The outer charm of a weavers' village conceals miserable workings conditions.
Distance 6.3 miles (10.1km)
Minimum time 2hrs 30min
Ascent/gradient 165ft (50m)
Level of difficulty Medium
Paths Fields, tracks and lane, may be muddy in places, 6 stiles
Landscape Exposed wolds, valley, villages and streams
Suggested map aqua3 OS Outdoor Leisure 45 The Cotswolds
Start/finish SP 113068
Dog friendliness On leads throughout - a lot of sheep and horses
Parking Bibury village
Public toilets Opposite river on main street, close to Arlington Row
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1 From the parking area opposite the mill, walk along the Cirencester road. Immediately after the Catherine Wheel pub turn right along a lane and then keep left at a fork. Pass some cottages and go through gates and stiles into a field. Walk on the same line across several stiles and fields until you pass to the right of a house to a road.
2 Turn right and walk down to a junction. Turn right again into Ablington and cross the bridge. After a few paces, where the road goes to the right, turn left along a track with houses on your right and a stream to your left. Continue to a gate and then follow the track as it traverses open countryside, arriving at another gate after just over ½ mile (800m).
3 Go into a field and turn sharp right along the valley bottom. Follow a twisting route along the bottom of the valley. At the next gate continue into a field, still following the contours of the valley. The route will eventually take you through a gate just before a barn and another immediately after.
4 Keep to the track as it bears right and gently ascends a long slope, with woodland to your left. When the track goes sharp right, with a gate before you, turn left through a gate on to a track. Follow it all the way to a road.
5 Turn right. After 250yds (229m), where the road goes right, continue straight on, to enter a track (the Salt Way). Continue along this for over ½ mile (800m), until you reach the remains of Saltway Barn.
6 Do not walk ahead but, immediately after the barns, turn left into a field and then right along its right-hand margin. Walk on for just under ¾ mile (1.2km), passing hedge and woodland and, where the track breaks to the right, turn right through a gate into a field with a wall on your right.
7 Walk on to pass to the left of Hale Barn. Enter a track, with the large buildings of Bibury Farm away to your left, and keep on the same line through gates where they arise. Eventually you will descend to a drive which will, in turn, bring you to a road in Bibury. Cross the road to walk down between a row of cottages. At the end, near the church and school, turn right. Walk along the pavement into the village, passing Arlington Row and the river on your left.
Arlington Row is the picturesque terrace of cottages that led William Morris to refer to Bibury as the most beautiful village in England. It was originally built, it is thought, in the late 14th century, to house sheep belonging to Osney Abbey in Oxford. The wool was washed in the river and then hung out to dry on Rack Isle, the marshy area in front of the cottages. Following the dissolution of the monasteries the land was sold off and the sheep houses converted to weavers' cottages. Before mechanisation transformed the wool weaving industry, most weaving took place in the houses of the poor. Firstly, women and children spun the wool either at home or at the workhouse. Then it was transferred to the houses of the weavers, who worked on handlooms at home at piece rates.
A typical weaver's cottage might have had four rooms, with a kitchen and workshop downstairs and a bedroom and storeroom upstairs. There were very few items of furniture in the living rooms, whilst the workroom would have contained little more than a broadloom and the appropriate tools. The woven cloth was then returned to the clothier's mill for fulling and cutting. Work on cloth was often a condition of tenure imposed by landlords. The merchant landlord fixed a piecework rate and, provided that the work was satisfactory, the cottage could stay in the weaver's family from generation to generation. Weaving went on this way for some 200 years, until the introduction of steam power in the 18th century. Consequently it tended to take place in the mills of the Stroud Valley. Despite their unfavourable working conditions, the cottage weavers greatly resisted this change but to no avail - the cottage weaving industry went into inexorable decline.
Strictly speaking, much of what is considered picturesque in Bibury is in the neighbouring village of Arlington, but they are now indistinguishable. Apart from Arlington Row, there is plenty to enjoy in the village, especially the church, which has Saxon origins and is set in pretty gardens. Across the bridge is the old mill, open to the public. Nearby Ablington has an enchantingly pretty group of cottages, threaded by the glittering River Coln. A minor classic, A Cotswold Village (1898), which describes local life in the late 19th century, was written by J Arthur Gibbs, the squire who lived at Ablington Manor. You pass the walls of the manor on the walk. Close by, further into the village, are a couple of beautiful 18th-century barns.
Ablington Manor is to your right (behind high stone walls) as you cross the bridge in the village. Look out, too, not just for the 18th-century barns (mentioned above) but also for Ablington House, guarded by a pair of lions that once stood at the Houses of Parliament.
The Catherine Wheel is a pleasant pub on the Cirencester road, just beyond the mill. The Swan Hotel has a good restaurant and also serves teas. A variety of snacks are available at Bibury Trout Farm and at the mill.
The gardens of Barnsley House, home of the late Rosemary Verey, the doyen of modern gardeners, are often open to the public. They are in Barnsley village, on the road to Cirencester.