Malmesbury - The Queen of Hilltop Towns
Atop a perfect flat hill encircled by the River Avon at the southern entrance to the Cotswolds, sits Malmesbury, said to be the oldest continually inhabited town in England. Malmesbury is rightly called the "Queen of Hilltop Towns" being England's oldest borough with a rich history over 1000 years.
Officially Malmesbury can be traced back to the fifth century, but modern excavations have revealed the remains of an Iron Age Fort, which casts the settlement possibly as far back as 500 BC. Malmesbury is also home to England’s oldest hotel, the Old Bell, which has been offering bed and board since 1220.
The honey stoned streets, a quaint tumble of 17th and 18th-century shops and inns bustle under the gaze of the imposing and beautiful seventh-century abbey. When St. Aldhelm founded the monastery the site soon became a place of pilgrimage and learning, and in the 10th Century, Athelstan, the first king of (all) England and grandson of Alfred the Great, made Malmesbury his capital. He is buried under the abbey grounds.
The abbey is also famous for its lovely five acres of gardens, a feast of formal landscaping and wild spaces dotted with fishponds that cascade into a valley carved by a tributary of the River Avon. A romantic oasis in the heart of the community, the gardens are often used for concerts and events through the summer.
The town with its medieval streets, old courtroom, and almshouses is lovely to walk around. In the marketplace you’ll find an elaborately engraved 15th-century market cross which is one of the best preserved of its kind in the country. You can also take to the scenic river path on a walking tour and learn some of Malmesbury’s colourful stories.
Malmesbury probably owes much of its long history to geography. Perched on top of a cliff-flanked hill almost completely surrounded by water, it might well be the country’s best naturally defended inland location. The hill is also dotted with freshwater springs, which would not only have sustained settlers but were considered to be holy wells as far back as the seventh century.
The actual date when Malmesbury received its official charter is a little unclear. It may have been as early as 880 under King Alfred, but the generally accepted date is 924 during the reign of Edward the Elder.
The ancient abbey was founded in AD 675. A centre for learning and pilgrimage, it once had a spire taller than Salisbury Cathedral. It has since evolved through three restorative incarnations and although much lies in scenic ruins today, it is still used as the local parish church.
Perhaps the abbey’s most famous resident was Eilmer, known as the Flying Monk. He is thought to be the first person on record to ever attempt to fly. Legend has it that after attaching wings to his hands and feet he soared airborne for more than a furlong, only to fall hazardously (although not fatally) to the ground. Undeterred by rendering himself lame in the attempt, Eilmer (or Oliver as he is sometimes known) wanted to give it another go, but the abbot forbade him. To this day he continues to pop up in the town’s rich historic tapestry. In the 1920s a stained glass window was installed in the church depicting him with a pair of wings, while a lane off the high street (Oliver's Lane), is said to mark the site of his bumpy landing.
|The great south door to the abbey - surrounded by eight bands of stone ornament
||Apostles - One of the most outstanding Romanesque sculptures in Britain
Malmesbury was originally the ancient frontier of two kingdoms, resulting in centuries of animosity and strife. The defensive position of the town along the route from Oxford to Bristol made it a strategic military point in more recent centuries, particularly during the
English Civil Wars. It was fiercely fought over and is said to have changed hands seven times. The south face of the abbey still bears the scars of cannon fire and gunshots.
The town flourished in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries as a weaving centre and became known for producing fine silk and lace.
The population of Malmesbury is currently only 5,400. The area's main employer Dyson (founded by James Dyson, inventor of the world's first bagless vacuum cleaner) has its headquarters on the edge of the town and employs around 1,600 people.
Malmesbury Abbey stands proudly over the town of Malmesbury, the seventh-century abbey is one of England's most historic sites and the town's star attraction. The Abbey is at the centre of Malmesbury and can be seen for miles around.
In 1539 King Henry VIII dissolved the monastery, which at the time, was the centre of worship. It was bought by William Stumpe, who arranged for it to become the parish church, and it was consecrated as such on 20th August 1541. Since then it has been a place of worship almost continuously.
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The sprawling Abbey Gardens surrounding the abbey are famous for their beauty, walks, history – and particularly roses. The house on the site dates back to the 13th century.
The Garden has an extensive collection of roses - one of the largest in England. With the abbey as dramatic backdrop its five acres feature more than 10,000 plant varieties spread between formal gardens dotted with fish ponds and a wilder section that cascades into a valley cut through by a tributary of the River Avon.
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The Old Bell Hotel
The Old Bell Hotel claims to be the oldest in England and has provided refuge for weary travellers since 1220. Today guests still find the sanctuary of a quintessential Cotswolds hotel, where old fashioned values include impeccable service, utter comfort and a focus on the pleasures of eating and drinking.
Accommodation at The Old Bell.
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Named after the first 'King of all England', buried in the nearby abbey, Athelstan Museum tells the history of a town built to a Saxon road plan on the site of a 4,500-year-old hill fort and the area surrounding it.
Situated a few minutes away from the historic abbey and Abbey House Gardens, this family friendly museum is located in the town hall facing the main town car park. The newly refurbished museum contains displays of local life and history.
SN16 9BZ. Tel: 01666 829258.
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Located on Cowage Farm, Foxley-cum-Bremilham west of Malmesbury, Bremilham Church is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the smallest church in use in Britain. It measures just four metres by three point six metres.
Inside there’s scarcely room for a congregation larger than ten, seating for just four and no room for an altar. Only one service a year is carried out at the church - Rogation Sunday Service is held at Bremilham Church on the Sixth Sunday of Easter.
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Westonbirt Arboretum is a few miles west of Malmesbury and is England’s finest collection of trees gathered upon a heritage landscape offering 17 miles of accessible paths fantastic for exploring, walking, relaxing and learning about nature.
Tetbury, Gloucestershire GL8 8QS. Tel: 01666 880220.
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Highgrove House and Gardens, the private residence of Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall.
The Cotswolds home of Prince Charles, Highgrove Estate includes Highgrove House and Home Farm, which produces organic vegetables, beef and other produce – all of which are available locally. The nearest town is Tetbury where Highgrove shop resides on the High Street.
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Lacock Abbey and Village
Lacock Abbey & Village is a 30 minutes drive south of Malmesbury, Lacock is a village captured in time, a favourite Cotswold filming location for period dramas and films including Pride and Prejudice, Moll Flanders, Emma and the Harry Potter movies due to its painstakingly preserved historical streets and elegant abbey.
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Bath is an iconic English city, unparalleled for its architecture, history and modern amenities and is just a 45-minute drive southwest of Malmesbury. Bath is the only designated World Heritage city in the UK.
The city is far more than museums and old buildings. It has a lively cultural scene with several festivals and all kinds of shows, concerts and exhibitions filling up the events calendar.