Day Trip to Castle Combe – England’s prettiest little village
16th June 2019
Lying at the foot of the Cotswolds in Wiltshire, Castle Combe is the embodiment of a quintessential English village and an easy day trip from London.
Main street from By Brook
Just a 2-hour drive from London and only one mile off the M4, it’s like stepping into another world. The main street winds down the combe from the public car park, through pretty golden Cotswold stone cottages, around an ancient market square, and along a brook that used to power the fulling mills in the cloth-making process during the Middle Ages.
Once voted ‘the prettiest village in England’, it’s an idyllic step into the past.
A Little History
What we see of Castle Combe today began during the Middle Ages. The village takes its name from a 12th-century Norman castle – originally a Roman fort used by the Saxons – that stood just to the north of the village. It became an important weaving centre during the 13th and 14th centuries after the lord of the manor – Sir John Fastolf – built fulling mills and cottages for his workers along the By Brook.
Old weaver’s cottages along By Brook
The village flourished and prospered under Fastolf’s patronage, becoming famous for its crimson wool cloth, though they also made white cloth. ‘Castlecombe’ actually became a trade name for this cloth and mention of Castlecombe cloth is found in City of London records of the time.
There’s a 14th century stone-canopied market cross that stands in a small square next to St Andrew’s Church at the centre of the village. A sizable weekly wool and cloth market was held here, as well as an annual fair which continued until 1904.
Stone-canopied market cross and St Andrew’s Church
The prosperity of the village and the wealth the weaving industry brought to it is best reflected in St Andrew’s Church, which was enlarged during the 15th century. It has an impressive tower that was built in 1436.
The village continued to produce Castlecombe cloth for centuries. However, cloth manufacturing began to decline in the early 18th century when the tiny By Brook was unable to power the larger, modern machinery that was being introduced. As people moved to the larger towns, Castle Combe returned to its former agricultural existence and remained an ‘estate’ village until 1947, when the entire village was sold at auction.
What to see and do
If the streets seem vaguely familiar it may be because you’ve seen them at the cinema. Castle Combe has been used as a backdrop for films such as Stardust and War Horse, and even as far back as the 1960s Doctor Dolittle. The golden-coloured stones of the cottages with their window boxes and climbing wisteria vines are just gorgeous, reminiscent of another era. Though the wisteria wasn’t yet in bloom, these streets feel quite magical.
Looking back at the Market Square from the Old Post Office
It’s a small village and the market square, St Andrew’s Church and the weaver’s cottages at Long Dean along By Brook are the main attractions, which you can see in the space of an hour. During the summer months and school holidays it must be mobbed with tourists. But on a Wednesday in mid-April there were few visitors, and none once we left the village to walk a 5-mile circuit through the river valley and along the wooded hillside.
While the village is lovely, this walk was my highlight. Walking along the road past picturesque cottages, we crossed the stream and headed up the hillside.
Across the stream…
Though uphill to start, it’s easy walking. The path is straightforward and you can’t go wrong. It was completely dry when we were there, but I imagine in wet weather it’s pretty muddy. And note that there are a few stiles to cross along the way.
…and into the woods
Walking along the hillside there are amazing views into the valley below.
There’s dense woodland…
…with swathes of wild garlic…
…and the most amazing trees…
This circular walk can easily be done in a couple of hours and it’s really pretty and extremely peaceful, with just the sounds of the birds and the occasional bleating of sheep.
Where to eat and drink
We ate at the 14th-century White Hart pub, right on the square in the centre of Castle Combe.
There’s a lovely patio garden in the back but it was a bit chilly so we sat next to the cosy fire in the main bar.
I’ve seen some very poor reviews online but we really enjoyed it. It’s an authentic pub experience with friendly staff, nice ales, a good selection of wines, and great food at reasonable prices.
Across the road, the Castle Inn is supposed to be more up-market (read expensive) with a more contemporary menu. Further up the road is the 14th-century Manor House Hotel, where there’s a Michelin-starred restaurant. There’s also more informal dining in their gardens and you can have afternoon tea outside if the weather’s fine.
How to Get to Castle Combe
Driving from southwest London takes just under 2 hours. Take the M4, exit at Junction 17 and take the A350 to Castle Combe. Your GPS will take you there no problem. Park at the free public car park (clearly sign-posted) at the top of the hill and then walk down into the village. There’s some parking along the side of the road but none in the village.
It’s also possible to get there by public transport. Great Western Rail regularly goes from Paddington to Chippenham and takes just over an hour, but it’s pretty pricey; return ticket is around £60 (about US$75 at today’s exchange rate). From Chippenham there’s the #35 bus to the centre of Castle Combe which stops a lot but only takes about 20 minutes. A much cheaper option is by coach from London Victoria to Chippenham – under £15 (about US$20) return – but it takes 2 ½ hours. So public transport is a bit difficult for a day trip. But it is cheaper than renting a car if you don’t have access to one.
There are many online resources for your trip to Castle Combe. One of the best is the Visit Wiltshire website. The AA also has some great information, including the walking map I’ve included above. Further material can be found in the Castle Combe Information Guide on the Cotswolds Info website, which has comprehensive info for the entire Cotswolds.
For more photos see my Castle Combe Photo Album