If you’re looking for the picture book English village, it’s hard to find better, at least in Wiltshire. Lacock is a bit more refined, with about twice the traffic from what I’ve seen. Then again, I’ve never been to Castle Combe in the summer. It was a winter stop. Technically we were there for a walk through Parsonage Woods, above the village.
But as my guide drove us through the narrow street I was gobsmacked. It was not only gorgeous, but nearly empty. Lacock, that same week had been more or less teeming. But we almost had the place to ourselves. If I had my way, we’d still be there. With no new buildings added since the 17th century, this is the town time forgot.
The History of the Manor and Ancient Barony of Castle Combe in the County of Wilts, by none other than G. Poulett Scrope Esq. MP and published in 1852, describes the village this way … “It lies deeply embosomed among steep, and generally wooded, slopes, in an angle of one of those narrow cleft-like valleys that intersect and drain the flat-topped range of limestone-hills called in Gloucestershire the Cotswolds, and which extend southwards across the N.E. corner of Wiltshire as far as Bath. A small but rapid stream (The Bybrook) runs through the village, and, after a course of some miles, joins the Avon near the town of Box.”
“The position here described gave occasion to the name of Combe, by which in the Saxon era, and for some time afterwards, the place was alone designated. The prefix was subsequently added from “the Castle,” the meagre remains of which still crown the extremity of a hill about a quarter of a mile west of the town; but which, when entire, must have proudly overlooked the combe, or narrow valley, where the church and the principal part of the village are built. In the centre of the latter, and close to the church, stands the ancient market-cross, designating the market-place, from whence the three main streets of the village diverge. The houses which compose it, built of the rubbly limestone of the surrounding hills, generally retain the gable-fronts, labelled and mullioned windows, and often the wide stone-arched, fireplaces, characteristic of ancient English architecture.”
William of Worcester wrote of the Combe in the fifteenth century “In the said manor are two towns, one called Over Combe, in which reside the yeomen, who are occupied in the culture and working of the land which lies upon the hill, and the other called Nether Combe, in which dwell the men who use to make cloth, such as weavers, fullers, dyers, and other tradesmen.”
Weaving as a craft soon was overtaken by the factory, and the early boom of Castle Combe died away, leaving it isolated and alone for the next few centuries, and its unique geography kept the town from developing urban sprawl of any sort.
The Romans had a villa here up to the fifth century, seven centuries before the castle of its name came into existence. We started up the path of one of those “deeply embosomed among steep, and generally wooded, slopes,” G. Poulett Scrope Esq. spoke of. Not the steepest, nor the longest hike, but sensible shoes is recommended. At the top of the hill there was little doubt which direction to go, as forward took you into farmland above the village. To the right the woods beckoned.
As woods go, Parsonage Wood is rather nondescript. The trail skirts the rim of the high ground above the village 50 meters below, with some really picturesque views of the church and other buildings. But it’s not the views which attract ghost hunters, but the sounds.
Some say it’s a raid by Vikings reenacted from time to time, or a battle between the Vikings and the Danes, though there is no record of any battles or raid that I know of at Castle Combe. Others say devil worshippers, or perhaps ancient pagan ceremonies, maybe Roman?
At any rate what people report tends to be voices, sometimes talking away when you’re talking, but when you stop, they do as well. The skeptic of course would say echoes. Others report the voices continue, coming from all directions, almost a chant, in conjunction with someone moaning until a scream pierces the night.
That would be hard to confuse with echoes.
It is said that anyone who has witnessed this never ventures into Parsonage Woods again. That could be true, but I’ve yet to hear or even read of anyone who has personally experienced this. Is this a location where you can imagine it, where a walk along the ridge would capture that kind of eerie mood? Oh absolutely. You may be in Wiltshire, but with a even a hint of imagination, with the stone village below it could be Sherwood Forest, or any mysterious forest you’ve ever imagined. The big bad wolf could be just head, or the witch’s cottage. It’s archetypal in its beauty and mystery. Totally enchanted.
The path eventually descends, grazing land for sheep and soon you hear the Bybrook babbling away. The trail leads to a bridge, stone of course and obviously old. But only the keen eye, or one who has read tourist info for Castle Combe realize it’s possibly Roman in origin, originally for pack animals to cross.
Here it is said that you might find Castle Combe’s most famous ghost, that of a Roman centurion standing guard, left behind when the legions abandoned Britain. Once again it’s easy to imagine, and I had to look twice when I saw the black cloaked figure walking down the road beyond the bridge in my photos. Till I realized it was only my guide, going ahead with the dogs. The imagination can play tricks on our in a place like this. Even the present looks like the past and at times, you are the only thing from the modern era in view.
When the imagination is in focus, you can see just about anything. And that’s the beauty of a place like Castle Combe.
We began the walk into the village, past the cottages on the outskirts, across the Bywater at the bridge with the millers cottages beyond. The miller himself has been seen scurrying home, decked in white as was the miller’s costume in the past. But the only person we saw was a young goth chick stepping out into the sunlight, looking not at all out of place in this gothic surrounding. Indeed, Transylvanian peasants from a Hammer horror film wouldn’t have looked out of place, nor the count as well.
Indeed, the 2010 film The Wolfman was filmed in part here. The original Dr. Doolittle was as well, and portions of The War Horse. The village can be the setting for any number of ideas, fantasies and flights of imagination, because it is so perfect.
It’s compact, the smallness of the place is nothing like you’ve ever felt here in the states. Sure, in New England some of the houses are crammed together in a place like Provincetown on Cape Cod. But those buildings are wood, temporary even if a century or two old. The stone of the cottages matches the landscape so perfectly, it feels as though they’ve grown up there, needing only to be assembled.
St. Andrew’s Church, across from the ancient market cross is another marvel, with parts dating to the 1200’s, and tower finished just a couple centuries later. Appropriately enough, a few centuries back all but the tower was disassembled and put back together according to the original plan.
In the graveyard adjacent, a young wan, pale young girl has been seen wandering, silent. The sound of the medieval clock still booms overheard, and I was curious when I realized there was no clock face on the tower. I was told that knowing any more than the hour was superfluous, as nobody had watches to keep track of the minutes. People marked time only down to the hour, and the clock bell ringing out would have been heard throughout the valley and beyond.
Perhaps it’s that connection with time that draws the young lady to the graveyard, the miller to his home, and sets in motion the strange events on Parsonage Hill. Or perhaps it’s only that ancient sound which awakens something timeless in us, that lets the present melt away.
Or maybe it was my strange mood. It was my last day England, my last day with my newfound love. Tomorrow would mean goodbye and a tortuous flight back to the states and nothingness, to a place devoid of imagination, a place lacking the scent of yew burning in the fireplace, where the waft of smoke rises up above the tops of trees on Parsonage Woods. How can a person not want to live in a place where Romans once walked, where high above you on the hill stood the castle, where you need only know the hour, and be free to ignore the minutes of time.
More images from Castle Combe