... an introduction
Bisley is a compact village sitting at the head of a combe high on the Cotswolds overlooking the valley of the Stroudwater or River Frome. It has a striking collection of very fine Cotswold architecture from large houses to typical cottages.
In Saxon times it gave its name to a large hundred, an administrative unit probably then centred slightly to the north-west of he village at The Wittantree. When developed by the Normans after the Conquest in 1066, Bisley’s two remaining principal houses, Over Court and Jaynes Court, were farms until recent times and, like other farms in the area, situated just off the flat Cotswold plateau on which their arable lands were located in open or common fields.
Around them and the adjacent Church of All Saints developed the centre of a very large ecclesiastical parish which once included The Thrupp, then La Strode or Stroud, and in more recent times the villages of Chalford, Oakridge, Bussage and Eastcombe. Originally, the manor of Bisley covered the same large area and included several woods, three of which were designated as manorial woods from which certain people, usually the rich and influential, were allowed to cart loads of brushwood. Over the centuries these areas were reduced to scrubland.
As the woolen trade developed along the Stroudwater the people who worked in the mills along the river started to establish their homes along the edge of these former woodlands which were by the middle of the 19th century described as wastelands. This was the origin of villages such as Oakridge, Chalford Hill and parts of Bussage. When attempts were made to enclose these wastelands by the then lord of the manor, J.R. Dorington of Lypiatt Park, there were objections among which when Dorington rode by were cries of 'who stole the donkey's dinner!'.
The phrase 'Bisley, God Help Us' has several suggested origins ranging from the possibility of the village being cut off in bad winter weather to a recall of the destitution when the Stroudwater textile industry collapsed in the late eighteenth century. In yet another rhyme the parish is linked with ‘Mincing Hampton and Painswick proud, Beggarly Bisley and strutting Stroud’, a further reference to the parish’s poverty at this time.
A first glance at the main street reveals row, after row, of stone cottages, rising on either side in terraces, giving the illusion of an amphitheatre. It all looks so very special. At the top of George Street, known locally as Bear Pitch, stands the Bear Inn which has 17th-century columns supporting the upper floor. It was probably the old court house associated with Over Court and close to this is the village gaol, dated 1824 – just two cells open to the elements.
The village school has a history which can be traced back to the seventeenth century and also to a charity founded in 1732 by which the boys were dressed in blue uniforms, giving the school today its distinctive name – Bisley Bluecoat School. The present school buildings date back to 1854 and were built to the design of the distinguished architect G.F Bodley, perhaps his first major commission.
Towering above the village is the graceful 13/14th century spire of the church, so tall that it is said to cast a shadow on Minchinhampton Common early on the morning of the shortest day of the year and the days before and after. The chancel, nave, aisles and porch were rebuilt in the mid 19th-century. Worthy of note inside are a font of Norman origin and the recumbent figure of a knight who may well be Thomas Achard who took part in the Fifth Crusade when there was a long siege of Damietta in the Nile delta from September 1218 to its fall on 5 November 1219. Also of interest are the twelve stone coffin lids of the 12th/13th century on the north and north-west walls.
In the large and peaceful churchyard is a Poor Souls Light, a small hexagonal structure thought to have been used to place candles there for masses to be said for the redemption of the souls of the poor. It is believed to be the only outdoor example of its kind in England. It is said to be built over a well and has given rise to other village legends described elsewhere. Certainly in the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries there were incidents which led to papal interdicts. The churchwardens were excommunicated and funerals were banned within the diocese of Worcester in which the parish then lay. As Bibury was a peculiar under the jurisdiction of the Abbey of Osney, it was regarded as being outside (although geographically within) the diocese and thus the nearest churchyard at which burials could be made in terms of the interdictions. And this is why part of Bibury churchyard is still called 'The Bisley Piece'.
Underneath the slope below the church are seven water chutes - The Wells; they were restored in 1863 at the instance of the Rev. Thomas Keble, paid for by public subscription, The Wells were designed by the Rev. W.H. Lowder and built by Messrs. Wall and Hook of Eastcombe at a cost of £95. Keble, the Elder, was vicar of Bisley from 1827 to 1873 and instituted the ceremony of the Blessing of the Wells on Ascension Day which is still a prominent feature of village life. He was the younger brother of the Rev. John Keble, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement in the Church of England, or Tractarians, in the mid-nineteenth century and ‘The Bisley School’ became one of the most important groups of that movement. Keble was succeeded by his son the Rev. Thomas Keble, Junior, vicar from 1873 to 1903. Close by The Wells are the large troughs once used to water the animals of the village and now the home of several ducks.
On the other side of the churchyard is the lych-gate, the steps up to it being built on the instructions of Sir John Dorington in 1904. From here there is a picturesque view down Church Hill to the High Street and Sinegar Square. The house on the left at the bottom was the police station and house in the early twentieth century. On the right Wesley House is so named because in the late nineteenth century it was the residence of Sister Amelia and other Wesleyan sisters who ran a mission which provided holidays for deprived children from London and ran a temperance mission centred on a tin Mission Hall which focussed on the five public houses which the village supported at that time. From the lych-gate there is also a good view over the High Street to Mount Pleasant Cottages with gabled windows rising from the roof and small gabled porches that all have gaily painted doors. The old barn of Rectory Farm dominates the skyline to the north, a reminder that the village centre was home to several farms until the early years of the twentieth century.
At the top of the High Street and opposite the Stirrup Cup public house, which was known as the New Inn when it was first opened in the mid-nineteenth century, is the village War Memorial commemorating those from the parish who fell in the two World Wars. It was consecrated in 1920. Close by is a row of cottages built in 1874 and named after Captain John Hamstead, R.N., who once owned the land on which they were built and who died in 1813. Local legend has it that he was one of Admiral Lord Nelson’s captains at the Battle of Trafalgar. Opposite the Stirrup Cup is a lane called Vanderbreen Street; it is named after Joseph van der Perren who leased the Upper Througham and The Grays estates for some twenty years at the end of the eighteenth century and was prominent in local affairs.
Vanderbreen Street is just one of many lanes from the village which eventually lead to footpaths and bridle paths into the beautiful Cotswold countryside, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. From Holloway at the entrance to the village, there is a picturesque, essentially English scene and very pleasing to the eye. No wonder so many tourists find their way to our high hill top village, picturesque and full of history it is well worth a visit.
Written by the Late Huw Jones