Today Box is best-known for its Brunel-designed railway tunnel and the large quantities of fine-quality stone that were dug from its quarries, but the village dates back to Roman times and, as befits a settlement of its age and history, Box has some interesting, quirky and unusual features – if you know where to look.
The Pyramid Gravestone
In the graveyard surrounding St. Thomas á Beckett church lies an unusual gravestone, shaped like a pyramid. Local legend has it that it was built this way to prevent the occupant’s wife from carrying our her wish to dance on his grave.
The Pyramid Gravestone can be found in the immediate top left corner of the churchyard as you enter via the main gates. This is the southeast corner of the graveyard. Many mounds can be seen on the south side of the Church. This may be because of the medieval custom of burying people on top of others and always on the south side, as no-one wanted the shadow of the Church to fall on their grave.
The Blind House
The Grade II listed Box Blind House, so called because it has no windows, is one of many local lockups found throughout Wiltshire, and was constructed in the early 1700’s. The Blind House sat between two pubs, The Queens Head and The Bear (now The Bengal Bear Indian Restaurant) and many a drunken miscreant will have sobered up after a night in a building that offered just a bench to sleep on, a fireplace and an earth closet (toilet).
The building was constructed specifically to hold petty offenders or trouble-makers for a night or so. Its cramped quarters held minor offenders, drunks, and aliens, (strangers from other parishes who looked suspicious or who needed to be sent out of the parish). After a night inside, serious cases of misbehaviour were referred to the Justice of the Peace for a pre-trial hearing; minor offenders were dealt with locally by public denunciation in the village stocks or were escorted across the boundary into a neighbouring parish.
Other nearby villages with lockups include Lacock, Bromham and Hilperton. Bradford on Avon has a rather spectacular lock up, originally built as a mediaeval chapel, which is situated in the middle of the town’s main bridge, above the River Avon.
The Rising Sun Memorial
On Wednesday 4th December 1957, at 4.30am Box was rocked by a huge explosion. A rupture in the gas mains pipe running down Box Hill completely destroyed the Rising Sun Pub, killing the landlord, Bill Griffin, his wife Joyce and their four year old son Andrew. Their daughter Jane, although seriously injured, survived the blast.
The rupture was due to a sand fault in Box Hill which runs from the top of the hill right down to the Bybrook ; when cast iron gas pipes were laid in the early 1920’s, no one foresaw the problems that such rigid pipes would create some 30 plus years later. Thankfully, the current gas mains are made of a toughened plastic material that can bend with any movement of the surrounding land.
The Roman Villa at Box
Some 1700 years ago, a large complex of sophisticated Roman buildings occupied the ground adjacent to Box Parish Church.The Romano-British structures included at least 50 rooms; the largest of which was a huge reception hall. Many of the rooms had central heating, most had glass windows and the interior walls were plastered, painted and decorated mainly to represent marble. So far only one bath suite has been discovered but there must have been others. Close to the town of Aquae Sulis (Bath) this is among the largest Romano-British complexes or villas in South-west England. In its earlier days, it certainly was a villa but its later expansion suggests a sacred site or a healing centre or both, based on the three mineral-rich springs which still gush from the limestone hills to the South. As houses, gardens and roads now cover the Romano-British stonework, physical excavation of the site is sadly not possible. Much of the ruins of the villa lie beneath the garden of The Wilderness, the imposing house opposite the Church. To the undoubted horror of modern day archaeologists, an 1860 report from the then resident, H Syer Cuming included the complaint: “My garden is full of Roman remains—tiles somewhat ornamented, but broken, bricks, tessellated pavement, fused iron, &c. I send all away to mend the roads; they are a perfect nuisance. We cannot put a spade into the ground without bringing up these impediments to vegetable growth”. This artist’s impression of how the complex would have looked was based on excavations and investigations of the villa site. Further information can be found at www.boxromanvilla.org.uk
The UK’s only Tennis Ball Factory
In 1936, Joseph Price moved to Box and took over the running of, what was then, a small factory, developing and making rubber products, including car and lorry tyres, tennis balls and squash balls. (The factory had previously been a candle factory, notably producing the 1 ton of candles used each week during the building of Box Tunnel). Joseph’s family firm is still in Box and today J Price (of Bath) Ltd is the only surviving tennis ball factory in Britain and the Western World. In the face of stiff competition from Asia, where tennis balls can be produced at a much lower cost, the company has endured by specialising in the production of promotional or personalised tennis balls, for clubs, coaches and companies, and even for dogs. Much of the work is still done by hand: once the pellets of rubber are turned in ball halves, they are glued together, and two figure-eight-shaped pieces of cloth are then attached. The balls are then placed in a heat pressing machine, which causes the white adhesive to make a seal around the two cloth coverings. The balls can be either pressurised or left non-pressurised, and any promotional markings applied.
The old factory is largely unchanged from its early days and can be seen a short way up Quarry Hill opposite the entrance to Bargates. After 84 years on this site, the factory moved in early August 2020 to brand new premises in Middlehill, a small hamlet to the west of the village.
World War II Pillbox
Camouflaged by a copse of trees above and to the left of Box Tunnel sits a small defensive pillbox, erected ahead of the second world war. Whilst a line of some 150 pillboxes stretch along the Kennet & Avon canal were built to deter any enemy invasion, the pillbox in Box was sited specifically to protect a secret Central Ammunition Depot. The area had been identified for military usefulness shortly after Hitler came to power in 1933. Concerned that the Luftwaffe would target London, Royal Engineers surveyed sites throughout the United Kingdom including local quarry tunnels for potential use as a munitions and explosives storage facility. The Box and Corsham workings were preferred because they were dry, deep underground, and partly vacant. Plus, there were skilled underground workers available locally and the Bath and Portland Stone Firms were willing to sell redundant sites. In 1936 the War Office purchased Tunnel Quarry and Ridge Quarry for £35,000 to secure storage areas of 45 and 6 acres respectively. The aim was to create a Central Ammunition Depot, storing three month’s ammunition for the British Army Field Force. The mines were cleared of two million tons of waste rubble which was deposited on the top of the tunnels as further protection from air bombardment. A local resident who worked for the Ministry of Defence commented that they used to joke that if by some mishap the stored ammunition exploded, it would have left “a hole the size of Wiltshire”. To see the pillbox, walk left through Lacy Wood (to the left of the Box Tunnel viewing point), cross the stile and head up the field to the copse of trees on the right.
Finally, look out for Celebrities
With Peter Gabriel’s RealWorld Recording Studios in the heart of the village, in a converted Mill at the bottom of Mill Lane, this unassuming village sees visits from an extraordinary number of famous singers and musicians. Deep Purple, Beyoncé, King Crimson, Robbie Williams, Tom Jones, Rag and Bone Man, The Vamps, Elbow, the Kaiser Chiefs, Kanye West, Gary Barlow and Kylie are amongst the many world class artists who have made a visit to Box to record here. Teen idol, Harry Styles visited in August 2020 and was snapped in this photo at the Northey Arms.