Two journalists known for reporting Shaftesbury area news have published a new book that uncovers Wiltshire’s stories and curiosities. Fanny Charles and Gay Pirrie-Weir launched ‘Deepest Wiltshire’ in Tisbury on Sunday.
Shaftesbury chef and food writer, Philippa Davis, has supplied Wiltshire recipes using the county’s finest products for the book. ThisIsAlfred attended the book launch.
Fanny Charles and Gay Pirrie-Weir are well known in Shaftesbury and across North Dorset. Fanny edited the Blackmore Vale Magazine for 23 years and the women now produce the Fine Times Recorder website, which reviews the local arts scene.
Following the success of their 2016 ‘Deepest Dorset’ book, the journalists turned their attention to creating a snapshot of life in the county next door. Swindon’s industrial heritage is reflected alongside the villages, leafy lanes and holloways of the Cranborne Chase, which border Shaftesbury.
“People in the North know nothing about the South. And people in the South know nothing about the North. No-one knows anything about Swindon, and people in Swindon know nothing about what happens outside,” explained Fanny. “We are trying to entertain and inform all these people. “
“We have the most wonderful photograph of a holloway between Chicklade and Chilmark. I didn’t know it before. I definitely want to go and walk it now. There’s Chalke Valley, too and we’ve got angling in the chalk streams. You can’t ignore Stonehenge or the cathedral. Just as in Dorset, you can’t ignore Corfe Castle or The Cobb at Lyme Regis, but they’re there. You don’t need to do anything more than a nod to them. What we have tried to do is tell stories and find things that people wouldn’t necessarily find,” said Fanny, as she recounted one of the special people featured in the new book.
“Pay Grant, an amazing woman,” Fanny enthused. “It was ‘K’ Price at Ansty Farm Shop who told me about her. Pay was into her 90s and still lambing upon the chalk downs. Sadly, she was taken ill early last year. She was back on the downs within a few weeks but sadly she died just before the book went to press. K told us, so we were able to put that Pay had died in the book. She is somebody known all along the Chalke Valley. That’s an example of somebody not necessarily famous but somebody well known.”
Beaton is in there, obviously,” said Fanny, with reference to photographer Sir Cecil, who lived in Ashcombe and Broad Chalke. “Have we mentioned Guy Ritchie anywhere?” Fanny asked. “Possibly,” replied Gay, adding, “And Christopher Wren pops up,” in reference to East Knoyle’s famous son.
It was soon clear that, despite the Wiltshire-wide remit of this new release, Shaftesbury readers would feel very much at home with the featured settings and stories. The AONB, which begins just one mile from Shaftesbury Town Hall, is well represented.
“Dave Blake, who was a conservation officer with Cranborne Chase AONB, provided us with an enormous amount of information and great photographs. Dave wrote the article about Cranborne Chase. There’s a lot about the AONB,” Fanny advised.
Local produce and regional food have become increasingly important and the women called upon local chef Philippa Davis to contribute. Fanny and Gay say they have known her since she was in the Shaftesbury Community Play, aged 10! “Philippa comes from Shaftesbury but she went around Wiltshire, looking at food traditions and creating four new recipes,” said Gay. If you buy the book, you can see how Philippa has managed to get local gin into her recipe for lardy cake!
The term ‘coffee table book’ is a cliché and often means a glossy, picture-filled title that’s left out for show. ‘Deepest Wiltshire’ is the sort of beautiful book you will want on display but you won’t want to quickly flick through it. There’s a lot more than just pictures. Take time to read the lovingly curated articles and you’ll uncover secrets about places you pass through that you would never know otherwise.
“It’s trying to do what we always wanted to do as journalists, which is to celebrate what is fantastic about living in this area. It is everything from food and farming to towns where people live and the arts, but also looking at things that people don’t think either of us is interested in, like industry. We’ve learned a lot about the army,” said Fanny.
Gay says that she was able to use her inquisitiveness and journalistic skills without worrying about rushing to meet deadlines or dealing with the conflict that can come with regular news reporting. “At my age, I’ve had enough town councils, to be honest,” Gay confided. “With this, it’s been possible, just literally, to drive around and suddenly see something that you think, that’s unusual! Stop!”
Fanny gave an example of how the pair uncovered a story when they took a ‘B’ road alternative route to beat Bank Holiday traffic. “We could see a really cute, obviously ex-chapel. Bijou wasn’t the word for it and we thought ‘my goodness that is a cute country home’. When we got really close there was a door in the wall that had a ‘notice of service’ sign on it. So I jumped out, wrote down the name of the minister and we looked it up. It’s called Monk’s Chapel. It is the oldest continuously used ‘five-mile chapel’ in the country,” Fanny explained.
Charles II passed a law stopping nonconformists from preaching within five miles of market towns. So nonconformist chapels were built, a minimum of five miles from the nearest market town. “Most of them are now bijou country residences, but not this one. For 400 years it has been in continuous use and it’s hardly changed,” said Fanny.
The women paused to reflect how their profession has changed – and many would say suffered – through corporate mergers and cost savings. This book project has offered Fanny and Gay the time and flexibility for some ‘old school’ reporting and storytelling. “The difference being a journalist now, compared with what it was like when we were working as journalists, is that there’s no budget for people to go out and do interviews. There are no company cars and no expenses,” said Fanny. “Young journalists have to do virtually everything via social media. They don’t go out. You will never get stories if you don’t look someone in the eye, ask them questions and follow up with the questions.”
Gay offered another example of how a conversation with a local potter, whom they had agreed to meet, helped the women uncover an unrelated, and incredible, story. “He works in a little old converted cow shed off the road at Stowford. We said the journalistic thing, ‘anything else interesting going on in these sheds?’ And he said, ‘in there are Curtis Bikes. You might want to follow them up’. I got home and Googled them. They build some of the world’s greatest downhill mountain bikes. My goddaughter is married to a keen mountain biker in Canada. I phoned him and said, ‘Patrick, I’m going to see these people call Curtis Bikes. He said, ‘How wonderful. Can you get me one?’”
“The man who created Curtis Bikes spends his retirement making bikes for children with dwarfism,” continued Gay. “His grandson had a school friend who was a dwarf and couldn’t get up the hill. A Curtis bike is made by measuring the shoulders, the arms, the legs, the thighs and the hips. It’s revolutionised this child’s life and now he’s making bikes for children with dwarfism all over the world. We would never have found it without just asking one simple question.”
Although nobody would expect a digest of local stories to be as up-to-date as the newspapers the women once worked for, their journalist pride and exacting standards have come at an additional cost. “We took the book to the printers, which is Blackmore in Shaftesbury, on Thursday morning and flew out on Thursday afternoon to America to stay with Fanny’s daughter,” said Gay. “The book was ready for printing on Thursday. On Sunday evening, by chance, I logged on to BBC News and discovered that Honda was about to close its Swindon operation and we realised we had a page about Honda which was headed ‘Honda Does Its Civic Duty For Swindon And Wiltshire,” said Fanny. “And so we had to change it. We had to rewrite that page. They had already printed. We had to reprint a whole section of the book for it. We’ve sent the bill to Honda but nothing’s happened so far!”
Deepest Wiltshire is raising money for three good causes in the county, as Tisbury-resident Fiona Oliver explained. “Gay and Fanny are splitting the proceeds between Wiltshire Community Foundation, SSAFA Wiltshire and Wiltshire Air Ambulance.” Fiona attended Sunday’s launch in her role as Director of Development for Wiltshire Community Foundation, one of the book’s beneficiaries.
“The Community Foundation was set up in 1975. It has a large endowment, which enables us to give grants to local people who are disadvantaged and to voluntary groups that are helping those people,” said Fiona. “Last year, we gave out £1.2 million in grants. We provide advice and support to people who need our help, so we can help smaller, local organisations with areas like governance, with their finance and signposting where else they might find some funding.”
Fiona has enjoyed reading about the parts of Wiltshire she does not know so well and has also loved seeing articles about people and places close to home, featured on the pages. “It’s lovely to see the faces that we know and to see that Messums is there, and that Beatons is represented. It piques your interest to know what is slightly further afield than your own home patch,” Fiona said.
“So what’s next? Deepest Somerset?” I asked, half-jokingly. “Yes, absolutely,” was Gay’s immediate response. “We have started. We’ve made some notes and we’ve got some files that we’re keeping on it. So we are hoping it will be out in September next year.”
“Our funder has murmured about Gloucestershire and Devon. And then Philippa who is terribly interested in regional food, wants to do Cornwall,” said Fanny. “We’ll be about 110 by then,” she laughed. “Do Hampshire and we’ll be 115,” Gay added.