Wiltshire Tourist Guide

Melksham - Wiltshire

The town of Melksham developed at a ford across the River Avon and is thought to be derived from Meolc, old English for milk and ham, a village.

It lies between Trowbridge and Chippenham on the main A350 north to south route from the motorway to Blandford and Poole in the County of Dorset.

The town has its origins as a royal estate at the time of the Norman Conquest when William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. The Domesday Book of 1086 which was an inventory of all the property, population and livestock that had been conquered by the Normans showed the town as having a population of several hundred with a large area of forest adjoining that of Chippenham. This forest was ministered by the Constable of Devizes Castle and had a great attraction for the popular Royal pastime of hunting. King John visited the forest several times a year during the early 13th Century.

In 1219 the town was granted a Charter to hold a market every Friday and an annual fair. Fairs and markets were an important means of trading and it is a measure of the importance of the town that it had both. Although the fairs ceased in the early part of the 20th century the markets continued up to the Second World War. Recently there have been efforts to re-establish the street market.

There were connections with the new Salisbury Cathedral which was completed in 1286, part of the manor having been endowed to support the canons of the Cathedral. There were also connections also with the Abbey at Amesbury on the southern edge of Salisbury Plain. In 1257 the main part of the manor was given by Henry III to the Abbey of Amesbury. Cattle, cheese and fleeces were sent south across the plain until the Amesbury Abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.

Like many of the towns of Wiltshire weaving became the prime industry. Wool from North Wiltshire and the Cotswolds was hand woven into broad white cloth. Some of this cloth was exported to the continent.

The English Civil War of 1642 did not affect the town very much but it did disrupt the woollen trade for a time but it recovered and started producing coloured cloth. By the early 18th century however prices fell in the face of increased competition both from abroad and from the woollen mills in the north of England. This led to riots in the town and the destruction of fulling mills and cottages and culminated in the hanging of the ringleaders of the rebellion. Then began a steady decline and by the turn of the 19th century all the cloth mills along the river had ceased production. There are some buildings remaining from the weaving era for example the Roundhouse in Church Street and the octagonal drying house in Lowbourne.

In 1812 the Wilts and Berks canal arrived linking the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington just south of the town with the Thames and Severn Canal at Abingdon and Cricklade. The canal ran through the town centre but fell into disrepair with the arrival of the railways and was finally abandoned in 1914. Today however, the Wilts and Berks Canal Trust in conjunction with the Wilts and Berks Canal Partnership (which includes all the local authorities along the route) have set about restoring the entire length of the canal to bring it back to its original standard and reconnect it to the national network.

Brunels Great Western Railway linking London with Bristol was opened in 1841. This railway line revolutionised travel across Southern England. The Wilts and Somerset railway line designed by the legendary Brunel to run from Chippenham through the town then south to Salisbury via Trowbridge, Westbury and Warminster with a branch line to Bath and Frome. The line was completed and opened in 1848.

The 20th century reversed the decline of the weaving trade as new industries developed. Engineering and tyre manufacture became increasingly important by the turn of the 20th century as did milk and dairy produce production.

Melksham is one of the larger Wiltshire towns and an excellent base from which to explore the Wiltshire countryside and beyond. Nearby is the historic medieval town of Devizes. Just west of the town is Bradford-on-Avon and a little further over into the County of Somerset stands the ancient and renowned Roman spa city of Bath with its beautiful Georgian architecture and upmarket shops. Not to mention Corsham with its historic house, collection of Flemish and Italian paintings and landscaped gardens, all within very easy reach. The picturesque villages of Lacock and Castle Combe are both within five miles (8km) of the town. Over to the east is the Pewsey Vale, Marlborough, the ancient Savernake Forest, the restored Kennet and Avon canal with walks, cycle routes and horse trails throughout the tranquil Wiltshire countryside. Ancient and not so ancient history is everywhere. The World Heritage sites of Avebury in the north and Stonehenge in the south of the County, ancient burial mounds, numerous hill forts, Silbury Hill, the list is endless. Drive south and follow the (Wiltshire) river Avon past the delightful thatched villages that line its banks, perhaps stopping off at a riverside pub or restaurant and into the heart of medieval Salisbury City with its stunningly beautiful cathedral and famous spire.