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Bishopstone is a village and civil parish in the Swindon unitary authority of Wiltshire, England, about six miles east of Swindon, and just west of the county border with Oxfordshire. Since 1946 the civil parish has included the nearby village of Hinton Parva and the hamlet of Russley Park . According to the Office of national Statistics (2010) the parish has a population of approximately 700 persons.
Bishopstone and Hinton Parva are located between Wanborough and Ashbury on the historic Icknield Way. They are picturesque villages served by a well renowned pub in Bishopstone that serves local organic food. Both villages include protected conservation areas designed to preserve the character of these villages for future generations. Bishopstone itself includes a large number of thatched cottages and is centered around the village mill and mill-pond. The village is often used as a base for walkers with excellent access to the Ridgeway National Trail.
On the Wessex Downs (an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty [AONB] ) above Bishopstone & Hinton Parva there are impressive ancient field systems known as lynchets and many other historic earth-workings.
Some Bishopstone History & Background
Bishopstone simply means the settlement (tun) of the bishops. It was apparently formed as late as the 13th century, to provide an income for one of the prebendaries of Salisbury cathedral. Measuring roughly 7m by 2m, Bishopstone is the most easterly of four long, narrow parishes whose boundaries seem to have been defined with a geometric, rather artificial shape designed to give them ‘settlement and meadow in the valley bottom, arable on the valley sides and part of the higher ground, and pasture beyond’ . It was for many years part of Ramsbury Hundred.
Many archeological finds have been found in the parish – click here for details – Bishopstone & Hinton Parva archeology map.
The most striking features of the landscape are the strip-lynchets, a series of steep terraced surfaces reminiscent of a Mediterranean hillside and popularly called ‘shepherd’s steps’. Many explanations of their existence have been proposed but the most likely explanation is that they started spontaneously as a result of the downhill drift of plough-soil, but were then deliberately enlarged by medieval villagers to increase the amount of arable land.
The old saying ‘as different as chalk and cheese’ originated in Wiltshire, where the low-lying western parts of the county were suitable for dairy production while the chalky uplands in the east encouraged sheep farming. The sheep provided valuable meat and wool, but their main use was to provide dung to fertilise the thin chalkland soils for growing wheat and barley. At night the shepherd would pen the vast flocks of sheep in a fold made from hurdles, and each day he would move them on so that eventually the whole field was covered. This made communal management of farming essential, with a strong manorial court to control economic life and enforce discipline. With few hedges to mark boundaries, the traditional custom of beating the bounds was particularly important in chalkland parishes. There was normally, as in Bishopstone, a clearly defined village centre rather than a scatter of isolated farmhouses. It was a largely self-contained community which met most of its own needs. The most important agricultural improvement was the development in the early 17th century of water meadows, which covered grass with a thin layer of water. This encouraged early growth that could sustain livestock in early spring, when no other food was available. Only in the 19th century, with the coming of cheap fertilizer through the railways, did this pattern of agriculture come to an end.
The heart of Bishopstone lies in a triangle north of the Swindon-Wantage road, where two coombs [dry valleys] converge. There St Mary’s church, the manor house, the demesne farmstead and the mill were built. Wikipedia described St Marys as ‘the finest Decorated church in the county, with a curious external cloister, and unique south chancel doorway, recessed beneath a stone canopy’. The village developed north of that nucleus as an arc of some 50 small farmsteads. Each had its own pasture with the uplands used for common pasture, where in 1647 the tenants had the right to graze a total of 1260 sheep.
In Villages of the White Horse (1913), the fine Wiltshire writer Alfred Williams rated Bishopstone ‘the prettiest of all the down-side, taken all round’. Constructed from a variety of local materials, it ‘snuggled into the downs as if it had grown there rather than been built’ (H.W. Timperley). Taxation returns suggest that Bishopstone was fairly prosperous until the 16th century, but then it apparently fell into decline.
During the 18th century the village began to spread south of the road and the number of farms fell, while those that remained grew bigger. In 1784 the parish measured 3,520 acres, of which 1,725 were arable, 700 meadow and lowland pasture, and 800 upland pasture and downland. By the 19th century most of the land had become concentrated into a few large farms, of which since the Second World War there have been only three – Manor, Prebendal and Eastbrook.
Bishopstone lies east of Swindon town, which is now the dominant economic force in the area. It is rather an anomaly that this unique and quintessentially rural English village is administered by Swindon Borough Council which has a pro urban growth agenda.
For more local mapping click here –> Bishopstone & Hinton Parva Maps