Continuing along through the pretty countryside of Wiltshire, heading for the Cotswold town of Malmesbury, and along the way we passed characteristic cottages with thatched roof.
The charming High Street is bursting with an array of independent retailers and eateries, and the town has occasional festivals for music, history and the arts. Malmesbury is set in a rural location typical of Cotswold villages, with a population of about 5000, and a famous church that dates back to the 12th-century. Malmesbury has a rich history as England’s oldest borough. By the time of the Norman invasion in 1066, Malmesbury was one of the most significant towns in England.
The 15th-century Market Cross is one of the country's best preserved, its plan is octagonal, the exterior supporting piers terminating in pinnacles, and the central shaft continued above the roof, forming an ornamental turret, supported by flying buttresses. The Market Cross is right next to the arch of Birdcage Walk that leads us into the Abbey grounds.
This church is always the main focus of any visit to this charming little town. Once the site of an Iron Age fort, in the Anglo-Saxon period it became the site of a monastery famed for its learning and one of Alfred the Great's fortified burhs for defence against the Vikings. The origins of the Abbey go back to the seventh century, a time when Malmesbury was one of the oldest market towns in Britain. Its architecture is listed in the highest category and it is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The entrance has some of Britain's most outstanding Romanesque sculptures.
The church is so old that the first King of all England was buried here in the year 941, honored with this monumental statue, but in the 14th century, the remains of King Athelstan were moved from here to an unknown location.
The abbey suffered during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, but the bulk of it forms a rare survival of the dissolution of the monasteries. It was damaged again during the civil war, but it still impresses by its scale and beauty.
The Abbey is still an active parish church, and we happened upon a social event where some folks were gathered to raise money for their charity called Christian Aid. “Taking aid a people who are in need of provisions or whatever.” And Church of England masses are held here on a regular basis. The church has been rebuilt in various styles over the centuries, from Saxon to Norman, and Romanesque to Gothic.
Next door is the oldest hotel in England, The Old Bell, founded in the early 13th century as lodgings for visiting monks. The building was extended and altered in the late 15th century or early 16th, and from c. 1530 it was used as a cloth mill by William Stumpe. It's a four-star hotel with a high-quality restaurant.
The community was the ancient frontier of two kingdoms, with Tetbury 5 miles to the north in Mercia while Malmesbury was in the West Saxon Kingdom, resulting in centuries of animosity between the two towns. Malmesbury's location and defensive position on the latterly important Oxford to Bristol route made it a strategic military point.
At the Battle of Brunanburh in 937, King Athelstan of Wessex defeated an army of northern English and Scots and made a claim to become the first 'King of All England'. Helped by many men from Malmesbury, in gratitude he gave the townsfolk their freedom, along with 600 hides of land to the south of the town. The status of freemen of Malmesbury was passed down through the generations and remains to this day. It is likely, however, that the title of freeman, or commoner, was given to tradesmen and craftsmen coming into the town during the early Middle Ages, so the claim of direct lineage from the men who fought with King Athelstan to the present day commoners is unlikely, though possible. Since at least the 17th century, however, the right has been only handed down from father to son or son-in-law. There is a maximum of 280 commoners. The organisation is said to be the 'most exclusive club' in the world, as to enter it one has to be born to a freeman or marry the daughter of one.
During the 12th century civil war between Stephen of England and his cousin the Empress Matilda, the succession agreement was reached after their armies faced each other across the impassable River Avon at Malmesbury in the winter of 1153.
During the Civil War the town changed hands seven times, with the south face of Malmesbury Abbey still today bearing pock-marks from cannon and gunshot. In 1646 Parliament ordered that the town walls be destroyed. As peace came to inland England, and the need to defend the developing coastal port towns became more important, Malmesbury, without its Abbey, lost its importance. As developing transport and trade routes passed it by, it regressed to a regional market town.
Traditionally a market town serving the rural area of north west Wiltshire, farming has been the main industry. Even today, the High Street has numerous independent shops and a weekly market. The Reformation of 1539 changed Malmesbury's economy: having no income from the Abbey, the town turned to the wool spinning and weaving industry, having access to large quantities of wool and water. It then became a centre of the lace-making industry. But, what had made it successful and important as a religious and strategic defensive centre – water on three sides and steep cliffs – precluded easy access for the modern bulk transport methods of canals and railways. The Kennet and Avon Canal and the later Great Western Railway passed well to the south of the town. While local quarrying of Cotswold stone often provided transient booms in employment, Malmesbury saw little expansion compared to, for example, Gloucester, by not being a commuter suburb or major production center of the industrial revolution.
The town's main employer today is Dyson, which has a site on the edge of the town where it employs around 4,000. This is mainly a research, development and design organisation, with manufacturing carried out in Malaysia. The site was the company's headquarters until 2019, when it was announced that the company registration would be moved to Singapore.
The town's economy profits from tourism, divided among Cotswold Hills retreats (ranging from B&Bs to golf/spa resorts), visits and tours of the abbey, nearby landmarks and festivals or by interest in the counter-modernism 1960s work of poet laureate, John Betjeman.
It’s also home to well-known music, history, arts and gardens events and festivals. Learn all about these and more of the town’s history at the Athelstan Museum.
Malmesbury sits on a flat Cotswolds hilltop at the convergence of two rivers. From the west, the infant (Bristol) Avon flows from Sherston, and from the north west, a tributary either known as the Tetbury Avon, River Avon (Tetbury branch) or, locally, The Ingleburn. They flow within 200 metres (660 ft) of each other but are separated by a narrow and high isthmus which forces the Bristol Avon south and the Tetbury Avon east. This creates a rocky outcrop as a south-facing, gently sloping hilltop, until the two rivers meet on the southern edge of the town. With steep sides, in places cliff-like, the town was described by Sir William Waller as the best naturally defended inland location he had seen.
In the 19th and 20th centuries the town expanded to the northwest, occupying land between the two rivers which was formerly in Westport and Brokenborough parishes. In the later 20th and early 21st, development was to the north, as far as the area known as Filands.
What made Malmesbury successful as a town – water and excellent defences – led to both its current layout and the presence of over 300 listed buildings within its boundaries. Roger of Salisbury reconstructed the town after his accession to Bishop of Salisbury in 1102, and the Saxon layout he rebuilt is retained in the centre today. The geography also precluded easy development for mass transport and hence hindered industrial development, leaving the architecture and ancient buildings largely untouched. The result is a higher proportion of Grade I and Grade II buildings than in many other English towns.
Today, the nearest rail stations managed and served by Great Western Railway are: Kemble on the Golden Valley Line; Chippenham on the Great Western Main Line; Swindon on the Great Western Main Line.
The town's bus network is run by Coachstyle, who run a town service in addition to services to and from Swindon, Yate, Chippenham and Cirencester.