On Sunday morning a small working party gathers at the east end of the village, in their possession a key for the store which forms part of the Manor’s brick stable block, which is slowly collapsing – each year that passes the roof line on the block gets wobblier, and the holes in the slate roof grow larger. The doors to the store are pulled wide open – they have warped a little against the ground and they stutter, but they open to spill light into the gloom. Empty Kenya Tea packing cases with their viciously sharp shreds of tin lining are stacked high; gardening and village paraphernalia decades old, and row upon row of wooden chairs which have been waiting patiently to be put to use since the Harvest Supper in the Village Hall. Meanwhile, the village trailer (wooden, painted green with a red trim, a testimony to the endurance of British make-do-and-mend) has been hitched to a Land Rover, and is parked-up in front of the stores to be loaded with chairs. Full, the trailer is driven due west through the village, its wooden load rattling and shifting. At Wilsford House the chairs are unloaded, and on the back lawn – in the shelter of old brick walls and scallop-shaped borders – arranged in crescent rows three deep. The same working party raises a gazebo (white metal poles, a white roof, tent shaped and drawn tight, little guy ropes creating tension), runs back to fetch the tea urn from the village hall, and a plastic crate or two of white china cups and saucers, tea spoons, tea bags …
Sometime before 5 o’clock members of Chippenham’s Salvation Army Brass Band, uniformed, climb into cars and head towards Wilsford. This is the war party, our brave marching band, without them Wilsford’s Lawn Service would be sotto voce, our raised voices torn like tissue into tiny pieces and scattered by the south westerly wind. The band’s destination is the gazebo, which marks them out and gives them a fragile shelter against the weather. One year it rained so suddenly and so hard that the band members had no choice but to dash, their instruments flecked with rain, into the house. The last man inside was Edward, Bishop of Ramsbury, his shoulders drenched as he gathered in the congregation, his great wooden crop held high against the pouring sky.
Sometime before 5.30 William leaves Urchfont, or wherever he happens to be in the parish. William will occupy the Lawn, this is his Service. Is there a harder working man in Pewsey Vale than William? Wilsford is always glad to see him, and deeply grateful to him. Wilsford is also always glad to see Rosie, who brings back with her delicious short cake (overheard this year: “I only come here for that short cake”), and her good humour and a roll-up-your-sleeves approach vital to the success of any village event.
Sometime before 6.00 the congregation are arriving up the drive, drifting across the lawn to take their seats. Familiar faces from Chirton, Marden, Urchfont, Salisbury even. Wilsford stalwarts carrying trays of sandwiches and biscuits. On trestle tables the cups and saucers have been laid out. Behind them, connected via a cable that snakes through Louise’s kitchen window, the tea urn is heating up. Under the gazebo the band members are harrumphing their soft, separate sounds over the heads of the congregation. Embouchures are being wetted. William is welcoming everyone, the sky is clear, the trees quite still.
“Please stand for our first hymn …”
Each year there is a talk and this year it is Christopher (currently much in demand – see below) from The Old Post Office. Christopher is a soldier and an authority on the Plain: on its military comings and goings, its history, the flora and fauna, and the abandoned settlement at Imber, whose church he helps maintain. Christopher talks brilliantly about the build-up to the First World War, and how decisions made in chancelleries and ministries across Europe impacted on Wilsford and Salisbury Plain. Shortly after Britain declared war on Germany the largest force of foreign troops reached England’s shores. They came from Canada: 30,000 troops embarked to fight for the Mother Country and they were billeted on the Plain above Wilsford (population 100?) and each one of them needed food and water and canvas and transportation. While they trained they endured terrible weather, and then they shipped to France.
We sing ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ and ‘O God, our help in ages past’. William leads prayers during which he remembers those killed during the five years of the war – including 60,000 Canadians.
Afterwards, we stand around the Lawn drinking tea and eating Rosie’s cucumber and egg mayonnaise sandwiches. The turn-out this year is Wilsford’s best ever. The congregation has given generously. The weather has been kind. This will be the last Lawn Service hosted by Louise; this autumn she leaves Wilsford House.
When everyone had gone another working party forms to clear away the chairs and benches, to load the trailer and return everything to the store and the village hall. The gazebo is taken down, the cups and saucers are washed up in the kitchen sink.
On Sunday 3rd August at St Nicholas’ Church, East Grafton, the Pewsey Deanery held a service of remembrance and commemoration to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War and to pay tribute to those who went forth from the Pewsey Vale and did not return.
The service was conducted by Revd Michael McHugh of the Savernake Team and the address given by Revd Paul Abram MVO, former Chaplain to HM The Queen and the Army, while the event was the brainchild of Maj. Gen Michael Walsh and a team from East Grafton.
Three former servicemen of the Vale, including Christopher Beese of Wilsford, read names of the lost, before children of the Vale placed flowers on the memorial and the Band of The Rifles played to the assembly who had filled the church and adjoining marquee.