11–15: The Mound and Other Landmarks

When FM Heywood (always known as ‘George’), Master 1939–52, addressed Common Room in his farewell speech, he told the assembled beaks that he had often tried to decide what, apart from Marlborough’s countryside, was the essence of the College’s unique charm. He said, ‘Has Marlborough College got what other schools have, only arranged differently?’

It is indeed the unique arrangement of the various parts of Marlborough that sets it apart. The site’s organic growth over thousands of years and the hand of history stop the College from feeling too institutional. In a country packed with so many historical places, few have such a rich and varied past. The extraordinary architectural heritage of Marlborough adds to the charm of course, but this series will focus on very few built structures. A few, such as the Mound, will be included in this collection of objects though because they play such an important part in the tale.

11. The Marlborough Mound

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This is the second largest Neolithic mound in Europe, surpassed only by Silbury Hill five miles to the west at the source of the River Kennet. It is part of the extraordinary ancient landscape that also includes Avebury and the Kennet long barrows. Recent analysis has shown that the Marlborough Mound was started before Silbury around 4,500 years ago, and that it was finished slightly afterwards.

There are ancient trout lakes and water meadows a short distance away, and the subterranean springs meant that the old outdoor swimming pool, once part of the Castle‘s moat, was always freezing. Water was an integral part of the Mound’s setting and perhaps the River Kennet, flowing eastwards to where the sun rises, helped to underline that this place was somehow associated with the cycle of life? It was almost certainly a sacred monument and the building of this mysterious structure took generations of effort.

The Mound Trust, funded by a legacy from Eric Elstob (C2 1956–60), is restoring the Mound to its 18th century appearance. A circular pathway almost half a mile long was constructed in the 17th century and quickset hedges were planted right the way around it to the summit. The steeper sides to the Mound that resulted from the path being cut and the growth of wild trees in the late 18th and 19th centuries endangered the whole structure, but fortunately the Mound is now safe. The College is incredibly fortunate to have such an important monument at its centre.

12. Marlborough Castle Foundations

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Shortly after the Norman Conquest, Marlborough’s Neolithic mound was used to make a motte-and-bailey castle, and Savernake Forest became a favourite royal hunting ground. The Castle grew in importance and both Henry I and Henry II stayed there. It became one of King John’s favourite residences and he spent 135 nights at Marlborough. He married Isabella of Gloucester there in 1189 and his son Henry III was baptised in the Castle’s Chapel of St Nicholas. Henry went on to spend £2,000 on buildings at the castle. This was an enormous sum of money in the 13th century.

The Castle lost favour after Henry’s death and it was passed on to the Queens of England, but because they did not have deep purses it fell into disrepair and eventually, after it ceased to be used in 1370, it became a quarry for building materials. Some of its stones may have been used to build St Peter’s Church but this cannot be proved. In 1541 Henry VIII’s antiquary, Leland, commented on ‘a ruine of a great castelle, hard at the west end of town, whereof the dungeon tower partly yet standeth’, and Camden’s Britannia of 1610 stated ‘Now being daunted by time there remained an heape of rammel and rubbish witnessing the ruines and some few reliques of the wall remain within the compass of a dry ditch’.

In the 1930s some excavation work took place and important scholarship was undertaken by Harold Brentnall (CR 1903–44). In 2017, ground-penetrating radar investigations resumed the work of plotting its form, and parts of the Castle, including medieval floor tiles, have been found at the south-west corner of the Leaf Block. At the time of writing pupils are engaged in the excavation of a significant wall near this site.

13. Lady Hertford’s Grotto and Garden

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The grotto at the base of the Marlborough Mound was built shortly before 1735 by Frances Hertford, daughter-in-law of the sixth Duke of Somerset. She felt that it was ‘much prettier than that at Twickenham’ built by Alexander Pope. She was clearly aware of the latest fashions in garden design and created a picturesque garden with complex flowerbeds, a canal and a cascade. The grotto is of considerable art historical importance and it is a relatively early example of this form of garden ornamentation. Such features were designed to stimulate imagination, and with the Mound being the place where Merlin was supposed to be buried, there was much to fuel the speculations of those who visited. The project helped to relieve the monotony of the life that Lady Hertford experienced in Marlborough, where to begin with she felt starved of stimulating company.

After years of neglect and service as a bicycle shed, the grotto was restored in 1985 by Diana Reynell, who established the jewellery workshop at the College. She worked with the sculptor Simon Verity (PR 1959–63) and together they recreated the extraordinary interior with its shell-covered walls and vaults, dimly lit but brightened occasionally by sunshine from the reflecting pools in front of the gates. One of the most notable features inside is the giant shell that came from the fish display at Fortnum & Mason. When Reynell asked about this she was informed that it was not for sale. Her response was ‘That’s why you are going to give it to me!’

Reynell subsequently became ‘the queen of grotto restorers and makers’ and undertook work at Hampton Court, Goodwood and Walton Hall. Verity is well known for organising the completion of the sculpture on the west front of St John the Divine in New York, the world’s largest cathedral. He also made the gravestone for Sir John Betjeman at St Enodoc in Cornwall.

Further restoration work was undertaken by the Mound Trust in 2016 

14. James Thomson’s The Seasons (1730)

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Alexandra Harris, author of Weatherland, commented on the poet James Thomson (1700–1748) that ‘throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there was no poem better known by the English than The Seasons’, and Haydn composed his great oratorio in response to this. Harris commented that before Thomson’s The Seasons ‘few people would have sat down to write about landscape and certainly not the changing visual effects on it of light and wind. Afterwards they could hardly be stopped.’ Thomson was one of Lady Hertford’s poets and Spring was dedicated to her in 1728. He had visited Marlborough in 1727 but according to Samuel Johnson, probably unfairly, he spent too much time drinking with Lord Hertford and he was not invited again.

The engravings of the first edition were undertaken by the great designer/decorator William Kent, and the depiction of Spring is surely a homage to the Marlborough grotto and Mound, with Silbury Hill in the distance? The landscape forms and the architecture are exaggerated hugely but the coincidences within the composition seem too great to dismiss as chance.

Another of Lady Hertford’s extraordinary poets, Stephen Duck (1705–56), described the grotto in his poem Journey to Marlborough(1736):

Within the basis of the verdant Hill
A beauteous Grot confesses HERTFORD’s Skill;
Who, with her lovely Nymphs, adorns the place;
Gives ev’ry polish’d Stone its proper Grace

15. The Wedgwood Stone

Allen Wedgwood (CO 1907–11) was killed at Gallipoli on 18th August 1915. His mother gave the Wedgwood playing fields in his memory, and the stone there commemorates him. For many years this stone used to be the prescribed destination for early runs for those given ‘pink chits’ as a result of misdemeanours. Fortunately, this poignant memorial is no longer associated with an unpleasant aspect of College life, although even then many Marlburians did not run to the stone and, weather and duty Prefect permitting, a pink chit could be an opportunity to have a pleasant early morning walk with a group of errant friends. The views from the Wedgwood fields are marvellous.