5 nights camping in Wiltshire! August 2021
A fairly last-minute decision to have a mini-break in Buzzbee saw us wondering if we would find space on sites in this crazily busy year for camping. A little searching showed that the excellent Camping and Caravanning Devizes club site had space midweek, and Southfield farm Caravan and Motorhome certificated site had room at the weekend, so all was well. It was Chris’ birthday week so I planned the itinerary around some activities especially for him, and we agreed to eat out slightly more than we usually would! Just 2 hours from home, Wiltshire is an inland county which is often driven through, or cherry picked for sights like Stonehenge or Salisbury. We were on the hunt for less well known spots.
Our route up took us via Wimborne where we met up with our granddaughter and her mum for coffee and an adventure in the Wimborne Model Town. It is a representation of Wimborne in the 1950s, plus some small exhibits about old toys, model trains and the Wimborne bears!
Then, heading north we drove through Shaftesbury, which, somehow, we had never explored, so we stopped. Centred around Gold Hill, made famous in the 1970's Hovis advert, and undeniably picturesque, Shaftesbury had a lot more to offer.
Gold Hill museum gave a fascinating and well presented insight into the history of the town, a key site for thousands of years. King Alfred recognised the town’s strategic importance and built an Abbey here, which became very powerful under a succession of high profile Abbesses. King Edward the Martyr’s bones were reputed to be interred here, so Shaftesbury became a place of pilgrimage This brought wealth and trade to the town. There were many Inns and markets and royal patronage. King Cnut died here. These silver coins were were minted in Shaftesbury in King Alfred's time, and each time one was used in a transaction, a piece was either clipped out or shaved off. The shop keeper kept the clippings and made new coins with them when he had enough! Dorset button making was a big industry, and needlecraft was represented with this lovely town quilt, and beautiful Victorian embroidery. Finally, the Byzant was part of an ancient annual ceremony. The precious staff, along with other gifts, were ceremonially offered to the Lord of the Manor in the valley below Shaftesbury, in return for the town being permitted to have fresh water from their springs. Apparently it was a good excuse for a party! At the top of Gold Hill is the excellent Salt Cellar café which serves good home cooked food. Their pies were really delicious!
Heading north we found our first campsite, just east of Malmesbury. Southfields Farm is a Caravan and Motorhome certificated site on a working dairy farm. Electric hook up, water, waste disposal, lovely views and very peaceful for £12 per night. Perfect!
Our first objective was to visit the Swindon and Cricklade Heritage Railway. It is a small, volunteer led organisation but it was their Vintage weekend so there were some lovely steam traction engines, museum displays and Steam engine hauled train rides.
One Buddleia bush by the railway line had 29 butterflies from 7 different species on it! It really is worth planting flowers that attract bees and butterflies!
We then went on to Lydiard House and gardens on the outskirts of Swindon, once home of the St John family for 500 years. Taken over by the council in 1943, some rooms are open to the public (admission charge, free for HHA members). They illustrate life in Georgian England, and are complemented by the walled garden, lake and lovely parkland.
The weekend was also spent exploring delightful Malmesbury. The Abbey was founded in 675 by Aldhelm, known as the minstrel monk of Wessex. His biography calls him a poet, singer-songwriter, traveller, theologian and architect! Not a bad cv! He wrote hundreds of riddles. Here is one for you to try and work out. Answer later in the story!
"I share with surf one destiny,
In rolling cycles when each month repeats.
As beauty in my brilliant form retreats,
So too the surges fade in cresting sea."
The Abbey contains 4 huge volumes of a beautifully illustrated, hand written, mediaeval Bible which they can date to being created at a Belgian Monastery in 1407 because they found the receipt! King Athelstan was buried in the Abbey precincts. Sadly the whole east end of the Abbey was destroyed when the spire fell down in a storm in 1479!
Oh, the answer to the riddle is… The Moon!
Malmesbury is very compact. In the centre is the striking Butter, or Market Cross built in 1490, and a few hundred metres away are the beautiful Abbey gardens (admission charge). Wonderfully restored by the Pollard family, they centre around the 16th century Abbey House, which they bought in 1994. They became known as the naked gardeners due to their love of Naturism, and the gardens still host ‘Clothes Optional’ days. Our visit was definitely clothed! The gardens include the formal gardens around the house, an Egyptian tortoise called Brutus, and a delightful woodland running down to the river Avon. Well worth a visit.
Malmesbury also has the excellent Athelstan museum, which was small but full of interesting exhibits about the town’s history. One remarkable story was of a coffin found in Germany, containing ancient bones. A plaque on the tomb said it was Queen Edith, half sister of Athelstan. Analysis of the skeleton dated it to 1064 years old, but was it really her? Final proof came from the teeth, which had minerals which would only be found in chalk streams of southern England. There is the tale of Hannah Twynnoy, the only person known to have been killed by a tiger on English soil, and an 11th century aviator, Monk Eilmer, who flew 200 metres from the church tower, but broke both his legs on landing! He came up with modifications to his ‘wings’ but never tested them!
We also had a lovely Italian lunch at The Birdcage, next to the Butter Cross.
Lots of good walks nearby as well make Malmesbury an excellent town to visit.
Driving south, we stopped at Lacock village and Abbey (National Trust, free for members). There just happened to be a Morris Minor Rally in the car park! The Abbey was built in the 13th century and eventually became home to the Fox-Talbot family. The monastic rooms and cloister have featured in various films and series, including Harry Potter and Wolf Hall.
This cauldron dates from 1500 and gives an idea of how many were being fed at that time! Also housed here is the Fox-Talbot Photography Museum. Henry Fox-Talbot was one of the founding fathers of photography thanks to his experiments which led to him producing negative images, and returning them to positives. This year there is a special exhibition of Astronomy Photography of the year, and the images are stunning.
A wander around the very quaint village reveals thatched cottages, artisan shops and a beautiful Tithe barn.
Our site for the next 3 nights was the Devizes Camping and Caravanning club site, which is actually about 4 miles west of Devizes, and right on the Kennet and Avon canal, with excellent walking and cycling along the tow path. A full range of good facilities, a great central point for exploring the area, and 3 very peaceful night’s sleep mean it is now one of our favourites!
Chris loves cycling. I am not so keen, so to enable us to do it together, I bought an Ebike. (EZEGO Fold LS from Espokes in Basingstoke who were so patient and helpful with me!) I am still nervous and rather wobbly, so today’s activity filled me with trepidation, Chris loves railways and is building a model layout, loosely based on the old Somerset and Dorset line around Midford. The line is now a Sustrans cycle route (Two Tunnels Greenway is the full circuit), and Chris has always wanted to cycle the part that runs through two tunnels. Combe Down Tunnel is over a mile long, and the Devonshire is about one third of a mile. Gulp. I don’t like dark enclosed spaces either! I was promised lighting, and even music mid tunnel, so we set off! A 9 mile round trip, 2.8 miles in tunnels. The lighting was weak, and I am not sure if the eerie violin music helped or worsened the experience. It was spooky, but we did it! I think it would be more difficult at weekends when it is supposed to be busier.
That day also saw us visit Farleigh Hungerford castle (English Heritage), built in 1377, which has had a turbulent history! In the early 1500’s Lady Agnes Hungerford inherited the castle on her husband’s death. However, it emerged that, some years before, she had murdered her first husband and burned him in the castle ovens, so she was free to marry wealthy Lord Hungerford. She was tried and hung for murder. Another son, Walter, inherited the castle, and he locked his wife in a tower for 3 years! He was eventually executed for treason, witchcraft and homosexuality!
There is a beautiful chapel with some super mediaeval wall painting, including St George slaying the dragon, and in the crypt are rare lead coffins with their occupants faces moulded in the head shaped ends.
Our last visit of the day was to the American Museum, housed in Claverton house near Bath (Art Pass holders half price). Full of artefacts and some whole rooms which were shipped over from the USA, this is the only overseas museum in the world about the history of the USA. The reconstructed Conkey’s tavern was from Massachusetts. The barman would serve through a little siding door in the bars. If things became rowdy, he would close the lower door, and just use a tiny hatch above… if he decided not to serve you at all, he would shut all the hatches and you would be ‘barred’!
There was also an excellent exhibition of American quilts. Some were nearly 200 years old. A special exhibition of photographs by Carinthia West, showed many stars at play in the 1970’s, including Mick Jagger, Bowie, Rod Stewart and Neil Young, along with some great reminders of 1970’s cloths and décor! The delightful gardens at the museum were full of late summer colour, and have wonderful views across the valley.
Finally we drove to lovely Bradford-on-Avon and walked along the canal past the enormous 14th century tithe barn.
The real reason for our visit was supper at Pablo’s tapas bistro, which was amazing! My favourite meal of the trip!
Luckily, our outside table was moved inside because suddenly there was a monsoon outside! Our drive home was through near flooded roads, and some of the tents at the campsite were in a bad way.
The next morning was dry, and the bikes came out again. A 10 mile ride using the towpath, firstly up to the very impressive Caen Locks flight.
29 locks climbing 237 feet in just 2 miles, and taking 5-6 hours to get through in a narrow boat, with a lot of hard work in between! The locks are emptied every night to prevent flooding. A pump, at Foxhangers, is used to return up to 7 million gallons of water back to the top each day, and in a modern eco twist, this is partly powered by a solar farm! Built in 1810, but needing massive restoration in the 1990’s, the locks are a triumph. After welcome refreshment at the Caen Hill Café, we headed back, and west to the Barge Inn, right on the canal, where we had a nice fish and chip lunch. Back to Buzzbee, and off in a different direction towards Calne, to visit the Atwell-Wilson Motor Museum.
This was a real hidden gem for anyone even remotely interested in vintage and classic cars and motorcycles. Every vehicle is so well cared for, and presented in an interesting way. They also do Wedding Hire if you happen to be local. Run by a charitable trust, we thought it was excellent. The sun was out so we ended the day with a lovely walk around the grounds of Bowood House near Calne (HHA). We will return another time to see the house interior and private gardens but they looked good!
Our last day was Chris’ actual birthday, so we drove east through the lovely sweeping Wiltshire Downs, just across the border to Kintbury in Berkshire for a Horse-drawn canal boat trip with the Kennet Horse Boat Company. Drummer, a 7 year old Clydesdale, was pulling the boat, and it was fascinating to see how it all worked before the advent of engines. The trip includes passing twice through a lock, which was a first for me, and quite fascinating. The best thing was that it was so peaceful. No sound, and the movement of the barge was barely noticeable. Wonderful.
Next, we drove to Wilton Windmill and Granary for a picnic lunch with great views of the downs, and a Colin the Caterpillar mini roll as a birthday cake! We know how to party! From here we did a 2 mile circular walk through the tiny, chocolate box village, full of thatched cottages, and down to the canal, opposite the Crofton Beam Engine, a steam pumping station. Both the Windmill and Beam engine are only open at weekends, and the Beam engine has occasional steam up days.
Our last stop was at the Red Lion Inn at East Chisenbury, still on the River Avon. We met up with daughter Jen for a great Birthday celebration meal, and a wonderful way to round off a super minibreak! Now home to do the washing, and have a rest!
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