Text and photos: Bojena Pandelieva
King Arthur. Knights of the Round Table. Crusades. Kingdom of Heaven. It all comes to life, vivid and thrilling as it was when I was reading the Arthurian legends. The history of Castle Combe, rated many times as the prettiest village in England, goes back to age of the Roman Empire. The village became an important trade centre in Medieval England and it hasn’t lost its fame ever since.
Instead of major tourist attractions – typically found elsewhere – this village shows off cute small houses, unchanged since they were built; a quiet river that carries the secrets of centuries past; and if you’re very quiet, you can almost hear the happy laughter of the children whose fathers came home safe after going to war.
If you enter the church at the main square of the village, you can see the grave of a notorious knight who participated in two crusades. If you walk further down the cobbled street of the village, you will reach a small sweet shop. But do not imagine a normal shop – there is no assistant. A table full of homemade pasties prepared by little Ben, who lives in the house nearby, welcomes the customer. Everything costs £3 and it depends entirely on your honesty whether and how much you will pay. To top it all off, a part of the proceeds go to help out the blind.
Brownies, carrot cakes, walnut cakes, blueberry muffins are all on sale and you are free to select whatever your heart desires. Simply put the money in a wooden collection box and enjoy the freshly made pastries. Then, just when I was about to take a bite from the carrot cake, I saw a pair of curious blue eyes staring through the window of the small house. It was Ben himself, overseeing his trade from the top of the house. He waved and smiled happily at me, as probably not many of his customers ever became aware of his peering presence.
I was still eating my cake, when a couple of steps further, I realised that Ben is not a monopolist at Castle Combe. He apparently has competition. ‘Jacob’s treats’ is a stand in close proximity to Ben’s shop. This little establishment sells cookies and a whole bag only cost £1.50!
More from the author: Lifting the curtain on London's highlife
I was intrigued about these small ventures and decided to learn more about the entrepreneurial boys of Castle Combe at the inn nearby. After asking around, it turned out that Ben and Jacob used to be best friends at school and had established their business together. The business was adversely affected after a fight over a girl, and due to these events, the boys no longer talk to each other and decided to work independently. One thing they do have in common though: both run their business entirely on trust. However, local people claimed that they usually have more money in their collection boxes than the sale values stated.
If you continue your walk a bit further away from Jacob’s stand, you will reach Manor House – the gem of the village – and one of the most luxurious hotels in England. The motto of the hotel is ‘Time stands still’ and this actually becomes true once you are within the thick stone walls of the historic 14th century castle. Sir John Falstaff, a famous occupier of the manor, was described by Shakespeare in his play Henry IV.
No room is alike – every room has a different name, interior and spirit. All the furniture is completely authentic and dates back to centuries ago. Impressed by the grandeur of the hotel and the splendour of its surroundings, I was not surprised to learn that celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Hugh Jackman, Anthony Hopkins, Steven Spielberg, Nicolas Cage and Seal are regular visitors.
The level of luxury offered by the hotel is beyond words; I was admiring the beautiful fireplace, the intricate golden ornaments in the bathroom and the lavish decoration on the bed, when the door of my room suddenly opened and representatives of the hotel staff brought me a box full of delicious cookies, macaroons and chocolates. They wished me Happy Birthday – which I was here to celebrate – and I felt like a princess at a reception organised by a medieval lord.
One thing is certain – once you come to Castle Combe, you can never forget it. Images of the fairy tale village will come back to you and you will always be thinking about this magical place. If you listen carefully enough to the murmur of the river, you might even hear some of its long forgotten stories…
If you like this, you may also like: Shopping in the time of Cholera
A Knight’s Tale
Birthday celebration in the prettiest village in England
Text and photos: Bojena Pandelieva