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Malmesbury and the Avon

An undemanding riverside stroll around a Saxon hilltop town.

Distance 2 miles (3.2km)

Minimum time 1hr

Ascent/gradient 49ft (15m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Field paths, town streets, 5 stiles

Landscape River valley and urban area

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 168 Stroud, Tetbury & Malmesbury

Start/finish ST 932875

Dog friendliness No problems on riverside pastures

Parking Yard car park (free)

Public toilets Malmesbury town centre

1 From the car park, keep the river to your right and walk towards the abbey and Abbey House. At the information board, bear left, then right through a kissing gate into Conygre Mead. Keep right along the path and walk along the river bank, noting the old railway tunnel and Abbey House across the river.

2 At the road, go through a gate, turn right across the bridge and descend steps to reach a stile. At a fork of paths, keep right across Longmead to double stiles in the right-hand field corner. Take the left-hand path through the next field and walk along the river bank to a stile and footbridge. Cross the old sluice gate and continue to the lane beside Wynyard Mill. Turn right past the bowls club, following St John Street to Lower High Street.

3 Cross the road and go through the memorial gates and bear left along the walkway parallel to St John's Bridge to rejoin the road opposite Avon Mills. Turn right along the pavement and go through the gate on your right to follow the permissive path beside the River Avon. Cross a stile and keep to the path through gates and across various footbridges, soon to leave the river, keeping beside the hedge to a gap in the field corner and a small stone bridge.

4 Cross the bridge, the path soon becomes paved, to reach a footbridge across the Avon. At a T-junction, turn left along Burnivale, then climb Betty Geezers Steps on your right to reach Abbey Row, with the Civic Trust Garden to your left. Cross the road and bear right in front of the Old Bell Hotel and enter the close to visit the abbey.

5 Return to the Old Bell and take the path immediately right for the Cloister Garden. Walk through the garden and turn left down steps, then right along Mill Lane back to the car park.

A picturesque town of mellow Cotswold stone, Malmesbury stands between two branches of the River Avon on the site of a Saxon fortified hilltop town. Dominating the surviving medieval street plan are the impressive remains of a Benedictine abbey, founded in the 7th century by St Aldhelm, its first abbot.

Malmesbury is one of the oldest boroughs in England, the original royal charter was granted by King Alfred in ad 880 and confirmed by King Athelstan (reigned ad 925-939), when he made Malmesbury his capital, holding court just outside the town.

After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s, the abbey was sold for £1,517 to a local wool merchant, William Stumpe, who presented the surviving nave to the townspeople for their parish church. In the following centuries several mills sprang up along the local rivers and the town became an important centre for the manufacture of woollen cloth. It later became renowned for producing fine lace and silk.

Abbey House, a handsome Tudor building, was built by William Stumpe in the mid-16th century on monastic foundations. It has a 5 acre (2ha) garden featuring one of Britain's largest private collections of roses.

St John Street has many ancient houses, notably a collection of almshouses from 1694 built on the site of St John the Baptist's Hospital. Incorporated in the gable wall is an early 13th-century arch. The Old Courthouse, through School Arch, is where the Old Corporation of Burgesses and Commoners have met since 1616. These are direct descendants of the men living in Malmesbury over 1,000 years ago to whom King Athelstan gave 500 acres (20ha) of common land (King's Heath) for their help in battle against the Danes, and this land is still passed down the generations.

On the far side of Abbey Close is the 500-year-old Market Cross, an elaborate, octagonal building with a ribbed ceiling and intricate carvings, which was built for the market traders and buyers to stand in when it rained. The isolated steeple is the remnant of the 13th-century St Paul's Church, the parish church until 1541. This now serves as the bell tower for the abbey church. Among the more striking features of the abbey are the Norman porch, one of the finest in England, ablaze with exquisite carvings, the vaulted nave roof, the 14th-century stone screens in the north and south aisles, and the tomb of King Athelstan.

Where to eat and drink

Try the Smoking Dog for real ale and decent food. Excellent coffee, afternoon teas and light lunches are served in the Old Bell Hotel.

What to look for

Locate the stained-glass window in the abbey commemorating Brother Elmer, an 11th-century monk, who once tried to fly from the abbey's west tower. Having fastened home-made wings to his feet and hands he jumped and flew some 200yds (61m) before crashing, breaking both legs and laming himself.

While you're there

Explore the old streets and visit Athelstan Museum in the Town Hall in Cross Hayes. This local history museum houses interesting displays of archaeology, lacemaking, costume and the Malmesbury Branch railway.

Wilts

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