With just under two weeks to go until it begins, Wilton History Festival organiser Rebecca Lyons talks about the exciting programme of events, how the Festival came about, and what she hopes it will achieve…
Wilton: A Little Town in Wiltshire with a BIG History!
Wilton is a beautiful, historic town – once the royal seat of the kingdom of Wessex, it was chosen as a settlement by the Anglo-Saxons for its confluence of rivers (the Wylye and the Nadder), its fertile land, and its defensible location. The king’s palace and the royal mint were located in Wilton in the earlier Middle Ages, as were the royal archives, and royal charters were issued from the town.
Wilton Abbey was one of the richest and most pre-eminent of the religious houses in England during the early-high medieval period, doubling as an educational institution for the period’s aristocratic women, including notable figures such as St. Edith of Wilton (the daughter of King Edgar), St. Margaret of Scotland, and her daughter Matilda. After the Dissolution, the abbey land was granted to William Herbert (later Lord Pembroke), where he established Wilton House. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Wilton House became a cultural and literary centre under the influence of Mary and Philip Sidney, welcoming Edmund Spenser, Philip Massinger, and other writers of the period.
Weaving and carpet-making were Wilton’s staple industries in the eighteenth century, with Wilton carpets gaining an international reputation for quality. In the twentieth century Wilton’s first female mayor, Edith Olivier, entertained an artistic circle of friends at her home in Wilton, including Rex Whistler and Cecil Beaton. Later, Wilton became the headquarters for the British Army’s Land Command.
Wilton may be a little town, but it certainly has a BIG history – and this brief description barely scratches the surface!
Moving to Wilton: The Beginnings of Wilton’s First History Festival
I am a medievalist at the University of Bristol, and when I moved to Wilton with my partner in December 2015 a local history project heard of my interests and very kindly invited me to join them. The group was focussed on revitalising Old St. Mary’s Church, the ruins of which stand in Wilton’s market square.
I began to look into Wilton’s history, and this, combined with my wanderings around the town, its local villages, and the nearly ancient woodland at Grovely, inspired me. I found myself enchanted by this beautiful place – its landscape and its stories – the rivers that crisscross the land, the old buildings, the rolling hills, and the medieval street plan that is still visible in the layout of the modern town – to walk around Wilton is truly to walk in history.
I dearly wanted to share my passion for Wilton with others. I started talking to academic colleagues and other friends about the town and its history, and was delighted when several of them mentioned that their work touches on Wilton in various ways. When many of them also expressed interest in being involved in an event based on the town’s heritage, I knew I was onto something exciting! As sometimes happens, through a series of coincidences over the coming months I encountered several other people with expertise on Wilton – at book launches, via connections with Salisbury Cathedral, on Twitter, via academic networks… It seemed that, without very much work at all, I already had enough interest and expertise to put together a one-day symposium on the town’s history on Sunday 17th September, to coincide with the same weekend as the Feast Day of the town’s local saint – Edith of Wilton. (I have adopted this feisty saint as a sort of unofficial mascot for the festival – and in fact she is pictured on our logo!)
Wilton History Festival: Programme Highlights
This core event gradually expanded to include a day of Guided Walks on Saturday 16th September, and a week-long series of Evening Talks from Monday 18th to Friday 22nd September. A full programme is available on the festival website, and includes talks and guided walks by academics from the universities of Winchester, Birmingham, London, and Bristol; local groups such as the Wilton Historical Society, the George Herbert in Bemerton Group, the Wilton Community Land Trust, and OurWilton; historians and archivists, and opening and closing remarks by Lord Pembroke and the Mayor of Wilton, respectively.
All of the events are going to be wonderful (not that I am at all biased!), but I would especially recommend that visitors come along to Ros Liddington’s walk around the grounds of Wilton House at 10am on Saturday 16th September, as we have been granted very rare access indeed to parts of the Wilton House Estate that are not usually open to the public. As Ros, who is the archivist for Wilton House, has said:
We are lucky to have access to 3 private garden areas for this walk and will view the façade of the Isaac de Caus Grotto, the Daye House (famous for its paintings by Rex Whistler), and Washern Grange, to see the original stable courtyard of the Abbey.
We will end the walk on the Palladian Bridge, which is usually closed to the public.
This walk is not one taken by anybody on a regular basis – we will be walking very much ‘off piste’ in some areas. It will take in almost a thousand years of history.
The festival is just £15 for access to ALL events, or £10 for access to the Guided Walks and Evening Talks (but NOT the Sunday Symposium) – so to have such privileged access to the Wilton House Estate at this price really is a bargain, and may not happen again for a long time, so I would encourage all to make the most of this special opportunity!
Apart from Ros’ walk, I am also particularly excited to learn more about the medieval abbey (and my good friend Edith!) from Dr Claire Harrill, and the early modern literary connections of Wilton House from Mathew Lyons (both talks will take place at the Sunday Symposium), and to hear more about the connections between Wilton and the famous devotional poet George Herbert in the Evening Talk on Thursday 21st September. But these few events simply reflect my own personal interests, and there is of course so much more taking place! The great thing about having open tickets is that festival attendees can pick and choose to attend the events that appeal to them, to tailor their own festival experience. Get your ticket today!
Wilton History Festival and the Local Community: A Group Effort
The festival has been incredibly fortunate to have the support and cooperation of some of the most brilliant authorities on Wilton’s history, who are kindly offering their expertise for free as speakers at the festival’s events, as well as prominent local individuals such as Wilton’s Town Councillors, and William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, who is acting as the festival’s patron, and whose advice has been invaluable.
What has also been truly wonderful is just how supportive and encouraging Wilton’s local businesses, charities, and townsfolk have been! I am just one person, and organising a festival single-handedly has been an enormous (some might say foolhardy!) task, but it has only been made possible by the generous support of so many, including local businesses who provided sponsorship (see the festival homepage for a full list); designed the website and marketing materials (huge thanks to the supremely talented Clair Neal of Archett & Garne Delicatessen for this); offered their catering services (Coffee Darling and Monty & Mabel’s), or even simply put posters up in their windows and spread the word, as well as the kind individual volunteers who spent their weekends putting flyers through local doors, and who have volunteered to give up their weekends to ensure the smooth running of the festival.
The kindness, generosity, and support of this town has been overwhelming. On a personal note, it is particularly touching as most of these people had never met me before! The trust and enthusiasm I have encountered has been truly inspirational and humbling, and has demonstrated what people can do when they really come together. This festival has been put together with zero pre-existing budget, with nothing like this having taken place in the town before, and with just one person (with a fairly demanding day job) at the helm. The fact that it has all come together is frankly miraculous, and is a powerful testament to the beautiful spirit of this place and its people, and the drive and passion for this event.
Hopes for the Festival
The programme is certainly not broad-ranging and extensive as its neighbour, the Chalke Valley History Festival, but what it does, it does well – and that is to focus exclusively on Wilton. It is hoped that this will help to promote the town more widely – to showcase the fantastic work done by local businesses, as well interesting local residents about the past of their home and its surroundings. I hope that it might prompt other events – historical or otherwise – or inspire people to pick up a book and do their own research into the place.
My other hope is that this festival will do some real good in the local community – not just in terms of promoting Wilton’s history, or the fantastic work of local businesses – but also by raising funds for charitable causes. Proceeds from ticket sales are going to charities, and I am delighted to announce the two that have been selected: the Burnbake Trust – a local Wilton charity – and the Churches Conservation Trust, who have the care of Old St. Mary’s Church. I haven’t forgotten how all of this started – with the initial local history project based around this beautiful church building – and it would be wonderful if the CCT could rejuvenate the space so that it can be used and appreciated fully by all.
If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to seeing you at the Festival!
Note: Photos are all Rebecca Lyons’ own.