Walking through three counties

Bourton, North Dorset, a village I cycled past in my youth on my way from the water-poor chalk uplands to the verdant Blackmore Vale where I lived. I noticed the three counties close to one another but not much else. Now I’m a more careful tourist and I’ve explored the back lanes and ferreted the net.

There’s no sad brown tourist sign or explanatory board but Egbert’s stone stands alone and unexplained on the golf course. Egbert was the Saxon King Alfred’s grandfather and the stone marks the point at which three counties meet, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire. Such boundary stones were important then as the Anglo-Saxons had only recently broken through to the West of England.

Two of these counties have names of Anglo-Saxon origin, Wiltshire earlier referred to as Wiltunscir, being the people who lived around Wilton (the “scir” later “shire” being instantly recognisable to a Swede where “skära” means cut). Somerset comes from “Sumortonsaete”, the people dependent (or living around) Somerton. The name Dorset, however, is of earlier Brythonic Celtic origin, probably from the tribe the Durotriges or later from the Roman name for Dorchester, Durnovaria.

The boundaries from Egbert’s stone are of ancient date. The stone is also said to mark the rallying point of King Alfred’s army, reformed after being defeated by the Vikings, in the preparations for his subsequent success at the Battle of Ethandun (Edington) when Guthrum and his Viking army were routed and driven out of Wessex back to Mercia and East Anglia.

Not far away is King Alfred’s Tower, a triangular folly, actually built to commemorate the end of the Seven Year War with France and to celebrate the accession of George III. It was built in the 1760s by Henry Hoare, of the banking family, who owned nearby Stourhead. There’s a statue of King Alfred there;  the reference to King Alfred because the history of the Anglo-Saxons was reintegrated into the British national story in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Before then (as it still is to some extent), the Norman Conquest in 1066 was a sharp break. Those still intact of the defeated Anglo-Saxon aristocracy fled or faded away and the elite in England was Norman French for the best part of three hundred years. The Kings (and what Queens there were) were numbered from 1066, not including any pre-conquest Edward. Almost three centuries passed before the English re-emerged in culture with Chaucer among others and with the first English-speaking monarch. Interest in the Anglo-Saxons I suspect was modest, Shakespeare was not tempted to write about a play about King Alfred, as far as I know.

This changed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when a number of books were written about King Alfred and stories spread from Asser, Alfred’s ninth century Welsh biographer. And now Alfred and his victories over the Danes are identified as English in a way that, for example, Boudicca, the Celtic British Queen who badly shook Roman control of Britain is not. Nor do the English identify to any great extent with the Durotriges, the West England Celtic tribe, who were defeated by the Romans under Vespasian at what is now known as Maiden Castle. It is a useful reminder that history is not just there, unchanging and objective, but that it has been produced, often for a purpose, and that the selection can be arbitrary and can change.

For a village that now numbers 800 inhabitants, Bourton has had a remarkable industrial history in the days before the rise of Yorkshire and Lancashire. There was a flax mill here for long centuries, an iron foundry that employed 250 people at the end of the eighteenth century, a large waterwheel said to be Britain’s largest, tanners and brickmakers and even a factory that made Mills bombs, a type of hand grenade, during the Second World War (somewhat tastelessly commemorated by a pair of columns topped by model stone grenades). I’d like to read more about industry in the west in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century . A lot has been written but much in small pamphlets here and there.

I probably won’t pass Bourton on my bike again but more likely flash past in a car on the A303. I now have some more interesting associations to think of.

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