The 15th century Wiltshire woman who funded a footpath


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Don't you just hate it when you put all your eggs in one basket so that you can go and sell them in the Wiltshire market town of Chippenham, but it's the 15th century and roads haven't been invented yet so you keep getting wet feet or falling over and breaking all your eggs and ruining your butter?

This was the alleged predicament of Maud Heath, and she decided to posthumously solve the problem by leaving all her property to a trust to fund the construction of a four and a half mile causeway which would convey the local traders in luxurious dry-footedness across the boggy flood plain of the River Avon.

The trust and the causeway still exist today and although I have no farm produce to take to market I decided to walk it for myself.

Maud lived on Wick Hill, and some 550 years on from her alleged misadventures in butter logistics, dairy farming remains a staple activity. From up here there's a lovely view across the Avon flood plain; in an ideal world I would now add an arrow on screen to show you where Chippenham is, but I don't think you can actually see it here. I think it's either behind the tree on the left, or even completely out of frame to the left. At ground level the view is a bit restricted by trees, sorry about that.

The statue of Maud Heath doesn't have that problem, because she's memorialised atop this stone column, above those pesky trees, forever gazing out over the route of her causeway towards Chippenham. In 1990 severe storms decapitated her, but thankfully her head was retrieved from the brambles and put back in place.

She is portrayed with her basket of eggs and butter and the austere clothes and bonnet of a humble dairy product-selling peasant type of woman. This is how oral history remembers her, although I am obliged to rain on the parade of that nice story, as I usually do.

Because it does seem a little incongruous with the fact that she bequeathed various properties in Chippenham, land and houses, plural, which produced £8 per year, back in the 1400s when that was really quite a lot of money. We do know that she was a childless widow, which explains how she came to own this property at all, in an era when property would always belong to the husband and pass to the sons if he died, even if it was the woman's to begin with.

But if she had all this wealth, was she really stumbling along in the mud to sell a few eggs? Perhaps this was more the background she had escaped from, than her daily reality as a wealthy widow. Either way, her generosity ensured others would not struggle in the same way.

Near her monument is the actual start of the causeway, marked by a plaque with the rhyme: "From this Wick Hill begins the praise / of Maud Heath's gift to these highways". Perhaps it scanned better in the original Latin - this is a later translation of an inscribed stone which used to be here, but eroded away.

First on the agenda is to drop down off Wick Hill to the flat flood plains below. As you can see, the causeway today is basically your average roadside pavement, or sidewalk for my North American viewers, which isn't a terribly interesting visual. Although West Country lanes like this often don't have one at all, so that's still a very welcome gift for the 21st century pedestrian. The mostly modern tarmac surface may not feel very historical, but it's nice not to be constantly flattening yourself into a hedge to avoid traffic. At points, the modern surface does break up and older surfaces become visible.

The next points of interest are found in the small hamlet of East Tytherton. This is a sundial erected in the 1970s to mark the 500th anniversary of Maud's gift, although there seems to have been some lack of foresight or communication, in that it's located beneath some trees which entirely prevent it from telling the time.

The red brick building in the background has nothing to do with the Causeway, per se, but it's interesting so I'll mention it anyway.

This is the Moravian church. The church (as an institution) was founded in 1457 in Bohemia, modern-day Czech republic and made its way to Britain in the 18th century. This particular chapel was founded in 1742 and the current building was built in 1792.

Next door is a former school building, now the home of Girl Guiding Wiltshire North. As far as I'm aware Maud has nothing to do with Girl Guides beyond that fact she was a woman and she did good deeds, but I suppose that's a perfectly adequate reason to make the association.

Heading off towards the River, it was striking how flat and flood-plain-y the fields are here, and easy to imagine how boggy this walk could be if you were walking the whole way on unimproved ground.

Indeed, this little chapel, the Church of St Giles, Tytherton Kellaways, had to be rebuilt in its present location in 1808, because its previous incarnation, built 500 years earlier slightly closer to the river, was regularly flooded, and plagued by rats.

In the very next field we find the causeway's piece de resistance, as it rises on a series of stone and brick arches. 46 of them to be precise, carrying the footpath well above both the field and the road, as you can see here. This means that when the river is in flood, it's not uncommon to find the road submerged, but Maud Heath's causeway still providing a safe and dry passage for the pedestrian.

These arches aren't actually very old, being a 20th century reconstruction of an 1812 upgrade to the path. Prior to that it was built from wooden boards laid across wooden piles driven into the swampy ground, which I found rather interesting because it's basically the same method as the Sweet Track and Post Track, neolithic causeways found in the Somerset Levels, dating back to around 3800 BC and arguably the oldest known example of transport engineering in Britain.

Unfortunately, the actual bridge over the River Avon is a 1961 construction with little interesting to say about it, but there is another feature of note here before we cross it. This limestone pillar with sundial was erected in 1698 by the trustees and features an inscription praising the worthy Maud Heath for her legacy. You can see one of the beautifully illustrated information panels that are dotted along the causeway next to it, and rather curiously, this suggests that this pillar was the first time her gift was publicly mentioned. Given the causeway had been around for two centuries by this point it makes me wonder where people thought it had come from all that time.

On the other side of the river, there is a shorter row of 18 more brick arches, this time sweeping around a graceful curve. In the background, you can see the electrification cables of the next major obstacle for the causeway to traverse, the Great Western Main Line, running to Chippenham and on to Bristol in one direction, and to Swindon and ultimately London Paddington in the other. Of course, the railway didn't exist when the causeway was built, and when the GWR turned up in the 1830s they proposed the obvious solution of one large arch spanning both the road and Maud Heath's Causeway.

This wasn't good enough for the trustees though, and for all the GWR's wealth and political connections, the trustees won the day. The causeway was given its own separate, dedicated archway under the tracks.

Approaching Langley Burrell, there's an old clapper bridge over a small stream, but to be honest, this is where the interesting stuff on the walk pretty much dries up. The last mile or so into Chippenham to St Paul's church where the causeway ends, is along a relatively major road lined with modern development and there's nothing to let you know you're on a historic path until you reach the very end, where there's another marker stone with another dubious rhyming couplet: "hither extendeth Maud Heath's gift / for where I stand is Chippenham Clift". The apologetic-sounding note at the end, "erected in 1698 - but given in 1474" also strikes me as unintentionally hilarious. Perhaps I should get out more.

Speaking of getting out, as a producer of a "hey look at this interesting place" type of youtube video, I feel somehow obliged to conclude by enthusiastically encouraging the viewer to get out to this corner of Wiltshire and visit for themselves. Truth be told I'm not sure this is a walk I can particularly recommend. The view from Wick Hill is lovely and the monuments and structures around Tytherton Kellaways are interesting, but it's hard to justify walking along roads like this for five miles in a county with so much stunning countryside. Unless you're particularly keen to role play as a 15th century trader carrying eggs to market you might be better served by plotting a circular route to the highlights through the fields.

Still, I hope you enjoyed this tour of one of Wiltshire's historic curiosities. On which note, if you want to find out why Wiltshire hosts this strange perforated building built on a bridge over a river, check out my video on the surprisingly important history of teazels. But that's it for this one, so please give it a like, subscribe, share, you know the drill. Cheers.