Things to see in and around Malmesbury, North Wiltshire

Malmesbury Abbey by Colin Legge

The charming market town of Malmesbury on the southern Cotswold border is small in size but packed with things to see and do – and it’s within easy reach of Bath and Cirencester. Before you head off to these beaten-trail destinations though there’s plenty to explore within Malmesbury itself: the town certainly merits a closer look.

For a start – and this is something to remember for your next pub quiz – it’s the oldest borough in England, and recognised as such by the Guinness Book of Records. It was given royal borough status by Alfred the Great in 880AD. Though Alfred was only the King of Wessex his grandson, Athelstan, was recognised, after a good deal of pillaging around York and Northumberland, as the first king of England – and is said to be buried in the grounds of Malmesbury Abbey.

These days Malmesbury belies its historic origins. It has a population of just over 5,000: small enough to ensure a welcome, large enough to offer plenty of shopping and dining options.

The heart of the town is the historic Market Cross, an ornate stone structure built in 1490 in the centre of the Market Place. This is busiest on Friday, when the Malmesbury Artisan and Farmer’s Market takes place. On other days it’s worth exploring the High Street, with a range of independent shops and restaurants, or stroll around the town centre as it hugs the River Avon.

Malmesbury Abbey by JMW Turner
Malmesbury Abbey in 1794, as seen by JMW Turner

The finest sight in Malmesbury has to be Malmesbury Abbey, which you’ll find on Gloucester Street. The Abbey you’ll see today is actually the third to be built on the site, but even that was in 1180. It has always been an important place of worship and at one point housed the second largest library in Europe. It was unfortunately much damaged during the English Civil War – the town changed hands six times – and you can still see the cannon and musket damage on the western walls. At the end of the 15th century the 500-foot spire collapsed and was never rebuilt.

These days it’s still a busy parish church. Services are held in the nave and the Abbey has a very important four-volume illustrated bible, but the rest of the Abbey is in gracious ruins. It is free to enter – you can even bring your dogs – and is a tremendously atmospheric place. It’s a wonderful place to stroll around and soak up the sense of history; you might well be walking over King Athelstan’s grave.

Malmesbury flower basketsFor a more formal introduction into Malmesbury’s history the Athelstan Museum has everything from Iron Age millstones to items from the second world war. Start your exploration of the town with the museum’s push-button maps that marks out specific buildings of historic interest: this puts everything in perspective. It also has copies of several atmospheric paintings: the Abbey ruins attracted many Victorian artists who loved a bit of architectural decay, most notably Turner.

Like most of Malmesbury’s attractions the museum is run by enthusiastic volunteers and is free of charge. This says a lot about the open and friendly aspect of the town that makes it such a nice place to just fossick around.

Around Malmesbury

For a taste of the Cotswolds at their prettiest and most idyllic, the village of Castle Combe is a quintessential medieval settlement, a symphony of sandstone set in beautiful countryside. If bits of the village look familiar that’s hardly surprising: it has been used as a film set for Stardust, The Wolfman, War Horse, Doctor Thorne, Robin Hood, Doctor Dolittle and more.

Castle Combe
Castle Combe

Lovers of trees will need no encouragement to visit Westonbirt Arboretum, one of the world’s most important plant collections, that’s a short fifteen-minute drive west of Malmesbury. There are more than 2,500 different species and five national tree collections. Westonbirt is perhaps best known for its striking display of autumn colour. Exploration is easy, with miles of trails and guided walks available, while you can take the experience to a whole new level on the spectacular 13m canopy walkway.

Westonbirt Arboretum
Westonbirt Arboretum in Autumn

The grandest stately home near Malmesbury is probably Dyrham Park, now run by the National Trust. This is a striking baroque country house in an ancient deer park, half an hour’s drive southwest of Malmesbury. The gardens are lovely and give a vivid insight into how the property will have looked in its 17th century heyday, though the house itself is something of a work in progress: there’s a lot of it to maintain. Highgrove is also nearby, though these days visits to the gardens have to be booked in advance.

Once you’ve explored Malmesbury, don’t overlook the larger town of Cirencester 25 minutes to the north. In Roman times this was the second-largest settlement – beaten only by London – and there are plenty of remains. It’s altogether a nicer place than Cheltenham nearby and if you happen to visit on a Monday or Friday there’s a good market. For antique shops go to Tetbury, a lovely town with markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The gardens at Stourhead
The gardens at Stourhead

And after that there’s plenty more within easy range. Stourhead with its stately gardens; Longleat with its mischievous monkeys, the ancient stone circles of Avebury and Stonehenge. All are a very manageable drive from Malmesbury.

Bullocks Horn Cottage B&B near MalmesburyIf you want to experience life in the Cotswolds, a B&B stay near Malmesbury is the perfect way to do it. Bullocks Horn Cottage is in the village of Charlton just outside Malmesbury, perfect for quick trips in to town to explore but allowing you to retreat to your rural home-from-home in the idyllic Cotswold countryside. Come to Bullocks Horn Cottage and we’ll make you very welcome.

Colin and Liz Legge

Colin and Liz Legge have been running a B&B for many years and thoroughly enjoy welcoming their guests with the help of their three friendly miniature wirehaired dachshunds. Colin is now retired and enjoys painting in his garden studio. Liz is the gardener, enjoys interiors and is also a Cordon Bleu cook. They are of course very happy to suggest local places to visit.

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