A small town with an ancient heritage which dates back to the Anglo-Saxons of the 8th century and was once the capital of Wessex, Wilton is now little more than a suburb dominated by heavy, noisy traffic. With the rise of nearby Salisbury, Wilton faded into the background, and little remains of its 1200 years of history. It is possible to see all of its remaining sites by following the Wilton Heritage Trail on a short walk of no more than a mile or so.
Wilton is a curious place, a town which often seems no more than a throughway on the road to Salisbury, and it does little to dispel this image. Although it has a growing community, thanks to all of the new houses being built on old army land, some interesting old buildings and the lovely Wilton House, the town itself leaves an overall impression of heavy traffic and neglected heritage.
Anywhere else with a medieval market cross would make a highlight of it. In Wilton, they shove a bright yellow plastic grit bin up against it.
To see it at its best, try to avoid the rush hours. Walking when the sky is blue and the sun is out will also vastly improve the experience.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF WILTON
Founded in the 8th century by the Wilsaetes tribe of Anglo-Saxons (who took their name from the nearby River Wylye), by the 9th century it was the royal seat of Wiltunscire in Wessex, until that honour moved to Winchester. The famous nunnery was founded in 773 and was home to Saint Edith, her tomb attracting pilgrims for healing.
Alfred the Great fought and lost here in 871 to the Danes who burned it to the ground and in 1003 the Vikings attacked and burned it again. In 1143 it was attacked and burned by Empress Maud and Robert of Gloucester. The town was home to the county's oldest mint, first making coins during the reign of King Edgar of Wessex in 959 and Wilton received its first market charter in 1154.
The town declined however as Salisbury prospered, standing neglected for some time. Fortunes revived when Wilton became famous in the 18th century for its rugs and carpets, although by the early 20th century this too was in decline, with the factory closing and being re-opened several times.
THE WILTON HERITAGE TRAIL
We followed the Wilton Town Trail as outlined in the booklet which you can buy for £1 from St. Mary's Church in Wilton. The trail is the intellectual property of Wilton & District Business Chamber, 2017.
1. The trail starts at the Wilton Royal Carpet Factory.
As of 2022, the area is undergoing renovation, and it could be a good idea to give this a miss until work is finished. It is currently little more than a building site and will not give you a good impression of the town. Unless you want to buy carpet or a sofa of course, then this is the place for you.
2. St. Peter's Church
The official trail includes St. Peter's Church, Fugglestone, a tiny little church on the busy Salisbury/Wilton roundabout. The church is famous for being the burial place of King Ethelbert of Wessex, having poet George Herbert as its rector in the 17th century as well as having tall box pews and gas lighting. Every time I have tried to visit however, the doors have been firmly locked, so best to give this a miss.
3. The Herbert Statue
Outside Wilton House is this statue of the 13th Earl of Pembroke (1850 - 1895), who was the Under-Secretary of State for War under Disraeli.
He doesn't sound like the most fascinating of individuals - his passions were writing pamphlets and giving speeches, although he was rumoured to have had a dalliance with Queen Moe of Tahiti. Apparently when he visited the islands with Dr. Kingsley in 1870, he was stricken by her charm and beauty and referred to the king and queen as "Beauty and the Beast".
The statue once had a sword, which was 'liberated' by American servicemen during World War II.
4. The Triumphal Arch (entrance to Wilton House)
This triumphal arch, which once stood elsewhere on the Wilton estate, was moved to its current location in 1801. It now forms the entrance way to Wilton House. The arch was designed in 1755 by Sir William Chambers and is topped with a statue of Marcus Aurelius.
If Wilton House is closed, then you can peer pathetically through the wrought iron bars to see the grandeur within. If open, it is worth a visit. The grounds have an adventure park for kids, a Japanese Garden and a Palladian bridge. The house is good too, and the Inigo Jones Single Cube and Double Cube rooms are breathtaking, but best avoided if you don't like looking at the statues and artworks collected when rich people toured Europe and took home their spoils. It is quite extreme in Wilton House and sits uncomfortably for some.
5. The Pembroke Arms Hotel
The building, directly opposite Wilton House, was built to accommodate their visitors in the late 18th century (because a stately home just doesn't have enough bedrooms), and was later used as a tax office in the Victorian era. It became an Officer's Mess for the military stationed in the area during World War II when the Army requisitioned Wilton House as the HQ of Southern Command. Much of the planning for D-Day was done at Wilton House with the surrounding area filled with Nissen huts and over 750 miles of telephone wire laid around Wilton House to link the centre of operations with all units in the area.
It is actually a good hotel and pub with a vibrant outdoors area and lovely twinkly lights in the windows every Christmas.
6. St. Ediths
This was once a Methodist Reform Church and a Catholic Church. Today it is owned by a firm of architects, who have painted it off-white and left it at that, with not so much as a window box to cheer it up. Apparently inside it has a 'radical contemporary interior' and a flying staircase.
7. The Council Chamber
Originally a Masonic Hall, this building was then the home of the Wilton Temperance Society and later the Primitive Methodist Chapel. It is now home to Wilton Town Council. If it is possible to feel sorry for a building, then I would have pity for this one - one wonders if anyone has ever actually cracked a smile inside its walls?
8. The Market Cross
This is a rather eclectic market cross with a medieval base and later additions which include a crucifix, a sundial and an 18th century urn on the top. It is surrounded by cars, an excess of white road markings and a huge yellow grit bin wedged up one side. It may as well have a sign saying 'We'll have no-one taking nice photos of this piece of heritage thank you very much'.
9. The Baptist Church
Built in 1738 on the site of the old Guildhall, this Georgian red-brick had a Victorian gothic revival clock plonked on top of it in 1889, which is actually the best bit about it and helps to detract from the plethora of modern signage which adorns the sides.
Although a very active church with lots of services and events, it is not open to the public for a general visit.
10. The Old Church of St. Mary
Finally some genuine heritage that you're actually allowed to visit. St. Mary's is the original Anglo-Saxon church of Wilton attached to the nunnery and of the 12 churches which once graced this town, this was the most important. It was rebuilt in the 12th, 15th and 18th centuries but was considered beyond repair by 1841. An entirely new church was built in 1845, (the Italianate Church you will visit at 12.) and St Mary's was partially demolished with just the 12th century chancel and 15th century arches surviving.
The church is now owned by the Churches Conservation Trust and is open to visitors and for events. The church is filled with plastic chairs and has a huge sandwich board at the front door to ruin your photos, but it does at least have some wonderful memorials on the walls inside.
11. Wilton Place
Wilton Place on the main road through the town was once home to Edith Olivier. A writer and politician, she set up the Wiltshire Women's Land Army in 1916 which saw her being awarded an MBE. She was the first woman to serve as a councillor on Wilton Town Council and was later Mayor of Salisbury. She was a very sociable lady and was great friends with the famous set of the 1920s including Rex Whistler, Cecil Beaton, Siegfried Sassoon, Diana Cooper, John Betjeman and others. She sounds like a fascinating woman who brought much needed style and flourish to the town. The house is privately owned and not open to the public.
12. The Italiante Church
Built as the parish church for the town by Sidney Herbert MP, Earl of Pembroke and friend of Florence Nightingale, this enormous church looks far too exotic to be in Wilton, being designed in the Italiante style inspired by his travels through northern Italy. The church includes features removed from far older sites: columns and panels from the Capocci Shrine in Rome from 1256, columns from the Temple of Venus 151 BC and a sarcophagus containing bones from the Church of St. Nicholas of 1435 along with assorted medieval stained glass from France.
The church is sometimes open to visitors and is worth a look inside if it is.
13. St. John's Priory
There have been religious buildings on this site since the 10th century with the first documentary evidence coming from 1195.
The Priory of St. John the Baptist was run as a hospital for the less fortunate. The present building dates from the 14th century; you can see a Saxon pillar in the rear wall of the chapel. Much of it was rebuilt and restored by the Victorians.
It is now run as almshouses with weekly services in the chapel, and is not open to visitors.
14. West Lodge
Built in 1820 for the factory manager, the house has also been a doctor’s surgery and dispensary. Its claim to heritage seems to be that it has unusual panelled reveals and Venetian shutters which fold into them. It is now divided into rental flats with very strict rules and a shared garden, and someone somewhere is making a small fortune from the place.
15. Congregational Church
Built in 1791 to replace a 1700 chapel which it had outgrown, this unexceptional building is now also lots of private apartments.
16. Naish Felts
Some rather wonderful buildings of industrial heritage which have now fallen into shameful disrepair, this was once the site of a grist and malt mill which was converted to textile use in the 1600s. In 1830 it was the scene of Swing Riots when angry agricultural labourers smashed the place up in protest at mechanisation and loss of employment. This led to 11 of them being sentenced to death but then transported to Australia instead. Five years later the factory was bought by local man, John Naish, whose family had been in business since 1800 and since then it has produced felt for a whole range of industries, particularly automotive.
17. The Oldest House
This house is the oldest in Wilton, dating from the 15th century. It is a three bay halfhouse.
18. Churchill Court
This is part of the official trail purely because it was once the site of 'Fancy Row' where 18th century gentleman's clothes were made. Today is it a hideous 1950s housing complex which has no business being on a heritage trail.
19. The Greyhound Pub
The official trail returns to Wilton Shopping Village, where you started and where you may have parked. Instead, head to the Greyhound Pub in the market place. A 17th century coaching inn, it is a lovely pub, does some truly excellent food and will be the highlight of your visit to Wilton.
For a map of this trail, buy your copy of the Wilton Heritage Trail in the Old Church of St. Mary. It is only £1, which they will hopefully spend on aesthetic improvements to the town. They can start by moving that yellow grit bin on the Market Cross.