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BE THE MAGPIE

PhD’ing on tactile access to microscopic objects. All about anthropology, archaeology, museums, cats and bad puns. Tell me your favourite history fact.

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  • Kate

Still lurking about in the Cotswolds, may I direct you to visit the little village of Castle Combe? This one is about 5 miles northwest of Chippenham, and is located in two parts. There is the narrow valley of the Bybrook River, where most of the chocolate box cottages live, and an Upper Castle Combe on higher ground where a modern motor racing circuit can be found. For today, we’ll be walking down into the lower portion.


If you’re coming in hopes of a castle, I’m afraid it’s long gone now. However, the 14th century market cross still stands, as well as two of the old village water pumps. In the same area you can also see some old stone steps near the cross that were used by horse riders to mount and dismount.


The village reached its economic height in the 15th century whilst under the guidance of Millicent, wife of Sir Stephen Le Scrope, and then Sir John Fastolf, who was the lord of the manor for nearly 50 years afterwards. The wool industry brought a lot of wealth across England, and did so in this village as well. In this case, Sir John Fastolf made a killing by supplying wool for Henry V’s war in France. Because of this business boom, most of the buildings that you can still see today are from the 15th century, with a few older buildings such as the Church of St Andrew built in the 13th century.


Castle Combe was once used for filming the musical rendition of Doctor Doolittle in 1967, and the residents became so irritated with the producers mucking about with their village that they attempted to sabotage the entire thing. Between the locals and the constant rain, the production had a rough go of it. It appears that filming shied away from the village for a few decades, but most recently it’s been seen in the movie War Horse and in an episode of Downton Abbey.


If you want to visit today, there’s a car park at the top of the hill. Be sure to bring your umbrella though, as it’s a decent enough walk and you’ll regret it otherwise. (We managed it!) There’s a lovely inn you can stay in if you’d like a quiet weekend, and a couple of pubs to visit – of course. Apparently there used to be a little local museum, but my sources tell me that it’s been shut for a few years now. Pity! Regardless, it’s a lovely day trip, and I intend to go back sometime when we have more than a few minutes gap between rain showers.



— Kate

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  • Kate

Everyone always goes to London when they come from America. I get it. It’s got all the big museums and attractions. I’m not saying you shouldn’t go to London. I love London. But if you want something old and beautiful and uniquely English, you need to go to the West Country to visit the little village of Lacock.


Lacock is in Wiltshire, about 3 miles away from the much larger town of Chippenham. Nearly the entire village is owned by the National Trust, and it fiercely maintains its quaint, historic appearance because of this.


Lacock has been around since at least the time of the Domesday book, in which is was mentioned as having a population of about 175 people. There is an abbey in the village that was founded in 1232 and is frequently used for films as it is in fantastic shape. The village itself survived through the ages off the wool trade and being a crossing point for the nearby River Avon.


With the exception of the abbey, most of the houses in the village are from the 1700s. However, there is still a medieval church, a 15th century inn, and a 14th century tithe barn still standing. They’re all beautiful architecture, and it isn’t uncommon in the warmer months to find people using sites for wedding photos!


The Talbot family (of historical photography fame) have owned the village for centuries, up until 1944 when Matilda Talbot gave the estate to the National Trust. You can see the grave of Henry Fox Talbot in the Lacock village churchyard. Unlike other National Trust sites though, this is still a living estate! Lacock obviously thrives off tourism, but people live in the village and even have a small school.


Because the village is so fiercely maintained in its historic state, it makes for prime filming. Signs for businesses cannot be posted to the wall like any other town, which makes it easy to work into many different time periods and places. Among other things, you’ll have seen the village in Pride and Prejudice (1995), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, and Downton Abbey.


All of this culminates in a gorgeous afternoon out, walking down the charming roads, having a pint in a medieval inn, and maybe even doing a bit of crafts shopping in the locally owned shops. Some of the houses will be opened during the day so you can get a feel for the interior of them, and some you can even rent for a holiday if you feel so inclined! I would definitely consider it as something slow paced to do, and a stunning base camp to go see the Neolithic attractions that Wiltshire is so well known for.


So if you’re looking for something off the beaten tourist path as an international visitor, I cannot recommend this place highly enough!


–Kate

If you’re in London and the queue for the Natural History Museum is looking a bit too manic for you, pop across the street to the V&A Museum to see an Offbeat Object that you very well might have missed otherwise, and makes for a great tale. Today’s recommendation is – the Great Bed of Ware!


You may be thinking, “It’s just a big bed, what’s the deal?” Well folks, let me tell you the story of this bed. It’s 3 m wide (~10 ft), so already larger than a California King sized bed (measuring in at a paltry 1.8 m / 6 ft wide). History says that it could comfortably accommodate up to three couples in it. Allegedly twenty-six butchers and their wives spend the night in it for a bet once.


And not only is it gigantic, it’s pretty old. We aren’t sure of the exact year, but it was constructed around 1590. The first mention of it in writing comes from a letter written by a travelling German prince staying in the White Hart Inn in 1596. It was already 100 years old at the time of the 26 butchers stunt! It was likely always in the town of Ware until it’s movement to the V&A in 1931. The local inns purchased it off one another over the years as an Elizabethan tourist trap, as Ware is on the road between London and Cambridge. The bed was as famous in its day as some of the more unique American road stops are, like the giant ball of twine or world’s largest chair. One could even argue it was more famous than that, as Shakespeare used it in 1601 to describe something enormous in The Twelfth Night with Sir Toby Belch describing a sheet of paper as “big enough for the Bed of Ware.”


Moving it from Ware to London proved an interesting challenge for the V&A. The bed had to be carefully dismantled and packed up over six days. In total, it weighed 1413 pounds! It took another nine days to physically move the behemoth, and then required ten strapping carriers to porter it through the museum’s corridors. Unsurprisingly, it’s not been moved from its display since – but that’s mostly because it’s been a crowd-pleaser since arrival.


The V&A almost purchased the bed in 1860, but were put off by the price at the time. The 1931 purchase forced their hand, as it was about to go to an American buyer at an auction. The museum swept in to keep it in the country and paid £4000 for the privilege (approximately £60,000 in today’s money if my historic calculator is correct).


On its display now, you can get very close and personal with the bed. If you do, you’ll quickly notice another thing about tourist attractions that seems to withstand the test of time – graffitied initials all over the bed. Visitors have carved initials all over the wood, or applied red wax seals with their stamps on it. Not even the lion at the top of the headboard was spared the indignity of a seal to the nose. Whilst it was probably pretty tacky then, it’s fascinating to see this 400 year old graffiti and wax seals up close today.


A final note – this is an authentic Elizabethan bed, and although much larger than most, it gives a great idea of how people of some means would have slept. The wood is mostly bare now, but conservators have found evidence that the carvings would originally have been painted. The busy scenes around the bed would have been meant to be enjoyed and looked at for some time. The bedding is obviously more recent, but has been made with period materials and kept to look as much like a bed of the time as we understand it to be.


It’s not often one goes to see furniture on a museum visit, but I cannot recommend this one enough. Also, if you’re big into Elizabethan era things in general, you’ll find that the bed is in the middle of a bunch of artefacts from the period. Now go! Find something new and obscure to tell your friends about!



— Kate

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