Local History

A Brief History

An outline of the village’s history, by Bryan Mayled.

To find the origin of the present village we need to go back to the 7th Century when Saxon invaders were advancing westwards and establishing new kingdoms. For the next 300 years the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex challenged each other for territorial expansion and there was a period when the boundary between them was the River Avon.

Bourton, which is the village’s significant name, is Saxon in origin the word being an amalgam of Burgh (fence/stockade) and Ton (settlement). When it was actually established is not known but a protected, defensive place indicates a degree of importance. Marauding parties from the north crossing the river where Bristol now stands could have advanced into Wessex up the Ashton Brook to the defile between the Barrow and Failand hills. From there they would have looked down on a marshy valley covered with reeds, alder and sallow and considerably lower lying than it is today. The first sign of habitation was probably not far ahead on the south side of the valley surrounded by a ditch and stockade on top of a bank and set on a foothill spur above the marsh. A strategic position guarding the fertile lands to the south.

It should be noted that the population for the whole of England at that time was no more than a million or so. Thus most settlements were no more than one, two or three families strong, farming between them an area of 60-180 acres if the soil was good.

Four hundred years later England was a single kingdom in which Saxon law and order were well established and where regular contact with the continent of Europe was a frequent occurrence. As a result of this travel the Saxon nobility, in the early 11th Century, began to rebuild their churches in stone and in the Romanesque style so popular on the continent. Bourton was no exception as St. Michael’s demonstrates. It also gives an indication of its status at that time, almost certainly the seat of a thane which would be appropriate historically for Bourton’s strategic position.

Then in October 1066 everything changed. William of Normandy invaded this island and there is no evidence to suggest that our thane survived the conquest. All research points to the down grading of the settlement and it became a community of labourers (serfs) for the next 900 years. During that time its fortunes fluctuated, lurching from times of plenty to famine, from the Black Death to Cholera and for quite a time enduring a mini ice age. Until the 20th Century the village population never at any time rose much above 200.

From the 11th to 16th Centuries Bourton was part of the Wraxall manor but then portions of land were sold off and by the 18thCentury the Bourton Estate was held by the Sparrow family whose boundary stones can be found in the wood. The Sparrows built a house on the margin of the village and pretentiously called it the Castle. Despite this show of affluence the village population still relied for their survival on the food that they were able to grow and this remained the case until the end of the second world war. Although by 1946 most village properties had mains water many lacked bathrooms and still had outside privys. There were also six farms and many orchards.

When in the 1840s Brunel pushed his railway through the village a change might have been expected but it did not really materialise until the late 1940s. Then within two decades the farms and orchards disappeared and the population doubled. The village grocer, general store and post office all followed the Angel Inn, brew house, butcher, carpenter, smithy and tannery into oblivion.

Fortunately very few iron gates have appeared in the village and a refreshing new philosophy is creeping through the community. Fostered and led by a small group of younger community minded residents a real effort is being made to encourage neighbour to know neighbour and to take positive action to improve and maintain the village environment. The two jewels of the village, the Church of St. Michael and All Angels and the Combe and Wood are vital parts of the Village’s heritage and history. Both are rare examples in their own right. The former is one of few surviving late Saxon buildings and the latter includes a genuine remnant of the small-leaved lime primeval woodland that once covered most of England before Homo sapiens promoted the dominance of oak. Both have and do benefit from support provided by the village community.

You can discover more about our village, its buildings, characters, ghosts and legends from ‘The Story of Flax Bourton’, a book available from Windflower Books, E-mail: windflower.books@btinternet.com, telephone 01275 461179 or from the Author on 01275 463336.