Day 13, Sunday December 22, 2019
First up today was a drive to Castle Combe – or, as it transpired, a drive through Castle Combe on account of the fact that we couldn’t get a carpark in the village and it was raining.
Not to worry, it is a very pretty town and well worth a visit; maybe next time we can walk through it – although I seem to recall saying that last time too.
Our main destination today was Malmesbury. There’s a lot to be said about Malmesbury, no seriously, there is – so make a cuppa and settle back.
For a start, it is the oldest borough in England; then there was that time where it was the capital of Britain. The first King of Britain is buried somewhere in the grounds of the abbey; an early attempt at human flight was made from the tower of the abbey; and Malmesbury is also the site of the first recorded death by tiger in Britain. Yes, you read that correctly. And finally, The Old Bell in Malmesbury is said to be the oldest pub in England.
That’s a lot of history to put on the shoulders of a pretty town in Wiltshire’s part of The Cotswolds and, like much of history, historians don’t necessarily agree with all of it.
There’s no denying, though, that Malmesbury was, for a time, one of the most important towns in the country. Dating back to the sixth century, it was awarded borough status via a charter by Alfred The Great in around 880.
Okay, here we’ll divert for a little history lesson: Alf set up a system of defensive strong points around the country – or fortified settlements against possible Viking attack – each with a degree of autonomy or self-government of sorts. These were called Burhs which became Borough (or Burgh in Scotland).
Anyways, Malmesbury was on a hill with plenty of freshwater streams, so the first borough it became.
As for Malmesbury being the capital of Britain? This claim to fame rests on its special relationship with King Athelstan (King Alfred’s grandson) of Wessex. Some historians record that Athelstan made Malmsebury his capital in 925 AD. The date is important, because in 927 AD Athelstan defeated an army of northern English and Scots and proclaimed himself as King of all England. If Malmsebury was his capital, then surely it followed that it was also the capital of this new kingdom and therefore England’s first capital? The city of Winchester would disagree with this version – but it makes for a good story regardless. Capital or not, King Athelstan was buried in Malmesbury Abbey when he died in 939.
Speaking of the abbey, there’s been one here since the 670s. And in around 700 the first church organ in England was built in the abbey.
Over the years, the usual things happened to the abbey – parts of it collapsed, were rebuilt, expanded, lost or sold in the reformation; you know the story – but it’s still a working church today.
One not so usual thing is that the abbey was the site of an early attempt at flight. in 1010, the monk (and astrologer) Eilmer (or Oliver) of Malmesbury flew a primitive hang glider from a tower. When I say primitive, I mean primitive – he fixed “wings” to his hands and feet. He didn’t crash straight away – in fact, he flew over 180 metres before landing, breaking both legs. He acknowledged that the flaw in his design was that he neglected to fix himself a tail – which would have allowed him to glide down not crash. He was thereafter known as The Flying Monk. Actually, I made that last bit up, but it could very well be true.
Still on the abbey, we come to the pub, The Old Bell – which claims to be the oldest hotel in England – which was originally part of the abbey.
Now, there are a number of pubs in England making the same claim. For some, it’s the age of the building or the age of the license, or some other reason to bring the punters in. The Old Bell, however, explains why they believe they deserve the title:
The building of the Old Bell Hotel in 1220 was instigated by Abbot Loring.
At that time, Malmesbury Abbey was one of the foremost places of learning in England, alongside Glastonbury and Canterbury.
This was due to the fact that King Athlestan, the first King of all England, married his four daughters to foreign kings, thus amassing vast treasures and libraries.
The number of visiting scholars coming to study the manuscripts was so large that the Abbot built the Old Bell to provide shelter and food.
It is based on this fact, that we claim to be the oldest hotel in England.
It’s not, however, the site of the first recorded death by tiger incident in England. That honour goes to The White Lion (I know, the name is ironic) in 1703 and barmaid Hannah Twynnoy was the victim. Apparently, she’d been warned against annoying the tiger, which was part of a “menagerie” or exhibition which had been set up in the yard. She ignored the warnings and one day the tiger dealt with the situation.
Her gravestone in the abbey reads: Hannah Twynney kild by a Tygre at ye White Lyon
In bloom of Life
She’s snatchd from hence,
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tyger fierce
Took Life away.
And here she lies
In a bed of Clay,
Until the Resurrection Day.
Back to The Old Bell, regardless of whether it’s the oldest or not, they do a good Sunday lunch: the Wiltshire beef was the best roast beef we’ve had in a very long time. Sarah had a sticky date pudding to follow and Grant went for apple and damson crumble with ginger ice cream.
Speaking of ice cream, we called in at Jolly Nice Farmshop (I’ve told you about this place before) at Frampton Mansell on the way back to Tetbury and I bought a raspberry and beetroot ice cream. It played with my head a tad – but in a good way.
Off to Westonbirt Arboretum for their Enchanted Christmas tonight…(Note: I told you about that here…)…and tomorrow we’re heading for Gloucester.
Malmesbury is located in Wiltshire, just 5 miles south-east of Tetbury. Castle Combe, also in Wiltshire, is 13 miles south of Tetbury, and Jolly Nice is located on the main road between Stroud and Cirencester at Frampton Mansell, just under 8 miles from where we were staying in Tetbury.