Monday, 12 January 2015

Warminster - Rural Wiltshire Town

The following article originally appeared in the April 2014 edition of My Wiltshire magazine.


Although it was first settled in the Saxon period – in the centuries before the Norman conquest – as the nearby Iron Age forts of Battlesbury Camp and Cley Hill prove, people have been living in and around the historic market town of Warminster since prehistoric times.
warminster-old-bell-hotel
Situated on the edge of Salisbury Plain, near the head of the Wylye Valley, Warminster is a friendly little town with splendid Georgian architecture and more than its fair share of listed buildings. It is also home to around 18,000 people.
Coming in from the west, past the impressive façade of Warminster School (established 1707) and the unusual three sided obelisk (erected in 1783 on what was originally the town centre) the first thing you discover is the number of unique shops.
Although, like many places, its streets have been ravaged by out-of-town shopping malls, Warminster is still home to a number of distinctive retail businesses and, despite the bite of recession there are signs of rejuvination, with smart delis and coffee shops leading the vanguard. Taste Deli (26, High Street) for example, where you can pick up local cheeses and honey, organic specialties, teas, coffees, homemade cakes and, I’m reliably informed by one of their regular customers “really great sandwiches.” Specialist shops do well in Warminster: the town has several thriving businesses which can each boast over a century on the High Street/Market Place thoroughfare, including Cordens (hardware and household goods), stationers and printers Coates and Parker (where, since 1881, the Warminster Journal has been published) and bike shop Bachelors. Several antique dealers and traders are located on Silver Street.
There are a couple of historic coaching inns in Market Place – the Old Bell Inn and the Anchor Hotel – each dripping in character. Both still possess the huge gates through which once passed horse-drawn coaches carrying the great and good to the town, with the Bell – which dates back to 1483 and is Warminster’s oldest surviving inn – also boasting a characterful collonaded entrance. Many of oldest buildings in Market Place owe their origin to the corn market days when they were used as stores and warehouses by the traders who came to buy and sell at the market. A bronze statue of a girl sat high on a stack of grain sacks gazing dreamily towards Copheap, the hill to the north of the town, stands in the Cornmarket shopping arcade, reminding visitors of Warminster’s history of trading grain: carrying on that tradition, on Friday mornings a market is held in the Central Car Park – where you can also find the Tourist Information Centre, Library and the Dewey Museum. The Museum houses a display of local history and geological specimens and has a unique collection of Salvation Army ephemera. A Farmers Market is held on the third Friday of every month outside the library.
One of the jewels in the town’s crown has to be the Lake Pleasure Grounds. Just a few metres from the town centre, the Grounds feature tennis courts, a refreshment kiosk, a bandstand, a boating lake, a children’s playground and a skate park. Smallbrook Meadow, at the far end of the Lake Pleasure Grounds, is a nature reserve managed by the Wildlife Trust where, on a good day, you can see kingfishers, dippers, dragonflies, damselflies and warminster-monumenta host of wild flowers and plants. If it’s too wet head for the Athenaeum on High Street, which combines theatre, cinema, art gallery, coffee lounge and bar – and is the official base of the town’s own film society.
Warminster is great base for exploring the surrounding countryside. Bath, Frome and Salisbury are close by, then there’s Westbury, with its famous white horse hill carving, the world-renowned Longleat House and Safari Park and Stourhead, with its magnificent landscaped gardens. There are plenty of historic sites and buildings to discover in the villages around Warminster, including the ruins of St. Leonards Church at Sutton Veny and the 12th century chapel of St. James at Tytherington. You’re within easy distance of ancient monuments including the Avebury stone circle, Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor, and the villages of Sutton Veny and Codford St. Mary, where many of the Australian servicemen (and the two nurses) who lost their lives to the flu epidemic during the 1st World War are buried. Warminster has a strong connection to the military, with the population of the town swelled by the thousands of men and women, including members of the 1st battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment, who live and work in Battlesbury Barracks.
During the mid-1960s the town became the centre of a UFO mystery, with both unidentified flying objects sighted and unidentified sounds heard.
Many believe that the frequency of the UFO sightings was because Warminster is so close to Salisbury Plain and has other military camps around the town, but for a number of years there was even a UFO centre in the town and a number of books and articles have been published on the mysteriously-named Warminster ‘Thing’.

Must Do

The Blue Plaque Trail. If you want to discover more about the town’s historic sites then grab a copy of the Blue Plaque Trail guide book from the Tourist Information Centre (Central Car Park), which has information on 22 of Warminster’s most interesting buildings. It’s a quid well spent!

Where to eat

The Cornmarket Café Bistro

Cheap and cheerful, with food – from sandwiches and baguettes to a full English – served all day. Kid’s portions available, open seven days a week.
4-5 Cornmarket, Warminster BA12 9BX. Tel: 01985 212150

The Snooty Fox

Great food, from pub grub favourites to full a la carte. Chose to eat in the restaurant, casually in the bar or, if the weather allows, al fresco in the garden. Food served lunch and evening (closed Mondays).
1 Brook St, Warminster BA12 8DN. Tel: 01985 846505

The Magpie

Cute little artist’s studio and gift shop with its own small and funky tea shop.
6 East St, Warminster BA12 9BN. Tel: 01985 216497

Ruby’s Bistro

Small but perfectly formed restaurant where everything – right down to the biscuits that come with your coffee – is home-made. Closed Sun & Mon evenings.
28 High Street, Warminster BA12 9AF. Tel: 01985 217373

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