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Service trees in north Wiltshire have a connection to Old Sarum

Wiltshire Wildlife Trust last week announced the purchase of Great Wood near Grittenham and near the M4, 71 acres of ancient woodland and probably the largest collection of wild service trees (Sorbus torminalis) in the country.

What has this to do with our village lying in south Wiltshire between Old and New Sarum? Well, there is a possible, prehistoric connection.

Service trees grew in great abundance here, according to The Antonine Itinerary. There has long been a theory that this tree of the genus Sorbus is the origin of the name Salisbury, via Sorbiodunun which by a linguistic process called betacism became Sorviodunum and then the Saxon Searisbyrig. The Romans would have recognised this tree from elsewhere in their empire and may have named the hill fortress, or their settlement next to it, after it. They may have just translated a pre-Roman name Caer-Sarflog, or "the fortified place abounding with the Service Tree," which is first recorded as the residence of Ergen, daughter of Caradoc (Caractacus).

The Service tree was also known as the chequers tree because of some perceived patterning on the bark or fruits. Its fruits, sorb apples, became known as chequers, these were used to flavour an ale (long before the use of hops) by Gauls and Britons. The Latin for ale was a Gallic word cer(e)visia, in modern Spanish beer is cerveza, Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a yeast used in brewing, Cervisia was a beer brewed in Italy but as a brand name is now held by Heineken. This may be the origin of the name service tree, the ale tree. This ale was sold in chequers inns, and the building grid squares in early Salisbury tended to take their names from the inns or breweries. This is possibly the origin of the chequers in Salisbury and the Prime Minister’s Country House in Buckinghamshire.

Other theories are available.

Kerry O’Connor

Sources available here


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