A Wander Through Malmesbury
PUBLISHED: 13:00 02 February 2011 | UPDATED: 20:36 20 February 2013
A flying monk, the first king of England, and a tiger!"This is an ancient and attractive town with some extraordinary tales to tell, as Wendy Searle discovers
Walking around the hilltop town of Malmesbury, you could be forgiven for thinking you had stepped back in time. You might see a postman stopping to talk while on his rounds, logs being delivered to a Georgian house, or shops which have been in families for generations as well as cosy homes built from warm, butter-coloured stone. But as well as being an historic town, boasting the first king of England, the first flying monk and one of the oldest hotels in the UK, it is still a thriving community, with independent shops, cinema screenings and even its own museum.
Legends abound in this picture-postcard corner of Wiltshire including the story of the local girl who was eaten by a tiger in 1703 when it got lose from a travelling circus (see her tombstone epitaph in the churchyard)! Malmesbury has a famous son from more modern times too James Dyson, inventor of some rather famous vacuum cleaners, had his first factory here, and the research and development part of the business is still based on the outskirts of town.
WIth everything within easy reach, it is the perfect spot to explore on foot. Follow your nose and you will soon come across the pretty stone market cross, where people pause to rest or catch up. Wandering across the square, you will find a small archway which leads into the abbey garden. The abbey was particularly important in Saxon times, and was the burial site of King Athelstan, Englands first king, in 939AD. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the abbey was plundered for its stone, mostly then used for the buildings you see around the town, and only a fraction of the original abbey survives.
Stepping inside the abbey, which is still used as a church, you can see ancient stone carvings and stained glass, and knowledgeable locals are on hand to tell you everything you need to know. Just next door are the Abbey House Gardens, which look beautiful and rather tempting behind sturdy wooden gates; they are open again from 21 March (11.30am-5.30pm daily).
Getting here: Surprisingly, for a place with such a tucked-away feel, Malmesbury is really close to the motorway (junction 17 of the M4), and just a short drive from many major towns. Despite not having a working train station since the 1950s, if you want to visit by public transport, go by rail to Swindon, Chippenham or Bath station, each of which provide bus links to Malmesbury.
TIC: Visit for all the latest details of events coming up, or try malmesbury.com for more information.
Athelstan Museum: Cross Hayes, SN16 9BZ
From Athelstan to Charles
Did you know that our next king of England, Prince Charles, lives just five miles away, at Tetbury?
The Old Bell, said to be one of Englands oldest pubs, sits just outside the abbey grounds, and is still a thriving and welcoming watering hole. The road then leads down and towards the old mill once famous for wool then silk with the river just beside it. Strolling gently back from the mill to town, you can take one of many little side streets and paths, leading you past more houses and back to the abbey.
Dont miss the Athelstan Museum, located in the same building as the Tourist Information Centre (TIC), which not only offers a quirky mix of local artefacts and information, but also gives a real feel for the warmth and community spirit of Malmesbury. Chat to Mark Johnson, from the museum, who is full of enthusiasm for and knowledge of the town.
Downstairs, find information on the famous flying monk who made wings and jumped from the abbey roof in around 1010. Luckily, he landed on the outskirts of town and only suffered a few broken bones! Upstairs on the mezzanine you can find a small collection of penny farthings and other early bikes, and all around the museum are images of the town. In fact, the museum is a good place to start if you want to make the most of any visit here as you will be able to get a real sense of the history of the place.
Visiting in winter, with a pretty dusting of snow on every building, the mill, with its river, bridge and plenty of ducks, is a great place to admire some of that history. As you wander around the town, take time to look out between the gaps between buildings at glimpses of the countryside beyond. The abbey grounds are also perfect for some peace and tranquillity.
Throughout the year there is plenty to see and do:"there are events marking the enterprising Eilmer, the flying monk, poetry in Abbey House Gardens, farmers markets (on the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, held appropriately at the Market Cross), and productions by the Athelstan Players (who we are featuring in the next issue). A lottery-funded scheme which brings cinema releases to rural areas is very busy and offers monthly screenings of a wide range of films (see whitehorsepictures.co.uk).
Something to take home
Why not take home some treats from The Wild Food Company (22 High Street) who stock a smartly presented, comprehensive range of Fairtrade items, as well as snacks, beauty products and locally made food. It would be hard to stop here without feeling healthier as a result!
Starfish, also on the High Street, injects a splash of colour into childrens clothes. There are bright baby grows for little ones, or brilliant jackets and dresses for older ones (up to around age 9).
The TIC itself has a well-chosen range of arts and crafts for sale, including pieces by local glass artist Sue Sills. Pick up one of her works depicting Malmesbury in coloured glass as a reminder of your visit to this small Wiltshire town with an historic past and a bright future.