the only signs of life were six horses merrily munching away on either side of the road, the smallest a shetland and the tallest akin to a former racing thoroughbred that had escaped the nearby dog food canning factory.
I departed the settlement with the assumption that the absence of anything identifiably human was more the consequences of the deluge of rain tipping from the autumnal October sky than an abduction of mankind by aliens or some other unexplained invasion.
Oh, yes I ought to have already mentioned that Wiltshire is best known as the mysterious county, and one that claims the record for the highest number of UFO sightings. In fact, during the period contemporarily known as “the era that was lockdown boredom” a Natalie Myres felt compelled, in the wintertime of December of 2020, to submit upon the the local constabulary a ‘Freedom of Information Request’ by email. I presume she also paid the attendant £25 administration fee which enforces the demand on the police to disclose all accounts of unidentified aerial phenomena in Wiltshire in that year. The police declined stating it would cost £450 - which is pretty much the cost of a family ticket to Stonehenge. Still, they didn’t say there weren’t any though, did they?
Wiltshire is not quite, but almost, the birthplace of the universal happenings known as ‘crop circles’. Wikipedia oozes cynicism when it observes that these flattened spheres of wheat are “not distributed randomly across the landscape but appear near roads, areas of medium to dense population and cultural heritage monuments such as Stonehenge or Avebury.” Now, if I’m not mistaken, there’s hardly any substantial areas of nothingness in England, given its the second-most densely populated country in Europe. Or perhaps, it just seems to be chock-a-block as I bounce from hamlet to village, village to suburb and then back to another hamlet again on lanes so thin I think it necessary for me to breathe in as I trundle by.
Yes, granted there are occasional patches of nothingness. Like the village of Snap. Snap is a former community most famous for being abandoned. That said, it is notably peculiar for being as recently as 1914. It was the arrival of the great war which coerced the last resident to remove herself to a local people’s home. Thereupon the military moved in and used the village for target practice: readying soldiers to fight in the great battle of mostly Europe. In doing so the army obliterated most of the houses. I’m guessing they weren’t very good at the targeting part of the practice. After the war ended, wily pilferers requisitioned all the brickwork and rubble including that of the still intact school and the chapel to establish buildings elsewhere. There is still signage for Snap but having scoured the countryside, I learnt that all that remains are fields of harvested wheat. Not even a rocky outcrop nor a hazy crop circle can be detected. So was Snap vanquished or did it simply vanish?
Concluding nothing, I started my wilting quest anew. Inspired by wikipedia’s scepticism of the supernatural I sought out nearby Crooked Soley, a hamlet on the east of Wiltshire, adjacent to Straight Soley, situated just south of the M4 which rips across the county. Even the sign was ironic.
Never before have two settlements better described the dichotomous, if not sometimes fractious, relationship between peoples with contrary belief systems. One is either a scientist or a cereologist, a believer or a non-believer, or playing the cop or being the robber. And if, as is largely purported to be the case, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley were the originators of most of Wiltshire crop circles that proliferated across Wiltshire in the 1980s, then why were they not charged with criminal damage? I assume that it is quite hard to harvest flattened wheat and corn, which subsequently deprives the farmer of income. Farmers are, after all, world-renowned for cost-centrism or are the police especially apathetic? It all leaves one much to ponder.
Incidentally Crooked Soley is also the title of a book by Allan Brown and John Michell who claim “crop circles are the finest, most beautiful and original art forms of modem (sic) times.” I can only deduce from their brief synopsis that the purpose of the crop circle is to enable the modulation and demodulation between the beings of far flung planets and ourselves. Alas, it’s all binary to me. The book, incidentally, scores 4.6 stars out of 5 on Amazon - a combined average score by the ten reviewers who were willing to part with the £82.13 price tag. That is nothing short of daylight robbery for a book that is only 80 pages long. Either that or readers are put off by the one three-star review by A.Gal who stated, “Yes the mathematical theories are awesome but meh”. I utterly concur with the sentiment.
Snap was not the only place missing in action. Wilsford cum Lake is a lengthy, windy village. Foliage and high-siding fencing, totally obscure any possible sighting of the cum lake, let alone permit a peek at a substantial body of water. From Google maps, it seems to be more of a bulging river but this could not be verified given parking was impossible.
Later, I discovered it is a place quite unsuitable for any form of sailing given the area is a triumvirate of three settlements “Wilsford” and “Lake” although why Normanton is called “Cum” is anyone’s guess. I don’t imagine Norman or his kin are all too happy about it. I’d go so far as to call it malicious communications, which is a serious criminal offence these days and as such it should probably be cancelled.
Alas, from there the mysterious Wiltshire turned to total smut as I embarked on a series of concentric tours of the county. And just like a 1970’s pervert, I started at Patney with the ambition of quickly getting to Chicklade.
Patney's notice board still boasts, just like an senescent pageant queen, that it was the best-kept village of 1992. It had certainly continued to age admirably but given its been on the go since plategenet times, I imagine the ageing process of any village to be especially languorous. One upon a time, Patney enjoyed its very own 12th century church until a lack of attendance had it shutting its doors just as the village received its crown of beauty. If anything, Patney disproves the adage that it’s “what’s on the inside that matters.”
I followed up a with a detour to Cuckoo’s Knob. Adorned with much prettiness by way of gardens, the small modern brick boxes were sadly of the 1970s bungalow variety. Perhaps, after all, it’s what’s on the inside that counts - but my demanding a house inspection would likely to alarm the local elderly population and I decided against being the object of a police investigation. After all, they seemed to be hogtied by UFO abductions.
Instead, I simply returned to The ShitRon, which whisked me along narrow twisty lanes back to Clench, another hamlet I have previously visited. I noticed I still hold my breath and lean in when I’m disinclined to hit objects that are best avoided. Horses especially. I’ve noticed that cat does it too even though our combined efforts don’t cause the van’s walls to concave. I wonder if we are alone in this practice?
Alas I have no evidence of my Chicklade conquest because the only signage sat astride the fast-moving A303, and so it all passed in the blink of an eye. Given it is illegal to use a camera whilst operating a vehicle, and the cat remains all thumbs, I opted instead to tootle off to Limpley Stoke.
Limpley Stoke is a place that I’m not probably not alone in needing to check the spelling of, let alone fearing its actual pronunciation. A very easy faux pas to make I should think. Shortly after, I was somewhat startled to find myself in hot water, or Bath in Somerset, as it’s more commonly known. Not five minutes later, I was even more astonished to have myself pulled over by a French woman police officer. Although, that definitely is a story de….
Lacock, described as being ‘lost in time’, is otherwise a Saxon village, although most of its buildings were constructed in the 18th century. A few of the older ones, including one from the 12th century, have withstood the ultimate tests of time: weather, fire, cars and Harry Potter. Lacock is especially famous for two things - that it is illegal to affix TV aerials or Satellite dishes to the buildings, and its annual Scarecrow Festival. Well, if one doesn’t have a good television signal, what else is there to do but dress up effigies of visitants, martians and bogeymen?
Another perplexity of Wiltshire is the ubiquitous red telephone boxes of yonderyear. At first appearance, it is as if no one wishes to recognise that they have been gazumped by the modem and router realities of modern communication. Back in the day, of course, these cultural icons were frequently confused with public toilet facilities or at least they smelled quite as if they had. Nowadays the whiff of latrine has largely evaporated and been replaced with a much more nostril-appeasing bibliosmia. Either that or I’m suffering from parosmia.
And yet, in Wiltshire, every village seems to retain at least one of the old poppy-red kiosks. Just outside of Nomansland, an actual, proper telephone idled, minding its own business, which in all probability is zilch. Some, of course, have been converted to house defibrillators, so if one is planning to have a heart-attack, Wiltshire would be a good place to spend the summer holidays. Most, though, have been converted into teeny-tiny libraries or tourist information booths. Considerable time can be lost loafing around looking for a good book or pamphlet. In one I was especially delighted to find a brand new 500 piece jigsaw puzzle depicting a scene of British woodland wildlife, which helped me while away the evening later that day. After the cat got involved, scattering pieces in all directions, it now has its very own crop circle.
Happening upon Spirthill was quite the surprise. Mostly due a strange encounter with actual British wildlife. I’d parked up, ostensibly to photograph the hill of spirt, and in doing so, I had seemingly positioned the van so the sun reflected a stern outward glare from the darkened privacy glass of the side door. A territorial blue tit began to divebomb itself, clattering against the window in rage at this unbecoming avian interloper. Bashing into the glass repeatedly, it refused to learn from its unsuccessful assault upon itself. On the other side, a similarly territorial British-blueish-shorthair, prepared to indulge his instincts at the oft-charging piece of flying fluff. Nelson’s preferred hunting strategy has always been to lie on his back, his mouth agape, patiently waiting for something to land in it. Imagine his discombobulation, when finally the day had come when this master tactic would pay dividends only for it to be thwarted by the invisible force that is better known as my ‘kitchen window’.
Cue two furious, yet equally frustrated, members of the animal kingdom. I ended this act of warfare to trundle off towards Rotten Row where we turned left, then right before pulling up in the revoltingly awful sounding Horpit. It would have been a marvellous stopping point, and indeed it was: lunch was lunched there, at least I did. Horpit is yet another miniscule agricultural hamlet, this one just on the outskirts of the Town of Swines. More commonly referred to as Swindon. So far, my vote is that Swindon is probably the most unfortunately named town in all of England. Although I have yet to make it to Peniston.
Downtrodden, and coming in at No. 31 on ‘Britain’s Worst Places To Live’ list, Swindon has the saddest of tag lines: “Broken Britain in a Microcosm.” If this was not condemnation enough, the locality is also described as Britain’s most average town. It is so utterly dull one might consider its most redeeming feature to be the sheer number of roundabouts that intersperse this large town. Roundabouts, I have learnt, are formally known in Britain as “Ring Junctions” - a term I have never encountered in my life let alone enunciated myself. I grew up calling them road circles, or just circles, which is what they are.
I suspect the popularity of the roundabout amongst Swindon’s urban planners is their utility as an escape prevention measure. Notionally, their frequency induces such a level of dizziness in motorised Swindonians they could feasibly deter a mass exodus. What other possible explanation is there to justify Swindon’s most remarkable circle: The Magic Roundabout. It even has its own individual traffic sign to direct road users and visitors alike towards this most banal of attractions. For the uninitiated, this vehicular circus is best described as seven circles of contra-travelling hell. Especially for a lost, long-wheel-based white van driver in rush hour with a hungry cat still sulking about the lunch he failed to catch that day. I suspect the only other plausible reason for this geometric abomination is that the designers of local infrastructure, back in 1972, spent their lunch hour in Tiddleywink.
If anything captures the evanescent phenomena of Wiltshire it is Tiddleywink. It is not an especially grand place: Established circa 1881, the settlement is nothing more than two sets of slightly grubby terraces combining to make eight humble abodes. At some point in the past, one of the inhabitants of Tiddleywink Cottage felt it necessary to serve their own home-produced hooch to passing drivers, drivers of the cow-droving variety I should clarify. Hence, journeypersons would meander down the lane for a quick snifter, or rather, using the rhyming slang to obfuscate their illegality: a tiddleywink.
Somewhere along the way this hamlet slipped into obscurity. First, it was overlooked by the Bartholomew Gazetteer of Places in Britain, a publication I have never heard of, and then eliminated completely by what was once the road-goers’ bible: The Collins British Road Atlas, which was the formal name for an oversized A-Z book of maps that once dominated the windscreens of the intrepid British motorist. It is now currently being rendered obsolete by the emergence of Google Maps. Already ignored by both epochal tomes, 1998 saw Tiddleywink lose the only remaining evidence of its existence: its unitary road sign. A driver, presumably this one of a car-droving variety, and perhaps having indulged in a few too many tiddleywinks, crashed into the eponymous sign and obliterated it.
“I haven’t had a catalogue delivered for nine months because the postman just can’t find us,” a local resident once complained to a local journo. And so, the hamlet resumed its tedious evanescence once again right up until 2003, when a new sign was erected. From then onwards, to the delight of the handful of occupants, Amazon deliveries could be received for the first time as well as grocery supplies from England’s most enterprising supermarkets. Alas, this happy ending was to be expunged upon the theft of the road sign just ten years later. “People will nick anything these days,” said the local councillor. I wonder how he knew it was people? It’s as if he knows something the rest of us don’t. Incidentally, no one thought to bother the police with this act of larceny.
So it was with some trepidation I headed off to Brokenborough. Borough in Old English means “Fortified Place”. It was probably constructed to keep out those lucky few who’d found their way out of Swindon, but I simply glided in without any difficulty. It is a rather grand place, pricey most definitely, although not best known for its religious piety - given the chapel was a rather pitiful affair. Ramshackled and well along its way to being devoured by the village’s vociferous and ravenous nature, it left one fretting the inhabitants’ souls. My angst was quickly restored with a quick visit to Hankerton’s a tremendous Grade II-listed church dating back to the 12th century. Even today it preaches good, honest values to the villages of Crudwell and Bullock’s Horn, places which certainly sound like they need it.
Elsewhere in Wiltshire, Studley should not be confused with Studley, Warwickshire which, incidentally, is frequently wrongly depicted as England’s largest village. How on earth these myths come about is beyond me. Studley is only the third-largest in Warwickshire, let alone the entire country, and I’m currently quite some distance away from it. So back to the Wilting country: one’s arrival in this particular Studley is declared by the Dumb Post. Densely populated this village is not but I will leave one to infer the meaning of dense in this context.