CHAPTER XI. THE BERKSHIRE BORDER AND NORTH HAMPSHIRE
Marlborough is in Wiltshire, but it will be legitimate to start a slight exploration of the middle course of the Kennet from the old Forest town. Here the clear chalk stream, fresh from the highlands of the Marlborough Downs, runs as a clear and inviting little river at the foot of the High Street gardens. For Marlborough is a flowery and umbrageous town in its "backs," however dull it may appear to the traveller by the railway, from which dis-vantage point most English towns look their very worst.
Although the river was never wide enough to bring credit or renown to Marlborough, the borough had another channel of profit and good business in its position on the Bath Road. The part that great highway played in the two hundred years which ended soon after Queen Victoria commenced her long reign seems likely to have a renewal in these days of revived road travel. Ominous days are these for the iron ways that, for almost a century, have half ruined the old road towns of England, but at the same time left them in such a state of suspended animation that they are mostly delightful and unspoilt reminders of another age.
The fine and spacious High Street that once echoed with the horns of a dozen coaches in the course of an afternoon now hums with the machinery of half a hundred motors in an hour, and if they do not all stop, some do, and leave the worthy burgesses a greater amount of wealth and a cleaner roadway than their more picturesque predecessors.
The municipality is very ancient and still retains some quaint customs. Not that, however, of the medieval fee for admission to the corporation consisting of two greyhounds, two white capons, and a white bull! The last item must have given the aspirant for civic honour much wearisome searching of farmyards before he found the acceptable colour. Like so many of the old towns through which we have wandered, Marlborough has suffered from fire; one in the middle of the seventeenth century was of particular fury, for, with the exception of the beautiful old gabled houses on the higher side of the sloping main street, the town was then practically destroyed. "Two hundred and fifty dwellings and Saint Mary's church are gone, and over three hundred families forced to crave the hospitality of the neighbouring farmers and gentry, or wander about the fields vainly looking for shelter. Every barn and beast-house filled to overflowing."
The tradesmen of High Street say that theirs is the widest street in England. This may be so. It is undoubtedly one of the most pleasant and picturesque, and "the great houses supported on pillars," to which Pepys refers in his Diary, still remain on the north side.
Marlborough had not actually a Roman beginning. The station known as Cunetio was nearly three miles away to the east. But the castle hill antedates this period considerably and is supposed to be an artificial mound of unknown antiquity, perhaps made by the men who reared Silbury Hill. It is said that within lie the bones of Merlin. Quite possibly this idea arose from the resemblance of the ancient form of Marlborough - "Merlebergh" to the name of the half legendary sorcerer. The real origin of the town-name is supposed to be the West Saxon "Maer-leah" or cattle boundary. Here was erected in the earlier years of the Conqueror's reign a castle that was strengthened and rebuilt in succeeding generations until, somewhere about the rise of the Tudor power, it was allowed to fall into decay. It was probably in the Castle Chapel of St. Nicholas that King John was married to Isabella of Gloucester in 1180, and in the church at Preshute, the parish church of the Castle, is an enormous font of black marble brought from this chapel. A tradition has it that King John was baptized in it. The only real fighting recorded as taking place around the Castle, while it was in existence, was during the time of Fitz Gilbert, who held it for the Empress Maud. Of more importance was the sallying forth, during the Civil War, of the Royalists, who had fortified a mansion which had arisen from the Castle ruins, against the republican town, capturing and partly burning it. The soldiers displayed great savagery, fifty-three houses being destroyed. The garrison of "the most notoriously disaffected town in Wiltshire" was the first taken in the War. The Castle was also famous as the place of meeting for the Parliament of Henry III which passed the "Statutes of Marlborough," the Charter for which Simon de Montfort had risked and suffered so much.