Castle Combe is often described as the ‘prettiest village in England’, though people sometimes forget it’s part of the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Beauty as it lies right at the southernmost tip. Its historical roots in the wool trade combined with its unspoilt nature – with stone cottages, a distinctive Market Cross and packhorse bridge – means it more than fulfils the brief of the archetypal Cotswold village. Our local expert Michelle shares her insider tips for visiting Castle Combe, perfectly placed for exploring the Cotswolds, nearby Bath and beyond.
Castle Combe’s history
The name Castle Combe come from the 12th-century castle which once stood to the north of the village, and the valley it nestles in; these are often called combes in southern England. The castle buildings are long gone, though some of the earthworks remain. Castle Combe’s history stretches further back in time to when it was the site of a British hill fort, which was then occupied by the Romans, followed by the Normans who built the castle.
In the Middle Ages, the village was an important centre of the wool industry, and the cottages seen today were occupied by spinners and weavers. Their mills were powered by the clear waters of the By Brook, a tributary of the Bristol Avon which it joins close to Bath.
Today Castle Combe lies within a conservation area and has over one hundred listed buildings which contribute to its unspoilt nature. The village is famed as a film location, starting with Doctor Doolittle in the 1960s. Amongst others it has been a location for the Poirot episode The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and some early scenes in Stephen Spielberg’s War Horse.
Explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes narrowly avoided jail for trying to blow up a dam on the Doctor Doolittle film set – disgruntled villagers were concerned the dam on the By Brook built by 20th Century Fox would spoil their beautiful village and plotted to blow it up.
Things to do in Castle Combe
The view of the Castle Combe with the packhorse bridge and weaver’s cottages is the village’s classic photo opportunity. From there explore the newly restored 13th-century Market Cross (also called the Buttercross) with its shields at the top of each column.
St Andrew’s Church also dates from that time and is noted for its faceless clock which is thought to be one of the oldest working clocks in the country. You can dig a little deeper into Castle Combe’s history with A Step Back in Time tour, led by costumed guide Carly Batten.
There are plenty of options for keen walkers, from a fine, easy stroll through the village itself through to walks on the Macmillan and Palladian Way long-distance walking trails. Some of the nearby meadows are botanically rich limestone grassland, one of rarest and most diverse of Britain’s native habitats, laden with wildflowers and insects in the spring and summer months.
Wildlife spotters can look for fat brown trout in the By Brook by the packhorse bridge, or find woodpeckers, little owls and buzzards in the surrounding countryside.
Keen golfers will enjoy one of Wiltshire’s finest championship courses at The Manor House Golf Club. Visitors are welcome and guests staying at the Manor House Hotel receive preferential green fee rates. The course also has accommodation at The Waterfall Lodge* overlooking the 18th hole.
Castle Combe is split into two sections, with the Castle Combe Race Circuit on the edge of the upper village. The West Country’s home of motorsport has a full racing calendar of both car and racing bike action. Track days are popular for those wanting to put their own car or bike through its paces, and there’s also a motorcycle skills school and 4×4 off-road, skid pan and karting tuition is available from Drive-Tech. The track also hosts an annual steam rally in May.
Castle Combe is centrally located for visits to the national arboretum at Westonbirt and the National Trust’s Dyrham Park and Lacock Abbey, the birthplace of photography. The Georgian city of Bath is 10 miles away and Highgrove, Longleat and Malmesbury – the oldest borough in England – are also within easy reach. The Badminton Horse Trials are held less than four miles away each May, and garden lovers will enjoy nearby Iford Manor, The Courts and Stourhead.
Places to eat & drink in Castle Combe
As well as sheep and the wool trade, Wiltshire has a long tradition of pig and dairy farming. Look out for Wiltshire Ham, a classic thick-cut wet cure dating back to WWI, traditionally served with egg and thick-cut chips, or in a sandwich with mustard or pickles. The latter may be sourced from Tracklements, a local maker who still make their preserves by hand.
Wiltshire Lardy Cake is reputed to originate from Castle Combe and consists of lard, bread dough, sugar and currants – it tastes much better than it sounds! Cheese lovers will enjoy cheeses from Brinkworth Dairy, where Ceri Cryer has revived her great-grandfather’s recipe for Wiltshire Loaf, a sought-after cheese in the 18th century mentioned in Jane Austen’s novel Emma.
Try the famous ice cream from Marshfield Farm, either at their farmyard café in the summer, or from the doorway of one of the houses in Castle Combe. Locals often leave homemade cakes, sweets, or bunches of flowers outside their houses beside an honesty box for payment.
The Bybrook Restaurant at The Manor House Hotel is a wonderful location for fine dining, which offers a Michelin-starred menu from head chef Rob Potter. Informal dining is available in the lounges, with salads, sandwiches, pastas and steaks on the menu, and afternoon tea is available until 5.30pm. Check the hotel’s website for availability for non-resident diners.
Close to Castle Combe racing circuit is the 14th-century White Hart, serving traditional pub food using locally sourced ingredients in its courtyard garden, or by the log fire in the cosy dining area in winter. The pub serves real ales brewed by Wadworth in nearby Devizes. Note, this is a different pub to the White Hart at Ford, which is close to Castle Combe on the other side of the A420.
The dog-friendly Old Stables Coffee Shop in the heart of the village is open for breakfast, lunch, and afternoon tea at weekends during winter, with more extensive hours in summer. The Old Rectory Tearoom is bookable for private parties and both venues offer a takeaway service.
Where to stay in Castle Combe
For the ultimate in special stays, the five-star Manor House Hotel* combines luxury with the feel of its country club roots. It dates back to the 14th century, and has a multitude of cosy lounges and a dedicated gin bar. There are 365 acres of estate and woodland to explore, with an Italian garden and garden games closer to the house plus a kitchen garden supplying the restaurant. Upstairs, no two rooms are the same, with luxurious suites, family rooms and dog-friendly stays available.
The Castle Inn* is a more affordable option, a classic Cotswolds pub and B&B at the heart of the village which dates from the 12th century and is part of Exclusive Collection of hotels group alongside The Manor House. The building was once used as a retreat by Oliver Cromwell and has plenty of character with exposed beams, log fires and antique furniture.
Keeper’s Lodge offers luxury self-catering, just 15 minutes walk from the centre of the village, with its own 17 acres to explore. It offers two double bedrooms with king-sized beds at The Garden Lodge* and one double bedroom in The Studio*. Each is designed with high-spec interiors and stocked with a selection of breakfast items for a relaxed start to your holiday.
Or Stable Cottage* is a converted 17th-century stable with vaulted ceiling and thick stone walls, in a quiet lane close to the village centre with off-road parking. It offers open plan accommodation for up to two people at an attractive price for the area (minimum stay three nights).
How to get to Castle Combe
By car: The closest M4 motorway junctions are 18 (Bath) and 17 (Chippenham) and the village is well signposted from both. There is a free public car park at the top of the hill for visitors, but note that roadside parking is extremely limited on the steep hill leading to the lower part of the village (watch out for double yellow lines if you do park on the road – these are actively enforced). The walk down is a pleasant stroll, though it’s more work on the way back up!
By public transport: Chippenham, five miles from Castle Combe, has train and National Express coach services to London and Bristol. The number 35 Faresaver bus connects Chippenham and Castle Combe, which takes 30 minutes, but services only run every other hour (and not at all on Sundays) so you may need to take a taxi. You can find them outside the train station’s main entrance or on the taxi rank close to the coach stop on the High Street.
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