Warminster in the southwest of Wiltshire completes an equidistant triangle with the two towns Westbury in Wiltshire and Frome in Somerset.
The town is quite large by Wiltshire standards with a population of around 18,000 and lies at the head of the Wylye river valley on the southwest corner of Salisbury Plain. The town was settled from Saxon times around 700 AD although there is evidence of earlier Iron and Bronze Age settlement throughout the surrounding area. The most prominent is the hill fort on Battlesbury Hill with another at Scratchbury and a third at Cley Hill, less than 2 miles (3km) west of the town. Cley Hill is operated by the National Trust and freely accessible to the public. On a fine day it is well worth the steep climb for the grand views to be enjoyed at the top. There are many long and round barrows or ancient burial mounds scattered throughout the area. There is notably a long barrow, known as King Barrow, in the grounds of Bishopstrow House, now a luxury spa hotel, just outside the town. This burial mound is a very large long barrow 200 feet (61metres) long and 15 feet (5metres) wide. Three skeletons were found in the burial chamber, one wearing an iron sword.
There is also archaeological evidence of Roman settlement in the area, notably two Roman villas at Pit Meads near Norton Bravant but these finds do not fit in with the main Roman infrastructure of roads and strongholds that cover Southern England.
Two small tributary streams flow through the town to form the river Were which gives the town its name ‘Wereminster’ or ‘the Minster on the river Were’. The Were joins the River Wylye as it passes to the south which then flows southeast through steep sided picturesque river valleys to join the (Wiltshire) Avon just to the west of Salisbury. This river provided an excellent communication link with the south of the county and the English Channel coast at Christchurch in Dorset.
Extensive archaeological excavations were carried out in the town 1979 and a great many Saxon finds were discovered. The town probably owed its importance in Saxon times to being a Royal manor and having ‘the minster on the Were’
The town only really developed into a trading centre because of its Corn Market which was certainly active in the 13th century. By the 16th century the main industries of the town were those associated with the market, second only to Bristol at that time, cloth-making and barley malting. Although cloth making was a major industry it never took on quite the importance that it had in some of the other Wiltshire weaving towns such as Bradford on Avon. The quality of woollen cloth produced in the town was rather inferior to that produced elsewhere. Many of the buildings in the Market Place have Corn Market origins. It was a prosperous town and commerce centre with a large number of hostelries and inns to accommodate and cater for visiting trades-people.
During the English Civil War (1642-45), between the armies of the King and Cromwell, the town is believed to have changed hands up to four times.
In 1727 the town adopted and began improving the roads through the town under the new Turnpike Act. . Throughout the 18th century the town continued to prosper with malting and woollen trades continuing to flourish. As with many other Wiltshire weaving towns the woollen trade collapsed during first half of the 19th century as the English Industrial Revolution took hold and cheaper woollen cloth was mass produced in the factories of the north of England. The malting trade, the introduction of silk weaving at Crockerton and iron founding compensated somewhat for this loss and the town did not suffer as much as the other Wiltshire weaving towns. The lack of river power for the mills and the bypassing of the town by the Kennet and Avon canal did not help. Despite the opening of a railway linking Westbury to Salisbury via the Wylye valley in 1856 the Corn Market and ancillary trades collapsed and the town’s economy declined sharply and this situation continued through the remaining years of the 19th century. Although the overall picture was one of decline there were some bright spots with a number of thriving industries in the town such as engineering, iron founding, paint manufacture, brick making and gloving. Glove making had been in existence in the town since the 18th century and the world famous firm of Dents continues in the town to this day.
This decline continued into the first part of the 20th century with nursery gardens and agriculture the major employers but then a new employer, the Army arrived in the area and began purchasing large tracts of land across Salisbury Plain for training troops for the First World War and later for the Second World War. The town benefited from all of this as Army camps and barracks sprung up all over the area and the town became a permanent garrison town after war ended. Many new small businesses developed around the town and prosperity returned. The town was also endowed with more than its fair share of inspirational and inventive entrepreneurs, particularly in the field of agriculture, with such ideas as mechanical wind engines for pumping water and plant breeding. These entrepreneurs founded and developed companies that still exist today. More recently the leisure industry has provided work and employment opportunities.
True to its centuries old tradition of catering for traders and visitors the town today boasts a selection of accommodation, hotels, bed and breakfasts, self catering cottages, pubs and restaurants for the visitor to choose from.
Set in the Wylye valley is Bishopstrow House, one of Wiltshire’s most luxurious spa hotels with its quintessential English opulence. Also the Bath Arms, a wonderful old estate hotel, recently refurbished, set in the quiet and unspoilt village of Horningsham, at the heart of the Marquess of Bath’s magnificent Longleat Estate in Wiltshire.
There is no shortage of good value bed and breakfast and self-catering accommodation either, both in and around the town. Camping and caravanning facilities are available at nearby Longleat Estate as is of course the impressive range of self-catering accommodation at the stunning Centre Parcs village in Longleat Forest.
With plenty of activities both in and around Warminster the town also makes the perfect base for exploring the attractions of Wiltshire and southern England. Bath city, Bradford on Avon, the medieval cathedral city of Salisbury, ancient Stonehenge and Avebury stone circles, Silbury, West Kennet Long Barrow, Westbury with its White horse, Devizes and its Wiltshire Heritage Museum, the Kennet and Avon Canal, Tisbury and the Old Wardour Castle ruin, Stourhead House and Gardens, picturesque Mere to name but a few. They are all within easy reach of the town. The list is endless. Warminster