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Castle Combe and By Brook

Through the hilly and wooded By Brook Valley from Wiltshire's famous picture-book village.

Distance 5.7 miles (9.2km)

Minimum time 2hrs 30min

Ascent/gradient 515ft (157m)

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field and woodland paths and tracks, metalled lanes, 10 stiles

Landscape Wooded river valley and village streets

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 156 Chippenham & Bradford-on-Avon

Start/finish ST 845776

Dog friendliness Keep under control across pasture and golf course

Parking Free car park just off B4039 at Upper Castle Combe

Public toilets Castle Combe

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1 Leave the car park via the steps and turn right. At the T-junction, turn right and follow the lane into Castle Combe. Keep left at the Market Cross, cross the By Brook and continue along the road to take the path, signed 'Long Dean', across the second bridge on your left.

2 Cross a stile and follow the path uphill and then beside the right-hand fence above the valley (Macmillan Way). Beyond an open area, gently ascend through woodland to a stile and gate. Cross a further stile and descend into the hamlet of Long Dean.

3 Pass the mill and follow the track right to cross the river bridge. At a mill house, keep right and follow the sunken bridleway uphill to a gate. Shortly enter sloping pasture and follow the defined path around the top edge, bearing left to reach a stile and lane.

4 Turn left and descend to the A420 at Ford. Turn right along the pavement and shortly turn right again into Park Lane. (If you want to visit the White Hart in Ford village, take the road ahead on your left, signed 'Colerne'.) Climb the gravel track and take the footpath left through a squeeze stile.

5 Keep right through pasture and continue through trees to a water-meadow in the valley bottom. Turn left, cross a stream and steeply ascend the grassy slope ahead of you, bearing left beyond some trees towards a waymarker post. Follow the footpath along the top of the field to a stile and gate, then walk through the woodland to a gate and the road.

6 Turn left, then immediately left again, signed 'North Wraxall'. Keep to the road for ¼ mile (400m) and take the arrowed bridleway right. Follow the track then, just before a gate, keep right downhill on a sunken path to a footbridge over Broadmead Brook.

7 In 20yds (18m), climb the stile on your right and follow the footpath close to the river. Cross a stile and soon pass beside Nettleton Mill House, bearing right to a hidden gate. Walk beside the stream, cross a stile and you will soon reach the golf course.

8 Turn right along the metalled track, cross the bridge and turn immediately right again. At a gate, follow the path left below the golf course fairway. Walk beside a wall to reach a stile on your right. Drop down steps to a metalled drive and keep ahead back into Castle Combe. Turn left at the Market Cross and retrace steps.

To many, the idyllic village of Castle Combe needs no introduction since it has featured on countless calendars, chocolate-box lids and jig-saw puzzles. Since being voted 'the prettiest village in England' in 1962, there have been more visitors to it, more photographs taken of it and more words written about it than any other village in the county. Nestling deep in a steam-threaded combe, just a mile (1.6km), and a world away, from the M4, it certainly has all the elements to make it a tourist's dream. You'll find 15th-century Cotswold stone cottages with steep gabled roofs surrounding a turreted church and stone-canopied market cross, a medieval manor house, a fast-flowing steam in the main street leading to an ancient packhorse bridge and a perfectly picturesque river.

Yet, as preservation is taken so seriously here, a palpable atmosphere of unreality surrounds this tiny 'toytown', where television aerials don't exist, gardens are immaculately kept, and the inevitable commercialism is carefully concealed. Behind this present-day façade, however, exists a fascinating history that's well worth exploring, and the timeless valleys and tumbling wooded hillsides that surround the village are favourite Wiltshire walking destinations. If you don't like crowds and really want to enjoy Castle Combe, undertake this walk on a winter weekday.

The Castle, which gave the village its name, began life as a Roman fort and was used by the Saxons before becoming a Norman castle in 1135 and the home of the de Dunstanville family. In the 13th and 14th centuries the village established itself as an important weaving centre as Sir John Fastolf, the lord of the manor, erected fulling mills along the By Brook and 50 cottages for his workers. With the growth of the cloth trade in Wiltshire, Castle Combe prospered greatly, becoming more like a town with a weekly market and an annual fair that was regarded as 'The most celebrated faire in North Wiltshire for sheep'.

The greatest tribute to the wealth of the weaving industry is reflected in St Andrew's Church which was enlarged during the 15th century. Its impressive Perpendicular tower was built in 1436. For centuries the villages produced a red and white cloth known as Castlecombe. Cloth manufacture began to decline in the early 18th century when the diminutive By Brook was unable to power the larger machinery being introduced. People moved to the larger towns and Castle Combe became depopulated and returned to an agricultural existence. An annual fair, centred around the Market Cross, continued until 1904, and Castle Combe remained an 'estate' village until 1947 when the whole village was

Where to eat and drink

The White Hart at Ford is the perfect halfway refuelling stop. Expect excellent real ales, interesting bar food and a riverside garden. In Castle Combe, head for the part-timbered 14th-century White Hart for cosy log fires, a summer patio garden and an extensive pub menu. Across the road, the more up-market Castle Inn offers a more contemporary menu. The impressive Manor House Hotel is the place to go for civilised afternoon teas.

What to look for

St Andrew's Church, in Castle Combe, is worth closer inspection. On the parapet, note the 50 stone heads and the carving of a shuttle and scissors, the mark of the cloth industry put there by merchants who built the church. Inside, don't miss the rare faceless clock made by a local blacksmith in 1380, and the 13th-century tomb of Sir Walter de Dunstanville. Along the By Brook, note the former fulling mills and weavers' cottages at the remote and unspoilt hamlet of Long Dean.

While you're there

Linger by the bridge over the By Brook and recall, if you've seen it, the 1966 film Dr Doolittle starring Rex Harrison. Although miles from the nearest coast, a jetty was built on the banks in front of the 17th-century cottages here to create a fishing harbour, complete with seven boats and plastic cobbles. Local people became 'extras' at £2 10s per day, with meals, alcohol and clothes all thrown in. The film put Castle Combe firmly on the tourist map!

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