Castle Combe is a breathtakingly beautiful village, which is recognised around the world from photographs printed on calendars and chocolate boxes. It is situated on the southern edge of the Cotswold Hills, twelve miles from Bath and close to Avebury, Stonehenge and other ancient sites in Wiltshire. The village, with its mellow Cotswold stone cottages, has been voted “The Prettiest Village in England”. The buildings largely date from the 15th century. It is obvious to visitors why “Combe” forms part of the village name, as it lies in a wooded Cotswold valley, where the Bybrook River flows, but where is the Castle? Only earthworks now remain and reveal the site of the Castle. These are above the village on Castle Hill on the Manor Hotel golf course. Originally, there was a British hill fort that became occupied by the Romans, as it was close to the Roman Fosse Way. During the early English Civil War of 1135 to 1154, Reginald de Dunstanville built a Norman castle on the hill, so creating “Castle Combe”. By the 14th century, the Norman castle was beyond repair, so a new Manor House was built in the valley below.
The Manor House is now a luxury hotel on the same site, although little remains of the original structure. It stands in twenty six acres of parkland, including a golf course. Extensive gardens in the Italianate style were constructed at the side of the house, with terraced walks and statues.
Much of the village was constructed in the Middle Ages, when it was most prosperous, due to the cloth industry. There were large flocks of sheep and the fast flowing Bybrook River to power the woollen mills. The skilled weavers operated their looms in the weavers’ cottages. They made the famous red and white cloth, which was much in demand for soldiers uniforms. Sir John Fastolf, Lord of the Manor who died in 1459, insisted on the use of this cloth for his soldiers. Sir John was immortalised by William Shakespeare as Falstaff, in his play Henry IV, Parts I and II.
The Market Place is the focal point of the village. In 1440, King Henry VI granted the village the right to hold a weekly market. It is not known when the Market Cross was built, but it did exist in 1590. It had a religious significance in that friars preached to the crowds from here on market days. Also in the Market Place is another stone structure referred to as the Butter Cross, which was built in the 19th century as a mounting block for horse riders. There are two inns in the Market Place. The Castle Inn was previously “The Salutation at the Cross”, a resting place for monks on pilgrimage to Malmesbury. The White Hart pub has been selling ale for over five hundred years and is the only Inn in Castle Combe still on its original site.
St. Andrew’s Church is believed to date from the 12th century, but the oldest part today is the tower, which was started in 1435 and paid for by wealthy clothiers and wool merchants. The remainder was rebuilt in 1851 as a replica, when it was discovered that the foundations were unsafe. Inside is a 13th century effigy of Walter de Dunstanville, who died on a crusade in 1270. One of the oldest clocks in England stands under the church tower. It was made in 1380 by a local blacksmith and still works.
At the end of the village, there is a stone clapper bridge which, although now known as the Roman Bridge, can only be traced back to medieval times. It should be called Smart’s Bridge, as Smart’s Mill stood here. There is a legend, but without foundation, that the ghost of a Roman soldier was seen on the bridge.
In 1947, nine hundred years of the feudal system ended in Castle Combe, when the then Lady of the Manor, sold the village in individual lots. The Manor House was sold separately.
The village has gained worldwide fame as a favoured location by Hollywood film production companies and television programme producers. It is regarded as the perfect English village, without telegraph poles, street lights and television aerials. The 1967 feature film, Doctor Dolittle, starring Rex Harrison and Anthony Newley, was filmed here, when Castle Combe was transformed into the seaport of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh. Further location filming followed – Stardust in 2007, The Wolfman in 2009 and Steven Spielberg chose Castle Combe for his War Horse feature film in 2010. Episodes of Poirot, Robin of Sherwood and Downton Abbey, have also been recorded in the village.