Often called England's prettiest village, Castle Combe in the Cotswolds in southern England, is one of those places that you will never forget, especially with its world-famous view across the river to the bridge and the village beyond.
The small river is one of the main reasons why this village was founded over eight centuries ago, because the river powered the mill that manufactured wool from all of the sheep of the area. Then they made the wool into high quality fabrics, thanks to the skill of local weavers, and these textiles were sold throughout the region, which created great prosperity enabling this little village to thrive. However, that wool industry declined for various reasons about 500 years ago, and the town never developed any further. As a result Castle Combe is beautifully preserved as a rare example of a medieval village.
The central area of the village is quite small, just 200 meters across, but there is a lot to see. So take your time. It's located on the southern edge of the Cotswolds, just 12 miles from the nearest city of Bath, and just 75 minutes away from London. Like many visitors, we’re taking a day trip from Bath, which is our home base for seeing the region. It was organized by Mad Max, a very capable company with many different tours in the area.
Arriving right in the middle of the little village at Market Square with several pubs around us. There is the White Hart, where you can have a meal or just a pint, and across the way the other pub the Castle Inn, which also serves as a small boutique hotel with 12 rooms. The pub is in a 12th-century building that has been lovingly restored into a classic bed-and-breakfast. You can pop in for a pint, or cozy up for a delicious meal, or settle in for a wonderful night sleep.
The Castle Inn is owned by the five-star Manor House Hotel, which is directly connected to it by this archway cottage, which is one of the rooms of the Manor House Hotel. The hotel is connected to town by a short lane, lined by the 500-years-old stone cottages leading back to the Market Square. We'll bring you on a tour inside that deluxe property at the end of the story.
The four-columned structure in the center is called the Market Cross. It was erected in the 14th century when the privilege to hold a weekly market in Castle Combe was granted. Produce would be sold in and around this stall, and they say that a priest would stand in the middle, giving his sermon to a captive audience – located at the crossroads of the three streets of the village. The Market Cross, a Scheduled Monument, reflects "the significance of the cloth industry in this area". Next to the cross is one of Castle Combe's two village pumps. The stone steps are another historic landmark, so that horse riders could easily get on and off their horses.
On the right side, notice the doorway with some tables of food outside. Payment is on the honor system. You can buy baked goods and bottled water and other items, then put your money in the slot in the door. It's Ellen's Cottage.
Castle Combe is one of the most photographed little villages of England, and it can get very crowded during the peak summer season, but you'll notice it's rather quiet if you’re visiting in early May, which is a great time to be here, and it helps to visit in the morning before the larger tour buses arrive.
Our guide explained about the stone roof shingles characteristic of the area. "So you get these big stones, big double stones at the bottom, and they gradually get smaller and smaller at the top."
The village houses are all typical of the Cotswold type, constructed in honey-colored stone, with thick walls, and roofs made of split stone tiles. No new homes have been built in this historic area since about the year 1600. That was about the time when this river decreased in volume for some reason, and that made it difficult for the wool mills to continue functioning. It was the beginning of the end of the wool industry in Castle Combe and a big reason why no modern developments ever took place here.
And yet now, ironically, the river has become one of the important reasons why Castle Combe is so attractive to the visitor. It's created this absolutely beautiful scene, so be sure to walk beyond the bridge at the south end of the village so that you can enjoy it.
You'll certainly want to pay a visit inside this Church of England parish church, called St. Andrew. It was built mostly in the 15th century, but includes some earlier 13th and 14th century sections, and then later in the mid-19th century it was extensively rebuilt in the original style, and there is no record of any earlier Saxon church on this location. The interior of the church consists of a nave, chapels to the northeast and southeast, aisles and a south porch. The oldest monument in the church is in the lady chapel – an effigy of Sir Walter de Dunstanville, a very important local hero.
There is a famous tomb of Barron Walter de Dunstanville, who was the Lord of the Manor, and he died in 1270. We know that he went to two Crusades, and he died while on the second Crusade, which we know by virtue of the fact that he dressed in battle dress, with his feet now forever resting on the head of a lion. When you think about it, how remarkable it was, to get, to go to Israel twice, back in the 1200s. They brought him back once he'd been killed.
The 15th-century tower of the church is 80 feet high, with many features of the late medieval, including four pinnacles, diagonal buttresses, a bell turret and fortified battlements. The faceless clock is believed to have been made by the local blacksmith in the 1380s. The tower has a small bell of the 13th century and a larger one of 1766.
Naturally there's a historic cemetery behind the church in a scenic garden setting. It's one of those hidden, little beauty spots that you might miss if you're in a big rush to walk through this little village.
You could walk from one end to the other and back again in 15 or 20 minutes, but you've seen this is such an unusually special place that it is worth slowing down and taking time to let it all soak in.
Some visitors to Castle Combe ask, where's the castle? It was a prehistoric Celtic fortress on the hill north of town, and then became occupied by the Romans, and later by the Normans. The 12th-century castle stood about 500 meters to the north. Only the earthworks are still visible since the castle was abandoned in the late 1300s. The castle is believed to have been built by the first Baron, Reginald de Dunstanville, circa 1140. "Castell of Cumbe" stood on an ancient site used by the Britons. The last remaining stone tower of the castle stood for centuries, but it too was demolished, in 1950.
The settlement was listed in the Domesday Book of 1086, with 33 households. Centuries earlier, a Roman villa stood about three miles from the village, indicating Roman occupation of the area. The site has been excavated on at least thee occasions, the first by Scrope in 1852 and the most recent in 2010. Some reports refer to the site as the North Wraxall or the Truckle Hill villa. Evidence of a bath house and corn drying ovens were found, the latter from the 4th century. The villa itself apparently contained 16 rooms, and there were additional buildings and a cemetery. Neolithic flint tools and Iron Age brooches were also discovered not far from the villa, in 1985. The word Combe is an old Saxon word that refers to a narrow valley, which is how we get the name, Castle Combe.
By 1340, the village had a fulling mill, confirming the importance of wool by that time. The market town prospered during the 15th century when it belonged to Millicent, the wife of Sir Stephen Le Scrope and then of Sir John Fastolf (1380–1459), a Norfolk knight who was the effective lord of the manor for fifty years. Scrope promoted the woolen industry, supplying his own troops and others for Henry V's war in France.
At some time in the late 1700s, the level of the Bybrook River fell, so it could no longer be used to power mills. The cloth industry began leaving the area during that century; "industrial prosperity was over and the population decreased".
The Scrope family owned the village for over five centuries, until 1866 when it was sold to the Gorst family and Edward Chaddock Lowndes (who was previously also known as Gorst). The latter spent a great deal of money on improving the manor house and the estate. For decades the village had a number of gristmills and sawmills but all went out of business; Nettleton Mill closed before 1916 and Gatcombe Mill closed circa 1925; both are Grade II listed.
Now that you've seen the village's beauty, you might be tempted to stay for a few days. And why not treat yourself to some luxury at the five-star Manor House Hotel, located just 100 yards from town. The price is a bit less than you'd pay in an urban setting for such comforts. For example, during September through December, you can get a room for two people for about 300 pounds, including breakfast.
The hotel offers fine dining at its Michelin-starred restaurant where you can have a meal even if you're not staying overnight, or maybe drop in for afternoon tea. They have 21 rooms and suites in the main building, along with 29 deluxe suites in what they called the Mews Cottages located on the property. This is starting to look like a paid commercial, but let me remind you, I never accept any fees or service in kind for the coverage of any subject, restaurant, hotel, or anything. I just like to share this with you because it's such a beautiful place.
There is also a golf course, and flower and kitchen gardens, a pond, and there are some nice walking trails on the 360 acres of the property. The Manor House was first built in the 17th century and then expanded and rebuilt in the 19th century. By the mid-20th century it was converted to a hotel.
Castle Combe makes a good home base from which you can see many of the other villages of the Cotswolds in easy driving distance. While leaving the village we pass on the left the Dower House, with those four peak gables. It was the home of the wives of the Lords of the Manor, they say, and also the home of the village doctor, and it was the Dr. Doolittle house in the film that was made here 1966.