Wiltshire Tourist Guide

Corsham - Wiltshire

Corsham is a small medieval town in north-west Wiltshire lying on the A4 old coaching route between London and Bath.

The town is situated on the eastern edge of the southern tip of the Cotswold hills, 4 miles (6km) west of Chippenham and about 8miles (13km) from Bath city. Although it has never formally been granted the status of a town with a population of around 11000 it is a major Wiltshire conurbation. The town has an interesting history surrounded by beautiful countryside and is well worth visiting.

The town although relatively small, is contained within a large parish boundary. These boundaries themselves are both ancient and of interest themselves. For example Wiltshire and much of Southern England is criss-crossed by ancient Roman roads linking Roman fortifications and villas along which the army marched. One such ancient highway was that linking Bath (Aquea Sulis) with Silchester (Calleva) and passing through Cunetio (Mildenhall village close to Marlborough). This forms the southern part of the ancient parish boundary as does the Wansdyke which is of even earlier origin being a deep ditch dug by the Ancient Britons to separate the kingdoms of Mercia in the north and Wessex in the south. So you see this whole area has hidden links with the past.

There is much more recent past hidden beneath the town than above it. Apart from the numerous quarries and tunnels there lies an entire ‘underground city’ beneath the town. Constructed initially as an underground aircraft factory in redundant mines during the Second World War it was redeveloped during the late 1950’s to protect government in the event an all-out nuclear war.

Codenamed Burlington this massive 35 acre complex was designed to house Government personnel in the event of a nuclear strike on London. The complex was housed within a Bath stone quarry 100ft (160m) below the surface. It was blast proof and able to accommodate up to 4,000 central Government personnel in the event of all-out nuclear war in complete isolation from outside. They would be able to survive for three months. There were 60 miles (100km) of roads, underground hospitals, canteens, kitchens, laundries, accommodation, offices and even a railway station. An underground lake, treatment plant and power station was to provide all the drinking water and power required. The complex had the second largest U.K. telephone exchange of that time and a BBC studio. For 30 years the complex was kept operational but when the Cold War finally ended and the nuclear threat diminished it was gradually run down and finally recently decommissioned.

The town was recorded as Coseham in 1001 which suggests that it was a name of Anglo-Saxon origin ham meaning homestead. The area belonged to the king during Saxon times. King Aethelred had a country palace and kept his Court there. Corsham Court is today the home of Lord Methuen. The present building is based on an Elizabethan house built in 1582, since rebuilt and modified over many centuries to what we see now. The house contains a collection of paintings, statues, bronzes and furniture by world renowned artists. The grounds to the house were planned by "Capability" Brown and later finished by John Nash and Thomas Bellamy.

Industry of the town comprised mainly agriculture, weaving and quarrying. Although there was a lack of running water spinning and weaving had been a major industry in the town but this rapidly declined by the end of the 18th century. In common with all the cloth production centres of Wiltshire the industry collapsed as large scale factory production of the Industrial Revolution took over moved to the towns such as those of the West Riding of Yorkshire in the north of England.

There had always been a quarrying industry in the area but unlike the cloth industry the Industrial Revolution had a positive effect. During the 19th century quarrying and mining became the major source of employment. The opening of the nearby Kennet and Avon canal in 1810 and with the increased demand for stone from such places as Bath enabled the town to export this highly valued building material much more cheaply than its competitors.

The decision of Brunel to build the Great Western Railway linking London with Bath through the area also had a dramatic and beneficial effect on the town. One of the greatest engineering feats of the century was the excavation of the almost 2 mile (3km) long railway tunnel in 1840 under nearby Box hill. The geology meant the stone was particularly difficult to bore through and the project took much longer and cost nearly twice as much as expected. A second parallel tunnel was bored with shafts leading from it into the high quality building stone. Narrow gauge railways were laid from the mines to the nearby railheads from where the stone was easily exported.

There was a rapid expansion of the population through the 19th century but the stone industry gradually declined thereafter and the last quarry closed in the late 1960’s. The military took an interest in the old mines and they were used to store munitions and manufacture warplanes during the Second World War. There was a large military presence and an influx of people into the area both during and after the war.

The town, its unique shops and Lord Methuen’s historic house and grounds are well worth a visit Set in a landscape designed by Capability Brown the gardens feature historic trees and the unique Gothick Bathouse. The flower garden dates from the 1830s and many more exotic plants were added in the 1950’s and 60’s. The extensive magnolia tree collection brings to spring the early promise of summer.