LEIGH

Wiltshire

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Leigh Village

These pages show basic information about Leigh’s history, landscape, location and places of interest.

 

We are constantly on the lookout for more input to feed into these pages, so please contact us if you would like to add content. In particular we would love to start including old images and maps.

Location

Leigh (also known as ‘The Leigh’ is a small village in North Wiltshire – not far from the border with neighbouring county Gloucestershire.


It is just to the south of the larger villages of Ashton Keynes and South Cerney. The nearest town is Cricklade; about three miles north east of Leigh.


The Leigh’s population is only a few hundred (372 according to the most recent Census), but residents are spread out over an area around 3 square miles (just under 10 square kilometres).

 

The largest clusters are at Hillside on Swan Lane (approx 35 houses) and near the Foresters Arms pub (approx 20 houses).

 

There are two main roads which run through the village – the B4040 links Cricklade with Malmesbury, and the B4696 runs from Cirencester (in the North) to the outskirts of Royal Wootton Bassett (to the south).

 

These two roads intersect at Leigh crossroads, which has been a traffic controlled junction since the late eighties following several serious road collisions.

Population density:

(people per square kilometre)

Leigh: 64

UK: 395

London: 1,510

Boundaries

To the west, the village borders Minety. The boundary follows Derry Brook as far north as Swans Lane Bridge.

To the north, it borders Ashton Keynes. The boundary picks up from Swans Lane Bridge, and then follows the path of the River Thames, diverting to include Waterhay and Ashton Mead (Part of the Cotswold Water Park).

 

To the north east, it borders South Cerney. This short boundary line picks up from the edge of Ashton Mead (on the Wiltshire / Gloucestershire boundary), and rejoins the River Thames.

 

To the east and south, it borders Cricklade. From Ashton Mead and the River Thames, the boundary heads south; cutting through Bournlake Farm. It then skirts around Leigh Common, and meets the B4040. The boundary then heads west along this road – sitting just to the south of the road itself – until it meets Derry Brook and the Minety boundary.

 

There are also a handful of small satellite plots of land which are covered by the Leigh parish, even though they are each completely enclosed by Ashton Keynes.

 

Above the Parish Council is Wiltshire Council. This  became a unitary authority in 2009; taking over from North Wilts District Council and all other districts in the county (apart from Swindon which became an authority in its own right.

 

Leigh Council has a basic responsibility for the upkeep of the village amenities, but decisions on all other matters are dealt with at Wiltshire Council headquarters in Trowbridge – more than 30 miles away from the village.

6.8 miles

Distance from Leigh crossroads to the source of the River Thames

Churches - All Saints and The Chancel

Since circa 1250, there is known to have been religious activity at The Leigh, as this is when the church – now known as The Chancel – was constructed.

Although there is limited evidence, it’s believed the original Leigh settlement was based on land close by this church.

 

This land may have gradually become sodden over the centuries due to natural changes in the land, or may have always been marshy and prone to high levels of mud and floodwater. Either way the community was eventually abandoned due to poor ground conditions.

 

Many years later the church was still in use but secluded from the majority of Leigh's residents. As well as an entrance road which was underwater for most of the winter months, the land on which the original church was built was quite marshy.

 

Because of this, the building was in constant need of renovation:

Substantial renovations were also carried out in the early 18th century: the church was repaved, plastered and redecorated, a gallery was built in 1717, the chancel was rebuilt in 1720, and in 1726 wooden panels bearing religious quotations were mounted on the chancel walls. 

 

A new bell was cast by Abraham Rudhall of Gloucester in 1729. The tower was repaired in 1736 and again in 1757, and there were more repairs to the church in 1784.

 

In 1896 it was decided by the local church authority - despite campaigns from various individuals and groups including the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings - to dismantle the religious building, and move it to a more accessible location next to the newly constructed village school on Swan Lane.

 

This process involved numbering each stone individually, loading them onto carts, taking them on a half mile journey and then reassembling the building on the new site. The name of the church - All Saints - was unchanged.

 

Reverend Milling is noted as being a key person in the ambitious scheme to move the church from its poor standings to a patch of land next to the new school – a building which he had also contributed to financially.

 

The old chancel, buttressed by the eastern portions of the nave walls, was left behind to serve as a mortuary chapel for the graveyard. Approached across fields this medieval architectural fragment stands alone in its churchyard, an evocative sight in what is now a nature reserve.

 

The Chancel site can be accessed by walkers all year round (suitable clothing may be required). 

 

As you can imagine, a decision requiring such man-power over a hundred years ago would not have been taken lightly, and was weighed up as the most practical solution for saving the church, which had fallen into a bad state structurally and was difficult to access in the winter months because it is enclosed by marshy ground.

 

The surrounding graveyard has been left undisturbed. It is home to an abundance of wild
flowers, shrubs and wildlife. In  the summer you can find orchids and quaking grass with
dozens of varieties of moths and butterflies.

The Chancel remains are 299 years old 

Leigh Manor

Probably identifiable as the estate given by King Alfred to Ælfthryth, his youngest daughter, and which in 1066 belonged to Cranborne Abbey (Dorset). In 1102 ownership was transferred to Tewkesbury Abbey (Glos). The manor passed to the Crown after the dissolution of Tewkesbury Abbey. In 1548 Edward VI granted away the land of the Leigh as a separate manor, which was briefly reunited with Ashton Keynes in the early 17th century under the ownership of Sir John Hungerford.

Leigh Manor came under the ownership of a William Sharington – a courtier during the reign of Henry VIII who was promoted through the Royal ranks to eventually join the household of Queen Catherine Parr.

He had many strings to his bow: He was from a wealthy background, had all number of Royal connections, was a wool merchant (owning his own ships trading out of Bristol), and a money-lender (the Wonga of his era). He bought Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire following the dissolution of the Monasteries, and a dozen other estates, joined the political ranks in Westminster and was knighted in 1547.

 

He then became the ‘under-treasurer’ of a new money-making mint in Bristol – the UK’s first producer of gold coins outside London. Sharington was found to have been making gold coins lighter than specified, and making more coins than had been allowed.

 

If this wasn’t bad enough, he confided his fraud to the First Baron Seymour of Sudeley; Thomas Seymour, who then convinced Sharington to spend his ill-gotten gains on a plot to kidnap Edward VI. They were going to make enough bootleg coins to pay ten thousand armed men a month’s wages, but were discovered and arrested.

Sharington lost his estates (although some were returned to him at a later date) – his comrade Seymour was executed for treason.

 

So back to the Crown Leigh did go, and over the centuries was bought and sold by a number of wealthy estates in the Hungerford, Dench, Craggs and Eliot families until 1803 when the then owner, Lord Eliot, put it up for sale in lots. In the last 450 years, the Leigh has grown and it has shrunk as various plots of land swapped ownership between the various parishes.

96% to go...

The Leigh is 8 miles into the 184 mile Thames Path

Pronunciation

Many fall into the trap of pronouncing Leigh as ‘Lea’. It’s an understandable error, as most other settlements which are spelt L E I G H are pronounced that way.

 

However, our Leigh is pronounced ‘Lie’. It is derived from the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘Leah’ meaning a clearing (it’s highly likely that many ‘Leigh’ settlements have derived from the same word, but localised accents have led to the different ways of saying it).

This pronunciation also helps avoid confusion with our neighbours in the village of Lea, on the outskirts of Malmesbury to the south west of Leigh.

Leigh is often referred to as The Leigh – {guilty as charged – website ed} however the ‘The’ does not appear on anything official. It seems to only be added to help the name roll of the tongue better!

There are 7 Leighs in the UK

Plus Leighs in Ireland, USA and New Zealand.

Landscape

The Leigh sits mostly on clay, and is a relatively flat piece of land around 85 metres above sea level. To the north – around Ashton Keynes and South Cerney – there is less clay and more sand and gravel.

Four separate mineral companies have long-term bases in this area, and are currently extracting more than 4,000 tonnes of gravel from the area every day! When the quarries come to the end of their viable use, they become part of the Water Park, and are used for various purposes including nature reserves, water sports and tourism.

Archives show gravel pits have been dug around the Leigh since 1682.


This image, taken from a hot air balloon, shows how flat and rural Leigh village is. The village is shown in the bottom right quarter, with some of the Cotswold Water Park lakes in the bottom left quarter.
 

In the top left quarter is the town of Cricklade, and the Blakehill Farm Nature Reserve and Chelworth Industrial Estate is shown top right.


 

1.5 million tonnes of gravel

are extracted here every year

Archaeology

Because the area around Leigh has been exploited for gravel extraction for hundreds of years, little archaeological evidence of prehistoric, Roman or Saxon activity in the parish has been discovered.

By far the biggest archaeological find of recent years was the discovery of a woolly mammoth skull in 2004 at a working quarry pit.  

The earliest records of people living at The Leigh date back to 1244. This time in history ties in with the construction of the original village church – now known as the Chancel.

 

The location would suggest the central hub of the Leigh in the later Medieval period was closer to Ashton Keynes than it is now.

Earthworks suggest a complex of closes in the crook of Ashton Road opposite Grove Farm, and a fieldname, Black Piece, on a slight knoll to which several footpaths lead east of Upper Waterhay Farm, may also denote occupation.

 

Only a handful of old buildings remain within close proximity of The Chancel; the majority of buildings are now sat alongside the Malmesbury – Cricklade Road, and on Swan Lane.

 

Intermittent settlement had occurred along Forest Lane (the previous name for the B4040 Malmesbury Road) before 1769, and a row of houses called the Woodrow in 1671 may refer to buildings in this area.
 

Only two mammoth skulls have been discovered in the UK

Local Buildings

Village Hall

All Saints Church is the closest thing the Leigh has to a village hall. Residents are currently working together to raise funds to maintain and renovate the church building so it can be used for community events and private parties as well as for religious purposes.

In the 1940s there was a ‘recreational hut’ close to the Foresters Arms but this burnt down in the late 1970s. Plans to build a village hall were outlined in the 1950s, but mothballed due to financial difficulties.

Inns / Pubs
The Foresters Arms (Malmesbury Road) not currently open. Established in 1881.

The Three Horseshoes (Leigh Crossroads) 1848 – 1960. Historical data suggests this pub was older, and previously called the Three Cups.

Schools
Leigh School opened in 1894 on a plot of land next to the church. This was two years before the village church was relocated onto Swan Lane from the site at The Chancel.

It was never a big school, and only designed to teach two classrooms of 30 pupils in each.

In the early 1970s, the school became a primary only (for ages 4-11), and older children were transferred to specialist secondary schools. It was closed completely in 2004 following decades of discussions about the feasibility of keeping the school open for such a small community.

84 pupils

The maximum capacity of Leigh School

RAF Blakehill

During the second World War, farmland to the east of Leigh was used to create RAF Blakehill Farm. It was to be a short-lived air base; staying open for just eight years. Originally intended for use by American forces (a plan which didn't come to pass). The air base was mostly used by RAF units flying Dakota aircraft. Canadian forces were also based at Blakehill briefly.

Wiltshire and the south Cotswolds became peppered with air bases at this time. The flat, rural land was ideal for creating runways. It is also understood that older enemy planes struggled to reach this far inland and still return back safely.

Following the war's conclusion, the use of RAF Blakehill's runway was decommissioned. The site itself was still used for classified military purposes until the 1990s.

Today, all 650 acres of Blakehill is a nature reserve; cared for by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Because of the timing of it's military control, Blakehill is unusual in that it has never been sprayed with agricultural chemicals (which were popular in the '80s and '90s and have since been shown to be harmful for us and the environment). It is one of the largest natural hay meadows in the UK.

Keen eyed visitors might be lucky enough to see hare, deer, kestrels, skylarks and grass snakes, while ecologists can hunt for rare flowers and grasses.

Blakehill Units

(1944-1945)

No 233, 271 and 575 RAF Squadron

No 437 RCAF Squadron

Farming

Agriculture was always the main economic driver for the Leigh estate. Tenant farmers shared land and responsibilities for livestock, with the Lord of the Manor keeping overall control of the land.

 

In 1803, when the Eliot family sold off the estate in lots, smaller, privately owned farmsteads were formed for the first time. And although ownership of the various farms and fields has changed over the centuries, the majority of land covered by the Leigh is still used for sheep and cattle farming.
 

Several old farmsteads in the village are now used for equestrian activities, with horse riding schools and stables dotted throughout the village.

26

The number of farms (and homes with 'farm' in their name) in Leigh.

Woodland

To the south of The Leigh there is Braydon Wood and Webbs Wood, but there is no woodland in the village itself.

It wasn’t always that way... In 1086 a wood on the estate called Ashton was one league long and half a league wide (about 3 square kilometres) it lay south of the Thames in the area later called Leigh.

 

Known as Cove Wood, it once connected with Braydon Wood. Over the years, boundary rights meant this small wooded area became separated from Braydon, and the owners of Leigh Manor were entitled to use it as timber.

 

All the woodland had been grubbed up by 1769 when the area called Cove Wood Common covered 265 acres. There were apparently no later plantations and there was no woodland at Leigh in 2001.
 

Credits

Italicised text: 'A History of Wiltshire XVIII' used with permission © University of London

Map imagery (original): Google Maps

Blakehill details: Wikipedia / Wiltshire Wildlife Trust

Mammoth details: Telegraph

Population Density: Telegraph / Wikipedia

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