48 Hours in Marlborough
PUBLISHED: 15:44 30 May 2008 | UPDATED: 15:13 20 February 2013
Samuel Pepys liked Marlborough and even wrote about it in his diaries, and the wide High Street remains a clue to the importance of its markets.<br/><br/>Marlborough was always an important staging post on the road to London with the twice weekly markets ...
When Samuel Pepys stayed at The Hart Inn in Marlborough, he thought it 'a good house and there a fair and pretty town'. If you approach Marlborough on the A345 from Pewsey, the magnificent view of the 'pretty town' through the trees below White Horse Hill will impress you too. Then, as you sweep into Marlborough, you'll notice the colossal width of High Street and the row of mainly Georgian and Tudor buildings lining its west side. With room for rows of parked cars up the centre and along both sides, High Street is a seriously wide thoroughfare. But why? Well, the twice-weekly markets are a clue to Marlborough's historical importance as a market town, when the High Street would have been littered with stalls and livestock, all blocking the passage of the London-to-Bristol stagecoaches trying to deliver their passengers to the coaching inns.
The Castle and Ball has been a coaching inn since the 15th century, but some of its beams have come from Spanish Armada ships captured in 1588. Spread out in front of it the two markets are held on Wednesday and Saturday, and there is also an annual Mop Fair in October. On these market days there isn't as much room for traffic as first appears, and High Street gives a passable impression of its jam-packed past.
The Midland and Southwest Junction Railway used to provide a link between Cheltenham, Marlborough and Southampton, but it wasn't used enough to satisfy Dr Beeching, so the line fell foul of the Beeching cuts. However, it's an ill wind, as they say, and part of the old route has now been converted into a popular cycleway.
Hit the downtown
You could glean a good deal about Marlborough's history by locating a series of plaques scattered about the town. For instance, the Statute of Marlborough was enacted in 1267, where the Merlin Hotel now stands. This set of laws included rights and privileges to small landowners, and it's the oldest piece of English law still in existence today. In the early 19th century, Thomas Hancock, who invented vulcanisation of rubber, lived opposite the Town Hall at Smiths the Butchers, as did Walter Hancock, inventor of the passenger steam road carriage. Another plaque relates how the Great Fire of 1653 started at Francis Freeman's Tannery 'consumed at least 250 houses', mostly on High Street's west side. That's why most of the Tudor houses are on the east side, but High Street overall can boast a harmonious blend of medieval, Georgian and modern buildings, many of which house a variety of independent shops. Judging by the range of boutiques and haute couture shops, Marlborough ladies are classical yet innovative, stylish yet colourful, smart yet adventurous. As well as shops specialising in glamorous evening wear, delicate lingerie and hand-made jewellery, there are several vibrant boutiques and high fashion shoe shops.
Merchant's House in High Street was built after the Great Fire of 1653 for Thomas Bayly, a thriving silk merchant. Now beautifully restored, part of the house is open to the public on Friday and Saturday during the summer. There are five rooms open, and the library and archives specialise in the 17th century and demonstrate Marlborough's history. There are also demonstrations of costume-making and needlework.
There is a church at either end of High Street. At the south end, St Peter's houses Marlborough Arts and Crafts and a popular cafeteria. At the north end, behind the Town Hall, St Mary's is the town's parish church, with a fine view along High Street from its elevated churchyard.
Near the site of Pepys' Hart Inn there is a veritable Aladdin's cave, with toys and games stacked up to the ceiling, and there's the delightful Old Sweet Shop and Cat's Whiskers Collectables. In The Parade, around the corner from the Bear Hotel, there is a fascinating antiques quarter, which includes 'A World of Treasures' at the Antiques Centre.
Stop for a bite to eat
As you wander around High Street, your senses will be assailed by irresistible aromas from a clutch of bakeries, Italian, Chinese, Indian and French restaurants and English tea shops. There's so much choice, you'll have to stay more than 48 hours to try them all. Personally, I believe that a hearty Wiltshire breakfast, a morning coffee and a filled roll, a light lunch at a tea-room named after Miss Peacham from the Beggars Opera, an afternoon cream tea in Hughenden Yard, and a three-course evening meal at a nice comfortable restaurant, should be quite enough.
But, to be more specific, there's a Thai Restaurant and an Indian and Bangladeshi Restaurant in Perrins Hill behind the Town Hall, and there's always delicious fare at reasonable prices available from the old coaching inns. You could choose from the Lamb and the Crown in The Parade, the Bear Inn, Sun Inn, Royal Oak, Wellington Arms, Green Dragon, the Merlin and Ivy House Hotels and the Castle and Ball in High Street, and the Roebuck in London Road.
In Hughenden Yard, Azuza and Appleby's are quieter spots away from the bustling High Street, and the aroma from La Petite Fromagerie will tempt you into buying some rare and delicious cheeses to take back home. You can buy health foods and dry pastas at Wild Thymes or find it ready-cooked, inexpensive and delicious at Il Ristorante Capricorno and Ask, two excellent Italian restaurants in High Street
Where can we stay?
Obviously, all of the coaching inns must figure in any list of places to stay in this elegant country town but, of these, the Castle and Ball ((01672 515201) faces the busy market place, and the Merlin Hotel ((01672 512151, www.merlinhotel.co.uk) is at the slightly quieter end.
For out-of-town B&B you could try Browns Farm ((01672 515129, email email@example.com) or Ashtree Cottage at Easton Royal ((07905 034170). Tourist Information at High Street Library will have more information on places to stay.
Things to do in and around Marlborough
• Savernake Forest
Savernake Forest was established by William the Conqueror as his local hunting ground. Here, Henry VIII first set eyes on Jane Seymour, who later provided his only male heir, the boy-king Edward VI. Today, large areas of the 4,500-acre forest, an Area of Outstanding Beauty and privately owned by the Trustees of the Savernake Estate, are kindly opened to the public. Much of the forest is leased to the Forestry Commission, so their normal rules of free-to-walk forest tracks apply to Savernake. But, if you prefer a gentle drive, the official 'longest avenue' in Great Britain runs through the middle of the forest. Capability Brown's Grand Avenue was laid out in the late 1790s, and it runs dead straight from Stibb Green (off the A346 near Burbage Wharf) for four glorious miles to the A4. The avenue is a private road but the trustees allow the public to drive along it for 364 days every year. For information, contact Savernake Forest (Forestry Commission) ((01594 833057, www.forestry.gov.uk).
• Kennet and Avon Canal
The River Kennet flows through Marlborough, and the Kennet and Avon Canal was opened in 1810. At 86 miles long it has 106 locks, including the famous 'flight' of 29 locks at Caen Hill, near Devizes.
• Crofton Beam Engines
At Crofton (off the A346 south-east of Marlborough) the Georgian engine house contains two of the world's oldest working beam engines. The 1812 Boulton and Watt and the 1846 Harvey of Hayle engines both pumped water to the highest part of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which runs alongside the road near Crofton.
Three Things to Take Home
Only three? I'll just have to cheat. First, local artists GA Renvoize and Colin Palmer have produced some delightful limited-edition prints of Marlborough to remind you of your visit. Together with Victoria Allen's unique hand-made jewellery these are all available from The Merchant's House, whilst Gary Cooper's original water-colours are on sale at White Horse Book Shop.
Second, take home some home-made sweets like toffee crunch or bonbons from The Old Sweet Shop and, third, some delicious meat pies from the 'Too Many to Mention' display at Jessie Smith the butcher.
28-29 June: Concert by the Paragon Singers, marking St Peter's Day and celebrating the Trust's 30th birthday at St Peter's Church.
28-29 June and 26-27 July: Crofton's beam engines will be 'in steam' and open to the public. For information (01672 870300, www.croftonbeamengines.org.
4-6 July: Barbury Castle Horse Trials. Further details from www.barburyhorsetrials.co.uk.
11-13 July: Marlborough International Jazz Festival. Since it started in 1986, the Festival weekend has attracted visitors from far and wide. Jools Holland and Humphrey Lyttleton have both appeared here. (01672 515095, www.marlboroughjazz.co.uk.
Car parking: As well as half-hour free parking on High Street's edges, the centre-line and two other parking areas operate as pay and display. Hilliers Yard, behind Waitrose, is 50p per hour for the first two hours, but Hyde Lane car park behind Hughenden Yard is a long-term prospect at 50p per hour.
Bus services: Public transport offers good value, with frequent daily services between Pewsey, Marlborough, Hungerford, Swindon and Bath, with some weekend exceptions. These include Wilts and Dorset 19, 20, 21, 22, 95/96, Stagecoach 70, 71, Thamesdown 46, 48, AD Rains X76 and National Express 335.
Train services: First Great Western operates train services from London to Bedwyn, with 15-minute journey bus connections into Marlborough. National Rail Enquiries (08457) 484950.
Tourist information: The Library in High Street (01672) 515190. Pick up The Watchman's Tale guide and follow the route around Marlborough.