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Malmesbury- “Queen of Hilltop Towns”

Malmesbury, Cotswolds

Malmesbury- An Introduction

Atop a perfect flat hill encircled by the River Avon at the southern entrance to the Cotswolds, sits Malmesbury, said to be the oldest continually inhabited town in England. Malmesbury is rightly called the “Queen of Hilltop Towns” being England’s oldest borough with a rich history over 1000 years.

Officially Malmesbury can be traced back to the fifth century, but modern excavations have revealed the remains of an Iron Age Fort, which casts the settlement possibly as far back as 500 BC. Malmesbury is also home to England’s oldest hotel, the Old Bell, which has been offering bed and board since 1220.

The honey stoned streets, a quaint tumble of 17th and 18th-century shops and inns bustle under the gaze of the imposing and beautiful seventh-century abbey. When St. Aldhelm founded the monastery the site soon became a place of pilgrimage and learning, and in the 10th Century, Athelstan, the first king of (all) England and grandson of Alfred the Great, made Malmesbury his capital. He is buried under the abbey grounds.

The abbey is also famous for its lovely five acres of gardens, a feast of formal landscaping and wild spaces dotted with fishponds that cascade into a valley carved by a tributary of the River Avon. A romantic oasis in the heart of the community, the gardens are often used for concerts and events through the summer.

The town with its medieval streets, old courtroom, and almshouses is lovely to walk around. In the marketplace you’ll find an elaborately engraved 15th-century market cross which is one of the best preserved of its kind in the country. You can also take to the scenic river path on a walking tour and learn some of Malmesbury’s colourful stories.

History of Malmesbury

Malmesbury probably owes much of its long history to geography. Perched on top of a cliff-flanked hill almost completely surrounded by water, it might well be the country’s best naturally defended inland location. The hill is also dotted with freshwater springs, which would not only have sustained settlers but were considered to be holy wells as far back as the seventh century.

The actual date when Malmesbury received its official charter is a little unclear. It may have been as early as 880 under King Alfred, but the generally accepted date is 924 during the reign of Edward the Elder.

The ancient abbey was founded in AD 675. A centre for learning and pilgrimage, it once had a spire taller than Salisbury Cathedral. It has since evolved through three restorative incarnations and although much lies in scenic ruins today, it is still used as the local parish church.

Perhaps the abbey’s most famous resident was Eilmer, known as the Flying Monk. He is thought to be the first person on record to ever attempt to fly. Legend has it that after attaching wings to his hands and feet he soared airborne for more than a furlong, only to fall hazardously (although not fatally) to the ground. Undeterred by rendering himself lame in the attempt, Eilmer (or Oliver as he is sometimes known) wanted to give it another go, but the abbot forbade him. To this day he continues to pop up in the town’s rich historic tapestry. In the 1920s a stained glass window was installed in the church depicting him with a pair of wings, while a lane off the high street (Oliver’s Lane), is said to mark the site of his bumpy landing.

Malmesbury was originally the ancient frontier of two kingdoms, resulting in centuries of animosity and strife. The defensive position of the town along the route from Oxford to Bristolmade it a strategic military point in more recent centuries, particularly during the English Civil Wars. It was fiercely fought over and is said to have changed hands seven times. The south face of the abbey still bears the scars of cannon fire and gunshots

The town flourished in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries as a weaving centre and became known for producing fine silk and lace.

Malmesbury Attractions

Malmesbury Abbey

The 12th Century Abbey is now Malmesbury’s parish church. See the tomb of the first king of England, Athelstan the Glorious and stand on the site where saints since the 7th century have said their prayers.

The Abbey Gardens

With over 1300 years of history, the first King of all England buried somewhere in the garden, two saints thrown down the well, and now one of the great gardens of the world. The spirit of the place shines through and could be the best garden visit you ever make.

The Old Bell Hotel

The Old Bell Hotel in Malmesbury is one of the most unique and outstanding Cotswold hotels. Reputed to be England’s oldest hotel, the boutique bolthole has an impressive history of exceptional hospitality, dating back to 1220.

Athelstan Museum

Named after the first ‘King of all England’, buried in the nearby abbey, Athelstan Museum tells the history of a town built to a Saxon road plan on the site of a 4,500-year-old hill fort and the area surrounding it.

Malmesbury Tour

Why not visit Malmesbury  and other pretty Cotswold villages on one of our driver-guide or cycling Tours of the Cotswolds?

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