The town is situated on a small river, the Marden, that rises 2 miles (3 kilometres) away in the Wessex Downs, and is the only town on that river. It is on the A4 road national route 19 mi (31 km) east of Bath, 6 mi (10 km) east of Chippenham, 13 mi (21 km) west of Marlborough and 16 mi (26 km) southwest of Swindon. Wiltshire’s county town of Trowbridge is 15 mi (24 km) to the southwest, with London 82 mi (132 km) due east as the crow flies. At the 2011 Census, Calne had 17,274 inhabitants.
In AD 978, Anglo-Saxon Calne was the site of a large two-storey building with a hall on the first floor. It was here that St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury met the Witenagemot to justify his controversial organisation of the national church, which involved the secular priests being replaced by Benedictine monks and the influence of landowners over churches on their lands being taken away. According to an account written about 1000, at one point in this meeting Dunstan called upon God to support his cause, at which point the floor collapsed killing most of his opponents, whilst Dunstan and his supporters were in the part that remained standing. This was claimed as a miracle by Dunstan’s supporters. In 1086 Calne may already have been, as it was later, a market town on the main London-Bristol road.
The church in it was well endowed. 74 or more households were held almost outright by burghal tenure (as citizens of a borough), and the lordship of its large outlying land was divided between the king (of whom 45 burgesses were tenants) and the church. Many Bodmans are known to have owned pews in the church.
In the Middle Ages the king’s successor as the lord of Calne manor and, as owner of the church’s revenues, the treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral, each had the right to hold a market and a fair in the town, with two triangular market places or fair grounds. A modest hospital was provided on a modest endowment from 1248 until it provided no accommodation in 1546 and was sold two years later by the Crown.
From the will of Humphry Bodman in 1697 we know he was aa serge maker as were some of his descendants. Serge was a type of twill fabric that has diagonal lines or ridges on both sides, made with a two-up, two-down weave. The worsted variety is used in making military uniforms, suits, great coats and trench coats. Its counterpart, silk serge, is used for linings.
By the 18th century, Calne had a significant woollen broadcloth industry, and evidence of this can be seen set around the triangular green by the parish church, where 24 listed buildings remain, five at Grade II* including the Tounson almshouses for the neediest poor and Georgian era clothiers’ houses. Nearby are some of the 20 original cloth mills along the Marden. St Mary’s church was extended by the generous donations of rich clothiers and wool merchants in the 15th century.
Houses of the 17th and 18th centuries have external walls of stone and timber-framed walls inside. Most of the stone is limestone rubble, laid with ashlar dressings in houses of higher quality; the walls of many houses were rendered smooth. Until the 19th century, quarries beside the London road northwest and southeast of the town were sources of stone for building.
The Wilts & Berks Canal linked the Kennet and Avon Canal at Semington, near Melksham, to the River Thames at Abingdon. Much of the traffic on the canal was coal from the Somerset Coalfield. As the canal passed through open country near Stanley, east of Chippenham, a short branch led through three locks to a wharf in Calne. The canal was completed in 1810 and abandoned in 1914.
Calne’s former railway station opened in 1863, the terminus of its own branch line of the Great Western Railway running east from Chippenham, with one intermediate stop: Stanley Bridge Halt. The opening of Black Dog Halt in the early 20th century provided insufficient demand to slow a progressive decline. The branch closed as a result of the Beeching Axe in September 1965, having suffered the ignominy of making the biggest loss per mile of any line in the country.